The second generation so-called “romantic” poets and their contemporaries included Gordon Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, John Keats, and Mary’s half-sister Claire Clairmont. I always wondered why somebody so hypocritical, decadent and ravenous for glory as they were wouldn’t have pursued another career. Acting, for instance, would have been perfect for anybody within that “romantic” crowd. Just look at all of the famous actors and actresses today, and you will definitely see a parallel between the celebrities of now and then. You have got your dull and cuckish Mary Shelley, your histrionic and pathological liar Gordon Byron, your worldly but cheating Percy Shelley, your taciturn but silently glory-seeking Keats. And of course, you have your basic, stupid, and promiscuous Claire Clairmont. It’s a wonder why they didn’t pursue an occupation that was made for them. Apparently, Claire did actually once try to pursue a career as an actress, but that was just a temporary and unsuccessful attempt. But what about everybody else, who had actually gotten past the phase of “aspiring writer”?
First of all, it seems that acting wasn’t a very fashionable career at that time. Poetry and writing were far superior, as they should be. But consider that this was a society that hadn’t yet submitted to universal superficiality and corruption. Of course, that was heavily the doing of the likes of Byron, the Shelleys, and Keats. It was Percy Shelley’s and Byron’s lifelong demand for “free love” that ultimately resulted in reportedly half of all kids in North America and Northwestern Europe today being born out of wedlock. Now don’t get me wrong, there are lots of awesome things about America. But without a doubt, Byron and the Shelleys influenced the worst of it.
Next, and this one is going to be a cliche response, maybe acting isn’t the only glory occupation out there. In a way, Byron and Shelley can be thought of as the pre-contemporary rock stars. Oh, the hilarity! It matches up so well. But it goes to show that maybe society didn’t ultimately decay so much after all, in spite of Byron’s and Shelley’s influence. John Lennon did pose nude with his wife for a magazine. But Shelley was inviting random females to his house even when Mary was giving birth to his offspring. Towards the end of his life in his late twenties, he was sneaking away from their house to visit a slightly older neighbor female, for whom he wrote love poetry. How romantic!
But alas, they chose poetry. And we are going to have to live with it. Let us look at one of Shelley’s poems, Ozymandias. It is a very short and simple poem, and the highlight of it lies in the last three lines.
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Hear that, Shelley? Nothing of you remains. Except for your putrid, pig-like heart.
And your legacy of free sex and carefully veiled violence. And your poems, repetitive and describing your own fate.
Readers might be mad that I am interpreting this poem biographically and not taking into account that he might be writing from a universal perspective. People have really got to stop putting somebody like Shelley on a darn pedestal. Art emerges from one’s own reality and life. The artist, or the so-called, is not an omniscient being who knows all, sees all, and feels all. Any further and more profound interpretation, beyond the scope of the author’s life and personality, is the art of the reader.
And beyond Shelley, let’s look at our interpretation of the poem. The sands of the desert, the sands of time, exemplify the beginning and end of our human history. It is where our civilization began. It is where our Judaic-Christian-Islamic ancestors have revealed the truth of God. The lands of sand are where so many civilizations, from Mesopotamian to Egyptian to Roman to the Caliphates, have thrived. And it is probably the land of the sands where our focus will end. Time will tell everything. And it is based on the individual’s deeds, in spite of their circumstances, that time will level the worth of all people. But until then, the desert will lie bare, and the rest of the world will lie bare, with only minimal traces of the past left out in the open.
There are so many things that can philosophically remind us of the passage of time and of existentialism in general. Be it an ancient sculpture of a dead Egyptian king of kings or standing out in the middle of an abandoned clearing. There are lots of things that can remind us. But it is crucial to see the artist within the art. Because that is where the art came from. Looking at somebody who created something seemingly profound, something that you could easily get elsewhere or even from within yourself, with uncompromising respect is both dangerous and pathetic.
What is the point of this all? I’ll be blunt as possible. Shelley and his contemporaries suck.