Being Shelley: The Poet’s Search for Himself

Published By: Vintage

Book Category: Non-Fiction,

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Reviewed by Beth Cummings

According to Ann Wroe’s Introduction to Being Shelley, “this book is an experiment. It is an attempt to write the life a poet from the inside out: that is, from the perspective of the creative spirit struggling to discover its true nature.” This is definitely a different take on a well-known poet’s life. As a scholarly and very academic study of Percy Bysshe Shelley it is quite interesting. I would like to say that I thought it was excellent or even very good, but I’m not sure of this. Wroe just could not hold my attention.

Years ago, while in college, I took an entire year of British Romantic Literature – studying Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Keats, as well as Shelley. I thought I had a reasonable background and the interest to tackle this book. I was intrigued by the author’s idea of getting to know the poet from the inside out rather than the usual pattern of fitting the works into a chronology of his life.

It is hard to tell if she succeeded because in order to comprehend the ideas Wroe was presenting I would have needed a much more recent and intimate familiarity with all of Shelley’s work, his life and more than a fair amount of background information on many other writers and thinkers of the British Romantic Period.

Written in the style of a doctoral dissertation or academic presentation, Wroe has multiple quotes from a wide variety of Shelley’s work on each page. She is using them to show his attitudes on such subjects as Earth – its substance, chains and masks, or Air – the shadow, the song and the wind as she believes Shelley perceived them. By exemplifying his perceptions she seems to feel that she can shed light on the real thoughts and feelings of the man.
I felt that I did not have enough knowledge of all of the works cited or the people quoted to judge the accuracy of her suppositions.

This would be an excellent addition to a college English department library or possibly a general college library. It is unlikely to be a book that members of the general public would select from a public library or bookstore to take home for a weekend of pleasure reading.

Armchair Interviews says: Heed this reviewer’s statement that this work is “very academic” and not for the general reader.

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