Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran, eds., Shelley: Poet and Legislator of the World. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. ISBN: 0801851769. Price: US$17.95 (£15).[Record]

  • Jack Donovan

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  • Jack Donovan
    University of York

The twenty-three essays that make up this handsomely-produced paperbound volume were delivered as papers at the conference held in New York in 1992 to mark the bicentenary of P. B. Shelley's birth. That festive colloquium, the editors remark in the Preface, was conceived as an international occasion of unexampled scope and diversity in order appropriately to accommodate an idea of the poetic function which Shelley had himself articulated in the most celebrated formulation of The Defense of Poetry: 'Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world'. The nervous prose rhythms which conduct to that climactic assertion in the ultimate paragraph of the Defense gather their rhetorical energy from a characteristically Shelleyan series of negatives ('unapprehended inspiration ... feel not what they inspire', and so on) which is itself essentially founded upon a sense of unrealised human potential. On the large view of human creativity that the Defense adopts for its purposes, this potential is coextensive with the vital force that poetry, as it was imagined by the mature Shelley, can embody in its highest manifestations. The vacancies of definition that precede his bold assertion may be regarded as at once an invitation and a challenge, both of them largely taken up in the present collection, to reflect on the way in which each of the two principal terms (poet/legislator) of Shelley's formulation contributes to and qualifies the other's meaning. The third term (the world), which also figures on the cover of the volume, receives in turn its due measure of scrutiny within; the fourth and most conspicuously problematic (unacknowledged) is forgotten in the title and passes largely unexamined by the contributors. But if the central theme of the conference—the poet's office as lawgiver—is here acknowledged and affirmed, it is also interestingly nuanced, circumscribed, interrogated, in a set of papers that are grouped under the four heads of Cultural and Political Contexts, Political Engagements, Shelley and Other Cultures, and Shelley and Contemporary Thought. The categories are hardly water-tight nor could they be; the miscellaneousness inevitable to the programme of a conference of broad scope and international character resists definitive pigeon-holing, and some of the more interesting contributions cut right across the established boundaries. I shall try to point these out as they arise in the course of an overview of the collection that proceeds from the beginning. The opening essay, Donald Reiman's 'Shelley and the Human Condition', considers the whole of the poet's career as that of a visionary moralist whose writings in prose as well as in verse may offer timely correctives for the failings of late twentieth-century societies in the West. This forthright sketch for a comprehensive humanist portrait of Shelley's intellectual, artistic and personal life showing intelligible patterns of development which lead to a sober altruism whose initial zeal has been tempered by personal disappointment and suffering may stand as a paradigm against which similarly brief estimates will wish to measure themselves. The remaining four pieces in this section deploy sophisticated critical procedures to more circumscribed aims. The subtle and demanding argument of Greg Kucich's 'Eternity and the Ruins of Time: Shelley and the Construction of Cultural History' reconsiders a topic which has received much recent attention by reviewing the extent to which enlightenment thinkers struggled to incorporate the contraries of progressive and regressive narratives within coherent historical (including literary-historical) models, before going on to propose a complex reading of The Defense of Poetry in which Shelley's sense of the greatest poets as an elect that mediates between the negations of material history and the permanent clarities ...