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The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Volume One. Eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. ISBN: 0-8018-6119-5. Price: US$75.00 (£58.00).[Record]

  • Michael O'Neill

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  • Michael O'Neill
    Durham University

This first volume of a projected seven-volume Complete Poetry is an event of great significance in Shelley studies, both for its self-contained achievement and for what it betokens in the years ahead, namely, the publication of a reliable, scrupulously edited edition of Shelley's poems. We are also fortunate to have Geoffrey Matthews's and Kelvin Everest's fine Longman edition, the second volume of which has recently appeared, an edition that complements rather than rivals the Johns Hopkins edition. Altogether, with the publication of the Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts series and the relevant volumes in the Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics series, things are looking up in the world of Shelley editing. The first and abiding impression made by the present volume is how attentive to detail Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat have been. It would be hard to over-praise the standards of accuracy they have set themselves and have attained. The volume contains an important 'Editorial Overview', which explains the editorial principles at work in the edition overall and supplies an account of the 'History of Shelley's Texts'. From the latter, we gain a fresh view of reasonably familiar terrain; indeed, Reiman in Evaluating Shelley [eds. Timothy Clark and Jerrold E. Hogle (1996)], and Fraistat in an essay for Romanticism on the Net [19 (August 2000)] have given us advance notice of their views. Among other things, they offer a balanced judgement of Mary Shelley's crucial role in the transmission of Shelley's texts, especially his 'fragmentary and unreleased poetry'. As Reiman and Fraistat observe, Mary Shelley worked from manuscripts that were not available to scholars until after 1946. As a result, editors, before that time, were 'unable to evaluate her editorial decisions': decisions such as the insertion of punctuation and choosing, more or less unavoidably (she was not producing a fascimile text), between 'alternative words' (p. xxiii). Reiman and Fraistat draw attention, too, to her omissions in Posthumous Poems (1824) and her two editions of Shelley's Poetical Works (1839 and 1840, though this second edition appeared before the end of 1839). They point out that Mary Shelley omitted the 'poems that PBS had written before Queen Mab' (p. xxv), an omission of particular relevance to this first volume, which contains Shelley's Original Poetry; by Victor and Cazire, along with The Wandering Jew, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, poems from St. Irvyne, The Devil's Walk (in both broadsheet and letter versions), and 'Ten Early Poems (1809-1814)' that were 'released privately' but 'never published or otherwise made public during the poet's lifetime' (p. 295). Though the editors say that they restrict their commentaries on the poems to textual and informational notes, and 'try not to impose [their] judgment beyond the demonstrable evidence' (p. xxxvii), the wealth of material contained in these commentaries results in nothing less than a radical overhaul of a critical tradition that regards the poems as worthless juvenilia. Even when customary assessments are reaffirmed, as when the editors assert, in connection with The Wandering Jew, that 'In spite of PBS's choice of acceptable models of the time, the poem's versification, though varied, suffers … from repetitions of words and phrases designed to maintain the rhyme scheme but adding little to the meaning' (p. 204), the fact of the close scrutiny given to the poem will make all readers interested in Shelley wish to re-examine for themselves this early and intermittently powerful exercise in Gothic rebellion. After experiencing the poem in this edition, readers are likely still to feel that they are in the flattest foothills of what is a mountainous literary career, but their …