The New Shelley: Later Twentieth-Century Views
Shelley’s Poetry and Prose
The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts Volume XI: The Geneva Notebook of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Shelley’s Goddess: Maternity, Language, Subjectivity
The occasion of Shelley’s two hundredth birthday (August 4) reminds me of an open-air rock concert once given by the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park, London. Mick Jagger, wearing a white skirt, read out some “posy” for his drummer, Brian Jones, who had recently been drowned (not in the Gulf of Spezia but in his Surrey swimming pool). The posy was announced as a stanza of Shelley’s “Adonais”—
Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep—
He hath awakened from the dream of life—
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy vi- sions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife…
Mick read it rather well in his South London drawl, holding an astonished crowd silent and sprawling on the summer grass, and then suddenly released thousands of multicolored butterflies—“Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!”—and burst into a rendition of “Sympathy for the Devil.”
The next day a British newspaper, grudgingly impressed but slightly misunderstanding Jagger’s pronunciation of “Shelley,” duly reported a memorable reading from the works of the Cuban revolutionary “Che” Guevara, and ironically praised Mick for his political correctness. Among much other commentary, no one remarked that the ecstatic cloud of butterflies had slowly drifted across the adjacent Serpentine, where Shelley’s first wife had also drowned.
The whole episode was exemplary: the confusion of poetry, politics, and intellectual fashion; the general uncertainty about “Shelley-Che’s” identity; and a pervading sense of the ironies of death and remembrance. One might call it the irony of elegy: of trying to turn the shifting word-cloud of one man’s life and work into a solid monument.
This year, Shelley has fared rather better. Professors (several of them Japanese) have gathered at the New York Public Library; international lecturers have discoursed at a grand palazzo in Rome; poets have congregated at Lerici and taken boat trips in the bay (no fatalities); conferences and exhibitions have been held as far apart as Prague, Pretoria, Sussex, and the Lake District. But the irony remains.
University College, Oxford, the institution which launched Shelley into social exile by firing him (the word seems appropriate) as the author of a philosophical pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism (1811), held a lavish black-tie Shelley Ball in June. With tickets at £72.50 each, there were dance bands, champagne, a Shelley-in-Italy pizza stall, and photographs at £10 a couple posed in front of Shelley’s marble monument with its weeping sea nymphs by E. Onslow Ford. But outside in the street, unemployed T-shirted protestors jeered and spat, howling that “Shelley was an anarchist, and these people kicked him out.” One could sense that the West Wind—“Destroyer and Preserver”—was still blowing hard.
Such contradictions strike me as perfectly proper. After two hundred years it is still not easy to answer the fundamental questions about Percy Bysshe Shelley (Sussex 1792–Tuscany 1822). In a very short lifetime he published twelve volumes of verse, four political pamphlets, and a verse play about incest; he fathered six (possibly seven) children; he wrote some dozen erudite philosophical essays, including “A Defence of Poetry” (1821); he translated from German, Spanish, Latin, Arabic, and Greek, including Plato’s Symposium; he attracted an entire solar system of women muses and admirers, as recorded in his verse autobiography “Epipsychidion” (1821), many of whom whirled away to disaster; and he was an accomplished rider, billiards player, pistol shot, and (pace Trelawny) single-handed dinghy sailor. All this before he was thirty. Yet we still have to ask: How do we remember him, how do we read him, how do we rate him?
In a recent survey of some hundred “randomly chosen” universities in the US, Canada, and Britain, conducted by Professor Kim Blank for his excellent critical anthology, The New Shelley: Later Twentieth-Century Views, Shelley ranks consistently as third or fourth among the Big Six of Romantic poets favored by undergraduate readers. But the number of works studied is small and conservative: “Queen Mab” (1812), his early radical attack on social institutions, or “The Witch of Atlas” (1820), his fantasy of the androgynous creative faculty at work, are read by only 5 percent. “The Triumph of Life” (1822), his dark, haunting, unfinished Dante-esque vision of a dance of death, which T.S. Eliot and many others considered his finest major poem, is read by only 33 percent. His satire on the Lake poets, “Peter Bell the Third” (1819), and his political epic of the French Revolution, “The Revolt of Islam” (1817), do not score at all. (They all, incidentally, appear in full—except the last—in the admirable Norton Critical Edition, Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, first published in 1977, edited by Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers.) As the teacher in one course remarked, Shelley is still seen as the most problematic of the Romantics, and “he gets the least attention from panicky students.” The critical attack by F.R. Leavis in Revaluations (1936), mounted against “elusive imagery” and “high-pitched emotions,” still bites very deep after more than fifty years.
Shelley’s popular reputation seems equally uncertain. It is still divided between two colorful stereotypes: the Golden Angel and the Red Demon. The angel of Trelawny’s memoirs, Matthew Arnold’s essays, and André Maurois’s romance Ariel (1924) is an unworldly, ineffectual poet of short lyrics (notably “To a Sky-Lark”), dubious love life, and flitting butterfly tendencies. He is bright, glamorous, and somehow enfeebled: his name rhymes with “jelly.” (It is true that Shelley wrote in praise “of syllabubs and jellies and mince-pies” in his urbane verse “Letter to Maria Gisborne.”) It is significant that Ariel was recently republished in Britain as a classic biography, in which the modern jacket-copy writer described the personality presented there as “a sexy spark arcing between the philosophic Godwin and the diabolic Byron, half man and half meteorite.” Here was a man who would evidently have enjoyed the Oxford Ball. He is the poet of Platonic enchantment:
Ariel to Miranda;—Take
This slave of music for the sake
Of him who is the slave of thee;
And teach it all the harmony,
In which thou can’st, and only thou,
Make the delighted spirit glow….
The Red Demon is essentially a subversive, political figure—the young ideologue who signed himself “democrat, philanthropist, atheist” (in Greek) in the hotel registers of Switzerland, and who would doubtless have worn the anarchist’s T-shirt outside University College. This Shelley emerges historically through the commentaries of the republican William Hazlitt, Engels, the British Fabian Society, George Bernard Shaw, and the genial American neo-Marxist scholar Kenneth Neill Cameron, in his brilliant study The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical (1950). He is the poet of large political epics, “Queen Mab” with its free-thinking “Notes,” “The Revolt of Islam” (partly also modeled on the life of his mother-in-law, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft), and Prometheus Unbound (1819), an apocalyptic vision of tyranny both political and psychosexual, volcanically overthrown.
He is the author of the treatise (unpublished for one hundred years after its composition) “A Philosophical View of Reform” (1820), which first used the formula “poets and philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and which argued that if universal suffrage was endlessly refused, then “the last resort of resistance is undoubtedly insurrection.” He is the angry poet of the great ballad of nonviolent protest, “The Mask of Anarchy” (1819), memorable in turn for its specific furious imagery and surreal, gravelly precision:
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.
And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.
Over the past thirty years, scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have been working hard to reassess these stereotypes and rediscover a much more powerful and unified figure, who combines both angelic and demonic aspects in an altogether larger synthesis. It has been one of the most remarkable cooperative efforts in postwar scholarship, critical, editorial, and biographic. In general, the American contribution has been solid, textual, magnificently painstaking, and severely academic. The British have been more maverick, imaginative, deliberately controversial. (There are, of course, exceptions: Harold Bloom has been a wonderful Shelley mythmaker, while P.M. Dawson and Timothy Webb have been the coolest of British scholars.) But together, it seems to me, they have truly begun to unearth—or rekindle—a new Shelley, of startling aspect. This new Shelley I would call the Faustian Shelley. He is a European figure, the product of a convulsive movement of the Imagination that passed through two generations from France to Greece. He is a learned, intellectually ambitious writer, who is nevertheless strange and magical, driven by peculiar forces of sex and death. He wants to change the world through language. But the very intensity of his desire may be a pact of self-destruction.
The most powerful center of American scholarship, with a passion for textual authenticity, has been the Carl H. Pforzheimer Library (now based in New York), with its matchless edition Shelley and His Circle, 1773–1822, started under Kenneth Neill Cameron and continuing under Dr. Donald Reiman. In concert with the Bodleian Library, Oxford, it has now also begun to issue photofacsimiles of all Shelley’s major manuscripts, in a new edition from the Garland publishing company. Thus scholars throughout the world can study the original transcribed and meticulously annotated drafts of the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc” (1816)—Shelley’s Geneva Notebook in the eleventh volume of the Garland edition (1992, edited by Michael Erkelenz). What emerges from these editions is a wholly new impression of Shelley as a craftsman-poet, composing at top speed, but intellectually engaged and philosophically alert, rewriting and rethinking every line, every adjective, even every punctuation mark. Wordsworth’s famous, slightly edgy tribute, “one of the best artists of us all; I mean in workmanship of style,” takes on new meaning.
Donald Reiman, the overall editor of Shelley and His Circle, has also issued an extraordinarily astute and generous brief assessment of Shelley’s work in Twayne’s English Authors Series. Now in an updated preface (1990), he summarizes many of the new developments in Shelley scholarship, and glimpses the Faustian figure emerging.
Those of us who have emphasized Shelley’s hardheadedness and his keen awareness of the realities of the world around him may have done him a partial disservice by causing students to lose sight of his special contribution of an extreme idealism, almost unique in English literature. By refusing to bow his neck to the yoke of sublunar “reality,” he helped set an example for selfless human service and sacrifice to promote radical social reform that has left its mark for good on every aspect of Western society…. Shelley remains, after all else is said, the English language’s supreme poet of hope.
Perhaps the single most influential work in this development has been a tiny incisive monograph of some hundred pages, The Deep Truth (1954), by C.E. Pulos.1 With great force and elegance, it suggests that Shelley’s idealizing Platonism and his Godwinian radicalism (the Angel and the Demon) are in reality unified by his position as a philosophical Skeptic (the Faustian inquirer) which emerged from his reading of David Hume and William Drummond’s Academical Questions after 1814: precisely the period when his great poetry begins. This proposition has borne fruit in the subsequent work of Earl Wasserman (1971),2 and Stuart Sperry (1988),3 who pursue it from different ends, but both showing the extraordinary, subtle intelligence of Shelley’s work.
University of Nebraska Press, 1954.↩
Earl R. Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971).↩
Stuart Sperry, Shelley's Major Verse: The Narrative and Dramatic Poetry (Harvard University Press, 1988).↩