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Life, Love, and 'Epipsychidion' - Shelley in Italy, 1820-21

Updated on December 18, 2020
Jacqueline Stamp profile image

Jacqueline continues to study and explore the Literature and Socio-Political History of England circa1600-1900, and contemporary criticism.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint - © National Portrait Gallery, London
Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote his autobiographical love epic Epipsychidion while living in Italy in 1820-21. In it he explores his own psychological and emotional condition through his entanglement with the nineteen year old Teresa Viviani, who was imprisoned by her father until he could arrange a marriage for her. Shelley, his wife Mary, and Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont, renamed her Emilia, because her position in a triangle involving two suitors was analogous to that of Emilia, the heroine of Boccaccio’s Teseida ([which] was the model for Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale) (Reiman 390)

Read the poem here:

Shelley himself described Epipsychidion as “an idealized history of my life and feelings” (Letters, quoted in Reiman 391) and there is ample evidence for this in the poem, especially in the section spanning lines 190 to 383 to which we will return later.

Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat claim that the text contains “evidence … that it involves the core of Shelley’s personal aspirations” (Reiman 391) whilst acknowledging that “it has been cogently argued that the poem is essentially about the role of poetry as the most appropriate object of human desires” (Reiman 391). This latter interpretation becomes less likely, however, once the poem is put into the context of Shelley’s personal life, and thus a knowledge of its personal context illuminates the work substantially.

Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi compares Epipsychidion to the Greek legend of Antigone, whose eponymous heroine, trapped “ ‘in the zone between life and death’ … becomes transformed into an image of such beauty that her presence ‘causes the chorus to lose its head’ ” (Gelpi 182), just as Shelley ‘lost his head’ by exaggerating in his mind the beauty of the imprisoned Teresa/Emilia until he became completely besotted with her.

As Gelpi acknowledges, Shelley had a weakness for young girls. This assertion is borne out by his eloping with his first wife, Harriet, when she was sixteen, and with his second wife, Mary, at the same age. Gelpi describes this weakness as an “insatiable need of mothering coupled with a strong, repeated impulse to take over the maternal position through ‘adopting’ a young girl” (Gelpi 184), and it probably stemmed from his being “worshipped by a tribe of younger sisters” (Drabble 925) on his visits home from school as a boy. During both his marriages Shelley experimented with multi-partner relationships, although in matters relating to children he succumbed to social protocol and compromise as he mediated between his friend and fellow poet Lord Byron and Claire Clairmont over their small daughter, Allegra.

Textual evidence of perversion, however, suffuses the whole mood and tone of Epipsychidion. Shelley sees Mary and Claire as the “Twin spheres of light who rule this passive Earth” (Epipsychidion 345), himself being the ‘Earth’ in question and thus subservient to their female desires. Thus he sees Mary, the ‘Sun’, and Claire, the ‘Moon’, as illuminating his life and, thereby, his work. ‘Emily’ is the “veiled Divinity” (Epipsychidion 244) which his ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ alternately hide from him and reveal unto him and which he seeks in vain as he sought the true Divinity among the shadows of his atheism.

Shelley claims that “True love … differs from gold and clay, / That to divide is not to take away” (Epipsychidion 160-161). A knowledge of the personal context of the poem supports this assertion, for Shelley was evidently not predisposed to monogamy, as his constant affairs and affiliations affirm. To some extent he was right; love does not diminish as it is divided but expands, “As from a thousand prisms and mirrors, [it] fills / The Universe with glorious beams” (Epipsychidion 166-167), illuminating the world with goodness and hope. Such was the message still being avowed by Hippies in the 1960s, but, while it is true of parental love and of love between friends, it is not a prescription applicable to the sexual love between a man and a woman to which Shelley is alluding in Epipsychidion when he writes,

The fountains of our deepest life, shall be
Confused in passion’s golden purity,
As mountain-springs under the morning Sun.
We shall become the same, we shall be one
Spirit within two frames, …
…two meteors of expanding flame …
           Burning, yet ever inconsumable   (Epipsychidion 570-579)

Only a knowledge of the personal context of this poem can illuminate its meaning and explain its peculiar take on life and love as it proclaims,

The heart that loves, the brain that contemplates, 
The life that wears, the Spirit that creates
One object, and one form, and builds thereby
  A sepulchre for its eternity        (Epipsychidion 169-173)

In its attempts to thus justify Shelley’s philandering nature the poem represents a love affair on paper. It is a testament to feelings which, for once, he knew he could never act upon. It is an exercise in imagination regarding unconsummated, possibly even unrequited, love, because Teresa Viviani may have seen the Shelleys and Claire merely as friends who could help her out of her predicament. It is a reflection of Shelley’s innermost contradictions and insecurities as he contemplates a love made stronger by the very unattainability of its object. None of these conclusions could be drawn without a knowledge of the personal context of Shelley’s work.

Thus, lines 190 to 383, to which we now return, constitute a passionate excursion through Shelley’s “flowers of thought” (Epipsychidion 384) as he illuminates for his reader the far reaches of his unconscious mind, from “visioned wanderings, …/ In the clear golden prime of [his] youth’s dawn” (Epipsychidion 191-192) to his delusions of Emily as a “Comet beautiful and fierce” (Epipsychidion 368) being welcomed into his “frail Universe” (Epipsychidion 369) by Mary, “The living Sun” (Epipsychidion 375) and Claire, “the Moon” (Epipsychidion 376).

These two unfortunate women, further analogised as “Even and Morn”, (Epipsychidion 377) he believes “Will worship [Emily] with incense of calm breath / And lights and shadows;” (Epipsychidion 378-379) just as he does. The whole passage is devoted to egocentric reflections on his relationships, both imagined and real, as he acknowledges his insatiable appetite for young women of aesthetic and erudite perfection as “In many mortal forms [he] rashly sought / The shadow of that idol of [his] thought” (Epipsychidion 267-268). This particular ‘shadow’ is illuminated for Shelley each time he encounters a new teenage girl in need of protection or patronage, but it retreats to the shadows once the flaws of humanity emerge to dim his idealised image of her. His ideal ‘idol’, the “Being whom [his] spirit oft / Met on its visioned wanderings, far aloft” (Epipsychidion 190-191), is portrayed in another poem, Alastor, as one whose “voice was like the voice of his own soul / Heard in the calm of thought; … / [and] …Herself a poet” (Alastor 153-161).

Shelley thus showed narcissistic tendencies to admire a female reflection of himself, as illuminated by his dreams. He was, then, we must conclude, capable of loving no one but an image of himself, for no “mortal form” (Epipsychidion 267) could measure up to his assessment of his own perfection. Shelley’s Epipsychidion is thus illuminated by a knowledge of the personal context of the work, for it permits an introspective critique of the sycophantic cell, created for Shelley by Mary, Claire, Byron, and Leigh Hunt, in which he could pursue such pretentious pre-occupations of self-promotion with impunity from the outside world.

Knowledge of the personal context in which Shelley was writing illuminates poems such as Epispsychidion, for it is only in understanding his peculiarly perverted private life that such a poem can begin to make sense and cease to be offensive in a largely monogamist society. The adoration of his younger sisters, and the expectations heaped on him as the only son, obviously affected his sensitive nature and influenced his view of women in relation to himself. He needed constant approval and he needed aesthetic beauty and youthful innocence to bolster up his self-esteem, yet he also required his women to be his intellectual equal. He was de facto the model for his poem The Sensitive Plant, for he too flourished under the care of a beautiful woman and decayed when left alone. He needed security, which Mary was able to give him despite his transgressions, imagined or otherwise, through her own strength of character and detailed understanding of human nature, as evidenced in her own 1818 novel Frankenstein.

Works Cited:

Primary texts -

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Epipsychidion”. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, A Norton Critical Edition. second edition. Eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York, N.Y. and London. W. W. Norton and Company. 2002. 393-407.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe, "Epipsychidion" at

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Alastor”. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, A Norton Critical Edition. second edition. Eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York, N.Y. and London. W. W. Norton and Company. 2002. 71-90

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “The Sensitive Plant”. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, A Norton Critical Edition. second edition. Eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York, N.Y. and London. W. W. Norton and Company. 2002. 286-295

Secondary texts -

Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature sixth edition. Oxford. Oxford University Press, 2000

Gelpi, Barbara Charlesworth. “Keeping Faith with Desire: A Reading of Epipsychidion” in Timothy Clark and Jerrold E. Hogle (eds), Evaluating Shelley. Edinburgh. Edinburgh U.P. 1996. 180-196

Reiman, Donald H. and Neil Fraistat, eds. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, A Norton Critical Edition. second edition. New York, N.Y. and London. W. W. Norton and Company. 2002.Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Harmondsworth. Penguin Classics. Penguin Group. 1992.

© 2015 Jacqueline Stamp


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