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Simon Haines, Shelley's Poetry: The Divided Self. Basingstoke: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-312-16551X. Price: £40/$59.95.

  • Jonathan Fortier

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  • Jonathan Fortier
    Corpus Christi College, Oxford

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Haines' stated objective is to stimulate interest in 'poetry as itself' and not in terms of some other thing, such as biographical detail, the history of philosophy, or an abstruse theoretical position. The study is divided into six chapters. Chapter 1 deals with nineteenth- and twentieth-century criticism of Shelley. Chapter 2 offers some insight into Shelley's 'Views of Poetry.' Chapters 3-6 provide closer readings on the central canonical poems in a roughly chronological order (beginning with Queen Mab). There are particularly strong musings on Julian and Maddalo, Ode to the West Wind, and The Triumph of Life. Haines is strongest in the first two chapters, which might suffer only from excessive systematizing. The chapters of literary criticism, while sensitive in places, seem to fall short of his stated objectives, and the critical preferences he outlines in the opening of the study are paradoxically at odds with his own critical method.

Chapter 1 is divided into separate discussions of Shelley's detractors and his defenders. Some may find this an unnecessarily dualistic (or excessively simplified) way of thinking about the history of Shelley criticism. The approach is helpful, however, as it isolates some of the objections to Shelley common to both nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics while highlighting the ways in which Shelley's 'detractors' differ as well. The overview is particularly helpful for those who are not familiar with the major critical statements (Eliot, Leavis, Arnold and the usual suspects) but also useful for those who would benefit from a synopsis of the views of J.T. Coleridge, J. G. Lockhart, W.S. Walker, and Hazlitt. Haines is particularly sympathetic to Hazlitt and argues that his appreciation (and criticism) of Shelley was based on aesthetic principles, and, according to Haines, so avoided the political and religious bias characteristic of his contemporaries (12). Hazlitt's evaluation of Shelley arose out of a perceived interrelationship of poetic and moral inadequacies in the poet (15), and this point serves as a touchstone for much of what Haines himself goes on to say.

In the second part of this chapter, the 'case for' Shelley is outlined, and these are divided into 'Referential Defences' and 'Symbolist Defences' of the poet. A Referential Defence, according to Haines, is one which values poetry by appealing to biographical or philosophical issues. Again, these categories might seem unnecessarily reductive, but it can also serve as a helpful way of understanding general critical responses to Shelley. The usual suspects again appear but only to be placed in one camp or another (Rosetti, Forman, Dowden, White, Holmes are placed in the Referentialist-Biographicalist camp; Notopoulos, Reiman, Wasserman in the Referentialist-Philosophical group). Haines points towards how much Shelley criticism (both 'for'and 'against') is polarized around these two camps within the Referentialist group, namely, whether Shelley's poetry should be read with the poet's own life in mind— or whether his poetry is best understood in terms of a philosophical system, no matter how inchoate or fluid that system may be. In discussing Shelley's philosophy, or the philosophical traditions into which critics want to place him, Haines suggests that the poet can be read either as a Platonist-idealist or as a sceptic (35). Here Haines tends to oversimplify what seems to be the most interesting and difficult area of Shelley criticism, and, if one is looking for an overview of critical opinion on this idealist-sceptical debate, one is left wanting a more detailed synopsis of what Haines does so well. Apart from the Referentialist camp, Haines identifies a 'Symbolist' group of critics, which is further divided into the Coleridge, Yeats, Bloom and Fogle camp and the 'later post-Bloomean group' (46). As the name suggests, these critics avoid reading Shelley in terms of his life or his philosophical lineage, and emphasise the complexity of Shelley's language and the self-reflexive manner in which this questions knowledge and meaning. While much of this nomenclature is helpful, it trips over itself at times, and Haines seems to make things unnecessarily complex by trying to encapsulate whole critical approaches in one or two hyphenated terms. I found this to be a minor weakness of the opening chapter, and portended a type of systematizing and categorizing which does not always contribute to the clarity of the summaries it aims to provide. Of these various camps, Haines seems most sympathetic to the 'Symbolists' which appropriately foreshadows the conclusion of Chapter 1, where he proposes a Third Way of approaching poetry as a form of 'practical wisdom.' Following Johnson and Hazlitt (and contemporary figures such as Iris Murdoch and Martha Nussbaum), Haines suggests that 'poetry and criticism....are ways of asking questions about a life, or lives, or passages of a life, without wanting to know answers, or already knowing them; ways of asking those questions from within a life, rather than from that principled viewpoint outside any practice, any life, which is the theorist's' (52).

In many ways, Haines' critical stance is borne out in his study. The book abounds with open-ended questioning which ranges from issues of morality to questions of poetic device. Often this questioning is incorporated into the body of criticism, so that we are carried along on an interrogative wave. In Julian and Maddalo, for example, Haines asks: 'But how perceptively does the poem think about the central disconnections in the Maniac's character: between creed and experience, free understanding and tame heart, resolve and tyranny, truth and love? These familiar Shelleyan concepts are not explored by the Maniac: are they by the poem? Are the effects of passion on principle, or the interdependence of the two, ever really considered? Or is this life story, like the earlier debate between Julian and Maddalo, a rather mechanical confrontation of categories? Has passion become just another idea?' (138). No final answers are offered because none, obviously, are possible. Occasionally, however, one wishes that Haines would take a stab at developing one or two of these tantalizing queries. In Ode to the West Wind Haines asks: 'So what do these dead leaves "mean"?' (156)—a question which is answered (or not answered) with questions heaped upon questions for over two pages. This approach to the poetry preserves a certain freshness and vitality in the criticism and underscores Haines' point that literature provokes questioning more than it provides answers and the sophistication of the writing demands a sophistication (and indeterminacy) of response.

At times, Haines' stance is less questioning that it is critical, and the tone is less sympathetic than it is censorious. On the true love expressed for Emily in Epipsychidion Haines asks, 'Is this new "passion's golden purity" also to be regarded as divisible, shareable? No: that way lies insincerity of the deepest kind. Presumably this passion has at least the "purity" of exclusive sexual partnership?....But then what of the "Spouse"? Can she be relied on [to] show "wisdom" about such a partnership? So is this a "golden purity" of spiritual partnership only? Tell that to the spouse. Surely this thinking is at best naive, at worst disingenuous and self-deluding' (206). Haines states that Shelley 'really is trying to write about erotic love' but fails because he does not realise that 'what he wants to write cannot be written' and that 'what he wants to feel cannot be felt'. Haines concludes that Shelley 'sees neither love nor poetry as a way of knowing the human condition precisely as conditional, as limited' (207). But this, it seems to me, is precisely what Shelley is questioning, and the language repeatedly points to this frustration. The irony, I believe, is that Haines is susceptible of the failing in his criticism that he ascribes to Shelley. The censorious critical stance, while admirable for its passionate engagement (which is partially what Haines is advocating) here undermines his attempt to approach the poetry as an impetus for questioning important issues 'without wanting to know answers, or already knowing them.'

This normative response to the writing crops up occasionally, and the passages examined are sometimes held up for judgement more than they are explored for their moral, intellectual or historical complexity. Of the pacifism advocated in The Mask of Anarchy, Haines concludes 'Too many ordinary people have been killed or seen their loved ones killed during the past two centuries as a result of this kind of incitement for these lines to be allowed to pass uncensured' (149). But so many questions come to mind and this kind of summary statement not only does not hint at them, but somehow invalidates the poetry as a point of departure for this very moral questioning. Why was Shelley advocating this kind of pacifism? Could it be a response to his earlier attempts to foment unrest (or gradualist Godwinian change) in Ireland? How does the pacifism of The Mask square with the political poems and fragments of 1819? Or how do we reconcile this stated pacifism with Shelley's desire to 'excite interest' (or support for protest) as late as 1821 (see the letter to Ollier 11 November 1821 concerning Hellas). What would Thoreau or Ghandi think? While all of these questions point outside the poetry, and risk setting us down the slippery slope of Referentialism (which Haines wants to avoid), they can also be fertile grounds for 'practical wisdom' within the context of fairly close stylistic-symbolist readings.

The open interrogative stance seems also to be slightly qualified by the repeated judgments of Shelley's craftsmanship (or lack thereof) as a poet. I found this to characterise large sections of Chapter 5 on Prometheus Unbound. Haines claims that the opening of Act I displays 'that old Shelleyan-Gothic adjectival obviousness, that unmetaphorical attitude to individual words and feelings, which seem to matter so much less than the purpose they are serving' (169). I do not feel as though Shelley needs an apologist, but it is worth saying that the opening of Prometheus Unbound is a rich set-piece, albeit literal in places, which foreshadows key themes in the work such as blindness and prophecy, Prometheus' apparent similarity to (or complicity with) Jupiter and so on. In a way, the opening is also a subtle homage to Aeschylus, and appropriately captures—in Shelley's own terms, the Titan's vacillation between blind pride and intelligence, defiance and forgiveness.

Haines remarks that the conclusion to Act III is 'An uncritically recycled post-Enlightenment and utopian conception of the self.' Despite this, a number of questions are provoked: 'Can the passions be thus separated? Can justice, wisdom or gentleness retain any meaning or value without guilt or pain? The dream of ruling over chance or luck is an old one, but what sort of human being would it be who did so rule? What is "man" without tribe, class or nation?' (189). These questions are all interesting and potentially profitable, but they are only raised to point to the inadequacies of the poetry. Haines concludes, rather uncharitably, that 'Such questions are necessary and even inevitable just because the poetry itself never dreams of asking them.' This sort of conclusion, which occurs at several points in the study, does not exactly contribute to our understanding or appreciation of the poetry, and neither does it acknowledge that the questions are often in the background of the work in question. It is not that I do not agree with the offered readings of the poetry, but that the readings sometimes dismiss large portions of poetry that could serve Haines' stated objectives so well.

In terms of presentation, this is generally quite a good clean text. I came across five mistakes (p.71 line 20 'renewal' for 'renewed'; p.120 line 8 'about about'; p.124 line 21 'Peceiver'; p.139 line 10 'bleeeding'; p.206 line 15 a missing 'to'). I was a little perplexed as to how the excerpts were presented—sometimes as few as three lines were set aside in a block for quotation and in other places long passages were incorporated into the text, or, worse, broken up and presented in a series of discrete lines which make for confusing abbreviations (as at page 143, where Cenci III.i.13-142 is reduced to 14 pithy but somewhat puzzling lines).

This study is subtitled 'The Divided Self', but I was somewhat uncertain as to the ways in which Haines wished to explore this issue. Is he referring to the divisions in critical response to Shelley? (35). Does he wish to explore eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century concepts of the self? Does he want to suggest a specific way in which Shelley is 'divided'? Is he developing, or responding to Fogle's belief that there is no central unchanging self in Shelley's work? (43). Is his study sympathetic to Peacock's belief that Shelley 'lacked any consistent sense of himself'? (67). There are moments when the issue of identity and 'divided selves' is picked up (as in the discussion of Julian and Maddalo pp.130-31), but this often pivots on a 'referentialist-biographicalism' that Haines seems intent on avoiding. In the discussion concerning Prometheus Unbound (Chapter 5), Haines writes that Shelley 'conceived both language and the self abstractedly and dissociatedly. One "has" a passion; one asserts one's will "over it."' Haines goes on to ask, 'But are not the passions agents of thought, constituents of the self which "has" them? One has shapeless thoughts; one has a language to rule them, express them, or even create them. But is not language a medium of thought, something thought works in?' (192-93). These are provocative questions, but they are not taken up nor incorporated with any sort of rigorous ontological speculation one expects to find in a study titled the 'divided self.'

Haines is obviously a very close reader of the poetry, and I found many of his observations to be both clear and helpful. The passages on the Maniac in the Ode to the West Wind are insightful and well incorporated with the larger stated objective of reading the poetry in sympathy with the issues it raises (138-141). Similarly, in the Triumph of Life, a sceptical stance appropriately reflects the indeterminacy of the poem and Haines offers some fine original points. In the conclusion of this section, however, we are given a reductively simplistic Shelley driven by the fear of 'malign natural Necessity' and aspiring towards an understanding of Life as 'unchanging Truth, pure Idea, beneficent transcendent Necessity' (239). Perhaps this is the divided self? Haines criticises Shelley for vacillating between these two poles, and suggests that as a result the poetry 'neglects or devalues the human' but, taking a cue from Wordsworth, perhaps we need to ask if we 'create distinctions, then/Deem that our puny boundaries are things/Which we perceive, and not which we have made'?