- Reanimating Saints:Romantic Mythopoetics and New Biography
In Oxford at age twenty-one, I read poetry to the marble memorial of Percy Shelley's corpse, trying to feel close to him.1 According to the self-effacing, New Critical lens of the modern literary analyst and biographer, this is a sentence I shouldn't write. Rather, I ought to establish objectivity, removing bias by removing myself. Still, the KeatsShelley House's twenty-five thousand annual visitors suggest that this [End Page 120] desire for learning while seeking spiritual closeness is more widespread than we readily admit.2 The role of mythopoeia (mythmaking) in Romantic studies is overlooked in relation to biographers and academics, not only popular consumers. By myth I mean a sacred, fictionalized conception of a person or life. While Romanticists seek separation from Romantic mythologies, it is necessary to confront—even to embrace and participate in—them. I'll keep with Shelley as my example.
Terry Eagleton's "The Rise of English" argues that the study of English grew from a need for a controlling ideological force to continue where religion had left off.3 From this, a growing culture of literary saints, relics, and pilgrimages seems inevitable. The earliest Romantic biographies were intensely personal, frequently written by friends and loved ones (i.e. Edward John Trelawny and Mary Shelley). They were, irrefutably, secular hagiographies: obsessed with—as Hermione Lee explains in Virginia Woolf's Nose: Essays on Biography—heroic deaths, parables, and last words.4 In these early biographies, Shelley's burning organ becomes "Cor Cordium": a secular Sacred Heart.5
In many regards, modern biography opposes its predecessor, attempting to demythologize its subject through studious research. However, as Ira Bruce Nadel explains in Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form, this backfires "as readers replace old myths with new if they read biography uncritically."6 Even read critically, I will argue, as Lee has, that biography remains "posthumous mythmaking."7 Nadel refers to "reanimating" the subject,8 Lee to "compos[ing] a whole out [End Page 121] of parts."9 Even Richard Holmes, writer of Shelley: The Pursuit, has written in "Death and destiny" that "Shelley may always be 'unextinguished,' undrowned."10 Stitching together letters, chronologies, and testimonies, biographers repeat the work of Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein, attempting to return the dead to life. Instead of Shelley, we find Victorian Shelley or Paul Foot's "Red Shelley" or Holmes's Shelley.11 We'll never have breathing Shelley: only mythical Shelleys.
For every myth demythologized, a new myth is born. Rather than trying to escape this inevitability, we may accept that criticism, like Oscar Wilde asserts, is a mode of autobiography.12 Academics pride themselves on objective disconnection, but reading biography is itself a literary pilgrimage. Part of addressing Romantic mythopoeia is not only analyzing biography but including personal anecdotes and asides. Rather than make the critical work weaker, autobiographical elements can address personal biases. Rather than alienate audiences or feign detachment, we must meld the spiritual and scientific: let ourselves connect to the dead as we rewrite them.
Lillian Hochwender is a poet, artist, and reviewer interested primarily in questions of embodiment in literature.
1. The Shelley Memorial was created by Edward Onslow Ford and unveiled at University College, Oxford in 1893, where it remains at the time of writing.
2. Giuseppe Albano, "A Message from the Curator of the Keats-Shelley House," The KeatsShelley Memorial Assoc., last modified June 18, 2018, accessed April 30, 2019, https://www.keatsshelley.org/about/house.
3. Terry Eagleton, "The Rise of English," in Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Great Britain: Blackwell Publishers, 2003), 15–46.
4. Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf's Nose: Essays on Biography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 98–99.
5. "Cor Cordium"—translated from the Latin as "Heart of Hearts"—is in reference to the inscription on Shelley's gravestone in Rome's Non-Catholic Cemetery. It is also a reference to an accompanying anecdote by Edward John Trelawny of snatching Shelley's miraculously unburnt heart from the poet's funeral pyre. See Edward John Trelawny, Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron (London...