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Through a Shelleyan lens:

The life (and death) of John Ono Lennon





John Lennon once wondered whether he would be compared to George Formby
or Leonardo da Vinci,thereby acknowledging the two possible poles of  his reputation:
popular entertainer through to immortal artist. Given the continuing interest in him,
the question of his reputation and how he will come to be seen has a clear pertinence.
What I want to do is cross the well-established (and voluminous) literature
on the nineteenth century poet Shelley with the burgeoning and  increasingly
serious-minded discussion of John Lennon's life and work.
As an admirer of Shelley I have long been intrigued both by the striking 
similarities in their respective livesand the way that Shelley's thinking on the
social role and personal dynamics of poetry illuminates Lennon's life.
To do this is to cut across the mental categories we build for ourselves,
so I must plead for more indulgence than once granted to me when I  proposed
a connection between Lennon and Shelley. The very idea was ludicrous I was told:
the immortal Shelley and that drug addicted Lennon !
Actually that was not a very happy attempt at creating a distinction
between the two,for laudanum (opium dissolved in brandy) was freely  available
in Shelley's era,  and though the records of his use of it are scanty -  restricted to
Thomas Love Peacock's description of his  reliance on it during the turmoil
of his separation from Harriet and his new love for Mary Godwin -
an educated guess would be that he  consistently used it (at the very least)
as a pain killer during his attacks of nephritis. And the comment was hardly fair
to John Lennon;   he may have used different drugs at different times of his life
but he consistently broke the hold that any managed to gain over him
and  cannot be considered to have had an addictive personality.
Most admirers of Shelley would uphold his relevance to the contemporary world:  
thinking perhaps, of lines from The Masque of Anarchy when  freedom was snuffed
out in Tiananmen Square or remembering lines from Adonais at the death of some
loved figure. Shelleyans would uphold his  insights into artistic processes and 
creativity and see them borne out in the modern world.
To look at John Lennon through his eyes - though  this cuts across time,
generations,'high' and 'low' culture and (curse this British class system) class -
is therefore not so outlandish as  it might appear. However, it requires a sense of
history and of the movement of culture to see through their differing artistic media
and appreciate the  connection of spirit that the two share. Shelley was a highly
literate writer who drew ona wide range of sources - from the myths and philosophy 
of Ancient Greece to the social theorists of the French Revolution to the most
recent theories in the fields ofgeology and zoology. Lennon was an 
intellectual working in a field which has usually prided itself on its
unintellectual nature. 
"Don't know much about history .... don't know  much about biology ..."
the song proclaimed: pop/rock music aimed for the lowest common denominator
- a fact that Lennon in his last interviews  said he found frustrating at times. 
There were subtleties he could not express in his medium.
Yet their different art forms - poetry and rock/pop - are not mutually exclusive.
(It could indeed be argued that the poetic impulse in society  is now,
to a large degree, expressed in popular music). John Lennon certainly drew on the
same kind of inspiration that has always informed the  finest poetry.
This can be demonstrated by looking at the model of poetic creativity
that Shelley put forward in his 'Defence of Poetry',
and  comparing it to how John Lennon saw his muse.
Lennon distinguished between what he called 'craftsman' writing and
what he saw as pure inspiration. He described how he had written
'Across the  Universe':  lying in bed one night with his wife Cynthia - who was talking ...
and talking ... and talking ...suddenly the first line came to  mind. 
He described it as being seized by something which would not let him go and
would not let him sleep until he had gone downstairs
and  completed the lyric.  It began, in a pleasingly tangential manner,
with the line: 'Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup .....'
The similarity with Shelley's thinking on poetic inspiration is obvious.
"A man cannot say 'I will write poetry'. Not even the greatest poet  can say it, for
the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence,
like an inconstant wind,awakens to transitory brightness".  Like Lennon,
who talked at length about the creative impulse in his final interviews,
Shelley saw 'the toil and perspiration recommended by critics'  as secondary.
He conceded however, that 'though the origin of poetry is native
and involuntary, it requires severe labour in its development'.
So there is this core connection between the two, relating to their experience
of the creative impulse.  In the realm of their social and political  thinking there are
also striking similarities.  On religion:  for Lennon Christianity would 'vanish and shrink'
while for Shelley 'Faiths and Empires  gleam/Like wrecks of a dissolving dream'. 
They both expressed a sense of political frustration and a desire for greater
individual freedom, Lennon  calling for 'Power to the people'
and Shelley issuing his ringing call: 'Rise like lions after slumber'.
 Power to the People3Riselikelionsmss 2
Both supported women's rights as a matter  of principle, with virtually identical
thoughts on her status: for Lennon 'Women are the slaves of the slaves'
while Shelley had asked 'Can Man be  free if Woman be a slave ?'
They both abandoned their first wives for a partner who fulfilled the
Shelleyan definition of true love - a love that went beyond sex and was
a  'thirst for communion not merely of the senses but of our whole nature,
intellectual, imaginative and sensitive'. (The comparison, incidentally, 
reveals that the passing of divorce laws in the intervening period enabled the deserted
twentieth century Cynthia to do what the nineteenth century  Harriet could not: 
begin her life anew).
Both had utopian aspects to their work and realised the value of
putting forward a vision  - Lennon in Imagine and Shelley in the final
Act of  Prometheus Unbound, Hellas and other works. This relates to something
we can see fairly clearly about Shelley but only dimly about Lennon: their 
role as 'unacknowledged legislators', Shelley's formulation that poets were ultimately
more influential than 'reasoners'. They anticipated  movements in consciousness
and in society and established them in people's minds. But they did this in a curious way -
not by overt preaching  but by bringing pleasure through their work, which,
however, went on to have a social and moral impact. 'Poetry strengthens
the moral nature  of man like exercise strengthens a limb'.
This poetic model, put forward in Shelley's 'Defence of Poetry',
(compare to Keith Richards'  comment that the fall of communism in Eastern Europe 
might have had more to do with rock n roll than most people realise) helps to explain
the relationship between Lennon's place in the business of  'entertainment' and what
may come to be seen as the high seriousness of his role as 'unacknowledged
legislator'. For an artist like this there is a tension between instruction and pleasure.
Lennon's song Imagine can be seen as working because art and  politics
were perfectly combined: his album 'Some Time in New York City' on the other hand
  failing because the politics overwhelmed the artistry.   It was a tightrope Shelley
walked as well, though he would claim, when faced with the complaint
that he had too great a 'passion for reforming  the world',
that 'didactic poetry is my abhorrence'.
'Poets are the antenna of the race' John Keats wrote, and Shelley
can be seen as a poet who picked up on the social changes of his era - such 
as the increasing energy available to humanity at the dawn of the industrial revolution
and the increased demand for democratic rights in the  emerging urban society.
  Similarly Lennon picked up on the changes in twentieth century society - the world
as a 'global village' as seen in  NASA's photographs and the accompanying feeling
that humanity could and should evolve away from warfare - and used them in his art.
Those are the large brush  similarities to which attention can be drawn
but there are others - smaller, quirkier, but perhaps no less revealing.   They both
picked up influences from outside, or rather, we find tiny mundane things of life
sparking off some train of creativity.  One example  of this in Shelley's work is the
manner in which his poem 'Swellfoot the Tyrant' (a porcine satire on the marital
difficulties of the British  royal family) was suggested:  reading one of his poems
aloud to some friends on the balcony of a house in the village of San Giuliano di Pisa 
(which overlooked the village market square) he had been interrupted
by the increasingly riotous noise of pigs in the square.
A corresponding example from Lennon's work was the way his song
'I am the Walrus' came about - the melody of the first line being based on the sound
of an ambulance siren heard in the distance.   And it is, incidentally, astonishing to
find the idea expressed in the first line of the song  ("I am he as you are he as
you are me and we are all together") almost exactly echoed in a line from
Shelley's prose:  "The words I and you and they are grammatical devices
invented simply for arrangement, and totally devoid of the intense
and exclusive sense usually attached to them".
Another significant intellectual equivalent is 'All you need is Love' (Lennon)/
'Love is .... the sole law which should govern the moral world'  (Shelley). 
But there is something else to be found in their works that is even more significant.
Both of them referred their audiences back to  one of their key lyrics, lyrics that
had expressed something central about themselves as artists. 
It may seem odd to compare Lennon's 'Strawberry  Fields Forever' with 
Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind' but they have a common  root: 
both were written at times of personal crisis or uncertainty. 
Shelley, in the autumn of 1819, faced ferocious attack from reviewers,
a domestic crisis due to the loss of his children and, in the Peterloo Massacre, 
the apparent death of his democratic political ideals. Lennon, with the Beatles'
touring days just ended, was going through a kind of crisis of  identity
-- where was he to go from here ?
The lyrics confronted these situations and as an expression of their
importance were later overtly pointed out: 'I told you about Strawberry Fields' 
said Lennon on the White Album; 'The breath whose might I have
invoked in song' wrote Shelley in Adonais.  They both looked back to childhood,
Shelley remembering how he could seemingly outrun the wind -
'when to outstrip thy skyey speed/Scarce seemed a vision'
and Lennon recalling youthful  days in the garden of the Strawberry Fields
home in Liverpool. 'When I was a boy, everything was right' was how
he had expressed it elsewhere.
Both lyrics restored a kind of confidence and cleared the way for future creative work:
Lennon going on to work on Sergeant Pepper and Shelley  completing
Prometheus Unbound. They were examples of artistic renewal;  hence Shelley's
scribbled  quote from Euripides in his notebook under  the finished poem:
'By virtuous power, I, a mortal, vanquish thee a mighty god !'
There are those today who look for political motives behind both Shelley's
and Lennon's early deaths: the Italian authorities contriving to ram  his boat
(it was found with its bow stove in) or the CIA somehow
managing to eliminate Lennon. There is not a shred of evidence to support
these  theories, yet their deaths do have certain more subtle things in common.
On the back cover of Double Fantasy John and Yoko are pictured
on the pavement outside their Dakota home, very deliberately looking out towards 
Central Park. The symbolism is clear:  they are looking out to the world,
ending the isolation of the previous years. Similarly, at the time of  Shelley's death,
he was in the process of engagement with the world, setting up a journal as a literary
and political mouthpiece.  It was on a  journey connected
with it that he was drowned, like Lennon having his life cut short,
his work left unfulfilled.
It is in Adonais, Shelley's elegy for Keats, that one can find a poetic reading
of John Lennon's puzzling, almost accidental death. The  physical facts of his death
in the dark doorway of the Dakota seem to find expression there: 
'when he lay pierced by the shaft which flies  in darkness'.  Then, 'he went, unterrified,
into the gulf of death; ('Death is getting out of one car into another' - Lennon)
but his clear  Sprite (spirit) still reigns o'er earth' - not an exaggeration when his phrase
'Give Peace a chance' now regularly appears on politician's  lips.
The murderer (Shelley had been told that Keats had been hastened to his
death-bed by cruel reviews) is 'the noteless blot on a remembered  name',
but as for the poet - 'from the contagion of the world's slow stain
he is now secure' being 'part of the loveliness he once made more  lovely'. 
That final touch might seem over-sentimental to a modern reader, but there is nothing
sentimental in the final ominous image of Adonais,  with which Shelley provides
an image of the poet, not dallying among flowers, or as Keats put it, being some
'pet lamb in a sentimental farce',  but as someone driven out to sea
by the very wind (of inspiration) that, in the Ode to the West Wind,
he had welcomed unreservedly.
 'The breath whose might I have invoked in song              
  Descends on me; my spirit's bark is driven
  Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
  Whose sails were never to the tempest given ....
  I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar .....'
What Lennon's death confronted the post-war generation with was exactly this
(previously unsuspected) perspective - the perils of the poetic life. 
The poem concludes with a deliberately pointed compliment to Keats:
  ...While burning through the inmost veil of heaven
     The soul of Adonais, burning like a star
     Beacons from the abode where the eternal are'.
Shelley, in opposition to the critics of the age who had sneered at Keats
and his work,  was placing him in his pantheon of the great and illustrious  dead.
The question is then, will a similar process occur in the case of John Lennon ?
Will he come to be seen - as the parallels between them suggest - 
as a poet in the Shelleyan mould, not just a simple rock n' roller but
an 'unacknowledged legislator' who 'touched the world with living flame' ?  
Though no one can be sure of the judgement of posterity,
it is certainly a strong possibility.
 'He was a morning star amongst the living
  Now that his spirit is fled   
  He shines in the heavens like the evening star
  He gives new splendour to the dead'.


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