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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).

  • Jack Donovan

…plus d’informations

  • Jack Donovan
    University of York

Corps de l’article

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 of eternity may perhaps adapt to an original end motifs borrowed from Thomas Malthus. The attempt to define new coherence in the problematic rhetorical lyricism of the Defense is shared by Mark Kipperman's 'Shelley and the Ideology of the Nation: the Authority of the Poet' which concerns itself with 'the ways in which a liberal nation guarantees its own progress through its acceptance of a range of positive critical practices, which poetry in these circumstances may become' (p. 55), while also providing an attentive reading of the the 'Ode to Liberty' as displaying the poet's uneasy awareness of the implication of poetic language with political authority. Shelley's search for the springs whence that authority is derived is the business of the two remaining essays in this section. Terrence Alan Hoagwood's 'Literary Art and Political Justice: Shelley, Godwin and Mary Hays' locates these sources in the very hermeneutic acts which the works elicit and which themselves disclose the temporality of the cultural forces which constitute the historical moment of writing. William Keach's 'Shelley and the Constitution of Political Authority' sets out 'to interrogate the word Legislator in the title of this volume by asking about the relation in Shelley's writing of the legislative to the lexical and the legible' (p. 39). By examining the differences in his use of constitution and law this rigorous and searching essay uncovers residual tensions among the ideas which the poet adapted and recombined from Burke, Godwin and Paine as well as bringing forward the constitution/law distinction as potentially fruitful for a wider consideration of Shelley's work.

Michael Erkelenz's 'Unacknowledged Legislation: the Genre and Function of Shelley's "Ode to Naples"', which opens the section Political Engagements, deftly brings together generic analysis and political context to argue for the public character of the poem as well as its timeliness to a specific and urgent historical moment. It should be read beside E. Douka Kabitoglou's '"The Name of Freedom: A Hermeneutic Reading of Hellas' (from the section SHELLEY AND OTHER CULTURES) which, proceeding by a closely-reasoned examination of the play, brings to bear an array of philosophical authorities ancient and modern to uncover the troubled contours of a text which is a rare Shelleyan excursion into poetry on a theme of political actuality. In one of the longest and most densely-textured of the contributions, Gary Kelly's 'From Avant-Garde to Vanguardism: the Shelleys' Romantic Feminism in Laon and Cythna and Frankenstein', the epic romance and the novel that were near-contemporary productions of the same literary ménage are set intriguingly beside one another as instances of the dilemma facing post-revolutionary literary feminism. A broad and powerfully-conceptualized sense of the cultural specificity of the late 1810s forms a revealing perspective in which to view the pair of texts—one of Romanticism's enduring best-sellers, and one of the its least-read long poems. The terms of the comparison, stressing similarities to other texts rather than differences from them, necessarily leave much of interest about each to be filled in but the nature of the works compared makes the exercise a testing one for both for them, and for the method of comparison itself. A reassessment of Shelley's sense of the need to readjust the limits of the masculine and feminine spheres is also the concern of Annette Wheeler Cafarelli's 'The Transgressive Double Standard: Shelleyan Utopianism and Feminist Social History' which provides a conspectus of illegitimacy, prostitution and female sexual licence in the period as a context within which to understand the ideals of the Shelley Circle on the sexual freedom of women.

A series of essays distributed over sections II, III and IV variously engage, fittingly enough on the occasion of the bicentenary, with the afterlife of Shelley's writing. Andrew Bennett's 'Shelley in Posterity' deftly theorizes the poet's own construction of his future readers in his work as an instance of a counter-movement in the period to the growth of the author as commercial phenomenon by which some Romantic writers contrive to address posterity on their own terms. Among other matters of interest in this agile piece is an estimate, the only direct and substantial one in the collection, of the force of 'unacknowledged' in the formulation of the poet's role as legislator that gives it its title (p. 221). Neil Fraistat's lively 'Shelley Left and Right: the Rhetorics of the Early Textual Editions' contrasts Mary Shelley's attempt to etherialize her late husband in Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley with the radical pirate William Benbow's Miscellaneous and Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1826) which, although substantially based on Mary Shelley's edition, presented the poet in a bibliographical format and at a price that effectively assimilated him to Benbow's project of supplying liberating printed matter to the economically and politically disenfranchised.

The section SHELLEY AND OTHER CULTURES most directly reflects the international gathering that the speakers addressed as well as recognizing the internationalization of English Studies which forms the larger forum in which Shelley's work has been disseminated in a measure that he himself, who articulated the ideal of speaking to the world, would only have credited at the limit of his imaginings. The direction of Fraistat's essay is continued in Bouthaina Shaban's 'Shelley and the Chartists' which, taking the case of Ernest Charles Jones (1819-69) as exemplary, uncovers sufficient instances of the appropriation of Shelley to the political ideals and inspirational poetry of the movement as to substantiate the claim that 'the Chartists were the first literary and political body to acknowledge [his office as] "the unacknowledged legislator of the world"' (p. 125).

The scene is laid in other countries in four contributions. Lilla Maria Crisafulli Jones's 'Shelley's Impact on Italian Literature' passes from Shelley's own almost total lack of interest in contemporary Italian writers in favour of Medieval and Renaissance classics to his neglect by the great body of Italian writers and critics until the later nineteenth century when in the work of poets like Carducci, Pascoli and especially D'Annunzio his example became of paramount significance reaching its zenith in the celebration of the centenary of Shelley's birth in 1892. Meena Alexander's 'Shelley's India [perhaps more appropriately 'India's Shelley']: Territory and Text, Some Problems of Decolonization' delivers an account of the use of 'The Mask of Anarchy' and Prometheus Unbound by the followers of Ghandi as critical mirrors of English manufacture turned on the colonizing power, including the disturbingly poignant episode in which Ghandi himself quoted lines 344-7 of The Mask ('What they like, that let them do ...') in 1938 to a group of British missionaries in reference to the German persecution of Jews and the Japanese of the Chinese (p. 175). Allan Weinberg's 'Shelley's Humane Concern and the Demise of Apartheid' sets out frankly to conduct 'a validation of Shelley's thought [when tested against] the phenomenon of apartheid, South Africa's notorious system of government' (p. 180). This it carries through by identifying historical and cultural parallels between revolutionary and post-revolutionary Europe on the one hand and South Africa under and just after apartheid on the other and by noting the justness of Shelley's diagnoses of ills and proposals for reform in his age to the contemporary one in South Africa. Post-revolutionary 'gloom and misanthropy' of the sort that Shelley deplored in the Preface to Laon and Cythna provide the point of departure for Horst Höhne's 'Shelley's "Socialism" Revisited'. This absorbing account of the fortunes of Shelley and other Romantic writers in socialist criticism from Marx and Engels to 1986, when an article of the author's own was rejected for ideological heterodoxy, finishes by recurring to the ideals of Prometheus Unbound as a lodestar in the post-Soviet world order in which one regime has passed away while not yet being replaced by another. It is instructive to set Höhne's essay side by side with Steven E. Jones's 'Shelley's Satire of Succession and Brecht's Anatomy of Regression: "The Mask of Anarchy" and Der anachronistische Zug oder Freiheit und Democracy' which proposes an optic for reading Shelley's ballad and, by implication, the poet's work generally which makes the 'self-imposed ironic limitations of [Brecht's] imitation' [of 'The Mask'] exemplary of 'our own need to temper and contextualize Shelley's Romanticism in the perspective of intervening history' (p. 199).

The section SHELLEY AND CONTEMPORARY THOUGHT assesses the impact of various concerns and mental habits of the late twentieth century on the reception of Shelley's work. Paul Dawson's '"The Empire of Man": Shelley and Ecology' trenchantly reasserts the value of the red (contre Jonathan Bate's green) in understanding Shelley's struggle with the implicated topics of human dominion over self and over nature as they derive from the Enlightenment: 'Shelley certainly fails to be green; but he does so, not by being red, but by not being red enough' (p. 239). That stuff of which poetry is made and which might be considered as prior to both red and green is the subject of Karen Wiseman's 'Shelley's Ineffable Quotidian', an essay towards 'a hermeneutics of the quotidian' which might supply the means of adequately apprehending 'The defeat by life of both the merely literal and the merely metaphoric' (p. 230) in his poetry. Tillotama Rajan contributes the highly theorized 'Promethean Narrative: Overdetermined Form in Shelley's Gothic Fiction' which discovers an unexpected repetition of the narrative procedures of Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne in Prometheus Unbound as symptomatic manifestations of a textual unconscious which enacts, among other tensions, the 'radically indeterminate relationship between the tenor and the vehicle of history' (p. 252). Linda Brigham takes another route to another conclusion in 'Prometheus Unbound and the Postmodern Political Dilemma' which re-examines the play in the light of the theorists Frederic Jameson, Jean Baudrillard and David Harvey to illuminate its 'deep-structured antihistorical, and, as a result, antipolitical unconscious' (p. 254). Finally, Arkady Plotnitsky's 'All Shapes of Light: the Quantum Mechanical Shelley' rereads The Triumph of Life, both following and revising Paul de Man, and finding its 'quantum poetics' to declare the 'complementarity' of Niels Bohr avant la lettre.

Such a number and such a range of critical perspectives on Shelley can never before have been brought together between two covers. Overall the standard of writing and thinking, no less than that of printing and proofreading, is high. As a whole the collection is catholic, stimulating, and properly celebratory; it is also rich, various, suggestive. The best essays, such as Marilyn Butler's 'Shelley and the Empire in the East', genuinely further understanding of the endeavor at poetic lawgiving in the Romantic period. She traces the roots of the phenomenon in Shelley to the ideologues who act as legislators in Volney's The Ruins and who address to the assembled people of the world a universalized and oppositional (oppressive theocratic v. enlightened republican) version of religious and political history in which West instructs East. So does it too, though tempered by an un-Shelleyan interest in popular and local culture, in Southey's Thalaba whose structure and narrative motifs are assimilated into Alastor and 'The Witch of Atlas'. Both the derivation and the limitations of his poetic practice of legislation as thus revealed suggest further that 'the differences between Shelley and fellow-radicals or fellow-colonialists are still unfolding' (p. 168). It is just this definition of specificity within a fully realised historical context that seems to me to present the richest prospects for our understanding of Shelley in his third century.