Neil Fraistat and Donald Reiman, eds. The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Volume 2. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. ISBN: 0801878748. Price: US$85.[Record]

  • Timothy Morton

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  • Timothy Morton
    University of California, Davis

The director's cut, the special edition, the widescreen version, the “lavishly illustrated box set.” These phrases spring to mind — at least if you are a Lord of the Rings fan — when thinking about the monumental, painstaking, episodic event that is the publication of this massively comprehensive edition of Shelley. Bliss is it in this dawn of two proper editions on both sides of the Atlantic to be a living Shelley scholar. The bliss is particularly pronounced because two rather different editorial principles are in operation. While the Longman Shelley establishes a definitive, authoritative version of the texts, standardized according to long held principles of textual criticism, the Johns Hopkins Shelley is replete with special features, like a deluxe edition DVD. The notes to the second volume take up more than half of its sizable bulk. The Historical Collations section alone, listing all the variants that the editors “judge may have some potential effect on the sound and rhythm of the verse or on its meaning” (2.675; note the subjunctive), takes up about 160 pages. Appendices give us a list of poetic forms in the Esdaile Notebook, Mary Shelley's notes on Queen Mab, along with Shelley's letter to the Examiner about it. Only a few years are covered in this volume, starting with the Esdaile Notebook, associated with his travels in the Lake District and his visits with Southey. The editors intriguingly suggest that the Esdaile Notebook and Queen Mab are to Shelley's oeuvre what The Prelude and The Excursion are to Wordsworth's (2.xvii) — a distinction that brings to mind Roland Barthes' delineation of open ended “text” and finished “work.” Volume 2 is where we get up close and personal with Queen Mab, and as you may imagine if you know that I love this poem, I relished the experience. Everywhere one looks in this part of the volume, there is evidence of the maximalist approach of the editors. Pictures of the spine and boards of the first edition adorn the inside front and back covers. The editors include photographs of the title pages of four pirated editions, infamously made available to Chartists and the radical underground (2.315). There are Neil Fraistat's groundbreaking observations on the strange indicator hands (☛ ) that crop up at odd places in the notes to Queen Mab and which are reproduced in this volume (500–1). In a passage adapted from an exciting talk at the North American Society for Studies in Romanticism and a subsequent essay in The Wordsworth Circle, Fraistat argues convincingly that Shelley inserted the hands to distract readers from his authorship of inflammatory lines, since they conventionally signaled another's insertion (Fraistat observes that the radical George Cannon is a possible candidate). The relatively uncluttered layout of the Johns Hopkins edition simulates what it is like to read Shelley's own edition of Queen Mab, which he published at considerable financial, political and personal risk in 1813. The attention our editors pay to Queen Mab is thoroughly in line with modern scholarship, which has accorded the poem a much more significant place in Shelley's oeuvre. The incredibly detailed notes delineate shade upon shade of meaning. It is highly significant, for instance, that this edition is by far the most serious about Shelley's vegetarianism, a topic that was dismissed as an almost altogether insignificant eccentricity until the 1990s. For its own reasons, the genre of vegetarian writing, and indeed of writing about vegetarian writing, can seem like trainspotting. I will not bore my reader too much with my own urges in this respect, but I will take the …