Vous êtes sur la nouvelle plateforme d’Érudit. Bonne visite! Retour à l’ancien site


The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Volume One. Eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0-8018-6119-5. Price: US$75.00 (£58.00).

  • Michael O'Neill

…plus d’informations

  • Michael O'Neill
    Durham University

Corps de l’article

This first volume of a projected seven-volume Complete Poetry is an event of great significance in Shelley studies, both for its self-contained achievement and for what it betokens in the years ahead, namely, the publication of a reliable, scrupulously edited edition of Shelley's poems. We are also fortunate to have Geoffrey Matthews's and Kelvin Everest's fine Longman edition, the second volume of which has recently appeared, an edition that complements rather than rivals the Johns Hopkins edition. Altogether, with the publication of the Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts series and the relevant volumes in the Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics series, things are looking up in the world of Shelley editing. The first and abiding impression made by the present volume is how attentive to detail Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat have been. It would be hard to over-praise the standards of accuracy they have set themselves and have attained.

The volume contains an important 'Editorial Overview', which explains the editorial principles at work in the edition overall and supplies an account of the 'History of Shelley's Texts'. From the latter, we gain a fresh view of reasonably familiar terrain; indeed, Reiman in Evaluating Shelley [eds. Timothy Clark and Jerrold E. Hogle (1996)], and Fraistat in an essay for Romanticism on the Net [19 (August 2000)] have given us advance notice of their views. Among other things, they offer a balanced judgement of Mary Shelley's crucial role in the transmission of Shelley's texts, especially his 'fragmentary and unreleased poetry'. As Reiman and Fraistat observe, Mary Shelley worked from manuscripts that were not available to scholars until after 1946. As a result, editors, before that time, were 'unable to evaluate her editorial decisions': decisions such as the insertion of punctuation and choosing, more or less unavoidably (she was not producing a fascimile text), between 'alternative words' (p. xxiii). Reiman and Fraistat draw attention, too, to her omissions in Posthumous Poems (1824) and her two editions of Shelley's Poetical Works (1839 and 1840, though this second edition appeared before the end of 1839). They point out that Mary Shelley omitted the 'poems that PBS had written before Queen Mab' (p. xxv), an omission of particular relevance to this first volume, which contains Shelley's Original Poetry; by Victor and Cazire, along with The Wandering Jew, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, poems from St. Irvyne, The Devil's Walk (in both broadsheet and letter versions), and 'Ten Early Poems (1809-1814)' that were 'released privately' but 'never published or otherwise made public during the poet's lifetime' (p. 295).

Though the editors say that they restrict their commentaries on the poems to textual and informational notes, and 'try not to impose [their] judgment beyond the demonstrable evidence' (p. xxxvii), the wealth of material contained in these commentaries results in nothing less than a radical overhaul of a critical tradition that regards the poems as worthless juvenilia. Even when customary assessments are reaffirmed, as when the editors assert, in connection with The Wandering Jew, that 'In spite of PBS's choice of acceptable models of the time, the poem's versification, though varied, suffers … from repetitions of words and phrases designed to maintain the rhyme scheme but adding little to the meaning' (p. 204), the fact of the close scrutiny given to the poem will make all readers interested in Shelley wish to re-examine for themselves this early and intermittently powerful exercise in Gothic rebellion. After experiencing the poem in this edition, readers are likely still to feel that they are in the flattest foothills of what is a mountainous literary career, but their sense of the work as an integral part of that career will be enhanced by notes such as that to III. 238-9: 'The past, the present, and to come, / Float in review before my sight'. Reiman and Fraistat remark that the first line is 'A formulation for prophetic vision since antiquity' (p. 223) and connect it to Shelley's comment in a letter to Thomas Hookham in 1812 that 'The Past, the Present, & the Future' were the principal topics of Queen Mab. Beyond Queen Mab, one looks ahead to Ahasuerus in Hellas, from whose eye 'looks forth / A life of unconsumed thought which pierces / The present, and the past, and the to-come' (ll. 146-8). Throughout the commentaries, the editorial alertness to questions of versification, sometimes occasioned by the need to investigate the rightness of a reading, is welcome. The commentaries are also valuable for their tracking of sources and analogues, a tracking that makes good use of Chadwyck-Healey's Lion database.

The editors adhere admirably to the cogent principles which they set out in their 'Editorial Overview'. These principles may be summarised as follows. The edition publishes 'the poems that PBS intended to publish, according to the groupings he arranged and in the chronological order in which he hoped to issue them' (p. xxix). This principle is a significant difference between the present edition and just about all previous editions (H. Buxton Forman's work, an acknowledged influence on Reiman's and Fraistat's approach [see p. xxix], offers something of an exception). It means that published and unpublished material is not intermingled, as it is, quite deliberately, in the Longman edition. Appropriate licence seems to be given the editors by 'intended to publish' and 'hoped to issue'. I assume they will feel able to publish the Esdaile Notebook as though it were a volume prepared for publication; this seems to be implied by a statement on p. xx. I wondered how the alternative versions of 'Mont Blanc' and 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty' in the Scrope Davies Notebook will be treated. These versions appear to be finished and, arguably, they were 'released' to a friend in that it appears that Shelley lent the notebook to Byron. I assume they will fall into the last group described in my next sentence. There are, it would seem, three kinds of 'released' poems: those actually published in Shelley's lifetime; those that the author intended to be published; and those that were 'released only privately'. This last group will be 'arranged chronologically in separate groupings according to defined periods of [Shelley's] life'. All these kinds of released poems will be edited 'to represent, insofar as the surviving evidence permits, the texts that PBS intended his first reader(s) to see at the time he released them'. The 'critical redaction' (p. xxix) of each such poem will 'appear in the version in which PBS released it' and will follow Shelley's 'preferred standards of grammar, pointing, and orthography as established by his MSS and published editions' (p. xxx). Obvious errors are corrected. Crucially, all verbal and most accidental changes to the copy-text are recorded in primary collations at the foot of the page (see p. xxxiv): thus, when the typo 'claps' which appeared in the broadsheet version of The Devil's Walk is corrected to 'clasp' (l. 61), a footnote duly records the change. Further historical collations are given at the back of the book. This attention to minute detail, necessary if a text is to be edited on fully historical principles, is the cornerstone of the monumental edifice which these editors are beginning to rear.

The other category of poems which Reiman and Fraistat have devised is that of 'unreleased "poetry"'. The description denotes, first, that fragments, sketches, drafts and so forth were 'not part of PBS's self-presentation to his contemporaries and ought to be edited and studied under different rules' (p. xxxii) and, second, that, though they contain 'poetry', they are not 'poems' (Coleridge and Shelley himself are appealed to as authorizing this distinction). The appeal to authorial intention is resolute, and it will be interesting to see how the implicit distinction between poems 'released only privately' and pieces regarded as 'unreleased fragments' (p. xxxii) will work in the case of, say, the 'Sonnet: "Lines to Byron"' (see MYR 8, pp. 246-53). The fair copy of this sonnet, the manuscript of which was located by Donald Reiman in 1994, seems a finished poem, but there is no evidence that I know of that it was ever released, even 'privately' —unless the fact that it came into Mary Shelley's possession is construed as 'release'. In MYR 8, it should be said, Reiman constructs a credible scenario in which Shelley showed Mary Shelley the fair copy and she prevented 'him from giving it to Byron' (p. 247), and I am sure that the good sense apparent throughout this volume will prevail in the way finished but unreleased poems are presented in forthcoming volumes. Bravely and consistently, Reiman and Fraistat will consign The Triumph of Life, the editing of which remains among Reiman's most notable triumphs, to this category of 'unreleased "poetry"', though they will seek to give the fragment and its like 'clearer form in hypothesized reading texts, with substantive cancellations and rejected passages presented in collations at the foot of the page' (p. xxxiii).

The actual editing of the poetry in the volume is superbly done. The history of the texts is always thoroughly given, allowing one to gain access to what in his article for Romanticism on the Net Neil Fraistat calls 'full biographies' of the poems. Nothing is too small to escape notice. Anyone tempted to use the 1898 type facsimile of Original Poetry instead of the first edition is warned by the note to line 21 of 'Ghasta; or, The Avenging Demon!!!' of the danger of so doing; we learn here that the original and correct reading 'reins' was misprinted as 'reigns' in 1898. The whole edition proceeds like this, taking nothing on trust, attending to every aspect of the text, and giving coherent explanations for each decision that is made, as when the editors argue in favour of retaining the original reading 'Or' in line 15 of 'The Irishman's Song', which is emended to 'As' in the first volume of the Longman edition (see p. 174). Elsewhere, there is a detailed account of the distribution of type in Original Poetry that helps explain the presence of one very unoriginal poem in the volume: Shelley's plagiarism of 'Saint Edmond's Eve' from Tales of Terror. The editors convincingly portray Shelley as 'scurrying to try to fill up the volume' (p. 159). Again, there is a comprehensive analysis of the complicated textual status of The Wandering Jew. Reiman and Fraistat confirm the view put forward by Adaline E. Glasheen in 1972 that the two versions of the poem—in 1829 in the Edinburgh Literary Journal and in 1831 in Fraser's Magazine—'relied upon a single MS source' (p. 192). The editors add one new poem to the canon. Sadly, this poem, 'Oh wretched mortal, hard thy fate!', adds nothing to Shelley's reputation, as the editors concede in their commentary, which accurately refers to a 'stilted style' and the 'moralistic final line' (p. 306).

Appendices deal, in turn, with 'Latin School Exercises', 'Prose Treated as Poems', 'Lost Works', 'Dubia' (poems 'attributed inconclusively' [p. 453] to Shelley), and 'Misattributions'. Here, as elsewhere, the arguments are models of rigour and common sense. As an interested party to the debate about 'The Ocean rolls between us', a section of a letter to Elizabeth Hitchener hived off as a 'poem' by a number of editors, I felt suitably chastised for my cautious inclination (expressed in MYR 8) to set the passage as poetry (not that the passage was so set in MYR 8, a facsimile edition). Reiman and Fraistat decline to print the passage as a poem and transcribe the relevant part of the letter to allow 'readers to judge the evidence for themselves' (p. 440). This seems right; even if one were to set the passage as poetry, one would want readers to see the original prose. One piece of 'evidence' not mentioned by Reiman and Fraistat in their account of this matter, which, in his article in Romanticism on the Net, Fraistat makes exemplary of the 'biography' of a Shelleyan text, is the fact that parts of the passage are reworked as poetry in Queen Mab, canto IX, ll. 23-37 (as noted in the first volume of the Matthews/Everest Longman edition and in MYR 8, p. 57).

There is no doubt that in their scepticism about setting the passage as poetry Reiman and Fraistat are true to the principles of not tinkering inappropriately with Shelley's texts which govern this magnificent edition. Throughout, they respect the intentions and achievement of a great poet with exacting and enormously impressive care. At long last, it appears that we are about to see Shelley's texts as plainly as it is possible to hope we ever might.