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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 liberty of giving the editors, for free, a very recent discovery, in case they are planning a revision (a speculation I make with a tongue placed firmly in my cheek). Lines 370–1 of Note 17, the vegetarian note on Queen Mab 8.211ff. (“No longer now / He slays the lamb that looks him in the face, / And horribly devours his mangled flesh”), state that abstinence from meat will enable the abstainer to “escape the epidemic madness, which broods over its own injurious notions of the Deity, and ‘realizes the hell that priests and beldams feign’” (2.309). It is from Samuel Rogers's The Pleasures of Memory (1792), a lament for ‘time misspent and comfort lost’, where Rogers wonders whether if memory persisted after death, it would “realize the hell that priests and beldams feign” (note z, “said to have been written on a blank leaf of this Poem”).  The editors do not remark on this in their otherwise extraordinarily detailed notes — even the variants to Plutarch's Greek are listed (2.311–12). Neither did I in my research on Shelley's vegetarianism. Fraistat and Reiman argue persuasively that Shelley concealed his major source on vegetarianism, Joseph Ritson's An Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food, as a Moral Duty, though he did mark up his own copy extensively (as a visit to the University of Texas at Austin's library will attest), either because Ritson died of a nasty illness (“‘brain paralysis’”), which might have cast his diet in a bad light, or because Ritson's political and religious affiliations were “‘stigmatized’” (652). Shelley wanted to avoid yet another hostage to fortune, though this is rather odd considering that Queen Mab was one giant hostage to fortune, one which ultimately played a part in depriving him of access to his children after Harriet's family brought a suit against him in Chancery. Ironically, Shelley ended up giving his copy of Ritson to one of his lawyers, Basil Montagu, perhaps to help him with facts and figures about the benefits of vegetarian diet in children.
Insights such as the passage on Ritson make this edition a scholarly delight. There are also uncharted territories in which the Johns Hopkins Shelley wishes to roam, and this is where one must consider the notion of “authority” in textual criticism altogether. Along with the exhaustive listing of variants in notes and appendices, Reiman and Fraistat juxtapose poems in their more or less official form with alternative versions. The first volume stated that diction, punctuation and orthography have not been emended “unless it contains a reading that cannot be justified through historical research or unless we discover strong evidence against it, either from other extant primary authorities or from PBS's own practices in parallel situations”; though frequent miswritings have been corrected (1.xxx–i). These are matters of debate in bibliography and textual criticism, as the work of Jerome McGann and Thomas Tanselle demonstrates. Such a close scrutiny of the minute particulars of Shelley's authorship provokes the need to ward off the risks associated with a potentially slippery hermeneutic slope. A distinction has to be drawn, then, between “poems” explicitly “issued” as such and “poetry” in some more incoherent and unreleased state (1.xxxi–ii, 2.xxvii–xxix). A gap that threatens to loom between public and private—a distinction which the editors here “seek to avoid”—is bridged by Shelley himself, since he often “made use of similar language, feelings, and ideas in poems that he did not release to the public” (1.xxxiii).
This is the postmodern Shelley: it is up to us to carve the final editorial decisions, if any, from a giant edifice of works and fragments. One wants to compare it with Mont Blanc and cry, Thou hast a power, great edition, to repeal large codes of fraud and woe . . . Like Mont Blanc, it extends the ever-receding promise of a single authoritative reading above the icy slopes and cascading fountains of textual criticism. With ideas such as “poetry” and “release” in the backpack, ascent is hard going. Reiman and Fraistat happily correct Thomas Hutchinson, whose Oxford Standard Authors edition wrongly considered Queen Mab to be juvenilia. Nevertheless, Hutchinson's designation should warn us that there is a long way to go before we will see a Johns Hopkins “Triumph of Life.” “Mont Blanc,” indeed, yet gleams on high.
- Samuel Rogers, Poems (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1814).