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Astrological Profiles

Percy Bysshe Shelley Goes Boating [by David Lehman]

ShelleyShelley was a classic Leo who was long thought erroneously to have Taurus rising.  According to Mark Shulgasser, "the generally accepted birth time has placed 26 Sagittarius on the ascendant, which makes so much more sense, and then Jupiter is the chart ruler, squeezed between Neptune and Mars in the 9th house, a perfect set-up for death by drowning in a foreign country.” 

Born on this day (4 August) in 1792, he was the middle man in the greatest double-play combination of all time, Keats to Shelley to Byron. He had the confidence of a madman and he was idealistic, with Saturn, Neptune, and Venus dominant among his planets and Libra, Leo, and Taurus among his signs. He shares his birthday with Louis ("the trumpet of a prophecy") Armstrong, which gives you some idea of his influence. He may be said to have  presaged Walter Pater's proclamation that music is the art to which all others aspire.

Barack Obama was also born on August 4th along with the illusion of political change based on hopes that spring eternal in the human breast. Other astrological birthday cousins include Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother; David Raksin, who composed "Laira";  Maurice "the Rocket" Richard of the dynastic Montreal Canadiens; Cleon Jones of the 1969 Mets; Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, Louis Vuitton and more TV actresses, rappers, and reality stars than you can shake a stick at. All or some may be said to share the Leonine spark of the author of “Ode to the West Wind,” an autumnal poem of urgency if ever there was one, a call to action, summoning wind and wave to a romantic storm, unlike the serenity Keats beheld in the season of mist and mellow fruitfulness.

The symmetry in Shelley's natal chart is fearless. He is a man of heroic temper --  without Byron's lusty humor or Keats's morbid sensuality but with a power of breath equal to the wind. He died, fittingly, in a squall, at sea. The fire and earth in his chart were vanquished by the elements of water and air. His moon was in Pisces, his Venus in Leo.

ShelleyShelley made love to women sincerely, with attentive care, and wrote poems to her, whatever her name was, Jane or Mary or the third one. He didn't "hold" with monogamy. He went to University College in Oxford and got sent down for writing "The Necessity of Atheism." He was a strong swimmer, though this ability availed him naught in the end. His heterodox views made Shelley the hero of wannabe poets for a century after his death. To get a flavor of that old romantic aura, read Andre Maurois's wonderful bio, "Ariel." Alas, Shelley's literary reputation took a hit from Arnold, an even more wounding thrust from Eliot, and then came the backlash in full intensity, with Leavis getting the credit for finishing the job.

Everyone at the campfire had to tell a spooky story. Byron and Shelley had good ones, but Mary Shelley won with "Frankenstein." They were in Switzerland. Who was Jane? He serenaded her with a guitar.The lyrics were lovely. She kept his picture in a locket along with a lock of his hair, and everything that he touched acquired posthumous value. Henry James's "The Aspern Papers" centers on the archive of a poet modeled after Shelley and what a single-minded professor will do to get at it. History has been kinder to Keats's reputation than to Shelley's, but it used to be that if you mentioned one you had to mention the other or you would have bad luck all day, the same as with James and Edith Wharton.

If Shelley had lived in the 1940s, he would have courted Janet Blair (left). IJanet Blairf Dante had been reborn as an Englishman, it would have been in the person of Shelley, who venerated Rousseau. Plato's parable of the cave could have been dreamed with Shelley in mind. But it would not be the underworld to which the two would be drawn. Plato's parable of the cave, which could have been dreamed with Shelley in mind, would have beckoned the poet and the French author of “The Social Contract.” They would have spent an afternoon in the cave, writing notes on what they witnessed and, after emerging outside into the fading daylight, they would have made a run for a canoe, paddled their way back to their home ship. Then, over calvados, they would have compared notes and, in the weeks that followed, Shelley would set about transforming the notes into five hundred lines of terza rima.

Shelley looked liked a poet. Coleridge was his superior intellectually; Keats, always better loved, was Milton's true heir, able to pack as much sensual pleasure in a line of verse as pentameter allowed; Blake was crazier; Byron funnier; and Wordsworth captured, all in all, the spirit of the age more successfully than any of his contemporaries. But Shelley was the closest thing to a visionary in the lot. When Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ma" sees a woman on the beach and composes a villanelle about her image, it is in the manner of Shelley.  

For a great poet Shelley wrote some really bad lines, in which he stumbles and falls and bleeds in his efforts to shed his corporeal self and merge his romantic soul with the wind that is the creative breath of God. His skylark sings to us less melodiously than Keats's nightingale, but that's paradox for you -- that Shelley, who was given to seeing things in retrospect, would oddly favor the bird of early morn. 

On July 8, 1822, Shelley and his friend Edward Williams went out boating in Italy and drowned. They were going to burn the bodies, but Shelley's heart defied the flames, refused to burn, and was rescued by Edward Trelawny. Byron said that his much misunderstood friend was the greatest man he had ever known. -- DL

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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