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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 22, mai 2001

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005979ar

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Article

'Yet in its depth what treasures': Shelley's Transforming Intellect and the Paradoxical Example of Coleridge [*]

Alan Weinberg

University of South Africa


1

One readily thinks of Shelley as inhabiting a Lucretian world of flux. [1] His mind—by nature volatile and mercurial—seems instinctively drawn to a poetics of transformation, relishing the interplay of shifting perspectives, while working to negate as well as reformulate what the mind has itself distorted. Characteristically, he engages a process of correction, one that unmasks and naturalizes fixed conceptions or ideologies (the 'fixities' and 'definites' of objectivization) [2] so that they can be reconstituted within the flow of mutability, to which, in Shelley's view, all systems and all life are ultimately bound. [3] Where entrenched views are involved, transformation invariably begins in transgression, because systems of thought acquire the character of indisputable authority, which to resist is considered 'evil' and to obey 'good'. In reversing these moral categories Shelley transgresses 'normality', intimating that 'evil' (the self/other dichotomy that legitimizes oppression) can indeed be transformed into 'good' (requiring delegitimation, the absence, withdrawal, or negation of that dichotomy). [4]

2

It is a tenet of poststructural theory that, while not definitely leading to the kind of creative transformation Shelley is seeking, the infraction of boundaries is a consequence of the arbitrary constraints and symbolic displacements of human culture (built on the repression of nature), opening up infinite possibilities for change. Disputing the bourgeois homogenization of culture, French intellectuals have, for example, discovered in writing itself primary evidence for the necessity of transgression. An inevitable slippage of meaning undermines the very attempt at 'signifying' or 'defining' reality, that is, marking out the exact limits and boundaries of everything. This points to the unstable character of prescriptive authoritative meaning (the dictionary definition, or the definition of those in power) which, acting as a social interdict, prompts transgression, the infringing of the code and the liberation of energies or drives inhibited by the code. [5]

3

The vital source of such instinctual drives is figured by the Power in Shelley's 'Mont Blanc' that causes devastation within the ravine of Arve, and which is said to 'repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe' (80-81). [6] Presaging Bataille's view that rational order (utility) is undermined by unproductive expenditure ('waste') of energy in nature, Shelley draws satisfaction from the fact that ideologies (codes) are negated or 'transgressed' by natural forces, which are themselves indifferent to human culture and which are untamable and inexorable. [7] The breadth of reference in 'large codes' implicates the entire spectrum of legislation regulating thought and conduct, encompassing 'the law of the father', and symbolized in Prometheus Unbound by the figure of Jupiter. The point is that the codes legitimate 'fraud and woe' by disguising themselves as rational and humanly beneficial. They are a trap for the fainthearted who, intimidated by the threat to homogeneity (orderly and time-honoured rule), resist the 'otherness of the sacred' which, according to Bataille, encompasses our 'divine', though actually repressed, and even despised, animal nature. [8] Remaining imprisoned in a frozen self/other dichotomy, the reactionary holds fast to a fortress of imagined certainties with which to ward off the transgressing and transforming other.

4

Shelley was, of course, not alone in his advocacy of transgression. He was drawing on the radical discourse of his time and of the Enlightenment sceptics before him. The term 'fraud' is a loaded signifier in radical discourse, applied subversively to imperious British policy, and recalling Paine's satirical attack on the aristocracy, whose assumption of power by original conquest and plunder had, through crown succession, robbed the people of their rights. [9] Republicanism, or at a further extreme, Jacobinism, were and perhaps still are 'transgressive fields', threatening Britain's class structure and way of life. Given this context, it is not without irony that among the more inspiring practitioners of transgression for Shelley were the very poets who later fiercely defended the established order: Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth. Not only had they sympathised with the revolutionaries in France (to the extent that they were suspected of being themselves Jacobins), but they had also denounced the repressions of the Pitt government in the 1790s (which included a defence of slavery in the colonies, upholding the suspension of habeas corpus, and imprisonment of dissenters, among them Coleridge's friend, John Thelwall). [10] Moreover, Coleridge's 'Fire, Famine and Slaughter' and his collaboration with Southey in the writing of 'The Devil's Thoughts' gave popular satirical voice to their sentiments, indicated their common purpose, and showed that they were not cowed by orthodoxy.

5

These compositions, published anonymously in the Morning Post in 1798 and 1799, and widely circulated thereafter [11] are of particular note because Shelley imitated them in two youthful poems, 'The Devil's Walk' and 'Falshood and Vice', thus—in an ironic way—establishing common cause with his predecessors (whose authorship was apparently no secret to him and many others). [12] If, as Steven Jones suggests, Shelley's intention was to dramatize his difference from Southey in 1811 (Southey had by then, according to Shelley, 'prostituted his talents'), [13] still

Shelley declares himself to be derived—from what he sees as the best in the earlier work of the older poets. By appropriating the radical mode now (in 1811-12) abandoned by Coleridge and Southey, he implicitly satirizes the present in contrast to the 1790s, a patently defiant gesture in 1812. He claims an integrity his models can no longer match, but they remain his models. [14]

'Derived' suggests that the revolutionary Southey and Coleridge are absorbed into Shelley's assimilative poetic psyche, combining with a myriad other derivatives. In that sense, they cannot be disavowed, except by Shelley himself. The now reactionary poets are turned back (transformed) into the rebels-in-transgression they once were. Parodying what Morton D. Paley calls the 'apocalyptic grotesque' [15] of his predecessors, Shelley reminds them that the grounds for their satire have not changed, that in English society a gentleman still plays the devil, just as heartless and hypocritical as before, just as worthy of condemnation. Perhaps the joke is now on the authors, Southey and Coleridge, for having dared to trangress respectability, and yet having succumbed to it in the end!

6

Coleridge's capitulation, his betrayal of the liberal cause, became all too clear in his Apologetic Preface to 'Fire, Famine and Slaughter', printed with the satire in Sibylline Leaves (1817) after Hunt had published the poem in The Examiner on 24 November 1816. [16] Although 'Fire, Famine and Slaughter' is avowedly 'one of Coleridge's most aggressive political fantasies', [17] the author attempts to argue away his personal attack on Pitt and advocacy of violence against despotism by suggesting that Pitt was simply a personification of misrule in the war against France. In actual fact, according to Coleridge, '[t]here was never a moment in my existence in which I should have been more ready, had Mr Pitt's person been in hazard, to interpose my own body, and defend his life at the risk of my own'. [18] Such overstatements, so contrary anyway to Coleridge's outspoken criticisms in 'Conciones ad Populum', [19] convinced no one. Arguing against literalism, Coleridge calls imagination to the rescue but, in the opinion of Tim Fulford, it functions here (as elsewhere in Biographia Literaria) as 'a rhetorical displacement of Coleridge's authorial and sexual anxieties'. [20] Coleridge had become ashamed of the violence of his once radical views, and it is arguable that the very idea of transgression—to which he was at one time attached—worsened Coleridge's self-image (already harmed by opium addiction, indolence, a loss of creativity and 'manliness', and marital infidelity—all violations of bourgeois respectability), leading him, by way of compensation, to make extravagant praise of the 'manly rectitude' and talent of Robert Southey.

7

If Coleridge had once extolled Southey's 'perpendicular virtue', [21] it was not without intimation of the latter's over-correctness and inflexibility. But in the Biographia[22] he makes no admission, implied or stated, of any defect of character in his one-time friend, nor does he admit to his fall-out with Southey over the failure of Pantisocracy (which revealed Southey's attachment to class distinction and Coleridge's unwavering commitment to the communal ideal), [23] or to the fact that his own private opinion of Southey's poetry did not match with his public one. Evidently, by elevating Southey—and therefore concealing the truth—Coleridge was subterraneously strengthening his alliance with Southey's political conversion as well as allaying the guilt that this might entail. In an article in The Courier, 16 March 1817, Coleridge invents a matured and almost saintly Southey who, from early republicanism, has developed into 'the most hated, because most formidable opponent of Jacobinism, and Jacobins…'. [24] Coleridge implicitly elides the liberal critic of Southey with Jacobinism, and transforms the persecuted liberal (some others of whom, like Hunt, had been imprisoned for dissent, others like Shelley, forced into exile) into the persecutor.

8

In addition to what he learned from the periodicals (especially the criticisms of Coleridge in The Examiner), Shelley was early acquainted with Sibylline Leaves, the Biographia, and even with the first of the 'Lay Sermons' (The Statesman's Manual, 1816) [25] and was therefore well aware of Coleridge's retractions, excuses, disavowals, and of his defence of a poet whom Shelley once admired, but who now seemed the classical turncoat, having moved from ardent revolutionary to hard-line reactionary in not much more than a decade. Given Coleridge's alliance with Southey, one might be forgiven for assuming that '[t]he most politically radical of all the Romantic poets' (as Jonathan Dollimore rightly describes Shelley) [26] would have lost faith in his predecessor. But he was loath to repudiate a greatly learned poet who had already found a revolutionary home in his poetic being, or to make a simplistic split between the 'good' and the 'bad' Coleridge. While Coleridge is put under the spotlight in two of Shelley's poems, Peter Bell the Third (October 1819) and the Letter to Maria Gisborne (June 1820) and presented as a failure of sorts, he nevertheless emerges as, in a sense, a glorious failure whose similarities with Shelley himself are not to be overlooked. Shelley's Coleridge is a paradoxical, 'unstable' figure, who is neither wholly condemned nor condoned, and whose weaknesses, serious as they are, ironically throw into relief his formidable strengths.

9

In Peter Bell the Third, Coleridge's brief appearance must be viewed in the light of the extensive satirical portrayal of his friend Wordsworth—alias 'Peter'. The latter, a 'walking paradox', more markedly unstable than Coleridge himself, is a prototype of the 'genius' whose very gift is paradoxically self-limiting, eventually resulting in an incurable dullness (the curse of the devil). His lack of imagination gives him an acute, highly developed sense of autonomy ('individual mind'), as if the absence of outward projection had intensified his inward self-regard, his self-containment, cutting him off from any disruptive external influence (Part Fourth, ll. 293-317). The closed circle of his being ultimately takes its toll, as Peter retreats from the subversions of nature and society, falling victim to the unthreatening, time-honoured, repressive status quo—in this poem the devil's keep.

10

Mock-religious machinery signals Shelley's ambiguous representation of Coleridge. The debased, commonplace devil is certainly a stock cultural figure in the Romantic period, as Steven Jones has shown, [27] but the technique of inversion by which the devil is domesticated and refigured as a gentleman (among other caricatures) is clearly indebted to Coleridge's example in 'The Devil's Thoughts'. Shelley follows Coleridge in stripping the devil of his high Miltonic station, reducing him to human shape, exposing his ubiquitous materialization in ordinary English life and the nexus of his influence in the privileged class, whose sophisticated protocol and gentility hide ill intent (specifically a licensed thirst for gain). Normally a demonic transgressive power, the devil suffers a sea change (thanks in part to Coleridge) to become the base embodiment of orthodoxy (church and state) and the repression of energy, [28] the very conditions that incite revolution (which now, by definition, is invested with 'good'). Downsizing and 'translating' the devil are, of course, ways of ridiculing him, and subverting his fraudulent code (a 'transcendental signifier' requiring obeisance). A similar subversive transformation occurs in the demise of Jupiter in Prometheus Unbound.

11

Shelley's implicit alliance with Coleridge as radical social critic sets up a chain of influence that is ironically broken when we find Peter's unnamed poetic ally (actually Coleridge) to be a dupe of the devil. Not in the latter's full service, as in the case of Wordsworth (alias Peter Bell the Third), Coleridge nevertheless is an honoured guest at the devil's soirèes, lending respectability to the mercenary interests that underly intellectual pyrotechnics and vainglory:

It was his [the devil's] fancy to invite

  Men of science, wit and learning

Who came to lend each other Light:—

He proudly thought that his gold's might

  Had set those spirits burning.

Part Fourth, ll. 353-57

So, by implication, Coleridge unwittingly condones the very ills he once denounced. [29] His capacity to naturalize the supernatural, which he shares with Shelley, defeats its own purpose, since he becomes the victim of his own technique.

12

Shelley's transforming intellect, on the other hand, keeps to its task of de-hypostasizing—that is, in effect, humanizing—evil, a process that deliberately reverses society's projection of evil into supernatural form, beyond accountability to human kind, and therein, a law unto itself, utterly separate from 'good'. As Freud pointed out, a projection is the 'externalization of an inward process', the nature of dreams, and characterized by a transference of 'shameful', 'obscene', or 'dangerous' feelings onto the 'other', [30] but it is the recovery of projection that Shelley's psychology is aiming at. His own 'demonization' of Coleridge (corresponding to that of Wordsworth) is a comic and satirical device, not, I believe, aimed to reify into otherness Coleridge's fall from grace but rather to reveal the extent of the compromise Coleridge has made with himself. Coleridge's inordinate gifts are not carried through into the personality, as Tim Fulford suggests. [31] In consequence, Coleridge lives in self-contradiction, 'sage' and 'fool', 'blessed' and 'cursed' at one and the same time:

He was a mighty poet—and

  A subtle-souled Psychologist;

All things he seemed to understand

Of old or new—of sea or land—

  But his own mind—which was a mist.

Part Fifth, ll. 378-82

The even weighting of genius, intelligence, and ignorance cannot be resolved into a simple credit or debit balance, much as one is tempted to try. The parodic Chaucerian style [32]—adding, extending, qualifying, asserting, assuming, excepting—destabilizes any restrictive or one-sided overview of the poet-psychologist-philosopher, since Shelley—anticipating postmodernism—sensibly desists trying to represent the Absolute, [33] prefering to reflect a degree of perplexity in both Coleridge and the speaker himself. Coleridge's universal knowledge is no sooner applauded than it is found to be seriously wanting. As an instrument of humorous satire, deflation in the concluding verse mocks Coleridge's giant capabilities and implies their laughable ineffectiveness. It suggests that, ironically, the 'devil' is reaping the benefit. But the reductio ad absurdum which seems to result is shortcircuited: great, refined gifts ('mighty poet', 'subtle-souled psychologist') can be made to seem contradictory or incongruous, but are not negated, in the last line, by what seems like a failure in self-knowledge, or by a penchant for mystification (mental 'mist'). Both sides of the equation, positive and negative, interact, creating a composite, deliberately confused view that is greater than the sum of its parts, the laughter being not entirely at Coleridge's expense. [34]

13

Coleridge's stature continues, paradoxically, to be reflected in failure. Converting Hell into Heaven would be no mean feat. Within orthodox eschatology it would be impossible since Hell is by definition closed and unregenerate. But in Shelley's terms (which reject closure of any kind), transformation of one into the other is possible and desirable, and moreover, not dependent on outside forces. [35] In Peter Bell the Third, Hell and Heaven collapse from their absolute realms and, so transgressed, re-enter the human condition where they belong, redefining existence subversively as a conflict between Hell (stasis or the drive towards fixity: the incurable energy depletion ['dulness']) that besets the reactionary Peter Bell, implying abjection—the relinquishing of personal sovereignty, [36] and subjection to determined institutionalized authority (the devil or external sovereignty, the belief in absolute security or containment), and Heaven (flux: motion and energy; potentiality—where change is always possible—the transgression/withdrawal of Hell). The opposition is between injunctive and transgressive modes of being. Resistant to the flux, Coleridge fails, but his potential for transformation—the fact that he 'might have turned / Hell into Heaven—and so in gladness / A Heaven unto himself have earned' (ll. 383-85), elevates him as well, implies that he had the imagination to have done it. Unfortunately for him, he trusted in 'shadows undiscerned...and damned himself to madness' (ll. 386-87). Whichever way one interpets these imaginary 'shadows', they 'read out' for Shelley the 'substance' of religion and transcendental philosophy, the invisible realm of ideals and fixed principles (Heaven of old) that has confused and alienated Coleridge's perception of reality (the cause, one feels, of the 'mist' above), dividing Self and Other, and trapping him—paradoxically if you like—in an irreconcilable conflict of opposites. It is curious that so Romantic a tendency to idealize should be found so wanting by a fellow Romantic, but it is likely that Shelley senses in Coleridge a dilemma that he himself shares. In modelling his Coleridge on 'the transcendental Mr Flosky' in Peacock's Nightmare Abbey, [37] Shelley seems to acknowledge the parodic likeness, in that novel, between Coleridge (alias Flosky, lover of shadows) and himself (alias Scythrop). [38]

14

Earlier, in Part Three, Shelley implicates himself in the general condition of 'damnation' (thus offsetting the 'holier than thou' Manichean syndrome so common among his antagonists, Southey included, who always knew better). Futhermore, in statements that parallel his apparently damning critique of Coleridge here, Shelley writes that he and 'some few' others, are 'Damned... / To believe their minds are given / To make this ugly Hell a Heaven; / In which faith they live and die' (ll. 242-46). A paradoxical condition besets Shelley and his fellow radicals, for faith in the reforming powers of the self, which clearly he now finds sadly lacking in Coleridge, and which is reflected throughout Shelley's own poetry, most markedly in Prometheus Unbound (in the process, then, of completion), [39] is an ideal that might prove delusory, and therefore as much a trap as any other. The reformers have been damned for believing in themselves and the efficacy of radical reform, by their reactionary countrymen, to be sure, but also, perhaps, because their undying faith brings them little success. The 'ugly Hell' persists, as the poem proves. As dramatized in Prometheus Unbound, the Titan's faith that he can overthrow Jupiter and attain a heaven on earth (requiring the unmasking, not proliferation, of shadows) tempts the furies of persecution and despair. For this sad continuance, Coleridge must share a portion of the blame. If the liberals do not have the right credentials, then it is Coleridge—the gifted apostate—who, paradoxically, does (to put them to good use now seems too late, and worse, he is gone to the other side).

15

Shelley again partially aligns himself with Coleridge by making him the spokesman for aspects of his own conception of poetry. Accordingly it is Coleridge who celebrates the divine power of poetry, the inconstant forces of inspiration that infuse it, and its transfigural properties: 'Heaven's light on Earth—Truth's brightest beam' (l. 395). Shelley echoes the 'Hymn To Intellectual Beauty' (1816), not without irony, since the Coleridgean 'divine' in Peter Bell inevitably reflects a Heaven/Earth dichotomy foreign to Shelley (Poetry being 'a dew rained down from God above' [l. 392]). [40]This poetic-divine 'spirit' might, with some ingenuity, be distilled from the Biographia, but its Coleridgean source more likely seems to be 'Dejection: an Ode': Shelley's open declamatory style imitates Coleridge's poem, while qualities attributed in Peter Bell the Third to poetry are given in 'Dejection' as aspects of joy ('a light', a 'glory' [l. 62]), which 'wedding Nature to us gives in dower / A new Earth and new Heaven' (ll. 68-69). By describing joy as a personal 'beauty-making power' (l. 63), and by linking it to Imagination (which each visitation of dejection 'suspends'), Coleridge implies that joy and creativity are identical, so helping Shelley to silently elide the one into the other, and therefore to continue (silently) to enlist Coleridge as a potential, although now ineffectual, redeemer. Despite its bright Shelleyan overtones, the Coleridgean muse—lightly caricatured in parodic vein—seems safely out of reach of any immediate political context, and is given a transcendent origin, as if no longer generated by an inner creative impulse. [41]

16

The semi-merging of the poets' conceptions is succeeded by a witty reversal and transformation that now elevates Coleridge at Wordsworth's expense. In the Biographia, Wordsworth's powerful influence is the mainstay of Coleridge's theory of poetry, and is reflected, as well, in the latter's sense of inferiority to Wordsworth as the philosophic and imaginative nature poet par excellence, and as the epitome of poetic 'manliness'. [42] Not sharing Coleridge's overt perspective of Wordsworth, Shelley puts the matter entirely the other way around. He reclaims Coleridge from his own negative self-projection, and reveals Coleridge's mastery of Wordsworth. [43] In Peter Bell the Third, Coleridge's mystical, non-rational conception of poetry dramatically alters Peter's (Wordsworth's) consciousness and drives him to greater things. Peter, the awkward Puritan (or Methodist), now in the devil's keep as 'moral eunuch', safe from the stirrings of nature, is lifted into a trance and, his usual boundaries transgressed, rediscovers his prelapsarian self. If his sudden escape from Hell (and looming dullness) appears largely unmeritorious, it must be because he is passively transported out of his mundane self by Coleridge's supermundane intelligence, thus making Peter's poetic gift seem derivative. Moreover Peter is the naive poet par excellence, whose bond with nature is so self-absorbing and self-consuming—so solipsistically complete—that, in Hugh Roberts's words, 'he needs no imagination'. [44]

17

The bizarre fusion of rusticity and wild reverie makes repeated fun of Peter's trite 'simplicity', yet it cannot completely offset his 'genius', as he has caught the spark from Coleridge only too well, and can do no more than articulate it. So in one stanza at least, the comic mask drops, as if to reflect the visionary influence and enabling presence of Coleridge.

But Peter's verse was clear, and came

  Announcing from the frozen hearth

Of a cold age, that none might tame

The soul of that diviner flame

  It augured to the earth.

ll. 433-37

The heralding of irrepressible spiritual renewal (via Coleridge) is (sadly) in Peter's case, only a promise as it is not long before the devil reclaims him. If his mentor (Coleridge) falls too for the devil, he has at least gained 'satirically' at Peter's expense, has got off rather lightly by comparison. Moreover one cannot but feel that he is at cross purposes with himself, that his intuitions and ideals are incompatible, in short (like Shelley), that he is uncomfortable in Hell.

18

My sense that Coleridge is saved from complete ridicule, that, indeed, he could at best be considered a fallen hero, [45] is bolstered by the brief portrait of him in Shelley's Letter to Maria Gisborne, written at Livorno just eight months after Peter Bell the Third. The light-hearted, urbane Letter offers friendship—most specifically Maria's—as the bulwark against disappointment and a crass, unsympathetic milieu ('the Sun / Of this familiar life' [ll. 155-56]). Communion—the creation of likemindedness, good will and faith in humanity—relieves, if it doesn't cure, the pain of quotidian existence. The appearance of Coleridge (among others) in this context betokens his isolation and vulnerability, while bringing him into the imaginary circle of protective literary and personal friendships. Within London's context of self-ruin (recalling the Hell of Peter Bell), Shelley isolates just six luminaries, five of whom—Godwin, Hunt, Hogg, Peacock, and Horace Smith—are his personal friends, the sixth, Coleridge, whom Shelley had never (and never did) meet, though he includes him with the others as, 'With some exceptions...all / You [Maria] and I [himself] know in London' (ll. 251-53). Maria's acquaintance with Coleridge in the 1790s explains his inclusion, and why she will see him in London together with the others. But for Shelley he is an exception among rare exceptions ('Yet in its [London's] depth what treasures'), and this strengthens the impact of his presence (he, like, Godwin, Shelley's father-in-law, is also not included in the imagined reunion of friends at the end of the poem).

19

From one paradoxical instance in Godwin—regarded as the foremost 'spirit of the age' though now, echoing Paradise Lost, 'fallen' (l. 198)—it is but a step to another. Coleridge, succeeding Godwin, is portrayed in similarly Miltonic terms as suffering irreconcilable extremes of mental lucidity and blindness (as if in self-parody of his insatiable quest for the oneness of all things). It is deeply ironic that such eminence in both Coleridge and Godwin is accompanied by such great decline, ill fortune, or folly, but perhaps Shelley's point is that high aspirations are always imperiled, and that, having courted danger, transcended (or transgressed) the safe limits of thought or action, the hero who falls also rises in stature. [46] Weakness will not cancel out strength if it is inseparable from it. The chief asset can be the greatest liability: the dazzling light of Coleridge's intellect blinds him, an indication that one can be too intense, too brilliant. Like a fading star, the mind outwardly glows but inwardly fades, an excess of extraordinary erudition extinguishing the flash of insight and the spark of transforming intellect ('internal lightning'). This comico-heroic Coleridge is a Faust-Lucifer figure with a difference, rivaling the 'heavens' with super-intelligent brightness, and overreaching himself, whose fall into obscurity, debility, and despair confirms the absence of an overarching, all-revealing, and all-sustaining truth. The eagle image that concludes the portrait is most telling. It elevates Coleridge ('hooded eagle') above almost all his contemporaries ('blinking owls' [l. 208]) even as it mocks his achievement: for Coleridge cannot, like the fabled eagle in Milton's Areopagitica, renew his 'long abused sight' by looking at the sun ('the fountain it self of heav'nly radiance'), and embody a potential national reform. [47] In fact the sun blinds him, and he loses the vigour of his flight ('flags wearily') in darkness. He is a Promethean figure who cannot escape—indeed is weighed down by—his Jovian shadow, as much a sell-out as Prometheus is at the beginning of Shelley's lyric drama. This is why, implicitly, the titan and the god (free-thinker and transcendentalist) fight it out in Shelley's depictions of him, but without any resolution.

20

Shelley's critique might be too sardonic for some (Coleridgeans, perhaps), and too elevating for others. In fact, his approach interweaves complementary aspects, at once transgressive and transformative, hypercritical and hypersensitive: undercutting the nefarious system and Coleridge's collusion with it, yet revaluing what in Coleridge (and therefore in the system) escapes closure—a revaluation that itself undermines the attitude that would 'damn' or demonize Coleridge completely. It is as if Shelley's method were doubly transgressive, requiring that parody, satire, and wit be put to the test of their own seriousness, their own potential violation of openness by freezing the 'other' in time and space. [48] In the portrait of Coleridge, as throughout the Letter to Maria Gisborne, positive and negative qualities are repeatedly qualified, creating a transforming perspective that overwhelms the single hardlined picture, the caricature, the simplistic formula, the reductive assessment, even the 'unity' to which Coleridge aspired (and which, for him, was either imagined repletion or terrifying absence, saying everything and nothing). So it is that Coleridge is mocked and lauded in one and the same voice (it being impossible to decide finally which is which); that his stature, though acutely defective, still outshines his contemporaries. The paradoxical Coleridge is both a tragic and comic figure, an emblem of the pathos, nobility, folly, and absurdity of the 'will to knowledge'. Refusing to typecast Coleridge as either apostate villain or self-demeaning failure, Shelley repositions him in the movement of time and the realm of potentiality, reclaiming him in his failure (together with Godwin), when his reputation was in decline and his self-estimation embattled. This gesture is an act of genuine literary friendship, suggesting an affinity that Coleridge's sympathetic response, after Shelley's drowning, only seems to confirm. [49]


 

Notes

[*]

An earlier version of this essay was presented at the Coleridge Summer Conference at Cannington, Somerset, 20-26 July 2000.

[1]

See Hugh Roberts, 'Shelley's Lucretian Imagination', in Shel1ey and the Chaos of History (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997) pp. 441-86, for 'a new understanding of what Shelley's Lucretianism might mean' (p. 441).

[2]

These terms are adapted from Coleridge, who regards objects (things) as 'fixed and dead' unless enlivened by the self. See Biographia Literaria, eds. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, 2 vols. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983) vol. 1, pp. 304-05.

[3]

For detailed accounts of mutability in Shelley, see Hugh Roberts, Shelley and the Chaos of History, and Jerrold E. Hogle, Shelley's Process (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

[4]

The 'unbinding' of Prometheus in Prometheus Unbound is the epitome and dramatic figuration of this process.

[5]

Interdiction and transgression are in fact so 'intimately bound up with one another' that in the work of Georges Bataille, who has strongly influenced modern French theory, the two are 'all but indistinguishable'. See, with specific reference to 'eroticism', Suzanne Guerlac, 'Bataille in Theory: Afterimages (Lascaux)', Georges Bataille in America, <http://www.phreebyrd.com/~sisyphus/bataille/sguerlac.html> (1997). In making accessible 'chaos' (what Bataille paradoxically calls the 'sacred'—and some might call 'the profane'), transgression repels as much as it attracts, so one never really escapes interdiction, transient and oppressive as it might be. But the repulsion at least accounts for, if it does not justify, the reactionary tendency to revert to the domain of rational order.

The theory that transgression is both desirable and inescapable, if not always endurable, lends weight to Shelley's disregard for orthodoxy which, contrary to the free play of signification, reifies meaning according to its own dictates, relying on established dogma, doctrine, faith or decree. The inevitablity of transgression implies that it is natural to contest, infringe, or erase 'man-made' laws, especially when they impose imaginary, hypothetical, or merely conjectural constraints on human freedom to serve class or other sectarian interests. Instinctual drives belonging in Kristeva's view to the presymbolic, or 'semiotic' chora resist the imposition of authority (the thetic positioning of the subject). See Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), especially chapters 6-10.

[6]

Unless otherwise stated, textual references are to Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers, eds., Shelley's Poetry and Prose (New York: Norton, 1977).

[7]

Cf. 'Base matter is external and foreign to ideal human aspirations, and it refuses to allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these aspirations' ('Base Materialism and Gnosticism', The Bataille Reader, eds. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson [Oxford: Blackwell, 1997] p. 163).

[8]

See 'The Festival or the Transgression of Prohibitions', The Bataille Reader, pp. 250-51. For a brief overview of Bataille's philosophy, see Jonathan Dollimore, Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998) pp. 249-57.

[9]

See Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, ed. Henry Collins (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983) pp. 94-104.

[10]

For accounts of the Romantics' political involvement in the 1790s, see Nicholas Roe, Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988); and Tim Fulford, 'Coleridge in the 1790s: "Lord of thy Utterance"', in Romanticism and Masculinity (London: Macmillan, 1999) pp. 66-128.

[11]

See Morton D. Paley, 'Coleridge and the Apocalyptic Grotesque', in Coleridge's Visionary Language, eds. Tim Fulford and Morton D. Paley (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993) pp. 16-21.

[12]

See Steven E. Jones, Shelley's Satire (Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1994) p.41; and Paley, 'Coleridge and the Apocalyptic Grotesque', p.19.

[13]

The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964) vol. 1, p. 232.

[14]

Jones, Shelley's Satire, p. 42.

[15]

See Paley, 'Coleridge and the Apocalyptic Grotesque'.

[16]

Paley, 'Coleridge and the Apocalyptic Grotesque', p. 19, fn. 18.

[17]

Paley, 'Coleridge and the Apocalyptic Grotesque', p. 17.

[18]

The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. H. Coleridge, 2 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1912) vol. 2, p. 1101.

[19]

See Lectures 1795: On Politics and Religion, eds. Lewis Patton and Peter Mann (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971) pp. 21-74. Prefacing his two addresses, Coleridge writes: 'For Truth should be spoken at all times, but more especially at those times, when to speak Truth is dangerous' (p. 27).

[20]

See Fulford, Romanticism and Masculinity, p. 142.

[21]

Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956-71) vol. 1, p. 152.

[22]

See chapter 3, Biographia Literaria, vol. 1, pp. 55-68.

[23]

For recent accounts of Pantisocracy, see Nicholas Roe, 'Robert Southey and the Origins of Pantisocracy', in The Politics of Nature (New York: St Martin's Press, 1992) pp. 36-55; and James C. McKusick, '"Wisely Forgetful": Coleridge and the Politics of Pantisocracy', in Romanticism and Colonialism, Writing and Empire 1780-1830, eds. Tim Fulford and Peter J. Kitson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) pp. 107-128.

[24]

Essays on Our Times, 3 vols., ed. David V. Erdman (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul) vol. 2, p. 460.

[25]

See The Journals of Mary Shelley 1814-1844, vol. 1, eds. Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987) p. 153; and Hugh Roberts, Shelley and the Chaos of History, p. 98.

[26]

Death, Desire, and Loss in Western Culture, p. 10.

[27]

See Shelley's Satire, pp. 44-47.

[28]

This inversion of the Devil/Satan's antagonistic role is developed in On the Devil and Devils (1820), where he is presented as the Supreme Being's hireling: he is at once the 'informer, the attorney general and the jailor of the celestial tribunal' (David Lee Clark, ed., Shelley's Prose or the Trumpet of a Prophecy [New York: New Amsterdam, 1988] p. 269).

[29]

Coleridge's principles were enlisted under the banner of 'universal philanthropy'. See, for example, 'Lectures on Revealed Religion' (Lecture 3) in Lectures 1795: On Politics and Religion, p.163.

[30]

See 'A Metapsychology Supplement to the Theory of Dreams', in Sigmund Freud: On Metapyschology, The Theory of Psychoanalysis, Penguin Freud Library, vol. 11 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991) p. 231; and Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (London: Macmillan, 1989) p. 281.

[31]

See Romanticism and Masculinity, especially chapters 3-5, pp. 66-176.

[32]

One thinks of the layering of contrasting detail in the portraits in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

[33]

See Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984) p.78.

[34]

I agree with Timothy Webb that Shelley 'rejects a laughter which is purely cynical', the response to which is 'end-stopped, claustrophobic'. Such a reaction, he adds, 'confirms and acquiesces in man's fallen state, it makes no attempt to break the bars of the prison' ('Shelley and the Ambivalence of Laughter', in Essays-and-Studies 1992: Percy Bysshe Shelley Bicentenary Essays, ed. Kelvin Everest [Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1992] vol. 45, p. 61).

[35]

Elsewhere Shelley writes: 'The mind is its own place and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven' (A Defence of Poetry, p. 505). Timothy Webb explains that 'the apparent hell is only the product of a certain mode of perception and not an inalienable reality of the human condition' ('Shelley and the Ambivalence of Laughter', p. 61).

[36]

My definition draws on a very illuminating passage in Jerrold Hogle, Shelley's Process, pp. 162-66; and Georges Bataille's concept of 'sovereignty', The Bataille Reader, pp. 301-20.

[37]

Nightmare Abbey - Crotchet Castle, ed. Raymond Wright (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969) ch. 1.

[38]

Like Flosky, Scythrop has 'a strong tendency to the love of mystery, for its own sake'; he is also considered to be 'Flosky's dearest friend', pp. 80-81.

[39]

There is no precise dating, but it is certain that the 'last act was written late in 1819' (Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poems and Prose, ed. Timothy Webb [London: J. M. Dent, 1998] p. 381).

[40]

In Shelley's 'Hymn', 'the name of ... Heaven' (as of 'God' and 'ghosts') is the record of 'vain endeavour' (l. 38).

[41]

It has, as Hugh Roberts puts it, 'no revolutionary bite. The Romantic ironic, if it does not promote political oppression, passively condones it' (Shelley and the Chaos of History, p. 125).

[42]

See Fulford, Romanticism and Masculinity, pp. 130-33.

[43]

Fulford suggests, in fact, that Coleridge 'sought both to master [Wordsworth] and to exalt him as the kind of poet he wanted him to be' (Romanticism and Masculinity, p. 130).

[44]

Shelley and the Chaos of History, p. 121.

[45]

For Hogle, the Coleridge-figure pays lip service to German idealism, lacking (by implication) the sovereignty of an heroic mind. See Shelley's Process, p. 143.

[46]

Both Godwin and Coleridge have what Shelley calls 'the poetry of life' (A Defence of Poetry, p. 502).

[47]

In Areopagitica, the eagle is feminine, and the emblem of 'a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks' (John Milton: Selected Prose, ed. C. A. Patrides [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979] p. 240). The portraits of Godwin and Coleridge are Miltonic imitations, suggesting their direct literary descendence from the epic poet.

[48]

In discussing Peter Bell the Third, Jerrold Hogle asks rhetorically: 'Does not satire victimize its objects from a position of more exalted "truer" knowledge to which the satirist claims to have risen (as though one position has a lock on Truth)? Has not the choice of satire blocked Shelley from any sympathetic interchange with his chosen targets?' (Shelley's Process, p. 146). My view is that a paradoxical or ambiguous representation of the subject (Coleridge and Wordsworth) frees Shelley from the closure which Jerrold Hogle regrets in satire. Steven Jones remarks on the 'ambivalence' of Shelley's satire and 'his skeptcism toward the authority of the genre itself' (Shelley's Satire, p. 69).

[49]

'Shelley was a man of great power as a poet, and could he only have had some notion of order, could you only have given him some plane whereon to stand, and look down upon his own mind, he would have succeeded. ...I have often bitterly regretted in my heart of hearts that I did never meet with Shelley' (Table Talk, ed. Carl Woodring, 2 vols. [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1990] vol. 1, p. 574). See also Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, vol. 6, p. 849.

Auteur : Alan Weinberg
Titre : 'Yet in its depth what treasures': Shelley's Transforming Intellect and the Paradoxical Example of Coleridge
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 22, mai 2001
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005979ar
DOI : 10.7202/005979ar

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