Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Shelley's Avatars

Avatar, which I finally saw last night, reminds me of the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Both are beautiful and flawed, high in inventive imagery and low in organization. We are deluged with a host of gorgeousness, a vitality unparalled, and we come away not quite sure what has just happened.

In Avatar, we get wonderful visions: those night scenes in the forest, with plants glowing and fading; the seeds of the sacred tree that float like jellyfish through the air, pulsing with life; the wild flights on those dragon-beasts, scooping in and out of the hanging mountains or the surf. The premise is that all life is interconnected: a plant is not inert but vital, and it's an act of reverence to delight in the vitality of life, of air, of water.  I love my garden, but I usually fail to notice the life-filled gyrations of the tomatoes or the aspirations of the  raspberries.

Shelley, a foe of established religion, was looking for a way to put reverence back into the world. Sometimes he did it by writing for civil rights - exposing the tyrants of the world (there were plenty then, too) and giving us instead the life of the workers and the common people. He was a democrat almost before that could be imagined. He would have been glad to see the populism of Avatar. He was a pantheist, using his poems to show us how life and spirit intermingle in all kinds of forms. One poem celebrates "The Sensitive Plant," which takes joy in everything around it. Here's a stanza that especially reminds me of the film:
The plumed insects swift and free
Like golden boats on a sunny sea,
Laden with light and odour which pass
Over the gleam of the living grass. . .
He wrote a wonderful poem in the voice of a cloud, not much read anymore but startling in a pre-aviation age. Like Avatar, he is forcing science on us: the cloud appears tangible, but is in fact only vapor; it vanishes; it appears again. It is a process more than a thing: it dissolves and is born again. It is fierce, gentle, cruel and nurturing at once. Here's the ending of the poem; notice how fully the cloud is made into a strange, self-transforming life-form [a "cenotaph" is a memorial that does not contain a body]:
I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
  And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores, of the ocean and shores;
  I change, but I cannot die--
For after the rain, when with never a stain
  The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams, with their convex gleams,
  Build up the blue dome of Air--
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph
  And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
  I arise, and unbuild it again.--
One last example from Shelley: the end of Prometheus Unbound. It's written as a play, but is entirely unactable. The last act is an apocalypse: life as we know it -- nasty, brutish and short, and dominated by tyrants -- has ended, and the world blends together in a feast of love marked by beautiful sounds, colors, and emotions. If we were ever to act this (and we might, now that we have CGI), it would be something like those night scenes in Avatar:
Peace! peace! a mighty Power, which is as Darkness,
Is rising out of Earth, and from the sky
Is showered like Night, and from within the air
Bursts, like eclipse which had been gathered up
Into the pores of sunlight -- the bright Visions
Wherein the singing spirits rode and shone
Gleam like pale meteors through a watery night.
This great, if messy, poet died, sailing in the Mediterranean, when a storm arose out of nowhere and swamped his small sailboat. His body was found days later. He had a volume of Keats' poems in his back pocket. Byron and another friend built a great bonfire and burned it on the Italian beach. Byron saved only Shelley's heart, which was later buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome (where Keats too is buried), with the epitaph "Cor cordium" (heart of hearts).


Mary VN said...

I love this comparison of Avatar with Shelley's poetry. You've made me see the latter in an entirely new way, and I thank you for it.

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Kathleen said...

Fascinating comparison! I've read Shelley, so now I'd like to see Avatar.