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 expansionism unequivocally?” and you reply: “No, I am not Kingsley Amis.” “High-minded incest counterpoises mundane murder in Epipsychidion” (p. 75). “The Logos, his beneficent doubleganger and brother under the fright-wig” (p. 128). “Centripetal error will crush this infamy as its orbit implodes to a usurped peace” (p. 68). No distrust of the book of Nature here. Besides overworked in-words such as syncretic and telic, there are neologisms which make one think wistfully of the philological emetic administered in Ben Johnson’s play: “O—O—polysemism—pariahood—Ouroboros…” (I’d like to see that last one in Greek script.)
All too often the argument is kept going by hasty approximations or—at best—disputable readings. The Preface to Prometheus Unbound contains no “explicit statement” that the drama is “a maddeningly recondite allegory of the operations of the human mind” (pp. 16-17); it says simply that much of the imagery is drawn from mental operations, as in Dante and Shakespeare. On page 211 the four-faced charioteer in The Triumph of Life is pronounced “quadruply blind” (the significance of this passage having been “missed by every modern critic before Harold Bloom.” The light, as Shelley cheerlessly misquoted, came into the world, and the world knew it not.) But Life’s charioteer is not even blind in one eye: his eight piercing eyes are blindfold. Stars in the same poem are not images higher in the hierarchy of light than the sun, but are “the least of heaven’s living eyes”—minora sidera, meaner beauties of the night (the Morning Star, being a planet, is another matter). The force of the line in Adonais where the mourner shows his branded brow “Which was like Cain’s or Christ’s” lies in the indiscriminate branding of two antithetical figures: but here they are made identical because they are branded alike, thus re-invoking the irony of the stanza. Orpheus is also identified, wildly, with the Maenads who destroyed him, on the strength of the lines
so Orpheus, seized and torn
By the sharp fangs of an insatiate grief,
Maenad-like waved his lyre in the bright air…
Maenads had no lyres to wave, so it is clearly Orpheus’ grief that is Maenadlike; another comma is needed before waved (there are none in the only manuscript).
PROFESSOR RIEGER has disappointingly little to say about Shelley’s poetic quality. He claims, indeed, that conceptual content is irrelevant to poetry, but when a few pages later he discusses “Mont Blanc,” that unhappy poem is thrashed with -isms till its 144 lines make it look like the back of a Perugian flagellant. Yet there are many incidental rewards for the reader, ranging from a perceptive prosodic analysis of the “Ode to the West Wind” (until this takes off into the higher numerology) to an entertaining discussion of verbs of copulation. It makes good sense to say that “Mont Blanc” is difficult because of immaturity, not profundity. The Beatrice of The Cenci is interestingly if provocatively related to the Beatrice of Mary Shelley’s Valperga. Two chief conclusions are reached about The Cenci: that Beatrice is an unregenerate Prometheus (as we have learned from the Preface), and that according to the play “the whole creation is a syphilitic chancre and the god of this world…a witty degenerate.” This is poetic but surely mistaken. The Count prays to a sadistic God, and is murdered; Beatrice prays to a just God, and is executed. The simplest inference is that each man makes God in his own image and (since Shelley believed in none) is appropriately disillusioned.
The substance of the book is sandwiched between two frivolities: a merry caricature of Shelley’s early life, and a spiritual melodrama of his last days. Rieger says justly that the nautical facts about the Don Juan have never been properly examined, and he makes some excellent comments. But recent discussion of Trelawny’s supposed forgery is ignored. If the “deck plan, presumably drawn by Roberts” means the drawing annotated in Williams’s handwriting (reproduced in R. Glynn Grylls’s Trelawny, London, 1950, p. 80), this is obviously one of those anticipatory sketches described by Trelawny in the Recollections, made before the Don Juan was built. The boat was undecked, as every account confirms; had there really been a cabin, the fact that all her contents stayed aboard would not have convinced Roberts that she had foundered rather than capsized.
The imaginative curve of the argument requires that Shelley should have seen death approaching, and full weight is given to the various premonitory stories, including the one of how Shelley took Jane Williams and her children out in the dinghy and suddenly invited her to help him “solve the great mystery.” Little research is needed to show that this incident, if it occurred, cannot possibly have occurred when or in the manner Trelawny describes. It reads like a much-elaborated family joke. Jane had a strong sense both of humor and of family.
Rieger throws sinister doubts on much of the direct evidence of the shipwreck, and seems to attach more credence to the superb story that Clarissa Trant said that Taaffe said that someone had said that the crew of another Leghorn vessel had told him (or her), wherein the Don Juan set off, like Blake’s jealousy, by night, in a howling storm. According to Miss Trant, when the waves were “running mountain high” and the Shelley party were offered a rescue, “a shrill voice which is supposed to have been Shelley’s, was distinctly heard to say ‘NO.”‘ They were advised to reef their sails, but when “one of the gentlemen (Williams it is believed) was seen to make an effort to lower the sails—his companion seized him by the arm as if in anger.” A pity that at this moment a mountain-high wave obscured the treacherous kick with which Shelley is supposed to have incapacitated his crew, and the uppercut which (it is believed) unsportingly knocked Williams overboard in the act of taking off his jacket. Shelley was the owner, but not the skipper, of the Don Juan; and neither of the young men in charge of her was worried about the validity of metaphor in a corrupt world. It is facetious to suggest as an alternative to murder that Shelley was “accident prone.” Either the disaster was involuntary, or it was murder; and if the critics are going to be called in, it’s Jane’s husband for my money. He probably had a motive.
April 20, 1967