Shelley’s rejection of simplicity

The two poems by Percy Shelley that we read today stood out against the works of the previous “generation” of poets in its sheer multitude of footnotes. The editors of the anthology clearly had no very high opinion of the clarity of Shelley’s language, and in many cases, I agree with them. In “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” line five reads, “Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower,” and the footnote specifies that “shower” is the verb in play. Even with that critical note, I had to read the line a couple of times, initially to figure out what was going on, and then to figure out why it was so confusing. I eventually landed on “behind” as the culprit; it removes the status of “some piny mountain” as the object of the clause, instead inserting an implied object in whatever stretch of ground lies behind that mountain. I have only ever seen “shower” as a transitive verb, and while it technically is here as well, the need to supply the object in a syntactically odd location made the whole line come across as convoluted, and without the editors’ note, I likely would have simply given up on trying to understand the finer details of the simile. That is far from the only place that Shelley is unclear in his language, and the footnotes seem to have forgone their usual additions of context in favor of simple, much-needed translation.

Others of Shelley’s works are remarkably simple. “To Wordsworth” is a prime example, and when I think of a poem that is borderline didactic in the obviousness of its meaning, I think immediately of “Ozymandias.” I wonder, then, what inspired this wild variation. Both of today’s poems play with form a lot, and I read them as almost experimental; perhaps Shelley was deliberately rejecting the lingually simple, everyday, accessible language that Wordsworth and his contemporaries championed. Or, perhaps, as Coleridge would despise, he was simply willing to distort his language however he needed to in order to make the rhyme work.

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