Shelley: The World Should Listen Now

Article excerpt

In Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford recently I noted two-and-a-half shelves were devoted to Mary Shelley -journals, letters, biographies, several editions of Frankenstein - and only one-and-a-half to her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Why does a second-rate sci-fi writer command more critical attention than one of the few high-octane, incomparable poetic geniuses of our language? Yes, second-rate. Have you read The Last Man? Or Frankenstein? Original, certainly; a key text of Romanticism, yes; but a finished work of art like "Prometheus Unbound"? Hardly.

The rise of women's studies and political correctness are partly to blame. People want to know why Shelley was "such a shit" to women. Another reason for the general disregard is, I think, his poncy first name. Anthony Burgess, objecting to the fashion for referring to women writers by their surname, said: "There is only one Shelley, and he is a poet", but Anne K Melior, American author of a critical study of Frankenstein, disagrees. For her, Shelley means Mary. What then to call her husband? Melior sneeringly opts for "Percy". Yet to his family he was Bysshe, equally eccentric, but not as risible, and a name that permitted a certain monosyllabic brutality. While still a teenager he wrote to his estranged father: "If you will not hear my name, I will pronounce it . . . had I money enough I would meet you in London, & hollow in your ears Bysshe Bysshe Bysshe - aye Bysshe till you're deaf." Later he was known to all by his surname:

"Less oft is peace in Shelley's mind, than calm in waters, seen."

Yet political correctness can't be entirely blamed for "Mont Blanc" being more difficult than Matilda. More puzzling is the disappearance of Shelley's prose. In most second-hand bookshops you can find the letters of Keats, Byron - even Charles Lamb. But no Shelley. …