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

  • Mark Sandy

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  • Mark Sandy
    University of Durham

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] …