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Evaluating ValuesTimothy Clark and Jerrold E. Hogle, eds. Evaluating Shelley. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996. ISBN: 0748608435. Price: £42/US$69.50.

  • Mark Sandy

…more information

  • Mark Sandy
    University of Durham

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Shelley's literary legacy is viewed as valuable, in this collection of essays, because his works raise precise questions about value and evaluation which are as salient now as they were in their own time. This reassessment of Shelley grows out of the understanding that his contentious place in the literary canon mirrors a contemporary critical crisis over cultural value and the "value of the academy itself". These wide-ranging critical essays are collected into a single volume under the careful editorial gaze of Timothy Clark and Jerrold E. Hogle, which ensures that a variety of approaches are permitted to contribute to revaluing Shelley. Issues of value raised by these differing approaches are deftly arranged under three subdivisions, so that individual essays can contribute to both previous and current intellectual debate over value.

A focus on the reassessment, or affirmation, of past critical verdicts about the value of the Shelleyan canon is a collective preoccupation of the essays that form Evaluating Shelley. The general focus for these essays by Charles J. Rzepka, Stuart Curran, Marilyn Butler, Jerrold E. Hogle, and Timothy Clark is how the "Wider Contexts" - whether social, political or intellectual - are significant for an evaluation of Shelley's worth as a writer and the values his writing advocates.

Rzepka's essay on "God, and King, and Law" interprets A Defence of Poetry as laying the foundations for establishing a sceptical canon, which tries to guard against prescriptive and dogmatic canon-formation. In Rzepka's view, "sceptical canons make up part of an open-ended evaluative discourse that is more extensive and inclusive than any single canonical description can possibly be." Shelley nominates as poets, in the broadest sense, those writers and thinkers who "question the inherited values of their day and age", but in so doing avoids a dogmatic pronouncement about his "personal" canon. In A Defence of Poetry, Shelley's method of canonical selection is, according to Rzepka, undertaken in "a spirit of scepticism". This "sceptical" approach permits an on-going "'critical colloquy'" which regards canons, like literary works, as contributing (in Shelleyan terms) to the "episodes of the cyclic poem written upon the memories of men". Shelley's definition of poetry is taken as evidence of his belief in those "sceptical" canons that ensure the continuation of critical debate by revealing the "before unapprehended relations" between a selected group of literary works. Consequently, "sceptical" canons resist "the temptation to advance a claim to objective truth" and choose to operate "within an epistemological circle" that permits a perpetual "open-ended evaluative discourse".

Stuart Curran contributes to the debate over Shelley and value by shifting the emphasis from canonical to educational models. Curran's "Of Education" reiterates Rzepka's presentation of Shelley as sceptic, finding in Alastor a "troubled insecurity about the kind of knowledge requisite to lead a revolution or write a poem." Such epistemological uncertainty involves Shelley's Alastor and The Revolt of Islam in an exploration of "a succession of educational models". Alastor, in Curran's view, exhibits Shelley's earlier beliefs about a poet's educative experience. "[T]he putative autobiographical voice" of Alastor's narrator "makes a claim to a highly specialised knowledge his readers would not share." Both narrator and poet-figure share a desire for a privileged knowledge - a "fantastic lore" - which has to be extracted from and communicated in arcane "dead languages". Shelley's youthful enthusiasm for "magic lore" in The Revolt of Islam, Curran contends, is "transposed into reconstituting knowledge as an active agent of social liberation". Shelley attempts to add a socio-political dimension to his changing educational model, advocating that a "true education" is one which motivates and "energise[s] the people". This new model of education, in Curran's view, is no less fanciful than Shelley's previous "pretence to arcane knowledge".

The mature Shelley of Prometheus Unbound reconceives his "educational programme" in terms of "intertextuality"; favouring the "library" over his previous "faith in propaganda" as a means of education. For Shelley, Curran suggests, "educational experience is a process of shared textuality" which curbs "individual genius" through its "collective enterprise". Evident in Prometheus Unbound, this "intertextual" process is transformed, in A Defence of Poetry, into an "ethical act of identification". Effectively, Shelley regards "the act of reading" as "irreducibly social" and explores this notion as a central theme in A Defence of Poetry and TheTriumph of Life. Both of these rather distinct Shelleyan works exhibit, according to Curran, "a lifetime concentrated of reading" which is "brought to bear" on issues of historical and temporal context. What emerges is Shelley's "self-assured" placing of Dante, Milton, and even himself in "the development of European literature". For Curran, Shelley's preoccupation with the social telos of reading and poetry becomes inextricable from education's ultimate goal, which is to achieve an "ever-progressing" poetical, political and intellectual liberty.

Taking her point of departure from the cultural context of the 1790s, Marilyn Butler notes the proliferation of collaborative literary and political projects, most memorably exhibited by pantisocracy's co-operative "property-sharing" and co-authored literary productions. Butler's essay on "Shelley and the Question of Joint Authorship" contends that as a poet "Shelley...was fully aware of this communitarian tendency operating as a writing practice and stemming from pantisocracy." Using this culture of co-operation as a backdrop, Butler presents Alastor as "a well-signalled experiment in multiple authorship". Her reading of Shelley's quest-romance traces a fascinating number of literary echoes and parallels, including Thomas Peacock's multi-vocal novels, Robert Southey's Thalaba (1801), Mary Wollstonecraft's Letters Written during a short residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), and Mary Wollstonecraft-William Godwin's St. Leon (1799). Alastor's Visionary, in Butler's reading, is not only "another St Leon but another Shelley and another Godwin" so that the "inset story" of "[h]is own literary journey has been Godwinian". This multi-textual approach also understands Alastor as a complex reading - or re-reading - of Southey's hero in Thalaba who is "made sad and vulnerable because he stands for fraternity, a feeling of kinship and correspondence with a lost human family and with animals, birds and insects". Shelley's Alastor is a work, according to Butler, which "yearn[s] for collaboration" and re-reads literary works to "elicit other writers' internal contradictions". For instance, Alastor's recasting of Thalaba's narrative indicates an increasing incongruity between Southey's egalitarian stance and his election to Poet Laureate. Paradoxically, Alastor's "individualism" gives expression to a desire for literary companionship and values what is most hopeful in the literary productions of pantisocracy.

A more theoretical approach to the issue of Shelley and value is adopted by contributions from Timothy Clark, Jerrold E. Hogle and Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi. Timothy Clark focuses on "Shelley after Deconstruction" to demonstrate that deconstructive criticism - as practised by Sharon M. Setzen, Tilottama Rajan and Jerrold E. Hogle - draws upon a "textual dynamic that find its model in the Romantic period and which must now be seen to constitute a mere anachronism". Clark's astute pronouncement about Romantic criticism, which takes issue with his co-editor's study of Shelley's Process (1988), shows how vibrant contemporary critical debate is within Shelleyan studies. Fundamental to these deconstructive critical projects, Clark suggests, is a theoretical approach to Romantic Literature firmly rooted in German-Romantic practices, especially Schegel's philosophical writings. Central to Clark's own thesis is the notion that "[m]any modern critical essays of a 'deconstructive' persuasion can be seen to be actually a practice of Romantic Irony for which Schegel's fragments can serve us as an illuminating model". Critical undertakings of this type are, in Clark's view, "arguably circular project[s]" dependent upon a "Romantic-Ironic method" which, inevitably, "must affirm a poetic process of continual becoming or transference".

This critical circularity produces "improbably similar" renderings of a number of distinct Romantic texts. For instance Hogle's reading of the name Adonais, as "an affirmation of transference", regards Shelley's elegy in an almost identical manner to The Triumph of Life, which Tilottama Rajan asserts "consists of a series of self by erasing scenes or figural movements, each a sort of repetition of the others." Clark rightly acknowledges differences between these theoretical positions adopted by Hogle and Rajan, but asserts that their respective methodologies are, ultimately, flawed by an "inherent circularity". The critical efforts of Hogle, Rajan and also Setzen to conceive of "a conceptual and figural displacement" as both negation and affirmation turns out, for Clark, in practice only to be a "negative moment in a dialectical play of Romantic Irony". What masquerades as "sophisticated interpretation", according to Clark, "is often a simple form of evaluative criticism at one remove". An alternative "mode of reading" to those practised by Hogle, Rajan, and Setzen would, in Clark's view, model itself on "the deconstructive work of Jean-Francoise Lyotard" to learn how to become "a responsible criticism...sensitive to the possibility that there are differends between Shelley's texts and our critical practices".

In "Shelley and the Conditions of Meaning" Jerrold E. Hogle's critical discussion of Tilottama Rajan's The Supplement of Reading, clearly illustrates a sharp distinction between their critical projects. This does not detract from Timothy Clark's conclusions about Hogle's deconstructionist practices, but again highlights how this collection of essays engage critically with one other and the wider context of Romantic studies. Central to Hogle's argument is an account of Shelley's treatment of signs and signification in "On Life", which is considered alongside A Philosophical View of Reform, to explore "the possibilities of signification". Shelley's preoccupation with this process of signification is, in Hogle's view, concerned with questions of value, meaning and self which, in turn, are directly related to monetary issues. The abolition of the gold standard in 1797 pointed up the "potential fraudulence inherent in paper notes" as they are "signs of signs", signifiers of gold and the labour required to make money. Shelley's writing understands "a longing for deep or distant transcendental reference" without submitting to an "Absolute Signified", preferring instead to announce a "desire for ultimate unions between signifiers, and between signifiers and ultimate signifieds". Alastor, Laon and Cythna, Prometheus Unbound, and The Cenci demonstrate a scepticism that causes Shelley to back "away from the 'one mind' concept the moment he has presented it in 'On Life'". Consequently, "[i]dealistic references, for Shelley at his best, must remain consciously sceptical of their referentiality...in order to remain idealistic and hopeful of changes in hegemonic systems of thought and value."

Hogle illuminates Shelley's philosophic interest in linguistic signification by providing the socio-economic context for his ideas contained in A Philosophic View of Reform and "On Life". This enables a convincing link to be established between "the divorce of paper money from the old requirement that it be backed by Bank of England gold" and Shelley's scepticism about the process of signification which, in "early industrialist-capitalist England often exploited false representations, especially where money was concerned. In these terms, Shelley can be properly realised as a poet-philosopher who, as he originally claims in A Philosophic View of Reform, is one of the "unacknowledged legislators of the world."

An equally sophisticated theoretical account is offered By Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi, who employs The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book VII as a "scholarly gloss" to illuminate Shelley's Epipsychidion, which she understands "as a textual metaphor for Lacan's ethical theory." Epipsychidion, according to Gelpi, reveals how influential Shelley's encounter with Tersea Viviani was on his imaginative life and how their relationship was dependent upon a "discourse of sentimentalism." Gelpi suggests Shelley's Epipsychidion attains a "true [Lacanian] artistic sublimation" with its poetic treatment of the feminine as, initially, an "imagined wholeness" and, after an imaginative shift, as "representative of the veiled, unrepresentable Thing". The Lacanian "Thing" remains eternally "unrepresentable", but is that "from which consciousness is separated and to which it desires to return". These paradoxical problems of consciousness and language are, for Gelpi, at the heart of Shelley's poetical theory and practice, which continually charts "the mysterious point of connection and disconnection, the hole or gap that makes us fully human." Shelley's works, ultimately, value what is human and remain valuable for their ability to address the complexities of our own existence.

Nora Cook's piece on "The Enigma of 'A Vision of the Sea'" sensitively evaluates the psychology of grief without subscribing to a Lacanian or other psychoanalytic theory. Crucial to Cook's critical principle is the claim "that [not] all details have some coded biographical significance" and her belief that "aesthetic determinants have primacy." Cook argues, persuasively, that Shelley's "A Vision of the Sea" takes Spenser's Ruines of Rome as its literary "precedent" to express the grief surrounding the death of the Shelleys' son, William. In "A Vision of the Sea", Cook suggests that, Shelley identifies with Mary Shelley's torment to imaginatively recollect "the mourning mother superimposing the seascape of Leghorn upon certain dreadful Roman realities occurring between April and June 1819."

Borrowing his title from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, "What's Aught But as 'Tis Valued?" (2.ii), Michael O'Neill offers a nuanced, attentive, and often subtle reading of Shelley's The Sensitive-Plant in conjunction with A Defence of Poetry. O'Neill, to an extent, would subscribe to Cook's belief in the primacy of "aesthetic determinants" but his essay also remains sensitive to theoretical concerns. He understands The Sensitive-Plant as "enmeshed in the play of substitution to which deconstructive critics have alerted us." O'Neill's essay both evaluates the critical reception of Shelley's lyric and re-valuates the poetical value of The Sensitive-Plant; contending that "Shelley's metrical licence" deliberately "unsettles the regularity of Erasmus Darwin's The Loves of the Plants" (1789). The Sensitive-Plant's resistance to both a poetic closure and belief in what W.B.Yeats termed "the anima mundi" ensures that its poetry is capable of "interpreting the interpreter, evaluating our values." For O'Neill, "The Sensitive-Plant is valuable for the art with which its fabling investigates the dialectic of scepticism and belief." In O'Neill's careful analysis The Sensitive-Plant's concluding lines, paradoxically, hope "that we are dreamed, or dream ourselves, into some kind of meaning." Ultimately, Shelley's poetic "Conclusion discovers a consciously unsettled and unsettling fiction" which knowingly signpost "a 'creed' beyond his fictions."

The concluding essays in Evaluating Shelley view this issue of indeterminacy from the perspective of undertaking editorial work on Shelley's poetic manuscripts. Lisa Vargo's "Close Your Eyes and Think of Shelley: Versioning Mary Shelley's The Triumph of Life" addresses how critical evaluations of The Triumph of Life are reluctant to accept Shelley's unfinished piece "as a work in progress". This "curious" critical reluctance, Vargo argues, is a product of Mary Shelley's "editorial comments...in which the circumstances of its production are linked with the poet's death." Mary Shelley's versioning of her deceased husband's final work transforms "the aesthetic perspective of the text", so that it "is altered from the process of a draft to the indeterminacy of the unfinished."

Alternatively, the collection's final essay by Donald H. Reiman is concerned with how past and future editors determine "between Shelley's poems and his poetry." Reiman's account, in "'Poetry in a More Restricted Sense': The Canon of Shelley's Poems and the Canon of his Poetry", is alert to how important "a poet's intention" is as "a primary criterion" for "establishing the best texts of his individual works." Reiman rightly reminds us that an important editorial responsibility is to distinguish between those works Shelley intended for public consumption, those "suppressed" either by himself or after publication and, finally, those "drafts that he did not complete" or other "abandoned poetic fragments." It is not, in Reiman's opinion, "the responsibility of editors…to increase the number of items in a poet's canon" but to evaluate "what his or her likely intentions were for that [literary] production."

What is valuable about Evaluating Shelley is the impressive range of critical material that is presented by this volume. These collected essays, whether aesthetic or theoretical in their outlook, are acutely aware of the varying philosophical, social, economic and cultural contexts in which Shelley's work has been evaluated in the past and, potentially, will continue to be valued in the future by literary scholars. Existing and future critical evaluations of Shelley's poetry and prose will often find their own concerns about value and evaluation latent in the sceptical, but vital, fictions of his posthumous body of work.