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 guitarist, 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 visions, 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.
On the British side, the approach has been more individualistic. A leading radical playwright, Howard Brenton, has vividly revived the Shelley circle in Europe, with his tragicomedy Bloody Poetry. A political journalist and activist, Paul Foot, has briskly and wittily reread Shelley’s ideology in a contemporary context, trailing his coat as Red Shelley (1980). Two Cambridge scholars, Nora Crook and Derek Guiton, have mildly proposed that Shelley may have caught syphilis at Oxford (or at least been obsessed by the disease), and have reexamined the themes of sickness and healing throughout his work, to produce a shrewd reappraisal of the more comfortable assumptions of both critics and biographers, in Shelley’s Venomed Melody (1986). The Byron scholar William St. Clair, moving away from the traditional biographic approach, has written a revealing multiple life of Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, and Mary Shelley in The Godwins and the Shelleys (1989), thereby bringing a much longer historical perspective to bear on the whole shape of Shelley’s career, as part of a family saga of English radical endeavor, with conscious European links.
Most surprising of all has been Shelley’s appeal to the renewed waves of critical experiment (themselves with deep European roots): deconstruction, feminism, and what one may call microbiography, the examination in detail of a fragment of life, which bears a significant relation to the whole. The contingency or fluidity of Shelley’s status as a “cultural tradition” within the literature of Romanticism has attracted radical rereadings by those who wish to question the Romantic canon itself. The Faustian, overreaching quality of his language has proved an immense attraction, a force-field into which critics whirl with something like abandon.
In a classic essay of deconstruction on “The Triumph of Life” (indeed originally published alongside another by Jacques Derrida), the controversial critic Paul de Man has argued the central importance of “collapse” and “erasure” in Shelley’s poetic epistemology. His “Shelley Disfigured” de-constructs images of light and water to suggest that Shelley’s skepticism dissolves the whole possibility of figurative knowledge of the world, or memory, or identity.4
Leaving aside the moral or philosophical implications of this (in the airy Frère Jacques manner), de Man is free to show how each stage of Shelley’s vision collapses, or falls inward on itself, as the narrative drops through successive levels of the poet’s memory, as through a series of concentric rings, each one obliterating the last. In such a work as “The Triumph of Life,” thought itself becomes an unstable, fleeting property. The “ground” of being and knowing is progressively dissolved. The female “shape all light” who is the source of vision becomes its destroyer. But what de Man also shows, paradoxically, is the radiant, affirmative beauty of these very images (“figures”) of destruction. They blossom out into extended similes of Platonic power and promise, which actually confirm the existence of an ideal world. Skepticism and idealism are held in a Faustian, momentary equilibrium. Here, from “The Triumph of Life,” is the trope of light destroying knowledge, yet simultaneously recreating the rebirth or redawning of the visionary universe:
All that was seemed as if it had been not,
As if the gazer’s mind was strewn beneath
Her feet like embers, and she, thought by thought,
Trampled its fires into the dust of death,
As Day upon the threshold of the east
Treads out the lamps of night….
And here again is the trope of water, the natural symbol of impermanence, performing the same ambivalent action. This passage also shows the subtlety of Shelley’s controlling syntax, moving from the action of the “first wave” to the “second,” in a continuous rhythmic breaking-over of meaning. This simile also re-creates the “New-World” of the uncharted North American continent, with its wild creatures, like a modern Genesis:
And suddenly my brain became as sand
Where the first wave had more than half erased
the track of deer on desert Labrador,
Whilst the fierce wolf from which they fled amazed
Leaves his stamp visibly upon the shore
Until the second bursts—so on my sight
Burst a new Vision never seen before.—
Being a deconstructor, de Man pushes his critical analysis of this “collapsing” much further, until it applies to the poet himself. He suggests that “Shelley” himself is an ambivalent, retrospective invention; a cultural totem falsely enshrined in his own work through a kind of pious historicism. We have used his texts not for open reading, but for closed tomb-making, simply to reassure ourselves about our own values, liberal or otherwise. The following passage might be inscribed on the back of all bicentenary party invitations:
For what we have done with the dead Shelley, and with all the other dead bodies that appear in Romantic literature—one thinks, among many others, of the “dead man” that “mid the beauteous scene / Of trees and hills and water, bolt upright / Rose, with his ghastly face…” in Wordsworth’s Prelude (V. 448–450)—is simply to bury them, to bury them in their own texts made into epitaphs, and monumental graves.
This is a vivid, salutary, admonition: indeed like a splash of cold water. Yet beneath its cleverness, even cynicism, may only lie the traditional (and, I would have thought, outdated) enmity between “pure” criticism and humanely “engaged” biography. Nevertheless, such deconstruction has had a breezily liberating effect on the new critical accounts of Shelley’s language. The old Leavisite moralism has been exploded. The fluidity of imagery, the rapidity of intellectual transitions, even the narcissim of Shelley’s linguistic world, have become legitimate subjects for enthusiastic reappraisal. In Shelley’s Style (1984), for example, William Keach has deliberately set aside ideological questions to concentrate on the sheer brilliance of Shelley’s “self-reflexive” imagery; his tropes of melting, dissolving, kindling, and dwindling; his characteristic assertion of “speed” as a condition of vision, so that reality is perceived either quick as a flash, like the Antelope “in the suspended impulse of its lightness” (“Epipsychidion”) or rippling into stasis like the wonderful line from Prometheus Unbound, Act 3: “It is the unpastured Sea hung’ring for Calm.” Keach writes as freshly of Shelley as if he were a contemporary master (which in a sense he is), quoting Robert Frost’s memorable homestead dictum: “like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting.”
Similarly, Jerrold Hogle, in Shelley’s Process (1988), has opened out the dazzling possibilities of multiplicity and experiment in the poet’s peculiarities of language and ceaseless self-mythologizing. The high-spirited dash with which Hogle plunges into a new world of shifting masks and figures is itself a remarkable feature of current Shelley studies.
Certainly I hope I put in question any notion of a strictly self-consistent “identity” in Shelley’s thought. The poet’s gradual awakening to an incessant quest for new thought-relations in the human psyche and in the language that brings thought into shape leads him to revise his understanding continually and often to refuse identity as a proper goal of human desire. “Shelley” as the name attached to a series of writings should be considered, I think, less a univocal “body of thought” and more an opening to an interplay of changing voices, a succession of externalized figures for the self, spreading into further possible figurations and analogues.
This new excitement, and indeed turmoil, in Shelley scholarship can be seen stimulatingly at work in three very recent books, with which I will take leave of the party. They are vastly different in type and scope, but each greets in its own way the Faustian Shelley who seems to be coming of age. The first is a British example of microbiography. Shelley’s First Love, by Desmond Hawkins, is based on the single new discovery of a tiny diary for 1810. It successfully reinterprets a crucial moment in Shelley’s adolescence: his schoolboy and undergraduate love affair with his beautiful first cousin, Harriet Grove.
Hawkins is a Hardy scholar, with expert local knowledge of the West Country world in which the Grove family flourished on their Wiltshire and Dorset estates over several generations. While investigating Hardy’s relationship with Agnes Grove, Harriet’s later kinswoman, he came across evidence of the earlier romance in an atticful of documents, and swiftly pursued the new trail.
The small red volume, six inches by three and a half, of thirty-three numbered pages (“Baxter’s Sussex Pocket Book or Gentleman’s County Re-membrancer…for the Year 1810”) contained entries made by Shelley between January 1 and June 4, at the age of seventeen. At the back, slipped into a cardboard pocket, was a lock of hair with the initials “H.G.” on a slip of paper, and a black seal with the cipher “I expect a Return” (viz., “I expect an Answer”) from Harriet. By collating this enchanting evidence with Harriet’s own diaries for 1809–1810, previously published by the Pforzheimer Library—a good example of what Reiman calls the “spirit of collegiality”—Hawkins tenderly reconstructs the romance (Platonic in the popular sense) almost week by week over two years.
Shelley’s mother and Harriet’s mother were sisters, and evidently encouraged the affair, hoping for a traditional marriage alliance between two good county families. Over the two years, between August 1808 and September 1810, innumerable letters were exchanged—though these ironically have not survived, and the two enamored cousins actually met less than half a dozen times in Wiltshire, Sussex, and London. It was an affair of dreams, absences, anticipations. Shelley wrote melancholy love poems to Harriet, and sent her copies of his earliest gothick shocker, Zastrozzi (1810), a bodice-ripper novelette of panting intrigue, seduction, and murder. (It has since received a full psychoanalysis of panting seriousness, by Dr.Eustace Chesser.)5
Hawkins, like Mrs. Shelley, evidently warms to the romance, describing it as “very much an intimacy à deux in a private world, almost a secret world, of love in its youthfully romantic style, compounded of long separations, brief and ecstatic moments ‘of speechless bliss’ in each other’s company and the momentary thrills of opening a letter and composing a reply.” To be fair, the phrase “speechless bliss” is Shelley’s own, and may also have meant that they rarely got the chance to talk.
But what significantly emerges is the huge difference in that “private world” as seen by Harriet and Shelley respectively. Harriet was a cool English rose of the county type (still easily recognizable; she would now own green Wellington boots and drive her father’s handsomely battered Range Rover). Vivacious, well-mannered, and naive, she was interested in country pursuits, ballroom dancing, piano-playing, and watercolors, and her brothers’ careers in the navy and the law. But Shelley was something far stranger. Passionate, unstable, moody, clever, spoiled, he was a rebel at Eton (“Mad Shelley”), a left-wing intellectual at Oxford, glamorously at war with all authorities including his weak, irritable father. (But again the type is recognizable, though not the genius or the persistence.) Already he is the Faustian figure in the bud—writing furiously of politics, experimental science, atheism, gothic intrigues, poetry, and world revolution.
Those two worlds could never really meet. For Harriet the affair must have become too alarming, too weird; for Shelley (in Hawkins’s perceptive term) too “claustrophobic.” By the autumn of 1810 there was an obvious froideur, and by spring 1811 Shelley had eloped with a more compliant, more susceptible Harriet (a London girl, with a father in trade), the sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook—the one who subsequently drowned herself in the Serpentine.
To Hawkins, Harriet Grove is the victim of this romance (though she subsequently married a suitable local farmer’s son, William Helyar, in 1812, and bore him three children in as many years); while Shelley is the betrayer. He gently mocks the idea that Shelley ever suffered “the tortures of unrequited love,” even though Shelley’s letters to his Oxford friend Hogg become almost pathologically unhinged on the subject during the winter of 1810, and Shelley’s sisters are on record as fearing he would commit suicide at the time. Hawkins also omits reference to an agonized passage in “Epipsychidion” written a decade later, which even the careful Reiman feels may refer to Harriet Grove, and which is central to his self-mythology of delusive Love:
The breath of her false mouth was like faint flowers,
Her touch was as electric poison,—flame
Out of her looks into my vitals came,
And from her living cheeks and bosom flew
A killing air, which pierced like honey-dew
Into the core of my green heart, and lay
Upon its leaves…
It is notable that this passage is full of garden imagery: the gardens of Sussex and Wiltshire perhaps?
But these are legitimate questions of emphasis and interpretation. What Hawkins shows so well, by putting this tiny fragment of Shelley’s life under the biographical microscope, is the emotional peculiarity and intellectual intensity of Shelley’s imaginative world when it comes into contact with the normal, solid, squirarchical ethic of Regency Britain. It is as if a perfect Jane Austen heroine had encountered, not a Mr.Darcy or even a Frank Churchill, but a stormy, lurid, driven figure out of M.G. Lewis’s The Monk—or Goethe’s Young Werther. It is not merely a clash of personalities; it is a clash of genres. From the very start, Shelley is breaking the customary mores of love, of class, and of language. He is himself a kind of deconstructor of categories.
The continuing mystery of Shelley’s affective life has also attracted an American scholar, Judith Chernaik, to put another symbolic moment of his career under detailed scrutiny. In Love’s Children, Chernaik investigates the tempestuous eighteen-month period—when were they ever calm?—between June 1816 and December 1817, when Shelley, Mary Godwin, and Claire Clairmont, her step-sister, met Lord Byron in Switzerland, and then settled briefly back in England at Marlowe on the river Thames. It was a period that produced, between them, two babies, the epic poem “The Revolt of Islam,” a political tract, the novel Frankenstein, and countless woolen ex-army blankets (purchased, autographed, and distributed for the local poor).
Dr.Chernaik is one of the best and most meticulous of Shelley’s editors and critics, having published in 1972 a variorum edition, newly transcribed from manuscripts, of The Lyrics of Shelley.6 It includes notably a previously unknown text of “To Constantia” (1817), a love poem not to Mary but to Claire.
Since then Chernaik herself settled in Britain, and the striking thing about her intriguing new book is that it is a fictional investigation. She too has become a maverick, abandoning conventional scholarship for a more imaginative approach. Skillfully blending genuine letters and journals with her own alarmingly authentic inventions and interpolations, she retells the story through the voices of four women. These are Harriet Westbrook, whom Shelley abandoned (Harriet’s ghostlike reappearances in my article are, I think, representative of her ghostlike reappearances in Shelley’s own life); Fanny Godwin, who also fell partly in love with him, and committed suicide at an inn in Swansea; Claire, who was pregnant with Byron’s child; and mary, who became Shelley’s second wife—a calm, but reserved, center of sanity amid all these alarums and excursions.
In this book, Chernaik is not interested in the poetry so much as the passion (and to some extent the blankets). Her Shelley is also Faustian—obsessed by his political ideals, confused in sexual longings, harried by fears of prosecution and death. But there is also an interesting reversion to the Ariel type, though this angel has all the bodily attributes, as appears in some pastoral, woodland heavy petting. Seen through the eyes of the women—the feminist critique is muted, but comically insinuating in a series of well-realized domestic scenes—Shelley is also fatally self-absorbed. He dominates those around him by his subjectivity, his dreams and schemes for a better world. Mary—or Chernaik—confides in exasperation to her diary:
Peacock is planning to include the poor in his next novel; Claire thinks of writing an indignant piece on the unemployed lace-makers of Marlow for Hunt’s Ex-aminer, and Shelley plans to adopt at least half a dozen children and educate them. I cannot describe the anger I feel at their well-intentioned efforts.
Chernaik pushes the known evidence in a number of speculative directions, all of them emotionally suggestive of Shelley’s inner conflicts. Of the poet actually at work, of Shelley’s inner harmony, we glimpse little, and learn less. This is not necessarily a criticism: merely an indication of the way fiction seeks out its own targets, and sheers off from others. The child with whom Harriet is pregnant when she drowns herself (ah, again) may after all be Shelley’s, as the result of a late clandestine visit to borrow money. (The possibility is explored in a disturbing dream sequence.) Shelley’s friend Hogg may be encouraged to attempt an adulterous affair with Mary. (This apparently unlikely development is a straight transposition of quite genuine events in 1815.) And Claire may have been seen making love to Shelley (reverse missionary position) in a boat drifting down the Thames. (This is really a further scholarly footnote on the real implications of the “To Constantia” poem.)
Needless to say, all these events have only the authority of Chernaik’s provoking imagination; and one can perhaps sense an American Shelley critic having a little holiday amid the British national heritage. But if it is ajeux d’esprit it is a shrewd one. The heady, maddening aspect of Shelley’s company is well captured, as are its perils. The limitation is simply that the fiction never enters Shelley’s own, supremely intelligent, head even if it refreshes the parts that proper scholarship cannot reach.
As a further unusual attempt to do so, one might pick out finally Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi’s Shelley’s Goddess: Maternity, Language, Subjectivity. Gelpi teaches English at Stanford University, has a background in lively Victorian scholarship, and deploys feminism, sociology, and her own form of Lacanian psychoanalysis with crusading zeal. Her book is long, difficult, and engaging. Its least happy feature is academic shoptalk, with a chatter of jargon and knowing references. It is too full of sentences designed only for postgraduate seminars on a hot afternoon at the end of the summer semester; it forgets the people in the park. Sentences like this do not help her cause: “[Shelley’s] aim was to replace a Jupiterean-Lacanian language with a Dionysian-Bakhtinian one.”
Yet her study can be highly original, and even at points enthralling. She too begins with microbiography: a reexamination of Shelley’s ill-documented relationship with his mother, from infancy (the question of breast-feeding looms large, as do breasts and erotic fashions in general) through school and university and elopement,up until the abandonment of Harriet Westbrook in 1814. She makes a convincing and significant case for Mrs.Shelley as her son’s friend and “co-conspirator” in the patriarchal household until that final rejection; an alliance that crucially affected both his ideas of love and of revolt throughout his later life. It is only perhaps curious that she omits, from an otherwise meticulous and sensitive gathering of evidence, Shelley’s wonderful essay on motherhood contained in his “Sculpture Notes” on the statue of Niobe in Italy, one of the most revealing things he ever wrote on the subject and apposite to Gelpi’s general thesis.
Deploying a Lacanian-feminist concept of “the mirrored maternal at the core of [Shelley’s] subjectivity,” Gelpi argues in effect that all the long, puzzling sequence of Shelley’s muse-figures have a psychological and imaginative base in his unconsciously incestuous feelings for Mrs.Shelley.
The arguments for this can sometimes seem a trifle overdetermined. At one point Gelpi has Shelley feeling incestuous impulses toward his mother, incestuous impulses toward his sister, homoerotic impulses toward an Oxford friend, and homoerotic impulses toward a music master all at the same time (1811), and indeed all in the same paragraph. But this, as she admits, may be “the Della Cruscan mode of experiencing Sentiment” (i.e., novelettish). He had also, incidentally, just got married at the time. Nevertheless, having established her complex idea of “the maternal,” she produces some brilliantly revealing readings of the later poetry, especially the first three acts of Prometheus Unbound. She also locates in her own way what most scholars recognize as a fundamental dilemma in Shelley’s poetry of sexual passion: a continuous, shimmering oscillation between the real and the ideal.
So Gelpi, like many of the new de-constructors of Shelley’s texts, liberates whole new ranges of critical response. There is an unmistakable sense of daring, of risk, of passionate engagement in her writing which is impressive, and even moving. Shelley is being heard by such commentators, as he always longed to be. One might enter one caveat. If the old Leavisite moralism is exploded, if every text is open and relative, can we always afford to suspend the question of moral value itself? There is, for example, a sense in which Gelpi is willful in refusing to engage the full historic implications of the Faustian personality that she too has so evidently encountered. To reject, for instance, Shelley’s many claims to be himself a feminist in the context of a deeply repressive Regency England and revisionist Europe—from the Note on Marriage in Queen Mab to his lifelong admiration for Mary Wollstonecraft—seems absurd. The fact that Shelley’s domestic practice hardly bears out his ideological commitment in many poems and essays is a crucial part of his Faustian dilemma. It is seen nowhere better than in those last days before his own drowning, in the tragic contradictions between his harsh treatment of Mary, his romantic treatment of Jane Williams, his (almost literal) haunting by Harriet, and his brilliant literary treatment of the seductive “shape all light” who dominates “The Triumph of Life.”
Thus when Barbara Gelpi claims that Shelley’s final vision of civilization revolutionized and morally restored, in Act III, scene 1, of Prometheus Un-bound, asserts that “men must rule women,” she appears deliberately to ignore the lines set so carefully toward the very close of the great speech by the Faustian “Spirit of the Hour”:
And women too, frank, beautiful and kind
As the free Heaven which rains fresh light and dew
On the wide earth, past: gentle, radiant forms
From custom’s evil taint exempt and pure;
Speaking the wisdom once they could not think
Looking emotions once they feared to feel
And changed to all which once they dared not be…
But then Shelley is still only two hundred years old. Like Faust, we still cannot be sure if he—or we—will be saved from the pact with the Devil of oblivion. We still read him anxiously, looking for the signs as well as the signified. When we leave his party (it’s dawn by now), we still turn our faces to question what is blowing in the West Wind.
September 24, 1992
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). ↩
Deconstruction and Criticism, edited by Harold Bloom (1977). ↩
Eustace Chesser, Shelley and Zastrozzi: Self-Revelation of a Neurotic (Gregg/Archive, 1965). ↩
Case Western Reserve University Press, 1972. ↩