(Poem #983) The General Public
"Ah, did you once see Shelley plain?" -- Browning. "Shelley? Oh, yes, I saw him often then," The old man said. A dry smile creased his face With many wrinkles. "That's a great poem, now! That one of Browning's! Shelley? Shelley plain? The time that I remember best is this -- A thin mire crept along the rutted ways, And all the trees were harried by cold rain That drove a moment fiercely and then ceased, Falling so slow it hung like a grey mist Over the school. The walks were like blurred glass. The buildings reeked with vapor, black and harsh Against the deepening darkness of the sky; And each lamp was a hazy yellow moon, Filling the space about with golden motes, And making all things larger than they were. One yellow halo hung above a door, That gave on a black passage. Round about Struggled a howling crowd of boys, pell-mell, Pushing and jostling like a stormy sea, With shouting faces, turned a pasty white By the strange light, for foam. They all had clods, Or slimy balls of mud. A few gripped stones. And there, his back against the battered door, His pile of books scattered about his feet, Stood Shelley while two others held him fast, And the clods beat upon him. `Shelley! Shelley!' The high shouts rang through all the corridors, `Shelley! Mad Shelley! Come along and help!' And all the crowd dug madly at the earth, Scratching and clawing at the streaming mud, And fouled each other and themselves. And still Shelley stood up. His eyes were like a flame Set in some white, still room; for all his face Was white, a whiteness like no human color, But white and dreadful as consuming fire. His hands shook now and then, like slender cords Which bear too heavy weights. He did not speak. So I saw Shelley plain." "And you?" I said. "I? I threw straighter than the most of them, And had firm clods. I hit him -- well, at least Thrice in the face. He made good sport that night."
I do not, as long time readers are doubtless aware, care too much for Shelley. I admit to laughing as loudly as any at Browning's slyly hilarious "Memorabilia". And yet. And yet Shelley, for all the flaws in his verse, was a fiery, a passionate, and yes, at times a great poet, of whom the Britannica says "[his] personal lyrics voiced the concerns of an idealistic reformer who is disappointed or persecuted by an unreceptive society". It is this aspect of Shelley that Benet evokes here, and if his allegory is rather obtrusive, it is nonetheless effective. The image of a howling mob of boys baying for Shelley's blood is at once a vivid and starkly visceral picture, and an apt metaphor for (at least according to Benet) society's treatment of the poet. Furthermore, Benet does to Browning's poem what the latter did to Shelley - he takes the premise and deftly undercuts it, so that the failure to appreciate the poet is a reflection on the public, and not on Shelley. This is underscored by the twist in the last three lines - the narrator's somewhat awed tone when describing Shelley contrasts strongly with the fact that he was one of the mob. In the end, 'The General Public' is both a comment on mob psychology, and a rather pointed depiction of what, exactly, it means to 'see Shelley plain'. Links: Browning's "Memorabilia": Poem #425 A biography of Shelley, and one of his best poems: Poem #22, "Ozymandias" We've run one more of Benet's poems, the brilliant "Winged Man", Poem #609 martin