Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Romantic Poet and The Little Flower

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) and St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897) gaze at one another from opposite ends of the 19th century. They had so much in common. Each was spoiled by parents. Each had four adoring sisters. Each died young. The poet Shelley (left) drowned in a sailing accident at the age of 29. The Carmelite nun Thérèse drowned in her own lungs, dead of tuberculosis at 24. Each was “astonishingly single-minded in the pursuit of his ideals,” to quote historian Paul Johnson on Shelley. But only one of them was “ruthless and even brutal in disposing of anyone who got in the way” (Johnson on Shelley again).

With this imaginary meeting of Percy and Thérèse, I continue a quixotic series of posts contrasting featured characters in Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals with those in Fr. James Martin’s My Life with the Saints, the book that turned me decisively toward the Catholic Church. A side-by-side comparison of the contents of the two books promises more fascinating “meetings” ahead. Next up: Karl Marx meets Thomas Merton. How about “St. Bernadette prays for Ernest Hemingway” or “Jean-Paul Sartre, say bonjour to Dorothy Day”? The subjects of my first post, Joan of Arc and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, were role models for Thérèse of Lisieux and Percy Shelley.

I have underaken this bizarre exercise as a way of comparing the cultural truths and ideology I was taught in college with the events that were the lives of certain saints, many of whom inspire me today. One of the things that drew me to Father Martin’s book was the number of characters in it who had already made an impact on me in pre-Catholic days, especially Joan, Thérèse, Bernadette Soubirous (of Lourdes), Blessed John XXIII, and Francis of Assisi. A confrontation with these historical figures, Johnson’s and Martin’s, is a confrontation with myself: What in me responds to them? To what in me does each correspond? Why in the past have I given credence to received cultural values represented by Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, and the like? Why now am I devoted to certain saints?

I admit that I occasionally dressed like Percy Bysshe Shelley while in college, affecting loose clothes and looser style—the hippie faux artiste whose poems were pedestrian. I’m pretty sure I never dressed up as Joan of Arc, as Thérèse did for a pageant in her convent (left), although I did play a strident Malcolm in a high school production of Macbeth.

At the age when Shelley was infuriating his father by self-publishing a tract on The Necessity of Atheism, I was taking a college course in the English romantic poets, including Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, and Byron. As the Vietnam War rushed to its mad conclusion, I was reading the neo-Marxist Herbert Marcuse while straying from the Episcopal orthodoxy of my youth and embracing Eastern spirituality. Under the influence of a teacher at Eton, Shelley picked up the banner of ultra-liberal politics while dabbling in demonology and the occult.

Unlike Shelley, and God be praised, I never dug myself a hole so deep I couldn’t climb out of it. I met a mentor who guided me through some of the minefields of the time and whose unconscious influence eventually led me to the Catholic Church, nearly 40 years later. Also, my earthly father was merciful. He deflected my silly leftist arguments (silly because not closely judged) and continued paying my tuition. And when two years after graduating from college I invested my tiny nest egg in a theater business, he cheered, possibly against his best instincts. Shelley’s father, instead, blew his stack at his son’s indiscretions and then effectively disinherited the headstrong lad, buying him off with £200 a year.

It is in this key relationship with one’s father that I see the most striking parallels and differences in the lives of Percy and Thérèse and Webster. Thérèse’s relationship with her father was famously devoted. She was the youngest of his five daughters, and the one he called his Little Queen. As Martin notes but doesn’t detail, each of Thérèse’s parents had been called to the religious life but each had been rejected by the order to which they applied. So they married, initially intending to live together as a celibate husband and wife. With the sage guidance of a spiritual advisor, they consummated their union after nine months and had nine children. Mother Zélie died when Thérèse was only four years old, making father Louis the sun of his daughter’s planetary system.

Thérèse begged the Pope in person to let her enter the Carmelite convent before the statutory age of sixteen. She famously developed her “Little Way” to heaven, comprised of the most mundane yet difficult sacrifices. Under orders from her religious mother (and biological sister), she began writing her spiritual memoir when her diagnosis became evident, which is to say after she coughed blood. She was canonized in 1925, when she would still have been only 53 years old, and in 1997 Pope John Paul II named her the third female Doctor of the Church, with Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila.

Shelley was one of three English romantic poets to die young, with Keats and Byron. To the extent that they are still taught and honored in academia, they are immortals. But in Shelley’s case, what a sad path to salvation!

Disowned, he turned viciously against his family as “a parcel of cold, selfish and calculating animals who seem to have no other aim or business on earth but to eat, drink and sleep.” His letters home became so hateful that his parents had them opened and dealt with by the family lawyer. While beginning to make his name as a precocious poet (Johnson admits to admiring Shelley’s poems), he fell in with the leftist-occultist circle of William Godwin, eventually marrying Godwin’s daughter Mary, author of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley became Percy’s great apologist after his early death. There was much to apologize for.

He left debts and unpaid bills in his wake wherever he traveled, and he had to travel in a widening arc to escape his creditors. Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, he abandoned to run off with Godwin’s daughter Mary, age 16. Harriet committed suicide, leaving their abandoned children with her parents. While married to Mary, Shelley made a play for her half-sister, Fanny. As Johnson wryly notes, “There were other sacrifices on Shelley’s altar of ideas. One was Elizabeth Hitchener.” And so on.

I guess we have become so inured to celebrity outrages that we could even romanticize Shelley’s “indiscretions,” and I’m sure he has biographers who have done so. What I like about Johnson’s approach is that he beats no ideological drum; he just tells the facts—as though the facts of one’s life, one’s day-to-day experience and how one treats others, in particular, really mattered.

Percy Bysshe Shelley died racing before the wind, refusing to take in canvas in a gathering storm. With his death, he pulled down one last victim, his crew mate. Thérèse of Lisieux died alone, with the name of Jesus on her lips. Since that time, she has pulled many, many victims upward, showering us with the flowers she promised from heaven. 

Martin’s final analysis of Thérèse of Lisieux is understated and therefore lovely:

I find Thérèse a companionable presence, a cheerful sister, a patient woman, and a lifelong believer. She is joyful, patient, and generous. She is someone whose company, had I known her, would have made me a better Christian. Most of all, she reminds me of those men and women I have met over the course of my life who are—to use an underused word—kind. So Thérèse is someone I like to read about, pray with, and pray to. 

Pray tell me, who would ever have written such simple words about Percy Bysshe Shelley?

1 comment:

  1. Webster,
    Great post. I am looking forward to your future posts in this series. It is interesting to think of the scene if these two, as well as the others you mentioned, actually met in person. Perhaps one of Theres' "little flowers" descended upon Shelley at the hour of his death and by that prayer and God's grace, saved him.
    Thanks again and God bless!

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