“I took up the word [atheist], as a knight took up a gauntlet, in defiance of injustice. The delusions of Christianity are fatal to genius and originality: they limit thought.” The words come from Percy Bysshe Shelley, according to Edward Trelawny. After visiting the display Shelley’s Ghost at the New York Public Library last week, I was struck by how little I knew of Shelley. I’d read some of his poetry, and had watched the fictional movie Gothic (maybe more times than is really healthy) to get a sense of this candle in the wind, the Romantic poet who died in a shipwreck before reaching 30. Edward Trelawny’s reputation as an historian is somewhat suspect, but he did form friendships with Shelley and Lord Byron and arranged the disposal of their earthly remains. His book, Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron, while somewhat self-serving, weaves an intriguing account. Among the mementos in the library display are some fragments of Shelley’s skull, taken after his cremation by Trelawny. This erstwhile biographer did prove his mettle by reaching into the pyre and pulling out Shelley’s heart, according to his own account, that eventually returned to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, his widow.
Trelawny admired Shelley’s atheism, and even applauded Darwin’s Origin of Species when it appeared. The nineteenth century was setting the stage for a strange Frankenstein’s monster of political and religious backlash against the freedom of the Romantics. Not all of the Romantics, obviously, were atheists, but their works extolled the wonders of nature and a sense of liberty from tyranny that would define them as dreamers and idealists. Lord Byron comes across much less favorably in Trelawny’s account, although their friendship lasted through some difficult times. After the poet’s death, Trelawny claims to have examined his feet, discovering the cause of a lifelong limp. His psychologically astute conclusion is that Byron’s disagreeable personality traits arose from his lifelong anger and anxiety about his birth defect.
Being an ardent admirer of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, I have to admit that the elements of anger at the divine for a limp (Captain Ahab forcefully stomps into mind), and the emphasis on ships and shipwrecks (as in Shelley’s death) tie these three literary geniuses together into a knot of suffering and seeking. Religion had consoled many in the nineteenth century, just as it continues to do now in the twenty-first. Among many of those who have endured through their literary works, however, God had slowly disappeared. Not quite as dramatic of a demise as Shelley’s, nor as unforgettable as Captain Ahab’s, but one for which there will be few biographers.