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'To Laughter': Shelley's Sonnet and Solitude

  • John Bleasdale

…plus d’informations

  • John Bleasdale
    IULM, Feltre

When Shelley left England in May 1816, he wrote to Godwin: 'I leave England—I know not, perhaps forever.'  [1] Shelley's relationship with Godwin had been severely damaged by his elopement with Mary and now his father-in-law by turns abused him to Mary and made demands for financial support. By threatening self-exile, it is possible Shelley was attempting to frighten Godwin.  [2] Shelley's letters to Thomas Love Peacock, a selection of which were to become part of the History of a Six Weeks' Tour, reveal the poet to be in a more boisterous mood, keen to 'play the tourist' (L, I, 475 [15 May 1816]). 'The journey was in some respects exceedingly delightful', Shelley writes (L, I, 474 [15 May 1816]). Despite maintaining the pose of an exile, Shelley was enjoying a Tour. The summer saw the beginning of his friendship with Byron at Lake Geneva and the composition of Mont Blanc and Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. Both poems, in their negotiations with genre and in the description of their subjects, can be seen as similarly playing two significantly different and seemingly incompatible roles.

A less famous composition of this period, Shelley's sonnet 'To Laughter', was only discovered in 1976 as part of the Scrope Davies find. The poem maintains more the pose of the exile than the spirit of the tourist:

Thy friends were never mine thou heartless fiend:
Silence and solitude and calm and storm,
Hope, before whose veiled shrine all spirits bend
In worship, and the rainbow vested form
Of conscience, that within thy hollow heart
Can find no throne—the love of such great powers
Which has requited mine in many hours
Of loneliness, thou ne'er hast felt; depart!
Thou canst not bear the moon's great eye, thou fearest
A fair child clothed in smiles—aught that is high
Or good or beautiful.—Thy voice is dearest
To those who mock at Truth and Innocency;
I, now alone, weep without shame to see
How many broken hearts lie bare to thee.  [3]

For the most part, criticism of the poem has concentrated on biographical issues. Neville Rogers writes that the criticism of laughter is an indirect criticism of Scrope Davies, Byron's friend, whose humour Shelley is unlikely to have shared.  [4] This reading is supported by a letter to Thomas Jefferson Hogg, in which Shelley reveals his new acquaintance with Byron, whilst at the same time distancing himself from the literary circle which surrounds him:

Madame de Stael is here & a number of literary people whom I have not seen, & indeed have no curiosity to see, unwilling as I am to pay the invidious price exacted by all, to range myself according to peculiar parties.

L, I, 493 [18 July 1816]

Alternatively, Judith Chernaik and Timothy Burnett argue that the poem might be a defence of Byron, who was 'the butt of caricature and cartoon, whose broken heart lay bare to Laughter',  [5] and Kelvin Everest suggests that the poem is a response to Fanny Godwin's feelings of victimisation (POS, pp. 519-20). Timothy Webb has attempted a reading which departs from the biographical, arguing that 'it is important to respect the integrity of Shelley's poem and to mark its decorous distance from the overtly personal or historical.'  [6] As a work of art, the sonnet is part of a larger discussion, both in Shelley's own work and in the tradition in which he is writing. As Stuart Curran notes: 'Shelley is always conscious of the traditions against which his sonnets resonate and masterful in his use of form'.  [7] François Jost sees this mastery as manifest in Shelley's versatility, arguing that he never used the same rhyme scheme twice.  [8] Likewise, Shelley is diverse in terms of subject matter and tone. His sonnets can express the political anger of 'England in 1819' as well as the intensely personal message of 'To Ianthe', or the philosophical meditativeness of 'Lift not the painted veil'. 'To Laughter' adopts the mode of the public invective, such as he uses to criticise Wordsworth, Napoleon ('Feelings of a Republican on the Fall of Bonaparte'), Ozymandias and the entire English political situation of 1819. For Shelley, the sonnet form is a mode rich in irony and paradox. Published in the Alastor volume (1816), 'To Wordsworth' laments the loss of Wordsworth's early talent for registering loss. It is a degradation which Wordsworth does not feel as keenly as Shelley does: 'One loss is mine / Which thou too feel'st, yet I alone deplore' (5-6; POS p. 455). Shelley overtakes Wordsworth as the poet of loss as he regrets Wordsworth's loss of feeling. Similar reversals occur in 'Feelings of a Republican on the Fall of Bonaparte'. The great over-reacher, Napoleon is dubbed 'a most unambitious slave' (2) and it is the allied victors who receive the harshest criticism in a series of unambivalently ironic coinings: 'old Custom, legal Crime / And bloody Faith' (13-14; POS p.456). The development of Shelley's use of the sonnet as a space of ironic declaration can be seen in the later 'Ozymandias'. Kelvin Everest's reading of this sonnet goes beyond the most apparent irony of the tyrant's declaration of omnipotence, and delineates a number of deeper ironies, not least of which involves the textual transmission and 'elusiveness' of the poem itself.  [9]

The sonnet 'To Laughter' not only operates in the midst of Shelley's other sonnets, it also participates in a discussion which occurred in several poetic forms as Roland A. Duerkson has suggested.  [10] Intrinsically, the sonnet is linked to Mont Blanc and Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. Alternative versions of both these poems were discovered alongside 'To Laughter' in the 1976 Scrope Davies find. Also included in the notebook is the hitherto unknown sonnet, 'Upon the Wandering Winds'.  [11] Judith Chernaik and Timothy Burnett surmise that the notebook in which the poems can be found was probably a work book.  [12] The chronological and physical proximity of these versions with the sonnet would in itself be a convincing argument for a comparative reading. However, the poems are thematically related and appear to be separate parts of a larger discussion. The two longer poems both investigate the relationship between the poet and a sublime and transcendental reality. In both poems, attempts to apprehend the sublime are at once promoted and ironically examined.  [13] They are instances of the serious and impassioned poetry which Hazlitt placed in opposition to humour and wit.  [14] The sonnet is an aggressive defence of these attempts.

Mont Blanc, as a site of possible religious affirmation, confronts Shelley with his own doubts and questions. In Ronald Tetreault's deconstructive account, Shelley celebrates the space such uncertainty allows and the poem 'joyfully plays its game'.  [15] Shelley's playfulness can be seen in the first section of the poem. Rather than beginning with a description of the landscape of the title, Shelley presents a complicated description of the process of perception, which resembles a process occurring within the landscape of the title: 'In day the eternal universe of things / Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves' (1-2; POS, Text A, pp. 538-41).  [16] Things, like the river he views, move through his mind, which resembles the ravine. When in the second section Shelley attempts to describe the view before him, the environment becomes a metaphor for how he is viewing that environment:

Thou art the path of that unresting sound
Ravine of Arve! and when I gaze on thee
I seem as in a vision deep and strange
To muse on my own various fantasy
My own, my human mind


Even as he enters into an introspective examination of the mind, the poet is alert to how things 'seem'. The opening passage seems to be a description of the Arve, but is instead a description of the poet's mind. By viewing the Arve, he seems to view his own mind at the moment of perception. For Earl Wasserman, the circularity of Shelley's description sums up a central paradox within his metaphysics: 'The paradox of Shelley's ontological circle is sustained by the imagery and syntax: mind is the centre to which everything must be referred, and yet the mind is also the circle within which everything is contained'.  [17] This paradox insists that when he looks inwards he looks outwards and vice versa. This moment of self-absorption is not a moment of self-recognition but rather of alienation. The poet might be in a vision 'deep and strange'.  [18] His separateness is expressed as a 'fantasy'. The repetition of the phrase 'my own' and the tautology of the definition, 'my human mind', are at once insistent and doubtful. His activity (he 'muses') appears detached and self-consciously philosophical. He 'gazes' on his own mind with a curiosity, tinged with shades of indifference.

Shelley's boldness in projecting his mind onto the landscape can be seen as a reaction to the conventional Christian response to viewing Mont Blanc.  [19] In 1802, Coleridge had written Hymn Before the Sunrise in the Vale of Chamouni and it is likely Shelley knew the poem.  [20] Coleridge was sufficiently aware of the appropriate response to the region to rehearse it in his poem without actually visiting the location he describes.  [21] Coleridge's plagiarism of Friederika Brun further removes the poem from its ostensible status as a spontaneous revelation of divinity in nature. The presence of Mont Blanc and the beauty and grandeur of the surrounding scenery become a proof of divinity, literally pronouncing the name of God. More evidence would have been provided by the inscriptions that Shelley read in the albums at the Hôtel de Londres at Chamounix and the little inn at Montanvert. Famously, his riposte was to inscribe after his name, in Greek, the words 'democrat, great lover of mankind, and atheist'.  [22] Mont Blanc had become a cultural symbol and a site of religious revelation. Shelley's moment of vision is not peculiar to him. His response is defined against the background of a community of orthodox belief. However, within that moment of vision, Shelley perceives the paradoxes that an affirmation of divinity chooses to ignore.

When William Hazlitt came to publish his account ten years after Shelley's visit, he not only seemed to echo both the sonnet and Mont Blanc, but he also suggests a similar awareness of Mont Blanc's paradoxical status:

Other peaked cliffs rose perpendicularly by its side, and a range of rocks, of red granite, fronted it to the north; but Mont Blanc itself was round, bald, shining, ample, and equal in its swelling proportions—a huge dumb heap of matter. The valley below was bare, without an object—no ornament, no contrast to set it off—it reposed in silence and in solitude, a world within itself.

Hazlitt vol. X, pp. 291-92

Like Shelley, Hazlitt focuses as much on the valley as on the mountain. The effect of the view on Hazlitt provokes a similar moment of reflection:

You stand, as it were, in the presence of the Spirit of the Universe, before the majesty of Nature, with her chief elements about you; cloud and air, and rock, and stream, and mountain are brought into immediate contact with primeval Chaos and the great First Cause. The mind hovers over mysteries deeper than the abysses at our feet; its speculations soar to a height beyond visible forms it sees around it.

Hazlitt vol. X, p. 292

Hazlitt and Shelley both share an apprehension of nature as reflecting the operation of the mind: mysteries are as deep as the ravine and speculations are as high as the mountain. Both are aware of an ambivalent approach to the sublime through the apprehension of a natural object which occurs, however grandly, in the material world. For Hazlitt, the mountain produces a moment of intense awe and yet he recognises that it is 'a huge dumb heap of matter.' In a similar way, Hazlitt pays lip-service to the monarchical language which has been used to describe the 'king of mountains' only to deflate it with an implicit and unflattering extension of the parallel. His mountain king is 'round, bald, shining, ample, and equal in its swelling proportions' (Hazlitt vol. X, p. 291).

It is the very thingness of the mountain which both Hazlitt and Shelley promote, and which then undermines any attempt to read it as evidence of the divine. For Shelley, the mountain is a thing in the 'eternal universe of things'. Shelley posits that, not only is the mountain ugly, it is also more revelatory of a playfully demonic presence than a seriously divine one:

— how hideously
Its rocks are heaped around, rude, bare and high
Ghastly and scarred and riven!—is this the scene
Where the old Earthquake demon taught her young
Ruin? were these their toys?


The violence of the description is consistent with Shelley's anxious comments in the History of a Six Weeks' Tour on the frequency of avalanches.  [23] The arbitrary and violent playfulness of the forces of nature will re-emerge in 'The Cloud' and the Letter to Maria Gisborne (57-65). In Coleridge's poem, the same threat still pronounces the word of God (62-63), but for Shelley if there is a creator he is a careless and violent one. The rocks are 'heaped', 'scarred' and 'riven'. There is no plan or evidence of organised thought. Rather, it is the evidence of terrifying chaos which brings Shelley close to Burke's view of the sublime.  [24] However, although violent, the violence is characterised as playful. There is an affection in the phrase 'old Earthquake demon' and in the picture of her as a mischievous Mother Earth figure educating her children in the Alps, creating the magnificent scenery as a by-product. The later description of the panorama begins to break down itself:

there, many a precipice
Frost and the Sun in scorn of human power
Have piled: dome, pyramid and pinnacle
A city of death, distinct with many a tower
And wall impregnable of shining ice...
A city's phantom...but a flood of ruin
Is there that from the boundaries of the sky
Rolls its eternal stream...vast pines are strewing
Its destined path, or in the mangled soil
Branchless and shattered stand—  [25]


The rough status of the draft seems to collapse like the avalanches of the landscape it is describing. The awe of Shelley's trance is based on the rent and mangled materials which lead to an association with death. Just as earlier nature in the form of the Arve is read as analogous to the mind which perceives it, so here the sinister pastoral of the sublime is constructed as an urban landscape. Rather than being read as a space of harmony separate from urban struggle, nature is instead just as chaotic and destructive as human society. The rhymes themselves stretch to breaking point; a fragment of the 'precipice' falls for four lines until it settles as 'ice'. With such a complicated textual joke, Shelley participates in nature's play even when it is at its most destructive. Similarly in this section, nature is still described as benign. The river Arve is recalled in the 'eternal stream' of the avalanches and concludes the section as the acknowledged provider of 'The breath and blood of distant lands' (125). This site of abstract conceptualisation is linked vitally to a world of practical and political considerations.

As two possible views of nature contend, the destructive and the creative, so in its poetic form the poem also refuses to decide between the chaotic and the ordered. William Keach describes the rhyme scheme of the whole poem as pretending to be blank verse. The long distance between rhyme words and the irregularity of the scheme camouflages its own organisation.  [26] This leaves the reader possibly unaware of an underlying system to the poem. However, any reader who grasps the system might well feel discomforted on perceiving the proximity of complexity and chaos.

Shelley's refusal to codify nature either into a conventional rhyme scheme, or theological categories is rooted in his refusal to decide upon a view of nature. Both Hazlitt and Shelley stress the relationship between mountain and mind, or things and thought. Shelley detects a 'Power' within the mountain, but does not elaborate on it and refuses to allay the suspicion that the Power could be a projection of the mind; a strong apprehension of the sublime. It is the effect of large amounts of matter on the mind which other visitors (or non-visitors, such as Coleridge) decide to call the voice of God. Even when Shelley explicitly rejects this notion, he does so in such a way as to undermine his own terms:

Ye have a doctrine, Mountains, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe—not understood
By all, but which the wise and great and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.  [27]


The doctrine is absent and its effects are 'not understood / By all'. The language of legality and belief echoes so closely the codification of previous systems, or doctrines, that it is tempting to read '(re)peal' as a pun, and the lines as a self-conscious repetition of Coleridge's error. Shelley reads Mont Blanc, not so much as a single physical text, but rather as a new language, 'a mysterious tongue' (77). His own text replicates the uncertainties and attempts to prefigure some of the possibilities Mont Blanc might offer without slipping into either a fictional (and therefore fraudulent) certainty, or a paralysed anxiety.

In the other long poem of the notebook, Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, Shelley addresses the same issues, but this time without the single recognisable site/sight of the mountain. The Shadow of Intellectual Beauty is apprehended as being akin to presences which are themselves variously transient, obscure, or absent:

Like hues and harmonies of evening—
Like clouds in starlight widely spread
Like memory of music fled[.]

8-10; POS, Text A, pp. 525-28

The elusiveness of the Spirit and its refusal to grant a clearly distinct voice (i.e. distinct from our own imagination) is at once valued and problematic. The Spirit is valued as 'dearer for its mystery' (12), but also recognises that uncertainty as to its identity, and perhaps existence, generates anxiety. Unlike Mellor's vision of reality as chaotic, Shelley's doubtful vision is not wholeheartedly celebratory.  [28] By turns, he is public and private, evangelical and confessional, faithful and doubtful. His own inconstancy mirrors the 'inconstant wing' of Intellectual Beauty (3). In the second stanza, Shelley asks questions of his Spirit which he realises are unanswerable (13-17). With ironic pathos, he compares his own questions with more general questions which in concept are identical (18-24). For Bloom, these questions 'are too ultimate to bear summary, for the necessary responses would be the truths of religion, or something akin to them.'  [29] The need for the security of an answer leads Shelley to rehearse these questions even as he insists on the futility of seeking such answers. It is the urge to fill in the silence ourselves which leads to the emergence of oppressive and wrongheaded religions:

No voice from some sublimer world hath ever
To wisest poets these responses given,
Therefore the name of God and Ghosts and Heaven
Remain yet records of their vain Endeavour—
Frail spells, whose uttered charm might not avail to sever
From what we feel and what we see
Doubt, Chance and mutability.  [30]


The vacuum (or, in the words of Mont Blanc, the 'vacancy') is filled with another form of 'the human mind's imaginings': 'God and Ghosts and Heaven' (27). However, this is a vain endeavour, which cannot repress 'Doubt, Chance and mutability' (31). Such stable and conservative modes of explanation do not concur with our own experience of life: 'what we feel and what we see' (30). The poet's commitment to Intellectual Beauty depends on maintaining doubt as to whether it is in any sense true. This doubt extends to the rejection of the alternative theological standpoints. Whilst apparently dismissing orthodox religious and superstitious beliefs, he admits its 'uttered charm' (29). Reflexively and ironically, the 'wisest poets' fail to replicate answers to the questions and instead help to create the myth which supports religious belief. Shelley's own youthful fascination with the gothic is shown as an analogous attempt to create his own structure of belief. However, its heterodoxy is just as fictional and rigid as the orthodoxy it attempts to resist. It is only upon rejecting such false certainties that he can achieve his revelation:

I called on that false name with which our youth is fed:
He heard me not—I saw them not.—
When musing deeply on the lot
Of Life, at that sweet time when winds are wooing
All vocal things that live to bring
News of buds and blossoming—
Sudden thy shadow fell on me,
I shrieked and clasped my hands in extacy.  [31]


For Shelley, the moment of revelation is a moment of paradox. It is a moment, parodically close to the language of Christian revelation, which confirms doubt, rather than dispelling it. It occurs to him, as in Mont Blanc, when he is 'musing'. It is the intense realisation of what we do not know and we cannot control: 'Doubt, Chance and mutability'. This is Shelley at his closest to Mellor's description of Romantic irony as celebratory of chaos. However, it also promotes a scepticism which affects our relationship with the poem's own authority. Richard Cronin writes of the Hymn: 'Shelley becomes the hierophant of Intellectual Beauty in opposition to the prophets of the Christian God, but it is far from clear how seriously his prophetic role is to be taken.'  [32] However, for Jerold Hogle, Cronin's suspicion of the poet's position misses the point:

Shelley must not decide on any sort of grounding location or ideology for the 'spirit' lest it then be monolithically enthroned within a certain type of thought. In fact, he cannot so decide among descriptions for it any more than the interacting figures producing it can decide which of them is dominant.  [33]

Hogle's appreciation of Shelley's activity takes him seriously as someone who 'must not', or who 'cannot' decide. Shelley's lack of volition in Hogle's account appears paradoxically more grounded than Cronin's uncertainty. The practice of critical interpretation begins to come unstuck.

Throughout the Hymn, Shelley describes his spirit as knowingly uncertain. It is a shadow and a shade, unknown, unseen and fleeting, whose 'spells' (83) are hardly distinguishable from the 'Frail spells' (29) of orthodox religious belief. Shelley's assertion invites questions and doubts. The poem presents the possibility that the spirit exists as a metaphysical wish-fulfilment. It is a projection of our own needs for certainty:

Depart not as thy shadow came!
Depart not!—lest the grave should be
Like life and fear a dark reality.


Shelley suggests that fear might be the initial emotional motivation for the notion of Intellectual Beauty. Shelley appears to be demanding that we do not believe in Intellectual Beauty even as he describes his own personal devotion to the spirit. It is distinct from 'a dark reality'. The title, as well as famously reappropriating the original Greek meaning from its contemporary, orthodox and Christian form, also names the spirit as 'Intellectual Beauty'. The coinage appears invented and suggests a linking of the external with the mental, similar to that practised in Mont Blanc. The image of the shadow suggests the possibility that we might be chasing our own. If Shelley could be said to be creating his own religion, it is rooted in doubt, rather than faith.

This openness of the Hymn is paralleled in the conclusion of Mont Blanc. The poem asks the mountain a question:

And what were thou and Earth and Stars and Sea
If to the human mind's imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?


As with the status of Mont Blanc, silence and solitude depend on perception, or 'the human mind's imaginings'. The question seems rhetorical. Frances Ferguson points out that it is addressed to the mountain almost in the style of an Elizabethan love lyric.  [34] The poem seems to insist on a positive affirmation. If we understand the significance of Shelley addressing the mountain as 'Thou' as Bloom does, then the question will answer itself. Yet Shelley, in asking his question, allows for dispute. Silence and solitude can be vacancy, but for the human mind's faculty of imagination; and even to this faculty 'Silence and solitude' can be perceived as empty. Underlying the force of the question is the assumption that the universe depends on human imagination. Shelley presents the paradox which holds 'awful doubt, or faith so mild' in the balance; both true and yet both seemingly incompatible (78-79).  [35]

Shelley's revelations of doubt in both Mont Blanc and the Hymn are expressed in relation to recognisable conventions: Romantic trance and religious ecstasy. Shelley's appropriation of such revelatory forms incorporates an ironic sense of self-awareness within the poems. He recognises, as he adopts the conventional poise, just how vulnerable such moments are to irony, not least his own. It is perhaps this awareness that motivated him to sign himself as an 'atheist' in the hotel album. In the page reproduced by Gavin de Beer a previous visitor signed himself 'a Methodist'. This solemn conclusion was being mocked by Shelley and had provoked another visitor to write: 'Why are people so anxious to make themselves ridiculous in the eyes of everybody? What nonsense?'.  [36]

Despite Shelley's own semi-humorous riposte, his expressions of doubt, just as much as those of faith, depend on an earnestness. In adopting the title Hymn, Shelley was partly ironising Christian convention, but he was also signalling his own seriousness, reappropriating the pagan origin of the form as a qualification for his radicalism. The paradoxical faith in doubt which Shelley is attempting to maintain is serious even as it admits an awareness of its own potential ludicrousness. So much so that solitude seems to be a prerequisite of revelation. The conversation which Bloom describes as taking place between Mont Blanc and Shelley has to be one without distraction. The presence of another would get in the way, not least by making tangible the possibility of derisive and ironic laughter. Edmund Burke suggests solitude as an element of the sublime: 'All general privations are great, because they are all terrible; Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude and Silence.'  [37]

The sonnet 'To Laughter' constructs, values and defends solitude, whilst attempting to muffle the anxieties which demand that 'terrible privation'. It will be worthwhile reading the poem again:

Thy friends were never mine thou heartless fiend:
Silence and solitude and calm and storm,
Hope, before whose veiled shrine all spirits bend
In worship, and the rainbow vested form
Of conscience, that within thy hollow heart
Can find no throne—the love of such great powers
Which has requited mine in many hours
Of loneliness, thou ne'er hast felt; depart!
Thou canst not bear the moon's great eye, thou fearest
A fair child clothed in smiles—aught that is high
Or good or beautiful.—Thy voice is dearest
To those who mock at Truth and Innocency;
I, now alone, weep without shame to see
How many broken hearts lie bare to thee.

The 'friends' of laughter represent a partisan opposition to the sonneteer, and hopefully the reader, in her own solitude. This group is immediately contrasted with the solitude of personal revelation along with a list of possible causes of the sublime. Laughter represents the antithesis of the leap of the imagination, which denies the vacancy of 'silence and solitude'. The Burkean conventions of the sublime are related only to be rejected and denied. 'Silence and solitude and calm and storm' are meaningless and empty to laughter. 'Hope', which is part of the Hymn's trinity of human virtues (37), and 'conscience' are attributes laughter cannot possess. Whereas in both Mont Blanc and the Hymn, the narrator is held respectively in a vision, or trance (35), and an 'extacy' (60), in 'To Laughter' the target is inimical to such states. The laughter closes the heart to moments of sublime consciousness. 'Silence and solitude and calm and storm,' conscience and hope, 'within thy hollow heart / Can find no throne'. In Mont Blanc, the scene is described as being 'Where some Power in likeness of the Arve comes down / From the ice gulfs that gird his secret throne / Bursting' (16-18). The throne of Mont Blanc has as its counterpart the throne within our own hearts. In the Hymn, the human heart is visited with 'wavering glance' by Intellectual Beauty. The 'great powers', which relate to the Hymn's 'awful Power' as well as the Power of Mont Blanc, cannot be felt. The eye of the moon, like the 'fearless eye' of Beatrice in The Cenci, cannot be withstood (II. i. 116). It is reminiscent of the moonlight which appears as analogous to Intellectual Beauty in the Hymn (5). A comic consciousness, or an ironic sensibility, are incompatible with an apprehension of the sublime.

Like Shelley's other sonnets, 'To Laughter' operates on a basis of paradox and irony and so a single reading is unlikely to be satisfactory. Like both 'Ozymandias' and 'To Wordsworth', 'To Laughter' shows its target to be ironically and intrinsically unaware of its real condition. By apprehending only emptiness, laughter reveals itself to be empty and 'hollow hearted'. Although laughter is portrayed as destructive, this destructiveness is incidental, indicative more of fear than confidence.  [38] The sonnet's rejection of laughter has an accumulative force. It disassociates first the sonneteer from laughter's party, then moves on to judge its incapacities; finally commanding it to depart and revealing its essential weakness: 'thou fearest / A fair child clothed in smiles'. The broken hearts are not necessarily broken by laughter, they are simply vulnerable to it. This anticipates the hearts which are revealed as 'naked' to the destructive power of laughter in 'When the Lamp is Shattered' (29-32).

Not only does the sonneteer imply that laughter can only harm the weak, but that it is itself indicative of weakness, anxiety and incapacity. The Hope and the love of 'such great powers' which laughter cannot possess is an important loss. Ultimately, it must express pity rather than defiance: 'I, now alone, weep without shame to see / How many broken hearts lay bare to thee' (13-14). In the first line laughter is 'heartless', by line 5 it has a hollow heart and finally the broken hearts of the victims could be read as a reference also to the suffering of those who laugh, as much as those who are laughed at. Timothy Webb writes:

Yet the 'broken hearts' of 'To Laughter' are open to more than one interpretation. Most obviously, they are the hearts of those who are exposed to the merciless attentions of derisive laughter, but it is possible that Shelley is thinking of the mockers themselves whose own hearts are open to the divisive and alienating effects of mockery.  [39]

The expression of mockery reveals its own weaknesses. It is false and guilty, as it mocks 'Truth and Innocency'. The 'high', 'good' and 'beautiful', to which laughter has no access, value the poet's seriousness as positive. Ultimately, laughter is the nemesis (or denial) of Intellectual Beauty. Like Intellectual Beauty, it is disembodied and can only be perceived through its effects. It is also addressed as 'Thou', rather than 'it'. It operates as a counter-voice to the mysterious tongue of the wilderness, described in Mont Blanc (77). Anxiously and implicitly, Mont Blanc and the Hymn anticipate the reaction of laughter. In both poems, the internal paradox of attempting to secure a belief in doubt is expressed through irony, but is also vulnerable to irony.

This suggests another possible reading of the sonnet. In choosing to defend the sublime against laughter, the sonneteer implies that it is vulnerable to laughter. In this sense, he is choosing the targets for laughter by presupposing that they are inherently laughable. The states to which laughter is inimical are indicative of an oppressively serious existence. Silence and solitude suggest a monastic discipline, partly imposed and partly chosen. Coming before the storm, the calm does not suggest anything more positive than a brief respite from another turbulent and dramatic tempest. The worship of Hope is likewise ambivalent.  [40] Its status as a capitalised word is thrown into doubt by its position at the beginning of the line, just as the shrine itself is obscured by a veil. The supplication of all spirits appears at once indiscriminate and humiliating. The action of bending is suggestive of forced, rather than voluntary, behaviour. This ironic reading reveals the sonneteer to be protesting too much. In defending his position, he reveals the weaknesses of that position. The address to laughter can also be a gift to laughter. Our decision to read the poem as ironic sides us with laughter against the sonneteer. If we instead take the poem on the sonneteer's terms, we risk ignoring the shortcomings of his argument. Shelley's sonnet juxtaposes seriousness and irony, without privileging either position.

When Shelley came to write Laon and Cythna a year later he prefaced the poem with a further exploration of the antagonistic relationship between laughter and a moment of revelation. In the dedication to Mary which precedes his epic, Shelley portrays himself as a novice and describes the political revelation in a form recognisably religious:

I do remember well the hour which burst
My spirit's sleep: a fresh May-dawn it was,
When I walked forth upon the glittering grass,
And wept, I know not why; until there rose
From the near school-room, voices, that, alas!
Were but one echo from a world of woes—
The harsh and grating strife of tyrants and of foes.


And then I clasped my hands and looked around—
—But none was near to mock my streaming eyes,
Which poured their warm drops on the sunny ground—
So without shame, I spake[.]

21-31; SOP pp. 96-9

Although apparently relating a biographical event, Timothy Webb cautions us not to rely on biography when reading the dedication.  [41] Ironically, the moment of learning and insight occurs outside the school, if not in direct opposition to it. The awakening of the poet's spirit causes confusion. It bursts with an uncontrolled release of pressure reminiscent of the Arve in Mont Blanc. The emotional expression (weeping) is without apparent cause, preceding the knowledge of the sad reality which comes into the stanza later. The mockery of the schoolroom presents the poet with a single instance of sad reality, which is then read as indicative of a wider tyranny: 'but one echo from a world of woes'. On hearing the sound of the classroom, he is given an explanation for his emotional turmoil. His ability to express himself, both emotionally and politically, depends initially on solitude, away from the mockery of others. However, like the solitude of 'To Laughter', this state is defined by the poet's rejection of, and by, a certain community. The solitude is both chosen and enforced. Shelley does not specify the nature of the sound from the classroom. He hears it as an echo. As with Mont Blanc, the Hymn and the sonnet, the moment of revelation is accompanied by an awareness of the possibility of ironic mockery. In this case, he anticipates derision specifically, looking around to make sure no one is there to see him. His weeping sympathises with nature, adding to the dew of the glittering grass, replenishing with 'warm' drops the 'sunny ground'.

Shelley constructs a political radical, whose conversion appropriates the conventions of religious conversion: the clasped hands of the Hymn; the solitude of Mont Blanc and the sonnet; the anticipation of mockery and the earnest declaration of faith. Shelley insists, as he has done in the penultimate line of the sonnet, that he is 'without shame'. This preoccupation with, and rejection of, shame insists on the possibility of shame. The experience of mockery infects the response to mockery. To anticipate derision is to be aware of the emotional response which it will provoke: shame. As in the sonnet, Shelley posits an alternative response of seriousness, which resists the emotional reaction of shame: 'And from that hour did I with earnest thought / Heap knowledge from forbidden mines of lore' (37-38). However, within the dedication Shelley pulls apart this moment of revelation and reveals it to be a moment to be lived through, rather than sustained. It is a rite of passage and not a destination. The hour, which is a repeat of the hour of line twenty-one, is one firmly placed in time. As in the Hymn, the moment of revelation takes place in a spring which seems to demand a figurative status. The narrator looks back and reads the experience as a discrete moment. As his spiritual biography continues, the solitude that the revelation established becomes imbued with 'A sense of loneliness, a thirst with which I pined' (45). On meeting Mary, the poet reveals that 'solitude is like despair' (67). Reading retrospectively, we can see the moment of revelation as a moment of alienation and misery. There is a personal cost to his status as a political radical. The revelation of seriousness allows him to value solitude positively and to begin to arm himself against the world. Initially, he prepares himself defensively, but with a view to future aggression on his part:

Yet nothing that my tyrants knew or taught
I cared to learn, but from that secret store
Wrought linked armour for my soul, before
It might walk forth to war among mankind


Shelley begins to sound carelessly urbane and confidently at ease. However, it is immediately after this apparently strengthening moment that a weakness, in the form of loneliness, overtakes him.

All these moments of revelation represent a beginning; politically, philosophically and creatively. They are moments which are vulnerable to, and defined against, the ironic community. In Mont Blanc and the Hymn this irony is acknowledged and adopted, partly to undermine other beliefs and partly to guard against Shelley's own belief solidifying into equally restrictive (even though oppositional) structures. His paradoxical belief in 'Doubt, chance and mutability' can only be expressed through a Romantic irony which, as Bloom writes: 'can suddenly startle us in the midst of the sublime without dropping us into the bathetic'.  [42] 'To Laughter' and Laon and Cythna both assert a defiance to an irony of closure and dismissal. However, the aggression they adopt to assert their own position and counter that of closed irony creates another difficult paradox which must be overcome.

Parties annexes