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acutely felt by a family that had suffered directly from Shelley’s godless behavior, and yet owned 3000 lines of his unpublished verses.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 there is strong evidence to the contrary; for instance, the distinctness with which corrections were written in (see Plate VI), typical of Shelley’s known revisions for the press, and the poem “To Mary I,” with its footnote, which was evidently transferred into the notebook from a draft, not from a fair copy already prepared for the printer. If Shelley’s careful linecount was not there to help the printer, what was it for? And didn’t most of Laon and Cythna go to press in notebooks? However that may be, only a few tantalizing verses were released at intervals from the 1880s onward, until in 1962 the Notebook was bought by the Carl H. Pforzheimer Library for rather more than three guineas a line. Most ordinary readers, and all living poets, will consider this a pretty good price for lines such as “Ceaseless shall selfish Prejudice endeavour,” and “But thee, cruel Henry, I call thee unkind.”

Although their literary value may not be great, however, these poems are of far more interest now than they could have been at any earlier time. All the parties concerned in the poet’s two marriages can be viewed now with sanity and sympathy, especially since Mrs. Louise Schutz Boas’s recent biography Harriet Shelley, which makes a useful companion to The Esdaile Notebook; and it is at last possible to be moved by the intimate tenderness of the poems written for Harriet or her baby without also hearing them as trumpets which sing to moral battle. Besides, there is the fascination of comparing what Shelley “the fiendmonger” was writing at seventeen with what what Shelley the major poet was writing ten years later. Even the two birthday sonnets to Harriet, written just a year apart, show a striking difference in quality. Professor Cameron is rightly suspicious of the way Shelley confused his correspondents by pretending to one that a recent poem was a piece of juvenilia, to another that he had just dashed off something that was, in fact, several years old, and he is able to show that some of the dates in The Esdaile Notebook are likewise misleading. Shelley was well aware of his own rapid development as a poet, and for publication he cheerfully backdated work that no longer satisfied him.


Yet the interest lies not simply in that miraculous qualitative jump from early to later work, but in the continuity that can be sensed even where the gap seems widest. Louisa in “Henry and Louisa” (1809) may be ludicrous,

   the loveliest form
That ever bruised a pleasure-fainting flower
Whose emanative eyebeam, thrilling, warm,
Around her sacred presence shed a rapturing charm;

but she is closely related to Asia in Prometheus Unbound (1820):

Child of Light! thy limbs are burning
Through the vest which seems to hide them,
As the radiant lines of morning
Through the clouds ere they divide them;
And this atmosphere divinest
Shrouds thee wheresoe’er thou shinest.

The same themes persist; the same unresting exploration of metre is noticeable in these poems, though their rhythms echo Moore or Southey, not Wordsworth or Dante. The accent of “To Jane. The Recollection” sounds faint but clear in “The Retrospect. Cwm Elan,” and the wry colloquialism of “The Boat on the Serchio”—though not its marvelous assurance—can already be heard in “The Voyage”:

    The sailor’s whistle shrill
Speeds clearly thro’ the sleeping atmosphere—
    As country curates pray for rain
    When drought has frustrated full long—
    He whistles for a wind
      With just the same success.

This version of the Esdaile Notebook was prepared as a first edition for ordinary interested readers, its text an approximation to “what Shelley himself would have presented had he published the work,” and it is admirable both as an editorial achievement and as a physical object—not as sumptuous as the same editor’s Shelley and his Circle, but a joy to read and handle. It can be judged only by the highest standards. Still, any compromise between the literal and the entirely readable has shortcomings. The text is described as “a minimum clean-up type,” but the trouble is that once an editor interferes at all there is no way of avoiding inconsistencies except by cleaning up altogether. Commas make a lot of difference. “Yet do not look so sweet” (the manuscript reading) is opposite in meaning to the editorial “Yet do not look so, sweet” when the line before reads “Dear girl! thou art wildered by madness.” And if a comma was really needed here, why not a comma after languish in the line: “And virtue forbids, tho’ I languish to die”? It is no joke trying to punctuate this early stuff, which is often ambiguous because of muddy or second-hand expression. But Shelley was rarely unmetrical, and it would surely be better to supply words that must have dropped out accidentally, as in “Thine is this heap (of gold)—the Christian’s God!” and elsewhere.

No one need be dismayed by the proportion of 235 pages of commentaries, notes, and tables to 135 pages of text. Professor Cameron had all the basic work to do of fitting new poems into their biographical and political contexts, and very few of his comments do not add something to our understanding; this is an editor who sometimes uses many words but rarely waste any. Indeed, the whole presentation of The Esdaile Notebook is a remarkable achievement, even by a first-rate editorial team such as this. The manuscript was acquired in July 1962, the book published in April 1964: twenty months to complete the whole business-of decipherment, research, and printing. Is it ungenerous to guess that the wish to give the poems to the public at the earliest possible moment included a wish to do so earlier than the Oxford University Press, which has an independent edition of the Notebook nearly ready to appear? When Professor Cameron’s team is in a hurry, it is still rather like an ordinary human editor taking unusual pains; but there are in fact signs of haste here that were not allowed to blemish the Shelley and his Circle volumes of 1961. The explanatory material contains bad misprints; much more seriously, two lines of text are transposed on page 158; the first two stanzas of “Mary to the Sea-Wind” are run-on without explanation; and there are misprints in the text (e.g., on page 139 line 179, and page 170 line 14) At least, one assumes these are misprints, for there is evidence that the transcribers—careful and competent though they certainly are—lacked enough duelling-practice with Shelley’s handwriting to guard against all its tricks and feints. Plate III, for instance, shows two samples of Shelley’s characteristic spelling thier which are not recorded in the notes.


This small lapse suggests a rather long list of queries, not all of which can be given here. Should not Where read When on page 105 line 245, and then read there on pages 143 line 304? Is Mary’s form not etherial rather than external on page 120 line 30? Shouldn’t it be dear evening’s hour (spelt hower) whose flight is urged on page 135 line 111, not power; sleep not deep on page 137 line 153 (otherwise this sentence is meaningless and should be annotated); motes not mites on page 151 line 90? Stern is a wildly improbably verb for floating bottles in the line “Safe may ye stern the wide surrounding roar.” On page 149 shouldn’t Superstition’s spell be superstitious spell in line 25, on be in in line 44, and dear be dead line 54? Are meteor and horror on page 152 lines 11 and 127 really singulars?

Professor Cameron may want to defend some of these readings; he is unlikely to acquit them all. Most are from that half of the manuscript where the transcribers had to work without the immense help of the transcript which Dowden made in 1885; and here, I think, the Carl H. Pforzheimer Library has been handicapped by its own rule of total secrecy. Dowden’s copy of the Notebook is in two separate parts. Those who know where Part II is have failed to find Part I, while Professor Cameron has failed to find Part II, so the two halves of the transcript have been as hungrily in pursuit of each other as the two sexes in Plato’s Symposium. (What about the second complete transcript, which Mrs. Dowden made for Charles Esdaile? This is not mentioned.)

To want to be the first to publish one’s own manuscripts is understandable; to conceal facts of ownership, perhaps for many years, is a different matter. It forces other scholars to spend their limited ingenuity, not on problems common to all scholarship, but on detecting the library that is hiding the materials. The futility of this is obvious. It means, too, that Professor Cameron cannot easily ask questions of other scholars in the same field because he is not free to answer theirs, and The Esdaile Notebook proves that this damages his own work. The mistake about Ianthe’s tombstone on page 287 was unnecessary, because the obvious American authority to consult has a photograph. The date of the edition of Gibbon used by Shelley could have been obtained in a similar way. Hogg’s manuscript of “A Dialogue” is not lost, and it would have saved at least one certain error in transcription. And so on. It seems a pity, when the son of this great collection’s founder is one who understands as well as loves its treasures, that his library’s policy should not in all respects work for the good of literature.

But readers of Shelley are never satisfied. It is only because Shelley and his Circle was so nearly faultless that this merely first-class edition can be turned into a pretext for carping.

This Issue

May 28, 1964