The Young Shelley

The Esdaile Notebook: A Volume of Early Poems

edited by Kenneth Neill Cameron from the Original Manuscript by Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Carl H. Pforzheimer Library.
Knopf, 320 pp., $6.95

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley; drawing by David Levine

A special glamour has surrounded the manuscript Esdaile Notebook since some of Shelley’s admirers first learned of its existence in 1884. From that date its contents have perpetually been referred to without ever being known, as they were carefully guarded from publication. And unlike the official hoard passed on from Mary Shelley to the family shrine at Boscombe Manor, and finally into the Bodleian Library, this was the one talisman treasured by the Opposition, the descendants of Shelley’s tragic first wife Harriet. What ironies or sadnesses were hidden in it?

The earliest reviewers of Shelley’s work were tormented by having to recognize that this blasphemous and adulterous young radical was also a gifted poet, and their dilemma was even more acutely felt by a family that had suffered directly from Shelley’s godless behavior, and yet owned 3000 lines of his unpublished verses. Shelley has always provoked contradictions. When Lady Shelley, the poet’s daughter-in-law by his second wife, asked Leigh Hunt what Shelley was like, the old man exclaimed enthusiastically: “My dear Madam, he was like Jesus Christ.” Yet the very first poem in the Esdaile Notebook contains a line about “the cold Christians’ blood-stain’d King of Kings.”

Even Ianthe Esdaile’s tombstone in the remote and tranquil churchyard in the Quantocks bears the mark of combat. The words “Daughter of the Poet Shelley” were inscribed on it after her name; a later generation had them carefully chiseled out and a slip of blank stone inserted; still later the inscription was restored lower down. Ianthe’s obituary in the London Academy alleged that she “grew to womanhood, and even to advanced age, we believe, in almost total ignorance of her father’s doings, personal and poetical.” This was promptly denied by her son, the Reverend William Esdaile, whose brother Charles first declined, and then agreed, to let Dowden use the biographical material in the Esdaile poems for his Life of Shelley, and even toyed with the idea of having the whole notebook privately printed. (“The task would be a very light one,” Dowden told Richard Garnett when hinting that he should edit it.) But a few years later the policy changed again: Charles Esdaile wrote to Dowden to say he now believed “it was my mother’s wish, that the poems should not appear in print,” and to restrain him from reprinting the lines that had already appeared. So the only editor of Shelley’s Collected Poems who found himself obliged to do without the verses in his own Life of Shelley was poor Dowden himself.

Shelley arranged these poems for publication with Queen Mab in 1813, but his publisher must have taken fright and in the end Queen Mab was issued privately without them. Professor Cameron decides, on consideration, that the Esdaile Notebook was not the manuscript actually submitted to Hookham but a copy made as a safeguard against loss. This may be true, though…

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