Dredging for Shelley

The Mutiny Within: The Heresies of Percy Bysshe Shelley

by James Rieger
Braziller, 283 pp., $2.95 (paper)

This book is close to that sort of interpretive criticism, born of unspilled religion and sheer intellectual energy, which uses another author’s works as metaphors for its own poetry. I learned a good deal I did not know from The Mutiny Within which is bound to come in useful for something—most likely for understanding some other critic—but it didn’t seem to help much with Shelley.

The three “heresies” are, first, Shelley’s ideological provincialism, which sent him defiantly to the Gnostic sects for symbols; second, his recognition that the hopeless corruption of the book of Nature made figurative language invalid and unusable; and, third, his obscurantist cultivation of the arcane, so as to ensure the least understanding by the smallest number. The trouble is that these premises, from which all the ladders start, are just what require to be established, especially the last. Unless in sore need of being not understood, Shelley is unlikely to have devoted himself to such obscure religious doctrines, and unless he was hooked on their dualism, the status of metaphor would not have worried him. So everything depends on a single postulate. “Shelley wished to be imperfectly understood by a public he could not love.” He wrote, bless him, for “students of literary history,” choosing “the most recondite symbologies research could yield.” “What are we to make of poetry which cannot be enjoyed in an intelligent way without a detailed knowledge of its sources?”—namely, of course, those now revealed for the first time. A disarming approach, because everyone else, from the poet’s wife to the new Oxford History of Literature, has seen Shelley as an acute case of audience-deprivation. This is the balloon-and-bottle-poet, who told his agent to advertise “in 8 famous papers, & in the Globe, advertise the Advertisement“; who sought later, with impatient fury, to “de-Ollierize” himself of a publisher who would not publish him fast enough; and who was finally saying that it was “impossible to compose except under the strong excitement of finding sympathy in what you write.” The evidence could only be discounted by somehow reinterpreting the whole situation of the contemporary audience and the changing tones of Shelley’s reactions to it. There is no a priori likelihood that Shelley concocted a Gnostic cipher. He was no system-builder, no Years. Some critics simply don’t see how utterly dissimilar these two poets were; Yeats himself didn’t.

The second heresy is equally unbelievable, reintroducing the Liar Poet in new clothes—a figure passionately repudiated by Shelley in his last prose work. What is the evidence that he literally believed the world to be under the dominion of some evil spirit? And, anyway, haven’t those who most distrusted the phenomenal world made some of the most influential metaphors?

THESE “HERESIES” have no substance because they are affirmed poetically, not patiently examined under all the available critical lighting. Critical points tend to be made by means of gnomic periphrases and nudges, rather like that guessing game where someone asks: “Can you be said to oppose…

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