THE UNFAMILIAR SHELLEY by Alan M. Weinberg and Timothy Webb, eds., Reviewed by Stuart Curran
 

THE UNFAMILIAR SHELLEY
Eds. Alan M. Weinberg and Timothy Webb
(Ashgate, 2009), pp. xix + 369 pp.
Reviewed by Stuart Curran on 2009-09-25.

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Michael Bradshaw concludes the opening paragraph of the first essay in The Unfamiliar Shelley by claiming that "the isolation of the reader before" one of Shelley's fragmentary wisps of verse "is unusually bracing" ([21]). That seems an apt phrase for the entire enterprise of this volume, though one ought, in truth, to report that some of its essays are actually on the level of the exhilarating. This is because, as the learned and ranging preface emphasizes, the project of publishing the 23 volumes of Shelley notebooks held by the Bodleian Library, a project that took 18 years of scholarly labor by sundry hands, has altered the very notion of what constitutes Shelley's output in verse and prose. Many of the essays in the volume begin from this premise. Bradshaw, for instance, reads Shelley's start-and-stop fragmentary jottings as indices of his creative practices and links them to the open-ended skepticism that is a running theme in the volume: "Shelley's fragment poems can articulate an aesthetics of reading which is all about the flight from definitive realization" (40), he concludes. A like attention to the juxtaposition of verbal and visual sketching throughout the notebooks leads Nancy Goslee back to the Enlightenment aesthetic categories that she first examined at the beginning of her scholarly career: her contrast between sculptural monumentality and a "disfiguring" iconoclasm that seeks to desacralize it resonates on many levels across Shelley's thinking and craft, and her nuanced readings once more show how she can reconstruct Shelley's subtlest thought processes from the variety of writings on which he was engaged at a particular period. Taking a more programmatic approach to the implications of fragmentary writings, Nora Crook juxtaposes what Shelley essayed in the two poetic dramas - Charles the First and what has been simply denominated The Unfinished Drama - that he was writing in his last months. Her sense of verbal affinities is persuasive, suggesting that at this stage Shelley was focusing on personal faithlessness and corruption of the state as mirrored evils. As already shown by her rendition of the almost unreadable Charles the First manuscript for the Bodleian Notebook series, Crook's capacity to decipher the palimpsest of Shelley's creative process is almost uncanny - she notes here, but without specification, that she is making minor corrections to that earlier text -, and anyone following in her wake will have to begin by acknowledging a major scholarly debt to her perseverance as well as her acute perceptiveness.

               A number of the essays of this volume, as might be expected, attempt to rethink what Shelley was attempting to realize in works that have been relegated to the periphery of his canon. Every one of these engagements, even where one might cavil at details, turns out to be fruitful. Although Christopher Miller never actually defines the characteristics of the genre he is foregrounding in "The Necessity of Fairy Tale in Queen Mab," his demonstration that Shelley already exhibits a tendency "to analyse social, political, or cultural problems as linguistic ones" (78) is truly revelatory and, I think, will be found far more significant for subsequent scholarship than any generic prescriptions we might think Shelley carried over from his boyhood reading. I suspect that I am not the only reader who will wish that Timothy Morton had adopted a firmer sense of Aristotelian necessity in his highly paratactic account of the "porcine poetics" of Swellfoot the Tyrant, but for sheer exuberance of critical invention it would be hard to find its peer. When "animals are imitating humans imitating animals" (284), it is difficult to know where reality lies, which seems a particularly Shelleyan state of affairs. Jack Donovan valuably locates the site for the hermit's tower in the fourth canto of Laon and Cythna as the ruined Chateau d'Hermance visited by Shelley and Byron on their tour of Lake Geneva and, with a quick tour of a gallery of literary hermits whose associations Shelley would have had in mind, he brings us around at last to the importance of Rousseau to this conception via Godwin's recreation of him as Ruffigny in Fleetwood. If that seems something of a virtuoso treatment for a minor character, its achievement is on a par with the intention of this volume to reveal what we may have too quickly passed over. Stephen Behrendt devotes his account of Peter Bell the Third to the complex ambivalence in which Shelley views Wordsworth at this point in his career, recognizing that the older poet holds a mirror up to Shelley even while he wishes to differentiate himself from the lost leader. This subtly shaded essay should be read along with David Duff's salient exposition of the "Esdaile Notebook" of 1813 as a kind of Prelude grounded in self-reflexive autobiography and heavily influenced by Wordsworth's practices, even if that fullest exemplum of them was not available to the younger poet. Two further essays demonstrate what major scholars can do with what initially seem like unprepossessing poems. Timothy Webb situates both the writing and the reading of the "Letter to Maria Gisborne" within the epistolary practices of the Shelley circle and, in a manner his readers have come to expect, richly fills out the biographical resonances of this poem. Michael Rossington, in "Shelley's Neapolitan/Tuscan Poetics," subjects the sonnet on the failed Benevento uprising and its contemporary known under the term "Political Greatness" to a truly ranging historical and literary erudition that is simply dazzling. It may even be definitive: certainly, anyone in the future who wants to understand the contexts within which these poems stand will be indebted to Rossington's immersion in and clear exposition of them.

               One supposes that the most "unfamiliar" of Shelley's writings (leaving to the side his "Defence of Poetry") lie within the often fragmentary prose. Hugh Roberts organizes his account of how Shelley positions himself in his prefaces by splitting the voices into fictive and non-fictive and reveals complex ironization at work in both modes. Martin Priestman's rhetorical interests are similar, as he traces the ways in which Shelley addresses (and shapes) a presumptive readership over the trajectory of his political pamphlets. Alan Weinberg focuses on how "A Philosophical View of Reform" is constructed around a dichotomy of force and fraud, both of which elements disguise themselves linguistically, an argument that intimates a strong interlinking with the linguistic slippage of Miller's Queen Mab and the monumentalizing of public metaphors traced by Goslee. Merle Williams undertakes a holistic approach to the philosophical and religious writings, concluding that Shelley adopts a Socratic empiricism in his metaphysics and Humean-Godwinian paradigms in moral theory. The result may not break new ground, but the clarity of exposition realizes an extensive and valuable overview of Shelley's lifelong commitment to skeptical questioning. Lastly, the essay that this reviewer would most wished to have written because it is simply beyond his capabilities: I refer to Michael O'Neill's brilliant stylistic realization of what distinguishes Shelley's translation of Plato, particularly in the Symposium. By juxtaposing Shelley's text with that of the eminent Victorian Platonist Benjamin Jowett, O'Neill forcefully demonstrates not just Shelley's ear for the music of prose but his sensitivity to the tenor of Plato's Greek, with interior phrases and more complex sentences always opening up to their successors in a fluid progressiveness. This is of a piece with the modern understanding of Shelley's commitment to what Jerrold Hogle simply called "process," but I doubt that anyone has ever demonstrated it so convincingly in mere prose stylistics as O'Neill does here. Exhilarating!

               A coda about a coda. This volume is dedicated "To Don Reiman / in gratitude for his major contribution to the understanding of Shelley." It concludes with Reiman's account of his own career in an "Afterword: Tracking Shelley." The brief fourth section, recounting a kind of conversion experience Reiman had in pondering "Mont Blanc," is at once moving and testifies to the enduring spiritual value that Shelley, whether familiar or not, holds for his readers on the three continents represented by this volume - and well beyond. Other readers of Shelley can be thankful both for the excellence of the essays in this book and the energy that impels them. It is rumored that the exposition of further unfamiliar Shelley is under consideration by the editors: with the evident success of this volume, perhaps they should plan a series.

 

Stuart Curran is Vartan Gregorian Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania.


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