Articles

The Workshop of Shelley's Poetry[Record]

  • Neil Fraistat

…more information

  • Neil Fraistat
    University of Maryland

Editor's Note

The first volume of The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley is now available from Johns Hopkins University Press (ISBN: 0-8018-6119-5 - Price: US$75). You can find more information about this edition at the Johns Hopkins UP website.

My point of departure is a textual process well described by Rachel Blau DuPlessis: For Du Plessis any text "contains, and is the result of a workshop," a "site of labor, an apparatus of production, the work of several hands on deck." The workshop that is the necessary condition of Shelley's texts in history is a complicated and notoriously vexed melange, involving poems Shelley unsuccessfully attempted to publish during his lifetime; published poetry rife with errors because Shelley was not allowed to correct proof; poetry and fragments that Shelley chose not to publish during his lifetime but which nonetheless constitute the 25-30% of his canon published posthumously; the early editorial interventions of Mary Shelley and Shelley's friends; the appropriation of Shelley's texts by literary pirates in the period between 1821 and 1840; family ownership of the poet's manuscripts and letters that restricted full access to all but selected scholars until after World War II; the assignment of editorships of texts; editorial rivalries in the reconstruction of the same textual situation; and erroneous but self-empowering editorial assumptions that Shelley was innocent of grammar and didn't care about such details as spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. Shelley's texts contain multitudes, as it were, and perhaps more than the biography of the poet, we need to learn what Du Plessis would call the biography of his texts, which is a good way to describe the project Don Reiman and I have undertaken in editing The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. As an illustration of what such biographies might reveal, I'd like to turn briefly to one of the most interesting poems that Shelley never wrote, "The Ocean rolls between us." The lines beginning "The Ocean rolls between us," and appearing in most collective editions as either a discrete poem or as part of a larger lyric ("To Ireland"), in fact originated as a prose passage in a letter Shelley wrote to Elizabeth Hitchener on 14 February 1812, which is now at the British Library (Add. MS 37496, folios 89-90) and which reads in a line for line transcription of the MS: In the same letter to Hitchener, Shelley copied two of his actual lyrics, including the poem first titled "To Ireland" by William Michael Rossetti in his 1870 edition of Shelley's poetry: "The Ocean rolls between us" began its textual life as a poem when Edward Dowden, in his 1886 biography of Shelley, noticed that preceding "To Ireland" there was a prose passage in the letter in which Shelley's "ecstatic protestations of eternal friendship, though written as prose, assume consciously or unconsciously the form of blank verse . . .", a fact Dowden highlights by setting lines 15-18 of my transcription as four lines of blank verse: Dowden adds in a footnote: "A few of the lines which precede may be given here to show that the blank verse can hardly have been an accident," and he prints as verse lines 6-10 of my transcription: The first editor to act upon Dowden's observation was George Woodberry, who in his 1892 edition created an entirely new work in Shelley's poetic canon under Rossetti's title "To Ireland" by adding Dowden's blank verse as a second stanza to the rhymed couplets of "Bear witness, Erin!" and filling in some of the lines that Dowden had omitted (lines 10-15 of the transcription): In his immensely influential 1905 Oxford Standard Authors edition of Shelley's poetry, Thomas Hutchinson simply followed the lead of Woodberry. Roger Ingpen in the 1927 Julian edition was more textually adventuresome, reversing the order ...

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