Percy Bysshe Shelley

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John B. Pierce (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “‘Mont Blanc’ and Prometheus Unbound: Shelley's Use of the Rhetoric of Silence,” in Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. XXXVIII, 1989, pp. 103-26.

[In the following essay, Pierce studies the workings of silence, signification, and absence in “Mont Blanc” and Prometheus Unbound.]

“Nothing.” The pivotal moment in King Lear which initiates its tragic action begins from this word. In this “Nothing” the stark contrast of two views of the unspoken word meet. Lear asks his favorite daughter, Cordelia, to express her love for him that she may draw a third of his kingdom “more opulent than your sisters” (1.i.86).1 Her reply, “Nothing,” and its ensuing silence evoke Lear's rage, since he believes that “Nothing will come of nothing” (1.i.90). Yet in an aside she states “my love's / More opulent than my tongue” (1.i.77-78), and argues that she cannot, like her sisters, “heave / My heart into my mouth” (1.i.91-92) and quantify emotions that cannot be measured. The crucial distinction arising between these two types of silence is like that made by Wallace Stevens in “The Snow Man” between the nothing that is there and the nothing that is not. Like Stevens, Shelley draws on the perceiving mind as a measure of the value of absences, and in many ways Shelley's struggle between optimism and pessimism is reflected in his use of these two aspects of silence and the confrontation of meaning and absence within the image of silence. Of his works, “Mont Blanc” and Prometheus Unbound seem to reflect and balance this conflict between two very different modes of silence.

Recent critical studies have illuminated the ambiguities in Shelley's theories and use of language. Critics such as Gerald Brun and Susan Hawk Brisman have explored the dichotomy in Shelley's view of language as both an accurate reflection of human thought and an imperfect medium distancing words from their objects of reference.2 More recently, William Keach has offered a broader study of this and other aspects of Shelley's language in his book Shelley's Style.3 Yet for all these studies tell about what Shelley's language hints at directly or indirectly, there is as much to say about the absences in his poetic language—the silences or absences that erode the fixedness of language with their own ambiguities and uncertainties. Studies by Timothy Webb and P. M. S. Dawson gesture towards an exploration of these silences in their analyses of negatives such as “unspoken,” “unimagined,” “unbeheld,” “unbodied” and so on.4 Yet, the rhetoric of silence in which I am interested here is not merely a language of negation. As Dawson describes it, the language of negation is an indirect means of presenting a “language of Perfectability” that “does not offer any final goals” but instead “insists on continual change and distrusts fixed goals as attempts to limit progress.”5 The rhetoric of silence is more double edged than this. Silence remains constant as a vehicle both hiding and revealing transcendent essences, but the tenor it reveals varies in meaning. Shelley evokes two kinds of silence: one of absence, nihilism and vacancy; another of presence, potentiality and plenitude. Neither, however, is affirmed to the exclusion of the other. Shelley relies on a constant interplay between a silence of plenitude and a silence of nihilism in “Mont Blanc” and Prometheus Unbound. “Mont Blanc,” in particular, reflects his struggle with these two kinds of silence as he vacillates between both, seemingly refusing to choose either extreme.


“Mont Blanc” opens with a complex metaphor representing the interrelationship of the “universe of things” and a universal mind:

 The everlasting universe of things Flows...

(This entire section contains 8783 words.)

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 through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves, Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom— Now lending splendour, where from secret springs The source of human thought its tribute brings Of waters,—with a sound but half its own.

(lines 1-6)6

The evocative power of these lines at first appears primarily visual. The variegated textures, “Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom,” subtly convey the multiform interaction of thought and thing, reinforcing the interconnectedness of the universal processes of existence. This highly visual imagery conveys what Wasserman describes as Shelley's doctrine of Intellectual Philosophy reconciling the schools of subjective idealism with those of rational materialism. Such an Intellectual Philosophy, argues Wasserman, asserts “that reality is an undifferentiated unity, neither thought nor thing, yet both.”7 Yet when Shelley turns to the individualized experience of human thought, his description changes to an aural one. “Human thought” enters the scene “with a sound but half its own” (line 5). Sound here offers a medium connecting the mind to the larger processes of the universe. Unfortunately, the connections provided by sound are all reductive in relation to the individual. The mind is a “feeble” brook; the mind has a “sound but half its own” (emphasis mine). By directly attributing incompleteness to the individual mind, Shelley intentionally shifts attention away from the halfness in nature (and its need for a perceiving subject).

The succeeding sections, especially section 2, also emphasize the power of the external scene in terms of sound as a manifestation of its power and the source of its ability to overwhelm the human mind. The second section begins with a more representational landscape that looms as an image of power while the speaker gradually loses the ability to assert his own importance in the sublime landscape. The Ravine of Arve appears as a “many coloured, many-voicèd vale” (line 13) at the center of an almost universal motion including “cloud shadows and sunbeams” (line 15) and “earthly rainbows stretched across the sweep / Of the aethereal waterfall” (lines 25-26). The Arve itself becomes a manifestation of “Power” as it descends from the mountain peak (lines 16-19). In its motion and energy, the Arve and its ravine take on a sacred quality in which pines are compared to worshippers. Moreover, the sound of the winds passing through the pines becomes transformed into a hymn, “an old and solemn harmony” (line 24). Shelley's description continues offering a full panoply of imagery with the Arve “Bursting through … dark mountains like the flame / Of lightning through the tempest” (lines 18-19). The supremacy of the “Arve's commotion” is ultimately asserted as “A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame” (line 31).

Yet Shelley disrupts these nature-centered soundworks with an unexpected moment of silence. After introducing the idea of a waterfall that veils “some unsculptured image” (line 27), he seems to draw back this veil of noise and finds “the strange sleep / Which when the voices of the desert fail / Wraps all in its own deep eternity” (lines 27-29). Wasserman, in commenting on this passage, notes that “Quite casually there has been deposited in the poem the fact that if there were a self-sustaining reality wholly independent of mind, if all were only substance and motion, any pause in its activities could be only a vacuum, and such a reality would be meaningless in its recurrent moments of inaction.”8 While such an assertion affirms the sense of power on nature's side, it is necessary to add that the passage undermines previous assertions about the strength of nature's commotion. This silent state is described as “strange,” hinting at an element of abnormalcy or unnaturalness. Moreover, the idea that the desert voices “fail” adds to the idea of a weakness on nature's part. The silence, the sleep, here is meaningless, inert. Andre Neher characterizes “inert” silence as denoting “a universe which doubtless has its own laws and movements, but the secret of these laws and movements is impenetrable to man. It is a universe which to human eyes is heterogeneous, being governed by a law heteronomous (extraneous) to man—a closed universe, shut in upon itself and on its egoistic essence.”9 Yet this silence as it appears in “Mont Blanc” is not a fortress guarding essential truths or a plenitude of unspoken meaning. Indeed, this fortress is hollow, a presenceless shell. Nature's silence is merely the absence of sound, an unnatural vacuum that “Wraps all in its own deep eternity” (line 29). Thus silent nature seems an image of total absence.

Lines 34-48 represent a shift from the external to internal landscape and seek to map out the speaker's response to an almost overwhelming natural scene. The shift in the speaker's stance at line 34 is in part a reaction against the nihilistic implications of the absolute materialism affirmed in this silence. Indeed, it seems to act as a movement towards self-preservation of the creative soul. He turns to a second type of silence engendered not by the observation and mimetic representation of natural forms but by a meditative and expressive exploration of his own reactions. In this trance-like silence of the mind, the poet silences the outer world by wrapping all in his own deep eternity. He silences the world to search for images that best express the interaction of his own mind with the mountain. “Search” acts as the operative metaphor, differentiating the poet's silence from nature's. The poet enters an alternate world of motion and process, of meaning and plenitude engendered by imaginative self-contemplation. Shelley's interest is to connect process and metaphor to the initial unspoken response to the scene at Mont Blanc.

In this silence the poet moves inward to the image-making centers in the mind, to “the still cave of the witch Poesy” (line 44). As he moves to there, he does so in the hopes of finding “some shade of thee, / Some phantom, some faint image” (lines 46-47) of the Ravine. Yet even as he searches for semi-palpable images, presumably for use in articulating the mountain's significance poetically, he moves away from referential language and indeed from language itself to the silent apprehension of preverbal forms. Lines 34-48 chronicle a journey towards the silence of the still cave, and as Shelley approaches this silence, the referentiality of language is gradually replaced by a more purely expressive mode. The first person pronoun makes its first appearance in these lines (34-35) signalling the self-consciousness of this expressive mode. As the expressive mode surfaces, the referential mode is eroded by the growing ambiguity of demonstrative pronouns. The final lines of section two are notable for their ambiguity rather than the clarity of their message:

One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings
Now float above thy darkness, and now rest
Where that or thou art no unbidden guest,
In the still cave of Poesy,
Seeking among the shadows that pass by
Ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee,
Some phantom, some faint image; till the breast
From which they fled recalls them, thou art there!

(lines 41-48)

The erosion of linguistic specificity continues in the images chosen to give form to a world of imaginative process. Referentiality is a necessary compliment to any verbal presentation of “form”; however, Shelley alludes to form in the “still cave of the witch Poesy” in evanescent images.10 Shades, phantoms and “faint images” move within this cave representing “shadows” and “Ghosts.” Thus, Shelley seeks to resolve the paradox necessitated by using the largely representational and fixed nature of language to describe an elusive imaginative action: fading and indistinct forms convey the importance of process—as opposed to product—in the active imagination.

The process-centered emphasis and the searching for compatible images are comparable to Shelley's discussion in “A Defence of Poetry” about the metaphoric basis of poetic language. In the “Defence” Shelley writes that a poet's

language is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things, and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them, become through time signs for portions or classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.11

In commenting on this passage, William Keach notes that for Shelley, “Metaphor appears to be a way of thinking, not merely a vehicle for expressing or articulating thoughts.”12 John Wright also notes that the essence of metaphor to Shelley “is more an act of transcendence than a manifestataion of a transcendent reality.”13 The creation of metaphor in “Mont Blanc” involves the finding and equating of one image with another—in this case a physical phenomenon and a concept. Here the poet silences the outside world to look for an analogous poetic image for the Ravine. The poet's silence in “Mont Blanc” is analogous to the silence before the emergence of the spoken word. This is a silence of plenitude where the potentiality of verbal meaning exists unspoken yet not unthought. Shelley reinforces the idea of potential plenitude in this silence by alluding to the creative potential in Milton's description of the Holy Spirit in Paradise Lost; the famous invocation to Book 1 hails the Holy Spirit, Milton's muse, as “Thou [who] from the first / Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread / Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss / And mad’st it pregnant” (I.19-22). Milton calls upon this brooding spirit as a prelude to his articulation of the history of man in poetic form. In “Mont Blanc” the poet's mind consists of “wild thoughts” with “wandering wings” that “float … and rest” above the Ravine. This floating and resting acts as a prelude to the creative act that transforms the poet's experience of the Ravine into an articulate verbal form.

Ultimately, this process leads to assertion for the poet. The first half of section 2 brings uncertainty as the threatening silence of nature almost negates the value of a separate poetic consciousness. Yet in the second half of section 2, the poet discovers within himself a silence of plenitude, a preverbal state containing the completion of speech. Thus, he is able to complete the suspended grammar of this section, completing its hesitant repetition of “thou” with the exclamatory assertion “thou art there” (line 48). This completion seems possible only after he has verified external forms of the natural world against the inner forms of human knowledge and imagery. The nihilistic silences of nature are therefore made less threatening when filtered through a human silence of potentiality. The silent pause seems to bring about the ability for further self-assertion against the external world.

Section 3, then, depicts the poet in a more active perception of the external world. In it, the poet presents a series of seven questions that lead to a rhetorical pause, or absence of sound, in which the poet again confronts the possibility of a transcendent silence. He speculates that the chaotic piles of rock on the mountain side may be the result of some daemon's play; he asks

                                        Is this the scene
Where the old Earthquake-daemon taught her young
Ruin? Were these their toys? or did a sea
Of fire envelop once this silent snow?
None can reply—all seems eternal now.

(lines 71-75)

After asking a series of questions that posit a number of fanciful possibilities for the present state of the landscape, Shelley pauses after the final question with the realization that “None can reply.” Confronted with the silence of the mountain scene, the poet seems compelled to give some statement, some explanation for the scene. Therefore, after another pause, this time marked by a dash, the speaker supplies a tentative assertion—“all seems eternal now”—for an explanation. The pause emphasizes the disjunction between the fact that none can reply to the poet's question and the belief that nature seems like an eternal entity in this silence. In the silent pause following the unanswered question, the poet turns away from the present landscape to an “eternal” one in an attempt to find or create a sense of completion for the questioning process.

The process of searching and questioning continues, reaching its zenith in the final section. Shelley presents Mont Blanc as a natural figure capable of accurately presenting “The still and solemn power of many sights” (line 128). Yet, its adequacy is measured by the fact that the “many sounds, and much of life and death” (line 129) occurring on the mountain peak go unwitnessed. The value of the image lies in its representation of silence and absence; on the peak,

                                        Winds contend
Silently there, and heap the snow with breath
Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods
Over the snow.

(lines 134-139)

E. B. Murray has argued quite cogently that the silence of this scene arises from the simple fact that Shelley does not actually witness it.14 In his 1816 trip to Mont Blanc, Shelley reported that he did not actually see the contending winds at the peak of the mountain; he wrote in a letter to Thomas Love Peacock, “Mount Blanc was before us but was covered with cloud, & its base furrowed with dreadful gaps was seen alone.”15 Murray points out that Shelley's “inability to see the mountain he writes about … enhances its symbolic function as a throne for the secret strength of things. Like the source of the images in the witch's cave,” continues Murray, “it must be imagined into being, since it cannot be perceived by the senses.”16 Thus, Shelley, when describing the summit of Mont Blanc, is forced to imagine the images into being just as he did in the description of the witch's cave. Yet the vividness of Shelley's imaginings are illustrative of the articulate referential power of the imagination once it emerges from the cave of Poesy. This process, as Robert A. Brinkley points out, involves a restaging of an actual experience through the transforming power of the imagination in a manner not unlike that used by Wordsworth in “Tintern Abbey.”17 The silent, “voiceless” quality of the activity portrayed combines with the moving and volatile nature of the winds and lightning. This combination works favorably toward a depiction of power, the silent, unmoved mover, that acts within the mutable world. Yet the poem terminates in the apparent uncertainty of a question:

And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind's imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?

(lines 142-144)

In this question the two opposing kinds of silence mentioned in the introduction to this paper meet in a crucial way. The question itself posits the possibility that the struggle for meaning throughout the poem, the attempt to validate the silence of Mont Blanc as an image of power, is meaningless. Silence may simply be “vacancy,” the kind of inert silence that symbolizes itself instead of something more than itself. It could be Lear's “nothing” that is the total absence of meaning. Yet the very existence of the poem itself and the desperate struggle with silence and absence that it reveals suggests the poet's desire to find and describe an energetic silence full of significance. Ultimately, the final question turns the poem back upon the reader and leaves him or her in silent speculation. The question remains as a challenge to the reader who must now attempt to create his or her own myth of power. A direct answer would terminate any further exploration and could lead to a simple acceptance or rejection of the question. Any definitive statement about the nature of silence would undermine the concept itself, for the reader should consider such a complex problem in all its subtlety rather than simply dismiss or accept any dogmatic answer to the question posed. Silence speaks in an ambiguous voice—both denying and affirming the presence of meaning—and therefore, a poem about silence must also do the same. Thus, Shelley's poem tempts the reader to deconstruct it rather than assert an uncertainty. In this way “Mont Blanc” undercuts itself rather than its theme and thereby demonstrates a reverence for the subject it explores.

Essentially, Shelley's “Mont Blanc” is a study in myth and metaphor: as myth, the poem attempts to define the place and action of an abstraction—power—within the confines of the material world; and as metaphor, the poem establishes the identity of this power in direct relation to a material form of the peak of Mont Blanc. The problem that Shelley faces in the development of this myth and metaphor of power arises from the fact that an empirical, objective perception of the mountain peak reveals only a silence that is vacancy, a vacancy that may either speak of the presence of a power that is not perceivable by the human senses or of the absence of any greater reality. The very existence of the poem, however, seems to indicate that Shelley, at least as a poet, leans towards the former possibility, since the process of constructing a mythology around silence implies hope for a greater significance in the natural world than is objectively perceived. To create a mythology is to assert that nature and the mind of man may be fitted to one another, as Wordsworth writes, “In love and holy passion,”18 in order to confirm man's ability to transform the silence of the objective world into a meaningful voice which converses with the human intellect. “Mont Blanc,” however, only gestures toward this possibility, for Shelley's skepticism would not allow him to degrade mythological speculation into dogma.

“Mont Blanc,” then, as a whole, focuses upon the creation of a myth about silence and the possibility that it veils the presence of a power that informs the life of the material world. The paradox of an image of absence used to body forth the essence of presence adds to the teasing, elusive quality of the poem. Prometheus Unbound, on the other hand, is not dominated so directly by the exploration of silence itself, but probes in greater depths both the power and inadequacy of words to convey meaning. This change, in part, reflects the difference in genre between the two works which entails a significant difference in what Frye calls the “radical of presentation,” a distinction based on text as “acted written or spoken.”19 The lyric form of “Mont Blanc” presupposes a “radical of presentation” in which the audience overhears the poet speaking to someone or something else—in this case a landscape. In such an arrangement silence primarily becomes an attribute of the object contemplated or a function of the speaker's voice. The ostensibly dramatic form of Prometheus Unbound, however, suggests a different radical of presentation: one in which the poet is absent and the audience observes the characters speaking and acting in relation to one another. Characters can talk of silence as an attribute of an object in the same way the lyric speaker can attribute silent qualities to an object of meditation, but in the dramatic medium, silence is also given an added dimension as an aspect of character interaction; it can be depicted through dramatic representations of indirect modes of communication used between characters. Throughout Prometheus Unbound a silent discourse based on thought, feeling and dreams becomes the essence of signification. Representing such nonverbal discourse in writing or speech, however, can only be achieved by violating silence, and particularly in the dramatic medium. Yet in Prometheus Unbound Shelley achieves some compromise in this linguistic paradox—the paradox that language negates silence in articulating it—by classifying his work as a “lyrical drama.” As Tilottama Rajan points out, “Shelley's play is a lyrical drama, by definition impossible to stage in the theatre of the world, and acknowledging for itself a merely private and subjective status.”20 In addition, Shelley's own belief that Prometheus Unbound “was never intended for more than 5 or 6 persons” attests to his feeling that the work was not to be staged.21 The above factors allow him the dual freedom to speak of silence as an attribute through the work as text and to represent it as enacted between characters through the work as performance.


Shelley's choice of Prometheus as a representation of humanity at odds with itself and its world seems quite understandable in the context of the two extremes of the rhetoric of silence. At one extreme—that of silence as absence and negation—Prometheus begins trapped within an inert silence which paralyses his conscious will and renders his subconscious thoughts voiceless. This negative silence is a direct product of Prometheus' curse against Jupiter. Earth's long speech in Act I (I.152-186) reveals that the curse initiates a fall in nature that Prometheus brings about through speaking but seems unable to reverse by verbal fiat. Through his curse, Prometheus beings about his own entrapment in a world of silence. Thus, the curse also brings a corruption in the power of language to enact desire. It drives a wedge between creator and creation and leaves Prometheus in a silence removed from creative actualization through the spoken word. Not until the fourth act do words again achieve the level of creative power such as that described by the Chorus of Spirits:

                    And our singing shall build
                    In the void's loose field
A world for the Spirit of Wisdom to wield;
                    We will take our plan
                    From the new world of man,
And our work shall be called the Promethean.


While conditions in the opening act demonstrate the idea that Prometheus' curse represents the power of words to ravage the order of nature and threaten the reign of Jupiter, nonverbal or indirect modes of communication used by the other characters in the play reveal a more complete method of interaction that survives the curse and the resulting fall in nature. In these indirect forms of communication, we see the other extreme of silence—that of silence as presence and plenitude. At this extreme silence is used both as a refuge from the power of Prometheus' curse and as a theater for exploring the redemptive power of nonverbal communication. As the play unfolds, an energetic silence emerges in the form of indirect communication (often described as felt rather than heard) in unseen voices, echoes, and dreams that direct the action of the play. Eventually, in Act IV the half-heard sounds, the felt experiences, the indistinct expressions which were submerged in silence during Jupiter's reign explode into the “mystic measure” that exemplifies the completed order and harmony of being. This explosion of sound undoes the silence imposed by Jupiter and acts as a revelation of the protective silence hiding the sacred communication among the other characters in the play. Yet, despite this final explosion into sound, the balance of the play seems more obsessed with the potentially creative, silent meaning that lies beneath the tyrannical, inert silence of Act I.

The world depicted in the first act of Prometheus Unbound is one in which the tyrant Jupiter rules through enforced silence. Prometheus' curse, “the voice of thine unrest” (I.92) as the Mountains characterize it, makes the elements “mute with wonder” (I.90). Out of fear of reprisal, the Mountains, Springs, Air and Whirlwinds of the Earth “shrank back: for dreams of ruin / … Made us keep silence—thus—and thus— / Though silence is as hell to us” (I.103-106). Prometheus suffers in a hellish silence, as he finds himself

Nailed to this wall of eagle-baffling mountain,
Black, wintry, dead, unmeasured; without herb,
Insect, or beast, or shape or sound of life.


Under Jupiter's reign, the spoken word has become an emblem of conscious rebellion and can be restricted or suppressed to maintain control. Thus, the regenerative action of the play is expressed only through indirections, a rhetoric of silence that posits the superiority of subconscious feeling, intuition, dreams and echoes over the mechanisms of conscious thought such as plain speech and willed action.

Yet Shelley stage-manages the transition into this rhetoric of silence by introducing the complex notion of two distinct languages: one of the living and another of the dead. The apparently simple distinction between these two forms of speech, however, creates significant linguistic difficulties. As Earl Wasserman has pointed out, “Obviously the reader is being asked to entertain a complex and paradoxical dramatic hypothesis. Of course only a single language is available to Shelley and his reader, and yet the reader must accept the explicit statement that Earth's language is really different from Prometheus'.”22 Shelley's elaborate construction of a dialogue between Earth and Prometheus concerning the two languages seems designed to embrace this “paradoxical dramatic hypothesis.” His purpose seems to be to focus on the inadequacies of language thereby pointing out the need for indirect modes of communication and the bringing together of the languages of the living and dead. Part of Shelley's purpose in Prometheus Unbound is to show the inadequacy of the verbal medium itself, and so he works from within language itself to subvert its claims to authority. Part of this strategy involves a reversal in the connotations of “living” and “dead” attributes of language.

In the world of the play the language of the living is described as that spoken by immortals such as Prometheus, Jupiter, Mercury and the Furies. Yet under Jupiter's control this language has become repressive and, ironically, denies life. Indeed, Prometheus' potentially unending suffering argues for a rather dim view of immortality. Speech under Jupiter's reign has become what Brisman calls a hermetic language of referentiality characterized by “the obscurity and disorderly abundance of words, which form an imperfect medium for truth and thus cloud our understanding.”23 Silence is used tyrannically but mistakenly within the framework of this concept of language in the belief that it can control the variousness of human thought. In opposition to the language of the living stands the language of the dead, that spoken and “known / Only to those who die” (I.150-151). This second language is spoken by Earth and all the voices of the natural world—Mountains, Springs, Air and Whirlwinds—but it seems to be a language of silence, at least from the perspective of immortals. Earth states,

I dare not speak like life, lest Heaven's fell King
Should hear, and link me to some wheel of pain
More torturing than the one whereon I roll.


The language split, according to Earth, is initially seen as a defense used by those enthralled to Jupiter against him, a kind of silent rebellion. The language of life cannot make the same claims of silence since it is heard by all, and as we have seen, it makes silence a principle restricting and controlling rebellion. While Jupiter's reign has apparently perverted the creative power inherent in the language of the living, the true signifying power of the Promethean voice—that which “strives to bring word and world into being simultaneously and to make their single presence the ground of all signification”24—is relegated to a defensive posture in the language of the dead. Ultimately, the silence Jupiter imposes on his universe soon becomes the means of his defeat: in this silence lies the power which will bring about his downfall. Indeed, this silent rebellion hides the very means of overthrowing Jupiter, since in his or her silence each character holds the memory of Prometheus' curse which, when remembered by Prometheus, will begin a process ultimately unseating the tyrant. The psychological and political implications of this argument are clear; the attempt to control thought through imposing silence is inadequate in attempting to control the whole man through delimiting conscious thought alone. If the tools of conscious thought are rigidly controlled, then subconscious agencies begin to take over. Moreover, this silent rebellion suggests the primacy of a communication other than the spoken word in the fallen world. It is an attempt to break the tyranny that seeks to control thought through limiting word and deed.

Prometheus' evolving comprehension of the language of the dead is vividly represented in the play. After sensing rather than directly hearing Earth's first speech, Prometheus states that he hears “a sound of voices” (I.112), yet he cannot identify the speaker or the content of the speech. Her second interjection, “They dare not” (I.130), brings something closer to a meaningful reply from Prometheus, but at the same time, he characterizes what he hears in less distinct terms. He answers,

Who dares? for I would hear that curse again.
Ha, what an awful whisper rises up!
’Tis scarce like sound: it tingles through the frame
As lightning tingles, hovering ere it strike.
Speak, Spirit! from thine inorganic voice
I only know that thou art moving near
And love.


Prometheus now identifies the “inorganic voice” of a “Spirit” (135), but its speech is no longer “a sound of voices.” To Prometheus' perception, Earth speaks in something approximating a whisper which is more felt than heard. The sensation of the “inorganic voice,” however, is more directly rendered in terms of its potentiality, like the experience of lightning tingling “through the frame” (I.133) before it actually strikes. In his third attempt to characterize Earth's voice, Prometheus moves from paradoxical similes to the kind of ephemeral similes that appear in the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”:25

Obscurely through my brain, like shadows dim,
Sweep awful thoughts, rapid and thick. I feel
Faint, like one mingled in entwining love;
Yet 'tis not pleasure.


The comparison with “shadows dim” conveys the indistinctness of this verbal experience while that with the moment of sexual climax evokes an intimacy linked with transience. Moreover, the sweeping motion of these “thoughts” and the faint feeling that they bring emphasize their connection with uncontrolled subconscious thought. As Prometheus regains an understanding of her voice, he begins the psychological journey that leads into a reintegration of consciousness by entering a world of communication beyond articulate thought. This development is seen most vividly through Asia and Panthea in their journey to Demogorgon's cave.

The action revolving around Asia begins, appropriately, with the memory and the pursuit of a dream. Dreams in Prometheus Unbound continue the theme of silence and verbal indirection in that they rise as a product of subconscious process not controlled by Jupiter. Dreams also cannot be given complete meaning through verbal representation. The dream itself, in all its various nuances, is silent to all, including the dreamer. Even when reported by the dreamer, the dramatic juxtaposition of symbolic scenes which often occurs in dreams usually conveys more to the dreamer than the words actually spoken. Retelling a dream generally involves a reinterpretation through the addition of causal connections or critical commentary in order to rationalize or create signification where none existed. In addition, the medium of language, a medium of logical connections determined by grammar and syntax, tends to impose an external order on dreams not present in the act of dreaming itself. Words reduce the process to a product and thus change the essence of the experience. Speech may capture the narrative and imagistic level of the experience, but its full significance—the process of the mental experience of dreaming—can only be understood by conveying the same mental state. In Act II, scene i, Asia surmounts these difficulties by reading rather than hearing Panthea's dream. Reading liberates the silence of the dream through a mental reenactment of the dream process. Asia's reading surmounts the embellishments and limitations of speech to gain direct access to Panthea's experience of the dream. In reading the dream out loud, of course, she violates the silent status of the untold dream, and thereby adds her own verbal embellishments and limitations to it. Yet, as Rajan points out, the dialogue between Asia and Panthea acts as an “intratextual allegory of the transmission of text to reader,” a surrogate representation of the dialogue between author and reader. This scene of reading, of liberating signification from the silence of writing, remains a valuable surrogate form for the reader. “By imaging the author and implied reader as sisters,” argues Rajan, “Shelley assumes a reading based on sympathy rather than doubt, a dialogue which is not dialogue because the Other is the emotional twin of the self.”26 The liberation of signification from silence through personal mental apprehension rather than a verbal, social medium lies at the heart of this process. To avoid a complete compromise of silence while working in a verbal medium, Shelley emphasizes the idea of an indirect nonverbal interchange between the two characters.

Panthea comes to Asia from Prometheus and tells her of two dreams she had while sleeping at the Titan's feet. Unfortunately, she has forgotten one of the dreams but reports the other, a dream about Prometheus transfigured, in great detail. In her dream, Panthea finds that as she looks into Prometheus' eyes, her conscious senses of sight and hearing, along with any consciously willed movement, are paralysed; the only communication takes place through the non-verbal exchange of feeling. Yet this passive, felt experience is more intimate and penetrating than active intercourse, verbal or sexual. Panthea states,

I saw not, heard not, moved not, only felt
His presence flow out and mingle through my blood
Till it became his life, and his grew mine,
And I was thus absorbed.


The spiritual interpenetration of Panthea and Prometheus is reminiscent of Blake's description of embraces in eternity as “Cominglings: from the Head even to the Feet.”27 What is particularly significant in such an idealized intercourse is that it occurs through a non-physical, non-verbal exchange. Ironically, of course, such exchanges are only rendered in a verbal or physical way simply because of the spatial and temporal frames of reference. Thus Shelley suggests that Prometheus' voice seems to exist in the realm of potentiality between the act of speaking and the silence that follows speech. Of Prometheus' voice, Panthea remarks that its “accents lingered ere they died / Like footsteps of weak melody” (II.i.88-89). The distant lingering quality is such that she is compelled to listen for its return “through the night when sound was none” (II.i.92).

Yet Panthea's detailed verbal narration of her remembered dream proves inadequate, and Asia demands a more perfect apprehension of the actual dream experience. After Panthea's narration, Asia replies, “Thou speakest, but thy words / Are as the air: I feel them not: Oh, lift / Thine eyes, that I may read his written soul” (II.i.108-110). She then repeats with Panthea the same actions Panthea experienced with Prometheus in her dream. Asia looks into Panthea's eyes, and presumably their silent interchange is similar to that felt between Panthea and Prometheus. The interesting twist Shelley provides in this scene is that Asia not only reads Panthea's remembered dream of the transfigured Prometheus, but she also reads the forgotten dream. Through this turn, Shelley emphasizes the efficacy of subconscious, nonverbal communication as an avenue to Prometheus' redemption, since the forgotten dream thereafter becomes a half realized character in the play, not part of the dramatis personae but able to lead Panthea and Asia to the cave of Demogorgon. Asia, then, seems to bring an actual remembering of the Dream into the form of something approximating a living, moving being. This actualization of silence attains only a transverbal state able to utter sounds but appearing only as an indeterminate “shape”:

                                                                                                    Its rude hair
Roughens the wind that lifts it, its regard
Is wild and quick, yet 'tis a thing of air,
For through its gray robe gleams the golden dew.


Before following the Dream, however, Asia realizes that her remembering of Panthea's forgotten dream also recalls a dream from her “own forgotten sleep” (II.i.142) which calls the pair to “Follow, Follow.” Evidently, the awakening of forgotten dreams begins a chain reaction of remembering that leads to Demogorgon's cave. Clearly, this chain of remembering is a continuation of the liberation of consciousness that began with Prometheus' renunciation of his hatred of and curse against Jupiter. Asia and Panthea, however, are led to Demogorgon's cave not by a voice but by an echo. Moreover, they are led not by the echo of a voice, but by the echo of a dream, a silent, purely felt experience.

“Echoes,” as Oscar Firkins points out, “are a rarefaction or attenuation of sound, as they represent a withdrawal of sound in the direction of the mysterious and impalpable.”28 Shelley uses echoes in Prometheus Unbound as a meeting point between sound and silence, presence and absence, since they stand between the absence of the speaker's voice and the completion of speech in silence. Like dreams, they contain a transverbal quality, bridging the gap between sound and silence, offering a potential fullness of meaning in the same way reflected images of experiences for the Romantics often seem more intense or beautiful than the objects they reflect.29 After the Chorus of Spirits in Act I disappears, Panthea notes,

                                                                                                    Only a sense
Remains of them, like the omnipotence
Of music, when the inspired voice and lute
Languish, ere yet the responses are mute
Which through the deep and labyrinthine soul,
Like echoes through long caverns, wind and roll.


The echo which follows the Spirit's departure has a fullness of absent presentness, a numinous quality that bespeaks a felt presence no longer directly perceived. The echo's diffusion into the silence which follows a song or a storm or even a dream becomes the guide for the movement toward the cave of Demogorgon, where all silence and absence is made present.

As they follow this “attenuation of sound,” however, Asia and Panthea move into a greater privation of physical and conscious stimuli. They follow the Echoes to a place where “In the world unknown / Sleeps a voice unspoken” (II.i.190-191). This is not a world simply of silence; it is a world of almost complete absence. They follow the echoing song of Spirits

                    Through the gray, void abysm,
                                                            Down, down.
                    Where the air is no prism,
                    And the moon and stars are not,
                    And the cavern-crags wear not
                    The radiance of Heaven,
                    Nor the gloom to Earth given,
Where there is One pervading, One alone,
                                                            Down, down!


In the quest to reach the “One pervading, One alone,” direct speech or perception becomes unimportant and the silence of refuge gives way to a silence that is the fullness of Demogorgon's being and the place of the unconscious' liberation.

At the center of this world of absence sits Demogorgon, perhaps the most striking figure of nonverbal, unperceived essence possible within the representational medium of language. In Demogorgon's presence Panthea exclaims,

                                                                                I see a mighty darkness
Filling the seat of power, and rays of gloom
Dart round, as light from the meridian sun.
—Ungazed upon and shapeless; neither limb,
Nor form, nor outline; yet we feel it is
A living Spirit.


Despite the fact that Demogorgon claims that he can tell “All things thou dar’st demand” (II.iv.8), he is remarkably laconic in his replies to Asia's questions. Indeed, before Asia's descent, the Echoes point out that “By thy step alone” can the world unknown and voice unspoken be made manifest (II.i.190-194), and this is confirmed by Demogorgon's statement, “If the abysm / Could vomit forth its secrets. … But a voice / Is wanting, the deep truth is imageless” (II.iv.114-116). Rajan comments on Demogorgon's reticence to speak and writes that “in his equivocal and indirect answers he allows the discourse of the heart to come up against a wall of silence which allows it to hope, but only in solitude and monologue, and without the support of dialogue with a transcendental source.”30 The fact that Demogorgon does not answer Asia's questions in a satisfactory manner causes her to reply with her own myth about the created order. By supplying easy answers to questions such as “Who made the living world?” (II.iv.9), Demogorgon would merely terminate Asia's search for an answer.31 His silence forces her to search her own mind to find a suitable answer to such musings. Indeed, as Socrates points out in the Meno, we learn more from questioning than from teaching, since the ability to formulate a particular question implies the knowledge to answer it.32 If this is true in Asia's case, then Demogorgon's verbal reticence forces her into a remembering or liberation of this forgotten knowledge.

The interaction between Asia and Demogorgon is similar to that in “Mont Blanc” as the poet confronts the silence of the mountain peak; since no response is given to the final question about silence and solitude as representations of vacancy, the poet is forced to construct a myth about the possibility that silence has a voice. Direct answers to a given question would silence the creation of the poem itself and in Prometheus Unbound would end Asia's probing of the meanings behind the veil of life and death. The pursuit of silence thus becomes an emblem of the creative act that ultimately takes place within the silence of Demogorgon's cave. In Demogorgon's cave (or the cave of the witch Poesy in “Mont Blanc”) the mind confronts the shadows of existence and asks a question; the response comes from an internal source and creates a poetic myth about the vision in the cave.

Shelley's philosophical skepticism is as evident in Prometheus Unbound as it is in “Mont Blanc.” He shows that the construction of a myth of meaning from silence holds the potentiality for its own deconstruction from the very core of its own significance. In “Mont Blanc” the deconstructive crux appears in the poet's final question to the mountain. Here, at the crucial point of poetic completion the poet ends in the interrogative mode, leaving the reader to decide not only whether the poem affirms or denies the power in silence but also whether the poem affirms or deconstructs its own validity. In Prometheus Unbound, as Rajan has pointed out, a hermeneutical reading both reinforces and undermines the meaning of the text at its silent core. Asia's reading of Panthea's forgotten dream supports the belief in meaning derived from silence; however, Asia's meeting with Demogorgon, filled with silences and grammatical indeterminacies, suggests “that the inner core of the work is perhaps absent, its voice ‘lacking,’” since Demogorgon's “curious lack of personality denies the possibility of communication except on a grammatological level.”33 Yet, as I argued earlier, Asia's agony seems to reflect the mind's re-membering of forgotten knowledge when confronting apparent silence and absence. Asia's reconstruction of meaning from Demogorgon's silence, therefore, may potentially argue for the creation of meaning from silence while at the same time denying any actual objective meaning in this silence. Thus, meaning seems to reside only in the mind of the perceiver reflecting on silence. Meaning is affirmed when Asia reads Panthea's mind, since Asia and Panthea act as “two sides of the self”;34 meaning seems absent, however, when Asia confronts Demogorgon who represents something so completely other that his role in the play is difficult to define; indeed, he seems to function outside the psychological drama of Prometheus. The only plenitude in silence, then, seems to exist in a dialogue of the self with absence. A dialogue between the self and something totally other raises an awareness of nothingness, absence and vacancy. To return to King Lear we might argue that Lear himself believes Cordelia's “Nothing” and her accompanying reticence to be an absence of affection because he sees her as totally apart from himself; his inability to see her as a part of himself keeps him from finding meaning in her silence.

From Shelley's perspective the quest for meaning in silence seems perhaps more important than the silence itself. Shelley's complaints about the arbitrary nature of language, which “as a cloud … enfeebles” expression, suggest that the significance of language lies more in its potentiality in “the invisible nature of man” than in its articulation in art.35 Ultimately, then, Shelley attempts in “Mont Blanc” and Prometheus Unbound to leave the resolution of the place and meaning of silence within the perceiving mind. Stretched thin, all poetic veils ultimately tear away to reveal another silence at the end of the work. As the poem or play ends, it retreats into silence as the last word is read (or spoken) and the entire work takes on its fullest composite form in the mind of the listener or reader.


  1. Quotations from Shakespeare's King Lear are taken from the Arden edition, ed. Kenneth Muir (London: Methuen, 1952).

  2. Gerald Brun, Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), pp. 59-61; and Susan Hawk Brisman, “‘Unsaying His High Language’: The Problem of Voice in Prometheus Unbound,Studies in Romanticism, 16 (1977), 53-86.

  3. William Keach, Shelley's Style (New York: Methuen, 1984).

  4. Timothy Webb, “The Unascended Heaven: Negatives in Prometheus Unbound,Shelley Revealed: Essays from the Gregynog Conference, ed. Kelvin Everest, (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1983), pp. 37-62; and P. M. S. Dawson, The Unacknowledged Legislator: Shelley and Politics (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), pp. 119-133.

  5. Dawson, The Unacknowledged Legislator, p. 120.

  6. All quotations from Shelley's poetry are taken from Shelley: Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, corr. G. M. Matthews (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).

  7. Earl Wasserman, The Subtler Language: Critical Readings of Neoclassic and Romantic Poems (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1959), p. 204.

  8. Waserman, The Subtler Language, p. 223.

  9. André Neher, The Exile of the Word: From the Silence of the Bible to the Silence of Auschwitz, trans. David Maisel (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981), p. 38.

  10. Keach, Shelley's Style, p. 119, discusses Shelley's use of evanescent imagery “to reflect the mind's evanescent moments of experience” and to arrest “‘the vanishing apparitions’ … until the process of reading begins.”

  11. Shelley, “The Defence of Poetry” in David Lee Clark, ed., Shelley's Prose or The Trumpet of a Prophecy (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954), p. 278. All references to Shelley's prose will be taken from this edition unless otherwise noted.

  12. Keach, Shelley's Style, p. 7.

  13. John W. Wright, Shelley's Myth of Metaphor (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1970), pp. 44-45.

  14. E. B. Murray, “Mont Blanc's Unfurled Veil,” Keats-Shelley Journal, 18 (1969), 43-44.

  15. Letter to Thomas Love Peacock, 22 July 1816, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964) I, 497.

  16. Murray, “Mont Blanc's Unfurled Veil,” Keats-Shelley Journal, 18 (1969), 43-44.

  17. Robert A. Brinkley, “On the Composition of ‘Mont Blanc’: Staging a Wordsworthian Scene,” English Language Notes, 24 (1986), 52. See also G. Kim Blank, Wordsworth's Influence on Shelley: A Study of Poetic Authority (New York: St Martin's, 1988), pp. 171-182, for a more extended comparison of “Mont Blanc” and “Tintern Abbey.”

  18. William Wordsworth, Prospectus to The Excursion, in The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, eds. Ernest De Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (Oxford: Clarendon, 1949), V, 4, line 54.

  19. Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), pp. 249-250; 247.

  20. Tilottama Rajan, “Deconstruction or Reconstruction: Reading Shelley's Prometheus Unbound,Studies in Romanticism, 23 (1984), 319.

  21. Letter to John Gisborne, 26 January 1822, Letters, II, 388.

  22. Earl R. Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1971), p. 266.

  23. Brisman, “‘Unsaying His High Language,’” Studies in Romanticism, 16 (1977), 59-60.

  24. Brisman, “‘Unsaying His High Language,’” Studies in Romanticism, 16 (1977), 58.

  25. Cf. the similes used to describe the “unseen Power” (line 1): “Like hues and harmonies of evening,— / Like clouds in starlight widely spread,— / Like memory of music fled …” (lines 8-10).

  26. Rajan, “Deconstruction or Reconstruction,” Studies in Romanticism, 23 (1984), 323, 326.

  27. Jerusalem, 69.43, in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 223.

  28. Oscar W. Firkins, Power and Elusiveness in Shelley (New York: Octagon, 1970), p. 125.

  29. In the first of his Three Fragments on Beauty, for example, Shelley asks equivocally, Why is the reflection in that canal more beautiful than the objects it reflects? The colours are more vivid, and yet blended with greater harmony; the opening from within into the soft and tender colours of the distant wood, and the intersection of the mountain lines, surpass and misrepresent truth. (Shelley's Prose, p. 337)

    Similarly, in Prometheus Unbound the fourth member of the Chorus of Spirits remarks more positively,

    He will watch from dawn to gloom
    The lake-reflected sun illume
    The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom,
    Nor heed nor see, what things they be;
    But from these create he can
    Forms more real than living man,
    Nurslings of immortality!


    Silence and other indirect verbal communication act in the same way offering a fuller potentiality for meaning than that conveyed in the world of imperial forms and acts. Yet Shelley's skepticism, as revealed in the Fragments on Beauty, demonstrates a simultaneous awareness that such reflections are still removed from the ideal forms they imitate.

  30. Tilottama Rajan, Dark Interpreter: The Discourse of Romanticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980), p. 87.

  31. Milton Wilson, Shelley's Later Poetry: A Study of His Prophetic Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957), p. 141, comments that “Demogorgon's method resembles nothing so much as that of a subtle and taciturn seminar leader, who, although he contributes very little directly himself, manages to persuade his interlocutors to answer their own questions to his own satisfaction.”

  32. See Plato's Meno, 85d, trans. W. K. C. Guthrie, Plato: The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 370.

  33. Rajan, “Deconstruction or Reconstruction,” Studies in Romanticism, 23 (1984), 328.

  34. Rajan, “Deconstruction or Reconstruction,” Studies in Romanticism, 23 (1984), 324.

  35. Shelley, “The Defense of Poetry,” Shelley's Prose, p. 279.


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Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792-1822

(Also wrote under pseudonyms of Victor and The Hermit of Marlow.) English poet, essayist, playwrite, translator, and novelist. The following entry presents recent criticism of Shelley. See also, The Cenci Criticism.

Shelley is regarded as a major English Romantic poet. His foremost works, including Prometheus Unbound,Adonais,The Revolt of Islam, and The Triumph of Life, are recognized as leading expressions of radical thought written during the Romantic age, while his odes and shorter lyrics are often considered among the greatest in the English language. In addition, his essay A Defence of Poetry is highly valued as a statement on the moral importance of poetry and of poets, whom he calls “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” While Shelley's significance to English literature is today widely acknowledged, he was one of the most controversial literary figures of the early nineteenth century.

Biographical Information

Shelley was born the eldest son of Sir Timothy and Elizabeth Shelley, landed aristocrats living in Horsham, Sussex. He was educated first at Syon House Academy, then Eton, and finally University College, Oxford. Before the age of twenty he had published two Gothic novels, Zastrozzi (1810) and St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian (1811), and two collections of verse, Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire (1810), written with his sister, and Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholsen (1810), coauthored with his Oxford friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg. Shelley's 1811 publication of The Necessity of Atheism caused him to be expelled from Oxford, an event that estranged him from his family and left him without financial means. Nonetheless, later that year he eloped to Scotland with Harriet Westbrook, a sixteen-year-old schoolmate of his sister. For the next three years Shelley was actively involved in political and social reform in Ireland and Wales, writing radical pamphlets in which he set forth his views on liberty, equality, and justice. The year 1814 was a pivotal one in Shelley's personal life. Although their marriage was faltering, he remarried Harriet in England to ensure the legality of their union and the legitimacy of their children. Weeks later, however, he fell in love with Mary Godwin, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the radical English philosopher William Godwin and his first wife, the feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft. Shelley and Mary eloped in Europe, and upon their return continued to live together, though Shelley provided for Harriet and his two children. In the summer of 1816 Shelley traveled to Lake Geneva to meet with Lord Byron. The two men developed an enduring friendship that proved an important influence on the work of both men. Shortly after Shelley's return to England in the fall, Harriet drowned herself in Hyde Park. Shelley subsequently sought custody of his children, but the Westbrook family successfully blocked him in a lengthy lawsuit. After a brief residence at Marlow in 1817, during which he enjoyed the company of Leigh Hunt, Thomas Love Peacock, John Keats, and other literary figures, Shelley relocated his family to Italy. There they moved frequently, spending time in Leghorn, Venice, Naples, Rome, Florence, Pisa, and Lerici. The years in Italy were productive for Shelley, and saw the publication of many of his greatest works of poetry. Shortly before his thirtieth birthday Shelley and a friend, Edward Williams, drowned when their boat capsized in a squall off the coast of Lerici. Shelley's body was cremated on the beach in a ceremony conducted by his friends Byron, Hunt, and Edward John Trelawny. His ashes were subsequently buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome.

Major Works

Much of Shelley's writing reflects the events and concerns of his life. His passionate belief in reform, the equality of the sexes, and the powers of love and imagination are frequently expressed in his poetry. Shelley's first mature work, Queen Mab, was printed in 1813, but not distributed due to its inflammatory subject matter. In it Shelley denounced established society and religion in favor of free love and atheism. The visionary and sometimes autobiographical poem Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude (1816) describes the experiences of the Poet who, rejecting human sympathy and domestic life, is pursued by the demon Solitude. An imaginative account of a bloodless revolution led by a brother and sister, Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century (1818) deals with the positive power of love, the complexities of good and evil, and ultimately, a spiritual victory through martyrdom. The subsequently revised edition of the work as The Revolt of Islam minimized its elements of incest and political revolution. The verse drama Prometheus Unbound (1820) combines myth, political allegory, psychology, and theology. In the work Shelley transformed the Aeschylean myth of Prometheus, the fire-giver, into an allegory on the origins of evil and the possibility of regenerating nature and humanity through love. Shelley based The Cenci on the history of a sixteenth-century Italian noble family. After the evil Count Cenci rapes his daughter, Beatrice, she determines to murder him, seeing no other means of escape from continued violation, and is executed for parricide. Drawing on the formal tradition of elegiac verse, Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821) laments Keats's early death and, while rejecting the Christian view of resurrection, describes his return to the eternal beauty of the universe. Epipsychidion (1821) chronicles Shelley's search for ideal beauty through his relationships with women. Among his shorter poems, the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc” focus on Shelley's belief in an animating spirit, while “Ode to the West Wind” examines opposing forces in nature. “Ode to Liberty,” “Sonnet: England in 1819,” and The Masque of Anarchy feature several of his most enduring political themes. Shelley's last work, The Triumph of Life, left unfinished at his death, describes the relentless march of life that has destroyed the aspirations of all but the sacred few who refused to compromise to worldly pressures.

Critical Reception

The history of Shelley's critical reputation has been characterized by radical shifts. During his lifetime he was generally viewed as a misguided or even depraved genius; critics frequently praised portions of his poetry in passing and deplored at length his atheism and unorthodox philosophy. Nevertheless, Shelley was known and admired by his great contemporaries; Byron, Keats, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey regarded his works with varying degrees of sympathy and approval. Shelley was regarded as the prototype of the misunderstood poetic genius during the Victorian era, while serious interest in his works began to revive in the late 1930s as scholars came to recognize the complexity of his style, philosophy, and major themes. In examining his style commentators have generally focused on his imagery, use of language, and technical achievements. The importance of neo-platonism, the occult, the Bible, the French Revolution, and Gothicism, as well as the works of individual philosophers—Wollstonecraft, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Godwin—to Shelley's thought and writing has been explored by other critics. Attention has also been devoted to recurring themes in Shelley's work. His doctrines of free love and sexual equality have particularly attracted commentary on the poet. Recent criticism of Shelley's works has generally been marked by increasing respect for his abilities as a poet and his surprisingly modern philosophy. Overall, Shelley remains a central figure in English Romanticism. His major works are respected as challenging credos of revolutionary philosophy, and his odes and shorter lyrics are widely known for their stylistic mastery. Furthermore, his Defence of Poetry stands as a powerful statement of the Romantic ideal of art and the artist.

Stephen C. Behrendt (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Beatrice Cenci and the Tragic Myth of History,” in History & Myth: Essays on English Romantic Literature, edited by Stephen C. Behrendt, Wayne State University Press, 1990, pp. 214-34.

[In the following essay, Behrendt explores the political theme and moral crisis depicted in Shelley's verse drama The Cenci.]

History and myth converge in Shelley's deeply political tragedy The Cenci, whose compelling protagonist, Beatrice Cenci, dramatically embodies that crisis which occurs in human affairs when an intolerable situation of perceived injustice and oppression appears to offer no viable legitimized options for action. Voicing the instinctive desire for relief, the individual trapped in such a dilemma naturally responds, as Beatrice does, that “something must be done” (III, i, 86), and The Cenci records the nature and consequences of Beatrice's decision about just what is to be done. The Cenci is a play about revolution, and about the insidious combination of circumstances that engender it. Shelley's tragedy anatomizes a world ripe for the revolution that necessarily occurs, portraying the “sad reality”1 of a moral, social, and political universe in which the ethical foundations of human institutions are undermined at their most primary level: that of the family unit itself. A familiar metaphor for political relations,2 the family and its relationships supplied Shelley with a mythic paradigm grounded in a human reality that cuts across distinctions of audience and faction. Particularly in light of Shelley's practice in previous works of employing allegorical female figures to articulate his political philosophy, the chaotic state of affairs in the Cenci family and the role Beatrice plays therein bore implicit political relevance for the volatile England of 1819.

The course of action Beatrice pursues must be assessed against the backdrop of her incestuous father's unrelenting sadism and the grinding system of institutionalized patriarchal domination in which even the protagonist's surpassing virtue and innocence are insufficient to prevent her being, as Shelley declares in the play's Preface, “violently thwarted from her nature by the necessity of circumstance and opinion” (PP, 238). The audience cannot avoid being drawn into Beatrice's crisis: the power of both the circumstances and the action make that participation as irresistible as the compulsion to pass judgment. Shelley aptly assesses the phenomenon: “It is in the restless and anatomizing casuistry with which men seek the justification of Beatrice, yet feel that she has done what needs justification; it is in the superstitious horror with which they contemplate alike her wrongs and their revenge; that the dramatic character of what she did and suffered, consists” (PP, 240). Torn by our divided allegiance to the principles of humanity that dictate our sympathy with Beatrice and to the ethical discernment that requires our disapproval of her complicity in acts of murder and concealment, we are pressed inexorably toward Shelley's conclusion that the entire system that has placed Beatrice in her dilemma is both culpable and morally insupportable, a system of terrifying perversion in which, as Stuart Curran has written, “to act is to commit evil.”3

The revolution in The Cenci fails because it is the wrong revolution. Eliminating a tyrant by enlisting his own methods against him merely perpetuates the violent system of revenge and retribution. The Cenci stands as Shelley's argument by analogy about the English nation's need to learn by studying the tragedies of fallen nobility of mind and spirit that the past furnishes, and to choose for itself the only acceptable alternative to the downward spiral of violence: not revolution, but reform of the entire inhering structure of society, its assumptions, and its institutions. To this end Shelley envisioned a stage production that would explore and exploit the social nature of the theater, and particularly the ritualistic function of historical drama as re-presentation of history (or the semblance of history). To the historian's task of recounting the past, however, The Cenci adds the poet's concern with influencing the present and shaping the future.

Shelley fully intended to capitalize in his play upon the same sort of “deep and breathless interest” in Beatrice Cenci that surrounded the Cenci legend as he encountered it in Rome, and that unfailingly combined “a romantic pity for the wrongs, and a passionate exculpation of the horrible deed to which they urged her” (PP, 239). By 1819 he apparently had encountered the story both in popular discussion and in print: in a manuscript fragment and in Vincenzo Pieracci's 1816 play, Beatrice Cenci.4 The tale struck Shelley as exceptionally fitted to drama because of “its capacity of awakening and sustaining the sympathy of men” (PP, 239). “Sympathy”—the powerful principle of “the communication of passions” that arises not from reason but from human feelings—the skeptical tradition generally and Hume in particular had designated as “the chief source of moral distinctions,”5 and the entire issue of relative success or failure, right or wrong, that this play examines is inextricably linked with Shelley's cognizance of the conflicting and often contradictory roles played by reason and passion (or “sympathy”) in demonstrating the ultimate unattainability of absolute truth. The intellectual tradition of skepticism Shelley had absorbed especially from Hume and Drummond embraced the conviction that all hypotheses require continual testing, and this conviction governs the spectacle with which Shelley confronts his audience.

Shelley's play forces his audience to participate actively in Beatrice's moral and psychological testing and to discover in both her ordeal and their own a prototypical crisis of faith both in humanity generally and, more important, in the individual and autonomous moral and social self. In this interactive process, the audience is compelled to “go out of” its own nature (as discrete individuals and as collective social community) and, as Hume explains in A Treatise of Human Nature and Shelley recommends in A Defence of Poetry, to identify not only with “the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person not our own” but also with “the pains and pleasures of [the] species” (PP, 487-88). The label Shelley attaches to this “great secret of morals” is Love, and his tragedy examines in painful fashion the failure, amid circumstances of overwhelming brutality and degradation, of a virtuous and innocent individual to sustain the love—both for others and, more important, for herself—that might bear her up were not all hope and support seemingly denied her.

Why Shelley elected to convey his message through the vehicle of drama is clear from another remark in the Defence:

The connexion of poetry and social good is more observable in the drama than in whatever other form [of poetry]: and it is indisputable that the highest perfection of human society has ever corresponded with the highest dramatic excellence; and that the corruption or the extinction of the drama in a nation where it has once flourished, is a mark of a corruption of manners, and an extinction of the energies which sustain the soul of social life (PP, 492).

Shelley's view of the theater presupposes an audience willing to substitute for its customary passive spectatorship an active participation in a dynamic intellectual interaction with the playwright, a relationship mediated through the performance of the text both onstage and in the consciousness of the audience. As Michael Henry Scrivener observes, Shelley envisioned The Cenci as “a catalyst for precipitating another kind of drama in the spectator,” for whom the experience would yield important moral benefits.6 Indeed, “truth must be understood in relation to one's social investments,” as Jerome McGann concludes from the dialogic nature of Plato's works.7 Though Shelley's Defence links the rise and decline of societies to the relative vigor of the arts throughout history, his dissatisfaction with the contemporary English stage (and its preference for spectacle and sentiment over substance) mirrors his increasing disaffection with English audiences generally. Moreover, Shelley's view of classical tragedy interestingly anticipates the later twentieth-century view of the culture that produced the great Greek tragedies, a view that discovers there not so much serenity, proportion, and rationality as “turbulence, dissonance, and an ambivalent morality that plagues action and passion.”8 Shelley believed that tragedy might function to “help us determine who we are and what we are doing to ourselves and others, while making it clear that such questions are never fully answered or finally resolved.”9 He extended this conviction also to historical drama, and particularly to that species of historical drama which bears visible implications for contemporary events.10

The Defence was composed in February and March of 1821, after Shelley had in 1820 secured publication of The Cenci when it had become clear to him that his tragedy would not be staged at Covent Garden as he had intended. Hence his comments on the historical decline of national theaters are not free of personal grievances. Nevertheless, they underscore Shelley's convictions about drama's implicit universal moral significance. Coming as it did after he had completed the significant restructuring of myth evident in the first three acts of Prometheus Unbound (which was not intended for any temporal stage), The Cenci traces—as had both the lyrical drama and Shelley's longest poem, Laon and Cythna (The Revolt of Islam)—the stages of a revolution. Like Laon and Cythna—and unlike Prometheus UnboundThe Cenci is the record of a failed revolution, a rebellion that proceeds to its catastrophe from that most traditional, mythic spring: the conflict between generation and generation, between parent and child. That Shelley chose for his subject the history of the Cenci family, in which the revolutionary activity centers in a female protagonist, is not without significance for Shelley, either as liberal reformer or as husband of Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter. Beatrice's dilemma parallels those both of women during Shelley's era (whose advocate Mary Wollstonecraft had sought to be) and of the British populace generally (on whose behalf and for whose edification Shelley had for nearly a decade endeavored to speak in support of reform). Hence her situation and the choices she makes are invested with a significance far greater than the merely historical.

Beatrice Cenci is more than the protagonist in a protohistorical play: she is the central figure in a moral and ethical parable that functions on several interrelated levels. At the level of surface narrative, her role is historical and dramatic. At the level of moral and ethical significance, it is essentially allegorical. And at the level most directly relevant to Shelley's private thoughts and public intentions as he completed his play in 1819, her role is mythic, although Shelley criticism has routinely overlooked the explicit emphasis the poet places in the play's Preface upon the Cenci story's archetypal pattern of myth.11 Shelley weaves these roles into the fabric of a tragedy that elevates history to the level and status of myth, creating a moral and political exemplum designed to reveal dramatically the inevitable destruction from within of even the noblest and best-intentioned society—epitomized in its most paradigmatically virtuous representative—when that society permits, and participates in, the subversion of the morally and imaginatively informed integrative choice to love, and revels instead in the pernicious proclivity toward brutality, domination, revenge, and retribution. Mary Shelley had only just recently explored the effects of this misdirection of impulse in Frankenstein; but to present in its most powerful and devastating fashion the terrible tragedy of such a misdirection of all that is noble and divine in humanity requires not a grotesque creature but rather a protagonist of surpassing beauty and greatness, of tragic grandeur. Beatrice Cenci would seem to be just such a figure.

Beatrice clearly possesses external grandeur, both of social status (the Cenci are a powerful aristocratic family) and of moral character (she is, both by report and by initial behavior, extraordinarily virtuous). Indeed, in the play's Preface Shelley twice expands upon her moral and physical beauty, remarking at last that both in the historical account of her character and in her portrait (attributed at the time to Guido Reni) at Rome, “there is a simplicity and dignity which, united with her exquisite loveliness and deep sorrow, are inexpressibly pathetic. Beatrice Cenci appears to have been one of those rare persons in whom energy and gentleness dwell together without destroying one another: her nature was simple and profound” (PP, 242). Moreover, she is intellectually acute, capable of drawing minute and sophisticated moral and intellectual distinctions.

Shelley envisioned Beatrice being acted at Covent Garden by the lovely and dynamic Eliza O’Neill (1791-1872), the Irish actress who from her first appearance there in 1814 in the role of Juliet had increasingly been acclaimed the worthy successor to the great Sarah Siddons. Shelley wrote to Thomas Love Peacock that the part was so “precisely fitted” for her that “it might even seem to have been written for her,” and that to see Miss O’Neill play the role would “tear my nerves to pieces.” Clearly it was vital that Beatrice be represented by the actress who could most compellingly convey her many excellences on the stage.12

Beatrice's experience as Shelley presents it in his play bears out Aristotle's stipulation that the cause of the hero's reversal “must lie not in any depravity but in some great error on his part,” some “error of judgment.”13 Aristotle's formulation precisely defines Beatrice, whose “great error” lies—as Blake might have put it—in becoming what she beholds. Her reversal stems from a terrible error of judgment that occurs in a situation of enormous stress; it engenders an internal depravity that comes to mirror with increasingly chilling irony the external depravity that prompted it: Shelley placed at the center of his tragedy the greatest of taboos, incest, an act so morally and socially repugnant that his audience could not but react with revulsion toward Francesco Cenci. In Act III Beatrice is unable to find a word for his crime:

                                        there is none to tell
My misery: if another ever knew
Aught like to it, she died as I will die,
And left it, as I must, without a name …
If I could find a word that might make known
The crime of my destroyer …

(III, i, 114-17, 154-55)

Moreover, Shelley refers in the Preface to Cenci's “capital crimes of the most enormous and unspeakable kind.” The unspeakable, unnamable quality of Cenci's offense suggests, in fact, not just incest but also sodomy.

Echoing the Pauline doctrine passed down by the church fathers, William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, had referred to sodomy as a subject “the very mention of which is a disgrace to human nature” and “a crime not fit to be named,” and had called it a “capital” crime whose prohibition he deemed “an universal, not merely a provincial, precept.”14 Similar references to sodomy as unspeakable and unnameable, which abound in the later eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries, must have been familiar to Shelley and his audiences, who reasonably could have been expected to understand the extent to which Cenci's crime is in fact identified by the very fact that no one will name it. The implication is historically accurate in any event, for the account of the Cenci story that Shelley had studied indicates that Francesco Cenci had three times escaped the death sentence for sodomy by bribing the pope, Clement VIII.15

Shelley intensifies the agony of Beatrice's position, making it clear that Cenci's is a brutally calculated plan of domination and degradation that is intended to include still greater horrors at the Castle of Petrella. With acute psychological insight, however, Shelley incorporates into Beatrice's thinking an element of misplaced blame that has frequently been the lot of victims of sexual abuse. He locates the germ of her “error of judgment” in the despairing attitude of “polluted victimization”16 she assumes in Act III after the assault, an attitude that recalls that of Coleridge's Christabel, who awakes after her nocturnal encounter with Geraldine convinced that “Sure I have sinn’d!”17 Persuaded that the vicious and demeaning physical and psychological outrages to which she has been subjected have necessarily compromised and incriminated her in both physical and moral / ethical terms, she chooses to retaliate in precisely the terms in which she has been wronged: by a physical attack upon the body of her oppressor. In plotting her father's murder and in employing assassins to execute the deed, she adopts in herself the behavior she has condemned in others. In this she exceeds even Count Cenci: though the play's first conversation makes it clear that Cenci arranges for the murder of his rivals, Scene iii reveals that he is apparently not physically implicated in the deaths of his sons Rocco and Cristofano—something of a technicality since he has prayed earnestly for their deaths. Beatrice escalates the scale of actual violence, though; though her father's assaults upon morality generally are despicable, Beatrice's complicity in murder is ethically no less despicable despite the appeal presented to the audience's sympathies by the extenuating circumstances that surround her actions.

This matter of calculated intention is in fact central to the moral errors to which father and daughter alike fall victim, for in discussing the nature of the passions, Hume had written that “by the intention we judge of the actions, and according as that is good or bad, they become causes of love or hatred. … An intention is requisite to excite either love or hatred.”18 This passage enables us better to appreciate the error implied in the final authority to which Beatrice turns in determining “what is to be done”:

                                                                                I have prayed
To God, and I have talked with my own heart,
And have unravelled my entangled will,
And have at length determined what is right.

(III, i, 218-21)

Once Beatrice internalizes her crisis and refers it to her own will for adjudication and counsel, the catastrophe becomes inevitable. So too does the return of mental calm and apparent rationality, which transformation itself reflects Hume's observation that “when a passion has once become a settled principle of action, and is the predominant inclination of the soul, it commonly produces no longer any sensible agitation.”19 Hence, in the final act, she is able coolly and apparently without compunction to sacrifice the soul of one of the assassins, whom she essentially consigns to hell by sending him to his death with a grave lie upon his soul.

In making her own will the final arbiter, Beatrice in effect appoints herself judge, jury, and executioner, assuming the ego-inflating posture of domination associated with the retributive God of wrath of the Old Testament, of Jehovah the destroyer, who is the figurehead for the whole patriarchal establishment against which Beatrice has been forced to struggle.20 In doing so she rejects the paradigm of self-sacrifice and forgiveness of sins represented in the passion and death of the God of love of the New Testament, of the Jesus Christ who gives his life as exemplum of fidelity to principles of nonviolent response to—and forgiveness of—even the most unmerited wrongs. More immediately, Beatrice reverses the response of Shelley's Prometheus, whose repudiation of revenge the poet had only just finished celebrating in the first three acts of Prometheus Unbound. Indeed, the variations Beatrice sounds on her “I have borne much” theme (I, iii, 111) are variations as well upon Prometheus's anguished cry of “I endure” early in the lyrical drama (I, 24).

In the Preface Shelley clarifies the issue, drawing at least a tentative distinction between apparent disgrace and real dishonor: “Undoubtedly, no person can be truly dishonoured by the act of another; and the fit return to make to the most enormous injuries is kindness and forbearance, and a resolution to convert the injurer from his dark passions by peace and love. Revenge, retaliation, atonement, are pernicious mistakes.” Beatrice's error lies in her deliberate violation of the specific injunction of Romans 12.19: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord.” Hers is the tragic flaw of hubris, the deadly sin of pride that impels her to arrogate to herself a function that is presumably God's alone. That she is a Roman Catholic in a Catholic country, and, moreover, that her father is barely dead by her devices when the emissaries of the pope arrive to arrest him in the name of the church (and hence of God) adds the crushing weight of cosmic irony to the gravity of her crime. Guilty not just of parricide, she sins doubly in blaspheming as well.

As the play progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that we must distinguish in Beatrice two significantly different voices. One is that of the virtuous woman we see initially and who is the unarguably innocent victim of both her father's abuse and the irresponsible earthly and heavenly patriarchy that tolerates it. The other is that of the skillful rhetorician whose increasingly profound self-delusion ironically increases in direct proportion to the fervency of her exercises in self-justification. Were the issues of right and wrong, of innocence and guilt, as clear-cut as these formulations imply, though, The Cenci would be little more than a formulaic morality play. But Shelley shrewdly enlists theater's immense emotional potential to complicate the audience's task by arranging matters so that the audience instinctively sides with Beatrice. It is no surprise that Shelley longed to have Count Cenci acted by the greatest of all Romantic actors, Edmund Kean, even though he admitted the impossibility of any such arrangement.21 Although he disliked Kean's violent acting style enough to walk out of a performance of Hamlet in 1814,22 Shelley fully appreciated its powerful impact in live performance. The heightened pity and terror that an actor like Kean might have elicited from a theater audience would necessarily have reinforced their bond of sympathy with Beatrice and made them party to the hubris that in these desperate circumstances seems to sanction actions that would ordinarily be condemned. Rendered emotionally defenseless by the horror of what Beatrice suffers, the audience is naturally primed to accept and endorse vengeance upon her oppressor. Shelley's strategy is to force the audience to recognize how easy and naturally they—like Beatrice—slip into sympathetic complicity in activities of which they normally would rationally disapprove. This unsettling recognition is central to the process of reeducation that Shelley has in mind: the audience must learn to resist and repudiate the longing for vengeance upon an oppressor that is itself the origin of Beatrice's fall. More important, it must reject the entire system of human behavior that makes violence and retribution an attractive and even desirable option. Beatrice's passion for what Curran calls an “ethical absolute,” however noble or “right,” is as futile as her father's pursuit of the sort of epitome of depravity we encounter also in Flannery O’Connor's violent Misfit, who declares that there is “no pleasure but meanness.”23

Shelley expects his audience to make difficult and momentous moral and intellectual choices in dealing with The Cenci, however distasteful those choices may prove to be. This expectation underscores the rhetorical nature of the play and its grounding in the tradition of the skeptical debate, in which truth is never absolute but only relative. Shelley confronts his audience with that most difficult of dilemmas: the need to reconcile intensely subjective emotional responses with objective reasoning and discrimination in coming to discoveries that are at once relevant to the self-knowledge both of each individual member of the audience and of that audience taken as a political body, as a community in which the potential for action is great. The process of recognition at which Shelley aims must arise, furthermore, not from any overt moralizing by the author through his characters but rather from the plot itself. In this matter Shelley again follows Aristotle, who asserts that “it is the action in it, i.e., its Fable or Plot, that is the end and purpose of tragedy”; for “the most powerful elements of attraction in Tragedy, the Peripeties and Discoveries, are parts of the Plot” (Poetics, 1461). The relevance of this dictum to political fiction is underscored by Irving Howe's observation that because ideology is abstract it is not easily accommodated in the political novel, whose preoccupation is necessarily with the quality of concrete experience: “It is precisely from this conflict that the political novel gains its interest and takes on the aura of high drama. … [The political novelist's] task is always to show the relation between theory and experience, between the ideology that has been preconceived and the tangle of feelings and relationships he is trying to present.”24 Shelley declares similarly that “there must … be nothing attempted to make the exhibition subservient to what is vulgarly termed a moral purpose” (PP, 240). Hence although Shelley considers Beatrice's desire for revenge “morally condemnable,” he tries to show her “as she was,”25 leaving it for the audience to judge her from her actions.

Aristotle distinguishes between poetry and history on the grounds that poetry's statements “are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars” (Poetics, 1464). Hence the author of a tragedy is advised to “first simplify [his story] and reduce [it] to a universal form, before proceeding to lengthen it out by the insertion of episodes” (Poetics, 1472). Shelley's Preface indicates that he has pursued just this strategy with the Cenci story, for “anything like a dry exhibition of it on the stage would be insupportable. The person who would treat such a subject must increase the ideal, and diminish the actual horror of the events, so that the pleasure which arises from the poetry which exists in these tempestuous sufferings and crimes may mitigate the pain of the contemplation of the moral deformity from which they spring” (PP, 239-40). In short, history must be made into poetry, or, to paraphrase Aristotle, “the thing that has happened” must become also the “kind of thing that might happen” (Poetics, 1463; italics added). In this fashion a story of such universal dimensions as that of Beatrice Cenci becomes more than just poetry, however: it assumes the nature and significance of myth. Moreover, it participates in that element of prophecy which Shelley associated throughout his career with patriotism and the desire to play a part in the renovation of humanity and human institutions.

By the summer of 1819, Shelley had already published Laon and Cythna, and had (he thought) completed Prometheus Unbound in three acts. The former develops a personal mythology, and the latter restructures familiar mythological materials. The viability of myth and mythic consciousness depends upon an audience's participation in both the formulation and the endowing with significance of that myth or mythic consciousness. In The Cenci Shelley labors in perhaps the most artistically “cramped” vehicle of all, creating a work tied at least in part to both the shape and the details of history, a work that, because it has no narrator, assigns its audience greater responsibility for both the “telling” and the interpretation of the story. As Joseph Wittreich observes, however, though prophets (like epic poets) may recount history, they do so “less to record it than to bring it to an apotheosis.”26 Like the prophet Wittreich describes, Shelley explores the past in his works in an attempt to liberate humanity from that past, and from the cycle of recurrent error of which history furnishes sad record.27

Shelley's choice of historical subject matter is important here. To choose the subject of the Cenci family is to accept that “this happened,” that the actual “shape” of the events cannot be profoundly altered (however much the details might be altered, embellished, or suppressed) but can only be observed and assessed. Shelley wanted his audience to be no less knowledgeable about the story and its catastrophic culmination than were the spectators at, say, Oedipus Rex. Indeed, he even suggested publicizing details of the play's plot in advance, partly to arouse interest, of course, but also to replace the customary concern with what happens with the greater one of how it happens.28 In the ritualistic playing-out of this familiar story, Shelley wants his audience to discern the relevance as analogy of the Cenci story, to get beyond the individual tragedy of the historical Beatrice Cenci and to perceive the inherent horror of the superstructure of custom and belief that leads Beatrice to choose such a terrible course of action in the first place. Shelley believes with Blake that error must be given form and recognized before it can be repudiated, and The Cenci is properly regarded as a complex and unrelenting embodiment of a misguided and oppressive patriarchal system and the self-consuming monsters it spawns. Such a fallen state of affairs produces no-win situations in which even the virtuous inevitably become scorpions (to use Shelley's image) stinging themselves to death.

It is upon this point of prophetic significance that Shelley's own position in 1819 bears greatest relevance to the mythic dimensions of Beatrice Cenci and of Shelley's play as a whole. By 1819 Shelley had settled in Italy, a self-exiled liberal reformer whose previous poetry and prose everywhere counsels against the desire for revenge of real or imagined wrongs in human affairs. Like his father-in-law, William Godwin, Shelley feared the bloody consequences of any repetition in England of the sort of radical alteration of the social and political structure that had occurred with the French Revolution. Conditions were indeed ripe for revolution in England during the latter years of the Regency: crop failures and political repression had aggravated the already acute socioeconomic dilemma arising from a postwar economic recession, the mechanization of the trades and industries, and the return to the work force of war-weary soldiers who found no jobs to which to return. In August of 1819 came the bloody action against the crowd of reformers at Manchester, to which Shelley responded from Italy with the series of impassioned poems that proved too hot for the cautious Leigh Hunt to publish in the Examiner.

The Examiner in fact sheds interesting light upon the ground occupied by Shelley and other liberal reformers in 1819, as they contemplated the approaching crisis in English domestic affairs. In the first issue of the Examiner for 1819, Hunt had written: “A spirit is abroad, stronger than kings, or armies, or all the most prominent shapes of prejudice and force. … This spirit is knowledge[:] that gigantic sense of the general good which has awaked for the first time in the known history of the world. … All classes feel that something, as the phrase is, must be done.”29 By late July, though, by which time Shelley had completed The Cenci, Hunt's tone had darkened considerably: “It is a fact, notorious and undeniable, that the present possessors of power are in the daily habit of violating the constitution; and it is a fact, undeniable and awful, that the suffering classes know it, and feel it, and will not let the consideration go out of their hearts.”30 The volatility of the situation in England was a recurrent theme in the Examiner in 1819, as well as in those other liberal journals with which Shelley had asked Hunt to keep him supplied. It is therefore not unreasonable to see in The Cenci an attempt to enlist the vehicle of live theatrical performance in the poet's attempt to play an active part—even from the distance his departure had imposed—in the stabilization, the reformation, and the reorientation of English society and values. It was as live theater, Shelley obviously believed, that The Cenci held the greatest potential for educating the public and providing the necessary brake to the speeding vehicle of public unrest that increasingly threatened to become a runaway as had happened in France thirty years earlier.

Beatrice Cenci's “great error,” then, consists in her deliberate subscription to the impulse toward vengeance and retribution for injuries inflicted by a powerful and vicious oppressor. This is not to say that she has failed to give more acceptable alternative measures their fair chance to work on her behalf. As she declares publicly to the guests at Cenci's banquet in Act I,

I have borne much, and kissed the sacred hand
Which crushed us to the earth, and thought its stroke
Was perhaps some paternal chastisement!
Have excused much, doubted; and when no doubt
Remained, have sought by patience, love and tears
To soften him, and when this could not be
I have knelt down through the long sleepless nights
And lifted up to God, the father of all,
Passionate prayers.

(I, iii, 111-19)

Later in the play the duplicitous Orsino tempts Beatrice at her moment of crisis with a series of brutal questions calculated further to undermine her instinctive virtue:

                                                            Should the offender live?
Triumph in his misdeed? and make, by use,
His crime, whate’er it is, dreadful no doubt,
Thine element; until thou mayest become
Utterly lost; subdued even to the hue
Of that which thou permittest?

(III, i, 172-77)

In imputing blame for Cenci's survival to an act of omission and weakness on her part, Orsino plays upon precisely that self-doubt which has led Beatrice to consider herself implicated in, and corrupted by, her father's vice. Shelley more than once raises in his poetry and prose the suggestion that, in failing to resist it, the oppressed participate in their own oppression. Shelley paints himself into something of the same corner into which he paints Beatrice, however, for the line separating principled passive resistance from practical submission in the interest of surviving is a fine and infinitely flexible one. The shift from absolute rejection of revolutionary violence in Shelley's early works to the qualified (or, occasionally, the wholehearted) acceptance of it as a practical means to an end in later works like Swellfoot the Tyrant, Hellas, and “Ode to Liberty” indicates that, though he staunchly resisted such violence in England, he gradually and reluctantly abandoned his aversion to its employment in service to liberty elsewhere.

Orsino's temptation of Beatrice with a rhetorical vision of Cenci's triumph over the forces of good directly echoes the Furies' temptation of Prometheus with the vision of the crucified Christ in Act I of Prometheus Unbound, and it is undertaken for the same purpose. Both visions are invoked to intensify the protagonists' self-doubts by misrepresenting history, and both find a significant antecedent in Satan's temptation of Jesus atop the pinnacle of the temple in Paradise Regained. Prometheus recognizes in the visions conjured up by the Furies Jupiter's own insidious designs: “I close my tearless eyes, but see more clear / Thy works within my woe-illumed mind” (I, 636-37). He concludes, furthermore, that his strength—indeed, his salvation—lies not in revenge but in self-sufficient endurance:

The sights with which thou torturest gird my soul
With new endurance, till the hour arrives
When they shall be no types of things which are.

(I, 643-45)

Beatrice Cenci responds to her temptation in exactly the opposite fashion, determining to endure no more but rather to be revenged upon her tormentor. With a mastery of terrible irony, Shelley has her declare, as we have seen, to “have at length determined what is right” (III, i, 221; italics added). In a world in which best options are merely the least of evils, “what is right” can exist only in relative terms. This is precisely why The Cenci is about “a sad reality,” as Shelley's dedication to Hunt proclaims, rather than about “my own apprehensions of the beautiful and the just” (PP, 237).

Of course, Shelley does not mean to suggest that Beatrice (or any other victim, for that matter) is abjectly and unresistingly to accept brutality and oppression. But he agrees with Christ's counsel to Peter in the garden of Gethsemene: striking off the ear (or the life) of the offender does no good and indeed merely perpetuates an intolerable cycle of violence. What is called for is not revenge but rather a sympathetic and informed understanding of the weakness and complexity of human nature that enables the victim to appreciate that the oppressor is the ultimate, unwitting victim of his or her own cruelty. Prometheus understands this, as had Jesus on the Cross (“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” [Luke 23.34]). In pitying the Furies, Prometheus effectively disarms them, even as he recants his curse partly because it had constituted a momentary lapse in his ability to be “king over myself, and rule / The torturing and conflicting throngs within” and partly because he so fervently wishes “no living thing to suffer pain” (I, 492-93, 305). In short, genuine liberty and dignity can never be taken away: they can only be surrendered, rashly, blindly, irrationally.

The self-poisoning nature of the lust for vengeance is a theme that had preoccupied Shelley from the earliest stages of his career. Already in Zastrozzi, for instance, the beautiful Matilda plots the murder of Julia, her rival. When the scheme miscarries, Matilda murders Julia herself and brutally mutilates the corpse, exemplifying the hideous atrocities to which the lust for revenge of perceived slights can drive the individual.

More important is Shelley's Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte (1817). Ostensibly written on the occasion of the princess's death, the pamphlet in fact excoriates the government's conduct in entrapping and executing—on the day following the princess's death—three members of the abortive Derbyshire rebellion of 1817.31 Shelley's pamphlet concludes with a funeral procession that appears at first to be that of the dead Princess Charlotte. But in a daring rhetorical maneuver, Shelley shifts his reference:

A beautiful Princess is dead:—she who should have been the Queen of her beloved nation, and whose posterity should have ruled it for ever. … Liberty is dead. … Let us follow the corpse of British Liberty slowly and reverentially to its tomb: and if some glorious Phantom should appear, and make its throne of broken swords and sceptres and royal crowns trampled in the dust, let us say that the Spirit of Liberty has arisen from its grave and left all that was gross and mortal there, and kneel down and worship it as our Queen.32

Only a few months after completing The Cenci, Shelley included among his responses to the Peterloo Massacre The Mask of Anarchy, whose apparatus includes the chariot of the Phantom of Liberty prefigured in the conclusion of the Address. Beatrice Cenci is, in fact, the most prominent and compelling among a considerable number of politically allegorical female figures in Shelley's works, including Ianthe (Queen Mab) and Cythna. Like the two phantoms in particular, she is a figurehead for the oppressed, for Liberty soiled and subjugated by irresponsible patriarchal power and authority.

But unlike the Princess Charlotte (who dies naturally in childbirth), the “Princess” Liberty (dead of neglect and abuse in England), and the Phantom of Liberty (who rises triumphant, even apocalyptic, from the carnage), Beatrice Cenci is her own worst enemy, her own destroyer. Like Oedipus, she sentences herself by and to her own hand. But unlike Oedipus, she proceeds not to “justice,” truth, and self-knowledge but rather to vengeance, prevarication, and self-deception. Shelley suggests that the essence of Beatrice's tragic fall—and the locus of the genuine pathos her circumstances elicit from us—is her failure to live up to her heroic potential. In failing to remain steadfast in the humanizing principles of love and integration, she rejects society itself in an act of tragic self-aggrandizement. The underlying mythic design here is that of the Fall. Beatrice succumbs to the temptation to commit an act—murder—that is expressly forbidden by God. In determining within her own will “what is right,” she becomes in fact her own tempter, her own Satan, responding in the fashion of the oppressor, returning injury with injury.

Shelley had to force his audience to rethink their allegiance to Beatrice, finally, and to recognize—however reluctantly—the error of the choices she has made. He uses the fate of the hired assassin Marzio for this purpose. When Beatrice confronts him in Act V after he has named her to the authorities under torture, Marzio finds himself so overwhelmed that he cannot repeat his accusation. In a speech combining dramatic irony with massive self-deception, Beatrice swears a false oath as prelude to her question:

What 'tis to blot with infamy and blood
All that which shows like innocence, and is,
Hear me, great God! I swear, most innocent,
So that the world lose all discrimination
Between the sly, fierce, wild regard of guilt,
And that which now compels thee to reply
To what I ask: Am I, or am I not,
A parricide?

(V, ii, 149-57)33

Through Beatrice, Shelley challenges the audience also to distinguish between appearance and reality—between what “sympathy” prompts and what rational analysis dictates—and to comprehend the actual facts of what it has witnessed, lest it too “lose all discrimination.”

Moreover, Marzio's response to Beatrice's question (“Thou art not!”) implicitly dooms him to an eternity in Hell, for that response is an outright lie, a lie that he never recants but bears to his death on the rack, where he holds his breath resolutely and dies of suffocation.34 His answer, like all of his final speech, indicates the degree to which he has been seduced by Beatrice's rhetoric, even as Eve had been deceived by the Serpent. That she is subsequently implicated by her own brother and mother makes even more poignant this needless sacrifice of Marzio's eternal soul. Whether we judge his death suicide or death-by-torture, Beatrice cannot be absolved of responsibility. Though she could not have known he would take his own life (for a Catholic, yet another mortal sin), she chooses to let his torture proceed, even as, having settled upon a course of action and determined that Cenci must die, she was unswerving in her dedication to that end. Her attempt to exonerate herself at Marzio's expense is occasionally regarded as a last desperate attempt to escape that “demonstrate[s] her valor in the face of hostile destiny.”35 But however much he might wish to “save” Beatrice, Shelley cannot, bound as he is both by history and by the ethical design of his tragedy. What he wishes to demonstrate to the audience is, in fact, the tragic erosion of valor. So consistently does Beatrice misstate fact and misrepresent reality after the crisis of Act III, Scene i, that her rhetorical maneuvering increasingly reinforces her conviction that she is blameless, free of responsibility in her father's death. Shelley requires that his audience face up to the universal truism that the greatest crimes against humanity are fraught with self-delusion and self-justification.

In terms of political allegory, then, Beatrice Cenci might have stood as an important warning to the theater audience Shelley hoped most to reach. In the explosive climate of 1819, the notion of real evil attractively packaged (or disguised) as apparent good held particular relevance. The bloody lesson of the French Revolution was still fresh in the English mind and, especially for a Godwinian gradualist like Shelley, the great moral and patriotic imperative was to stave off in England the natural and seemingly justified thirst for violent redress of wrongs on the part of the people generally. Like Beatrice Cenci, the later Regency Englishman and Englishwoman could not but feel the painful “generation gap” that was becoming ever more apparent as the official “father-figure” (both the government in the abstract and the profligate prince regent, who substituted for his apparently mad father) tried to maintain an everweakening grip on power by means of oppression and intimidation. Nor could the fate of the petition for assistance and intervention that Beatrice and her family address to the pope, which the scheming Orsino deliberately withholds to further his own designs,36 fail to suggest to some the similar fate of the floods of petitions submitted—with apparently equal lack of success—to Parliament by the advocates of reform during the Regency.

Both as metaphor and as myth, the history of the Cenci family was germane to English affairs. Like Francesco Cenci, the English royal father figure might be perceived as an irresponsible disciplinarian who had conspired in the deaths of his sons by committing them to protracted and often unpopular wars (against France and, earlier, against the American colonies). His cruelties against the “mother country” are manifest, from the destruction of her sons and daughters to the plundering of her national dowry. Finally, if we permit ourselves to regard Beatrice at least on one level as Liberty—as An Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte gives us reason to do—we can appreciate how a liberal reformer like Shelley could see in the England of 1819 a tale of brutality and incest not unlike that which had decimated the Cenci family. Aristotle claimed that the best dramatic situation for the tragedian is one in which “the deed of horror” is contemplated within a family unit, and in which the protagonist makes a discovery—typically of kinship—“in time to draw back” (Poetics, 1468-69). Beatrice has several such opportunities, but she fails to acknowledge what should be a “discovery”: that, like the violence of which she is the victim, murder is an unnatural act that violates the universal “kinship” of humanity. But Shelley wants his audience to discover their own emotional and sociopolitical kinship with Beatrice, whose situation is in so many ways analogous to their own, and to temper their own behavior in accordance with what that discovery reveals, both about Beatrice and about their own potential for self-destruction. For like Beatrice, England stood in 1819 on the brink of committing the sort of national parricide and ethical suicide to which France had recently fallen victim. But unlike Beatrice Cenci—and France—the English people had not yet taken the fatal step. Therein, finally, lies the real point of Shelley's great political drama. Shelley would have his country reclaim and preserve the grandeur of its greatest heroine—Liberty—before that grandeur becomes a tragic one.


  1. Dedication of The Cenci, in Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), p. 237. Hereafter cited in the text as “PP.

  2. See Stephen C. Behrendt, “‘This Accursed Family’: Blake's America and the American Revolution,” Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, 27 (Winter 1985), 30-52.

  3. Stuart Curran, Shelley's “Cenci”: Scorpions Ringed with Fire (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970), p. 132.

  4. See George Yost, Pieracci and Shelley: An Italian “Ur-Cenci” (Potomac, Md.: Scripta Humanistica, 1986). Yost's introductory essay offers compelling evidence for regarding Pieracci's play, published in Italian in Florence, as an important source for The Cenci.

  5. C. E. Pulos, The Deep Truth: A Study of Shelley's Scepticism (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1954), p. 23. See David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888), p. 398.

  6. Michael Henry Scrivener, Radical Shelley: The Philosophical Anarchism and Utopian Thought of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1982), p. 188.

  7. Jerome J. McGann, Social Values and Poetic Acts: The Historical Judgment of Literary Work (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988), p. 29.

  8. J. Peter Euben, “Preface,” Greek Tragedy and Political Theory, ed. J. Peter Euben (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1986), p. x.

  9. Euben, p. xii.

  10. It is worth noting Shelley's abortive efforts in 1822 to produce another stageable, salable historical drama, Charles the First, whose subject was also directly relevant to the political and social climate of Shelley's time.

  11. Curran, pp. 32-33.

  12. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones (2 vols.; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), II, 102; ca. 20 July 1819. Ironically, she had only a week earlier, on 13 July 1819, made her final appearance before retiring from the stage to marry William Becher.

  13. Poetics, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), p. 1467; subsequent references are to this edition.

  14. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, (4 vols.; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1769), IV, 215-16. See also Louis Crompton, Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1985).

  15. Yost, p. 11. Like others before him, Yost misses the point of Shelley's handling of the “unspeakable,” concluding that the poet “drops the charge of sodomy” (p. 30).

  16. Yost, p.27.

  17. Christabel, l. 381.

  18. Hume, pp. 348-49.

  19. Hume, pp. 418-19.

  20. For an interesting examination of the issue of the play's irresponsible patriarchies, see Eugene R. Hammond, “Beatrice's Three Fathers: Successive Betrayal in Shelly's The Cenci,Essays in Literature, 8 (Spring 1981), 25-32.

  21. Letters, II, 102-3.

  22. Mary Shelley's Journal, ed. Frederick L. Jones (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1947), p. 20.

  23. Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), p. 132.

  24. Irving Howe, Politics and the Novel, (1957; rpt. New York: Avon, 1967), pp. 22-23.

  25. Kenneth Neill Cameron, Shelley: The Golden Years (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1974), p. 401.

  26. Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr., Visionary Poetics: Milton's Tradition and His Legacy (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1979), p. 34.

  27. For a fuller discussion of this aspect of the prophet's role and function, see Stephen C. Behrendt, “‘The Consequence of High Powers’: Blake, Shelley, and Prophecy's Public Dimension,” Papers on Language and Literature, 22 (1986), 254-75.

  28. Letters, II, 120; 21 September 1819.

  29. Examiner, No. 575; 3 Jan. 1819, 1.

  30. Examiner, No. 604; 25 July 1819, 465.

  31. For additional information about the event, see Newman Ivey White, Shelley (2 vols.; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940), I, 545-46; Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1975); and P. M. S. Dawson, The Unacknowledged Legislator: Shelly and Politics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), pp. 175-77. See also Scrivener's discussion of the pamphlet, pp. 133-37.

  32. The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck (10 vols.; London: Ernest Benn, 1926-30), VI, 82.

  33. Significantly, while Cenci's is a crime that cannot be named but only referred to obliquely as “the act” or “the deed,” Beatrice's crime has a name—parricide—that is repeatedly uttered explicitly in the play. I thank my student Kevin Binfield for pointing this out to me in the course of his own striking investigation of The Cenci.

  34. Marzio's denial of the truth here, and his self-reproach at having named the person the audience knows to be the guilty party, recalls the manner in which Caleb Williams castigates himself for having revealed the murderer Falkland in Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794). Both are deluded in their faulty beliefs that those they accuse somehow do not deserve their punishment; both Marzio and Caleb strongly regret having revealed the truth to the respective authorities.

  35. Yost, p. 43.

  36. Yost points out that though the manuscript record Shelley consulted (Es) indicates that Beatrice's petition to Clement VIII went unanswered, Pieracci, like Shelly, has the petition intercepted and suppressed by an intermediary, in this case Francesco Cenci's friend Aldobrando. Interestingly for the political dimension of the tale that Shelley explores, Pieracci calls the pope “the Sovereign” (l Sovrano); Yost, p. 35.

Principal Works

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Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire [as Victor, with Elizabeth Shelley] (poetry) 1810

Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholsen [with Thomas Jefferson Hogg] (poetry) 1810

Zastrozzi (novel) 1810

The Necessity of Atheism (essay) 1811

St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian (novel) 1811

An Address to the Irish People (essay) 1812

A Declaration of Rights (essay) 1812

Queen Mab (poetry) 1813

A Refutation of Deism (dialogue) 1814

Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude, and Other Poems (poetry) 1816

An Address to the People on the Death of Princess Charlotte [as The Hermit of Marlow] (essay) 1817

A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote [as The Hermit of Marlow] (essay) 1817

“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” (poetry) 1817

Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century [also published in revised form as The Revolt of Islam] (poetry) 1818

The Cenci (verse drama) 1819

Rosalind and Helen: A Modern Eclogue, with Other Poems (poetry) 1819

Prometheus Unbound, with Other Poems (verse drama and poetry) 1820

Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (poetry) 1821

Epipsychidion (poetry) 1821

Hellas (verse drama) 1822

“Julian and Maddalo” (poetry) 1824

Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (poetry and verse drama) 1824

The Triumph of Life (unfinished poetry) 1824

“The Witch of Atlas” (poetry) 1824

The Masque of Anarchy (poetry) 1832

A Defence of Poetry (essay) 1840

Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations, and Fragments by Percy Bysshe Shelley. 2 vols. (essays, letters, translations, and prose) 1840

The Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (poetry, verse dramas, and essays) 1847

The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 10 vols. (poetry, verse dramas, essays, and translations) 1924-30

The Letters. 2 vols. (letters) 1964

The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 2 vols. (poetry) 1972-75

Laura Claridge (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “The Bifurcated Female Space of Desire: Shelley's Confrontation with Language and Silence,” in Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism, edited by Laura Claridge and Elizabeth Langland, University of Massachusetts Press, 1990, pp. 92-109.

[In the following essay, Claridge investigates Shelley's use of a female poetic voice in Alastor, The Cenci, and Epipsychidion.]

In The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope sets out to rape Belinda/Arabella of her threatening excess of meaning—the artifice out of which she creates herself—and to make her into a virgin, a blank page. Paradoxically, that is, accession to eighteenth-century male society will “virginalize” her, the female equivalent in this poem to the castration that Pope fears to be the potential of the art-full female. Such a dangerous creature explodes beyond the law, beyond the word, and she embodies a jouissance capable of taking its pleasures in a lapdog or a husband—the differences notwithstanding. Popean, or conservative, fear suggests the male Augustan writer's tendency to bring the woman back within the law, to achieve comedic endings.1 The canonized British Romantic poets, however, attempt by and large to use this mythical unbridled female power as a space that engenders authentic poetic voice, a method that allowed for the enabling literary illusion that the male poet could pass over his father, over the Law of language that bound him to a tradition unable to speak his infinite (and therefore inevitably fragmentary) desire. There are two obvious dangers to such an experiment: (1) The poet can mystify “woman” so that the female as goddess becomes the hidden theme; and (2) he can appropriate the female in his quest for a male self-definition that incorporates what he sees as his opposite.2

Certainly, Wordsworth might seem to approach a “closet” deification of the female. Though it did not produce a feminist poet, however, the complexity of his attraction to the female, coupled with his Romantic revolutionary impulse, produced a sexually sensitive one who would take the possibility of the virgin, of the blank page, as a potent form in which to envision the language of desire, a language of original and—the penultimate oxymoron—procreative virginal capacities. The whiteness of Emily in The White Doe of Rylstone and the transparency of Idonea in The Borderers, both women loyal to fathers who though clearly loving are obviously their moral or intellectual inferiors (with the narrative deliberately creating this imbalance), prefigure Shelley's Beatrice and Byron's suggestion of the-woman-in-Juan in Don Juan. These figures all function as a transparent medium through which corrupt meaning enacts itself even as the medium begins to point to an uncorrupt moment of silence beyond all fathers and beyond all lawful desire; they approach, that is, a Romantic jouissance, exceeding what language can accomplish, even as it is important that a fidelity to the law help actualize this new silent language. I would hold that, as a rule, the Romantic poets neither mystify nor appropriate the female (though Wordsworth comes fairly close); they usefully invoke her potential as function of meaning, as signifier of cultural contradiction instead. Exciting feminist critique of just this tendency is currently under way, with Anne Mellor's already well-established volume on feminism and Romanticism having provided crucial paths to explore.3 I therefore want to situate my own discourse as deliberately swerving from such significant and even redefinitive analyses, much of which would maintain the dependence upon appropriation of the female for production of the male Romantic ego or consciousness. There is yet another way to conceive of the textual play of gender in Shelley's poetry, for example, a negotiation of voice that might be present in the other male literary lions of the period as well—though a matter to be pursued outside the confines of this essay. I wish to posit that Shelley explores ways to escape “maleness” through trying to articulate that part of “femaleness” which remains (he mythologizes) outside the “benefits” of the patriarchal language that he would disavow.

Percy Shelley may well be the Romantic poet who takes fullest advantage of the opportunities open to male writers who can hypostatize the female as a bisexuality that seeks “the (w)hole phallic thing” while dependent upon difference and distinction, a kind of impossible desire that has it both ways. In a reciprocal sexual economy, Shelley speaks the female—in hopes that she will voice him—as functional conduit of meaning, as a marker of the inevitable slippage of meaning that inheres in language, even as we assure ourselves of having fixed the terms of our match between mental intention and graphic or oral representation. In the remainder of this essay, I shall follow Paul Fry's suggestive observation that “In the Defence, and everywhere in the poetry too, there is much that could be called a Lacanian psycholinguistics in embryo.”4 We can conceptualize, for instance, Shelley's use of the female in terms of Lacan's paradigm of the phallus: Both posit that their chosen representational mark is not distinctly gender-bound but functional instead, intersecting with the gender it appears to replicate only insomuch as resonances of that gender strengthen our understanding of its bisexual inscription. The phallus, insists Lacan, is not the same as penis, but as representation of that which everyone wants and no one has, its suggestions of male sexuality remind us of (1) the pressure of the Father's Law in patriarchal cultures, and (2) the repetitive nature of desire as tumescence versus detumescence: the metonymic condition of being. Woman, as Shelley uses the figure in much of his poetry, represents the limits of exerting pressure against an irretrievably inflected, unoriginal language: Woman as function enacts a desire whose possession of the absent phallus seems more plausible than that of a man's chance, and whose incongruity—the woman as phallus, or with phallus—threatens (the poet ecstatically hopes) to penetrate as other-than-the-father the very limits of patriarchal language. Thus Shelley uses this representation of woman to get himself to another place—the closest to a space anterior to language that he can achieve and still remain a poet.

I now wish to suggest the ways in which the females help to engender poetic voice in three texts by Shelley: the early Alastor and the more mature works, The Cenci and Epipsychidion, all of which record the poet's near obsession with achieving self-expression through language that is inevitably inauthentic and anterior, at the same moment that it is self-constitutive. Most recent attempts (brilliantly in such cases as Susan Brisman, Jerrold Hogle, Daniel Hughes, William Keach, and Stuart Peterfreund) to deal with these linguistic concerns have concentrated upon Shelley's belief in the metaphoricity of language and origin. I instead want to locate moments where Shelley applies women to the task of helping him to escape the patriarchy of language, as he explores the production of meaning through a double rendering of the female, who will function as both saturated and empty signifiers;5 and I wish thereby to imply, incidentally, the danger of feminist criticism that would take as its major operative term the guilt of male authors who “use” the idea of woman as enabling them to write. Without relying upon the obvious possibilities of androgyny or homosexuality as good fights, at least, against patriarchy, Shelley shores his battle for poetic freedom upon a refusal to thematize consistently the female as a maternal space of preoedipal bliss, in a position prior to the eruption of the Law.

Alastor is the quintessential Romantic poem of death and desire. It is also the text that puts most clearly into relief the dilemma of the poet abdicating his claim to a social, phallic voice in order to remain true to himself—and not, as some recent critics might suggest, merely to relocate himself on the side of the mother, in a preoedipal world which, Shelley knows better than such readers, is itself already implicated in the genealogies of language. In Alastor, Shelley alerts us as early as 1815 that he is willing to embrace Hegel's Pyrrhic victory of mastery over the slave by killing that slave—language. Yet the death the poet seeks is not that entanglement of treachery and despair which some psychologies of the text have suggested but a final location of jouissance.6

Citing the omission of fire in Shelley's cataloguing of the elements as the narrator invokes Mother Nature, Harold Bloom concludes that Shelley as narrator-poet was assuming the identity of the fire; he is brother to the other elements.7 Fire becomes for Alastor's narrator-poet an emblem of maleness, a phallic giver of life—an equivalent of the fictional poet's real-life creator. Thus there is mutual illumination of both character and creation through the conspicuous absence of fire in the invocation. The conflation of fire and phallus is an easy one, with the waxing and waning of both objects, with their penetration of darkness. Since the Mother does not possess the phallus, it is the poet's potential gift to her. But there is always the suggestion of indebtedness that clings to fire and phallus; the Promethean son stole it from the gods. The Law continues to step in and thwart the “lover's” offering, so that finally neither nature nor the male poet can arrogate this originating metaphor without acknowledging its belated possession, its diminished authority. Shelley is different from Wordsworth in accepting that a male poet lacks the phallus as does the mother; it is Wordsworth's covert awareness of this dilemma that provokes the greatest tension in his corpus, but in Shelley the knowledge underwrites the poetry's dominant structure versus its status as Wordsworthian subtext.

Alastor's living poet (the narrator left behind to record the vision of the true, solitary poet) will use as the necessary fiction to engender his pen the belief that he is a poet-son who achieves the big bang of death, who gives his mother the fiery phallus and therefore antedates the father:

          Mother of this unfathomable world!
Favor my solemn song, for I have loved
Thee ever, and thee only; I have watched
Thy shadow, and the darkness of thy steps,
And my heart ever gazes on the depth
Of thy deep mysteries.


The narrator tells of strange encounters with the vagaries of death, all calculated to give answers to primal questions “of what we are” (29). His search for knowledge has been mixed “With my most innocent love, until strange tears / Uniting with those breathless kisses, made / Such magic as compels the charmed night / To render up thy charge” (34-37). The erotic language points to the typical Shelleyan linkage of sex and death. In death, one transcends the Father as mediator and achieves instant union of subject and object. Thus sexual union (the collapse of ego boundaries in the orgasm of love) assumes its metaphorical function for outsmarting language and creating original meaning.

Shelley offers in Alastor two alternatives: the dead poet's quest for reunion with an earlier and unalienated self that in its refusal to be overruled by the father will conflagrate in death; or the narrator's borrowed existence as a poet, framing another's story in a language inherited—but at least alive. The initial engendering of the narrator's voice is his attempt to give the phallus to the mother (Mother Earth at the poem's beginning), to develop a rationale for needing to write: a space that would seem to call for the presence of his pen. Thus the potency of the female-outside-the-Law (what much French-inspired feminism might talk of as the semiotic or fluid maternal space) at first appears necessary for Shelley to enact his appropriation of language, of what we typically term the patriarchal space of writing or, even, the tradition. I will suggest that Shelley instead recognizes quickly that his writing depends upon a more complex myth of a female both already full and simultaneously empty: lacking the phallus, yet constituted by it (in language).

In opposition to the authorial tradition of writing the woman, inscribing her, much of British Romantic poetry acknowledges the urgency to write for her, to her, not to gain access to a magical, maternal moment but quite the reverse: to gain access to the order of language. It is as if Shelley entertains the one momentous possibility that recent feminist criticism and psychoanalytic theory rarely consider: Woman—as well as man—may “be” language and Law, precisely because she (as he) lacks the phallus, is in a constant state of desire. The very collusion of procreative biological powers with social powers of language (powers of the pen[is]) might well be too much for either women or men to entertain given the apparently intractable preference to construct theories based on binary oppositions of separate powers. What if woman does have it all—and thus the virulent discrimination against her throughout culture? But then again, what if man has it all too? In both cases, I’m suggesting, however oddly, that we translate the psychoanalytic truth that neither male nor female has the phallus into the possibility that both genders can pretend to having it.

The preface to Alastor emphasizes a dialectic of desire that moves from the child stage of object relations to the human desire born when the infant enters the symbolic world of the cultural father:

So long as it is possible for his desires to point towards objects thus infinite and unmeasured, he is joyous, and tranquil, and self-possessed. But the period arrives when these objects cease to suffice. His mind is at length suddenly awakened and thirsts for intercourse with an intelligence similar to itself. He images to himself the Being whom he loves. … He seeks in vain for a prototype of his conception. Blasted by his disappointment, he descends to an untimely grave.

Nonetheless, of greater importance to the possibility of poetic vocation that Shelley was working out than the solitary poet is the poet-left-behind, the inauthentic poet. Enslaved by language, he notes (with words, of course) the sleep that the authentic poet images even in death (701)—and if we connect this sleep with that which prevented annihilation with the veiled maid, we have a conflation of identities and subjects that manages to contain it all: a dead “real” poet who never writes, who knows the consummation of death, but who is survived by a mirrored poet in language who keeps the real poet's desire alive—by repeating the dead poet's desire even as he strives to record it.

Shelley's Augustinian epigraph to Alastor—“Not yet did I love, and I loved to love. I sought what I should love, loving to love”—expresses the drama of desire that becomes, after the text turns from the Mother, the narrative motor of this poem. “Loving to love” or desiring desire ensures that desire infinite life. Complete consummation kills it. When Shelley translates consummation of desire into consummating his desire of the Other, the Law, he reaches the silence of death that is the end of Alastor. Articulating one's own desire fully is proof of authenticity in Alastor. The narrator-poet may be a scribe for another, but the vision that attends the solitary poet in his sleep is an extraordinary expression of one's encountering one's own desire, a therapeutic session that would have been a triumph for Lacan himself; and for Shelley, a complicating of the earlier myth of desire for the Mother. When the poet questor's “strong heart” sinks and “sicken[s] with excess of love” (181), as he gazes upon the visionary maid of the “ineffable tale” (168), we can do far better than to note the classic description of narcissism. What is more important as this passage constitutes a poet or enables a voice—perhaps even an entire poetics—is the extent to which the epipsychidion union becomes an ascesis even as it becomes a saturation; it becomes a blanking out of the word, of meaning, even at the moment of one's apparent achieving of selfhood. And the agent of this poetic enabling, the creation of the blank page, is a woman. The blank page that we often lament as the mark of woman's blotting out by literary history rebounds as the very source of poetic strength in Shelley, and not, I hasten to add, as the back over which he must climb to write as a freed man. Regardless of Shelley's failures in his real life as a feminist, he liberates gender in his poetic use of it.

This poet must encounter his own desire in a female form because the mythic female both escapes the phallus and retains it; she gives birth to the word as a procreative agent even as she can refuse to name the father of that word; she escapes the phallus precisely because she admits her castration more dramatically than does the equally castrated male. Furthermore, the “veiled maiden” teaches the narrator two conflicting truths about desire: that there is only lack behind the veil, a lack which is the very form and content of language itself, the vehicle and tenor; but that at the same time, if language is desire, that desire can, at the unconscious or dream-world level, know itself as its own and cease talking. Thus the need for the two poets of this story: One keeps talking at the end (similar to the Julian in that other frame tale, Julian and Maddalo), and the other is silenced (as is Julian's madman, entombed with his female half). Negotiating his desire in his own way at a level that escapes language, the mute poet of Alastor yet achieves articulation. The Arab maid who visits the solitary poet (ten lines before his vision of the veiled maid) was merely Real—carrying food from her father's tent and made of the very flesh and blood Shelley would later disavow as bearing upon Epipsychidion, a poem he nonetheless acknowledged as autobiographical. The Real is never enough, for it is only a part of the equation of desire; the Real is acted out in the Imaginary and Symbolic orders, those orders which constitute desire even as the Real passes through their defiles. Still, if the Real is necessary to constitute desire, desire is necessary to stutter at—to repeat—the act of articulating the Real. So it is that Shelley the poet seeks for his poetic persona a figure that collapses the Imaginary and Symbolic modes of coming to one's identity: This female figure is not a sentimentalized other half, completing an organic whole, but the Lacanian Other where mother and father intersect, the Law encompassing both, even as each depends upon a mirrored ego to become a subject.

The Imaginary by itself represents a regression, a return to Mother Earth; the Symbolic, a too easy accession to tradition and the chains of language. Combining the two, we have the sexualized veiled woman of Alastor, who will urge the poet to his conflagratory end—the consummation of silence—but who will pull back beneath the cover of the veil just in time, so that her yielding becomes illusory as her substantiality “dissolves”: The poet will still be left yearning.

He reared his shuddering limbs and quelled
His gasping breath, and spread his arms to meet
Her panting bosom: … she drew back a while,
Then, yielding to the irresistable joy,
With frantic gesture and short breathless cry
Folded his frame in her dissolving arms.
Now blackness veiled his dizzy eyes, and night
Involved and swallowed up the vision; sleep,
Like a dark flood suspended in its course,
Rolled back its impulse on his vacant brain.


It is precisely this tease of near consummation that impels the solitary poet forward “eagerly” to pursue “Beyond the realms of dream that fleeting shade” (205). Shelley foregrounds the literary association of “dying” and sexual orgasm in the question immediately subsequent to his “Does … death / Conduct to thy mysterious paradise, / O Sleep?” (211-13). That is, the dream maiden is the visionary's desire, his excess of self-love, that, once consummated and dying in its own way, will not have to repeat itself (to enter language) again. But Shelley would never have it quite this simple, so that even the sexual “dying” is withheld, in order to leave room for the conclusion, imbricated with both poetic authenticity and indebtedness: The “true” poet in his death-in-sleep will be outlived by the poet framer, the poet in language at the end.

What is exciting about the way Shelley situates the female is precisely his lack of gender thematizing. It is the epipsyche who helps him get beyond language, and since he assumes a heterosexual perspective, for him that epipsyche will be female. From this perspective, a woman, presumably, would have access to a space that would liberate her too—to the heterosexual woman, this space would be male. In this manner, Shelley complicates the current critical implication that male equals patriarchy and female an innocence of it. Such an equation has led to the notion that to undo the bonds of language and patriarchy one need only “write as a woman” (whatever that is) or “write in the place of woman” (wherever that is). Shelley plots his escape by writing from a projection of the fantasized self outside the ego, the displacement of excess self-love that Freud insists underlies any love of another and that Shelley locates in the epipsyche.

If the visionary maid in Alastor allows Shelley to experiment with a “pure” achievement of self, Beatrice in The Cenci is a philosophical compromise who presents the paradox of desire and the moral poet's dilemma. In the Defence, Shelley clearly states the extraordinary power he accords the imagination as the great instrument of moral good: “Imagination is as the immortal God which should assume flesh for the redemption of mortal passion.” But where Beatrice's imagination fails (if we can even admit failure in the face of what she suffers) is in allowing itself to be robbed of its singularity through the insistence of a Jupiter-like patriarchal language, a language of curse that in Prometheus Unbound must be unsaid. Trapped in language that becomes more and more ominously metaphoric for the patriarchy that controls the world of this play, Beatrice is part of a master-slave dialectic that makes escape from contamination impossible for anyone. “And what a tyrant thou art, / And what slaves these; and what a world we make, / The oppressor and the oppressed” (5.3.73-75). Yet, to the extent that the woman gives up her femaleness (the blank page that lacks the phallus and, in Shelley's poetics, thereby has a greater chance at authentic voice than the male) and assumes the phallus, she loses.

It is not the literal rape, however, the penis, that undoes Beatrice; Shelley's drama depends upon this point: She is pure until she accedes to the phallus instead, a patriarchal language of revenge.9 Shelley believes that Beatrice has a chance to be neither oppressor nor oppressed and that she gets caught up in the cycle anyway. Still, different from her oppressors, Beatrice encounters a particular end: She will become the virgin that Pope thought he wanted Belinda to become, that he hoped would castrate her of the threatening excess artifice. A blank page on which no one else can write except as on a palimpsest, Beatrice is another Romantic transparent signifier, through which all things pass but which never results in the final meaning that tormentors such as Count Cenci would locate in her. Beatrice (like Emily in Wordsworth's White Doe), betrayed by the men all around her and by a political system that betrays them as well, becomes silent. It seems an odd value system that privileges silence, but certainly it is one familiar to twentieth-century artists—to Samuel Beckett, to the musician John Cage, even to James Joyce, whose violent forcing and contorting of language finally share a real affinity with Shelley's pushing of language to its limits in order to experience the saturation of silence, the first moment subsequent to jouissance. It is in the violated woman of The Cenci that Shelley locates this purity.

Shelley's task in The Cenci is to unname the father, just as it was in Prometheus Unbound, a play he left after act 3 in order to write The Cenci, before concluding his cosmic epic of unsaying the chains of language. Naming, of course, carries extraordinary weight to Shelley; it is the secular equivalent of divinity, as his Defence, if nothing else, makes clear. By refusing to name the rape, both author and Beatrice escape a certain slippage of self that always occurs in the castration of language. Unspeaking the word represents to Shelley an individual's truest integration with an unstained world. To name is to acknowledge, and if Shelley at once identifies the poet as true legislator of the universe in Plato's sense in the Cratylus—that is, legislator as namer—he at the same time affects a provocative textual speed and accretion of wrenched images10 aimed at foregrounding the metaphoricity of language. Such a style so effectively at the same time defamiliarizes language that he gives the illusion, at least, of an unnaming of the old and a creation of a blank page that enables, not enervates.

Shelley appears to be saying, we must become as woman, not gender but function, which term he defines only as possible when one can unname the language that would seem to pin down, rather than uplift. And the first step in that unnaming involves emasculating language of its pretense at full signification. “What are the words which you would have me speak,” Beatrice asks Lucretia:

                                                            I, whose thought
Is like a ghost shrouded and folded up
In its own formless horror. Of all words,
That minister to mortal intercourse,
Which wouldst thou hear? For there is none to tell
My misery …


Even as Beatrice is penetrated, she remains transparent, no mere vessel to contain the phallus but structured somewhere else—the Lacanian equivalent of “in another place”—in a desire that effectively, fantastically—if only temporarily—escapes the phallus. She situates her desire in a singular way; and if it seems violent that she must be raped incestuously to be free, potentially, of patriarchy, remember that it is his own father, mythologically, who tortures Prometheus and whose penetration Prometheus must encounter and reject by becoming transparent to it, by allowing paternity to pass through him without fertilizing patriarchal procreation.

But in one important way this stain of patriarchy is necessary, for it allows Beatrice to assume her castration along with all subjects who would become part of the generation of language, of stories that have a reason to remain extant, of lives that still need to be lived. Until the organism achieves desire in its own way, total satisfaction is deferred and desire remains alive, to be told and retold, in a repetition that seeks satisfaction even as it knows that consummation will prove it no longer necessary. Beatrice is the newly translated veiled/unveiled maid from Alastor, who here takes up with the narrator-poet, rather than the poet questor, so that her murder of the father makes of her an erotic text still in need of writing. Similar to the poet left to tell the story of the dead one in Alastor, she becomes a signifier not yet so saturated that its independence can be total. In this drama of desire Shelley implicates us the audience even if against our will, so that the real function of the text is to determine not Beatrice's guilt or innocence but our own as readers and interpreters.11 “It is in the restless and anatomizing casuistry with which men seek the justification of Beatrice, yet feel that she has done what needs justification; it is in the superstitious horror with which they contemplate alike her wrongs and their revenge, that the dramatic character of what she did and suffered consists,” he says in his preface. Beatrice is dramatic because we contemplate her actions, because we interpret; we give meaning. Her saturation into silence in effect demands it. We become again that poet framer of Alastor, whose desire has not yet been recognized but who can at least stick around to tell the story of one whose desire, in this case, approaches knowing itself as authentically its own. As with Byron's Cain, for example, and actually as is true of so much Romantic poetry, renovation through interpretation seeks to displace the killing act of interpretation that merely repeats without understanding. The need constantly to interpret anew promises to keep poetry alive, as language becomes a new language if we choose to read with imagination—with desire—that escapes the patrilineage of old formulas.

If the female characters in Alastor primarily act out the voicing of a poet through silence, while Beatrice achieves through her suffering and subsequent parricide a kind of saturation that gestures toward undoing patriarchal speech, the slippage of such basically discrete functions which are often, though not always, programmatic in these poems becomes the economy driving one of Shelley's most complex invocations of the female, Emilia Viviani in Epipsychidion. Emily clearly embodies the two positions of language and silence in one person; but then, as I’ve deduced from Alastor and The Cenci, the two positions from which Shelley's poetic persona would write are one: They are both the poet who is writing this poem and the one who desires his desire to be recognized and fulfilled. Against language as guarantee of desire, then, and woman as the desire that binds the poet to the word or the real, we juxtapose again the silent female, the saturation of the Arab maid, or of Emily outside her prison. In fact, Emily is the veiled maiden whose total possession was denied the poet questor years before in Alastor, but who is now accessible because they both have doubled their identities in the expanded Shelleyan negotiation with silence and speech:

I stood, and felt the dawn of my long night
Was penetrating me with living light:
I knew it was the Vision veiled from me
So many years—that it was Emily.


No words effect this vision; it is the satiation of the perfectly heard ineffable; but equally significant, it is penetration of the male through female fullness—the light; and through absence—the lack of patriarchal linguistic signifiers. This full-but-empty female merely figures the poet himself—with the benefit that a silent, spent poet cannot record his vision, and hence the sated, silent female stands in as his double, inscribing his vision through her silence, even as he inscribes her silence through his pen. This epipsyche becomes the medium of saturation, the recognition of desire and death, but with all the accretions of meaning that culture has bestowed upon “dying,” not least of which is the sexual suggestion of postorgasmic spentness. One of Lacan's favorite images, St. Thérèse in ecstasy, would function well as a Shelleyan epipsyche, either as her desire is recognized, in jouissance, or in the next moment, in which we envision the martyr's death. That a woman frequently refurbishes and recodes that spent desire, thus enabling poetic voice and vocation, testifies more to Shelley's sense of the bisexuality implicit in identity or desire than to any particular attention to gender. Gender and even sex work as helpful metaphors to en-gender the linguistic repetition of himself, of his desire, with Shelley becoming a poet as he writes. In some ways, Shelley may well be one of our least phallic writers, if we understand Lacan's rendering of phallus to mean all-knowing, all-powerful, promising closure. Lacan's belief that no one has the phallus—that both men and women are castrated—is a tenet, perhaps the major psychological premise, upon which Shelley's writing depends.

Thus Emilia, “Thou mirror” as the speaker addresses her, is the position to which Shelley aspires in Epipsychidion as the escape from the bondage of language. Yet those chains are necessary to leave behind the trace of the Real poet who has spoken. Shelley accepts the being-in-patriarchy necessary to engender voice as a condition for all poet-prophets, as Emily as epipsyche also equals poetry or language. There is Shelley himself—the authentic visionary—and his epipsyche, poetry, which records his vision. No preoedipal silence here: the woman, Emilia Viviani as occasion for this poem, forces what would be poetic silence instead to be recorded in the genealogy of language.

But how to make of language an instrument of great moral good? Epipsychidion is not a poem about flesh and blood; it is a poem about language and love and how the two are related. As Shelley writes John Gisborne, it is not his “own”—because it aims at knowledge of the Other where he comes into being. Listen to how the narrator addresses Emilia, or the “Sweet Spirit” of the poem's opening line: “too gentle to be human, / Veiling beneath that radiant form of Woman / All that is insupportable in thee / Of light, and love, and immortality!” (21-24). Already we encounter the oddest of forms—irradiant, yet veiling something as well as radiating it; woman is merely the form. The speaker continues:

                                                                                Thou mirror,
In whom, as in the splendour of the Sun
All shapes look glorious which thou gazest on!
Aye, even the dim words which obscure thee now
Flash, lightning-like, with unaccustomed glow.


Appearing to be contingent upon thought as prior to language, his dim words (which obscure the true poetry that the mirror's association with the sun suggests) are illuminated by the very radiance of the form that veils. What is flashing, lightninglike, however, is not a language that is renewed now that it is in touch with an essence or thought preceding words but because it cohabitates with the generative nature of desire. Here is the lack bred precisely at the juncture where words become inadequate for expressing “true” self, even as that untrue self constituted through the inadequacy is all there really is, imagining itself in the mirror to be whole now, and fractured before. If it were not for this illusion of the mirror, convincing us that we can be unified, coherent, and self-imaged, there would be no quest, no repetition, which is the psychic drive in the human, to have his or her desire recognized. The lack that both ensures the inauthenticity of self-identity and constitutes desire is the very stuff of which poetry, at least Romantic poetry, consists.

Language, or poetry, speaks of the repetition that Lacan redacts from Freud as the true aim of desire—to be recognized, not to be fulfilled. If consummation of desire were the true aim, there would be “a more efficient path than repeated insistence”; similarly, “if the goal of the death instinct were simply the reduction of all tension, it could surely find a quick path to death.”12 For Lacan, desire must be conserved until it is recognized as such; and to be recognized, it must pursue its aim “only in its own fashion.” The particular achievement of Epipsychidion is its ability to have it both ways: for Emilia Viviani to represent desire confronted and desire deferred infinitely through the chains of language. In this paradox, Emily functions as antilanguage, the opposite of those chains of lead that would drag the lover/narrator and his ideal back to earth; yet the poem maintains at the same time the equation that Emily equals poetry. She either blanks out the word or assumes the rhythms of desire that would repeat themselves until recognized. But we must acknowledge that (outside of psychoanalytic status as a psychotic) there is no objective confirmation of one's desire going improperly recognized; it is the subject who makes that (inevitable) call. So we are led to inquire: Do those who desire have a stake in maintaining their desire as unrecognized? Is this the life principle—the only means of staving off death; is desire both eros and end?

Emily as metonymic desire itself, more than a metaphor of it, helps the speaker to write and to repeat and to interpret; the confusion and conflation of reference to past and present women significant to the narrator are the signifying chain that Emily puts into place, that her mythical position as enabler of voice allows to progress as poetic production of meaning. Lacan's perception about the intersection of deferral and desire in linguistic structures is suggestive: “the signifier, by its very nature, always anticipates meaning by unfolding its dimension before it. As is seen at the level of the sentence when it is interrupted before the significant term: ‘I shall never …’” Such partial signification (all signification) still makes sense to us, “and all the more oppressively in that the meaning is content to make us wait for it.”13

Shelley brilliantly deploys Emily as the virgin pointing to the absence that makes us wait for full-fillment, even as he also uses her as an originating metaphor to signify yet the next female who will link with her as an endless conduit of meaning. The lover/narrator does not appropriate her in the silence of inscription that imprints the Cenci phallic act and, at times, a Wordsworthian defense: “I am not thine: I am a part of thee” (52), he claims instead. She lures him “Towards sweet Death” because she threatens to satisfy him, to allow him a recognition of his desire that ends the need for repetition, just as the visionary maid enacts in Alastor, where the poet who sees himself potentially unveiled loses the justification ever to speak. Hence it is the paradox of poets whose desire would be recognized that in such consummation is their death, the end of the need to repeat. Emily—or rather the feminist Ideal of Intellectual Beauty14 for which Emily becomes the signifier—produces a synaesthesis, a saturation of meaning:

Warm fragrance seems to fall from her light dress
And her loose hair; and where some heavy trees
The air of her own speed has disentwined,
The sweetness seems to satiate the faint wind;
And in the soul a wild odour is felt,
Beyond the sense […] a mortal shape indued
With love and life and light and deity,
And motion which may change but cannot die; …
          A Metaphor of Spring and Youth and Morning;
A Vision like incarnate April, warning,
With smiles and tears, Frost the Anatomy
Into his summer grave.

[105-14; 120-23]

Significantly, the speaker follows this conceit with “What have I dared? where am I lifted? how / shall I descend, and perish not?” (124-25). This last line implies what is at stake: to descend from the regions of the skylark (where Emilia can transport him) places him back in language while it bars his “true” song; and, through coding the anxiety in a question, it implies the truth about the nature of survival as a poetic voice: language the enabler, as it leaves the poet a story to tell. For, once again, the narrator of this poem pursues not meaning but a conveyor of meaning. Rather, he seeks both, but he knows that to rest in achieved meaning is to stop writing; one need not deliver the whole truth more than once.15

In fact, in this poem the radiancy of the Intellectual Ideal Beauty protects against achieved, saturated meaning as well as potentially effecting it: She is too bright to penetrate. “She met me, robed in such exceeding glory, / That I beheld her not” (199-200); her voice comes to him from “the fountains, and the odours deep / Of flowers”; from breezes, rain, bird song, from “all sounds, all silence” (206-9), “in form, / Sound, colour—in whatever checks that Storm / Which with the shattered present chokes the past” (210-12): all conveyors of meaning, bearers of the word, though still Barers of the word, and barrers of the word that would claim to have penetrated to the bottom of things. Emily may be locked in a prison, but true Love can never be barred, and woman as linguistic signifier simultaneously, impossibly, functions here as metaphor for that which cannot be barred even as she cannot be penetrated meaning-fully against her will:

The walls are high, the gates are strong, …
                              … but true Love never yet
Was thus constrained: It overleaps all fence:
Like lightning, with invisible violence
Piercing its continents; like Heaven's free breath,
Which he who grasps can hold not. …


The tension created by Shelley's valuing of opposites and explosion of Western logic is perhaps the primary energy informing his work. Certainly, the ferocity with which a union of souls can bypass the ordinary productions of meaning attracts the visionary narrator, as he can approach infinity through it:

We shall become the same, we shall be one
Spirit within two frames, oh! wherefore two?
One passion in twin-hearts, which grows and grew,
Till like two meteors of expanding flame,
Those spheres instinct with it become the same,
Touch, mingle, are transfigured; ever still
Burning, yet ever inconsumable:
In one another's substance finding food.


When, however, this union threatens to achieve precisely what the one who desires thinks he wants, consummation—“One Heaven, one Hell, one immortality, / And one annihilation” (586-87)—the narrator exclaims, “Woe is me!”—and invokes the oppressiveness of language as his defence, even as he appears to be lamenting its oppression: “The winged words on which my soul would pierce / Into the height of love's rare Universe, / Are chains of lead around its flight of fire” (588-90). But that fire is the radiance we have heard throughout in Shelley's poetic woman, the radiance that both promises and threatens to allow the poet to see himself face to face, to know his desire as his own, to locate the lack in his subjectivity which institutes that desire. Such a moment, the “flight of fire,” is, it turns out, always implicated in the metaphors of those chains of lead, at least if there is to remain any psychological mandate to repeat oneself. The “winged words” must fail to articulate an epipsychidion union, or he will face, as he proclaims, annihilation. Emily is the medium of that failure, as well as the myth of a potential success: Emily—“Thou Mirror”—as silent reflection, luring him to death; it is the inadequacy of (poetic) language, an Emily imprisoned in the patriarchal convent walls, that also pulls him back from death. Emily can be the virgin, the blank page of seductive silence, but she is also the occasion of this poem, its language holding to earth the poet who would soar with her beyond its prisonhouse. Without her “chaining” his “flight of fire” there would be no Epipsychidion. Thus she is the word even as he would have her enact its annihilation.

Shelley's poetry is, of course, traditionally perceived as being unusually difficult: abstract, abstruse, perhaps unnecessarily complicated. A major cause of this effect upon the reader is the severe work he urges upon language in order for it to fulfill his opposite ends: Shelleyan language collapses and embodies both form and content as it seeks repeatedly to inscribe a path for itself leading outside itself, to the possibility of authentic presentation as opposed to re-presentation. Shelley writes of and in the repetition of desire seeking its own path.

This refusal to fix through gender a theme meant for woman—or man—to play out marks a subtlety to the strategies enabling what has long been noted as Shelley's brilliant versification. Our recognition of the ways in which he invokes cultural myths of the female as both too empty (in need of the phallus) and too full (consummation complete), in order to convert into an enabling paradox the crippling contradiction of authentic silence that would speak through indebted voice, suggests that we would do well to reopen to scrutiny other writers who specifically grappled with questions of language, indebtedness, and freedom. Perhaps we have too readily imposed easy schemes of gender positions, oppositions, oppressions, and appropriations on writers of the past, without affording them the chance to help us define patriarchy as a complicated third term, one far more complex than the simplistic premises of male accountability and female innocence would allow.


  1. For an extended analysis of this issue too long to repeat here, see my “Pope's Rape of Excess,” in Gary Day, ed., Sexuality in Literature and Film (London: Macmillan, 1988), 129-43.

  2. Clearly, to some extent I disagree with U. C. Knoepflmacher's position in his essay herein that the Romantics frequently used the female in precisely this way. His larger point, however—that Browning read the Romantics this way and converted the lyric subject into the ironic dramatic monologue—has proven extremely stimulating to my own thought on how formal innovation can occur through disillusionment with patriarchal models.

  3. Anne K. Mellor, ed., Romanticism and Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).

  4. Paul H. Fry, “Made Men: A Review Article on Recent Shelley and Keats Studies,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 21 (1979): 451.

  5. As we confront the contradiction in Shelley's bifurcation of female-as-linguistic-function or enabler, we would do well to consider what William Keach, Shelley's Style (New York: Methuen, 1984), says about Shelley's apparent confusion regarding language: that “some forms of contradiction and even obscurity may be necessary to the reflections of a volatile verbal sensibility” (3). For instance, the slippage in language that is cause for both celebration and despair in Shelley's Defence also underwrites the very attempt to write a poetry. It is no wonder that deconstruction found in Shelley an auspicious host, for an enabling premise of his canon is a fluidity not essential, as in a French feminist version of the semiotic, but structurally inevitable for any verbal articulation.

    For other recent provocative readings of Shelleyan encounters with the conventions of language, see Susan Hawk Brisman, “‘Unsaying His High Language’: The Problem of Voice in Prometheus Unbound,Studies in Romanticism 16 (1977): 51-86; D. J. Hughes, “Coherence and Collapse in Shelley, with Particular Reference to Epipsychidion,ELH 28 (1961): 260-83, and “Kindling and Dwindling: The Poetic Process in Shelley,” Keats-Shelley Journal 13 (1964): 13-28; Jerrold E. Hogle, “Metaphor and Metamorphosis in Shelley's ‘The Witch of Atlas,’” Studies in Romanticism 19 (1980): 329-32, and “Shelley's Poetics: The Power as Metaphor,” Keats-Shelley Journal 31 (1982): 159-97; and Stuart Peterfreund, “Shelley, Monboddo, Vico, and the Language of Poetry,” Style 15 (1981): 382-400.

  6. See, for instance, Barbara Schapiro's interpretation of Alastor as gloomily nihilistic in The Romantic Mother: Narcissistic Patterns in Romantic Poetry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), xiii.

  7. Harold Bloom, Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), 105.

  8. Textual citations are taken from Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers, eds., Shelley's Poetry and Prose (New York: Norton, 1977).

  9. John Donovan glosses Shelley's heuristic interest in the “ethical purity” potential in incest as a “freedom from fear which precedes right action and which results from the mind's clear gaze at the contrarities of nature, without and within” (90) in “Incest in Laon and Cythna: Nature, Custom, Desire,” Keats-Shelley Review, Autumn 1987, 49-90. For Shelley, incest, if freely chosen, can function sexually as a potent imaginative union of the identical-yet-different, a union where, in a sense, one experiences collapse that still insists upon a return to separation and distinctness. This model is hardly recognizable, of course, in Western familial arrangements, where incest imitates instead Cenci-like possession. And, of course, since the mode of sexual intercourse in The Cenci is rape versus consent, the sexual act there is the antithesis of “ethical purity.” That the transgression is rape by the father allows for the sexual construction to serve violently as a metaphor for patriarchal ravage.

  10. See esp. chap. 5 in Keach, Shelley's Style.

  11. Julia Kristeva, “Within the Microcosm of ‘The Talking Cure’” in Interpreting Lacan, ed. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), claims as Freud's legacy the proposition that “interpretation necessarily represents appropriation, and thus an act of desire and murder” (33).

  12. Jane Gallop, Reading Lacan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 104.

  13. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), 153.

  14. Nathaniel Brown, “The ‘Brightest Colours of Intellectual Beauty’: Feminism in Peacock's Novels,” Keats-Shelley Review, Autumn 1987, 91-104, reminds us that for the Shelley circle, his vaunted phrase “intellectual beauty” carried feminist connotations, particularly in its support of Mary Wollstonecraft's premise, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that “intellectual beauty” in women is too often met with indifference, versus the almost universal appreciation attending a woman's physical beauty (91-92). It is very important, then, to position the feminist connotation of this key phrase in Shelley's “Hymn” within the other and primary philosophical context in which he uses it—a “Humerian scepticism, though with affinities to both Berkeleian idealism and Plato's philosophy of Ideas” (91). Such a program insisted upon the immaterial nature of reality—finally, if implicitly, the role of interpretation in naming reality. In other words, Shelley deliberately casts this already philosophically awkward amalgam into the form of the female, that which represents also a more complicated cultural engagement with the phallus, with the law, and with language than does the son. It is this very excess of meaning that Shelley locates in woman which motivates him to have her mark the place of the infamous “fading coal,” his mythic space of previously unapprehended vision and the linguistically indebted interpretive acts its conception en-genders.

  15. Thus Shelley comes very close to creating an écriture féminine, a plural, fluid movement that, to use Catherine Clement's phrase, is a “coming” to writing, though Shelley always is careful to defer the climax, to tease language to its near breaking point instead.

Allen Dunn (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “Out of the Veil of Ignorance: Agency and the Mirror of Disillusionment,” in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XXV, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 1-21.

[In the following essay, Dunn examines Alastor as “a study in moral agency.”]

Following Shelley's lead in his preface to the poem, I propose to read Alastor as a study in moral agency. This may sound surprising since the poem is often criticized for its solipsism or, worse, for displaying the symptoms of pathological narcissism. However, the apparent pathology of Alastor's narrator and of the visionary poet he describes stems from a moral dilemma which Shelley inherits from moral philosophers like his mentor Godwin and from the poetry of Wordsworth. As the poem illustrates, the dilemma is precipitated by the way in which both empiricist and rationalist systems of morality fail to mediate the particularity of individual desire, by their inability to universalize the subject and thus to fulfill the Enlightenment dream which gave them birth. Alastor documents this failure. It also suggests that for the self-conscious subject the resulting disillusionment is a constitutive and not an accidental feature of moral agency. While Shelley's preface holds open the possibility that some individuals may find moral community through a natural (and implicitly unreflective) sympathy, the real choice seems to be between disillusionment and moral death. To be “deluded by … generous error,” to be “duped by … illustrious superstition,” is the price of moral life in Shelley's world of philosophical skepticism.1 For the Poet Visionary who is the subject of the poem, this disappointment is intolerable, but for the poet of the preface, it becomes the pre-condition of moral action. Such disillusionment is the double awareness that neither the foundations nor the goals of moral agency can be deduced naturally according to the Enlightenment plan. Rather, morality entails an act of self-reflection in which the self and the self reflected can never match, can never be completely subsumed in a moral universe. Before I proceed to my reading of Alastor, I will more fully describe the dilemma to which the poem responds.

The secularization of moral theory during the Enlightenment redefines the moral mission of poetry. Poets, like moral philosophers, are charged with the responsibility of demonstrating that moral principles may be deduced “naturally” from the essential principles of human psyche and society, whether these be empirically or rationally given. Wordsworth, for instance, promises a poetry which will reveal “the primary laws of our nature”2 and thus show how these laws form even the most common of human actions. From these laws, specifically from the “grand elementary principle of pleasure,” he deduces the moral sympathy which binds the “vast empire of human society.”3 By tracing the primary principle of human behavior in everyday events, he provides his readers with a mirror of mutual self-recognition in which they can recognize a moral community as the natural extension of their private intellect and interest. The poet then must provide Enlightenment moral theory with its praxis, staging in concrete terms the scene of mutual recognition which the philosophers treat more abstractly, the scene in which the apparent chaos of individual desires is revealed to be in harmony with the moral universal. “We have,” Shelley says, “more moral, political and historical wisdom, than we know how to reduce into practice.” We need poetry, he insists, so that we can “imagine that which we know” and “act that which we imagine.”4

For the poets of British Romanticism, of course, the primary model for imagining moral community is the nascent utilitarianism of Hartley and Godwin in which the medium of reflection, the substance of human identity, is sensation itself as it is ordered by self-refining differentials of pleasure and pain. These utilitarian systems, derived from the empiricism of Hobbes, Locke, and (for Godwin) Hume, propose a moral bond forged from empirical necessity. They describe moral progress as a perpetually expanding sphere of mutual identification in which individuals recognize that their pleasures are inseparable from the pleasures of others in the community, since all are mutually dependent on a shared network of causes and effects.

For both Hartley and Godwin morality is a progressively inclusive process of universalization. Improvements in the quality of happiness necessarily reflect an increase in the scope and quantity of perceptual experience. Thus, moral pleasure surpasses merely selfish individual pleasures because it is more capacious; it includes the happiness of others. Godwin and Hartley deny that there can be any essential conflict between reason and sensuality since sensuality is a combination of impressions, and wisdom or reason is merely a more inclusive combination of these same sensations as they are stored in memory and combined by the “faculty of association.”5 Hartley formalizes this version of moral progress in a series of seven progressive stages. Human consciousness begins with simple sensations which combine to produce imagination. Sensation and imagination combine to produce self-interest, and this process of combination into increasingly complex faculties continues like a mathematical progression until theopathy and moral sense complete the development of the individual. Because moral sense contains all the combinations of pleasure and pain sensation, it is both quantitatively and qualitatively superior to any purely sensual interest in its particularity:

This Moral Sense therefore carries its own Authority with it, inasmuch as it is the Sum total of all the rest, and the ultimate Result from them; and employs the Force and Authority of the whole Nature of Man against any particular Part of it, that rebels against the Determinations and Commands of the Conscience or moral Judgment.6

Both philosophers emphasize that morality as the mental sum of experience adds nothing to the particular impressions of which it is comprised. In order to argue for the unbroken continuity between sensation and thought, they deny reflection or ratiocination any autonomous power. Against Locke, Hartley asserts that “the most complex Ideas arise from Sensation … Reflection is not a distinct Source.”7 This means that mental events are merely extensions of physical events and governed by the same laws. Understanding and assent follow naturally and necessarily from sensation; experiencing the truth and believing the truth are in fact indistinguishable parts of the same process.8 It is impossible then, according to the deterministic logic both philosophers employ, that those who are continually exposed to truth (and this includes everybody since truth is empirical reality itself) should not in time understand and believe it. It is likewise impossible that the truth, once believed, should not determine their conduct.

Such a doctrine assures necessary moral progress, what Hartley calls the “final Happiness of all Mankind,”9 but it also reduces all human agency to the passivity of perception. Godwin makes this clear in his treatment of both sensual and moral desire. The infant, he argues rather sophistically, can desire nothing without knowing or understanding what it is he or she desires. Desire therefore proceeds from perception, and the infant's apparent self-love is “only the faculty of perception under another name.”10 Similarly, Godwin argues that the desire for virtue must proceed from the understanding (which after all is only a totality of sensation) “that desire only can be eminently virtuous, which flows from a distinct perception of the value, and consequently of the nature, of the thing desired.”11 Virtue requires a “grand view” of the causes of happiness, a “collective idea of the human species.”12 Vice is no more than a mistake resulting from the particularity of a narrow viewpoint. It is inevitably corrected as the natural consequence of observation, which rescues it from particularity to moral universality.

In this deterministic view of morality's inevitable progress, the individual and the community are not only inseparable but finally indistinguishable. All isolated particularity including that of agency must be subsumed in an inclusive totality. The supreme pleasure for both Hartley and Godwin is the obliteration of any particular identity. Godwin describes it as an identification with general happiness, with the happiness of others, which is so complete that it prompts the individual to forget that he or she has interests which are merely personal: “No man so truly promotes his own interest, as he that forgets it.”13 With more flamboyant phrasing, Hartley describes the goal of morality as “Self-annihilation.”14 In perfect self-annihilation all isolated particularity is banished and the individual thinks the totality of experience (which Hartley identifies as God). Moral progress, he argues, is “the Method of destroying Self, by perpetually substituting a less and purer Self-interest for a larger and grosser.” This method, he observes, corresponds to mathematical methods of obtaining quantities “by leaving a less and less Error sine limite.15

The paradox of such moral self-annihilation is precisely the unbridgeable distance between the imagined totality “sine limite” of the moral universal and the finitude of particular experience. This unbridgeable distance is the gap between the theorist as observer, as the embodiment of the totality he describes, and the causal web of human connections which he observes. The observer's totalizing perspective is immune from the moment of desire and decision, since it situates such moments in the retrospective totality of a third-person narrative. The utilitarian agent must view his or her own actions from an external position which merely denies the dilemma of choice. This explains the reverence which Hartley and Godwin (and Wordsworth) show for necessity and clarifies the apparent inconsistency of their notions of free will. Both philosophers admit free will and intention as localized, subjective phenomena such as are manifest in the voluntary movement of the body, but both deny that such subjective phenomena have any bearing on virtue.16 Virtue, as Godwin says, must be considered as a tendency to ultimate ends rather than as “modifying any particular beings.”17 Since truth is in essence material necessity, observation allows the agent to escape the vicissitudes of particular personality and to assume the identity of fate. The individual can see her self reflected in this fateful totality, however, only by maintaining the complete transparency of observation. If self-annihilation should be revealed to be less than complete, if it is tainted by the partial or particular, in short if it reflects the particularity of an individual choice or desire, then the authority of the moral observer's position is compromised. As will become clear in the case of Wordsworth, the observer sympathizes with the specificity of human suffering from the distance of a universal understanding.18 It is impossible that he should experience that sorrow in its particularity by making it his own.

For the British Romantics, of course, the primary difficulty with the utilitarian model of moral self-reflection is its inability to account for the experience of moral or creative freedom or, more specifically, its failure to account for the self-conscious, self-reflective im-mediacy that seems to characterize both moral and creative acts. In this area, utilitarianism's failure is idealism's success. In opposition to the empiricist scheme of integrative contiguity, idealist morality dramatizes the inevitability of a break between sensible and supersensible interest. The retrospective and inclusive order of utilitarianism is replaced by an immediate self-consciousness which asserts its independence from all contingent (causal) particularity. Thus, the integrity of the moral agent in the idealist scheme is based on the exclusion of the very particulars which the utilitarian transcends by inclusion. This expulsion of the particular sensual or self-interested self initiates moral agency by splitting the subject or agent. However, the split engendered by this initial act of self-opposition is recompensed by a free self-affirmation which is immanent in the will and independent of historical determination.

This economy of limitation and freedom is illustrated in Kant's ethics wherein duty is first experienced as humiliation and then as (self) affirmation. “The moral law,” Kant writes, “inevitably humbles every man when he compares the sensuous propensity of his nature with the law.”19 Such humiliation, however, makes it possible for the agent to reject the sensuality of his nature and by conforming his will to the imperatives of duty to identify his supersensible self with the absolute self-consistency of law and reason. Each particular act of duty reflects the universal principles of the categorical imperative: “Act as if the maxim of your action by your will were to become aUniversal Law of Nature.20 Here the act of imitation which lies at the heart of Kantian morality is made explicit. In contrast to the essentially narrative pattern of empiricist morality, idealist morality is metaphoric. The agent is to act as if each individual act had the self-determining force of a universal law. Thus Kantian morality recovers free will and intention in a single stroke. It is through “good will” alone that the individual reflects universal good. Kant insists that “Good will is good not because of what it causes or accomplishes.”21 It must be both its own cause and effect, devoid of any ulterior motive of interest, and without contingent goals. In this complete isolation from the causal conntinuum, the agent can be what Fichte calls both “determinate and determinant.22 Rather than self-annihilation, idealist agency produces a heightened sense of self, what Kant calls “personality, i.e., the freedom and independence from the mechanism of nature regarded as a capacity of a being which is subject to special laws.”23 Conformity to this special moral law reflects the “sublimity of our own supersensuous existence,” for in such conformity the individual most perfectly approximates the pure self-determination of a divine being.24

For Kant, however, the resemblance between human and divine virtue must remain only approximate. For any perfect being, Kant claims, will and law are in natural, irrefragable agreement so that the principles of law exist not as duty but as holiness, as the essence of divinity itself.25 For “a finite rational being,” however, moral law must remain an objective and extrinsic duty, an ideal like the categorical imperative.26 It can never be natural; it can never be, as Kant says, identical with “our very nature.”27 Human virtue must be distinguished from divine holiness as possibility is distinguished from essence. The human attempt to naturalize or to internalize the categorical imperative results in what he calls the “self-conceit” of “fanaticism,” a usurpation of divine prerogative.28 In fanaticism the agent attempts to turn every act into an act of self-affirmation and thus to eliminate the tension between sensible and supersensible identity. The fanatic would turn the “as if” of the categorical imperative into a literal “is” and deny the distance or difference between the individual and the universal. For Kant, fanaticism is especially pernicious because it stems from an overweening pride which hypocritically masks selfish inclination as universal law. However, Kant's vehement opposition to fanaticism reveals idealism's vulnerability to narcissistic collapse. That is, the fanatic's deluded notion that he lives the absolute freedom of universal law as part of his very nature raises the question of whether any attempt to dignify self-reflexivity as a supersensible freedom might be similarly deluded. The stability of the idealist scheme depends on its ability to distinguish the finite act from the yet unimaginable and unrealized ideal of a pure reason. If the ideal of reason is discredited, then the self-reflexive act that was supposed to imitate divine self-determination turns out to be merely a narcissistic self-reflection.

Because the post-Kantian idealists attempt to imagine the supersensible freedom which Kant insisted was unimaginable, they have a more difficult time distinguishing the finite from the infinite act of self-reflection, and their systems are thus more vulnerable to narcissistic collapse. Fichte, for instance, deduces the properties of the infinite I, its absolute self-reflection (“I am absolutely, because I am”), from the aspirations of the finite I.29 In the course of this deduction in The Science of Knowledge, it is frequently difficult (if not impossible) to distinguish finite and infinite self-reflection. Despite Fichte's protest that the two are distinct and that he does not intend to transcendentalize the finite subject, his system was (and is) frequently assailed as solipsistic individualism. Starting with the tautology of Cartesian self-consciousness which he formulates A = A,30 he attempts to deduce difference, both the difference of the finite subject from itself in the process of self-objectification and the difference between the finite and infinite self-reflection. This self-produced difference, however, is always suspect as the specular medium of merely narcissistic contemplation. It is understandable, therefore, that other idealist philosophers such as Schelling and Hegel (and the later Fichte) should take greater care to ground the dialectic of self-discovery in such external media as nature, history, and, of course, a refurbished dialectical Christianity in which God himself becomes the instrument of progressive human self-revelation. Idealism arrives in England with a distinct theological emphasis. It is Christianity that allows the Coleridge of the Biographia to distinguish so confidently the finite “I am” from the infinite “I AM.”31

In more practical terms, the link between members of a community in idealist morality is grounded in the same act of imaginative anticipation that allows the individual to see finite duty as a reflection of an infinite or pure self-determination. That is, in the idealist version of community each individual must respect others as the embodiment of a rational freedom with the result, according to Kant, that a human be treated as “an end in itself,” never “merely as a means.”32 Unlike the mutual identification in utilitarianism which is based on shared interest or happiness, the bond here is mutuality generated by the shared potential of a disinterested freedom. The agent must imagine other people's possible self-sufficiency rather than observe the needs which bind them to the world of causality. Because another person's freedom is unknowable, it must be an imaginative projection of the agent's own aspirations for self-determination, just as community must be an imaginative projection of a shared immunity from identity which is not the product of self-determination. This creates the same gap in social experience that the individual experiences in self-reflection. That is, the appearance of a mechanistic determinism must be opposed to the possibility of free self-determination. Individuals often appear needy, helpless, or self-interested, but they must be imagined as willing themselves freely. As Kant puts it, (individual) “Man is certainly unholy enough,” but “humanity in his person” (as shared freedom) “must be holy.”33

The complementary weaknesses of the utilitarian and idealist moral systems constitute the dilemma which Shelley inherits from Godwin and the earlier Romantics. The utilitarian perspective entails the continual deferral of desire to the inclusive narrative totality represented by a transparent observer. From this perspective all human desire appears merely particular, fragmentary, and pathetic. Accordingly, the morality of shared happiness turns out to be the morality of pathos, for satiety and satisfaction are invisible in such a system. Godwin is disgusted by material excess and indifferent to successful subsistence.34 His concern is with the needs of the less fortunate, with their material needs, but ultimately with their need for an enlightened (universal) perspective. However worthy an endeavor this is, as the phrasing implies, it necessarily involves a condescending sympathy; the transparency of the observer assures a covert superiority. In his position of superiority he is likely to be tempted into a hypocritical denial of his own interests and a Benthamite blindness to the stubborn particularity and complexity of other people's desires.

Unlike utilitarianism whose omniscient narrator renders all human history in the past tense of causal necessity, idealism proposes a moment of freedom which reflects a necessarily opaque future, a future yet to be imagined or realized. This opacity allows the agent to value the moment of free self-determination as anticipation of an indeterminate greatness, as the possibility of a complete freedom. The danger, of course, is that the future onto which self-consciousness projects itself may be an illusion, that even with systems of monstrous alterity such as Hegel's history, self-determination may be only empty self-reflection, a formal unity imposed on an impassive world. The same danger obtains in social relationships where the freedom of others is necessarily an imaginative projection, charged with an unknown quantity of personal and perhaps narcissistic desire.

By now it should be clear to those who know the poem that the utilitarian and idealist alternatives described above reflect the predicaments of Alastor's two poets, the predicaments of the Narrator and the Visionary respectively.35 As Wasserman points out in the most complete and perceptive reading of the poem, although these two poets are in many ways reflections of one another, they represent distinct metaphysical perspectives.36 The Narrator, Shelley's critical redaction of the Wordsworthian poet, seeks inspiration through a wise passiveness, confident of the spiritual value immanent in the natural world. In his invocation the Narrator describes himself as a “long-forgotten lyre” (l. 42) awaiting the winds of natural inspiration, a child awaiting the ministrations of the “great Mother” (l. 2).37 Like many of Wordsworth's narrators, the Narrator in Alastor tells the tale of a good soul who is destroyed by adhering to a hopelessly single-minded desire, a desire with which he sympathizes from his broader perspective, but a desire which nonetheless is not his own. Shelley's treatment of the Alastor Narrator echoes many of his other criticisms of Wordsworth such as those in “Peter Bell the Third” where Wordsworth/Peter is described as trapped within a single inclusive perspective which abolishes all difference, trapped in an egotism which the poet mistakes for totality:

All things that Peter saw and felt
          Had a peculiar aspect to him;
And when they came within the belt
Of his own nature, seemed to melt,
          Like cloud to cloud, into him.

(ll. 273-77)38

His mind is both “circumference and centre,” an all-absorbing consciousness from which “Nothing went ever out,” but “Something did ever enter,” a mind forever unable to “Fancy another situation / … Than that wherein he stood” (ll. 294 and following).

The Visionary, by contrast, represents Shelley's own fascination with a world of ideal difference, a world which harbors love's unobtainable goal, that ideal self commemorated in the often-quoted passage from “On Love”:

We dimly see within our intellectual nature a miniature as it were of our entire self, yet deprived of all that we condemn or despise, the ideal prototype of every thing excellent or lovely that we are capable of conceiving as belonging to the nature of man. Not only the portrait of our external being, but an assemblage of the minutest particles of which our nature is composed; a mirror whose surface reflects only the forms of purity and brightness; a soul within our soul that describes a circle around its proper paradise, which pain, and sorrow, and evil dare not overleap.39

Such self-contemplation courts disappointment in the form of narcissistic collapse, leaving the visionary poet as the “beautiful and ineffectual angel” of Matthew Arnold's caricature, “beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.”40

As Wasserman describes Alastor, the parallel quests of Narrator and Visionary culminate in a mutual disappointment which attests to Shelley's skepticism about the possibility of ever knowing ultimate truth. The Narrator discovers the dead emptiness of the natural world and is thus condemned to live a life in death, bound to nature's meaningless cycles. The Visionary's disillusionment is more dramatic. Unwilling to tolerate a world which will not sustain or reflect his vision, “he descends to an untimely grave” (p. 959). Passivity painfully endures; desire consumes itself. Although neither poet triumphs, the Visionary through his passion and death purchases an identity which the faceless Narrator must remain without. In his epigraph Shelley seems to vindicate the Visionary's self-destructive passion against the Narrator's Wordsworthian survival:

“The good die first,
And those whose hearts are dry as summer dust,
Burn to the socket!”

(p. 960)

Wasserman describes Shelley as “ambivalently setting his Wordsworthian Narrator against the pure Visionary”41 to demonstrate the impossibility of certain knowledge, but I will argue that the differences between Narrator and Visionary have as much to do with conflicting versions of moral self-representation as they do with opposing notions of metaphysical truth. Beyond the issues of the metaphysical debate, Alastor explores the way in which desire informs observation, both self-observation and the observation of others. It is a poem built of reflections, a poem in which the poet is continually multiplied. From the poet maiden to the poet Visionary who imagines her, to the poet Narrator who tells her story, to the poet of the preface who interprets it, all are fascinated by their likenesses and the limitations of their likenesses.

Furthermore, while I agree with Wasserman that the poem is a critique of both Wordsworthian empiricism and visionary idealism, I think that the solitude, the self-centered seclusion which Alastor punishes, is linked most conspicuously with Wordsworthian empiricism and that the Visionary's tragedy is due in large part to the fact that he will not relinquish the Wordsworthian perspective which he shares with the Narrator. The seclusion which the vision of human love avenges and which Shelley by implication criticizes is based on the assumption that there is a superhuman basis of value which obviates the need for actual human community and which frees the enlightened individual from the contingencies of merely human relationships. Both the supersensible reason of idealism and the beneficent nature of empiricism claim to be such a foundation for value and so both are vulnerable to Shelley's attack. It is the empiricist claim, the appeal to natural authority, which receives the closest scrutiny in this poem, however, since the claims of idealism are explored and one might say subsumed within a Wordsworthian vision of nature.

As Shelley's epigraph hints, the specific target of Alastor's polemic seems to be “The Wanderer,” the first book of Wordsworth's Excursion. Shelley evidently read “The Wanderer” shortly before composing Alastor, and parallels between the two poems indicate that Shelley is imitating Wordsworth in order to criticize him.42 The epigraph points to the most obvious parallel: both Margaret and the Visionary are “the good” who die young, and both are illustrations of the Wordsworthian pathos to which I have already alluded. Margaret is condemned to waste herself in a futile vigil, waiting for her husband to return. She is the victim of “one torturing hope” which is “fast rooted at her heart” (ll. 913-14). As with many of Wordsworth's other rustics (Michael, for example), her abject fixation on a single object of desire prevents her from achieving the more capacious perspective of the Wordsworthian narrator, of the Wanderer who tells her story, and she thus illustrates the empiricist view of the idealist delusion. Her single-minded hope dooms her to death by disappointment, while the Wanderer's inclusive sympathy allows him to live on, aware that particular sorrow conduces to universal good. Margaret's passion and pathos find their counterpart in the Visionary's all-consuming desire and his subsequent demise. He too is focused on a particular love object which prevents him from finding solace in the empiricist's identification with the totality of nature. The persistent particularity of his passion contrasts with the (Alastor) Narrator's yearning for a self-annihilating identification with nature in the same way that the fierce singularity of Margaret's desire contrasts with the diffuse and inclusive sympathies of the Wanderer.

Wasserman observes that the similarities between the Visionary and Margaret, the Narrator and the Wanderer, establish a polemical relationship between the two poems. According to him, Alastor voices Shelley's conviction that Wordsworth had “not set his sights high enough,” that he had “defined man's spirit too mundanely, too humanly.” This means, Wasserman continues, that Shelley is objecting to Margaret's earthbound love as a model of virtue, that Alastor is arguing “the truly good who are soonest taken out of life are not those with unwavering and devoted hope for, and faith in, an absent human love, but those who aspire to a vision that is absent because it can have no existence on earth.”43 This interpretation assumes that the resemblance between Margaret and the Visionary is purely critical and that the Visionary is superior to Margaret because he rejects actual human love in favor of a supersensuous ideal. I think that the similarities between Margaret and the Visionary imply quite the opposite. Alastor describes the revenge of the “spirit of sweet human love” (l. 203) against the seclusion of a Wordsworthian solitary. Human love, Shelley is arguing, inevitably includes an idealized self-reflective specificity. He is defending Margaret's fixation on the human particular against the empiricist detachment of the poets who tell her story. The Visionary experiences human love as a curse, a punishment, because he, like the Narrator and Wordsworth's Wanderer, is committed to the moral delusion that solitary nature is superior to human society. The Visionary ends his life like Margaret, but he begins his life in the bosom of nature like the Wanderer. In this convergence of identities, the convergence of lover and solitary, Shelley's critical message is made clear.

That the Wanderer is the primary model for Shelley's Visionary is confirmed by a second set of parallels between Alastor and “The Wanderer,” parallels which Wasserman seems to overlook. Each poem presents not two but three main characters. “The Wanderer” is actually narrated by a character whom Wordsworth identifies as the “Author,” and it is this Author who corresponds most closely to Shelley's Narrator. Author, Wanderer, and Margaret occupy the same respective places in the structure of Wordsworth's narrative as Narrator, Visionary, and dream maiden occupy in the dramatic structure of Shelley's poem. Both Author and Narrator begin their tales with accounts of their poet-subjects' Wordsworthian childhoods, and the Narrator's account seems to echo the Author's. From these accounts we learn that both the Wanderer and the Visionary are natural poets whose purity of heart has made them especially receptive to natural wisdom. According to the empiricist model, in each case this wisdom is imparted through the immediacy of sensation without the necessity of human intervention. Chaste, aloof, and obedient to higher impulses, both Wanderer and Visionary leave their families to begin their solitary wandering. In describing the Visionary's travels, Shelley frequently uses the verb “wander” perhaps in allusion to the Visionary's Wordsworthian counterpart. In both poems the childhood history establishes a natural brotherhood between the poet narrator and his poet subject. All four characters receive their poetic inspiration from nature and have quit human society to pursue their callings. The bond of brotherhood they share is distinctly different from either the Wanderer's pity for Margaret or the Visionary's passion for the dream maiden. Both Wanderer and Visionary act as alter egos for the poets who narrate their stories; they mediate (although unsuccessfully in the case of the Visionary) between the worlds of masculine totality and feminine particularity.

The Wanderer, who tells Margaret's story to the Author, takes pains to construct a moral justification for such a lugubrious tale. He warns his listener that the tale should not turn their attention from “natural wisdom” (l. 601) or make them insensitive to the “natural comfort” (l. 602) which surrounds them.44 It would be “wantonness,” he admits, if they were to “hold vain dalliance with the misery / Even of the dead”; they would be culpable if they drew from Margaret's unhappiness only “A momentary pleasure, never marked / By reason, barren of all future good” (ll. 626-31). His motive, he protests, is not to satisfy the voyeurism of idle curiosity or to indulge a merely personal sorrow but to awaken the “power to virtue friendly” which is found in “mournful thought” (ll. 633-34). This power to virtue is the antithesis of “vain dalliance” or “momentary pleasure.” Margaret's tale has this power because it is marked by reason and reveals a universal truth, not a momentary or particular passion. The tale is so common, so ubiquitous, the Wanderer argues, that it hardly has the particularity of a “bodily form”:

… 'Tis a common tale,
An ordinary sorrow of man's life,
A tale of silent suffering, hardly clothed
In bodily form. …

(ll. 636-39)

When the story concludes and the Author grieves, tracing the “secret spirit of humanity” which somehow survives amid the “calm oblivious tendencies / Of nature,” the Wanderer assures him that he has sorrowed enough since the “purposes of wisdom ask no more” (ll. 927-29, 933). He admonishes the Author to remember his Christian faith, and they continue their journey “in happiness” (l. 956).

The Narrator in Alastor, however, cannot continue in happiness when his tale is done. Appalled by death (the Visionary's and his own), he laments that “God, / Profuse of poisons” will not “concede the chalice” that gave the Wandering Jew eternal life (ll. 675-76). Overwhelmed by the “oblivious tendencies / Of nature,” he announces that the world which once seemed a “Great Parent” (l. 45) is now revealed to be a vast indifference. The Narrator despairs because he sees the Visionary's story not as a common tale or a moral parable but as a reflection of himself, his aspirations, his destiny. He cannot regain the detachment of the empiricist perspective because he is personally implicated in the Visionary's demise. In Alastor, Shelley is determined to make a Wordsworthian narrator see himself in the pathos and particularity of the common life whose story he tells.

The tale of the Visionary begins as an account of Wordsworthian poetic election but ends as a story of Wordsworthian pathos. It is as if the poet of the early Prelude should grow up to be not Wordsworth but Margaret. Poetic election is confirmed for Wordsworth by the retrospective discovery of the inherent unity of the poet's apparently chaotic experience. Each episode of the Prelude, for instance, is given coherence and value as it is shown to contribute to the inclusive totality of the poet's vision. The locus of self or identity is continually displaced from the fragmentary moment to the historical whole. The lack of the poet's inclusive perspective condemns rustics like Margaret and Michael to their obsessions. These obsessions feed not on a coherent past but on an illusory future. For those trapped in single-minded desires, this future brings death rather than satisfaction, a death as private and particular as their hope and frustration. Alastor subverts the Wordsworthian paradigm by locating poetic identity in hope rather than recollection, in the exclusive totality of an ideal image rather than the inclusive totality of a narrative which redeems history. As a reflection of poetry and the poet, the dream maiden is radically particular, a sexually charged encounter in an instant of time. She is accessible not through recollection but through hope; if Margaret's hope of human love is futile, Shelley seems to be saying, then the hope of poetry (which in Alastor is the same hope) can be no less so.

The Narrator shares the Visionary's despair not just because they resemble one another but because this resemblance is informed by the Narrator's desire. Unlike Wordsworth's Author, his rapport with nature is less than complete. Although he has lived in brotherhood with the elements, imbued with Wordsworth's own “natural piety” (l. 3), nature herself has not “unveiled” her “inmost sanctuary” (l. 38). Specifically, she has not answered his “obstinate questionings” (l. 26) about death. What assurance he has found has “shone within” him in the form of “dream,” “phantasms,” and “noon-day thought” (ll. 39-41). In this state of unanswered need he awaits nature's quickening breath. The Visionary, then, appears to be the realization of the Narrator's desire. No “moveless” lyre, the Visionary finds his passive devotion answered by nature's kind attention. According to the associationist model he is first tutored by sensation: “Every sight / And sound from the vast earth and ambient air, / Sent to his heart its choicest impulses” (ll. 68-70). “Divine philosophy” he “felt / And knew” (ll. 71-4, 75). At an early age he leaves his alienated home in order to follow nature's “secret steps” (l. 81), and in solitude he discovers majesty “inaccessible / To avarice or pride” (ll. 89-90). His education is completed by memorials of the ancient past. Like the works of nature, this historical panorama educates him without the mediation of human presence. He studies “mute thoughts on the mute walls” until “speechless shapes” flash “meaning” on his “vacant mind,” revealing the “thrilling secrets of the birth of time” (ll. 120-27). For him knowledge has a pure sensuous immediacy.

Yet, despite all this, the Visionary's world is speechless, static, and retrospective. He may see the “thrilling secrets of the birth of time,” the ruins of the past, but he has no future. He wanders, obedient to nature's promptings, but without goals or destination. Although he is constantly referred to as “the Poet,” he performs no creative acts. Even his relationship with the Arab maiden who brings him food is silent. Ironically, it is the equilibrium of this rather sterile innocence which the Narrator as nature's lyre seems to desire and celebrate.

Also ironic is the fact that by achieving this state of harmony, this passive contentment, the Visionary becomes vulnerable to the dream which will destroy his life. Nature ceases to suffice because he is satisfied. Unlike the Narrator, he is driven by no need, troubled by no “obstinate questionings.” There is no gap in his communion with nature. According to Shelley's definition in “On Love,” love is what perpetually transcends itself in its quest for an object that is by definition unobtainable. It is, therefore, the person who has found natural satisfaction who will be troubled with a supernatural desire. In this way Shelley's love is the absolute antithesis of the need or limitation inscribed in empiricist (Wordsworthian) pathos. It is a supererogatory desire which defies the causal determinations of history, a freedom which traces its origin to plenitude rather than deprivation. The Visionary's dream of the poet maiden, then, has no cause, certainly no cause in nature or the past. After the vision fades, we are told that it has been sent by the “spirit of sweet human love” (l. 203), but as we have seen, the essence of this love for Shelley is a self-transcending freedom, a freedom which according to the idealist model takes itself as its own object. The cause of such love is the future, not the past.

As a result of this break in the continuum of natural time, everything in the Visionary's life is transformed. His passive satisfaction becomes active desire; meaning which had flashed upon his “vacant mind” from times past is now to be found only in the future. His wandering turns, at least momentarily, to quest, his filial dependence to unsatisfied sexuality. Most importantly, the maiden's poetry shatters the silence of nature's speechless forms. In her poetry she reveals herself as both the medium and the object of the Visionary poet's desire. Her theme is “Knowledge and truth and virtue” and “lofty hopes of divine liberty, / Thoughts the most dear to him, and poesy” (ll. 158-60). She represents the perpetual hope of a “divine liberty” which is always yet to be achieved, for this for Shelley is the essence of both love and poetry. She embodies love as it is described in Shelley's second epigraph, the epigraph from Augustine's Confessions (here in translation): “Not yet did I love, and I loved to love. I sought what I should love, loving to love” (p. 960). This is the love that loves itself loving, that prizes its own activity more than the attainment of the finite object.

For the Visionary, however, the freedom discovered in this self-reflecting moment of poetry is a mixed blessing since it introduces a perpetual imbalance, a perpetual lack of adequation between the imaginative mind and the surrounding world of Wordsworthian nature. At the heart of this imbalance and of the discontent which it causes is the sudden eruption of sexuality and language. These are the forces which disrupt the integrative contiguity of the natural world by exciting a desire which knows no final or natural object. Love is excess, the perpetual difference between the obtainable and the unobtainable object: upon hearing the maiden's song, the poet is “sickened with excess / Of love” (ll. 181-82).

This excess of love remains even after the maiden vanishes, and in the world of Wordsworthian nature it produces an extremely painful double perspective, splitting the Visionary's consciousness into active and passive components. In the waking world the dream is described in both positive and negative terms; the Visionary both pursues and is pursued by his vision. He recovers his former “mute” passivity only to succumb to passion when nature's objects disappear in darkness:

                                                                                While day-light held
The sky, the Poet kept mute conference
With his still soul. At night the passion came,
Like the fierce fiend of a distempered dream,
And shook him from his rest, and led him forth
Into the darkness. …

(ll. 222-27)

The Visionary's perspective is split by a double disillusionment. After the vision the dream maiden appears as a “fair fiend” (l. 297), but nature itself appears no less treacherous. The Visionary's discovery that the ideal which the dream maiden represents is only a human projection (with no basis in the natural world) entails his corresponding and seemingly more traumatic realization that the beneficence of nature is no less an illusion, no less a projection of human desires. Through the Visionary's plight Shelley emphasizes that benevolent nature, the “great Mother” of the Narrator's invocation, is no more a source of natural piety than the dream maiden. To be sure, the empiricist notion of a natural virtue, a virtue imparted in the immediacy of sensation itself, effectively disguises human agency as a passive dependence on a greater power, while the idealist vision of virtue boasts a non-natural supersensuous origin which, as I have mentioned, is only too easily exposed as mere human desire. For the Visionary, however, the disillusionment of vision is simultaneous with the demystification of nature. He awakes to find the maiden gone and earth stripped of its “mystery” and “majesty” (l. 199). When the Visionary realizes that the faithlessness of nature is indistinguishable from the treachery of vision, he resigns himself to death.

He comes to this realization on the Chorasmian shore where he has wandered, tortured by the vacillations of passion and passivity. Here he addresses a swan, an animal which before his vision would have been part of his natural brotherhood, in some ways his double, but which now appears inexorably alien. Whether the Visionary's apostrophe to the swan is actually verbalized or merely thought is impossible to tell, since as he himself observes it makes no difference. The words are the first directly attributed to the Visionary, and they mark a self-awareness which banishes his intuitive sympathy with nature. Seeing and feeling are no longer equivalent to knowing; meaning is no longer immanent in sensation. The Visionary's language instantiates and records the unbridgeable gap between the human and natural realms. He speaks first to note his difference from the swan, lamenting the fact that unlike the bird he has no home or mate. He then questions his identity in light of this difference:

“And what am I that I should linger here,
With voice far sweeter than thy dying notes,
Spirit more vast than thine, frame more attuned
To beauty, wasting these surpassing powers
In the deaf air, to the blind earth, and heaven
That echoes not my thoughts?”

(ll. 285-90)

The Visionary's self-consciousness (his “I”) emerges in opposition to the natural brotherhood with which he once identified. To know his own sweet voice, his frame “attuned / To beauty” is to become aware of “deaf air” and “blind earth,” to feel nature as it denies the particularity of his identity. As soon as he has reflected on his own “surpassing powers,” he is “startled by his own thoughts,” and looks around to find “no fair fiend near him, not a sight / Or sound of awe but in his own deep mind” (ll. 296-98). Aware that he is the source of vision's beauty and Nature's awesomeness, he is urged by a “restless impulse” to meet “lone Death” at sea (ll. 304-05).

The desire awakened by the self-reflective vision leads the Visionary to an awareness of the lack of reciprocity between mind and nature, but this lack of reciprocity exposes in its turn the merely human source of vision. Here the empiricist and idealist perspectives compromise each other in the poem's central irony. After the demystification of both nature and the ideal, death appears as the only source of possible value external to the Visionary's “own deep mind,” the only way to confirm a nonhuman ground of authority. Ironically, the quest for such a superhuman authority becomes a romance with death. Caught as he is between idealist passion and empiricist passivity, the Visionary sees death as a resolution of his conflict. His death is both a resignation to nature and an attempt to get beyond the natural world, a way of restoring sensuous immediacy while aspiring to the supersensuous.

Wasserman argues Alastor requires the reader to acknowledge the possibility that death does in fact lead the Visionary to a supersensible satisfaction. The language which portrays death as a savage indifference, he avers, reflects not Shelley's attitude but the attitude of the Wordsworthian Narrator who has become disillusioned with his own natural perspective.45 It is hard to know what would characterize a distinctly Wordsworthian disillusionment, since the entire Wordsworthian project is a defense against such an eventuality. In his outrage and despair, however, the Narrator clearly shares the Visionary's unWordsworthian regard for the self-reflective identity which nature denies. The Narrator's laments echo the Visionary's own complaints that nature will not reflect his “surpassing” visionary powers. There is no indication that Shelley sees the Visionary's embrace of death as anything other than a bitter irony. Death is described in Alastor as a raging tyrant, a figure of vicious, arbitrary masculine authority whose rule is disguised by nature's mild, mothering façade. This is the language of Shelley's disapprobation, not the language of a disillusioned Wordsworth.

The description of the Visionary's journey to death emphasizes his passive acquiescence to the natural elements, not his defiance of nature or his confidence in a supersensuous destiny. This is especially true in the account of his death where Shelley's description parodies Wordsworth's retrospective sympathy with nature. First, the Visionary resigns himself “To images of the majestic past” which pause “within his passive being” (ll. 629-30). Freed now from the hope and despair of his future-oriented vision, he lies in repose, “the influxes of sense, / … calmly fed / The stream of thought” (ll. 641-44). The Visionary's blood, “That ever beat in mystic sympathy / With nature's ebb and flow,” flows more and more feebly as the moon slowly sets until in utter darkness he expires (ll. 652-53). At his death the Visionary becomes once again the passive receptacle of natural inspiration which the Narrator had earlier sought to emulate. With macabre humor his corpse is described as a “fragile lute, on whose harmonious strings / The breath of heaven did wander” (ll. 667-68).

The “mystic sympathy” which weds the Visionary to Nature as death is the same sympathy which united him with the benevolent nature of his youth, just as his journey to death is an ironic recapitulation of his earlier wandering in the bosom of nature. It is imperative to note that the Visionary remains committed to Wordsworthian solitude throughout Alastor. Only his (and our) perspective on this solitude changes, and this change in perspective is the essence of the Visionary's punishment. He is forced to relive his earlier self-centered seclusion with the burden of knowledge contained in his vision of human love. This human knowledge transforms the solace of solitude into a torture by revealing that his seclusion really is solitude and not the brotherhood that he had once imagined. The self-consciousness introduced by human love alerts the Visionary to the grim and literal fact behind the metaphorical self-annihilation of the Wordsworthian project.

Yet, the Visionary is condemned to remain in solitary nature. His Wordsworthian perspective gives him no access to the human world; he is unable to embrace or even to imagine the human love that might give body to his self-reflective ideal. To look for the dream maiden (or simply to desire her) from within the confines of Wordsworthian nature is to look for her and the freedom she represents in death; it is to look for her in those false reflections which are nothing more than the naked projections of human desire onto the blank indifference of nature. This, and not the projection of one's desires onto another human being, is for Shelley the most abject form of narcissism. The elaborate descriptions of the Visionary's death journey are full of false reflections, reflections which project the eyes of the dream maiden onto the deathly face of nature. According to Alastor's rigorous logic, it is because nature does not reflect human particularity that it must necessarily reflect death; to fall in love with one's own face as it is reflected in nature's empty pool is to fall in love with one's own annihilation. Shelley expresses this idea in a brilliantly compressed double metaphor:

                                                                                His eyes beheld
Their own wan light through the reflected lines
Of his thin hair, distinct in the dark depth
Of that still fountain; as the human heart,
Gazing in dreams over the gloomy grave,
Sees its own treacherous likeness there.

(ll. 469-74)

Shelley's imagery further connects this romance of death with psycho-sexual regression. In refinding “Nature's dearest haunt,” “her cradle” and the cradle in which he was raised, the Visionary discovers “his sepulchre” (ll. 429-30). To attempt to re-establish a filial dependency on the “great Mother” after loving the dream maiden is to regress, to quell the troubling echoes of self-consciousness by seeking to return to the oblivion of childhood. The vision identifies freedom, self-reflection (including poetry as the language of self-expression), and sexuality as the unnatural core of human identity which cannot be dispersed through metaphoric self-annihilation. Sexual love cannot be universalized: its objects necessarily remain personal and specific; it cannot be transferred from maiden back to mother without destructive consequences. It demands a reciprocity which distinguishes it from pity or dependence; it requires a self-awareness which is not innocent of self-regard.

The Visionary, like his Wordsworthian counterparts, seems unable to face this knowledge. He loves fate as if it were a woman, as if it embodied human freedom. The Wanderer, by contrast, loves a woman (Margaret) as if she were fate, as if she had no freedom. In the world of the Excursion, human passion is departicularized by death, which is by implication the totality from which the poet views the world. Alastor reverses this scheme. It, too, views the world from the perspective of death, but from the perspective of death as the particularity of desire. Shelley implies that such a reversal of perspectives (and the self-consciousness such a reversal entails) is inevitable and the precondition of any honest moral agency. He does not imply that the particularity discovered in such self-reflection need have the destructive consequences that it does for the Visionary. Nor does he imply that such particularity even need destroy the possibility of Wordsworthian sympathy. Shelley does suggest that both types of moral self-identification are partial and partially self-interested. In a world without metaphysical absolutes, however, this need not exclude their claims to moral authority.


  1. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Preface” to Alastor, in English Romantic Writers, edited by David Perkins (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1967), p. 960.

  2. William Wordsworth, “Preface to the Second Edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800),” in English Romantic Writers, p. 321.

  3. Wordsworth, “Preface,” pp. 325, 326.

  4. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” in English Romantic Writers, pp. 1083-84.

  5. William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on Morals and Happiness, edited by F. E. L. Priestley (Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1946), Volume I, p. 94.

  6. David Hartley, Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty, And His Expectations (1749) (Gainesville, Florida: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1966), Volume I, p. 497.

  7. Hartley, Volume I, p. 360.

  8. See, for instance, Hartley, Volume I, pp. 324-35.

  9. Hartley, Volume II, p. 419.

  10. Godwin, Volume I, p. 34.

  11. Godwin, Volume I, p. 317.

  12. Godwin, Volume I, p. 317.

  13. Godwin, Volume I, p. 447.

  14. Hartley, Volume I, p. 510.

  15. Hartley, Volume II, p. 282.

  16. Godwin, Volume I, pp. 56-9, 361 and following; Hartley, Volume I, p. 257.

  17. Godwin, Volume I, p. 386.

  18. This distance is preserved by solitude. Paradoxically, both Wordsworth and Godwin imply that universal sympathy is the product of distance, literal and metaphoric, from the compromising specificity of social relationships. Both tend to distrust consensus.

  19. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, translated by Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis, Indiana: Library of Liberal Arts, Inc., 1956), p. 77.

  20. Immanuel Kant, The Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Ethics, translated by Otto Manthey-Zorn (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1938), p. 38.

  21. Kant, Fundamental Principles, p. 9.

  22. J. G. Fichte, Science of Knowledge with the First and Second Introductions, edited and translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 272.

  23. Kant, Critique, p. 89.

  24. Kant, Critique, p. 91.

  25. Kant, Critique, p. 84.

  26. Kant, Critique, p. 85.

  27. Kant, Critique, p. 84.

  28. Kant, Critique, p. 87.

  29. Fichte, pp. 99, 224 and following.

  30. Fichte, p. 94.

  31. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions, edited by James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983), Volume I, p. 304.

  32. Kant, Critique, p. 90.

  33. Kant, Critique, p. 90.

  34. Godwin, Volume II, Chapter 2, pp. 489 and following.

  35. I follow Wasserman in referring to Alastor's two poets in this way, although it is important to remember the Visionary is referred to in the poem as “the Poet.”

  36. Earl R. Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), pp. 11 and following.

  37. Shelley, “Alastor; or The Spirit of Solitude,” in English Romantic Writers, pp. 959-968. All quotations from the poem are hereafter cited in the text by line or page numbers in parentheses.

  38. Shelley, “Peter Bell the Third,” in Poetical Works, edited by Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 353. All quotations from the poem are hereafter cited in the text by line numbers in parentheses.

  39. Shelley, “On Love,” in English Romantic Writers, p. 1071.

  40. Matthew Arnold, “Shelley,” in Poetry and Criticism of Matthew Arnold, edited by A. Dwight Culler (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1961), p. 380.

  41. Wasserman, pp. 20-21.

  42. Wasserman, p. 20.

  43. Wasserman, p. 20.

  44. Wordsworth, “Book First. The Wanderer,” from “The Excursion,” in English Romantic Writers, pp. 303-312. All quotations from the poem are hereafter cited in the text by line numbers in parentheses.

  45. Wasserman, pp. 33-4.

Further Reading

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Foot, Paul. “Shelley's Revolutionary Year.” In Ambient Fears: Random Access 2, edited by Pavel Büchler and Nikos Papastergiadis, pp. 31-45. London: Rivers Oram Press, 1996.

Discusses Shelley's attempts to publish the radical, political poetry comprising his Philosophical View of Reform.


An, Young-Ok. “Beatrice's Gaze Revisited: Anatomizing The Cenci.” InCriticism XXXVIII, No. 1 (Winter 1996): 27-68.

Offers a feminist reading of The Cenci that probes the “complex operations of violence, law, and desire that intersect with gender issues” in the work.

Austin, Timothy R. “Narrative Transmission: Shifting Gears in Shelley's ‘Ozymandias’.” In Dialogue and Critical Discourse: Language, Culture, Critical Theory, edited by Michael Macovski, pp. 29-46. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Syntactic analysis of Shelley's poem “Ozymandias” that endeavors to reassess the work “as a sophisticated and even daring poetic creation.”

Blood, Roger. “Allegory and Dramatic Representation in The Cenci. InStudies in Romanticism 33, No. 3 (Fall 1994): 355-89.

Summarizes contemporary critical estimation of Shelley's verse drama The Cenci and interprets the work from a representational rather than an aesthetic vantage point.

Brewer, William D. “The Cenci and Sad Reality.” In The Shelley-Byron Conversation, pp. 56-76. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994.

Contrasts the differing views of dramatic principles held by Shelley and Lord Byron.

Brigham, Linda C. “The Postmodern Semiotics of Prometheus Unbound.” In Studies in Romanticism 33, No. 1 (Spring 1994): 31-56.

Emphasizes Shelley's demonstration of changes in the “technology of reference” in Prometheus Unbound.

Brinkley, Robert. “Spaces Between Words: Writing Mont Blanc.” In Romantic Revisions, edited by Robert Brinkley and Keith Hanley, pp. 243-67. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Recounts the interrupted sequence in Shelley's writing and revising of Mont Blanc.

Clarke, Eric O. “Shelley's Heart: Sexual Politics and Cultural Value.” In The Yale Journal of Criticism 8, No. 1 (Spring 1995): 187-208.

Explores the relationship between textual scholarship of Shelley's works and fetishism for his reputedly androgyne body.

Curran, Stuart. “The Political Prometheus.” In Spirits of Fire: English Romantic Writers and Contemporary Historical Methods, edited by G. A. Rosso and Daniel P. Watkins, pp. 260-84. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1990.

Considers Shelley's representation of Prometheus as a hero for the politically oppressed.

Endo, Paul. “The Cenci: Recognizing the Shelleyan Sublime.” In Texas Studies in Literature and Language 38, Nos. 3-4 (Fall-Winter 1996): 379-97.

Comments on Shelley's refusal to moralize on the subject of self-knowledge in The Cenci.

Farnell, Gary. “Rereading Shelley.” ELH 60, No. 3 (Fall 1993): 625-50.

Studies the autobiographical and psychoanalytic implications of shell imagery in Laon and Cythna, Prometheus Unbound, and the Homeric Hymn to Mercury.

Finch, Peter. “Shelley's Laon and Cythna: The Bride Stripped Bare … Almost.” In The Keats-Shelley Review No. 3 (Autumn 1988): 23-46.

Focuses on the political and ethical purpose behind Shelley's dramatization of the love affair in Laon and Cythna.

Foss, Chris. “Shelley's Revolution in Poetic Language: A Kristevan Reading of Act IV to Prometheus Unbound.” In European Romantic Review 9, No. 4 (Fall 1998): 501-18.

Applies the theories of Julia Kristeva to Prometheus Unbound in order to observe the work's representation of the revolutionary potential of poetic language.

Gelpi, Barbara Charlesworth. “Seeing Through Mirrors (Prometheus Unbound, Act I).” In Shelley's Goddess: Maternity, Language, Subjectivity, pp. 137-69. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Psychoanalytic reading of Prometheus Unbound, which views the work as a resonant series of mirrorings.

Grimes, Kyle. “Queen Mab, the Law of Libel, and the Forms of Shelley's Politics.” In Journal of English and Germanic Philology 94, No. 5 (January 1995): 1-18.

Analyzes Queen Mab within the context of contemporary censorship of public political speech.

Haines, Simon. “Shelley's ‘West Wind’: Power or Weakness?” In The Critical Review, No. 30 (1990): 112-26.

Sees in the “Ode to the West Wind” indications of Shelley's awareness of his own imaginative weakness.

Herson, Ellen Brown. “Oxymoron and Dante's Gates of Hell in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound.” In Studies in Romanticism 29, No. 3 (Fall 1990): 371-93.

Dissects the rhetorical structures of antithesis and oxymoron in Prometheus Unbound.

Jacobs, Carol. “Unbinding Words: Prometheus Unbound.” In Uncontainable Romanticism: Shelley, Brontë, Kleist, pp. 19-57. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Interprets Prometheus Unboundnot as a dramatic representation of the origins of speech and thought but a “performance of perpetual if unpredictable revolution.”

Janowitz, Anne. “‘A Voice from across the Sea’: Communitarianism at the Limits of Romanticism.” In At the Limits of Romanticism: Essays in Cultural, Feminist, and Materialist Criticism, edited by Mary A. Favret and Nicola J. Watson, pp. 83-100. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Evaluates Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy within the context of a Romantic theory of identity.

Jones, Steven E. “Apostasy and Exhortation: Shelley's Satirical Fragments in the Huntington Notebooks.” In The Huntington Library Quarterly 53, No. 1 (Winter 1990): 41-66.

Surveys Shelley's experimentation with a variety of satirical modes.

———. Shelley's Satire: Violence, Exhortation, and Authority. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1994, 215 p.

Full-length study of Shelley as a satirist particularly concerned with “interactions between personal agency and social determination.”

Kahan, Claudine T. “Shelley's ‘Hymn to Mercury’: Poetic Praxis and the Creation of Value.” In Studies in Romanticism 31, No. 2 (Summer 1992): 147-69.

Considers Shelley's thoughts on poetic genius and utility as represented in his translation of the Homeric Hymn to Mercury.

Kipperman, Mark. “History and Ideality: The Politics of Shelley's Hellas.” In Studies in Romanticism 30, No. 2 (Summer 1991): 147-64.

Elucidates the utopian propaganda of Shelley's Hellas.

———. “Absorbing a Revolution: Shelley Becomes a Romantic, 1889-1903.” In Nineteenth-Century Literature 47, No. 2 (September 1992): 187-211.

Follows developments in the late nineteenth century of scholarly regard for Shelley as a Romantic poet and theorist.

Lee, Monika H. “‘Nature's Silent Eloquence’: Disembodied Organic Language in Shelley's Queen Mab.” In Nineteenth-Century Literature 48, No. 2 (September 1993): 169-93.

Argues that Queen Mab demonstrates Shelley's use of imaginative and lyrical language for empirical purposes.

Nair, Sharada. “Poetic Constitutions of History: The Case of Shelley.” In Textual Practice 8, No. 3 (Winter 1994): 449-66.

Follows Shelley's evocation of the forces of history in his works.

O’Neill, Michael. “Fictions, Visionary Rhyme and Human Interest: A Reading of Shelley's ‘The Witch of Atlas’.” In Keats-Shelley Review, No. 2 (1987): 105-33.

Explores the poetic form and broad range of imagination displayed in “The Witch of Atlas.”

Paley, Morton D. “Apocapolitics: Allusion and Structure in Shelley's Mask of Anarchy.” In The Huntington Library Quarterly 54, No. 2 (Spring 1991): 91-109.

Observes in The Mask of AnarchyShelley's mutable view of “the relationship between apocalypse and millenium.”

Parker, Ingrid J. “Shelley's Descriptive Landscape Imagery: The Principle of Cosmic Harmony.” In English Language Notes XXVIII, No. 4 (June 1991): 23-41.

Highlights the transcendent and synesthetic qualities of Shelley's natural imagery.

Purinton, Marjean D. “Percy Shelley's Cenci and Prometheus Unbound and the Ideology of Moral Melioration.” In Romantic Ideology Unmasked: The Mentally Constructed Tyrannies in Dramas of William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and Joanna Baillie, pp. 95-124. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1994.

Concentrates on Shelley's challenge to oppressive ideological systems in The Cenci and Prometheus Unbound.

Richardson, Donna. “The Hamartia of Imagination in Shelley's Cenci.” In Keats-Shelley Journal XLIV (1995): 216-39.

Argues that Beatrice, rather than being solely a sympathetic victim, shares some responsibility for her tragedy in The Cenci.

Strand, Ginger and Sarah Zimmerman. “Finding an Audience: Beatrice Cenci, Percy Shelley, and the Stage.” In European Romantic Review 6, No. 2 (Winter 1996): 246-68.

Comments on Shelley's reluctance to elicit an audience's full sympathy for Beatrice in The Cenci.

Ulmer, William A. “Adonais and the Death of Poetry.” In Studies in Romanticism 32, No. 3 (Fall 1993): 425-51.

Illuminates the apocalyptic vision of Shelley's Adonais and its implications regarding Shelley's view of “the death of representation.”

Weisman, Karen A. “Shelley's Triumph of Life over Fiction.” In Philological Quarterly 71, No. 3 (Summer 1992): 337-60.

Contends that Shelley's unfinished poem The Triumph of Life ultimately points to absences and the limitations of human apprehension.

Wheatley, Kim. Shelley and His Readers: Beyond Paranoid Politics. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999, 278 p.

Studies the immediate public and critical reception of Shelley's Queen Mab, Prometheus Unbound, and Adonais.

Additional coverage of Shelley's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1789-1832; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 96, 110, and 158; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors, Poets; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 14; and World Literature Criticism.

Donna Richardson (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: “‘The Dark Idolatry of Self’: The Dialectic of Imagination in Shelley's Revolt of Islam,” in Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. XL, 1991, pp. 73-98.

[In the following essay, Richardson characterizes The Revolt of Islam as “a profoundly dialectical treatment of heroism and imagination.”]

The Revolt of Islam is, paradoxically, both Shelley's longest and least anthologized poem. It has numerous aesthetic infelicities that partly explain this neglect, notably Shelley's choice of Southeyan romance as a genre. But the most frequent and serious criticism levelled at the poem is that it contains a fundamental thematic weakness. Although in recent years interpreters of the poem have demonstrated that its structure is much more subtle and unified than had previously been thought,1 many readers still dismiss the poem on the grounds that the education of the near-perfect hero and heroine provides no satisfactory model for the revolutionary regeneration of humanity the heroes attempt to bring about.

Several interpreters recognize that Laon and Cythna are less than perfect at the outset of the poem; the two go through a process of initiation in which they discover their own susceptibility to evil, when Cythna is abducted and Laon violates his belief in nonviolence trying to save her. However, these interpreters also suggest that once the Hermit teaches Laon the destructiveness of all violence, and once Cythna has learned to accept her vulnerability to evil, the two are never again implicated in error or evildoing. Yet the nonviolent revolution they subsequently initiate is a failure, and their imparting of the hard lessons they have learned seems to have no lasting effect on the populace, much less on the tyrant Othman, his hired mercenaries, or the Iberian priest. The poem would seem to be a blueprint only for the achievement of an individual excellence that manifests itself politically in futile self-sacrifice.2

In fact, as one interpreter has pointed out, such a disjunction between the heroes' education and their ability to educate others undermines the basic philosophical assumption of the poem, the dialectic of good and evil presented in Canto I by the image of serpent and eagle as inextricably intertwined. The use of this originally Manichaean image seems to imply that there is no good or understanding of good in human experience without some admixture of evil, and vice versa. Yet if Laon and Cythna have so little effect on social evils, it seems that good and evil are polarized opposites and that the process of education Shelley sets forth can only affect the chosen, relatively sinless few.3

The first point open to question in this assessment is the philosophical meaning of the snake and the eagle. Virtually all interpretations of the Revolt assume that serpent and eagle represent absolute moral categories, either traditional or inverted, and that the characters' mistake is simply to identify incorrectly which principle truly represents the good.4 On the most primary philosophical level, however, the dialectic Shelley describes is not moral at all. The initial account of the terms in the dialectic calls them morally neutral “equal Gods,” not symbolized by eagle and snake but by “A blood-red Comet and the Morning Star.”5 More literally, these principles are selfhood, with its will to self-preservation and self-esteem, and the larger context of self, the whole or Necessity in which all individual wills interrelate with loves and hatreds. Since for Shelley both principles are necessary categories of human experience, but the full realization of one implies the negation of the other, they are unresolvable contraries rather than morally distinct categories representing good and evil.

In this poem, Shelley is less concerned with defining the metaphysical dimensions of this dialectic than with exploring how the two principles interrelate in human experience, particularly in the foreseeable future when the successes and failures of the French Revolution will produce more revolts such as that of the Greeks against the Turks. Since Comet and Morning Star, self and whole, are constitutive but antithetical categories of human experience, the only possible, if imperfect, definition of the good is the common ground between individual will and the larger context within which it operates. But the imperfections of both self and whole lead individuals to see the two principles as utterly separate, warring opposites rather than co-ruling contraries, and to make a false moral distinction between them. People reject the whole as evil and entirely other because it imposes limits on the self, and they worship purely egocentric, unreal idols, a worship that Cythna eventually describes as a “dark idolatry of self” (line 3390). Symbolically, the Comet of self transforms his rival into an image of evil, a “dire snake” (line 369), and himself into a symbol of potency and aspiration, an eagle. Ironically, when the self claims to be absolutely good, it makes itself the source of evil by isolating itself from its inextricable involvement with the whole. Because of the way humans ethically polarize self and whole, the moral dimension of the dialectic becomes the struggle between the human tendency toward a dark idolatry of self and the attempt to understand how much of individual desire is intertwined with the natural universe, historical processes, and the needs of others.

This dialectic is difficult enough to understand from the more general, transhistorical perspective presented in Canto I. The story of Laon and Cythna illustrates how much more difficult it is for those enmeshed in a particular historical situation to untangle self-idolatry from those desires of the ego that are entwined with the larger context of human experience. This untangling turns out to be a potentially endless process of creating, destroying, and reformulating conceptions, because self-idolatry is originally incorporated even in the most apparently ideal conceptions; the moral dimension of the dialectic is intrinsic to imagination itself. Only Cythna fully understands this lesson, and only at the very end. But her understanding does make it possible for her to begin the education of others and to make some progress—however small—toward improving society.


Although much energy has been expended on explicating the meaning of the eagle and serpent and their mythographic origins, surprisingly little attention has been given to their true identities as Comet and Morning Star, and to Shelley's claim that these identities are very different from the characterizations of eagle and serpent humans have historically ascribed to them. According to Canto I, “when life and thought / Sprang forth,” “Two Powers,” “Twin Genii, equal Gods,” sprang forth to hold dominion “o’er mortal things” (lines 347, 350-351). These forces are not described as essentially good and evil; they are simply distinct from each other, “Ruling the world with a divided lot” (line 348), identified neutrally as “A blood-red Comet and the Morning Star” (line 356). Furthermore, human interpretations of these principles—of the Morning Star as an evil snake, and of the Comet as a good eagle—are not simply misinformed reversals of normative metaphysical categories, because when the Morning Star sheds his serpentine appearance in his Temple, he does not become an eagle.

Each principle, however, is a primary source of either good or evil in human experience, though people misidentify which is which. When “The earliest dweller of the world, alone” (line 352) first became aware of Comet and Star, he perceived them as in combat and his own thoughts “waged mutual war, / In dreadful sympathy” (lines 358-359). As the first man looked on, the Comet cast his foe out of heaven, and the man “turned and shed his brother's blood” (line 360). From then on, the Comet makes his foe seem to be “a dire Snake, with man and beast unreconciled” (line 369). But the Comet is really “the Spirit of evil” whereas the Snake is really “the Spirit of Good” (lines 361, 398). Although the twin forces in the universe are originally morally neutral, humans ascribe normative values to them and mistake which force is the primary source of good.

It is very difficult to give an initial account of what Comet and Morning Star represent, because the use of these two metaphors in this manner is unique to the Revolt.6 The experiences of the main characters, which will be followed in the second half of this essay, develop the identity of these terms from within the psychological and historical context of human experience. But one can also attempt to explain these terms by comparing the account in Canto I with the major poems that precede and follow the Revolt, as well as with the characters' philosophical statements elsewhere in the Revolt.

The use of a Diotima-like character other than the narrator to tell the story of Comet and Morning Star may signal the fact that Shelley is being tentative about his cosmology because he is describing principles he does not believe he himself fully understands. If one compares this symbolism with that of Shelley's preceding and succeeding long poems, Queen Mab and Prometheus Unbound, it appears that the Morning Star represents an intermediate stage in Shelley's attempt to describe what principle of order may inform the universe. It would take a separate essay to consider adequately the relation of the Morning Star to the Necessitarian Spirit of Nature in Queen Mab and to Demogorgon. But they share a number of characteristics that imply that they all represent some impartial principle of order exceeding individual human consciousness. All three figures are enthroned, usually in temples, and appear to have existence independent of the individual minds that visit them. Each is the object of the main characters' quests for knowledge; each provides a place of perspective from which the characters can hear this knowledge told to them.

Cythna's final speech in Canto IX refines the identity of this principle as much as Shelley explicitly articulates it at this point in his career. For the first time in his poetry since Queen Mab and its revisions, this principle is called Necessity—albeit by Cythna rather than by Shelley. Cythna implicitly identifies Necessity with the Morning Star because she describes Necessity as the primary source, if not the essence, of human good. It is the force that will separate out and make clear which causes and effects are sources of good and evil:

                                        … One comes behind
          Who aye the future to the past will bind—
Necessity, whose sightless strength for ever
          Evil with evil, good with good must wind
          In bands of union, which no power may sever:
They must bring forth their kind, and be divided never!


But Necessity has changed dramatically since its characterization in Queen Mab as an absolute determinism operating automatically in mind and matter alike.7 Although it may still be a binding, compelling force, Necessity is no longer fully deterministic. In the same speech, Cythna, like Demogorgon in Prometheus Unbound, refers to “chance” and “change” (line 3639). She even directly questions the absolute connection of cause and effect when she says that “some envious shades may interlope / Between the effect and it [One/Necessity]” (3705-6). Necessity has also lost any hint of materialism, and even as a more tentative, immaterial principle it may no longer be present in mountains and atoms (see Queen Mab, IV. 138-166) as well as in human consciousness.8 Cythna restricts its application to human history; in the same language she uses to describe Necessity, she describes the agents of Necessity as the people of the future “who come / Behind” (lines 3726-7; compare line 3706).

Cythna's invoking of Necessity only when she is finally able to accept, even die for, a goal not realizable during her lifetime suggests that the dialectic is between Necessity and the individual consciousness. The identity of Comet as selfhood can be further confirmed by comparing the Canto I description of the Comet-Eagle as the underlying prototype of human gods (lines 250-252) with Cythna's later claim that such gods are a projection of self into the “world's vast mirror” (line 3248). As described in the poem and in Shelley's prose, this relation between self and Necessity (variously characterized below as self and whole, self and other, or self and universe) is antithetical in the Hegelian sense, a relation of mutual interdependency as well as of opposition. To exist at all the individual must oppose death and the tendency of the whole toward undifferentiated unity. As Shelley says in “On Life,” the “character of all life and being,” of every individual, is to have a “spirit within him at enmity with nothingness and dissolution” and to be “incapable of imagining to himself annihilation” (Poetry and Prose, p. 476). But an individual is also part of the whole and can fulfill itself only in and through its relation to otherness. Shelley contends in his prose that there is no essential difference between individual and collective mind except the inability of the individual to experience itself intuitively as one with other minds.9 Perhaps the symbolic associations of Comet and Morning Star sum up most effectively the distinctions as well as the points of identity between self and Necessity. A “blood-red Comet” suggests the transience of individual life, as opposed to the traditional association of Venus with the retention of a constant identity underlying multiple, changing manifestations. “Blood-red” also evokes the physical essence and emotional passion of individual existence. Cythna uses these associations several times in her last speech to emphasize the brevity of her own life (the unknown after death is where “The blood is still” and where “this blood, seems … / To fade in hideous ruin,” lines 3724, 3752-3). Yet the larger process is as integral to the individual as it is inimical. The symbolism of Necessity as apparently a serpent but as also the planet Venus implies that restriction on individual desires is often experienced as a suffocating, poisoning, or binding of desire, but may also be necessary to mutual identification and love, as suggested by the many images in which binding involves clasping the hand of or embracing another.10

Far from being an innovation in Shelley's thought, this dialectic of self and whole has evolved directly from Shelley's earliest philosophical synthesis, in Queen Mab. Underlying the heavily-annotated philosophical borrowings and Godwinian politics, the poem teaches one lesson over and over. This lesson is figured by the contrast between two perceptual experiences in Canto I: Ianthe's visionary dream of feeling herself “a free, a disembodied soul” (I. 165) separate from her mortal body, and the narrator's initial failure to perceive anything about her soul by empirically observing her outward physical appearance. The consequent message is always the same, whether exhibited in the ruins of tyrants' monuments, the misery of kings' lives, the selfish fears which lead to the wealth of nations, or the fear and pride that lead to the creation of anthropomorphic gods. Humans can either fulfill the alien will of the isolated, individual, mortal physical body, with its material lusts and fears of mortality, or fulfill the will of the human spirit, which “claims / Its kindred with eternity” (Queen Mab, II, 209-210) and which is part of a larger “will of strong necessity” (VI. 234; see also IV. 154-167).

One can see from Cythna's speech and Canto I how much this dialectic has evolved since Queen Mab. The greater status of individual will as an “equal god,” the moral complexity implied by the Manichaean image, and the unresolvable nature of the conflict imply that the process of education has become far more problematic. In the case of the heroine, instead of being granted an all-encompassing dream that answers all questions and makes her will permanently resolute, Cythna cannot embrace what the Morning Star represents except at the end of a long, painful process of learning that the Morning Star is not an evil serpent, a purely repressive limitation upon her desires. In terms of one of Shelley's favorite paradoxical image-patterns, Cythna has only seen “chains” or serpentine coils as limits upon her freedom until she “embraces” the “binding” of a larger power, and even describes her acceptance as the prophetic “weav[ing]” of “A chain I cannot break” (lines 3763-4). Her difficulties reflect Shelley's retreat, after Queen Mab, from the belief that Necessity or the whole is sufficiently knowable and benevolent to satisfy fully the needs of the superior individual will. For example, the “Alastor” Poet's unrealizable desire for his “veiled maid” represents some of the highest, noblest needs of the human spirit, needs for “Knowledge and truth and virtue … / And lofty hopes of divine liberty” (lines 158-159). If such qualities cannot be known to inhere in the whole, much less be experienced directly by the individual, the human spirit cannot help but feel itself at war with a larger whole that contains, by any human definition of the word, evil.

The “earliest dweller's” response to this combat implies, however, that the limitations of self are a greater source of evil than the limitations of the larger whole. Although the combat of Comet and Star may represent some inevitable conflict between self and whole in human experience, the Luciferian fall of the Morning Star symbolizes the first man's egocentric interpretation of this combat. Both the Morning Star's fall and the first man's consequent sin of Cain can be understood as the inevitable human insistence that one combatant—selfhood—represents the good and any conflict with the desires of that self is evil. But although the Comet seems to have triumphed, it is a Pyrrhic victory that begets the opposite of the intended result. In Canto I, privileging the self makes it a “Spirit of evil” and the source of endless woes. In lines 379-384, the list of evils caused by the Comet include both those people inflict on each other out of selfish pride and those natural evils, like death and earthquake, that are aggravated by self-absorption.

Shelley's later essays illustrate in more explicitly psychological terms that the dialectic of self and whole is impossible to resolve completely because it is intrinsic to the activity of imagination itself. In the paradoxical imagery of binding, “On Love” describes love as “the sanction and the bond” that connects all things (Poetry and Prose, p. 473), a sanction that at once restricts and permits. The distinguishing quality of love is, to paraphrase the famous lines of the “Defense of Poetry,” an exercise of the imagination in which we successfully go out of the self and identify with what is not our own. To do so, human will must direct itself both at itself and at its object. “On Love” maintains that love is a human necessity because we experience our selfhood as the “chasm of an insufficient void” and therefore seek to “awaken in all things that are, a community with what we experience within ourselves” (Poetry and Prose, p. 473). But this description also reveals the essentially self-centered origin and aim of this imaginative projection. So does the description of “the character of all life and being” in “On Life”; each individual “is the centre and circumference; the point to which all things are referred, and the line in which all things are contained” (Poetry and Prose, p. 476). Such egocentrism, or “self-esteem” as Shelley calls it to distinguish it from love in the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” is more than the essence of identity and self-preservation. It is a necessary precondition for love of the other. “On Love” says that the individual first perceives by introspection “an ideal prototype of everything excellent or lovely” in ourselves and in human nature generally, and love consists of seeking the “antitype” of this prototype in others (Poetry and Prose, 473-474). One must, in other words, first love oneself and create an image based on self-esteem in order to love and identify with the good in another. But the limitations on human perception and sympathy, and the insufficiency of the universe to fulfill human desires, can result in the ego's worshipping its own projections when it can find no sufficiently satisfying antitype to them. People can experience, as they do frequently in the Revolt, a light of mingled feeling for self and other that kindles similar lights in others and gathers strength from multiplied mutual reflections. But as in the case of the “moon-struck sophist” whom Cythna describes as worshipping his own shadow projected onto the “world's vast mirror” (lines 3244-8), the circumferences of one's understanding and sympathy may only be an extension of purely egotistic desires and fears rather than an intermingling of self and other—in which case self-esteem has resulted not in light and love but in dark, deceptive idolatry of self. As Cythna says after her learning experience in the cave, “We live in our own world … / Aye we are darkened with [the] floating shade [of our thoughts and ideal fantasies] / Or cast a lustre on them” (lines 3091-4).11

The real meaning of the snake-eagle conflict, in sum, is that the two terms, self and whole, are neither essentially distinct nor morally polarized until humans make them distinct sources of good and evil by trying unsuccessfully to separate and polarize them. Because there is evil, or inadequacy to basic human desires, in both the self and the whole, there is an unresolvable dialectic between the two principles. To resolve the dialectic partly, people can discover which desires of the ego are consonant with the whole and accept that consonance as a best approximate definition of human good. As in one of the images on Cythna's throne in Canto V, people must nurse “from one breast / A human babe and a young basilisk” (lines 2162-3) because both self-esteem and the need to relate the self to something greater are essential to human existence—particularly to social progress. But while such understanding is the source of all good, the source of evil is the tendency of self-love to insist there is absolute good and evil in the order of the universe, to claim that such moral order is comprehensible to humans, and to identify the good with unlimited fulfillment of egocentric desire. By this very act of ethical polarizing, the human mind ironically achieves the opposite of its desire; the idealization of self becomes the greatest source of evil, while every recognition of some evil in the self and some good in the limits placed on the self is a corrective good restoring the balanced interrelation between self and whole.


It is one thing to understand the relation of selfhood to Necessity from the detached, philosophical perspective given to us in Canto I. It is quite another thing to unravel, when immersed in personal experience of an extremely imperfect particular historical era, what portion of one's personal aspirations is consonant with Necessity and what portion is purely egocentric and destructive. Canto I foreshadows how difficult this process will be for Laon and Cythna by suggesting the ambiguity, moral and otherwise, of the eagle imagery in relation to the specific historical context of the French Revolution. One critic has identified the eagle with Napoleon and the struggle of eagle and serpent with the French Revolution.12 This identification suggests the complex moral nature of the eagle; for Shelley as for Byron, Napoleon was an ambiguous figure who was both destructive and great. In “Feelings of a Republican on the Fall of Bonaparte,” Shelley suggests that Napoleon is a “fallen tyrant” (line 1) but that he had the greatness to be more, and that his successors are far worse than he. This ambivalent attitude toward Napoleon suggests that it is very difficult psychologically to separate, either in oneself or in the actions of others, the purely egocentric and destructive aspects of self-esteem from the positive and even heroic ones consonant with Necessity, especially given the inevitable imperfections of all human beings. Indeed, elsewhere in the poem there are many purely positive references to eagles, as in Laon's reference to America as an eagle (line 4423) and Cythna's description of Earth springing like an eagle from the sunrise of the future (lines 3688-3693). These images of political and natural youth suggest that self-esteem is not only both good and evil but also actually the initial motive to all action.

To make the moral ambiguity of the eagle more complex, its historical identity is ambiguous in the first canto. An even better candidate for the eagle than Napoleon is Napoleon's royal successors, since the eagle was the symbol for many of the restored royal houses and the eagle is the final victor in this particular confrontation. Both Napoleon and those who defeated him had the ambiguous moral characteristics of an eagle, inspired energy and destructive pride; both, in Shelley's view, were destroyers of liberty, though both also thought they were acting in the name of liberty (as, to some extent, they were). The ambiguous historical identity of the eagle also suggests, rather in the manner of Blake's Orc cycle, that resistance to tyranny is very likely to corrupt a revolutionary movement into becoming like the tyranny it dethrones. A revolutionary movement must believe in its goodness and purity in order to have the will to act, but this belief conceals and makes even harder to accept the imperfections in its idealisms, especially in ideal conceptions of its own motives and accomplished actions. Self-esteem unmixed with love for others and with an acute awareness of the limits of one's own goodness can easily become self-idolatry.

This symbolic evaluation of the French Revolution suggests that Shelley has a very complex conception of the task he announces in the preface to the Revolt, the restoration of hope to those generous spirits who most hailed the Revolution and were most discouraged by its failures. Shelley may have attempted to kindle “a virtuous enthusiasm for … doctrines of liberty and justice”13 by portraying characters and actions more ideal than those of the sad reality of the actual French Revolution. But more subtly, Shelley also attempts to mitigate despair over the French Revolution by implying that the “generous” spirits most disappointed by the Revolution expected “such a degree of unmingled good … as it was impossible to realize” in a world of inextricably intermingled good and evil. The reality is that substantial change will require, as Cythna alone realizes at the end, “the systematic efforts of generations of men of intellect and virtue.” It is impossible for a trampled slave to become liberal and free the next day, as the population of the Golden City graphically demonstrates by immolating their liberators. The most imaginative and nobly-intentioned historical figures, like Napoleon, partake as much of the eagle as of the serpent—as do the most ideal possible characters in Shelley's vision of the nineteenth century.


The subsequent story of Laon and Cythna illustrates how difficult it is, not only to accept Necessity, but also to comprehend the true nature of human good and evil in relation to Necessity and act on it politically. Cythna's education in the true nature of good and evil, which is more complete than Laon's while they are both alive, can best be traced in her three successive speeches—one the evening before she is abducted, one to the sailors who rescue her, and one after her revolution has failed. The changes in her use of serpent-bird imagery in these speeches reveal that each time she has radically reformulated her past conceptions about good and evil, in herself and society, due to her experiences since the last speech. She finally identifies Necessity and the serpent with the good, but these speeches show why it is so difficult to do so and why Necessity and self-esteem will always be ultimately unreconciled for mortals. Even when she sees a providential process in human history that gradually disentangles good from evil, she understands that to accept the will of Necessity involves terrible personal suffering and loss—in her case, death, the failure of the revolution she has personally instigated, and the death of her beloved as well.

But she also learns an even more complex lesson about the “fair bird” of human desires and aspirations, one with profound implications for humans trying to better their own and society's condition. There is a “dark idolatry of self” even in the most ideal and apparently selfless idealisms humans can conceive, because of the way imagination itself works. Imagination permits identification with the beautiful not our own, but it does so by comparing all conceptions with a “prototype” fundamentally rooted in self-esteem. Imagination, the source of all new conceptions, creates the categories of good and evil to begin with. But more subtly, imagination also creates good and evil in the sense that even its most apparently selfless, innocent conceptions always include both the good Necessity makes possible and impossible illusions prompted by the ego's boundless desires. Since they are entwined with idealistic and selfless motives, these illusions are actually the primary source of evil because they prevent people from seeing and accepting the good made possible by Necessity. Individual human aspirations as represented even by the best of idealisms are thus morally ambiguous eagles, rather than “fair birds” that can completely be freed from evil by experience, knowledge, and love as suggested in Cythna's second speech.

As other interpreters have noted, Cythna's original beliefs are a major source of her madness and suffering.14 In her first speech she indicates that she and Laon can effect instant revolution without becoming implicated in any evil themselves, a belief that Laon's murders and her own abduction the very next day quickly prove false. But the speech is not just innocently immature; it is a conflation of selfless idealism with egocentrism. She believes she and Laon together are capable of bringing about instant revolution by speaking the truth (“All shall relent / Who hear me,” lines 1032-3); that she can give others what she already has, a “will omnipotent” (line 1035); and that she can accomplish these goals without being touched by the evil she and Laon will overcome (“no ill may harm / Thy Cythna ever—truth its radiant stamp / Has fixed, as an invulnerable charm / Upon her children's brow, dark Falsehood to disarm,” lines 1059-62). Her initial conception of revolution, which pictures her invulnerably reforming others “as the charmed bird that haunts the serpent's den” (line 1080), is at once the most ideal conception she can envision and a consummate piece of self-idolatry. This image of herself as an innocently good bird untouched by the serpent of evil contrasts forebodingly with the entanglement and moral ambiguity of serpent and eagle in Canto I.

After Cythna's abduction and rape and Laon's enchainment to a pillar for murdering three of her abductors, the two experience states of madness that reveal the cause of their moral errors.15 In both cases, these errors are the result of the self-protective self-idolatry manifested in Cythna's first speech. The content of their hallucinations implies that their insanity is caused, not primarily by physical suffering or by concern for anyone else's fate, but by an obsessive, self-absorbed shame over their inability to achieve the vision of invulnerability to evil reflected in Cythna's speech. Their madness is thus an effect, as well as a further expression, of self-idolatry.

Laon's initial error, his killing three men to save Cythna, is obviously self-serving; it is also at least partly caused by the self-idolatry in his original concept of himself as a pure reformer untouched by evil (Cythna's speech, as Laon says, is a reflection of his own ideas). If he had been more humble about his own potential for doing evil, he might have been more prepared to resist temptation. But the true depth and destructive power of his self-idolatry is revealed by the totally egocentric content of his hallucinations. His madness consists of obsessively dwelling on the presence of evil in his own soul; as he later says, he saw the whole world as serpentine “entangling evils” that were images of the evil in his own soul:

          The forms which peopled this terrific trance
                    I well remember—like a choir of devils …
          Foul, ceaseless shadows:—thought could not
                    The actual world from these entangling evils
                    Which so bemocked themselves, that I descried
All shapes like mine own self, hideously multiplied.

(lines 1306-14)

Seeing one's own limitations and errors as evidence of one's being totally evil and seeing the nature of the universe only as a projection of that evil is just as self-centered, even self-justifying, as imagining one is completely invulnerable to evil. In both states of mind, Laon focuses on himself rather than on the effects of his actions, on his past deeds rather than on his potential capacity for doing both good and evil actions. Furthermore, Laon's hallucination reflects another insidious, Byronic form of self-idolatrous egotism. Punishing oneself with remorse implies rather contradictorily that one is still the best and purest tribunal for judging one's own moral failures. If one believes one can control and even compensate for one's imperfections or sins by self-punishment, one need not admit ultimately to limitations one cannot control, face their consequences for others, or ask and accept help from others.

Such self-involvement is graphically imaged as being destructive to others as well as to oneself. Laon's hallucination of eating Cythna's corpse reflects his guilt over his failure to save Cythna and his violation of their ideals by killing others. It also hints darkly at the implications for their sexual relations of his potential for violence. But it suggests most profoundly that his state of madness and shame is a perverse self-idolatry that transforms sympathy for others (and even for oneself) into a solipsistic hell. No longer able to distinguish “day and night … false and true” (line 1315), Laon cannibalizes reality into a subjective vision of his own guilt as the measure of everything, and in doing so he becomes unable to feel sympathy or act positively toward anything outside himself.

Although Cythna's madness is concerned with shame over rape—“all things were / Transformed into the agony which I wore” (lines 2962-3)—like Laon, she is oppressed by her vulnerability to evil. If she had not believed herself invulnerable to evil, Othman's raping her despite her “words of flame / And mightier looks” (lines 2871-2) might not have been such a devastating shock. Also like Laon, she has cannibalistic hallucinations in her madness; a sea-eagle seems to bring her Laon's “mangled limbs for food” (line 2962). Although she has killed no one, she has a cannibalism fantasy similar to Laon's because both of them have responded to evil in an egocentric way—by mental self-absorption and self-flagellation, rather than by thinking objectively and sympathetically about each other or about the benighted people they planned to liberate. Such a reaction is an attempt to maintain belief in their power and superiority to events—the very belief that was egocentric and false in their original idealisms, but to which they cling most stubbornly.16

However, perhaps because she is less morally culpable than Laon, her vision is also a more subtle and explicit comment on the moral ambiguity of their original idealistic vision. Laon's vision shows the effects of excessive idealism on the idealist, particularly his vulnerability to unanticipated evil in himself and his subsequent indulgence in despair as a defensive reaction against facing the complex moral ambiguities of his condition. Cythna's hallucination, on the other hand, suggests some subconscious recognition that their original idealism was not simply innocently excessive. The eagle bringing her Laon's “mangled limbs” suggests that her previous conception of herself as a “charmed bird” (line 1080) is actually the source of her madness. That conviction symbolically flies in bringing her the self-involved madness that cuts her off from sympathetic thoughts of Laon, consumes her concern for him, and makes her agony the only reality. She only truly regains her sanity when she saves a nautilus from the eagle, figuratively reaching beyond the concept that caused her madness of self-absorbed shame to help another being. Only then can she think sympathetically of Laon and their mission—just as Laon only thinks sympathetically of her and others after seven years of madness and much care by the Hermit.

In both cases, then, the snake-eagle imagery and hallucinations of cannibalism suggest that the root of both Laon's and Cythna's madness is their own excessive idealism and the self-idolatry entangled in that idealism. The substance of their madness is a refusal to face the imperfections in their images of themselves as charmed birds incapable of doing or suffering evil—a refusal that is itself a further expression of self-idolatry. The two have engaged in the very “wilful exaggeration of its own despair” (p. 33) that Shelley describes in the preface as the mental state of the reformers discouraged by the outcome of the French Revolution—the mental state that, according to the preface, the Revolt is intended to criticized and correct.

The speech Cythna gives the sailors who pick her up after an earthquake frees her from her cave shows that her experiences have taught her that her most cherished ideals have been entangled in self-idolatry. Drawing on her own experience of madness and shame, she suggests that such self-hatred springs from a “dark idolatry of self.” As she herself did, people will necessarily experience “Stains of inevitable crime” (line 3364), do or suffer evil. But they will react with “Enmity” or “Shame” (line 3371), rather than forgive themselves or others, because they hold a false, self-protective conception of themselves as at least potentially able to avoid all implication in evil:

Reproach not thine own soul, but know thyself,
          Nor hate another's crime, nor loathe thine own.
It is the dark idolatry of self,
          Which, when our thoughts and actions once are gone,
          Demands that man should weep, and bleed, and groan;
O vacant expiation! Be at rest.—
          The past is Death's, the future is thine own.

(lines 3388-3394)

Cythna makes clear her revised understanding of the relation between self-hatred and self-love by altering her previous image of bird and serpent. Before, good and evil were separate; good was her own pure self, a charmed bird secure against the serpent evil. Now, she realizes the error of this image, because if the bird dares to confront the serpent in the illusion that it is charmed, the serpent “Hate” will ensnare and kill the charmed bird in its den (lines 3379-87). The irony latent in the image of a charmed bird is now clear; in believing itself invulnerable, as Cythna did when she made her first speech, the bird is charmed in the way usually associated with the effects of a snake on its prey, mesmerized and unaware of impending destruction. The self-idolatry in believing one has a charmed invulnerability to evil thus actually causes one to be vulnerable to self-hatred and to the hatred of others. Entering the den and experiencing “Stains of inevitable crime” seem to be unavoidable. But the way out of both self-love and self-hate is to scorn to make one's heart the serpent's den (line 3378). According to Cythna, you must recognize, then reject self-idolatry; you must “Know yourselves thus,” full of “blood” and “guile,” but you must also accept this implication in evil by forgiving yourself and others and then becoming “pure as dew” in future acts (lines 3352-60).

Not only have Cythna's concept of moral reform and her self-awareness matured because of her suffering. It is precisely her admission that crime is universal and her tacit admission of her own humanity in saying, “Disguise it not—we have one human heart— / All mortal thoughts confess a common home” (lines 3361-2) that touch the sailors' hearts as well as their minds. Appropriately enough, the sailors are on the same mission that caused her own suffering—they are gathering maidens for Othman. But this time she has the right Promethean “words of flame” to stop them. Her analysis of the “dark idolatry of self” implicit in her own past beliefs not only causes a reversal of her previous beliefs about her role but also makes her better able to implement that part of her past beliefs that has held true—the generous, less self-defensive and self-glorifying part.

But even Cythna's reformulated image of herself is not adequate to sustain hope and action, hers or others’, because it still is egocentric in the sense that it still presumes the self-aware individual can automatically free others by speaking the truth to them. The image ignores the further implications of her own experience and is ironically contradicted by the revolution she and Laon foment. If such superlative spirits as she and Laon cannot avoid doing or being overcome by evil, it is even less likely that whole populations of abused slaves can be perfected simply by the words of even the best of revolutionaries. Laon and Cythna are sufficiently perfected by their suffering so that they do not significantly distort the idea of freedom in speech or action. Above all, their hard-won self-knowledge leads them to correct the abuses of the French Revolution by being nonviolent and by exhorting people to forgive rather than to hate. But it is not surprising that foreign mercenaries, disease, starvation, and religious fear undermine the will of the masses and cause them to blame and sacrifice their leaders.

The failure of her revolution underlines the irony still present in Cythna's concept of the snake and eagle. Although in her speech to the sailors she recognized her own involvement with evil, she still identified evil with the serpent, with internal as well as external limitations that can be separated from her imaginative aspirations. She still saw herself as a “fair bird” that, though entangled, can become “pure as dew” by recognizing and rejecting her self-idolatry and then overcoming problems external to herself. However, she cannot now simply scorn the serpent's den. Severe limitations on her revolutionary aspirations exist beyond her knowledge and her control, in other human beings and in nature (for example, the plague). In fact, she is still internally entangled in self-idolatry, albeit to a lesser extent than before. Despite admitting to past imperfections, she believes that she can personally understand and control the human limitations of others, and that she can bring about a successful revolution in her own lifetime. Instead, her revolution causes the people to suffer more than before, and to engage in evil themselves by sacrificing Laon and Cythna. Ironically, when her revolution seemed initially successful, she referred to the populace as “new-fledged Eagles” (line 2183) freed by her and Laon. And in their subsequent actions, the people do indeed turn out to be eagles rather than “fair birds.” Because of the radical limitations in society, other individuals, and the universe itself, some of the most basic and even noble of human aspirations are impossible to fulfill; the bird can never escape from the serpent entirely. Even more disturbing, since human aspiration necessarily involves the needs of the ego, and some of these needs will never be met, the bird cannot ever be a completely “fair bird.” Most ideals and human desires will always be significantly predatory and selfish as well as beautiful.

Cythna's final speech expressing her idea of her role indicates that she has learned from the failure of the revolution the depths of self-idolatry in both her weaker fellow-revolutionaries and in herself, and consequently has learned to identify the good with something beyond them all. In the last cantos, Laon continues to identify the serpent with evil and the eagle with good; he uses snake-metaphors to describe the plague, the Iberian priest, the people, and his own sufferings, and he has a final false hope that he can persuade the people to sacrifice him in exchange for letting Cythna escape to the young “Eagle” of America. But although Cythna now recognizes that her own personal aspirations can never be completely fulfilled, she has found sufficient harmony in Necessity to identify with it rather than with the “fair bird” of her purely personal desires. She identifies the good qualities of the eagle with the rebirth of individual seasons and eras (she and Laon are now in a “winter” of tyranny, but there will be a new Spring of freedom in the future, which she compares with “Earth like an eagle” punningly “spring[ing]” anew each year in lines 3671-93). But she cannot see herself as part of that particular eventual soaring forth of liberty (“Spring comes, though we must pass, who made / The promise of its birth,” (lines 3688-9). Instead, she tells Laon that “We are [the] chosen slaves” of “Virtue, and Hope, and Love” (lines 3667-8). She now identifies with the “good and mighty of departed ages” (line 3712) and with future generations who “come / Behind” (lines 3726-7). She has sufficiently identified her own desires with Necessity to sort out, as she says Necessity does, the good and the evil in her own experience—and to accept the need for sacrificing herself and Laon in the name of a greater cause, even if she can never see the results of her sacrifice.

And it is her sacrifice, more than Laon's, that impresses the masses most and permits the first real change in them. Her sacrifice is made purely for the people, perhaps with some recognition that she and Laon really are to some extent responsible for their fellow-revolutionaries' plight, both physical and moral; her self-sacrifice will show the demoralized masses the falsity of the Iberian Priest's contention that she and Laon are “the spawn / Of Satan” (lines 4121-2) and that their revolt against God and king is the cause of the mob's sufferings.17 But Laon flees from her vision of ultimate love (lines 4225-80) and ironically “betrays” himself to the people because he implies to them that he is sacrificing himself only to save Cythna (lines 4437-40). Most of the former revolutionaries are glad to sacrifice Laon, but they are filled with horror and doubt by Cythna's more unselfish sacrifice (lines 4568-70). Although they can interpret Laon's sacrifice as self-interested, they certainly cannot interpret Cythna's as in any way consistent with the Iberian Priest's view of the two heroes (in fact, the populace thinks she is an angel of their vengeful god when she appears, lines 4522-3).

Laon's and Cythna's subtle and difficult education does apply as well to the masses, who only really begin their own education when Cythna acts on her final awareness and makes the ultimate sacrifice. The people have recapitulated the sufferings Laon and Cythna underwent when their first ideals were shattered; many have gone mad and see “Their own lean image everywhere” (line 3983), have literally eaten human flesh (lines 3956, 4210), and have engaged in self-defensive violence (lines 2443-51). They are now self-idolatrously searching for some way to rationalize and relieve their suffering, for some knowable order in the universe to which they can appeal, and for scapegoats so they themselves will not have to accept any irremediable responsibility for involvement in evil. An Iberian Priest convinces them that their guilt and sufferings can be relieved by sacrificing their leaders to the vengeful, authoritarian god who has been mocked by the revolution and who demands atonement (lines 4072—4143). But when Laon and Cythna die, the populace unexpectedly experiences guilt rather than righteous satisfaction (lines 4681-3). One member of the crowd articulates the implications of this guilt; because the mob will now “sadly turn away” (line 4706) in recognition of their error, the “memory [of this hour], ever burning, / [will] Fill this dark night of things with an eternal morning” (4709-10). The “murmur from the crowd, to tell / Of deep and mighty change” (lines 4718-19), which is the last thing Laon hears, confirms what the man has said. The people's guilt, like the heroes' recognition of their errors, triggers the first real change; the memory of guilt will punningly turn eternal mourning into “eternal morning.”

The Revolt of Islam is, in sum, a profoundly dialectical treatment of heroism and imagination. The heroes' “growth of individual mind aspiring after excellence” suggests that imaginative conceptions of “excellence” are the source of all error as well as the source of all good. Paradoxically, the untangling of the real good in such conceptions, what Cythna called the binding of evil to evil and good to good, involves understanding that the good always lies in an intertwining of individual desire and Necessity rather than in some illusory idolizing of individual aspirations as an ultimate good separable from any limitation placed on the individual by the rest of reality. In one sense, revolting against Islam means legitimately overthrowing a tyrannous foreign domination. But at the same time the imagination is always trying to revolt against “submission” to any power other than the self, a self-defeating revolution that compromises all individual attempts to understand the good and effect social reform. Consequently, the Revolt is anything but a glorification of individual imagination or heroism at the expense of realistic solutions to social problems. When set beside the reactions of other English Romantics to the French Revolution, Shelley's social vision seems the only one that is at once both realistic and positive. When one's conceptions of social reform fail, the response need not be to despair, to retreat within one's own private visions, or to hold oneself up in despairing Byronic superiority over the “herd.” Shelley's answer is to confront human limitations, especially including the falsity and egoism in idealisms that are all the more destructive for their apparently perfect ideality; to confront one's own deep implications in those limitations; and to keep working for that good that may be affirmed by those who come behind.


  1. Richard Haswell, in “Shelley's The Revolt of Islam: ‘The Connexion of its Parts,’” Keats-Shelley Journal, 25 (1976), 81-102, sums up the prevailing consensus that the poem has a loosely-plotted narrative and a poor connection between the realistic and mythic sections (p. 81). He then goes on to demonstrate the symmetry of the narrative, particularly the moral symmetry of the two heroes' falls and redemptions. He also provides the only systematic analysis of how the symbols presented in the framing mythological cantos—the Temple, the eagle, the serpent, the Morning Star, the Comet, and the moon—are worked into the realistic portion of the narrative. Stuart Curran, in Shelley's Annus Mirabilis: The Maturing of an Epic Vision (San Marino, California: Huntington Library, 1975), notes many of the same structural balances Haswell does (p. 28).

  2. Most interpreters of the poem seem to find the heroes excessively perfect all the way through. Several have noted that Laon has to go through a process of purgation and atonement as a result of his lapse into violence (Alicia Martinez, The Hero and Heroine of Shelley's The Revolt of Islam [Salzburg: Institut für Englische Sprach und Literatur, 1972], p. 34; E. B. Murray, “‘Elective Affinity’ in The Revolt of Islam,Journal of English and German Philology, 67 [1968], 573-574). But they seem to think Cythna is entirely blameless throughout the poem, a victim of purely external evil. James Ruff, in Shelley's The Revolt of Islam (Salzburg: Institut für Englische Sprach und Literatur, 1972), does describe the hero and heroine as going through successive stages of growth in their understanding of their revolutionary roles. The initial “fall” of the heroes is, however, merely a temporary failure of imagination due to their separation by outside forces (p. 69). Ruff thinks that “the characters morally are black and white” and that the poem suffers because “Shelley completely polarizes the opponents: one is entirely good and the other entirely evil” (p. 115). Haswell alone notes that Cythna's moral development parallels Laon's in that she too is guilty of “immaturity of character” and moral weakness (“Shelley's The Revolt of Islam,Keats-Shelley Journal, 25 [1975], 86), and his description of her weakness as an inability to suffer evil is particularly acute. But it is unclear how Cythna's “transcend[ing] through passive acceptance Othman's rape” (p. 86) is compatible with her actively bringing about a revolution.

  3. Curran, Shelley's Annus Mirabilis, pp. 30-32.

  4. Haswell claims that “Shelley does not propose a reversal of traditional values in the Revolt; for him the Snake still symbolizes evil and the eagle good” (“Shelley's The Revolt of Islam,Keats-Shelley Journal, 25 [1975], 95). By contrast, Curran says that the philosophy of the poem is a “new Calvinism, which is simply the old Calvinism turned on end and morally rearmed” (Shelley's Annus Mirabilis, p. 30), a reversal of traditional moral categories like that often attributed to Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Both reflect a general consensus about what snake and eagle represent, identifying them as love and hatred (Haswell, p. 96; Curran, p. 28). Ruff, Shelley's The Revolt of Islam, 17-26, includes a comprehensive summary of efforts to interpret the meaning of serpent and eagle.

  5. The Revolt of Islam, in Shelley's Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson (1905; rpt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), lines 350; 356. All subsequent citations from the Revolt are taken from this edition, since the more standard texts either omit the Revolt or include it in its original form as Laon and Cythna. This edition also numbers the lines of verse sequentially from beginning to end, no small consideration in efficient citation and location of material in this poem. Citations from any prose except “On Life,” “On Love,” and “Defense of Poetry” are taken from The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck, 10 vol. (New York: Scribner, 1928), hereafter referred to as “Julian.” All other references to Shelley's work are taken from the most recent and carefully edited edition of Shelley's work, Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: Norton, 1977), hereafter Poetry and Prose.

  6. Shelley uses the Morning Star as a symbol elsewhere, notably in Epipsychidion, “To a Skylark,” Adonais, and “On the Devil and Devils,” but not together with any reference to the comet as an antithetical principle. Such symbology is also not present in the Manichaean material Shelley derived from Peacock and Newton. For what is perhaps still the most complete summary of Shelley's sources for Manichaean material in the Revolt, see Carlos Baker, Shelley's Major Poetry: The Fabric of a Vision (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948), pp. 64-70.

  7. My analysis of Necessity is in general agreement with Stuart Sperry's contention that some permutation of Necessity persists in Shelley's poetry at least through Prometheus Unbound, and that this Necessity probably involves a force greater than individual, even collective, human consciousness, a force informing, as Shelley says, “operations in the whole of nature” (“Necessity and the Role of the Hero in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, PMLA 96 [1981], 242-254). I also agree with Sperry that Shelley's idea of Necessity evolved from a more confirmed belief, expressed in Queen Mab, in the automatic if impartial munificience of this force to a view of Necessity as immaterial, conditional, and in crucial respects unknowable (Sperry, pp. 247-248). But although Necessity has become a conditional and even more impartial force, Cythna's submission to it in Canto IX implies that it still involves sufficient harmony to evoke human identification with and submission to its “bands” (line 3710). More important, as this paper argues, the depths of human error and self-involvement are such that individual weakness is a greater source of evil and enchainment than the imperfections in the larger Necessity.

  8. Necessity more than likely does operate in other sentient beings, however far Shelley is now willing to extend the definition of sentience. It extends, at least, to horses. Right after Cythna's speech Laon says of his horse,

    Was there a human spirit in the steed,
              That thus with his proud voice, ere night was gone,
    He broke our linkèd rest? or do indeed
              All living things a common nature own,
              And thought erect an universal throne,
    Where many shapes one tribute ever bear?


    This statement has the tentativeness of all metaphysical claims in the Revolt; it is articulated through a character whose perspective is less than complete, and it is in the form of a question. But significantly, the alternatives in the question are between two forms of sentience: anthropomorphism and a more objective attribution of some consciousness to many non-human beings, many shapes bearing tribute to “one universal thought” (which—on a throne, no less—may therefore be equivalent to Necessity/the Morning Star).

  9. In “On Life” Shelley says that as children, before we acquire the habit of making distinctions, we find self and universe almost indistinguishable, and philosophically we cannot distinguish individual mind either from the collective “one mind” or from so-called external objects (Poetry and Prose, pp. 477-478). But we do not experience such unity directly or intuitively; according to “Speculations on Metaphysics,” experience of separation and isolation even seems to be necessary for the existence of individual consciousness and thought (Julian VII, 59).

  10. One very important form taken by this dialectic is the relationship of two lovers to each other, as argued by Stuart Sperry in Shelley's Major Verse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 46ff. Sperry demonstrates in detail that the overcoming of false interpersonal ideals, such as Laon's initial concept of masculinity, is a major form taken by the dialectic of good and evil. But the Morning Star is not only “an androgynous ideal, a perfect union of the male and female sexes,” as Sperry claims (46-47). This dialectic takes a variety of other forms in the poem as well.

  11. As other critics have noted, Shelley in part owes his analysis of love and self-esteem to Rousseau's Discours sur l’Origine et les Fondemens de l’Inégalité parmi les Hommes. Primarily in a footnote to the essay, Rousseau names three terms that bear close relation, respectively, to Shelley's love, self-esteem, and self-idolatry: the instinct of compassion, the individual self-respect or amour de soi-même which causes every being to seek self-preservation, and egotism or amour propre. The “dark idolatry of self,” the worship of the Eagle or that good that is purely individual as opposed to mutual, is not unlike Rousseau's description of amour propre as a feeling that “originates in society,” “leads each individual to make more of himself than of any other,” and “inspires all the mutual evils men inflict upon each other.” Rousseau contrasts amour propre with amour de soi-même, “a natural feeling which leads every animal to look after its own preservation and which, guided in man by reason and modified by compassion, produces humanity and virtue” (Oeuvres Complètes [Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1964], III, 219; my translation). This description of self-respect parallels Shelley's suggestion that the Comet or selfhood is intrinsically neutral morally and that the ground of compromise between self and whole, between self-preservation and compassion, is the locus of the good. Rousseau differs from Shelley in that he describes compassion and amour de soi-même as separate feelings, with compassion as a primordial source of goodness and amour de soi-même as a neutral feeling that, in a state of society, reason perverts away from compassion toward an abstracted egotism (III, 219-220). Shelley, on the other hand, implicitly denies the noble savage by denying the existence of an independent and purely disinterested moral instinct such as Rousseau's compassion. If self and whole are inextricably intertwined, no motive is either purely disinterested or free from some egotism. Much, if not all, of love in the Revolt involves self-preservation, especially the self-esteem necessary to keep oneself from despair and suicide. Even the “earliest human dweller of the world” perceives some conflict of his desires and need for self-preservation with the claims of nature and other humans. Shelley's description of primordial man may well even be a direct rewriting of Rousseau's claim that amour propre does not exist in a primitive state, since the language he uses is strikingly similar to Rousseau's.

  12. Ruff, Shelley's The Revolt of Islam, p. 89.

  13. The citations in this paragraph are all from the preface to The Revolt of Islam, in Shelley's Poetical Works, pp. 33-37.

  14. Haswell says Cythna's “madness, like Laon's, is a form of punishment in which she suffers from the consciousness of the irrationality of her old values,” presumably including her conviction of invulnerability, because “her major flaw was a lack of intellectual patience, a refusal to give herself as prey to the evils of the world” (“Shelley's The Revolt of Islam,Keats-Shelley Journal, 25 [1975], 86). But Haswell does not discuss her use of serpent-bird imagery and its relation to her hallucination. He also does not analyze the relation between her past values and her madness any more than indicated in the quotation above. Most important, he describes her error in terms of “immaturity” and “blindness,” rather than as error essentially linked to the positive aspects of her idealism.

  15. These errors are not fundamentally different ones due to differences in sexual temperament, as Haswell suggests. There is no reason to identify Cythna's error as one of passion, as “a lack of intellectual patience” and Laon's as one of reason or “lack of compassion” (“Shelley's The Revolt of Islam,Keats-Shelley Journal, 25 [1975], 86-87). If anything, Laon's crime of vengeance smacks at least as much of passion and “lack of intellectual patience” as Cythna's error of retreating into self-obsessed shame, particularly since she explicitly exhorts him to bear her affliction but he turns an “unheeding ear” to her and slays three men (lines 1180-92). There is a good historical reason for the superficial differences in their errors; men have had more opportunity to commit acts of violence, whereas women have been more likely to react negatively as victims of violence, as Cythna's first and second speeches suggest (lines 1045-53, 3325-33). Shelley is not perpetuating the cliche of fundamental sexual differences in faculties or temperaments. He simply reflects historical reality and, if anything, gives Cythna more rational behavior and more of the rational arguments to deliver than Laon. The similarities in their hallucinations and the snake-eagle imagery suggest that their apparently different moral errors spring from a single, more fundamental error.

  16. Shelley's profoundly disturbing analysis of the heroes’ appetite for one another is connected to his equally insightful and disturbing use of incest in the original version of the Revolt, Laon and Cythna. Recent critics, especially Nathaniel Brown, have justly championed Shelley's use of incest in the poem as an extension of this common Romantic metaphor for sympathetic identification to include an egalitarian, feminist ideal of love and an androgynous ideal of gender (Sexuality and Feminism in Shelley [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979], 203-212). But Brown begs the question and gives Shelley less than sufficient credit when he answers charges that Shelley's incest-metaphors are narcissistic by claiming that “the sympathetic love tradition was a priori narcissistic” (p. 210). In accord with his dialectic of self and whole, Shelley exposes a fundamental ambiguity involved in sympathetic identification by using two extremely intimate relations between self and other—incest and eating—in themselves morally ambiguous. Shelley uses both behaviors literally and metaphorically to imply that the positive side of love, mutual caring and identification, is not limited by social and natural definitions. People can truly love one another despite natural and social taboos, and, conversely, despite whether or not their love is sanctioned by society and nature (Cythna's child is also Laon's, not because of biological paternity, but because he loves them both and their spirits are in harmony). Similarly, the female image on Cythna's throne nurses “from one breast / A human babe and a young basilisk” (2162-3), an even more radical challenge to social and natural norms by love. On the other hand, identifying with and desiring nurture from the other are not absolute goods, and if understood in an excessive, self-idolatrous way become the opposite of love. In the poem, people often feed each other, or feed metaphorically on looks and words, or nourish each other in ways imaged as like a mother nursing her child (an image prominent in the bloodless feast of the temporarily triumphant revolutionaries, lines 2299-2301). But they also incorporate each other in more dominating and destructive ways, as Laon and Cythna do in their madness. In terms of a different metaphor, the relation between two people who identify with each other can be a form of mutual, equal respect and desire—or a source of terrible domination and incorporation of one personality by the more powerful, as in The Cenci (a title that, unlike Laon and Cythna, makes no distinction of individual identities). Perhaps this explains why sibling incest is a positive metaphor in Shelley's work, while incest between parent and child is a metaphor for evil.

  17. Laon's and Cythna's responsibility, however unavoidable and unintentional, for the people's suffering is a fascinating and complex subject that deserves more explication than space allows here. Their own inevitable involvement in and responsibility for these events is most directly evoked when, after escaping the holocaust and consummating their love, Laon has to go find food, and he meets a madwoman deprived of her two children. Although she once fed two babes, a girl and a boy, from one breast, she identifies herself now as Pestilence seeking to “slay and smother,” identifies Laon with Death (lines 2773-5), and when Laon says “I seek for food” (line 2780), she leads him to a hideous ring of children's corpses surrounding a stack of loaves, saying “Eat! / Share the great feast—to-morrow we must die!” (lines 295-6). The woman is a grotesque reversal of the image of a woman feeding both human aspiration and Necessity, “a human babe and a young basilisk,” on Cythna's throne, suggesting that her plight is the direct consequence of Laon's and Cythna's revolutionary conceptions. Her children's fate further suggests the inevitable fate of the two heroes, who in the original version of the poem were, of course, brother and sister. Moreover, partly because they are responsible for the revolution and its consequences, Laon and Cythna must deliberately and willingly sacrifice themselves to bring about any positive change in the people's conception of what the revolution meant. They cannot either physically or mentally escape and live in a secluded paradise for two; their continued existence, as the metaphor above suggests, is “fed” by the death they have helped to bring about, and the metaphors describing the consummation of their love suggest waning life and unfulfilled hunger. As Cythna realizes, they have a further responsibility to the people, not just to themselves; their deaths are much more than a futile gesture or testament, as in Romeo and Juliet, to an inability to live without each other. However, Shelley's depiction of their terrible responsibility suggests why, in later poems, characters like Prometheus may resist passively but never again lead an actual uprising.

Michael O’Neill (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: “‘And All Things Seem Only One’: The Shelleyan Lyric,” in Percy Bysshe Shelley: Bicentenary Essays, edited by Kelvin Everest, D. S. Brewer, 1992, pp. 115-31.

[In the following essay, O’Neill surveys the complex character of Shelley's lyric poetry.]


‘It is only when under the overruling influence of some one state of feeling, either actually experienced, or summoned up in almost the vividness of reality by a fervid imagination, that he writes as a great poet’.1 J. S. Mill's observation about Shelley, which he thought held particularly true of the poet's ‘lyrical poems’,2 may seem to be borne out by the ‘fervid’ intensity of poems such as ‘O World, O Life, O Time’ or ‘The Flower That Smiles Today’. But in both these late pieces the poet's ‘labour of simplification’3 does not exclude complication or nuance. In the latter poem image and abstraction combine suggestively, inviting speculation about experiences to which its mood might apply: failure in personal relations, the collapse of political ideals, and metaphysical scepticism are all candidates.4 Moreover, Shelley ironically contravenes generic expectations. These stem from the lyric's emphasis on transience, which appears, misleadingly, to herald advice to ‘Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may’. If the opening lines, ‘The flower that smiles today / Tomorrow dies’ (ll. 1-2),5 are an abbreviating lift from the just-quoted poem by Herrick (‘And this same flower that smiles to day, / To morrow will be dying’),6 there is, from the start of Shelley's lyric, a tight-lipped acquiescence in the intolerable quite at odds with the seventeenth-century poem's acceptance of the inevitable. ‘All that we wish to stay / Tempts and then flies’ (ll. 3-4), Shelley asserts, his verbs tracing a circuit of monosyllabic disappointment. ‘This world's delight’ may be ‘Brief even as bright’ (ll. 5, 7). Yet the injunction to enjoy the present which ghosts line 7 never materializes, giving way to the statement that some things do last, though in altered form: virtue, friendship and love ‘Survive their joy, and all / Which ours we call’ (ll. 13-14).

These lines show Shelley's ability to embed astute insights in a seemingly traditional idiom. Here it is the writing's elliptical compactness which puts its lyric idiom under pressure, and implies the persistence in shrunken form of betrayed ideals that expose to us our alienation from what we thought ‘ours’. In the last stanza the use of ‘Whilst’ (ll. 15, 17 and 19) hints that the lyric will be rounded off by a Romantic equivalent to ‘seize the day’. Sardonically, though, the ensuing imperative, ‘Dream thou’ (l. 20), denies the possibility of anything but illusion as an alternative or prelude to the disillusionment tersely expressed by the last line, ‘Then wake to weep’ (l. 21). There, the lachrymose is held in check by a bitterness which the final rhyme clinches (each stanza ends with a triplet). Such bitterness bespeaks the achieved presence of a lyric voice in a poem that avoids the word ‘I’.

On the face of it ‘O World, O Life, O Time’ is a quintessentially Romantic lyric complaint; the poem uses its refrain and repeated rhyme to underscore ‘one state of feeling’, a Shelleyan version of Wordsworthian loss.7 Yet without losing the air of being directed by some ‘overruling influence’ the poem prompts thought about the exact nature of that influence, an influence suggested by the ‘peculiar compression’8 of the opening:

          O World, O Life, O Time,
          On whose last steps I climb,
Trembling at that where I had stood before …

(ll. 1-3)

The reader is struck here less by ‘the bonding of the literal and metaphorical’9 than by the way potent feeling subordinates any logic of metaphor to its own demands; the lines freeze the poet in a posture of endless climbing of ‘last steps’ on which he ‘had stood before’. Shelley may pit the vulnerable lyric ‘I’ against the abstractions of ‘World’, ‘Life’ and ‘Time’, as though the self were overwhelmed by vast impersonal forces. Yet his question, ‘When will return the glory of your prime?’ (l. 4), projects onto world, life and time the sense of loss experienced by the ‘I’. World, life and time, then, are both opposed to the self and words for the dimensions in and through which the self exists; indeed, the stanza half-suggests that the opening line's categories only exist by virtue of the poet's fall into awareness of loss. The second stanza undergoes tonal shifts without forfeiting the impression of conveying ‘one state of feeling’. Apostrophe and question modulate into uncomprehending statement in the line, ‘A joy has taken flight’ (l. 7), a line which mutes the poem's tone (it is not ‘joy’ but ‘A joy’ which has fled) and is the more affecting for doing so. Again, the poem moves the reader by glancing at the fact that the poet himself has not lost the capacity to be moved; he can feel ‘grief’ but not ‘delight’ (l. 9), a discovery that combines lament and understatement (there is no analysis of why this should be the case). The final line ‘No more, O never more!’ (l. 10) repeats the fifth line; but where that line was full of freshly located distress the later line is heavy with a sense of unalterable regret. The poem, then, aspires to the formal mastery which is lyric's seductive compensation for the distresses of experience; at the same time the notion of the isolated lyric ‘I’ is explored as well as asserted.

Applied to these poems, as to others by Shelley, the judgement of J. S. Mill with which this essay began is stimulating yet vulnerable on a number of counts: it presupposes, in G. M. Matthews's sardonic phrasing, that ‘the lyrical heart-cry is Shelley's typical utterance’;10 it ignores the fact that even lyrical heart-cries work within (or against) generic constraints; and it discounts Shelley's capacity to render complicated states of feeling within a single poem, indeed to redefine, albeit subtly rather than blatantly, the lyric form. Privileging ‘some one state of feeling’ as cause and effect of lyric, Mill's remark asks to be deconstructed. Tilottama Rajan does just this and yet more than this, arguing that the ‘dismantling of lyric autotelism is something which happened in Romantic texts themselves’.11 In a sense, Rajan is fighting a rearguard action against the devaluing of lyric implicit in the post-structuralist idiom she employs. Thus she contends that Romantic poets contrived an ‘interdiscursive’ form of lyric in the act of dismantling lyric's ‘monological autonomy’, and concludes that ‘the survival of the lyrical voice testifes to an understanding of the self that is not quite that of poststructuralism’.12

Rajan's essay valuably qualifies pre-theoretical and post-structuralist assumptions. Yet Mill's emphasis on Shelley's evocations of ‘some one state of feeling’ is still salutary because it provokes thought about the degree of ‘autonomy’, ‘monological’ or otherwise, attained by Shelley's lyrics. Even so ‘dialogic’ a poem as ‘The Two Spirits—An Allegory’ offers us less a picture of the mind's debate with itself (such as is supplied by Keats's ‘Ode to a Nightingale’) than the interplay of two ‘single states of feeling’. If each spirit sees because of what it is, the poem itself achieves a kind of ‘monological autonomy’ by dictating the terms through which the poem's clash of perspectives is mediated. So the last two stanzas may offer contrasting emblems of the outlooks of the two spirits, but it is the lyric poet who asserts a final control over his poem's voices, exhibiting the changes that can be rung on a single word, ‘shape’ (ll. 38 and 45).

Certainly many of Shelley's lyrics, in the interests of a singleness or unity desired though rarely attained, tend not to pause over or point up, even as they recognize, the complex, the unassimilable, the contradictory. Rajan defines ‘autonomy’ or ‘lyric consciousness’ as coming ‘as close as possible’ to ‘a consciousness without the dimension of being-in-the-world’.13 Shelley's lyrics never aspire unproblematically to ‘autonomy’ in this sense; but neither are they prepared simply to make lyric consciousness dependent on some contextualizing discourse. Their pursuit of autonomy is more a question of seeking to organize their figurative inventions into imaginative structures that give the impression, possibly the illusion, of being self-sustaining. In this sense the final section of ‘Ode to the West Wind’ achieves a precarious autonomy in the act of admitting the self's dependence both on the wind for inspiration and on an audience, ‘mankind’, for actualizing the potential of the poet's ‘words’ (l. 67). Fiercely competing emotions are bound together by the onward impulsion of the terza rima. The section's initial desire that the speaker be granted the status of a natural object governed by the wind is expressed in words that deconstruct even as they formulate the desire. To be a lyre ‘even as the forest is’ (l. 57) is impossible given the presence of consciousness in the lyric ‘I’; the next line (‘What if my leaves are falling like its own!’ (l. 58)), poignantly yet almost jokily, behaves as if the problem stemmed from the processes of change and decay to which the self, like the forest, is subject. But the problem lies more in the very existence of the self which the poem pleads that the wind will possess: ‘Be thou me, impetuous one!’ (l. 62). The plea for unity tacitly recognises its impossibility, passing into an assertion of the lyric self's mastery; it is ‘by the incantation of this verse’ (l. 65) that Shelley hopes his words will reach mankind. Ronald Tetreault lays emphasis on the poet's willingness at the end of ‘Ode to the West Wind’ ‘not to force his meaning on his auditors but to yield them their autonomy’.14 Yet it is important, too, to recognize the degree to which the poem resonates within the echo-chamber of its own figurative explorations: ‘incantation’, for instance, sends us back to, while reversing the implications of, the early simile of the leaves as ‘ghosts from an enchanter fleeing’ (l. 3).


Lyric autonomy, the sense that the poet's words have shaped themselves into a self-sufficient discourse, is only ever momentary in Shelley, an impression, a ‘sense’; hence its pathos and unstable value. Nowhere in Shelley is its presence more intriguing than in Prometheus Unbound. In Rajan's view the lyrical drama foregrounds ‘the tension between lyric and drama’. But though she asserts that ‘Prometheus is not so much an interiorizing of the dramatic form as an exteriorizing of the lyrical’,15 it is equally arguable that, at key moments in the work, lyric converts drama into its own substance. So the ‘Life of Life’ lyric (II. v. 48-71) not only brings to a climax the second act's imagining of change, but also marks the moment at which the second act actualizes its promise of vision; temporarily, the lyrical drama resolves into ‘one state of feeling’, albeit a state compounded out of different states.

‘Life of Life!’: the exclamation is both creative of its subject and beyond the scope of philosophical or mythological translation. Life is breathed into ‘life’ by a use of words that communicates awareness of inadequacy and wonder. The rhythm is incantatory yet ordered, ‘life’ setting up alliterative intimacies with ‘lips’ and ‘love’ that begin a bewildering celebration of the division between and inseparability of spirit and body, love and life, essence and appearance, ideal and projection. No other terms will suffice, the wording of ‘Life of Life!’ implies, and yet the second and fourth stanzas begin with phrases (‘Child of Light!’ (l. 54) and ‘Lamp of Earth!’ (l. 66)) which both build on the implications of the opening and intimate the possibility of innumerable fresh starts to the poem.

The transfigured Asia is known only as she is being defined in a lyric that is concerned with the impossibility of definition. Crucial to the poem's effectiveness, however, is the sureness with which ‘impossibility of definition’ is conveyed. Stephen Spender commented on the ‘confused machinery’ of the opening stanza's imagery, asking, in relation to lines 51-3 (‘then screen them / In those looks, where whoso gazes / Faints, entangled in their mazes’), ‘How can you be screened by looks which are also mazes in which whoever gazes becomes entangled and faints?’16 One answer is Bloom's: ‘Shelley is not sending [us] to the sketching board.’17 This is true, but Bloom does not acknowledge the degree to which Shelley negotiates with, even as he departs from, the prospect of visualization. The word order of lines 51-3 persuades the reader to trust in a series of telescoped suggestions. ‘Screen’ benefits from a syntax flexible enough to permit two possible and, in reading, overlapping subjects:18 ‘lips’ (l. 48), in which case it is the movement of the lips that changes the face from ‘smiles’ to entangling looks, or the ‘smiles’ (l. 50) themselves, in which case the ‘smiles’ veil themselves—as though residually abiding—behind the ‘looks’.

On either interpretation, the language proposes that the ‘thou’ manifests itself through appearances that are and are not identical with the essence they conceal and reveal. The ‘looks’ are ‘those looks’ (my emphasis), where Shelley's avoidance of a duff epithet propels the reader forward; the looks are those ‘where whoso gazes / Faints’; the metre's stress on ‘Faints’ puts sinew into potentially weak writing, forcing together action and consequence (gazing and fainting). It is at this point of possible arrest that the image of the looks as ‘mazes’ keeps the verse busy with a sense of labyrinthine exploration. ‘Entangled’ crystallizes and refines the mood of a stanza marked by deftly unentangled presentation of increasing entanglement. The entangling mazes of Asia's looks reverse the implicit scenario of the lyric: that of an onlooker admiring the transformed Asia. The ‘mazes’ could, however, also be those engendered by ‘the onlooker's own amazement’.19 The lyric dissolves into one another the implications of these readings of ‘mazes’: that Asia's ‘looks’ preserve her otherness, and that Asia's unknowable being can be approached only through (and may be indistinguishable from) the speaker's idealizing desires. It is Shelley's achievement to make his lyric's ‘one state of feeling’ accommodate multiple shadings and nuances without fissuring or fracturing into disparate moods.

Throughout, Shelley's figures Platonize yet undo Platonic distinctions. So the ‘atmosphere’ (l. 58) through which Asia's ‘divinity’ makes itself felt also ‘Shrouds thee wheresoe’er thou shinest’ (l. 59); alliteration joins what sense ought to, but, uncannily, does not, put asunder: shining and shrouding. The moment is typical of a lyric that is ecstatic and controlled, pressing towards finality of utterance while allowing for continual modification. Shelley exploits the eager intentness offered by a trochaic metre. By contrast, the movement and mood of Byron's ‘She Walks in Beauty’, composed in iambic tetrameters, are themselves ‘mellow’d to that tender light’ (l. 5) which the poem praises.20 Byron, too, is concerned with the indefinable, ‘the nameless grace / Which waves in every raven tress’ (ll. 8-9); yet where Shelley points up and relishes paradox, Byron smooths potential paradox into extravagant compliment: ‘And all that’s best of dark and bright / Meet in her aspect and her eyes’ (ll. 3-4). Byron's idealizing is evocative—the opening four words elegantly resist paraphrase—but the process of idealizing is not simultaneously performed and scrutinized as in Shelley's poem. In Byron's lyric, idealizing has the strengths and limitations of a mode that is, for all its formality, still in touch with the tones of the drawing room. ‘She Walks in Beauty’ celebrates a ‘She’ whose potentially symbolic status is only an urbane hint; ‘ Life of Life’ entangles us in a maze where what is ‘real’ is continually redefined.

Shelley's initial rhyme of ‘enkindle’ and ‘dwindle’ is the basis for Daniel Hughes's admirable reading of the lyric as ‘a quick forming out of motion, an extremely unstable, but still definite point of coherence and completion’.21 This ‘quick forming out of motion’ is evident in the lyric; throughout, ‘motion’ is both a threat to and the condition of ‘forming’. ‘Dwindle’ (l. 50) may intimate extinction; in the same breath, though, it invites us to prize Asia's ‘smiles’ because of the impermanent radiance which they confer. The extra stress in ‘Make the cold air fire’ (l. 51) stabilizes our sense of this radiance, a radiance which is, none the less, composed of unstable opposites; the smiles do not so much turn ‘cold air’ into ‘fire’ as ‘Make’ what was, and still is, ‘cold air’ ‘fire’.22

As the poem unfolds, the process of ‘forming’, of eloquent but provisional realizations, persists. For instance, in the final stanza, ‘dim shapes are clad with brightness’ (l. 67). This tribute to Asia as ‘Lamp of Earth’ goes beyond saying that once dim shapes are now bright; it allows for the co-existence of dimness and brightness, for the fact that Asia's brightness is borne witness to by the very dimness of the shapes clad in her sight-defeating brightness. The paradox builds on previous paradoxes. So the second and third stanzas subtilize and qualify the opening stanza's concern with looking. Almost nonchalantly stanza three gives up the attempt to see which stanzas one and two address. In the line ‘Fair are others;—none beholds thee’ (l. 60), ‘beholds’ suggests a contemplative calm that goes beyond gazing, a calm which the poem, with excited composure, accepts it cannot attain. So far as any permanent state is reached, it is the state of being ‘lost forever’ (l. 65) with which the stanza closes; such ‘loss’ fuses inability to sustain apprehension with, more positively, a loss of self or usual state of consciousness.

In stanza two the lyric voice has not yet conceded the inevitable separateness (from the ‘thou’ it addresses) which is one aspect of the ‘loss’ described in stanza three, an aspect attested to by the appearance at the end of stanza three of the word ‘I’. Stanza two searches for origins as the smiles which ‘Make the cold air fire’ turn into limbs ‘burning / Through the vest which seems to hide them’ (ll. 54-5). Bloom speaks of the phrase ‘seems to hide’ as ‘wonderfully ambiguous’; the vest does not hide the limbs ‘for they burn through the vest; yet the vest does hide them, because it seems to hide them’.23 It is an ambiguity, a doubleness of sense, designed to reinforce an impression of indivisibility and singleness. And, straightaway, the paradox of ‘limbs’ which are and are not at one with the vest they burn through is subjected to a comparison; the limbs burn ‘As the radiant lines of morning / Through the clouds ere they divide them’ (ll. 56-7). But, as if forestalling the deconstructive reflex which insists that comparisons concede unlikeness in the act of asserting likeness, Shelley's comparison sustains the same dizzying sense of twoness-in-one of the original; in both cases that which ‘seems to hide’ makes possible what is ‘burning’ or ‘radiant’. So self-aware is the writing that mode mirrors theme; the poem's words seem to hide the very subject which exists by virtue of accomplished admissions of inadequacy, admissions which culminate in the final couplet, ‘Till they [the souls of whom thou lovest] fail, as I am failing, / Dizzy, lost … yet unbewailing!’ (ll. 70-1). Bloom is right to emphasize ‘Till’, with its implication that ‘Fail they must’;24 the glide from walking with lightness (l. 69) to failing accepts without fuss, so far as the visionary project of the lyric (and the lyrical drama) is concerned, the necessary involvement in one another of success and failure. The poem's ‘I’ refuses to bewail the ‘failing’ of, among other things, poetic inspiration. Not the least of the flickering oppositions held in temporarily unified suspension by this fine poem is its status both as process and product.


Of course ‘Life of Life’ is part of a larger work; the foregoing discussion seeks less to oppose than to modify Rajan's account of the role performed by lyric in the lyrical drama. My reading privileges the lyric as a moment when, without sacrifice of complexity, Prometheus Unbound alters the way it signifies, seeming to incarnate its significances within a brief verbal span. More usually, the self is less refined out of existence in Shelley's lyrics than it is in ‘Life of Life’. Indeed, Ronald Tetreault argues that, for Shelley, ‘The lyric allowed for the exploration and expression of his inner life, but its concerns remained too uniquely private.’25 Yet Shelley's negotiations with the ‘uniquely private’ resolve only ambiguously into evocations of ‘some one state of feeling’. His early lyrics often safeguard the ‘uniquely private’ by containing, even burying, suggestions of privacy within an inherited or generalizing lyric idiom. ‘Mutability’, for instance, builds towards the assertion, ‘Man's yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; / Nought may endure but Mutability’ (ll. 15-16). But this epigrammatic condensation of a famous topos comes at the end of a poem whose figurative restlessness—‘We are as clouds’ (l. 1), ‘Or like forgotten lyres’ (l. 5)—implies an impatience with epigram's offer of closure; ‘we’ bears a strong, if hidden, personal signature in the poem, which seeks controlling definition of experience's refusal to submit to control. This tug shapes the poem's form; the quatrains are tightly rhymed and the iambics mimic a headlong intensity, and yet the feminine rhymes in the first and last stanzas, plus the expertly different pace at which each quatrain moves, enact a chafing against submission to ‘one state of feeling’; emotionally and thematically, oppositions meet and indeed collapse in on one another: on the one hand, ‘no second motion brings / One mood or modulation like the last’ (ll. 7-8); on the other hand, ‘It is the same!’ (l. 13). The effect is of an undercurrent of private feeling both shaping and ruffling the linguistic surface of the lyric.

‘Stanzas.—April, 1814’ is another early poem whose plangencies derive from Shelley's oblique dealings with the ‘uniquely private’. These dealings are ‘oblique’ in that Shelley addresses himself as ‘thou’,26 instructing himself to cut his emotional losses, ‘Tempt not with one last tear thy friend's ungentle mood’ (l. 6); and they are ‘oblique’ because Shelley alternates between suppression and revelation of feeling, intermingling stoicism and ‘dereliction’ (l. 8), and making a skilful rhythmic music out of the intermingling, employing description to carry the reader both away from and towards the poem's emotional centre of gravity. Donald Davie argues that ‘the “Stanza, written at Bracknell” can control self-pity by controlled and judicious phrasing’,27 and the ability to ‘control self-pity’ is also evident in ‘Stanzas.—April, 1814’.

It is instructive to compare the poem with ‘The Serpent Is Shut Out from Paradise’, written in Shelley's final year. In an implicitly self-descriptive image, ‘Stanzas.—April, 1814’ refers to ‘dim shades’ that ‘complicate strange webs of melancholy mirth’ (ll. 11, 12), and both this poem and the later lyric deal with, and in, ‘complication’. In the first Shelley is returning to his ‘sad and silent home’ (l. 9) after an emotional entanglement (with Cornelia Boinville Turner) has come to an end; in the second, addressed to Edward and Jane Williams, Shelley alludes to the marital problems that make his a ‘cold home’ (l. 25). Both poems long for an escape from complication, using similar tropes to convey this longing. In ‘Stanzas.—April, 1814’ Shelley writes,

The cloud shadows of midnight possess their own repose,
          For the weary winds are silent, or the moon is in
the deep:
Some respite to its turbulence unresting ocean knows;
          Whatever moves, or toils, or grieves, hath its appointed

(ll. 17-20)

The stylized distancing of human emotion in these lines, part and parcel of the poetry's absorption in its own rhythmic virtuosity, is striking. The lines convey what is at once an emotional presence and absence on Shelley's part: they speak eloquently of (by saying nothing about) his own ‘turbulence’ and exclusion from the universal ‘repose’ and ‘respite’ they describe. ‘Thou in the grave shalt rest’ (l. 21), the beginning of the next stanza, is perfectly judged not to disturb the effect achieved here. It is an effect that contrasts intriguingly with the weighty confessionalism of the line in Wordsworth's ‘Ode to Duty’ which may have been the younger poet's starting-point, at any rate in lines 17-20: ‘I long for a repose that ever is the same’.28 Shelley's poem declines to posit so unbearably revealed a centre of self; indeed, we may feel that its deepest longing is to keep the music coming: ‘Thy remembrance, and repentance, and deep musings are not free / From the music of two voices and the light of one sweet smile’ (ll. 23-4). This is elegantly done, but the pacing is too adroitly managed for the poem's good: ‘remembrance’ trips rather cheaply into ‘repentance’, while ‘deep’ attaches itself unprofoundly to ‘musings’. The final intimation that ‘one sweet smile’ has all along been haunting the poet serves, rather, to underscore the fact that the poem has been more than half in love with its own lyric artifice.

To adapt P. H. Butter's account of ‘A Summer-Evening Churchyard’, another poem first published in the Alastor volume, ‘Stanzas.—April, 1814’ is a ‘product of an immature poet of genius’.29 ‘The Serpent Is Shut Out from Paradise’ is the product of a poet whose maturity shows in his readiness to take emotional risks, to trade the merely accomplished for the dramatization of involuntary stops and starts of feeling. So in the sixth stanza, which could be seen as a reworking of lines 17-20 of ‘Stanzas.—April, 1814’, Shelley reverts to a pattern established in the first stanza. In both the first and the sixth stanzas the first line strives for a mellifluous, apparently single-toned literariness: ‘The serpent is shut out from Paradise’ (l. 1); ‘The crane o’er seas and forests seeks her home’ (l. 41). In both stanzas this literariness gives way to something closer to conversational utterance, guarded in the first instance (‘I, too, must seldom seek again / Near happy friends a mitigated pain’ (ll. 7-8)), almost histrionic in the second (‘Doubtless there is a place of peace / Where my weak heart and all its throbs will cease’ (ll. 47-8)). Where ‘Stanzas.—April, 1814’ was artfully oblique, ‘The Serpent Is Shut Out from Paradise’ intermittently verges on the embarrassingly explicit, as line 48 reveals. The line is as unprotected an expression of self-pity as the most ardent anti-Shelleyan could wish. And yet it is only one phase in a poem whose workings are, tonally and emotionally, far more demanding than those in ‘Stanza.—April, 1814’.

The poem cannot, in Mill's phrase, communicate ‘some one state of feeling’, because it finds out as it unfolds that its feelings are not single. Tension run through the piece. The first line ruffles the ‘literariness’ mentioned above by coupling Biblical allusion with wryly private joking (Shelley was nicknamed ‘the snake’);30 lament for the serpent's exclusion blends with recognition of the fact that other people's paradises are better off without serpents. The poem is at emotional cross-purposes with itself throughout; Shelley feels he should deny himself the ‘mitigated pain’ which the company of his friends offers, only to argue that being the object of their ‘Pity’ (l. 12) is unbearable. In stanza three the poem articulates the impasse which the workings of the first two stanzas have intimated: ‘The very comfort which they [the looks of his friends] minister / I scarce can bear; yet I, / (So deeply is the arrow gone) / Should quickly perish if it were withdrawn’ (ll. 21-4). ‘I scarce can bear’; ‘Should quickly perish’: these seem the stock terms on which Romantic emotionalism might depend. Yet these intensities coexist with the poised movement of the lines across the modified ottava rima31 as well as with fidelity to the rhythms of speech (in, say, the recoil of ‘yet I’, or the painful semi-jest of the parenthesis which follows). The result is not to damp down the ‘sense of unrelieved, even unrelievable, frustration’32 which William Keach detects in the poem, but to add to it the further sense that the poet is driven, and knows he is being driven, to play a ‘forced part’ (l. 28) in his own poem.

This is not to accuse Shelley of insincerity; it is, rather, to observe the way the poem authenticates his unhappiness at having to assume ‘the idle mask / Of author’ (ll. 29-30); to observe, too, the way the poem seems to open up fractional silences after its assertions and qualifications, silences in which the provisionality of what has just been said is at once muted and acknowledged. Certainly it is to the poem's credit that Shelley does not wholly persuade us he has ‘relieved / His heart with words’ (ll. 51-2). The lyric allows overstatement to co-exist with indeterminacy, false notes to play against candour, explicit revelation to pass into reticence and doubt, the ‘bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast’, in Yeats's words,33 to enter into dialogue with the self projected by lyric. ‘These verses were too sad / To send to you’ (ll. 54-5) steps out of the frame of the lyric; there is both art in and an undefended rawness about this disclaimer that contrasts with the effect of the graceful apology at the end of ‘Stanzas written in Dejection—December 1818, Near Naples’, where Shelley regrets his poem's ‘untimely moan’ (l. 40). In ‘Stanzas written in Dejection’ Shelley's surprises—the self-effacing attention to nature, the delayed entrance of the self-pitying self, the self-consciousness about self-pity—are woven harmoniously into the poem's texture; they do not enforce recognition of a gulf or link between the suffering man and the creating mind. In ‘The Serpent Is Shut Out from Paradise’ Shelley shapes an impressively self-divided lyricism out of his sense of the difficulties posed by the ‘uniquely private’; the poem allows us to eavesdrop on the interplay between what Nietzsche calls ‘the lyric genius and the allied non-genius’.34


‘The Serpent Is Shut Out from Paradise’ makes a last-minute appeal to its audience (Edward and Jane Williams) by praising them for their capacity to ‘feel another's woe’ (l. 56); in doing so, it not only moves out of its lyric space into lives beyond itself, it also draws those lives back into the lyric space it seems to be abandoning. Other late lyrics both undermine and protect their autonomy. ‘When the lamp is shattered’35 wins a bleak lyric triumph out of themes of failure and aftermath, loss and survival. If ever a poem seemed intent on evoking ‘some one state of feeling’, this is it; but the poem proves to be more intricate. Indeed, if it does impress as conveying ‘one state of feeling’ it does so because of a driving intensity that extends, even as it elaborates, the poem's initial position. Loss refuses to be as absolute as the series of figures in the opening stanza intimates, and passes into survival. ‘When the lips have spoken / Loved accents are soon forgot’ (ll. 7-8) may dispose of ‘Loved accents’, yet the next stanza asserts the persistence of songs that are not songs but ‘sad dirges’ (l. 13) which come into being when ‘the spirit is mute’ (l. 12). Survival, living on after loss or hurt, turns out to be the poem's true theme; ‘music and splendour’ may ‘Survive not the lamp and the lute’ (ll. 9-10), but something does survive, something that denies the reader the easy frisson of complete loss the poem seems to offer.

With this and the emotional plot which unfolds in the third stanza in mind, the reader may find the clarity of lines 7-8 more apparent than real: ‘Loved accents are soon forgot’ but how soon is ‘soon’? The line wants to make comparable the forgetting of loved accents and the other losses described in the stanza; yet in the very attempt to make the emotional conform to laws governing the physical Shelley alerts us to subjective pressures, smuggling back the lyric subject seemingly suppressed by the poem. Again, in the second stanza, the poem's unique timbre appears, briefly and self-reflexively, to be suggested, a sad dirge written out of the spirit's muteness. Throughout, there is a contest between images that seek some conclusive definition of failure and the awareness that emotional closure is hard to come by. Failure has many gradations as the final stanza indicates through its use of a future tense and phrases that chart successive stages in some imagined divestiture of dignity; when the last line arrives, in all its spondaic finality (‘When leaves fall and cold winds come’), there is less a sense of reaching a conclusion than of realizing more fully what is involved by the word ‘endure’ in the earlier lines, ‘The weak one is singled / To endure what it once possest’ (ll. 19-20). By echoing the ‘when’ construction which governs earlier lines, but this time leads nowhere beyond itself, the last line rounds off yet questions previous attempts to argue through images, holding the poem open to the unarguable rigours suggested by falling leaves and cold winds.

The tussle between sobered delight in the ‘magic circle’ (‘To Jane. The Recollection’, l. 44) drawn by lyric art and awareness of realities outside art's magic circle vitalizes the late poems to Jane Williams. Often it is hard to know who has the upper hand: the idealizing lyricist or the sceptic leaning over his shoulder. In the last stanza of ‘To Jane: “The keen stars were twinkling”’, as Keach points out, ‘The world of ideal lyric unity is explicitly recognized as being “far from ours”’.36 Yet the poem wins through (originally Shelley concluded the poem with ‘won’ rather than ‘one’)37 to its glimpse of ‘ideal lyric unity’ more buoyantly than Keach allows. The ingenious use to which Shelley puts his arrangement of line-length and rhyme, so that every sixth line has a clinching effect, contributes to this buoyancy. From the start, the poem privileges the ‘voice’ of its addressee, who serves as source and correlative of poetic inspiration, a muse figure the more credible for the uninflated nature of the poet's address: ‘the notes were not sweet ‘till you sung them / Again’ (ll. 5-6). Here Jane creates and discovers harmony in the same breath; later, the voice's power to confer value is stressed as it spiritualizes ‘the strings without soul’ (l. 11). Even here there is, because of the comparison launched in line seven (‘moon's soft splendour’ (l. 7) is to ‘faint cold starlight’ (l. 8) as ‘voice most tender’ (l. 10) is to ‘strings without soul’), a suggestion that Jane's power derives from some lucky accord between the natural and the human. But in the second stanza this not wholly logical suggestion drops away: whether ‘the moon sleep a full hour later’ (l. 14) the impact of Jane's singing is not diminished; at the end of the poem it is the creative effect of her ‘voice’ (l. 20) which is praised. If this leaves the poem open to the charge that what it exhibits is merely the ‘exertion of the interpretive will’, in Keach's phrase, it should be noted that Shelley seeks to silence the charge by speaking of the voice as ‘revealing / A tone / Of some world far from ours’ (ll. 20-2; my emphasis), a classic instance of deconstructive critical strategies being outwitted in advance by a poem. Shelley protects his poem against its and our scepticism by implying that it illustrates through its workings the autonomy of song which is its theme, and that it reveals—not just fabricates—a reality ‘far from ours’.

That my commentary on ‘To Jane: “The keen stars were twinkling”’ ends with the phrase whose challenge to ‘lyric unity’ I claim the poem is able to absorb is significant; it reveals how precarious any defence of these poems against their deconstructive impulses is likely to be. None the less, Shelley's formal choices in this poem and the companion pieces, ‘To Jane. The Invitation’ and ‘To Jane. The Recollection’, are designed to play down, though not to silence, their less assimilable moods. The flowing couplets of ‘To Jane. The Invitation’, for instance, protect the poet's discovery of ‘one moment's good’ (l. 44) by suspending it in a contiguous flow of thoughts and feelings. The poem looks before and after, glancing at the humdrum misery of ‘the unpaid bill’ (l. 35), accepting the likely return of ‘Reflexion’ (l. 33) and ‘Sorrow’ (l. 34), and tacitly allowing that there will be times when, unlike the present, the ‘soul’ will need to ‘repress / Its music lest it should not find / An echo in another's mind’ (ll. 24-6), lines where the ‘echo’ enacted by rhyme holds at arm's length the fear of echolessness. Yet the poem takes on board and manages to accommodate these obstacles to lyric celebration of the ‘Radiant Sister of the day’ (l. 47). What is imaginatively projected in the final paragraph is a folding of the ‘multitudinous’ (l. 65) into ‘one’ (l. 68):

And the multitudinous
Billows murmur at our feet
Where the earth and ocean meet,
And all things seem only one
In the universal Sun.—

(ll. 65-9)

Although the metre is trochaic, ‘seem’ attracts a good deal of attention here. And yet for all its momentariness, possible illusoriness and potential vulnerability to strains both within and without (‘To Jane. The Recollection’ will bring such strains to the fore), the vision attained at the end of ‘To Jane. The Invitation’ is richly, if complexly, affirmative. There is an often justifiable wariness of the unitary in contemporary criticism of Romantic poets. Despite (or because of) this, it is worth re-emphasizing that, without the impulse to imagine states in which ‘all things seem only one’, the contrary impulses chartable in many of Shelley's finest poems would lose much of their power.


  1. J. S. Mill, ‘Two Kinds of Poetry’ (1833), quoted from Shelley: Shorter Poems and Lyrics, A Casebook, ed. Patrick Swinden (London and Basingstoke, 1976), p. 58; hereafter Casebook.

  2. ‘Two Kinds of Poetry’, quoted from Casebook, p. 58.

  3. The phrase is T. S. Eliot's in his ‘William Blake’, Selected Essays, 3rd enlarged edn (1951; London, 1976), p. 317.

  4. G. M. Matthews argues that ‘the poem was evidently written for the opening of Hellas’, in ‘Shelley's Lyrics’ (1969), quoted from Casebook, p. 189. Judith Chernaik, however, in The Lyrics of Shelley (Cleveland and London, 1972), hereafter Chernaik, argues that ‘the lyric appears to be self-sufficient’ (p. 161), a view I share.

  5. Quoted from Shelley's Poetry and Prose, Norton Critical Edition, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York and London, 1977); hereafter PP. All poems by Shelley are quoted from this edition, unless otherwise indicated.

  6. ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’, quoted from The Poems of Robert Herrick (London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne, 1902). On ‘Shelley's version of carpe diem’ see Chernaik, p. 155.

  7. Poem is quoted from text in Chernaik, p. 246. For the influence of Wordsworth's ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’ see Chernaik, pp. 146-7.

  8. Chernaik, p. 147.

  9. Chernaik, p. 147.

  10. ‘Shelley's Lyrics’, quoted from Casebook, p. 178.

  11. Tilottama Rajan, ‘Romanticism and the Death of Lyric Consciousness’, hereafter Rajan, in Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism, ed. Chaviva Hošsek and Patricia Parker (Ithaca and London, 1985), p. 198.

  12. Rajan, pp. 206, 196, 207.

  13. Rajan, p. 196.

  14. Ronald Tetreault, The Poetry of Life: Shelley and Literary Form (Toronto, Buffalo and London, 1987), p. 220; hereafter Tetreault.

  15. Rajan, pp. 204, 202.

  16. Stephen Spender, Shelley (1952), quoted from Shelley's ‘Prometheus Unbound’: A Variorum Edition, ed. Lawrence John Zillman (Seattle, 1959), p. 491.

  17. Harold Bloom, Shelley's Mythmaking (1959; Ithaca, NY, 1969), p. 126; hereafter Bloom.

  18. Isobel Armstrong writes perceptively about the work performed by Shelley's ‘ambiguous syntax’ in the poem in her Language as Living Form in Nineteenth-Century Poetry (Sussex and New Jersey, 1982), p. 137; hereafter Armstrong.

  19. Armstrong, p. 135.

  20. Byron's poem is quoted from vol. iii of Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works (Oxford, 1981), ed. Jerome J. McGann.

  21. Daniel Hughes, ‘Kindling and Dwindling: The Poetic Process in Shelley’, Keats-Shelley Journal, xiii (1964), p. 18.

  22. See discussion in Armstrong of the way language ‘quivers endlessly between negation and assertion’ in this line, p. 135.

  23. Bloom, p. 127.

  24. Bloom, p. 127.

  25. Tetreault, p. 121.

  26. ‘O! there are spirits of the air’, which Mary Shelley says was ‘addressed in idea to Coleridge’ (quoted from The Poems of Shelley: Volume 1: 1804-1817, ed. Geoffrey Matthews and Kelvin Everest (London and New York, 1989), p. 448), also addresses a ‘thou’ in a manner that can be construed as self-address.

  27. Donald Davie, Purity of Diction in English Verse, enlarged edn (1967; London, 1969), p. 147.

  28. ‘Ode to Duty’, l. 40, quoted from William Wordsworth, Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, new ed. Ernest de Selincourt (1936; London, Oxford and New York, 1969).

  29. Quoted from Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Alastor’ and Other Poems; ‘Prometheus Unbound’ with Other Poems; ‘Adonais’, ed. P. H. Butter (London and Glasgow, 1970), p. 249.

  30. See PP, p. 447.

  31. See William Keach, Shelley's Style (New York and London, 1984), hereafter Keach, for the form as a possible reflection of ‘Byron's influence on the poem’, p. 218.

  32. Keach, p. 219.

  33. W. B. Yeats, ‘A General Introduction for my Work’ (1937), quoted from W. B. Yeats, Selected Criticism and Prose, ed. with intro. and notes by A. Norman Jeffares (London, 1980), p. 255.

  34. The Birth of Tragedy, section 5; quoted from Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ and ‘The Case of Wagner’, trans. with commentary by Walter Kaufmann (New York, 1967), p. 50.

  35. Quoted from text in Chernaik, pp. 254-6.

  36. Keach, p. 228.

  37. See Chernaik, p. 261; Keach also comments on this detail, emphasizing what it reveals about ‘a performance or exertion of the interpretive will’, p. 228.

Christine Berthin (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Prometheus Unbound, or Discourse and Its Other,” in Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. XLII, 1993, pp. 128-41.

[In the following essay, Berthin approaches Prometheus Unbound as a figural and revolutionary text.]

Besides literal meanings, poetry generates lateral meanings, by-products which spoil the perfection of the linguistic system. The verbal order is constantly undermined by visual or musical patterns that, anamorphically, dislocate and relocate the political message of the text.

“Didactic poetry is my abhorrence; nothing can be equally well expressed in prose that is not tedious and supererogatory in verse.”1 At the threshold of Prometheus Unbound, Shelley's warning is clear: born of a “passion for reforming the world,” the poem cannot be limited to a “reasoned system on the theory of human life” (p. 135). Its pragmatic efficacy, that is, the extent to which the work of art leads to action, does not lie only in its overt and legible message.

How then can “poetry act to produce the moral improvement of man,” as Shelley puts it in the “Defence of Poetry” (p. 488)? That the answer to the central issue of the revolutionary vocation of poetry lies outside of its directly recognizable message clearly appears in the “closing” statements of the incomplete “Defence of Poetry:” “Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire: the influence which is moved not, but moves” (p. 508). Poetic authority is not a matter of conscious present intention, but inhabits discourse as that which disrupts the pre-existing frame within which it might be understood.

Within and beside signification lies an obscure double, a “gigantic shadow,” “unapprehended” and “unacknowledged.” In other words, beside “discourse” there lies “figure.” The “gigantic shadow” disrupting discourse with intrusive displacements, with off-centered elements, cannot but call to mind the notion of figural or lateral space Laurent Jenny in La Parole Singulière analyses as inherent in discourse yet other than discourse. Jenny's concept of figural space as the other of discourse originates in Jean-François Lyotard's definition of “the figural” in Discours, figure and Jean-Louis Galay's “Esquisse pour une théorie figurale du discours.”2

Prometheus Unbound is a figural text, not only to the extent that it is a reminder of the way in which language deflects and complicates the poetic project, but also insofar as it deflects language in order to launch the poetic project. Although the text cannot fully embody revolution (since as discourse it is necessarily constrained within a linguistic system), the Figural nevertheless functions as a force of resistance that inhabits the text and interferes with it. Superimposing alternative modes of expression on the order of the signifier, treating words as things or sound, the figural opens breaches in discourse.

I shall first concentrate on Act II, Scene 1, to see how the poetic project, sheltered in the space of discourse yet working against its logic, manifests its force in the intrusion of an unframed visual space within the frame of the text. I will then try to show how, in Act IV, music, emerging like a figural against the grain of discourse carries the revolutionary force of the poem with a specific sense of urgency not to stop and never to rest.


Prometheus Unbound has often been described as a “myth of language,” as the internalization of the quest romance and of the search for poetry that alone can redeem man from the Fall and from all forms of tyranny. Carol Jacobs, for instance, sees the text as “playing out in more or less theatrical ways the possibility of its own linguistic status” and “unbinding words.” Susan Brisman lays the emphasis on the “problem of voice in Prometheus Unbound” and analyses the drama as a series of conflicts about the nature of language in the poem.3 “Fallen and vanquished,” such is the Titan at the threshold of Act I (311), and such is also the state of Babelized language. Susan Hawk Brisman's analysis of the myth of Babel as the backdrop of Act I clearly demonstrates that Prometheus has to speak “before” and “beyond” language, “in spite” of the veil that separates the world from the word:

Names are there …
Suddenly fierce confusion fell from heaven …
This was the shadow of the truth I saw.

(I.648, 652, 655)

This passage delineates the central issue of a confused language caught in the veil that “fell from heaven,” covering up “names” by words. So “unveiling” becomes the goal of the Promethean quest, unveiling—that is to say “discovering” anew—the sacred watchwords of nature and casting off the rags that “Clasp” the thing (I.287) and “Clothe it in words” (I.375). All these images can only recall Wordsworth's “poisoned vestments read of in the stories of superstitious times, which had power to consume and alienate from his right mind the victim who put them on.”4 “Clasp,” “Clothe,” and “cling” (I.291): it is the prison-house of language that binds the text and Prometheus. Act II, Scene 1, which stages communication as its open theme, insists on the failure of words, even inspired words carried by the wind, to convey their message: “I am made the wind / Which fails beneath the music that I bear / Of thy most wordless converse” (II.i.50-52). The present escapes the nets of language: “the sphered sun had climbed / The sea … before / The printless air felt thy belated plumes” (II.i.32-34). Everything in the structure of the passage belies the possibility of giving, in the immediacy of liberated words, the presence of the world. The narration of the dreams, impeded by lapses of memory, misunderstanding, and impatience, seems to negate the very message of change they contain.

Yet, something in Prometheus Unbound resists the failure of signification and, in fact, requires that failure in order to appear: Prometheus Unbound opens the flatness of the space of signification to the depth of designation: suddenly the transparent text seems to be inhabited by ghosts that, albeit surreptitiously, broach it from the inside. In spite of the text, the present is “now.” “Now” pervades a text that denies its possibility.

“This is the season, this the day, the hour” (II.i.13): Act II, Scene 1, shows what the text cannot say. The text becomes the hic and nunc of deixis. As Lyotard says, “the deictic is not a simple value inside the system, but an element which, from the inside, refers to the outside.”5 Situated on the margins of discourse, “this” (line 13) and “now” introduce the world in the word. Because they are chosen neither arbitrarily in a chain of synonyms, nor by opposition to other signs in the chain, they express an immediate motivation between a referent and a sign, between the text and the context of a speaker. They exist only in an act of speech and introduce a chiastic continuity between a subject of perception and an object of perception. Such a chiasmus is in fact what Shelley calls “life and being”: “Each is at once the centre and the circumference; the point to which all things are referred, and the line in which all things are contained” (“On Life,” p. 476), which is very much akin to Merleau Ponty's notion of reciprocity between the seer and the visible.6 The seer is seen as much as seeing. In the space of the text the indispensable depth of perception is thus opened and the opacity of the body of the subject of perception ascertained. “Nothing exists but as it is perceived (“On Life,” p. 477). The act of speech is the continuation and the expression of the gesture of perception. In the scene of the dreams the gesture of designation becomes visible as “an electric life which burns within the words” (“Defence of Poetry,” p. 508).

Deixis is the anchoring point of the figural, because, regardless of dramatic action and plot, it demonstrates the immediate materiality of the signifier. Thus, the chiasmus of perception, although denied in the discourses, nonetheless crumples the whole of the text in a visual scene where the viewer is viewed, where “line through line [is] inwoven” (II.i.117) so as to muddle up communication. The scene as a chaismus shuffles the order of discourse and puts toward two processes that are characteristic of the dream work: condensation and displacement, which both take words literally, not as signs but as objects, in order to play with their volume as with a dough. The dream itself should be seen as a scandal in the text (I am using the proper meaning of the word scandal, a stumbling block that arrests our fluid reading). It is a jarring, intrusive element. Not included in the space of the text, since it is condensed in a gap and displaced in several narratives, it cannot be read as text. Originally dreamt in the gap between line 824 and line 825 in Act I, a gap visually inscribed in the punctuation, it is eradicated—as if not really part of the conversation—with the run-on line from Prometheus' “thou lovest” to Panthea's “Deeply in truth.” Condensed in a suspension mark, it will be reconstructed, spread out and flattened by the narratives of Act II, Scene 1. Thus, the dream dreamt once artificially becomes the dream dreamt thrice and displaced in a series of discourses. In its own parallel, irreducible logic the dream of liberation liberates its force before it can be related, as is suggested by the shift from shadow to shadow, in line 31, line 70 and line 113. The shadow is first Prometheus', then Panthea's and finally Asia's. But more fundamentally, between line 70 and line 114 the shadows of the two sisters already merge proleptically in the crisscrossing between “shadow—lift” and “lift—shadow” that anticipates figuratively the scene of hypnosis of lines 114-117 and draws the image of a mirror that absorbs in its depth a unique image, as destination and origin of the dream. One might even say that the dream expressed in spite of discourse is actualized at the intersection of the chiasmus, between lines 70 and 117, whereas discourse still fails to grasp it until line 118. It pierces through the very text that cannot account for it and screams in its silences. Thus pauses and silences, dashes and hyphens heighten the visible presence of the absentee. Shelley himself invites the contact between our eye and blanks in the text: “Every pause is filled with under-notes” (IV.190). Blanks and pauses are “awakening tones / Which pierce the sense and live within the soul” (IV.191-192). Blanks materialize the text's density. They do not signify and indeed they are, in Lyotard's terms, “The interstices in which signification disappears in order to give way to sense.”7 Thick and opaque, they participate in the revolution of the signifier.

Words, like blanks, are things. Not the things they’re supposed to represent in the logocentric illusion of a prelapsarian language, but things that unframe discourse, overflow its limits, thus introducing a mobile continuum that cannot be cut anywhere. This explains the complete dismantlement of linguistic unities that occurs in the course of the scene. The assumption that language is based on the principle of opposition is indeed undermined by the paronomastic condensation that turns all the “characters” in the dream into one and all the dreams into the expression of a unique presence: “I see a shade—a shape—’tis He, arrayed / In the soft light of his own smiles” (II.i.120-121). Shade and shape unite in one sound the dream that was (the vision of Prometheus) and the dream to be (that of Demogorgon). Both indeed are in turn He and therefore One, both shade and shape, both “rays” and “arrayed.” Thus the dream to come is the dream that was seen even before it could be told. The second dream in fact verbally delays what the first dream was visibly screaming: although it is a dream of anticipation, its content is essentially the word “follow.”

“Follow” is the belated, differed expression of “now,” the only way to write now. Yet “follow” proves to be not the failure of now, but the paradoxical achievement of prophecy in the laterality of the text. “Follow” exemplifies the way the figural works in the text: cutting the chain of sounds, it is disseminated and thus stops signifying in order to be reconfigured as pure energy. “Follow,” crystallized and solidified in the last part of the scene, is the free energy of liberated phonemes in the playful alliterations of lines 65-66 and the vertigo of lines 72-82: “soft,” “flowing,” “faint,” “forth,” “fire,” “flow,” “life,” “felt,” “like footsteps of far melody.” “Follow,” indeed, in disseminated phonemes, precedes its own inscription and concentrates within its exploded limits “flow,” the liberation of all language, thus anticipating the liquid fusion of Act IV. Now is both “follow” and “flow,” not in the linear flatness of the text but in the relief of its figural shadow: “in the depth of those beloved eyes / Still I saw, follow, follow” (II.i.160-161). In “the depth of those beloved eyes” “lines” are inwoven that weave—beneath, under, above, and around the letters-figures in which the present like an object is caught.

The whole of the drama seems to be the artificial elongation of an instant figured in a flash in little dissonances in the narrative of the dreams. Act III also, is a mere extension in discourse of the figural revolution achieved in the paradox of “follow” and more precisely in the dash that precedes it on line 140: “as the blue bells / Of Hyacinth tell Apollo's written grief— / O follow, follow!” (II.i.139-141). Apollo's grief “sounds” like a desperate chilly note alluding to the plight of every poet whose love relationship with the world can only be stamped in signs of loss. Yet, “ai,” which stands for dead Hyacinth and for the gap between “follow” and “now,” is also and above all the cry of despair of Jupiter, falling into oblivion (III.i.79). Once again, the legible and visible levels of the message seem to undo each other: inscribed in the letter of the text, the message fails to promote a presence and a present, but in a wound-like dash, the linguistic system tumbles and seems to be erased. The “written grief” turns into a visual triumph: Jupiter is implicitly eradicated in a dash, before the narration of the fall. The fall is already “now.”

The figural therefore is the intrusion of another time and another space within the structure of the sentence. Prometheus Unbound, then, might be seen as revolutionary precisely insofar as it subverts and exceeds the idea of a text and a certain conception of history. History cannot be seen as the succession of moments. A “sentence” is by definition a condemnation to temporal delay and dilution of the force behind discourse. Yet, a density, perceptible only accidentally, interrupts the flow of linguistic linearity, and introduces a mobile continuum which writing cannot account for. Although the narration of the dreams submits them to a process of selection and to a framing, the mechanisms of the dream work itself parasitically destroy the artificial framing of a representation that excludes the invisible extending beyond the realm of the signifier. The following quotation by Norman Bryson clearly illustrates the de-centering and unframing effect of the figural: “the present state of the object appearing as the flower is inhabited by its past as seed and its future as dust in a continuous motion of postponement whose effect is that the flower is never presently there any more than seed or dust are there.”8 In the same way, in the vision of the almond tree in Panthea's narrative (II.i.134-140), the force that compresses the text and explodes signification is radical impermanence. Figural temporality and the temporality of desire are by no means synonymous: the past and the future in the present annihilate any possibility of fulfillment and permanent presence. Behind the profile of the thing that appears in language, behind the concept of “almond tree,” the expression includes all the sum of the views possible, even those excluded by the speaker when he selected the signifiers on the linguistic chain. The “blossoms … blown down” (II.i.138) are, in the universal field of transformation, the surrounding envelope of invisibility excluded by the act of writing the sentence “the flower-infolding buds / Burst on yon lighting-blasted almond tree” (II.i.134-135). The framework of script is cut across by other terms that stand for everything outside its circumscribed enclosure.

Act II, Scene 1, does not communicate a series of dreams nor does it convey the impossibility of doing so. It demonstrates that speech and writing can never be reduced to being the instrumental agency of a code and that in the breaches opened by visible discrepancies between message and meaning, there lies poetry. And indeed in Prometheus Unbound one could go as far as to assert that “poetry cancels the poem” (Deguy), an idea which seems to be the logical outcome of what Rimbaud, not long after Shelley, calls “visionary” poetry: “poetry will not give the tempo of action, but will precede it.”9 “This is the season this the day, the hour” (II.i.13). Prometheus Unbound does not talk about revolution. It is poetry as revolution: “non verbis sed rebus,” not by words but by things. In Prometheus Unbound poetry—that is to say, the materiality of signifiers seen against the grain of the code—overflows the poem and, undoing the message, redefines poetry in its critical function. Poetry as “non verbis sed rebus” is clearly what the “wordless converse” of Act II, Scene 1, illustrates if only in the unexpected pun that indeed turns “the desart of our life” (line 12) into a “rebus,” a thing, an object of vision in the “before unapprehended relations” between the elements of the phonic chain. “Desart” is of course the desert of a life deprived of love, but it is also the desert of a world without art: “des-art,” a world that has to be redeemed from the dryness of signification by whatever can subvert the processes of nomination and categorization.


In his “Defence of Poetry” Shelley insists on the fact that the language of poets is “vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things, and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them, become through time signs for portions and classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts” (p. 482). The danger looming in the poem is its turning into a product rather than an endless process. Between “vitally” and “metaphorical” lies the whole question of poetry as tension. In the same way as a metaphor always runs the risk of being deadened into catachresis, the poem is threatened by fixity. Therefore, the poet is a prophet only in that “he beholds the future in the present” (p. 483), according to Shelley; that is to say, only insofar as his text is a constant renewal and fight against fossilized verbal systems.

Poetry as motion and continuous murmur is amply embodied by Demogorgon on the one hand and generalized in the “weav[ing of] the mystic measure” (line 77) in the music of Act IV on the other hand. Demogorgon is essentially figural in that he appears as the dark shadow that inhabits all the discourses and the poem as a discourse on figuration. Yeats, who did not like him, nonetheless clearly defines his essential dimension: “Demogorgon … was thrust there by that something which again and again forces him to balance the object of desire conceived as miraculous and superhuman with nightmare.” Counterbalancing the dream of unity, he is inscribed within the text as the Other of the text, inherent in it and yet different from it. As such, he calls up the very notion of difference: “something that stands out, yet, what it stands out against cannot be separated from it. Thus, a flash of lightning stands against the dark sky but must carry the dark sky with its own apparition.”10 If Demogorgon is shapeless, it is because he exists only as the disruptive force which prevents each discourse from developing into the expression of truth. He is the anamorphic potential misinterpretation contained in and yet exploding in turn Asia's historical discourse, or Jupiter's totalizing discourse, or Prometheus's poetic manifesto. His name is “eternity” and his cave stands “beside” that of Prometheus. He is not an oracle but a distorted echo that dislocates the source of the voice and blurs all notions of anteriority and authority: with “I spoke but as you speak” (II.iv.112) the echo precedes its source. He is the force that, in discourse, deflates discourse when “truth arises as that which is out of place.”11 In Prometheus Unbound, poetry displaces the poem as long as the voice remains “unspoken” and meaning unarrested.

Significantly, the open figurative strategy of the poem culminates in the encounter with Demogorgon, yet such a strategy is precisely invalidated by the shapeless, figureless being. Figuration is indeed the danger looming in the text which, staging its own creative process, shows the gradual triumph of human imagination. If we do move from a paralysed antithetical universe in Act I to the realm of metaphor and association according to the mighty law of poetic attraction, the climax in figuration is also an anti-climax. Demogorgon is the supreme figure, the goal of all poetic quest, the oxymoronic “rays of gloom” (II.iv.3). But the coincidencia oppositorum remains an anti-figure: “neither limb, / Nor form, nor outline” (II.iv.5-6). The image refuses the syntactical frame of a ready-made formula. Demogorgon, disrupting the strategy of figuration, disrupts the world of dream, the illusion of fulfillment and of unity which it is the deepest tendency of the poem to generate. The undermining of plenitude in the text is an essential condition of its revolutionary dimension. Poetry, unlike propaganda, does not grant satisfaction but is eternal and constant motion. Poetry lies “beside” the poem, opening ever-new possibilities and combinations against a process of closure inherent in language.

Act IV also symbolically starts with the tearing of a veil: “The figured curtain of sleep / Which covered our being and darkened our birth” (IV.58-59). Act IV offers a clear illustration of the way poetry cancels the poem, as it stages the emergence of another figural: music. In Act IV language seems to remain but it is redeemed by the intrusion of music that overflows the text and shuffles signs, “Kindling with mingled sounds, and many tones / Intelligible words and music wild” (IV.251-252).

Music is a challenge to the text, to intelligible words and to the process of representation. It works as an obstacle to legible and visible images and deconstructs recognizable images and forms. The mystic measure invades textual space as the figurelessness of Demogorgon pervades all discourses. Beneveniste's definition of rhythm clearly stresses the essential figurality of music: “It is the form of what has no organic consistency, it is arbitrary, improvised, momentary and modifiable form.”12

The tearing up of the figured curtain of fossilized forms by music reintroduces the temporality of impermanence and thrusts us back to the moment of emergence of matter not yet, or no longer, verbal. Music is form in composition before it settles into words, form suspended between the presentation of the object and the representation of the image. Panthea's description of the chariot of the Earth through which “music and light … Flow” (IV.240) clearly illustrates how music invalidates the process of representation: each orb becomes “intertranspicuous” (IV.246), unable to arrest the image in the transparence of a word. The transparence is denied by the contagion of the murmur (“inter”) as the orbs “whirl / Over each other with a thousand motions” (IV.246-247). The figural at work in music is “self-destroying swiftness” (IV.249) and “self-conflicting speed” (IV.259). It is also the self-cancellation of the poem invested by motion.

The tearing-up of the figured curtain, the de-composition of the poem, is indeed a second birth and a return to a paradoxical impermanent or eternal origin. It can only call to mind Schlegel's conception of poetic language as originary language: “we do not consider the origin of language as something that must be situated at a precise point in time, but rather in the sense that language never stops being born, in the same way as the creation of the world is constantly renewed.”13 The order of discourse can hardly hide the chaotic dynamism from which it emerges in motionless, artificial constructions. This clearly appears, for instance, in the sudden caesura at the point of syncopation between line 67 and 68: “We have felt the wand of Power, and leap— / As the billows leap in the morning beams!”

In the run-on line, as in all run-on lines, lies the essence of poetry as anti-syntax and distrust of the full stop of closure. “Leap,” cutting through the logic of the sentence, leaves us “Pinnacled dim in the intense inane” (III.iv.204) of a high-pitched “i”, totally suspended in the sudden present of sheer motion. From run-on line to verse to versura, “leap” is poetry as return, endless return and endless revolution.

Cancelling the order of syntax and the fixity of representation, rhythm participates in the poetic revolution: never to rest, never to stop. In the same way, complex rhymic patterns invade the text, challenging meaning and concept, introducing equivocation where certainty reigned. The rhyme, the crossing point between distinctiveness and indistinctiveness, between suturation and scission, opens up language to the event of parole, when parole confuses what language opposes. Thus, suddenly, “emotion” becomes “motion,” and “verse” becomes “universe.”

But more fundamentally, rhymes maintain the hesitation between distinctiveness and undistinctiveness, thus constantly deconstructing any construction and fossilization of sound into unity or opposition. In Act IV the rhyming patterns become figural when they work against the logic of message (“unite,” “Unite!” lines 79-80) in order to maintain total ambiguity between otherness and sameness, binding and unbinding, resembling and differing. Demogorgon's return reintroduces the figural dimension of rhyme as both paronomasia and distinctiveness. Demogorgon's moralizing speech indeed should be read as subversive: far from purely and simply preaching total commitment, it reintroduces laterally the possibility or necessity of deviation and disrupts the dream of fulfilled unity. Unbinding always also means binding something or somewhere else. Thus, between lines 554 and 567 Demogorgon reactivates the moment of suspension of choice, the total opening up of language when one remains poised and hesitating: does “spell” (line 555) mean charm or writing? does “springs” (line 560) mean only to leap or also springtime or water in motion? Does “folds” (line 561) mean to envelop or encircle (as in Act III.iv.103) or to stifle (as in III.iii.107). Does it allude to folds that in emotion unfold (as in “the many-folded Shell / Loosening its mighty music “(III.iii.80-81)? “Spell,” “Spring,” and “fold” throughout the text undo their own signification in endless deviations, resemantizations and shifts in meaning. Reappearing at the end of the drama, they deconstruct the very notion of an ending and reinscribe the theme of endless revolution, opening up ever-new possibilities in the text, un-arresting meaning.


Prometheus Unbound is indeed a revolutionary text but essentially so, as it tests its own freedom as transgression of the linguistic, thus unbinding not so much the titan as all the forces that the text cannot comprize. Poetry is therefore utopia: the text is not its place, it lies “beside” it, “unpent.” Staging its own laterality, Shelley's drama seems to call for a prospective reader—a reader that will see and hear in spite of the text and will not reduce reading to the extraction of meaningful contents. Bill Readings describes this practice as “resistance to the rule of the concept.”14 Reading as resistance thus completes writing as resistance to the rule of the signifier. If to compose is to bind and measure, then the emergence of the figural that unbinds and decomposes the text is for the poet and his reader the experience of extravagance and wandering when the text loses its linearity and boundaries. The figural is a sort of nomadism: the word itself hides and reveals the force that compresses it. Nomad, nomas and nomos. The nomad refuses a place to rest, a “nomas,” a home, for the “delightful exultation not to be confined,”15 but he also resists all laws and rules.

To conclude I quote Yves Bonnefoy, another poet calling for another type of reader:

poetry is what goes down and further down still in its own text, to the point where having lost itself in a nameless country it knows that the essential remains hidden and far away in unknown places. The text is not the ultimate space of poetry, it is only the road on which it turned on the previous hour, only its past. If someone then reads a poem beyond the boundaries of its text, will he or she betray it or will he or she be truer to its specific concern?


  1. Preface to Prometheus Unbound, in Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 135; hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  2. On the figural, see Laurent Jenny, La Parole singulière (Paris: Belin, 1990); Jean-Louis Galay, “Esquisse pour une théorie figural du discours,” Poétique, 20 (1974); Michel Deguy, “Vers une théorie generalisée de la figure,” Critique, 269 (1969); and Jean-François Lyotard, Discours, figure (Paris: Klincksieck, 1971). On Lyotard's Discours, figure, in turn, consult Bill Readings, Introducing Lyotard: Art and Politics (London: Routledge, 1991); Geoffrey Bennington, Lyotard: Writing and Event (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988); Peter Dews, Logics of Disintegration: Post-structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory (London: Verso, 1987); and Rodolphe Gasché, “Deconstruction as Criticism,” Glyph, 6 (1979), 177-216.

  3. Jacobs, Uncontainable Romanticism: Shelley, Brontë, Kleist (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), p. ix; Brisman, “‘Unsaying His High Language’: The Problem of Voice in Prometheus Unbound,Studies in Romanticism, 16 (1977), 51-86.

  4. Cynthia Chase, Decomposing Figures: Rhetorical Readings in the Romantic Tradition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), p. 86.

  5. Lyotard, Discours, figure, pp. 115-116.

  6. See Maurice Merleau Ponty, La prose de monde (Paris: Gallimard, 1969).

  7. Lyotard, Discours, figure, p. 116.

  8. Norman Bryson, “The Gaze in the Expanded Field,” in Vision and Visuality, ed. Hal Forster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988), p. 87.

  9. Deguy, “Vers une théorie generalisée de la figure,” Critique, 269 (1969).

  10. William Butler Yeats, “Prometheus Unbound,Essays, 1931-1936 (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1937), p. 56.

  11. Lyotard, Discours, figure, p. 46.

  12. Emile Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale, 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1966), 327-335.

  13. See Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Jean-Luc Nancy, L’Absolu litteraire: théorie de la littérature du romantisme allemand (Paris: Seuil, 1978), p. 358.

  14. Readings, Introducing Lyotard, p. xix.

  15. Yves Bonnefoy, “Lever ses yeux de son livre”, in Entretiens sur la poésie, 1972-1990 (Paris: Mercure de France, 1990), p. 239.

Shelley Wall (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: “Baffled Narrative in Julian and Maddalo,” in New Romanticisms: Theory and Critical Practice, University of Toronto Press, 1994, pp. 52-68.

[In the following essay, Wall focuses on the dynamics of narrative suppression in Shelley's poem Julian and Maddalo.]


I rode one evening with Count Maddalo
Upon the bank of land which breaks the flow
Of Adria towards Venice: a bare strand
Of hillocks, heaped from ever-shifting sand …
Is this …

(ll. 1-4, 7)

Thus begins Shelley's Julian and Maddalo. The dichotomy between Julian's simultaneous freedom of movement—on horseback with his powerful Byronic friend the count—and his situation at a point of interruption—on ‘the bank of land which breaks the flow / Of Adria towards Venice’—prefigures the poem's shifting narrative sands.

The poem's subtitle, ‘A Conversation,’ appears to refer to that held between Maddalo and Julian as they ride on the Lido. The ride and the conversation share a certain freedom of movement: ‘So, as we rode, we talked; and the swift thought, / Winging itself with laughter, lingered not, / But flew from brain to brain’ (ll. 28-30). The men speak ‘Of all that earth has been or yet may be, / All that vain men imagine or believe, / Or hope can paint or suffering may achieve’ (ll. 43-5). Julian, the narrator, argues for the boundless potential of the human spirit, finding evidence in the sublime expanses of the landscape and the sky. In this mood, he sings the Lido, yet his words contain within themselves a counter-argument, a suggestion that desire projects infinity onto what is in fact a narrow, abandoned space of wreckage and stunted growth; the Lido is

… an uninhabited sea-side,
Which the lone fisher, when his nets are dried,
Abandons; and no other object breaks
The waste, but one dwarf tree and some few stakes
Broken and unrepaired, and the tide makes
A narrow space of level sand thereon …
                                                                                          I love all waste
And solitary places; where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.

(ll. 7-12, 14-17)

The sunset sends Julian into further raptures, for in it he witnesses the apocalyptic marriage of heaven and earth ‘dissolved into one lake of fire’ (l. 81). At this point, Maddalo, countering Julian's Shelleyan idealism with Byronic gloom,1 points out a madhouse—‘a windowless, deformed and dreary pile’ (l. 101)—silhouetted against the setting sun. Human thoughts and desires, argues Maddalo, are like madmen clustering in mindless prayer around a ‘rent heart,’ and the soul is like a madhouse vesper-bell. Next morning, Julian renews the debate by pointing to Maddalo's daughter, an untrammelled infant, not self-enchained by ‘sick thoughts’ (l. 169). Their debate still undecided, they travel to the madhouse to observe one final exhibit, a maniac whom Maddalo is lodging there at his own expense. They enter the apartment of the Maniac (who never becomes aware of their presence) and eavesdrop as he launches into a possessed monologue.

Thus far, the narrative is structured as a series of gazes. Maddalo and Julian objectify and transform the world around them into a series of exempla in the service of a debate whose terms—idealism versus cynicism—appear to represent the poem's conceptual poles. This kind of scopic mastery—the mastery of the gaze—is of course an issue in feminist theory. Maddalo and Julian occupy the ‘masculine’ position of masterful subject—a stance duplicated in Julian's first-person narrative control2—while the daughter and the madhouse inmates (Maddalo's protége specifically) are allotted the ‘feminine’ position of object. The infant daughter does not speak,3 and the Maniac, although he speaks, cannot return the gaze, being unaware of his visitors' presence; neither daughter nor Maniac has any name beyond the generic one.

The style of this opening section is of a piece with the masterful stance of the protagonists: it is controlled, though informal, and marked by class affiliations. Shelley claimed to be attempting in this poem something ‘in a different style … a sermo pedestris way of treating human nature,’ employing ‘a certain familiar style of language to express the actual way in which people talk with each other whom education and a certain refinement of sentiment have placed above the use of vulgar idioms’ (Letters 2:196; 2:108). It is marked by ‘the easy familiarity of two articulate and literary men of aristocratic families’ (Brewer 128), with all the ‘gentlemanly’ virtues of politeness and urbanity that this implies. Kelvin Everest observes that ‘the style is interestingly problematic for a radical poet, for it involves the danger of acceding to the ideological implications of that familiar idiom. And there is a strong possibility that Shelley was fully alert to this problem in Julian and Maddalo, where the single most striking rhetorical effect of the poem is the violently contrasting idiom of the maniac's soliloquy, which is set against the gentlemanly discourse of Maddalo and Julian’ (79).

The Maniac's monologue is reproduced in the centre of the narrative. It retains the rhyming couplets of Julian's narrative but lapses completely from the ‘urbane’ style, consisting instead of short, broken paragraphs in which thought succeeds thought according to no clear logic.4 The Maniac is reputed to have gone mad after being abandoned by his lover; in the monologue he appears to address a number of absent women, or a number of aspects of the woman who has betrayed him. His manner shifts from moment to moment: he spoke, recalls Julian,

…—sometimes as one who wrote, and thought
His words might move some heart that heeded not,
If sent to distant lands: and then as one
Reproaching deeds never to be undone
With wondering self-compassion; then his speech
Was lost in grief, and then his words came each
Unmodulated, cold, expressionless,—
But that from one jarred accent you might guess
It was despair made them so uniform.

(ll. 286-94)

When the Maniac's monologue ends, his unannounced ‘guests’ return to Maddalo's palace, their debate forgotten; Julian soon leaves for London, and the Maniac appears no more.

A brief epilogue concludes the poem: Julian returns to Venice years later; and Maddalo is in Armenia, so that Julian is received by Maddalo's daughter, now grown up. Julian questions her about the Maniac; he learns that the lover returned, and the Maniac grew better, but that then the lover left again; the daughter is reluctant to tell more than that of his subsequent history. The conclusion of their interview, and of the poem, is this:

‘Ask me no more [says the daughter], but let the silent
Be closed and cered over their memory
As yon mute marble where their corpses lie.’
I urged and questioned still [resumes Julian], she told me how
All happened—but the cold world shall not know.

(ll. 613-17)

So the narrative culminates in a suppression of narrative. In his act of withholding, Julian aims, apparently, to protect the Maniac—the gossip will go no further; and yet there is something unsettling in the gesture, both in the violence of its rejection of the reader, and in the suggestion of hypocrisy in Julian's discretion, given that he has coerced the daughter, the original reticent narrator, into revealing the Maniac's history in the first place. It has been suggested that the poem's conclusion de-emphasizes the Maniac's story, chastening the over-curious reader.5 Yet the epilogue explicitly foregrounds the Maniac's story as an object of gossip. If the particulars of the Maniac's subsequent life and death are unimportant, the fact of his persistence as an object of scandal, rumour, and inquiry is not. By suppressing the Maniac's history, Julian in fact impresses the Maniac's curious power all the more firmly on the reader's awareness; his act of closure leaves the poem, at its ‘conclusion,’ radically open.

This gesture which doubles back upon itself, and the unsettling nature of the narrative's abrupt suspension, point to larger divisions opened up in the course of the poem's unfolding. Julian and Maddalo consists of two separate discourses inhabiting the same title: Julian's narrative, and the Maniac's monologue. By various strategies (including the co-optive power of first-person narration and the machinations of the Preface, to be described below), the poem invites the reader to accept Julian's as the primary discourse and to regard the Maniac's monologue as a kind of exemplary accessory, embedded in the host discourse simply to help the narrative along. By the same token, Maddalo and Julian—the titular, and the only named, characters—become the poem's protagonists, and the Maniac, even when he emerges as more than one of the legion of the emblematic mad, is officially granted no more than a supporting role.

And yet he exceeds this role, both within the represented world where Maddalo and Julian converse and at the level of narrative. Before their visit to the madhouse, the friends' talk is full of the semi-scientific language of demonstration and proof: the Maniac's ‘wild talk will show / How vain are [Julian's] aspiring theories,’ claims Maddalo, while Julian ‘hope[s] to prove the induction otherwise’ (ll. 200-1, 202). When the mad monologue draws to a close, however, the friends ‘we[ep] without shame,’ their argument ‘quite forgot’ (ll. 516, 520). And just as the spectacle of the Maniac disarms the debate and renders meaningless the language of logical argument, so the reproduction of his disconnected monologue within the poem breaks the urbane narrative's trajectory and seems to hasten the poem to its end. The narrated conversation leading up to the visit is protracted: 299 lines cover one evening and one day; after the visit, 106 lines cover a span of ‘many years’; the poem speeds to its truncated conclusion with a sort of desperation. Two distinct but corresponding ‘moments’ inform the poem: the fictional past in which the conversation and monologue take place, and the fictional present in which an older Julian recalls past events and reproduces the Maniac's words. If Julian finds it impossible, in his first encounter with the Maniac, to fit him to his own argument, he finds it equally impossible to assimilate the Maniac upon ‘revisiting’ him in recollection to write down his words. The Maniac consistently baffles attempts to ‘contain’ him, to reduce him to the status of objectified exhibit or reified speech.

The issue that concerns me in this paper is not Maddalo and Julian's debate between idealism and cynicism, but, rather, the subject position that this debate allots the Maniac, and the issues raised thereby of objectification, and of the use that ratiocentrism and androcentrism make of their professed others, madness and the feminine.6 In other words, what are the implications of Julian's masterful narrative stance, and what is it about the Maniac that seems to baffle this mastery?


Maddalo and Julian inhabit a world of connections. Shelley's Preface alerts us to their irreproachable family connections: ‘Count Maddalo is a Venetian nobleman of ancient family and of great fortune’; ‘Julian is an Englishman of good family’ (Preface, pp. 189, 190). They never fail to make their travel connections, either; they move freely from sight to sight assisted by inconspicuous attendants, and the sheer frequency of these instances is worth noting. Here are just a few:

Just where we had dismounted, the Count's men
Were waiting for us with the gondola
                                                                                          As thus I spoke
Servants announced the gondola, and we
Through the fast-falling rain and high-wrought sea
Sailed to the island where the madhouse stands
                                                                                          Having said
These words we called the keeper, and he led
To an apartment opening on the sea
                                                  … then we lingered not,
Although our argument was quite forgot,
But calling the attendants, went to dine
At Maddalo's …

(ll. 61-2, 211-14, 270-2, 519-22)

Temporal progression is signalled just as obsessively as spatial progression: the progress from the first evening, through sunset, to the next morning is meticulously marked, and of course there are temporal markers in the lines quoted above, in the referencing of movement to moments in the conversation.

The poem's Preface, too, is important in connecting the reader to the world of the poem: it is presented as the utterance of a fictional persona, corresponding neither to Shelley nor to Julian but bearing a class resemblance to both. The Preface consists of three paragraphs describing the poem's dramatis personae; these paragraphs decrease in length and specificity from Maddalo, to Julian, to the Maniac. The Preface-writer addresses the reader as a member of his own ‘relatively small class of the refined and educated’ capable of understanding Maddalo and Julian and their philosophical concerns (Brewer 129); he provides a quantity of physical and psychological information about the title characters and invites the reader to participate in his mild ironies. From the start, by means of the Preface, Maddalo and Julian's section of the poem appears to be a fairly ‘closed’ text, to adopt a term from reader-response theory; our understanding of their world and their debate operates within the defined set of social and philosophical meanings laid out by this initial guide.

The Maniac, by contrast, presents a scandalously open text; he inhabits a country for which no maps exist. Whereas the Preface-writer is acquainted with information about Maddalo and Julian beyond that available in Julian's narrative, concerning the Maniac he is as dependent as the reader on the information given in the poem—by Julian (on the basis of observation) and by Maddalo (on the basis of rumour). The Preface releases the Maniac to the reader's care with no guarantees. This is all it says:

Of the Maniac I can give no information. He seems, by his own account, to have been disappointed in love. He was evidently a very cultivated and amiable person when in his right senses. His story, told at length, might be like many other stories of the same kind: the unconnected exclamations of his agony will perhaps be found a sufficient comment for the text of every heart. (Preface, p. 190)

Thus, even before the poem begins, we have an intimation of the Maniac's potency. That he is cast as unconscious ‘commentator’ relegates him to a literally marginal role; at the same time, however, commentary's power to transform the text it glosses can be immense.

The Maniac's is a world of missed connections, disconnections. The madhouse stands on an island, its physical isolation emblematic of the segregation of madness beyond the mainland of reason. The Maniac is singing in an upper cell as Maddalo and Julian enter the madhouse courtyard; ‘fragments of most touching melody’ float down to them (l. 221). He occupies a present disconnected from the past; to Julian's inquiries about the Maniac's origins, Maddalo replies:

                                                            Of his sad history
I know but this: … he came
To Venice a dejected man, and fame
Said he was wealthy, or he had been so. …
… he was always talking in such sort
As you do—far more sadly—he seemed hurt,
Even as a man with his peculiar wrong,
To hear but of the oppression of the strong …
A lady came with him from France, and when
She left him and returned, he wandered then
About yon lonely isles of desert sand
Till he grew wild—he had no cash or land
Remaining …

(ll. 231-4, 236-9, 246-50)

Discussing their impressions of him later, the friends decide that ‘he had store / Of friends and fortune once … These were now lost’ (ll. 534-5, 537).

The Maniac's speech, too, is divorced from the familiar connectives of sequential utterance. Published versions of the poem, following Shelley's instructions,7 break the text of the monologue into sections separated by rows of dots—indicating breaks in the train of thought, and perhaps suggesting temporal pauses in the monologue's delivery. The community of speakers implied in conversation is also gone: the Maniac's interlocutors are absent phantoms, at times even the dead (ll. 384, 395, 445-6). Finally, the monologue is self-consuming; the Maniac complains of both an uncontrollable urge to expression and an equally powerful drive towards the silence and oblivion of death; his discourse seeks a point of self-annihilation:

                                                                                                    How vain
Are words! [he exclaims] I thought never to speak again,
Not even in secret,—not to my own heart—
But from my lips the unwilling accents start,
And from my pen the words flow as I write,
Dazzling my eyes with scalding tears … my sight
Is dim to see that charactered in vain
On this unfeeling leaf which burns the brain
And eats into it … blotting all things fair
And wise and good which time had written there.

(ll. 473-81)

In the overdetermined language of this passage, speech and writing are one; breath and ink become scalding tears; tears in turn become the acid in a corrosive writing that engraves itself on the brain—a destructive script that overwrites the benevolent inscriptions of memory. Commentators have seen the Maniac as representing ‘the poet’;8 Maddalo suggests that ‘Most wretched men / Are cradled into poetry by wrong, / They learn in suffering what they teach in song’ (ll. 544-6); and the monologue's radical mode of presentation—overheard by an unseen audience—is that conventionally associated with lyric. But if the Maniac represents a poet, he is a poet in whom the self-unbuilding properties of language come to the fore. If he resembles Prometheus—and this has also been suggested9—then he is a Beckettian Prometheus, subverting the structure of narrative authority only by virtue of the unspeakable impossibility of his situation. We might conceive of the Maniac's utterance in terms of a negative series of imbricated Chinese boxes—a sequence of negation within negation, as in his concluding words:

                                                                                                    I do but hide
Under these words, like embers, every spark
Of that which has consumed me—quick and dark
The grave is yawning … as its roof shall cover
My limbs with dust and worms under and over
So let Oblivion hide this grief … the air
Closes upon my accents, as despair
Upon my heart—let death upon despair!

(ll. 503-10)

Thus words function as instruments of obliteration and concealment, rather than providing the illumination Maddalo and Julian sought in first proposing to visit the madhouse. The conversational ideal confronts, in the speech of the Maniac, its demonic other. Rather than resembling dialogue, in which idea kindles idea in an intersubjective act of creative exchange, the Maniac's speech implodes upon itself. The Maniac feels the air ‘close … upon [his] accents,’ as if air baffled speech, rather than being the very breath and medium in which it lives.

It is no wonder, then, that curious disjunctions and elisions occur at the points where these worlds of ‘connection’ and ‘disconnection’ intersect, or, rather, approach each other and then fail to intersect. The Maniac's implosive world does not open out towards his observers; Maddalo and Julian's world defines itself by the exclusion of this ‘incoherent’ alterity. Julian, for example, claims to dream of ‘reclaiming’ the Maniac—

… I imagined that if day by day
I watched him, and but seldom went away,
And studied all the beatings of his heart
With zeal, as men study some stubborn art
For their own good, and could by patience find
An entrance to the caverns of his mind,
I might reclaim him from his dark estate

(ll. 568-74)

—yet this vaguely imperialistic dream of penetration remains curiously self-seeking—the study is for the student's ‘own good’; it maintains the Maniac in the position of object; it retains the dynamics of the gaze. Julian's plans, moreover, carry this proviso: ‘If I had been an unconnected man,’ he writes, ‘I, from this moment, should have formed some plan / Never to leave sweet Venice’ (ll. 547-9); ‘urged by [his] affairs,’ however, he returns to London (l. 582). Thus it is Julian's very connectedness that prevents his ‘connecting’ with the Maniac.

An interesting figure of connection arises in Maddalo and Julian's suggestion, quoted above, that the madman had ‘had store / Of friends and fortune once’ (ll. 534-5). The phrase ‘had store’ is significant in that it indicates the negative economy of madness: connectedness is a commodity; the onset of the Maniac's madness coincides with the disappearance, not only of his lover and of his store of relatives, but also of his ‘cash [and] land’ (l. 249). Maddalo and Julian commodify the destitute Maniac in making a literal ‘conversation piece’ out of his situation and his utterance. Although Maddalo might be said to have given something in exchange in providing for the Maniac's maintenance, nevertheless his and Julian's activity in listening to the monologue is described in terms of theft: ‘we stood behind / Stealing his accents from the envious wind / Unseen’ (ll. 296-8). Their eavesdropping, their voyeurism, are figured, moreover, as tangible theft—a physicality suggested also in the likening of the Maniac's speech to letter-writing, in Julian's observation that he speaks ‘sometimes as one who wrote, and thought / his words might move some heart that heeded not, / If sent to distant lands’ (ll. 286-9). In eavesdropping as they do, Maddalo and Julian effectively intercept and open the Maniac's mail, an epistolary discourse which, like Poe's purloined letter, has black-market value. In purveying the Maniac's speech as part of his own narrative, Julian packages and sells the reader something that is not really his to give.


The poem raises this question: how to deal with such a disconnected person, severed from lover, family, property, and, above all, bankrupt in the economy of reason? It is impossible that the scandal of his madness should be left at large. Maddalo recounts the story of the Maniac's incarceration: when his lover left him

… he wandered then
About yon lonely isles of desert sand
Till he grew wild—he had no cash or land
Remaining,—the police had brought him here—
Some fancy took him and he would not bear
Removal; so I fitted up for him
Those rooms beside the sea, to please his whim,
And sent him busts and books and urns for flowers,
Which had adorned his life in happier hours,
And instruments of music.

(ll. 247-56)

Note the rapid elision, in this account, of the role of ‘the police.’10 The Maniac immediately learns to love his captivity; then Maddalo domesticates the situation by providing aesthetic amenities, and thus what begins as an episode of police discipline concludes in a genteel household scene. This movement towards domestication reflects a movement within the poem to align the Maniac—and his threatening irrationality—with the feminine. As Alice Jardine notes, ‘The space “outside of” the conscious subject has always connoted the feminine in the history of Western thought—and any movement into alterity is a movement into that female space’ (114-15). The Maniac in Shelley's poem is male yet occupies a number of subject positions coded as female. Maddalo implies that an overly acute sense of political injustice initially made the Maniac ‘a dejected man’ poised on the verge of insanity; in this way, he fits the type of male melancholia; but his madness has sexual origins as well—an attribute of female hysteria. Like the knight in Keats's ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci,’ the Maniac is placed in a traditionally female subject position by being seduced, betrayed, and then abandoned. In adopting epistolary strategies (‘sp[eaking] as one who wr[ites]’ [l. 286]), the Maniac joins a line of letter-writing heroines—from those of Ovid's Heroides to Abelard's Eloisa—who have been, in the words of a theorist of epistolary genres, ‘literally exiled or imprisoned or metaphorically “shut up”—confined, cloistered, silenced,’ their ‘discourses of desire … repressed’ (Kauffman 20). He is further feminized when Maddalo ‘espouses’ his cause and turns his madhouse cell into a pleasant home which, nevertheless, he cannot leave. Thus the Maniac's confinement by police is quickly assimilated to culturally acceptable images of female domestication and confinement. In this way his incarceration is ‘naturalized’—that is, its strangeness is made to seem unremarkable, and therefore escapes questioning.11

Given the Maniac's feminized subject position, it is surprising that similarities between the Maniac and Maddalo's model daughter have not been more often remarked. At least three separate moments of speech are represented in the poem subtitled ‘A Conversation’: the initial ‘urbane’ conversation; the anti-conversation, in which the Maniac addresses phantom interlocutors and the invisible Maddalo and Julian ‘steal’ his words from the sidelines; and Julian's conversation with Maddalo's daughter in the epilogue. In this last conversation, both parties speak—Julian truly ‘visits’ with the daughter, as he did not in his so-called ‘visit’ to the Maniac; and yet this conversation does not replicate the free exchange represented in the initial scene between Maddalo and Julian, where ‘swift thought[s]’ fly ‘from brain to brain’ (ll. 28, 30). Julian's final visit, like his visit to the Maniac, devolves into a one-way flow of goods, replicating the economy of voyeurism. The daughter gives up the secret she has in keeping from the Maniac and his lover, and Julian absorbs it like an unreflective surface.

The Maniac and the daughter are initially introduced to the reader as competing examples, the ridiculous and the sublime; while the Maniac lives in a state of bondage and blindness, the daughter is ‘a wonder of this earth, / Where there is little of transcendent worth,— / Like one of Shakespeare's women’ (ll. 590-2). Yet Maniac and daughter become allies, even doubles; they share at first the role of nameless object; later, the daughter becomes custodian of the Maniac's story. Her plea to ‘let the silent years / Be closed and cered over their memory / As yon mute marble where their corpses lie’ (ll. 613-15) seems to imply, in her curious use of the word ‘yon,’ that she lives within view of the lovers' tombs. Hers is figured as a world separate from the ‘real’ world of her father and his acquaintance—it is the world of literary representations, as Julian's reference to Shakespeare implies. As the woman who remains constant and stationary in the home while men like her father and Julian travel the globe, she represents the ideal of female confinement which the Maniac's domestication mimics.


Julian's is the ‘host’ discourse, in which the Maniac's discourse is embedded as an exemplary object. In becoming ‘guests’ of the Maniac, however—in making him their unwitting ‘host’—Maddalo and Julian perform an act of reversal that lays them open to subversion. In attempting to consume madness (as a conversation piece) without becoming infected by a kind of madness themselves—in attempting to represent the alterity of mad discourse without altering the terms of rational narrative—Maddalo and Julian manifest what Foucault calls ‘that other form of madness, by which men, in an act of sovereign reason, confine their neighbours, and communicate and recognize each other through the merciless language of non-madness … that “other form” which relegates Reason and Madness to one side or the other of its action as things henceforth external, deaf to all exchange, and as though dead to one another’ (ix).

The madhouse visit is supposed to answer the questions raised in Maddalo and Julian's conversation; instead, it puts into question the very terms on which the initial argument is erected.12 Even before the friends enter the madhouse, we know that they will not find what they are looking for. Here is Maddalo's initial ‘reading’ of the madhouse when it appears against the sunset:

‘… such … is our mortality,
And this must be the emblem and the sign
Of what should be eternal and divine!—
And like that black and dreary bell, the soul,
Hung in a heaven-illumined tower, must toll
Our thoughts and our desires to meet below
Round the rent heart and pray—as madmen do
For what? they know not,—till the night of death
As sunset that strange vision, severeth
Our memory from itself, and us from all
We sought and yet were baffled.’

(ll. 120-9)

In a perverse way, the failure of Maddalo and Julian's quest attests to the success of Maddalo's interpretation. In his emblematic reading, the madhouse they appeal to stands at the point where searches are defeated, the very sign of bafflement. The Maniac literally inhabits this sign; he signals the fragmented self, self-unseeing; what illumination, then, can be hoped for from him?

Julian and Maddalo can be, and has been, read as a critique of Julian as narrator, with the implication that he represents certain aspects of Shelley himself. This critique is focused at one level on Julian as a dramatic character who lacks self-awareness, who does not learn anything in the course of the poem, whose theories fail to coincide with his actions. At another level, as Kelvin Everest has noted, the critique is directed at Julian, not only as an individual, but as a member of Shelley's own social class—a class whose hegemony Shelley repudiated, and yet certain of whose values had formed him, and inform his poetry.13

This aspect of Shelley's critique extends, I would suggest, to the very ideology of framing that has seen the Maniac's soliloquy embedded in the urbane frame of Maddalo and Julian's gentlemanly conversation. Julian's narrative re-enacts, at the level of discourse, the confinement of the Maniac. Just as the police arrest the wandering Maniac and place him within walls, so Julian attempts to contain the Maniac's ‘unconnected exclamations’ within the reasonable limits of his own narrative. Conversely, the Maniac's speech enacts, at the level of discourse, a thwarting of narrative that corresponds to the emotional and intellectual confusion he evokes in Maddalo and Julian; this mock-lyric, mock-epistolary monologue, that is, refuses assimilation into the genre of urbane conversation in which it appears.

The Maniac represents the disenfranchised ‘others’ who inhabit Maddalo and Julian's world. He is to them as unreason is to reason, as feminine is to masculine, as vagrancy is to established institutions—the first term subjected to definition by the second term, yet exercising a dangerous power of subversion. The Maniac and his utterance represent the negation of the terms on which Maddalo and Julian's conversation depends for its very existence; Julian's ultimate suppression of the Maniac's history, although represented as both a protective and a tediumsaving gesture, is at the same time a second narrative attempt to ‘confine’ the Maniac, he and his discourse having once already exceeded the container that was prepared to receive them. And yet this act of closure merely opens the poem up more radically than ever; the Maniac and his story are consigned to the oblivion and silence of the tomb, to use one of the daughter's final figures, but they are also, by the same gesture, all the more deeply engraved.


  1. For a discussion of biographical explications of the poem prior to 1963, see G. M. Matthews 57-61.

  2. That is, Julian's is the primary ‘point of view.’ Beth Newman notes the pervasive presence of ‘visual metaphors’ in narratology. She writes: ‘Such terms implicitly invoke a gaze: a look that the subject(s) whose perceptions organize the story direct at the characters and acts represented.’ Newman cites E. Ann Kaplan's statement that ‘the gaze is not necessarily male (literally), but to own and activate the gaze, given our language and the structure of the unconscious, is to be in the “masculine” position,’ and notes that ‘this gaze in turn raises issues important for feminist criticism’ (1029).

  3. She does, however, have eyes full of ‘deep meaning’ (l. 149)—a gaze of her own, prefiguring her emergence in the epilogue as a narrator in her own right (a right granted and then denied).

  4. Which is not to say that the Maniac's monologue is ‘incoherent,’ but, rather, that it deviates from standards of ‘coherence’ implied in the narrative that frames it.

  5. For example, James L. Hill reads the poem's conclusion as ‘an admonition to make us consider the poem as more than a mere story’; ‘a clue to direct the attention of the serious reader toward finding the conceptual kernel embodied in the narrative’ (84).

  6. For ‘post-biographical’ readings of the poem, see: G. M. Matthews, ‘“Julian and Maddalo”: The Draft and the Meaning’; James L. Hill, ‘Dramatic Structure in Shelley's “Julian and Maddalo”’; Earl R. Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading; Bernard A. Hirsch, ‘“A Want of That True Theory”: “Julian and Maddalo” as Dramatic Monologue’; Vincent Newey, ‘The Shelleyan Psycho-Drama: “Julian and Maddalo”’; Kelvin Everest, ‘Shelley's Doubles: An Approach to Julian and Maddalo’; Ronald Tetrault, The Poetry of Life: Shelley and Literary Form; Tracy Ware, ‘Problems of Interpretation and Humanism in “Julian and Maddalo”’; William D. Brewer, ‘Questions without Answers: The Conversational Style of “Julian and Maddalo.”’

  7. Shelley writes to Charles Ollier, 14 May 1820: ‘If you print “Julian and Maddalo,” I wish it to be printed in some unostentatious form … and exactly in the manner in which I send it’ (Letters 2:196).

  8. For example, G.M. Matthews asserts that the Maniac ‘must typify the situation of the poet’ (75). Bernard A. Hirsch, too, sees the Maniac as consistent with a conception of the poet expressed throughout Shelley's work (24). Kelvin Everest relates the issue of the poet to social critique, suggesting that the poem presents ‘Julian's creative, “poetic” potential as frozen within his quiescent commitment to the manner of a repressive and repressed dominant social group. The figure of the maniac may then emerge in the poem as the externalized representation of this buried poetic potential in Julian, a potential tragically unmediated for any audience and thus possessing the aspect of a tragic incoherence’ (80). Tracy Ware has seen the Maniac more recently as representing a misguided conception of poetry ‘obviously at odds with Shelley's own theory, as expressed in “A Defense of Poetry” and elsewhere’ (120).

  9. ‘[T]he Maniac is a sermo pedestris kind of Prometheus, written down to the domestic level’ (Matthews 74).

  10. ‘In the draft of lines 249-50, the Maniac is brought to the madhouse first by “soldiers,” next by “watchmen,” and ultimately by “the police”’ (Matthews 82).

  11. His speech is naturalized as well. Julian not only frames it as an element in his own narrative; he also fits it to the rhyme and metre of the host discourse, although he claims that the Maniac's words were not ‘in measure’ (l. 542), and that he has reproduced the monologue verbatim (ll. 298-9).

  12. We might refer here to Julia Kristeva's assertion that ‘in a culture where the speaking subjects are conceived of as masters of their speech, they have what is called a “phallic” position. The fragmentation of language in a text calls into question the very posture of this mastery’ (165).

  13. Julian is one of ‘Shelley's poetic doubles’ who ‘characteristically represent conditions of limited or misdirected social awareness’ (Everest 68).

All references are to Percy Bysshe Shelley, Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, corrected by G.M. Matthews (1970; London: Oxford UP, 1975), and to The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964).

Works Cited

Brewer, William D. ‘Questions without Answers: The Conversational Style of “Julian and Maddalo.”’ Keats-Shelley Journal 38 (1989): 127-44.

Everest, Kelvin. ‘Shelley's Doubles: An Approach to Julian and Maddalo.Shelley Revalued: Essays from the Gregynog Conference. Ed. Kelvin Everest. Leicester: Leicester UP, 1983. 63-88.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Random House, 1965.

Hill, James L. ‘Dramatic Structure in Shelley's “Julian and Maddalo.”’ ELH 35 (1968): 84-93.

Hirsch, Bernard A. ‘“A Want of That True Theory”: “Julian and Maddalo” as Dramatic Monologue.’ Studies in Romanticism 17 (1978): 13-34.

Jardine, Alice A. Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1985.

Kauffman, Linda S. Discourses of Desire: Gender, Genre, and Epistolary Fictions. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986.

Kristeva, Julia. ‘Oscillation between Power and Denial.’ New French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. New York: Schocken, 1981. 165-7.

Matthews, G.M. ‘“Julian and Maddalo”: The Draft and the Meaning.’ Studia Neophilologica 35 (1963): 57-84.

Newey, Vincent. ‘The Shelleyan Psycho-Drama: “Julian and Maddalo.”’ Essays on Shelley. Ed. Miriam Allott. Totowa: Barnes and Noble, 1982. 71-104.

Newman, Beth. ‘“The Situation of the Looker-On”: Gender, Narration, and Gaze in Wuthering Heights.PMLA 105 (1990): 1029-41.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ed. Frederick L. Jones. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1964.

———Poetical Works. Ed. Thomas Hutchinson, corrected by G. M. Matthews. 1970. London: Oxford UP, 1975.

Tetrault, Ronald. The Poetry of Life: Shelley and Literary Form. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1987.

Ware, Tracy. ‘Problems of Interpretation and Humanism in “Julian and Maddalo.”’ Philological Quarterly 66.1 (1987): 109-25.

Wasserman, Earl R. Shelley: A Critical Reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1971.

Barry Magarian (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “The Indeterminacy of Shelley's Adonais: Liberation and Destruction,” in The Keats-Shelley Review, No. 9, Spring, 1995, pp. 15-36.

[In the following essay, Magarian analyzes Adonais, and considers its ambivalent confrontation with the problem of death.]

Adonias's (1821) treatment of death makes the poem peculiarly provisional in terms of its emotional and intellectual outlook. The subject of death is initially one that fosters a mood of consolatory lamentation. It ends by precipitating and pressing forward a view of imaginative and spiritual liberation. The latter view is intimately connected with the glimpse the poem offers at the end of a higher vision that apparently signals a harmonious union with Adonais while also suggesting a demonic force that, in itself, is at odds with harmony. Such duality, both in the fact of the changing perceptions of death that the poem offers, and in the simultaneously harmonious and demonic vision of life beyond the grave, accounts for the poem's difficulty. The poem, like all pastoral elegies, begins by grieving for the loss of a life but ends, unlike other elegies, by grieving for life itself and insisting on the need to get beyond its distorting veil (‘Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, / Stains the white radiance of Eternity’ (462-3)). It, like The Triumph of Life (1822), conveys a sense of life as the progenitor of a process of victimization and disfiguration. The poem is indeterminate because it vividly recreates this sense of life as a cul de sac that stifles, as opposed to enlarges, imaginative and spiritual possibilities, while suggesting a solution—an entry into a higher realm—that may be merely an act of pragmatic escapism. Adonais strains to reach toward a solution to the problem of loss and bereavement. Such straining lifts the poem into realms of the imagination, while also confronting both Shelley and the reader with a sceptical and comfortless view of the problem of death.

As Christine Gallant puts it, ‘The literary convention [of the pastoral elegy] that is intended to help the poet transcend mortal grief is at odds with Shelley's realisation of it in this poem.’1 Shelley takes the convention in hand at the start of the poem but, by its end, his incorporation into it of both personal and metaphysical elements practically transforms the genre of the pastoral elegy into something that is unrecognisable. The work closest to Shelley's in this respect is Milton's Lycidas (1638) which similarly unites the universal and personal, consolatory and elatory. However, Milton's espousal of Christian theology is absent in Adonais. Shelley replaces it with an agnostic belief in immortality that is wilfully called into being and may be both a pragmatic means of escaping life's horrors and a gateway to a realm of enlarged sensibilities. Whereas Milton's poem has about it the simplicity of faith, Shelley's is characterised by the rhetoric of intellectual stoicism.

Richard Holmes thinks that the strain created by this reinterpretation of genre is too great: ‘The attempt to combine overwhelming personal feelings with the high, marmoreal style of a public monument did not succeed.’2 Holmes's view is an understandable one to take and raises the question whether Adonais is a poem whose formal success may be dubious but whose emotional content is compelling enough to overcome such dubiousness. To some extent the poem's power lies in the fact that, especially in the latter section of the poem (stanzas 39 onwards), it struggles to contain the vehemence of Shelley's sentiments. The Spenserian stanza's courtly origins are overshadowed by the greater tug of an emotional compulsion. By the end the poem drives towards an emotional honesty that will not allow itself to be reined in and reaches its furthest pitch of intensity while suggesting the precariousness with which such honesty prevails. In the last third of the poem Shelley's handling of the Spenserian stanza allows for a greater transparency to emerge: the formal elements of mourning are left behind. By ‘transparency’ I mean here a more compelling emotional energy.

Keats's death was the immediate trigger to the writing of the poem. The enduring legacy of Keats's poetry is acknowledged by the various allusions to it which serve the function of suggesting Keats's literary presence and this, in turn, parallels the gradual articulation of the fact of his presence in nature later on in the poem. The volume of 1820 entitled Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and other poems has a prominent place in Shelley's mind. The poems in this volume were the ones most admired by Shelley.

In Ross Woodman's words, Adonais ‘concerns the plight of the visionary in a society controlled by tyrannical forces’.3 Shelley felt himself to be such a figure and consequently the writing of the poem provided an opportunity to mourn his own, as well as Keats's fate.

The personal edge to the work is foreshadowed in early drafts of the Preface, later cancelled by Shelley on the advice of John Taaffe.4 Here Shelley self-deceptively tries to make nonchalant his own disappointment with the way in which he has been received by the literary establishment: ‘I will allow myself a first and last word on the subject of calumny as it relates to me.’5 Shelley also paints a picture of a fatalistic reclusiveness that has been forced upon him: ‘As a man, I shrink from notice and regard; the ebb and flow of the world vexes me; I desire to be left in peace.’6 A passage such as this might have been the precursor of the passage in the actual Preface that alludes Ode to a Nightingale (1820): ‘It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.’7 This kind of detached abandon is also reflected in several of Shelley's letters from the period of composition (which was, according to Reiman and Powers, between April and July 1821.8) Implicit in the following extract is the sense of death as release: ‘it would be one subject less for regret, to me, if I could consider my death as no irremediable misfortune to you’. (To Claire Clairmont,? 14 May 1821)9 The last two extracts point to Adonais's obsession with death as a means with which to escape ‘the ebb and flow of the world’ (from the cancelled Preface10), or, in the poem's terms, ‘the contagion of the world's slow stain’. (356) This concentration on death leads, in Richard Holmes's view, to a problem: ‘The poem seeks to celebrate the indestructible life of the creative spirit, in art and in nature; yet its personal drive and its most intense images tend towards consummation and death.’11 This, however, is an oversimplified view in that it fails to take into account the poem's altering conceptions of death. It is, after all, the transformation of the perception of death from an initial image of destructiveness to one of liberation undercut by a different kind of destructiveness—that of wilful abandon to the elements—which gives the poem its power.

Another difficulty with the poem is whether it proceeds in a linear fashion. Is Shelley's awareness of his ending apparent at the start of the poem, and if it is, does that not make the sense of the poem as a voyage of discovery, in some way, redundant? Ronald Tetreault's comments are illuminating, in this regard: ‘Regarding the poem as a linear progression clearly privileges the climax over the opening situation, but viewing the poem as a whole on subsequent readings reveals the artfulness of such a strategy.’12 It is important to bear in mind that Shelley's poem can only give the illusion of happening in time. By virtue of the fact that it is so carefully wrought and orchestrated it immediately suggests a painstaking artifice and completedness that has no equivalent in real time and, by implication, real life. The poem exists as a whole and should be read as such, with an awareness of its ongoing and fluid structure. This position has been carefully and comprehensively articulated by Earl Wasserman.13 His main argument is that Adonais proceeds by virtue of the fact that each of its movements provide a successive redefinition of the central concerns and themes of what has gone before so that the poem only comes into its own right by its end, at which time it has been fitted into a wider thematic and imaginative context. This argument illustrates how the poem must be read both with an awareness of its whole structure—so much of a piece is the poem—but also with a sense of its ongoing fluidity. Like Adonais himself who is continually being redefined and transmuted into other reincarnations, the poem is also moulding itself into successive realisations of its own meaning. The movement by which these various modes are effected is very carefully wrought. Adonais adheres to the formal precision of the pastoral elegy and wants to impose strict order on the chaos of grief. However, the poem's emotion is eventually of a kind that is more heartfelt and acute than formal and reserved and this signals a radical departure from, say, the strictly impersonal elegies of Bion and Moschus. The final third of the poem is a display of rhetorical rapture that suggests that the poet has glimpsed into a world whose engulfingness goes hand in hand with such rapture.

Shelley not only had Lycidas in mind but also Bion and Moschus's elegies, though their augustness is remoulded into a tone that mingles the delicate poise of mourning with the exultant ring of declamation. Such malleability of tone allows for the argument that death is preferable to life to be held in suspension, as it is in this passage from Shelley's Essay on the Punishment of Death (1820): ‘whether death is good or evil, a punishment or a reward, or whether it be wholly indifferent, no man can take upon himself to assert.’14Adonais takes the sense of unity pinpointed here and channels it into a poetically fruitful direction. What impresses about the poem is not only its assertions of belief and knowledge but also its intimations of what is only half glimpsed and understood.


The opening of the poem wavers between consolation and despair, between a ruthless assertion of reality and an attempt to come to terms with it. The first lines—practically a direct echo of Shelley's own translation of Bion's Lament for Adonis—convey both grief and an inability to shape the contours of that grief:

I weep for Adonais—he is dead!
O, weep for Adonais! though our tears
Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!


The mute tone is in sharp contrast to the highly emotive Preface. The first two lines, in particular, with their emphasis on repetition, suggest an attempt to be eloquent that has been broken. The plain fact of the limits of human endeavour is announced immediately—the tears do not ‘thaw the frost’, although we might expect them to, in spite of the fact that tears, insubstantial and slight, would be ineffectual alongside the robust and static ‘frost.’ The admission of human failing makes the lament the more powerful.

Angela Leighton sees the lines as representative of one of the difficulties of the poem and of the genre as a whole—whether or not the careful artificiality of the pastoral elegy can really do justice to a quality of grief that must necessarily contradict artifice since such grief would stand on the threshold of silence, rather than provide an occasion for rhetorical eloquence: ‘These formulaic first lines of the poem express a “leisure for fiction” [part of a phrase that Dr. Johnson used to describe Milton's Lycidas15], which is in antithesis to their claim to represent weeping.’16 Leighton claims that ‘Shelley's elegy admits the fact that to write is to forgo the real nature of grief’, and that the language the poem employs is, because of an awareness of the loss that the act of writing denotes—a loss that stems from the absence of the subject that it is describing—one that is ‘aware of its own deceptions and ornamentations.’17 Leighton's observations about the function of language in the poem place it within a framework that points to the extent of Shelley's artistic self-consciousness. Though the poem is, on one level, a rhetorical and elaborate work that is distanced from the complexity of the reality that lies beyond the scope of such rhetoric, it is also, on another level, a vivid apprehension of a core of ambiguity that cannot lie comfortably within the apparatus of its own rhetoric. Is Adonais (Keats), in entering the higher realm that the poem describes, merely abandoning himself to the elements of nature in a pragmatic act of escapism, or is such an act a consciously meditated means of enlarging his own spirituality? This ambiguity transmits itself as much through the self-awareness that Leighton describes as through the poem's reluctance to comment on the meaning of such self-awareness.

The first three stanzas of the poem are very elaborately punctuated. The verse is not allowed to flow, instead it starts and stops tortuously, each line slowly arriving at a new realisation of the extent of suffering and each stanza falling into place as a self-contained unit of meaning. The first stanza begins with a realisation that is exclamatory; the second moves to a mode of questioning and the third returns to exclamatory realisation and includes an imperative which signals something like real urgency (‘Wake, melancholy Mother, wake and weep!’ (20)). The final three lines of the stanza are weighted by the presence of parallel phrases:

                    oh, dream not that the amorous Deep
          Will yet restore him to the vital air;
Death feeds on his mute voice, and laughs at our despair.


‘Amorous Deep’ is juxtaposed with the ‘vital air’ and the Miltonic echo (compare ‘remorseless deep’ from Lycidas (50))18 tells the reader to read the passage with both an historical awareness, as if the ‘Deep’ has always engulfed its victims from Milton's time down to Shelley's, and also with an awareness of how Milton's carefully resonant phraseology informs the language of Adonais. The last line rounds off the stanza in a stoical manner. In the last third of the poem this deliberative style will be replaced by a more improvisational fluidity. The style of the first two thirds of Adonais suggests the weightedness of life, the way it drags people down, while the style of the last third suggests the levity of death and the freedom that it offers—a view that is, so to speak, retrospective and only makes sense when the transformation in the views taken of life and death is completely effected by line 465.

These opening stanzas remain detached in terms of their emotional content—the depiction of death as ‘Kingly Death’ and ‘White Death’ (55 and 66) lends the verse an air of allegorical abstraction. Shelley here is somewhat subservient to the genre's trappings and conventions. Certain metaphors do assume a life of their own, however, by presenting the reader with a residue of the impalpable: ‘as with no stain / She faded, like a cloud which had outwept its rain.’ (89-90). The cloud that outweeps its rain is an image that reverses expectations in the reader's mind in that it makes explicit what is normally only implicit: that a cloud holds water. Shelley is very particular about the way in which he wants nature to mourn. In a similar instance of the use of simile, meaning here is muffled rather than furthered:

          And, as a dying meteor stains a wreath
          Of moonlight vapour, which the cold night clips,
It flushed through his pale limbs, and past to its eclipse.


The lines are characterised by the kind of self-awareness that Leighton talks about; they also impel the reader to collaborate with the poet and ask us to be aware of the fact of the poem's imaginative realm, a realm that houses fictions that have been carefully cultivated. The words ‘stain’, ‘wreath’, and ‘vapour’ all work to give the poetry an air of exactitude that is paradoxically countered by the nonchalant manner in which the lines flow. Such exactness is disarming in that it offers the reader an image to connect with which only manages to let meaning regress into intangibility. The vapour is ‘clipped’—both embraced and cut off—which suggests the manner in which Keats's life has been cut off by being embraced. This in turn points to the poem's more fundamental ambiguity; namely, did Keats have to die in order to experience this embrace? In a similar manner, Keats can only become emerged within the ‘One Life’ by being absent from an earthly existence. This paradox parallels the sense of Shelley's words, in the poem, as being acutely aware of their representational status; the language insists on its own surrogate-like quality and is at best only a substitute for the experience that it attempts to convey. Metaphors like the one developed in lines 106 to 108, by calling attention to a mode of imaginative intricacy, reflect the poem's awareness of its own devices and configurations. Such self-consciousness becomes a comment by the poem on its own inadequacy.


In Keats's ‘To Autumn’ (1820) nature is painted in terms that seem to denote a harmonious fertility—perhaps the very essence of the natural harmony that has been disrupted by the poet's death in Adonais:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
          Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
          With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
          And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core …


Shelley's allusion to the poem, in lines 116-117 (as pointed out by Reiman and Powers in their edition of the poetry and prose20), signals the elegist's awareness of Keats's poetic legacy. In the lines quoted above the personification of nature (the sun is referred to as ‘him’) points to a diversity of natural fruitfulness: it is as if the season of Autumn and the sun are related to each other as human beings are related as friends. In the opening lines Keats explores the potential for natural celebration and a fertility that resides in ease and peacefulness. The natural world of Adonais, on the other hand, only has the capacity to represent this kind of affirmation at certain favourable moments (for example in stanza 19). The entry of Adonais into nature suggests another poem by Keats, Ode to a Nightingale, in which a desire for an imperceptible but alluring oblivion is drawn:

O for a beaker full of the warm South,
          Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
                    With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
                              And purple-stained mouth,
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
          And with thee fade away into the forest dim …


The last line is seductively insistent with its gentle alliteration and the positioning of ‘dim’ at the end. The personal, intimate style of these lines, addressed as they are to the nightingale, suggests the very provisionality of desire and wish fulfilment. In Adonais nature's presence comes across more assertively:

He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night's sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known
In darkness and in light, from herb and stone …


The lines impress upon the reader the broad-rangingness of Adonais's presence but a note of contrivance also creeps into the poetry. The sense of ‘listing’ in the last two lines is too methodical to be simply joyous. This gives the poetry a feel that is at odds with, say, the opening of ‘To Autumn’. The absence of the tone of euphoria we might have expected makes us question the conviction of these lines. Shelley does not allow us to identify the mood of the passage as unhesitatingly as we might want to. Shelley tries for a pantheism, but it comes across more as shadow than substance. The complexity of tone, holding the apparent and the real in suspension, prepares the reader for the intricacies of the end of the poem, when Adonais will finally outsoar the nature he is here only superficially incorporated within.

To some extent, then, the allusions like the ones to Keats's poetry tell us how not to read Adonais. The numerous Miltonic echoes suggest that Shelley wishes to acknowledge the past while redefining it. Stanza 14 is full of images that could have derived from Lycidas:

Morning sought
Her eastern watchtower, and her hair unbound,
Wet with the tears which should adorn the ground,
Dimmed the aerial eyes that kindle day …


The way in which the poet draws nature here and endows it with intimate human traits suggests that nature is more immediately part of the human condition. In Milton's poem, however, nature is not realised in the same way, instead it is more patently symbolic of either celebration or mourning. (See, for example, the lines ‘He must not float upon his watery bier / Unwept, and welter to the parching wind’ (12-13) and ‘So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed … and with new spangled ore, / Flames in the forehead of the morning sky’. (168, 170-171)22).

In Shelley's ‘A Summer Evening Churchyard’ (1815) a similar debt to a past writer is evident—in this case, Thomas Gray, and his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (1751)—but the debt is more palpable and so gives the reader an orientation point that is reassuring. In ‘A Summer Evening’ the manifestations of nature have about them a certain familiarity after the elaborate emblems of Adonais. Because nature is realised in such an emblematic manner in the latter we cannot help but perceive it as remote. In ‘A Summer Evening Churchyard’, on the other hand, what the poet describes comes across as more distinct because it is stripped of this emblematic function:

The wind has swept from the wide atmosphere
Each vapour that obscured the sunset's ray;
And pallid Evening twines its beaming hair
In duskier braids around the languid eyes of Day …


The last two lines, that deal, like Stanza 14 of Adonais, with the hair of something that is not concrete, are nevertheless more straightforward than the corresponding lines in Adonais because they give an impression of familiarity brought about by the fact that the process that is being described has been observed and not imagined, as it is in Adonais. Observation implies something that is real and can yield reference points, while the imagination, though it throws up vivid sensations and situations, remains more elusive and intangible. Shelley's elegy gives us access to an intricately realised imaginative world that is nonetheless beyond the vistas of familiar experience.


Certain passages in Adonais play on the discrepancy between the fact that to grieve is to be uncertain and the fact that the act of writing a poem is, in some way, to declare certainty. The poem's self-consciousness takes in the fact of the clash between the artifice of poetic finality—the certainty of a poetic utterance—and the artlessness of a kind of finality that cannot be limited to words alone and must lead to silence. The following passage is an example of Shelley's attempt to lay bare the inner meaning of such silence by tricking the reader into misreading the poetry:

Alas! that all we loved of him should be,
But for our grief, as if it had not been,
And grief itself be mortal!


This announcement of the inadequacy of modes of mourning signals the way in which the poem has begun to stray beyond the confines of its allegorical frame so that it has a perspective on itself that is almost as objective as the perspective that the reader might have on it. By the time we come to this passage the levels on which the poem exists have multiplied. In one sense it is a poem that devotes itself to the task of mourning the death of a great writer, in another it is a poem that views its own attempt to mourn from without. The fact that the poem can be self-conscious in this manner is tantamount to a denial of mourning. It is left up to the reader to fathom Shelley's own critique and its meaning; suffice it to say that his self-awareness creates the ground for the poem's efficacy but also qualifies its declarations of faith.

In the last line that is quoted above (183) Shelley cleverly allows his argument to fall back on itself. He picks holes in the edifice that he is trying to construct so that this passage, while taking a step forward, also takes a step back. The way in which the phrase ‘And grief itself be mortal!’ arrives at the end of the sentence gives it the ring of illumination, although the line is actually more an admission of defeat. ‘Grief’ is as susceptible to the fragility of mortality as that which it is mourning. The next lines (184-185) carry intimations of a type of emotion hitherto stifled within the rigidity of the formalized lament. The echoes from Shelley's own essay ‘On Life’ (1819)23 signal a greater agnosticism. These lines are subtly being transformed into something like cries from the heart: ‘Whence are we, and why are we? of what scene / The actors or spectators?’ (184-185). Such emotion carefully prepares the reader for the final part of the poem. For example, the three stanzas that Donald Reiman separates out (stanzas 27-29) in the poem24 are poised on the edge of an apprehension of reality that is no longer exclusively one of the imagination. Though the lines in stanza 29 that pinpoint the three types of poet—as Reiman puts it, ‘the “godlike mind”, the imitative popular poet, and the poet of independent genius who mourns his own fate in that of Adonais’25—are didactic, this didacticism is cloaked by a language of raw intensity. The poetry is full of grandiloquent phrases such as ‘unpastured dragon’ (238), ‘obscene ravens’ (245), ‘whose wings rain contagion’ (248) and ‘each ephemeral insect’ (254). ‘Unpastured dragon’ refers to the critic who was responsible for Keats's death, as Reiman and Powers point out.26 ‘Unpastured’ suggests savage and opposed to natural harmony. Similarly, ‘obscene ravens’ indicates a primeval barbarousness. Such phrases reflect how the poem has come a long way from the artifice and poise of its opening. The Miltonic pulse, however, is still present and so too is the style of Shelley's own translations from Goethe's Faust (1808). Timothy Webb has helpfully pointed out the influence of Faust on Adonais: ‘If Faust suggests the difficulty of balancing the claims of the two worlds, of spiritual and experience, of life before and after death, so too does Adonais.27 In Adonais there is the same awareness of a world that lies beyond human reach. The lines at the start of Stanza 29 step outside subjective viewpoints and home into objectively perceived realities:

“The sun comes forth, and many reptiles spawn;
He sets, and each ephermeral insect then
Is gathered into death without a dawn,
And the immortal stars awake again;
So is it in the world of living men:
A godlike mind soars forth, in its delight
Making earth bare and veiling heaven” …


The lines might easily harmonise with this passage from Shelley's translation of the ‘prologue in Heaven’ from Faust in that they have a similar sense of detached observation about them that homes in on the cosmic with great ease:

The sun makes music as of old
          Amid the rival spheres of Heaven,
On its predestined circle rolled
          With thunder speed: the Angels even
Draw strength from gazing on its glance,
          Though none its meaning fathom may:
The world's unwithered countenance
          Is bright as at Creation's day.


The lines from Faust also suggest Stanza 19 of Adonais—a stanza that pulsates with a sense of gathering activity, and an accumulative pull towards realising the ‘animation of delight’ (Prometheus Unbound IV. 322):

Through wood and stream and field and hill and Ocean
A quickening life from the Earth's heart has burst
As it has ever done, with change and motion,
From the great morning of the world when first
God dawned on chaos …


The first line offers a panoramic view, a broad sweep of vision, as the verse presses forward, each line ending with a weighted word: ‘Ocean’, ‘burst’, ‘motion’, ‘first’. This comprehensive animation recalls the cosmic imagery that Faust uses here:

A melancholy light, like the red dawn,
Shoots from the lowest gorge of the abyss
Of mountains, lightning hitherward: there rise
Pillars of smoke, here clouds float gently by …


There is an impression of breadth and immediacy, as if we ourselves are in the midst of what is being described.

The immediacy of stanzas 28 and 29 of Adonais is replaced, in stanzas 31 to 34, with a more intricately hesitant style. This passage—the famous self-portrait—brings the personal element of the poem to the forefront but it should be noted that the portrait, so often seen as merely self-serving and self-pitying, is in fact a structural device that has been placed where it is for a reason: namely, to facilitate the movement from impersonal mourning to a personal vision of the ‘One Life’. The self-portrait's quality of personalness is, however, disguised by its mythological character. The Actaeon myth draws a parallel that invites the reader to read the stanzas with an awareness of literary artifice:

          he, as I guess,
Had gazed on Nature's naked loveliness,
Actaeon-like, and now he fled astray
With feeble steps o’er the world's wilderness …


In the phrase ‘as I guess’ Shelley's casualness brings about a marked sense of distancing from himself, as if he could be talking about somebody else. In a later line—‘Pursued, like raging hounds, their father and their prey’ (279)—the poetry is given a narrative feel that is strictly opposed to the confessional, private tone of lyric poetry. Thus the passage is, on one level, an elaborate instance of fictionalising and, on another, allows such fictionalising to reflect an inner core of emotion that is strictly private. The portrait also serves the important function of making the connection between Shelley and Keats and stresses points of similarity in the line that describes the flowers: ‘His head was bound with pansies overblown’. (289) It is almost as if Shelley is now the corpse himself—the wreath of line 94 comes to mind.

The portrait also reminds one, in its intrusion of personal, though allegorized emotion, of the kind of reality that a pastoral elegy chooses to displace in its insistence on formal elegance. It is no accident that the polemical attack on the critics follows this passage. Just as the attack reflects human outrage, the portrait reflects human frailty. If the emotion expressed is also a little grotesque it is fitting that it should be: the injection of human ignominy makes sure that the formalized lament does not stray too far from the reality of human suffering.

Leighton sees the portrait as a metaphor for the vulnerability of poetic inspiration:

Shelley is describing [in lines 280-286] the very condition of poetry, which is the failing image of inspiration. These lines contain a clear echo of that aesthetic of lost signatures and failing light or fire which is elaborated in the ‘Defence’. Poetry is a mere trace of the divine passing, and its language is inspiration on the wane.28

Such a view gives the Defence of Poetry (1821) a prominent place in the reading of the poem. The Defence (composed just before Adonais) stresses the fragility of inspiration, the difficulty of capturing it: ‘when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conception of the poet’29, as well as suggesting the spasmodic nature of creativity: ‘the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness’.30 But even as Shelley is aware of the constraints with which the poet has to contend, he repeatedly emphasizes the poet's privileged position in terms that inevitably recall Keats's entry into the ‘One Life’: ‘A Poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not.’31 This sentence from the Defence is composed, however, of a series of assertions that rely more on a tone of exultation to propel them than on a grasp of something intrinsically demonstrable. Adonais, on the other hand, has about it something of the carefully reasoned argument that substitutes faith with logic. It suggests the rigour with which Shelley has created a system of belief that is remarkable as much for its definition of areas of ignorance and unity as of knowledge.


Part of the sense of the eventual ascent into cosmic spirituality with which the poem ends is transmitted early on in these lines:

          Come away!
Haste, while the vault of blue Italian day
Is yet his fitting charnel-roof!


This anticipates the presence of Keats in nature, which is the subject of stanza 42:

He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night's sweet bird …


Keats, by dying, has entered nature. Previously, Nature merely mourned his absence—a time honoured pastoral tradition. Now Adonais is ‘made one with nature’. This knowledge lies beneath the assertion that is made in line 343 (‘Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep’). The next line again signals a subtle change in the way in which life is regarded in the poem. The phrase ‘the dream of life’ points to life's illusory nature, before its eventual rejection outright in favour of death. But there is something of a strain in this rejection. When Shelley says ‘We decay / Like corpses in a charnel’ (348-349) the italicised ‘We’ suggests a sense of forcedness. Trapped within life, the poet has to find a way of entrapping life. Life's condition of barrenness and sterility is in marked contrast to the following transitional lines, transitional because, as remarked earlier, they facilitate the movement towards the moment when Adonais will depart from nature and enter the ‘One Life’:

                                                                                                    there is heard
His voice in all her [Nature's] music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night's sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known
In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,
Spreading itself …


Leighton sees the lines as confirmation that nature and Keats have become indivisible, as Keats's voice now ‘sounds audibly in the voice of creation.’32 The lines stress the ubiquity of Keats's presence, the way in which he is discernible in both the lowest and highest things, the sublime and the earthy. The lines seem to sing out with an assurance but their assertiveness borders on the contrived. This is intentional. Shelley's tone is too multi-layered to ring completely true. The way in which Keats's presence seems here to be quantifiable—listed in the specifics of ‘from herb and stone’—contradicts the spontaneity these lines want his spirit to represent. What Shelley imagines here is an external realisation of creativity, the kind of creativity that is outlined in this passage from a letter to Thomas Love Peacock:

I now understand why the Greeks were such great Poets, & above all I can account, it seems to me, for the harmony the unity the perfection the uniform excellence of all their works of art. They lived in a perpetual commerce with external nature and nourished themselves upon the spirit of its forms. Their theatres were all open to the mountains & the sky.

(23-24 January 1819)33

Here this vision's realisation is straightforward; in Adonais, the vision is more complex, conveyed in a manner that does not allow the lines to be as rapturous as they might appear.

It is the same kind of vision that characterises Shelley's description of the ‘island paradise’ of Epipsychidion (1821). In their boat, Shelley and Emily will be simultaneously oblivious to the external world and also be controlled, almost at a subliminal level, by it. The natural surroundings will have a fundamental link with the human impulse to live. Similarly, in Adonais, the natural surroundings, at this stage in the poem, begin to reflect their potential for affirming life, rather than, as at first, mourning death:

                    … while the one Spirit's plastic
          Sweeps through the dull dense world …
                    … bursting in its beauty and its might
From trees and beasts and men into the Heaven's light.

(381-382, 386-387)

The lines strain outwards, now rarely end-stopped, suggesting an ascent into a higher realm, creating the impression of an accumulative progression. As Peter Sacks puts it, ‘in the last section of the poem … the stanzas yield their potential for exploratory romance, for the progressive crossing of thresholds. There the alexandrines do not seal a falling cadence; rather they mount beyond themselves.’34

This quality is discernible in these lines as well:

          And where its wrecks like shattered mountains
          And flowering weeds, and fragrant copses dress
          The bones of Desolation's nakedness
          Pass, till the Spirit of the spot shall lead
          Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
          Where, like an infant's smile, over the dead,
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread.


The stanza is full of quasi-oxymoronic phrases (‘flowering weeds’, ‘fragrant copses’), that suggest the amalgamation of death and life. It is as if the elaborate description of ‘Desolation’—the relation of its ‘bones’ that are ‘dressed’—makes it the less engulfing; it yields hallmarks of the physical, clearly defined, and therefore stripped of the vagueness that might suggest something more malevolent.

The last four stanzas of the poem rise to a pitch of rhetorical singlemindedness that is both beautiful and terrible. Stanza 52 opens with a moment of transition:

The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven's light forever shines, Earth's shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.


We are poised here on the brink of silence, satiation that is something like an absolute knowledge. For once the poetry's resolve to utter assertions is not undermined by the kind of contrivance that was noticed in my discussion of stanza 42. These lines (460-461) oscillate, pendulum-like, in lucid clarity. There is a quality of final and definitive knowledge—Heaven emits light, while the earth engenders shadows. The final lines (462-464) gently but firmly pinpoint the deceptiveness of life—a serpentine beauty that hides an inner impurity that Shelley, in his eagerness, is willing to abandon in his quest for the uncorrupted and the pristine. The last line uses vehemence to channel its energy towards the realisation of something that is positive, but in doing so, is unable to conceal a lingering note of the compulsive. ‘Death permits the individual to reunite with the One’, as Reiman and Powers's gloss puts it,35 but only by propagating the process that it seeks to bring an end to—that of fragmentation and dissolution.

The objectivity and ruthlessness of the next stanza inevitably temper the tone of triumphant resolution that is trying to emerge. The unveiling of inner emptiness is delivered with clinical detachment, as if Shelley is scornful of his own poetry's tendency to embellish. The pastoral elegy's formality has been submerged by an insistence on sharply polarised observations that displace allegory and replace it with an emotional intensity that is uncompromising:

A light is past from the revolving year,
And man, and woman; and what still is dear
Attracts to crush, repels to make thee wither.


The next line (‘The soft sky smiles,—the low wind whispers near’)—isolated and tender—seems to announce a respite from the rigour of what has gone before. It is in fact only another kind of rigour in itself: one that further propels the poem to its end, and the recognition of the silence that is the ‘relinquish[ing of] composition’.36

Stanza 54 utilises its benevolence for destructive ends. It is a stanza of liberation that turns into destruction. In the opening lines there is a quality of liturgical simplicity (reinforced by the echo from Dante in line 478). But as we reach line 482 the word ‘blindly’ suggests a note of equivocation: ‘blindly’ implies without design, without thought. This anticipates the abdication of thought that characterises the desire that all have for the ‘fire’ of line 485. Finally, line 486 refuses to be anything other than absolute in its espousal of extinction. We no longer know if what the poet talks of is a new birth or just another death—another in that it follows Adonais's. Stanza 55 distances itself from this mechanistic reductiveness and its self-reference in line 487 (‘The breath whose might I have invoked in song’) suggests a last awareness of that which is still earthbound. Shelley is borne ‘darkly, fearfully, afar’. It is a frenetic yet solemn exorcism, accompanied by a mercurial presence—the star-like soul of Adonais who has now entered nature completely. His presence is both one that the poet can take reassurance in and one that unnerves. The lines create an impression of penetration: ‘Whilst burning through the inmost veil of Heaven’ (493). Adonais burns, he does not shine or twinkle and such energy seems too great for the fragility that is suggested by ‘veil’. This very indigestibility and tumultousness alert the reader to the fact that the poem's refusal to abandon the Dionysian in its enactment of Adonais's reincarnation will ensure that it cannot have easy recourse to the benignity of mere faith.

Shelley's abdication of himself is both destructive and liberating but above all it is an irretrievable abdication and signals a knowledge that makes an earthly existence no longer possible. It has an edge to it that is too hard-driven to allow us to say that Adonais is a poem that ends by affirming. The poem's journey towards the ‘One Spirit’ has intimations of joy but the point that it makes about the need—exhaustively drawn and, in itself, exhausting—to arrive there goes a large way towards undermining such joy. The ending is not a rejection of uncertainty; instead it suggests a voyage into an intuitive but unknown terrain. Shelley's abdication of himself carries with it a duality: it is both an act of desperate escapism and a surrender of himself to spirituality. We cannot resolve these opposites and this accounts for the work's indeterminacy. Adonais's Russian doll-like perspectives on itself emerge as the product of a poetic sensibility that is self-divided. And this self-division stems ultimately from Shelley's acute perception of the complexities that arise when art attempts to impose order on life.


  1. Christine Gallant, Shelley's Ambivalence (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan Press, 1989), p. 144.

  2. Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1974), hereafter Holmes, p. 657.

  3. Ross Woodman, ‘Adonais’, in The Apocalyptic Vision in the Poetry of Shelley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964), reprinted in Shelley's Poetry and Prose, A Norton Critical Edition, (eds.) Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York and London: Norton, 1977), hereafter PP, p. 660. Quotations from the references to Shelley's poetry and prose are taken from this edition. Exceptions to this are quotations from ‘A Summer Evening Churchyard’ and the translations from Goethe's Faust which are taken from Shelley's Poetical Works, Oxford Standard Authors, (ed.) Thomas Hutchinson, corr. G. M. Matthews (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), hereafter PW.

  4. See The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, (ed.) Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), hereafter Letters, vol. ii, p. 306.

  5. PW, p. 444.

  6. Ibid.

  7. PP, p. 390.

  8. PP, p. 388.

  9. Letters, vol. ii, p. 292.

  10. PW, p. 444.

  11. Homes, p. 657.

  12. Ronald Tetreault, The Poetry of Life: Shelley and Literary Form (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), p. 229.

  13. Earl R. Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1971), hereafter Wasserman, pp. 462-502.

  14. The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Julian Edition, (eds.) Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck, 10 vols. (first pub. 1926-30; London: Ernest Benn, 1965), hereafter Julian, vol. vi, p. 185.

  15. Johnson's Lives of the Poets: A Selection, Oxford Paperback English Texts, (ed.) J. P. Hardy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 94.

  16. Angela Leighton, Shelley and the Sublime: An Interpretation of the Major Poems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 130, hereafter Leighton.

  17. Ibid., pp. 126 and 139.

  18. John Milton, Complete Shorter Poems, (ed.) John Carey (first pub. 1968; London and New York: Longman, 1971), p. 240, l. 50, hereafter Milton.

  19. John Keats, The Complete Poems (ed.) John Barnard (London: Penguin Books, 1973), hereafter Keats, p. 434, 11. 1-6.

  20. PP, p. 395, note 2.

  21. Keats, p. 346, 11, 15-20.

  22. Milton, p. 240, 11. 12-13 and p. 253, 11. 168, and 170-171.

  23. See PP, p. 476: ‘For what are we? Whence do we come, and whither do we go? Is birth the commencement, is death the conclusion of our being?’

  24. See PP, p. 389.

  25. Shelley and His Circle 1773-1822, vol. v, (ed.) Donald H. Reiman (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 425.

  26. PP, p. 398, note 1.

  27. Timothy Webb, The Violet in the Crucible: Shelley and Translation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), p. 157.

  28. Leighton, p. 143.

  29. PP, p. 504.

  30. PP, p. 503-4.

  31. PP, p. 483.

  32. Leighton, p. 145.

  33. Letters, vol. ii, p. 74.

  34. Peter Sacks, ‘Last Clouds: A Reading of “Adonais”’, in Studies in Romanticism vol. xxiii (Fall 1984), p. 385.

  35. PP, p. 405.

  36. Leighton, p. 149.

Deborah Elise White (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: “The Seashore's Path: Shelley and the Allegorical Imperative,” in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 51-79.

[In the following essay, White probes the didactic/allegorical quality of Shelley's works.]

Throughout Shelley's poetic career, his writings reflect on, engage with, and struggle against a particular mode of that discursive predicament more generally called allegory: didacticism. For Shelley, the ethical dimensions of poetry should reach beyond particular referential effects—the empirically determined moralities of time and place—the better to encompass the source that grounds them. In classic romantic fashion he names that source imagination. The position is articulated in the preface to Prometheus Unbound:

… it is a mistake to suppose that I dedicate my poetical compositions solely to the direct enforcement of reform, or that I consider them in any degree as containing a reasoned system on the theory of human life. Didactic poetry is my abhorrence; nothing can be equally well expressed in prose that is not tedious and supererogatory in verse. My purpose has hitherto been simply to familiarize the highly refined imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers with beautiful idealisms of moral excellence; aware that until the mind can love, and admire, and trust, and hope, and endure, reasoned principles of moral conduct are seeds cast upon the highway of life which the unconscious passenger tramples into dust, although they would bear the harvest of his happiness.1

The theoretical rejection of didactic poetry translates (intentionally or not) Coleridge's theoretical rejection of allegory into the concerns of Shelley's openly politicized poetics. Similarly, in the preface to The Revolt of Islam, “feelings” and “beauty” are preferred to “methodical system and argument.”2 Poetry, in so far as it is not dedicated to the “direct enforcement of reform,” is, for that reason, the most direct route to the inward transformations on which reform ought to be predicated. Human action, to be fundamentally affected as well as authentically effected, must be grounded in such ideal distensions of inwardness as love, endurance, and hope. In this radical “politics of the spirit”3 politics per se gives way to ethics, and aesthetics becomes the passageway to historical change.

Critics of romanticism are quick to point out the evasiveness that sustains so beautiful an idealism. More than evasiveness, however, informs the contradictions of Shelley's aestheticization of a supposedly political program. His writings increasingly reflect an awareness that the most radical critique of referential meaning cannot entirely suspend referential effects, and the most transcendental of ethical imperatives cannot entirely evade historical consequences. Shelley's attacks on didacticism eventually include the ironic recognition that his poetry is nothing if not didactic. In the context of his ongoing engagement with this issue, canto I of The Revolt of Islam occupies a special position. This turns out to be, ironically enough, the position of an acknowledged or deliberate didacticism. The poem's preface states as much:

I have made no attempt to recommend the motives which I would substitute for those at present governing mankind, by methodical and systematic argument. I would only awaken the feelings, so that the reader should see the beauty of the virtue. … The Poem therefore (with the exception of the first canto which is purely introductory) is narrative, not didactic.


One complication of this relatively clear distinction is that the canto not only presents itself to the reader as a scene of instruction, it represents or narrates a scene of instruction, and, within that scene, it represents yet another. When the poet-narrator has something to say, he is told, repeatedly, that he is there to “listen” and to “learn” (343, 644-45). And the woman, “beautiful as morning” (262), who initiates and instructs him describes how the Spirit of Liberty once came to initiate and instruct her.5 Throughout, the text thematizes the encounter of text and reader so that from its inception, what is taught includes the apparatus and the act of teaching, and what is allegorized includes the possibility of allegory itself.

Ultimately, as it folds (and unfolds) this self-reflexive structure, much of canto I appears devoted to aestheticizing these pedagogical scenes, replacing “language” with what the poet-narrator calls “melody” (289) and didacticism with imaginative communion. That is, it does away with allegory by doing away with the linguistic character of its teaching. The trope of this aesthetic transformation of a didactic encounter into an imaginative one—or allegory into symbol—appears in almost every major Shelley text: “kindling.”6 Kindling names an eloquence that informs and yet surpasses language. When the woman tells the poet her “strange and awful tale” (334), a kindling glance opens the text:

                              … when that majestic theme
          Shrined in her heart found utterance, and she bent
                    Her looks on mine; those eyes a kindling beam
          Of love divine into my spirit sent,
And ere her lips could move, made the air eloquent.


The word “kindling” includes within itself a pun on interpersonal communion—common sympathies of kin or kind—that points up its crucial function as the trope of a properly poetic eloquence: persuasion without (the necessity for) didacticism; enthusiasm without argument; truth without reference. Language is secondary—an after effect of this more immediate communication.

The kindling which precedes utterance is mediated through the eye. An ideal listening is a visionary one and not only visionary. In the woman's story of her own encounter with a guiding spirit, the lips follow the eye in an openly erotic transfer. Enthusiasm becomes orgasm, albeit one that privileges the eye's agency:

          “The day passed thus: at night, methought
in dream
                    A shape of speechless beauty did appear:
          It stood like light on a careering stream
                    Of golden clouds which shook the atmosphere;
                    A wingèd youth, his radiant brow did wear
          The Morning Star: a wild dissolving bliss
                    Over my frame he breathed, approaching near,
          And bent his eyes of kindling
Near mine, and on my lips impressed
a lingering kiss,—And said: …”

(496-505; my emphasis)

To touch the imagination, poetry must be beautiful: a vision that appears and, sensuously, impresses; language comes after the kindling encounter of eye and lip. Without the originary vision, no utterance has the power to transform or to enlighten its readers.7 In more strictly epistemological terms: without intentionality, referentiality is a moot point.

When the eye returns at the canto's close, it seems curiously isolated from any particularized body or agent. The scene is the Temple of the Spirit, and the Spirit itself has just appeared:

Wonder and joy a passing faintness threw
          Over my brow—a hand supported me,
Whose touch was magic strength: an eye
of blue
          Looked into mine, like moonlight, soothingly;
          And a voice said: “Thou
must a listener be
This day …”

(640-45, my emphasis)

The disembodied gathering of eye and hand with voice and light suggests a still more purified phenomenal intuition: an intuition at the limit of perception. It leads into a further set of figures which present eloquence as an originary beam, a shining through language:

I looked and lo! one stood forth eloquently
          His eyes were dark and deep, and the clear brow
Which shadowed them was like the morning sky …
                    —his gestures did obey
          The oracular mind that made his features glow
And where his curvèd lips half-open lay,
Passion's divinest stream had made impetuous way.

(649-51, 654-57)

The formulation is increasingly transcendent as traditional sources of light and dark reverse themselves to the point of hyperbolic confusion: The brow, “like the morning sky” shadows the darkness of eyes. This thickening yet dawn-like darkness is the image of a deeper light: that of “oracular mind.” The latter functions as the unseen ground of vision. Its depths underwrite the beautiful appearance of gestures and the “impetuous way” of a language that is itself a gesture. At the same time, it transcends perceptible outlines of time and place to communicate with their imaginative source, “the common sympathies of every human breast.”

The eye as the kindling agent of immediacy, an intuition that bypasses the formality of (spatial-temporal) perception, reveals its transcendent foundations, its infinite depth and darkness, even more clearly with the description of Cythna:

                              …—she was known
                    To be thus fair, by the few lines alone
          Which through her floating locks and gathered cloak,
                    Glances of soul dissolving glory, shone:—
          None else beheld her eyes—in him [Laon] they
Memories which found a tongue as thus he silence broke.


The eye, outside the boundaries of any particularized experience, “appears”—though unseen—as the source of light and language. Whatever pathos informs its necessary indirection at least guarantees that it can never be less than absolutely universal.

Neville Rogers' study of Shelley's notebooks dwells at length on what is, apparently, a sketch of the Temple of the Spirit.8 Hovering over the scene are two disembodied eyes. The transcendent—the kindling—eye converges with its traditional, Platonic counterpart: it is a star made human or the human reflection of its purer light. Much later in the poem, Laon's final words to Cythna are a translation of a Platonic epigram asserting the same equation:

“Fair star of life and love,” I cried, “my
soul's delight,
Why lookest thou on the crystalline skies?
          O that my spirit were you heaven of night,
Which gazes on thee with its thousand eyes!”


The star-like Cythna and the eye-like stars share a transparent “crystalline” vision each of the other, for each is essentially the same as the other.

The dedication to the poem adds a crucial element to this eye-star nexus. Troping from eye to star turns significantly through the name:

                    Nor thou disdain, that ere my fame become
          A star among the stars of mortal night,
                    If it indeed may cleave its natal gloom,
          Its doubtful promise thus I would unite
With thy belovèd name, thou Child of love and light.


          And through thine eyes, even in thy soul
I see
A lamp of vestal fire burning internally.
          They say that thou wert lovely from thy birth,
                    Of glorious parents, thou aspiring Child.
          I wonder not—for one then left this earth
                    Whose life was like a setting planet mild,
                              Which clothed thee in the radiance undefiled
          Of its departing glory; still her fame
                    Shines on thee through the tempests dark and wild
          Which shake these latter days; and thou canst claim
The shelter, from thy Sire, of an immortal name.


The dedication closes with an image of Mary and Percy, “two tranquil stars, while clouds are passing by” (124).

The perfected aesthetic communion that kindles the encounter between text and reader thus includes a perfected language. The language of light is name. Specifically, the dedication “To Mary——” traces in its very ellipses the memory of two names—Wollstonecraft, Godwin—whose importance to Shelley (especially in The Revolt of Islam) can hardly be over-estimated. The Revolt of Islam, however, is not in search of specific names. As the eye leads towards a deeper, darker light, so “Wollstonecraft” (figured in these lines as the morning star) and “Godwin” and even “Shelley” lead towards a valorization of the name in itself. As the eye is increasingly isolated from particular bodies, purified of its merely human agency, the name, too, may be withdrawn from the field of particular names: “——” is closer to the truth after all. A purified word, positing an ideal beyond historical referents, the name becomes an emblem of immortality. At the limit, it is immortality. To mediate eternal light—like a starry eye—is to have a name.

The cosmic history narrated by the woman in canto I foregrounds this all-but-divine name and its historical corruption in the form of partiality and abstraction—i.e. its allegorization as evil. When she speaks of Greece she shifts from description to direct address, to her own act of naming: “‘Steeping their [the Greeks’] hearts in the divinest flame / Which thy breath kindled, Power of holiest name!’” (409-10). The holiest name kindles; it inspires the passionate consummation, the enthusiastic awakening, and the visionary listening to which this poetic act of naming also aspires. (One may recall Hellas, “Another Athens shall arise …” [1084].) In contrast, specific names—even “Good” or “Liberty”—cannot inspire as does the holiest name with its pure, because purely enkindling, flame. They remain partial and abstract—mere allegories. The woman's earlier account of Evil's dominion indicates why: “‘Thus evil triumphed, and the Spirit of evil, / One Power of many shapes which none may know, / One Shape of many names …’” (361-63). The world in which evil triumphs, changing good “‘from starry shape … to a dire snake’” (368-69), is one in which appearances deceive because unified identities have been dispersed into a multiplicity of forms. Names become multiple as well, at once excessive and insufficient for their task. Evil, by definition, has too many names: “‘The Fiend, whose name was Legion: Death, Decay, / Earthquake and Blight, and Want, and Madness pale’” (379-80). These words are less personifications or even attributes than they are names of the “Fiend.” Naming itself, in its multiplicity, is fiendishly complicit: “‘His spirit is their power, and they his slaves / In air, and light, and thought, and language, dwell’” (388-89, my emphasis). Even the holiest name, when mediated by particular, historical names (Greece, France), risks partaking of evil's metamorphic powers unless those names are understood correctly to be mere names—signs that derive from and point towards the power of holiest name, but are themselves no more than the bare remainder, “——,” of a kindling that has occurred.

With this invocation of the “name” as both the ground and the critique of all possible names, the poem reaches towards a transcendence in which didacticism can recognize, if only by negation, its authentically imaginative origins. The invocation itself, however, may call forth a different kind of recognition. Not merely the act of invocation, but the very phrase “power of holiest name” indicates that poetic ideality can never remain fixed in its own rarified sublimity. Addressing the “power of holiest name” the woman ultimately refers beyond the name itself to the name as positional act. What is at stake is not the name but naming, power rather than (aesthetic) intuition or (systematic) knowledge. As a pure act naming may seem to sustain a kind of transcendence, but insofar as it draws the imagery of eye and star into a nexus of positional, linguistic determinations it displaces Shelley's idealism at its very center. Once the text admits a power of holiest name, particular names such as “Greece” or “France” are bound to appear, but do these names “reflect” a divine one—however negative the implicit theology—or are they themselves powerful, the rise rather than the reflection of History? (“Another Athens shall arise.”)

To ask a question of this kind is putting a great deal of weight on the word “power.” Given its importance elsewhere in Shelley one would be mistaken, I think, to dismiss its occurrence here as idle; as in Mont Blanc, the “power” is there. At issue is an ideal of linguistic communication that conceals an aporia. A transitive language that reflects meaning—the starry light of truth and knowledge—is easily imagined and easily conceptualized (if not so easily accounted for). An intransitive language that posits itself as meaningful is, perhaps, only slightly less so; it allows at least for the positivity of an act. The identity or equivalence of these two models remains beyond conception or imagination. The language of truth (or language as truth) and the language of power (or, again, language as power) are mutually untranslatable. Paul de Man writing on The Triumph of Life is notoriously brutal: “Language posits and language means (since it articulates) but language cannot posit meaning; it can only reiterate (or reflect) it in its reconfirmed falsehood. Nor does the knowledge of this impossibility make it less impossible.”9 In the earlier poem, the reversion to theological language, “holiest” name, tropes the impossible as God. This, however, can hardly be said to resolve or contain the problem, and its interpretive and narrative consequences reverberate through the text.

One of the most obvious of these consequences is that the purified word or the kindling encounter to which discursive language is secondary will turn out to have been discursive from its inception. If the name is neither simple, unified, nor one, the communion of text and reader thematized in the canto occurs across a divide, which is constitutive rather than corrupting. By analogy, didacticism is less a fall than a founding—though these metaphors, too, must partake of the partiality of names.

Each example of “kindling” or communion quoted above culminates, in fact, with an utterance. The self reflecting itself in (or with) another never eludes the externalizations of language. A particularly telling instance occurs when the Spirit of Liberty appears in the woman's dream: “‘And bent his eyes of kindling tenderness / Near mine, and on my lips impressed a lingering kiss,—’” Across the spatial break that differentiates this stanza from what follows, the opening words of the next stanza replace sex with speech: “‘And said: …’” The formality of utterance is drawn out by the enjambment across stanzas, dramatizing the formal, written articulation of Shelley's verse. In this way, even speech becomes a figure for that articulation.10 The intimate climax promised by an empty mark “—” concludes with impersonal, not interpersonal, forms of language: instead of “I love thee,” “‘A Spirit loves thee …’” (503-5).

What the spirit goes on to say forces one to question whether the preceding state of “kindling tenderness” was ever more than a deluded fantasy. Articulation through language would not, in that case, dramatize a pathos-ridden fall from pure “eloquence,” but the realization of what always already must have been the structure of the woman's (or the poet's) experience: a relation to what stands “outside” a transcendent determination of self and identity. (“Outside” is in quotation marks, because, in so far as it is constitutive of its own “inside,” it may be said to precede the distinction.) The Spirit utters a reproach: “‘A Spirit loves thee, mortal maiden, / How wilt thou prove thy worth?’” (505-6). It challenges the woman to enter history, to struggle with the forms of human power. She must go to “‘that vast and peopled city … which was a field of holy warfare’” (514-15), i.e. she must go to Paris to fight for the Revolution.

To understand what is at stake in this reproach and the woman's response, one needs to consider the emergence of the Spirit as a figure of self-consciousness—reflecting itself as self-consciousness—in the stanzas immediately preceding these lines. This is one scene of instruction that stages the fate of its own idealism. It begins by positing a correspondence between desire and revolution: “‘When first the living blood through all these veins / Kindled a thought in sense, great France sprang forth …’” (469-70). Desire alone already prefigures the structure of the correspondence. It kindles the fires of “thought in sense,” a phrase that testifies to an entire revolutionary aesthetics. The identity of thought and sense, which is also the identity of desire and revolution, grounds the appearance of revolution as a series of synesthesic blendings. When thought informs sense any one sensation may, in effect, signify or even become, another; so, the clouds and waves “laughed in light and music” (477).

In the wake of (what is perceived as) revolutionary correspondence, “‘Strange desire / The tempest of a passion’” (480-81) generates the vision of the morning star. Liberty responds to a human intention; it responds to it and it surpasses it: “‘…—then I loved; but not a human lover! For when I rose from sleep, the morning star / Shone through the woodbine-wreaths which round my casement were’” (484-85). Desire awakes and finds its dreams assuming a naturalistic form of truth, but nature (the morning star), emblematically framed and superhuman, figures proleptically its coming envelopment by consciousness. This nature is never quite (or never only) nature.

In the next stanza it appears as a figure shot through and through with meaning, a sensation transparent to the light of thought—or consciousness—which absorbs it:

          “Twas like an eye which seemed to smile
on me.
                    I watched, till by the sun made pale, it sank
          Under the billows of the heaving sea;
                    But from its beams deep love my spirit drank,
                    And to my brain the boundless world now shrank
          Into one thought—one image—yes! for ever
                    Even like the dayspring, poured on vapours dank,
          The beams of that one Star did shoot and quiver
Through my benighted mind—and were extinguished never.”


In a reversal typical of this poem, the rising of the sun leaves the mind “benighted.” In that greater light's “severe excess,” the morning star pales,11 a naturalistic fading that serves to ground the metamorphosis of nature into thought or, rather, reveals that in its meaning at any rate (as the embodiment of dream and desire) it always was thought: transcendent, eternal, all encompassing. The morning star is a symbol, one of “those images and feelings in the vivid presence of which within [the poet's] own mind consists at once his inspiration and his reward” (Preface to The Revolt of Islam 33). As such it is a symbol of symbolic language and an ideal example of what it means. It negates the merely natural universe—its transience, its darkness, its senseless infinity—to achieve a totalizing internalization of the boundless world into “one thought—one image.” The equivalence of these two terms marks the extreme end of its achievement, bringing to fulfillment the promise of “thought in sense.”

What happens, though, when thought requires the mirror of an image? when sense must correspond to its meanings? Does the process end with self-reflection? The morning star shines with a light both natural and spiritual, but as one passes into the other—as mediation shades into identity and time gives way to eternity—the woman's narrative continues to unfold to a decidedly temporal and decidedly articulate rhythm. Her story repeats itself with a difference:

“The day passed thus: at night methought in dream
          A shape of speechless beauty did appear:
It stood like light on a careering stream
          Of golden clouds which shook the atmosphere;
          A wingèd youth, his radiant brow did wear
The Morning Star …”


Day passes; night returns and with night a shape whose ontological status is doubly uncertain—“methought in dream.” The uncertainty is, perhaps, what is least curious, as the unity of thought and image gives way to something outside the immediacy of symbolic self-reflection. The star is openly personified; more than that, the personification is thematized. The symbol turns (inside) out to stand for its own allegorization, its appearance as figure. As part of this process, the “speechless” (but not languageless) shape must bear its name, the morning star, as a mark to be read. (Similarly, in The Mask of Anarchy, the shape that rises, mist-like, from prostrate hope wears “On its helm, seen far away, / A planet, like the Morning's” [114-15].) The vision is no longer one of crystalline transparency. Kindling does not bypass discourse. The natural-supernatural Spirit must be read as a mark, a lettering, or a sign through which the allegorical staging of the dream can be deciphered. The cosmic ornament recurs as ornamentation, an arabesque of writing that traces a difference (like Shelley's “——”) between thought and image at the very moment when they seem most intimately identified.

To uncover the allegorical argument of this passage exposes the discrepancy between thought and image which it attempts to mediate. (Even the linguistic turn of language “itself” can never fully close that self off from the power of articulation.) From this critical perspective, the passage to an ethical discourse oriented towards action is an easy step. The allegory “means” that language must always point outside itself and so, in the representative terms of the narrative, this “wingèd youth” comes to reproach the woman and urges her to leave the realm of self-reflexive consciousness behind. Aesthetic totalization, in which image and thought converge in a completely internalized mode, is merely a reflexive moment in an ongoing—increasingly critical, increasingly historical—dialectic. The sign of Liberty must be proven on the field of revolution: “‘How wilt thou prove thy worth?’” (506). The beautiful, but narcissistic pleasures of art (an image at one with thought) must be sacrificed for the sublimer pleasures of history:

                    “And to the shore I went to muse and
                    But as I moved, over my heart did creep
          A joy less soft, but more profound and strong
                    Than my sweet dream; and it forbade to keep
          The path of the sea-shore: that Spirit's tongue
Seemed whispering in my heart, and bore my steps along.
          “How to that vast and peopled city
                    Which was a field of holy warfare then,
          I walked among the dying and the dead
                    And shared in fearless deeds with evil men,
                    Calm as an angel in the dragon's den—
          How I braved death for liberty and truth,
                    And spurned at peace, and power, and fame—and
          Those hopes had lost the glory of their youth,
How sadly I returned—might move the hearer's ruth.”


The woman by the seashore can only muse and weep, but (seemingly) borne by the Spirit's words, she turns to Paris and the Revolution. She turns, however, only to re-turn, for the sense of historical debacle that drives the poet-narrator drives her as well—back to the seashore's path and the scene of their encounter. The repetition suggests an irony in the dialectic at work: the allegorical demystification of aesthetics and the corresponding ethical demand for action beget failure and retreat. What begins in mourning ends in mourning.

The failure of the revolution depicted in these lines is not accidental, nor is it only to be explained by such historical diagnoses as Shelley offers, for example, in the poem's preface. The turn to action fails because it remains, in all too limited a sense, a turn. It tropes language's difference from itself—as politics, as history, as action—but in doing so remains curiously figurative, curiously self-referential. Even when she is the subject of history, the woman has not really left the seashore's path behind. The imagery of tempest and calm offers one indication of what happens (or fails to happen). It pervades the entire canto. In the natural descriptions of the opening, almost every stanza contrasts “lightning and hail and darkness” with “calm” and “light” (150, 153). Elsewhere, the dreaming self alternates “the tempest of a passion” with a “tranquil soul … calm and darkness” (480-83). The subject of this canto is a field of tension: violence and tranquility, darkness and light, storm and calm. This tension is increasingly resolved into the difference between a (particularized, human) subject and the external predicament in which it finds itself. The woman's participation in the French Revolution functions in this way. “Calm as an angel in the lion's den,” she is structurally, as a subject, what she has always been. This explains the ambivalence of the description that follows. Walking among “the dying and the dead” she encounters the world as the (dead) object of her consciousness. The subject of history stands upright, while history itself becomes yet another figure for subjective negation. In the historical context such internalization manifests itself violently, and the stanza implicates the woman directly. This is not Florence Nightingale among the dying and the dead. She shares “in evil deeds with fearless men.” As the early slippage from doubt—“the Spirit's tongue seemed whispering”—to certainty—“and bore my steps along”—already suggests: the temporal or linguistic limit that inhabits any aesthetic equation of thought and image is all too easily forgotten in the rush to realize Spirit's presence on the streets of Paris. Revolution, in this mode, is bound to fail.12

The woman returns to (self-) reflective nature to recover from the sorrows of history. The winged youth dissolves into a cradling universe:

                    “The Spirit whom I loved in solitude
                    Sustained his child: the tempest-shaken wood
          The waves, the fountains, and the hush of night—
                    These were his voice, and well I understood
          His smile divine, when the calm sea was bright
With silent stars, and Heaven was breathless with delight.”


Nature, again, is identified with Spirit: it is a voice and a smile, a living being translucent to itself and to its “child.” As that child, the woman at once understands and loves the whole of which she is a part. Only a slightly perverse reading of “breathless” would suggest darker, more alien implications. The importance of nature in this passage helps one to grasp why the earlier “natural” mediation of spirit through the morning star was necessary even if it was to be surpassed by its own allegory. When the inwardness of thought encounters the violence of a history that only confirms its negativity it requires a nature to fall back on if it is not to be left “like others, cold and dead” (325), if it is not, that is, to become itself, merely natural. However rigorously allegorical, however ethical the ultimate direction of the text, thought cannot forego the naturalizing, symbolic figure—a sustaining image perceptible, if only momentarily, before the demystifying onslaught of allegory.

Is allegory, then,—having been given its critical due—still a fall from kindling symbolic eloquence? Arguably, the very externality of Nature—that which in it remains “cold and dead” or “breathless”—guarantees that figuration, i.e. the appearance of Spirit, can never become purely symbolic. The return to and the return of the natural world proleptically figures (and in the narrative leads towards) a discursive return of reference. The self-reflexive musings of poetry, its figuration of the process of figuration cannot help but point towards an other which sustains it, and nature itself functions as a figure for this linguistic difference. It is, after all, imagined as language, a “voice” that can be “understood.”

What follows in the narrative makes explicit what can only be inferred from such hints. The self-contained forms of nature are riven apart by yet another revolution. The morning star returns, but this time as an apocalyptic figure shorn of any ties to nature or to individual agency:

                    “… after many wondrous years
were flown,
          I was awakened by a shriek of woe;
                    And over me a mystic robe was thrown,
          By viewless hands, and a bright Star did glow
Before my steps—the Snake then met his mortal foe!”


The mystic robe suggests a Pauline allegory of revolution: apocalypse begins with the formal power of language—“a mystic robe”—to depersonalize and to generalize the very subject it posits; the robe is thrown “over me.” It renders what it names invisible even as the morning star, in order to become thought, has first to disappear. (Elsewhere, the robe itself is characterized as “star-bright” [284].) “Mystic” here does not signify the presence of the irrational but the absence of a sustaining naturalistic perception. The disjunction of nature and “Spirit”—their, as it were, original difference—is exposed as the condition of the very historical acts and aesthetic musings that seek to join them in and as “one thought—one image.”

Criticism of this canto has largely ignored the woman's narrative. Since her story explains her role as the poet's initial teacher, the problems raised by any attempt to interpret its valorization of the aesthetic on the one hand and political action on the other are the problems that face, as well, any attempt to come to terms with Shelley's own aesthetic and political project. More generally, interpretation too often restricts itself to understanding the aesthetic in Shelley as either a self-negating mode that calls for action to supplement it or as a self-sustaining one that supplements action with the image of a utopian ideal—one returns to aesthetics to correct history. The woman's didactic narrative suggests, indeed, that aesthetics can never, finally, sustain itself, but the supplement of history is too often nothing other than an aesthetics whose figural negations have become all too literal. An ongoing interrogation of either term must recognize that what looks like mutual critique may turn out to be collaboration. For Shelley, the categories themselves demand constant rethinking and reformulation. They are not given up but are repeatedly narrativized in the allegorical history of his text.

As stake in the woman's narrative are a set of distinctions: “Spirit” and nature, reference and phenomenalism, history and aesthetics, difference and identity. In the field of romanticism these distinctions are often articulated through the debate between allegory and symbol. More important than the question of terminology is the articulation of distinction as such. When revolution “arises” or “springs forth” the kindling it manifests is not communion—“thought in sense” or synesthesia—but, precisely, the reiteration of difference, including the difference between difference and identity. The woman's other major narrative, the cosmic history that explains the emblematic battle of eagle and snake, tells the story of this difference. It tells the story, therefore, of something that cannot be contained within the mimetic, spatial, and temporal parameters of a story. The latter already assume that thought can be embodied in sense, that difference can be synthesized through narrative. The woman's cosmic history is an allegory, an allegory of difference or an allegory of allegory, which—necessarily, for it is an “other” speaking—looks like something quite different.

What it looks like—what generations of critics have taken it to be—is a Manichaean tale of good and evil. At best, the emblematic opposition between blood-red comet and morning star, has been given a psychological context, one which explains the origin of evil in terms of human error.13 The important stanzas allow for both interpretations:

          “Speak not to me, but hear! Much shalt
thou learn,
                    Much must remain unthought, and more untold,
          In the dark Future's ever flowing urn:
                    Know then, that from the depth of ages old,
                    Two powers o’er mortal things dominion hold
          Ruling the world with a divided lot,
                    Immortal, all-pervading, manifold
          Twin Genii, equal Gods—when life and thought
Sprang forth, they burst the womb of inessential Nought.
          “The earliest dweller of the world,
                    Stood on the verge of chaos. Lo! afar
          O’er the wide wild abyss two meteors shone,
                    Sprung from the depth of its tempestuous jar:
          A blood-red Comet and the Morning Star
          Mingling their beams in combat—as he stood,
                    All thoughts within his mind waged mutual war,
          In dreadful sympathy—when to the flood
That fair star fell, he turned and shed his brother's blood.
“Thus evil triumphed, and the Spirit of Evil,
                    One Power of many shapes which none may know …”


The psychological direction of this is relatively clear. The earliest dweller “alone” is yet another reflection of the poet-narrator and the woman—both of whom are described as “alone”—gazing from a “sea cliff's verge” (Coleridge, “France: An Ode”) out onto the chaos of (natural) history. That chaos originally appears as a combat of comet and star, but true combat occurs “within [the] mind.” The very early “Zeinab and Kathema” (a poem whose plot and theme look forward to The Revolt of Islam) makes explicitly psychological use of the same figures. Its victimized heroine turns against society:

Even like a mild and sweetly-beaming star
          Whose rays were wont to grace the matin prime
Changed to a comet, horrible and bright,
Which wild careers awhile then sinks in dark-red night.


Comet and star are warring potentialities within the “dweller,” and history's originary, cosmic act is the product of an individual subject. Although this interpretation does not do away with the text's Manichaean oppositions, it endows them with a particularly human energy. The slight incoherence of the narrative is, in this context, suggestive. The earliest dweller, alone, turns out to have a brother standing beside him. One may almost surmise that murder founds human otherness: warring thoughts are projected “outside”—the figure of a “brother”—but only to be the more effectively annihilated.

In this account history opens with transgression; it occurs as a fall. The psychological dramatizes even as it humanizes the theological. A fall, however, implies a fall from somewhere, and the text does, in fact, hint at a prior state. The “womb” from which cosmic history bursts offers an image of maternal union (an idealization of origin as feminine other that prefigures Laon's idealization of Cythna within the narrative). The capitalization of Nought tends, too, in the direction of the ideal. At the same time, the feminine Nought remains “inessential”: without essence or without transcendent being. Does anything pre-exist fall? Does society pre-exist murder? Does history—or “evil”—originate inside a lonely dweller?

The psychologized model of a fall is put in question by Cythna much later in the poem. The individual's act, even murder, is no true source of evil: “‘Speak! are your hands in slaughter's sanguine hue / Stained freshly? have your hearts in guile grown old? / Know yourselves thus! ye shall be pure as dew’” (3357-59). Earl Wasserman's commentary is helpful: “For Shelley, as for such Lockean empiricists as Godwin, the human character is morally neutral. But Shelley is not only rejecting the doctrine of original sin … he is also denying that by an act one may radically transform his innate moral nature … [man] may commit wrongs, but nothing in his character obliges him to do so, nor does such a deed stamp itself on the soul ineradicably.”14 In no simple way can evil be the product of a self. The solitary dweller is neither Adam nor Cain. His act is best characterized as inessential.

Is evil then a mysterious external force? A blood-red comet or hovering eagle? Arguably, these forms are no more essential than the nothingness they “burst.” Although the comet, as an emblem, seems clearly to be the figure of evil's triumph, in the narrative evil is said to triumph “thus” (361). “Thus”—which is, itself, a term of comparison—does not necessarily refer to the comet or to its battle. It may well refer to the entire preceding scenario, which is precisely one of comparison. “Thus” points to the “dreadful sympathy” that equates the thoughts “within his [the dweller's] mind” with cosmic configurations. Analogy, psychologically figured as “sympathy,” is the “real” origin of “evil” as it is, too, the basis of the woman's moralized history of good and evil: i.e. the basis of allegory. Its actual relation to a repetitive cosmic polemos can only be posited, never guaranteed, never essentialized. When it is essentialized (or naturalized) in the form, say, of a brother—or an empirically conceived history—it ends in violence.15

Does the shift from psychological to rhetorical terminology, from the language of self (individual) to the language of language (analogy) really mark a change in interpretation? Is the interpretative model not still one of transgression and fall, truth and error? An arbitrary judgment, the positing (of) analogy, turns paradise (the maternal womb) to hell, symbolic oneness to allegorical multiplicity: “One Power of many shapes … One Shape of many names.” A striking and comparable critical formulation occurs in the work of Walter Benjamin: “… the triumph of subjectivity, and the onset of an arbitrary rule over things, is the origin of all allegorical contemplation. In the very fall of man the unity of guilt and signifying emerges as an abstraction.”16 The description of what ensues from the fall as “allegorical contemplation” reflects the subject's linguistic being. To return to Shelley, analogy rather than sympathy, catachresis rather than inwardness, are the crucial articulations of cosmic history. One may remember the list of evil's names quoted earlier: “‘The Fiend whose name was legion; Death, Decay, / Earthquake and Blight, and Want, and Madness pale.’” The significance of these natural disasters derives not from themselves but from the power of analogy to turn them to abstractions and so render nature (in the vocabulary of Benjamin) guilty: “‘And, without whom all these [Death, etc.] might nought avail,— / Fear, Hatred, Faith and Tyranny.’” Clearly, although the turn from a psychological to a linguistic interpretation of allegorical “subjectivity” may help one to avoid essentializing “nought,” it does not entirely dispense with the theological underpinnings of allegorical history.

The stanzas concerning the origin of comet and star implicate the problem of difference in yet another formulation, one less susceptible of either psychological or theological determinations. This occurs with the very phrase that later characterizes revolutionary France, “sprang forth”—a phrase, too, that corresponds to the kindling of “thought in sense” experienced by the woman during the revolution. She explains, in the earlier narrative, that the “‘two Powers’” are “‘twin genii, equal gods—when life and thought / Sprang forth, they burst the womb of inessential nought’” (350-51). A few lines down, the words are echoed: “‘Sprung from the depth of its tempestuous jar: / A blood-red comet and the Morning Star’” (355-56). Before falling into the Manichaean trap of good and evil, one must ask if theirs is the originary combat or difference with which this passage is most fundamentally concerned. The phrasing is slightly ambiguous; it invites the work of moral analogy with its blood-red comet and its mo[u]rning star, but it also suggests a more fundamental distinction at work, one which makes possible the moral and epistemological evaluations from which it can scarcely be distinguished. Not only does the godlike burst correspond temporally with the springing forth of “life and thought,” but the placement and punctuation of the line, “twin genii, equal gods—when life and thought,” all but suggest that life and thought are the powers in question.

This formulation is, potentially, more radical in its approach to difference as it is less mimetic and, like the revolutionary “thought in sense,” invokes the power of revolution as creation—but, crucially, conceptualizes creation as combat, polemos. While this combat is at once reconfigured in naturalistic and moralistic imagery, its hidden (or, technically, grammatically subordinate) presence displaces the traditional Manichaean interpretation of Shelley's canto and, too, accounts for why that interpretation has so often found itself at odds with what actually occurs in the text. The combat of comet and star figures this “other” combat between “life” and “thought” which is not yet morally or empirically determinate, not yet murder, not yet revolution. Nothing pre-exists this combat, inessential nought, and the combat itself does not so much precede its reconfigurations as inform or punctuate them; hence, the temporal formulation, “When life and thought / Sprang forth, they burst the womb.” “They” may be life and thought, or they may be comet and star; “when” may imply simultaneity, or priority. The spatial and temporal situation of this difference is indeterminate. It comes neither before nor after; it neither is nor is not. That being the case, the passage cannot be assimilated to the interpretive model of a fall or even to a story of origins. “Life and thought” spring forth: a cleavage in terms of which “fall” and “origin” like “good” and “evil” may be figured in “sympathetic” or, rather, aesthetic terms.17

This says very little about what “life” and “thought” may, in themselves, mean. In part, the omission is necessary to avoid essentializing the very terms through which essence is being questioned. At the same time, the opposition of life and thought is not an incidental formula in Shelley's oeuvre. It occurs elsewhere, most crucially perhaps in the “Essay on Life,” when Shelley attempts to think the problem of difference and its relationship to allegorical narratives of origin and fall, good and evil. In the present context, the “Essay on Life” is particularly helpful, because it, like The Revolt of Islam, calls forth a double reading, analyzing the dichotomy of “life” and “thought” alternately as one of “unfallen” and “fallen” states of being and as one possessing (in Wordsworth's phrase) “another and a finer connection than that of contrast.” While Shelley does not employ these terms with a technical (if you will, philosophical) consistency, their interaction in the prose text reiterates and exposes difficulties that The Revolt of Islam both contains and fails to contain through its aesthetic strategies.

According to the “Essay on Life” thoughts are habitual and mechanical; they take effect through repetition: “Thus feelings and then reasonings are the combined result of a multitude of entangled thoughts and of a series of what are called impressions, planted by reiteration.”18 In a “wide sense” these thoughts are “signs” (Clark 173), and, having declared his conviction that “nothing exists but as it is perceived,” Shelley defines these thought-signs in such a way as to enlist perception as well as thought in an ongoing semiosis: “Almost all familiar objects are signs, standing not for themselves but for others in their capacity of suggesting one thought which shall lead to a train of thoughts” (Clark 173-74). This process disrupts the harmonic unity Shelley calls “Life”: “We live on and in living we lose the apprehension of life. How vain it is to think that words can penetrate the mystery of our being” (Clark 172). Signs mark a falling off from unity, the end of mystery. In a familiar paradigm, childhood has peculiar access to this being of life. As children, “we less habitually distinguished all that we saw and felt, from ourselves. They seemed, as it were, to constitute one mass.” Children are like the woman in the cradle of nature; here the cradle is life and the repetitive forms of thought, as noted above, corrupt at last its idyll:

There are some persons who in this respect are always children. Those who are subject to the state called reverie feel as if their nature were dissolved into the surrounding universe, or as if the surrounding universe were absorbed into their being. They are conscious of no distinction. And these are states which precede, or accompany, or follow an unusually intense and vivid apprehension of life. As men grow up this power commonly decays, and they become mechanical and habitual agents. Thus feelings and then reasonings are the combined result of a multitude of entangled thoughts and of a series of what are called impressions, planted by reiteration.

(Clark 174)

Life is an original, self-communing oneness dispersed into a series of mechanical acts and impressions through the signifying process of thought. Once again, the story is one of fall and fragmentation: the decay of symbolic consciousness into abstraction and evil, the descent into allegory.

In the midst of this story, however, the “Essay on Life” traces another relation between “life” and “thought.” It points towards a thought less nostalgic for a unified past and more open to differentiated futures. This occurs when Shelley particularizes his assent to “the intellectual system”:

Whatever may be [man's] true and final destination, there is a spirit within him at enmity with nothingness and dissolution. This is the character of all life and being. Each is at once the center and the circumference, the point to which all things are referred, and the line in which all things are contained.

(Clark 173)

The being of life that is at enmity with decay turns out to be nothing less than the “high aspirations” of thought:

… man is a being of high aspirations, ‘looking both before and after,’ whose ‘thoughts wander through eternity,’ disclaiming alliance with transience and decay; incapable of imagining to himself annihilation; existing in the future and the past; being, not what he is, but what he has been and shall be.

(Clark 173)

What was implicit in the earlier characterization of thought as reiterative and associative—setting off a train of thoughts—becomes explicit in these lines: thought is a temporal or even a temporalizing process. As semiotic and temporal, it displaces and disrupts the being of life, but that displacement is no longer considered a falling off from that being but its most characteristic mode. “Life and being” are never simply present; thought, the temporal undoing of any present, is therefore the figurative embodiment of what is most like life, or, simply, of what is most of all. This almost sounds like a recovery of paradisal unity—the oneness of life and thought—at the far end of the fallen narrative, but the correspondence of life and thought is predicated, quite literally, on nothing. The life which is most of all, the life “at enmity with nothingness and annihilation,” is also a “being” who is “not what he is, but what he has been and shall be.” (Even eternity is a space of “wandering.”) Life and thought do not so much mutually determine as mutually undetermine each other. The allegories which displace this “structure” both obscure and repeat its aporia: they obscure it with evaluations and verifications; they repeat it by virtue of the semiotic and temporal difference which they themselves enact.

This is as true for the woman's narratives as it is for the interpretations to which they give rise. The comet and star spring forth to displace the “spring” of life and thought—while “life” and “thought” themselves may be no more essential than any other figural displacement of the process through which origin may be said to take place. The dweller who identifies with their combat translates thought (his “warring” thoughts) into life—or life into thought—at the all-too-literal cost of a human life. The one who acts thus, “turned and shed his brother's blood.” Turning or troping vision into “sympathy” and thought into act leads directly to violence, which, in turn, is interpreted as the triumph of evil. A series of substitutions is set in motion: Manichaean oppositions of good and evil along with their inevitable confusion: “‘his immortal foe / He changed from starry shape, beauteous and mild, / To a dire Snake’” (367-69). These substitutions are usually and not very helpfully called “ethics” or “history.”

As an allegory of origin the narrative demands that we reconceive origin along with the historical and ethical valorizations that depend upon it. “The term origin is not intended to describe the process by which the existent came into being, but rather to describe that which emerges from the process of becoming and disappearance” [Im Ursprung wird kein Werden des Entsprungenen, vielmehr dem Werden und Vergehen Entspringendes gemeint (Benjamin, Origin 45; Ursprung 28)]. In the woman's (mis)interpretation of her own tale this powerful sense of origin gives way to origin as a point of departure and, ultimately, of return for a temporally unfolding narrative of revolutionary struggle in history. Only the narrative punctuation of repetition recollects origin as ongoing emergence, a becoming and disappearance that endlessly springs forth. Read as such a repetition, the eternal return of eagle and snake is no longer the figure of cyclic history at an impasse. What the poet-narrator sees in this opening emblem is the visionary trace of origin—Benjamin's Ursprung—as that which undoes the linear narrative through which history only appears to move when it is delusively figured as a teleologically determined return to original essence.19

Repetition does not, however, put an end to such delusional figurations. Its structure gives rise to the appearance of the very narrative pro- (or re-) gression which it at once punctuates and interrupts. Like the “imageless” truth which Demogorgon so ironically embodies, it generates even as it puts in question the pressure—the omnipresent possibility—of external, teleological meanings: in this instance, the possibility of a mimetic narrative through which the combat between life and thought can be contained or synthesized. Such referential effects translate history as trace into history as a gathering of phenomena:

          “Such is this conflict—when mankind
doth strive
                    With its oppressors in a strife of blood,
          Or when free thoughts like lightnings, are alive,
                    And in each bosom of the multitude
                    Justice and truth with Custom's hydra brood
          Wage silent war; when Priests and Kings dissemble
                    In smiles or frowns their fierce disquietude,
          When round pure hearts a host of hopes assemble,
The Snake and Eagle meet—the world's foundations tremble!”


In this grand summation the recurrent encounter of Eagle and Snake becomes the apocalyptic equation of life and thought: “free thoughts … are alive.” Thought is identified with life—referentiality with phenomena, repetition with narrative.20

As it suggests, in particular, the progress of a life into the higher unity of the temple of the Spirit, the asymmetry of incompleteness of this progress taints the closing canto's idealism with a remainder of uncertainty. But the text insists in several ways and at several junctures that the temple is the locus for a blending of “life” and “thought” that subsumes all difference into the totality of Spirit. This blending is, preeminently, the function of art, and the temple itself its perfect realization.21 At the far end of its repetitive entanglements the canto closes off its allegorical didacticism with an image of aesthetic idealism that projects, if only as a fiction, the dissolution of its tensions into symbolic identity. Already, the journey to the temple prefigures this projection: “Such were my thoughts, when the tide gan to flow; / And that strange boat like the moon's shade did sway / Amid reflected stars that in the waters lay” (321-23; my emphasis). The boat's movement seems to respond at once to the tide and the poet's thoughts. The tides, themselves, respond to the moon which, however—through its shadow-image the boat—is figuratively represented as responding to them. The reflection of the starlight on the ocean's surface offers another variation of this reciprocal empowerment. The description that follows (with its open allusions to Kubla Khan) offers a highly idealized figure of the boat as an imaginative reconciliation of opposites—stone and breath, matter and spirit. The highly wrought yet sensitive device may even evoke the ultrarefined sensitivities of the poet-narrator himself. In the course of this description the narrative breaks into a rare present tense as if the narrated journey and the textual one—like the artist and his work or like matter and spirit—no longer need to be distinguished. Reference becomes a purely auto-affective pointing:

A boat of rare device, which had no sail
          But its own curved prow of thin moonstone,
Wrought like a web of texture fine and frail,
          To catch those gentlest winds which are not known
          To breathe, but by the steady speed alone
With which it cleaves the sparkling sea; and now
          We are embarked—


The glimmering temple, with its “moonstone” roof is a more developed figure for the same imaginative reconciliation. It is the palace of poetry whose linguistic textures, “spell-inwoven clouds,” obscure and transmit transcendent light:

We came to a vast hall, whose glorious roof
          Was diamond, which had drank the lightning's
In darkness, and now poured it through the woof
          Of spell-inwoven clouds hung there to screen
          Its blinding splendour—through such veil was
That work of subtlest power, divine and rare;
          Orb above orb with starry shapes between …


Increasingly, art reflects art reflecting art, and objects have only themselves as the measure against which they can be valued: “… long and labyrinthine aisles—more bright / With their own radiance than the Heaven of Day” (597-98). Through this self-identity what emerges is nothing less than the symbolic identity of life and thought—or, more technically, intuition and signification:

                              … through a portal wide
                    We passed—whose roof of moonstone carved, did
          A glimmering o’er the forms on every side,
Sculptures like life and thought; immoveable, deep-eyed.


Immoveable yet glimmering, the sculptures embody the immortality of thought in and through the materiality of stone. The material itself glimmers as its name, “moonstone,” already combines (transparent) light and (solid) stone. Neither the seashore's path of isolated self-reflection nor the revolutionary proof of political action achieves so splendid a synthesis. Only through art can the poet-narrator commune with Liberty. One rises from the despair of human history to ascend the aesthetic heights in which Spirit manifests itself: “Paintings, the poesy of mightiest thought, / Which did the Spirit's history display” (610-11).

In so far as this climactic figure of aesthetic idealism confronts within itself the question of origin, it broaches the limits of its own articulation. The final climactic defense of Spirit (and symbol) is framed by a declaration of its unique and therefore, ultimately, incommunicable if not impossible status. This is, in part, a quite traditional, quasi-theological disclaimer. Read more closely, however, the words suggest that the description of the temple (which follows) is founded on a cleavage between the forms of art and the forms of thought—a disjunction which forces one to interpret the Temple in a more skeptical, more allegorical, “spirit.” The totality it promises never quite seals itself off from the groundless difference of origins:

          It was a Temple, such as mortal hand
                    Has never built, nor ecstasy, nor dream
          Reared in the cities of enchanted land: …
          Like what may be conceived of this vast dome,
                    When from the depths which thought can seldom pierce
          Genius beholds it rise, his native home,
                    Girt by the deserts of the Universe;
                    Yet, nor in painting's light, or mightier verse,
          Or Sculpture's marble language, can invest
                    That shape to mortal sense—such glooms immerse
          That incommunicable sight, and rest
Upon the labouring brain and overburdened breast.

(559-61, 568-76)

The temple's dome is compared to the sky; it is the world's horizon whose original rise remains all but beyond the reach of thought and altogether beyond the reach of sense. Though the art of the Temple—like a perfect image of the world—appears to synthesize “life” and “thought,” the “depths” which give rise to it remain outside its dialectic. This obscure origin is the birthplace of genius and, if one interprets genius as a peculiarly powerful (or even a peculiarly original) mode of thought, one is left with a thought that barely has access to itself. The “Treatise on Morals” (a text which is probably contemporaneous with Shelley's first work on The Revolt of Islam) makes this argument quite explicit. Thought, in that text, inhabits a temple, but one whose doors are forever barred to its own thoughtful contemplation. Though it has a home, it is never at home:

But thought can with difficulty visit the intricate and winding chambers which it inhabits. It is like a river whose rapid and perpetual stream flows outwards—like one in dread who speeds through the recesses of some haunted pile and dares not look behind. The caverns of the mind are obscure and shadowy; or pervaded with a lustre, beautifully bright indeed, but shining not beyond their portals. If it were possible to be where we have been, virtually and indeed—if, at the moment of our presence there, we could define the results of our experience—if the passage from sensation to reflection—from a state of passive perception to voluntary contemplation were not so dizzying and so tumultuous, this attempt would be less difficult.

(Clark 186)

Far from being the realization of an immortal life, thought, in this passage, is temporal, which is a way of saying, as in the prose fragments quoted above, that it signifies. It is never entirely itself but always points elsewhere; it can only flow out from a source which, both lustrous and shadowy, is itself a field of conflict.

Thought's inability to think itself explains, ironically, the ensuing fantasy of the Temple. Thought cannot even identify with its own difference. Repeatedly, though, the stanzas name the Temple with a word that recalls what the narrative thus forgets: “A fane stood in the midst …”; “Encircling that vast Fane's aerial heap” (556, 581). The word “fane” echoes with a suggestion that the temple can only feign its self-reflecting total universe. In isolation, the pun may seem forced, but the canto earlier prepares one for this possibility when it evokes the blatantly deceptive temple of Evil:

                              “… for none
                    Knew good from evil, though their names were hung
          In mockery o’er the fane where many a groan,
As King, and Lord, and God, the conquering Fiend did own.”


The fiend feigns through the mockery (imitation as well as insult) of his fane. The Temple of the Spirit, too, is the locus of a feint. Its artificial construct, “reared in the cities of enchanted land,” introduces figures—Pyramid, Dome, islands, steps—to be repeated throughout The Revolt of Islam over the course of an increasingly unstable and disturbing narrative. As a figure for the poem as a whole—the guarantor of its unity, the didactic key to its lesson—it remains a mockery. The names of Good and Evil drawn above its entrance, like those of life and thought, are at best a partial disclosure of truth, at worst its tyrannical parody.

At times thematizing and always repeating its rhetorical breakdown, the canto proffers an allegory of allegory which is inevitably turned into another allegory. As such unhappy formulations suggest, Shelley takes his text to the very edge of allegorical transfiguration, to the brink of a language that can only be interpreted as the emptying out of interpretive possibility. “No statement,” however, “can exclude the possibility that with it, something is meant”22—in spite of itself, the text refers: it teaches, it narrates, it describes, it names, even when what it teaches or narrates or describes or names is characterized as “incommunicable.” The consequences of this unfold in the ensuing cantos. They tell of one attempt to kindle thought in sense and thereby manifest Spirit's history in a symbolic synthesis of life and thought.

The poet-narrator who negotiates these difficulties within the text is repeatedly told to “listen,” a task implicitly enjoined upon Shelley's readers as well. In Shelley's last didactic allegory, The Triumph of Life, the word recurs in Rousseau's response to another poet-narrator. As in the earlier text, the later poem puts in question the interpersonal and mimetic valence of this term:

“But follow thou, and from spectator turn
          Actor or victim in this wretchedness,
“And what thou wouldst be taught I then may learn
          From thee.—Now listen … In the April
When all the forest tips began to burn …”


To listen is to act and to suffer, to learn and to teach, and finally to read. The April prime is the beginning not only of the natural cycle but of poetic tradition as well. Writing, like reading, through the figure of Rousseau, also unites action with suffering—political aspiration with reflective consciousness: “I / Have suffered what I wrote, or viler pain! / And so my words were seeds of misery— / Even as the deeds of others …” (278-80). In the Triumph of Life, as in the earlier work, the progressive unfolding of this paradox produces increasingly violent and unstable configurations. Here, I wish only to note one of the later text's less obvious allusions to the morning star. The question to which Rousseau is responding repeats, in various modes, throughout the text: “Whence comest thou and whither goest thou? / How did thy course begin … and why?” (296-97). The allusion is to Christ: an explicitly theological figure for the appearance of Spirit in (or as) history.23 Jesus, when challenged as to his divinity, replies in a beautifully self-confirming phrase: “Though I bear record of myself yet my record is true: for I know whence I came, and whither I go; but ye cannot tell whence I come, and whither I go” (John 8:140 and compare John 7:27-29). This Jesus is the Christian-mythical version of Shelley's eros or morning star. The textual link is Revelation. The light-bearer is not Satan but Christ: “I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star. And the Spirit and the bride say, Come …” (Revelation 22:16-17). The Revolt of Islam, with its original title, Laon and Cythna, or the Revolution in the Golden City, declares its relation to another biblical text, Isaiah, for the prophet there calls Babylon the “golden city.” (Isaiah 11:8 is also a source for Shelley's “good” snake.) In Isaiah, however, the light-bearer is Satan: “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning …” (Isaiah 14:12). The confluence of good and evil, Christ and Satan, logos as divine presence and Lucifer as fallen light suggests both the mythical dimensions of this figure and its profoundly contradictory status as figure. That is, as a figure it inevitably negates itself; it is only a figure. Such contradiction is the source of the injunction to listen, or, figuratively, to read. Consider the imagery that opens and closes this canto: “Long trains of tremulous mist began to creep / Until their complicating lines did steep / The orient sun in shadow”; “she was known / To be thus fair, by the few lines alone / Which through her floating locks and gathered cloak, / Glances of soul-dissolving glory shone” (139-41, 661-64). The obscure and obscuring lines, imagined naturalistically as shadows and glances, are, in the end, nothing other than the blank facticity of writing that gives itself to be read. The didactic encounter is irreducibly textual and irreducibly figural. It poses the challenge of a history at once good and evil, reflective and active, aesthetic and didactic, self-contained and endlessly other. It refers but not to anything or not to anything that could be isolated as a thing. It is the promise of dawn and the artifice of poiesis—a bright and mourning star.


  1. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977) 135. All quotes from Shelley's poetry except those from The Revolt of Islam are from this edition.

  2. Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford UP, 1912) 32. All quotes from The Revolt of Islam are drawn from this edition.

  3. Geoffrey Hartman, Criticism in the Wilderness: the Study of Literature Today (New Haven: Yale UP, 1980) 102.

  4. Shelley's letters confirm the special status of the opening canto:

    … The whole poem with the exception of the first canto & part of the last is a mere human story without the smallest intermixture of supernatural interference. The first Canto is indeed, in some measure a distinct poem, tho’ very necessary to the wholeness of the work. I say this, because if it were all written in the manner of the first Canto, I could not expect that it should be interesting to any great number of people—

    See The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964) 1: 563.

  5. For a discussion of how the entire text is structured as a repeating series of such scenes of poetic instruction, see Deborah Gutschera, “The Drama of Reenactment in Shelley's Revolt of Islam,Keats-Shelley Journal 35 (1986).

  6. Cf. Daniel Hughes, “Kindling and Dwindling: The Poetic Process in Shelley,” Keats-Shelley Journal 13 (1964): 13-28.

  7. Cf. William A. Ulmer, Shelleyan Eros: The Rhetoric of Romantic Love (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990) 19-20.

  8. Neville Rogers, Shelley at Work: A Critical Inquiry (Oxford: Clarendon, 1956) 107.

  9. Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia UP, 1984) 117-18.

  10. Cf. Paul Fry, The Poet's Calling in the English Ode (New Haven: Yale UP, 1983) 213-14.

  11. A favorite Shelley image. Cf. The Triumph of Life 410-31.

  12. Rogers' notes to his edition of Laon and Cythna refer to Locock's suggestion that Shelley is thinking of Mary Wollstonecraft's visit to Paris during the Revolution. He may also be thinking of a mysterious woman in Brockden Brown's Ormund. Shelley was an avid reader of Brown at this time. The Marlowe circle playfully assumed the names of characters from his novels (and Shelley named his daughter Clara, born in September 1817 when he was completing The Revolt of Islam, for the heroine of Wieland). Claire Clairmont's play-name was Constantia, the heroine of Ormund, and the lyric addressed “To Constantia” was written, too, at about this time. Not only is the novel broadly concerned with revolutionary energies gone awry, but the heroine is befriended by a beautiful older woman only to become increasingly suspicious and alienated when she learns of the latter's involvement with the French Revolution; she, too, had shared in “evil deeds with fearless men,” men like Ormund himself who by the novel's close is using revolutionary rhetoric to justify rape and murder.

  13. See, for example, the chapter on The Revolt of Islam in Brian Wilkie, Romantic Poets and Epic Tradition (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1965).

  14. Earl Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1965) 104. Wasserman's note to this draws attention to the influence of Wollstonecraft as well as Godwin.

  15. One of the poem's main sources supports the idea that the process of analogy produces the ethical valorizations of good and evil. Volney's Ruines d’Empire describes the founding of religion as the imposition of ethical interpretation on cosmic phenomena. See Kenneth Cameron, “A Major Source of The Revolt of Islam,” PMLA 56: 175-206. Cameron quotes the Barlow translation of Volney on the naming of contrasting hemispheres: “‘by a continual metaphor these words acquired a moral sense … From that moment all the astronomical history of the constellations was changed into a political history.’” Cameron argues that “it is not unlikely that it was from this whole discussion that Shelley got the germ of the idea for ‘the blood-red comet and the morning star,’ combining this notion of conflicting celestial bodies, representative of the basic good and evil powers, with that of his usual symbolization of the star of Venus as Love” (201). The source, however, confirms that the cosmic representation of good and evil is in no way a given, but produced allegorically “by a continual metaphor.”

  16. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 1977) 233-34. For the German, see Benjamin, Ursprung des Deutschen Trauerspiels (Frankfurt-am-Main: Suhrkamp, 1974) 209. Further quotes from this work will be noted in the text.

  17. Even if one concedes that life and thought figure a radical cleavage or burst through which and on which other differences articulate themselves, has one not still re-essentialized the nought of chaos, replacing the moral ground of revolutionary history with a metaphysical one? Shelley's language undoubtedly tends in that direction, though the metaphysical tendency, insofar as it limits a hypostatization of “good” and “evil,” actually serves a critical function. For Shelley, this has direct political implications. Revolution is fundamental to his concept of universal history, because creation occurs through the violent imposition of relation through chaos—the kindling aporias of thought in sense. The cosmic history of the “Ode to Liberty” begins with such a gesture: “The Sun and the serenest Moon sprang forth: / The burning stars of the abyss were hurled / Into the depths of heaven” (16-18). This “spring” of history, however, can also ironically seal its fate: in the same text the name of “Priest” is “hurled” from a “hell” of fiends (228-29), an imposition of clerical tyranny. To disentangle the one act from the other is an ongoing task for Shelley's poetry and its readers. It is, I believe, the properly historical task his work demands.

  18. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley's Prose: The Trumpet of a Prophecy, ed. David Lee Clark (New Amsterdam and New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1988) 172, 174. Future quotes from this edition will be noted in the text as Clark.

  19. With this argument in mind, one should reread the actual account of the eagle and snake which is alternately clearly marked as the battle of good versus evil, tyranny versus freedom and somewhat more confusingly as an inextricable intertwining of two forms that periodically overlap and even exchange positions. In this combat what is at stake is less eagle versus snake than the combat itself: “What life, what power, was kindled and arose / Within the sphere of that appalling fray!” (217-18). The language used to describe their conflict in The Revolt of Islam even returns in The Mask of Anarchy as the description of a single revolutionary phantom:

    It grew—A Shape arrayed in mail
    Brighter than the viper's scale,
    And upborne on wings whose grain
    Was as the light of sunny rain.
    On its helm seen far away
    A planet, like the Morning's lay:


  20. One can (and should) expand consideration of this play of terms—life and thought—with reference to their recurrence in the apparently redemptive context of canto XII—the one part of the poem that returns to the visionary scenes of canto I.

  21. Cf. Douglas Thorpe, “Shelley's Golden Verbal City,” The Journal of English and German Philology 86 (1987): 215-17. Thorpe also addresses some of the imbalances of this ideal structure.

  22. Werner Hamacher, “Lectio: de Man's Imperative,” trans. Susan Bernstein, in Reading de Man Reading, edited by Lindsay Waters and Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989) 185.

  23. In his prose Shelley frequently compares Rousseau to Christ both implicitly and explicitly. See, for example, the “Essay on Christianity”: “Rousseau … is perhaps the philosopher among the moderns who in the structure of his feelings and understanding resembles most nearly the mysterious sage of Judaea. It is impossible to read those passionate words in which Jesus Christ upbraids the pusillanimity and sensuality of mankind, without being strongly reminded of the more connected and systematic enthusiasm of Rousseau” (Clark 209).

K. D. Verma (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Introduction to The Vision of “Love's Rare Universe”: A Study of Shelley's Epipsychidion, University Press of America, Inc., 1995, pp. 1-12.

[In the following introduction to a full-length interpretation of Shelley's Epipsychidion, Verma evaluates the poem in the context of Shelley's theory of the imagination.]

I am the eye with which the Universe
Beholds itself and knows it is divine;
All harmony of instrument or verse,
All prophecy, all medicine is mine,
All light of art or nature;—to my song
Victory and praise in its own right belong.

“Hymn of Apollo”


Epipsychidion, written in 1821, is a product of Shelley's mature years. Following the composition of his earlier poems, Shelley's thought had exhibited a rapid and dramatic growth, especially in terms of its capacity, power and magnitude. Prometheus Unbound and Epipsychidion, remarks Ghose, “show this turn of his [Shelley's] genius at its height; they are two of the three greatest things he has left to us on the larger scale.”1 The latter Shelley had been thinking about the possibility of writing his own Symposium and Vita Nuova. He had recently translated Plato's Symposium, and was keenly aware of the poetic necessity of “a systematic form” that The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost had “conferred upon modern mythology” ([The Poetical Works of Shelley, hereafter] W, VII, 130). While attempting to grapple with the metaphysical issues, Shelley confronted the problem of the poetic form—of creating archetypal and mythic structures of reality. Baker rightly observes that Epipsychidion,Adonais,The Triumph of Life and the Defence “have a common frame of reference and to a certain extent share in the complex inner symbolic structure which was present to Shelley's mind when they were composed, but which cannot be understood until they are studied together.”2 Shelley's imagination in these works, according to Baker, exhibits a keen sense of “cosmic unity” and the “vision of truth.” Admittedly, the Defence, a Platonic document,3 is one of the most profound statements on the function of poetry: it embodies Shelley's conception of “the eternal Forms,” and so does Epipsychidion. The poem, it has been said, is about making images, metaphors and symbols: in a bolder and more comprehensive sense, however, the poem deals with the embodiment of the Idea, and hence, with the metaphysics of Love, Truth and Beauty.

In one of the cancelled prefaces to the poem Shelley mentions his aborted plan of writing “a longer poem or a series of poems” (W, II, 377) to which Epipsychidion was intended to serve merely as an introductory poem. Although Shelley's remark inevitably reminds us of Wordsworth's grand design of a long poem, it is only more logical to think of its likely resemblance with the Dantean model. Epipsychidion, containing “the idealized history” of the poet's quest and the “hard matter,” was meant to be intelligible only to the “esoteric few.” Even if we were to put aside the critical problem of intentionality and consider Shelley's own statements about the poem at their face value, the matter of determining an exclusionary approach to the study of Epipsychidion will not be quite simple.

Amongst the Victorian readings of the poem, Rossetti's assessment of the poem is perhaps the most sensitive: “As a pure outpouring of poetry … Epipsychidion is beyond praise, and beyond description”; and it is “the most glowing and splendid idealization of the passion of love … ever produced in any language.”4 The twentieth-century criticism of the poem, like Shelley's overall standing, has presented several divergent positions. Leavis' moralist devaluation of Shelley and the poem draws its basic strength from Santayana's judgment that Shelley's “too intense a need of loving excludes the capacity for intelligent sympathy.” While asserting that Shelley's imagery generally shows strains of eroticism and voluptuousness, Leavis concludes: “The consequences of the need, or ‘love,’ of loving, combined, as it was, with a notable lack of self-knowledge and a capacity for ecstatic idealizing, are classically extant in Epipsychidion.5 But the Santayana-Leavis position essentially suffers from a fundamental weakness of value-judgment and moral anxiety. Indeed, Ian Jack's discerning assessment of the poem in the Oxford History of English Literature points out the sustained unity of Shelley's vision. While noting the “remarkable resemblances between the style of Epipsychidion and that of many of Crashaw's poems,” Jack maintains that the poem “does not disintegrate”: “The inspiration outlasts the six hundred lines, and the result is a poem as particularly characteristic of Shelley as the Hymn to the Name and Honor of the Admirable S. Teresa is of Crashaw.”6 It should, however, be readily admitted that despite a variety of critical responses to the poem, from Shelley's time to the modern time, Epipsychidion remains the most difficult and decidedly the most controversial of all of Shelley's poems.

While the biographical readings of the poem have focused on the history of Shelley's relationship with various women, the other category of criticism has concentrated on the poem as a statement of the theory of poetry and imagination.7 The two major responses in the latter category have treated the poem either in the tradition of Dante or in the light of Shelley's Platonism and Neoplatonism. C. S. Lewis' laudatory judgment of Shelley as being “the half of Dante”8 is actually based on Act IV of Prometheus Unbound and not on Epipsychidion.Epipsychidion gets low rating from Lewis, because the “thought implied in it [is] a dangerous delusion.” Shelley, according to Lewis, “is trying to stand on a particular rung of the Platonic ladder,” that is virtually non-existent. Lewis, to one's deep consternation, seems to be questioning Shelley's understanding of Plato—and of Dante: “There is an element of spiritual, and also of carnal, passion in it, each expressed with great energy and sensibility, and the whole is marred, but not completely, by the false mode (as Mr. Eliot and I would maintain) in which the poet tries to blend them.”9 But the very genesis, whether moral or philosophical, of determining a possibly true or acceptable “mode” of blending the sexual and the spiritual remains undefined. Although Lewis admits that Eliot, in his preoccupation with Epipsychidion, has attempted to read the poetic view in the poem—“ethics, metaphysics, or theology”—in terms of his personal beliefs, Lewis' own view of the poem, it must be recognized, is based on a set of moral predicates. Bloom, of course, believes that the Platonic ladder, set up not by “Shelley's poem but by its Platonizing interpreters,”10 must be demolished. But Shelley reiterates with unremitting firmness and clarity that “the love of woman which these verses express was but the form of that universal Love which Plato taught.”11 Ironically, in his approach to the poem Bloom uses Buber's existential ethics of the I-Thou relationship, maintaining at the same time that “the poet Shelley was infinitely wiser and better than the philosopher Shelley or the man Shelley.”12 Implicit in Bloom's outright rejection of Shelley's Platonism and Neoplatonism is his conviction that Shelley is a Humean sceptic and that the ethical framework of image-making in the poem is incompatible with the conception of the embodiment of the Idea. Although the long debate to classify Shelley's intellectual thought—Platonic, Lockean, Berkeleyan and Godwinian—has so far been inconclusive, some of the Shelley scholarship seems to have been dictated by a pre-predicated value-sense.13 If criticism as science is expected to create an objective and coherent body of knowledge, it must follow a course of disinterested and uncompromising intellectual inquiry, and it must recognize that a poem admits several meanings and approaches.

While characterizing Shelley's Platonism as natural Platonism, Notopoulos maintains that “Epipsychidion is the most Platonic of his [Shelley's] poems in intensity, Platonic emotion, joy, and ecstasy,” and that the poem in its configuration of Emily “fuses the Symposium, the Phaedrus, and the Dantean as well as Petrarchan Platonism.”14 But Notopoulos adds that whereas the poem's vision is Shelley's own natural Platonism, he is indebted to Plato for “the symbol of language, thought, emotion and the dramatic technique,” and to Dante for “making woman incarnate, the most embracing and appealing of all of nature's phenomena and symbols, represent and foreshadow the ideal Reality of Heaven.”15 In the Defence, Shelley refers to Dante's “apotheosis of Beatrice in Paradise, and the gradations of his own love and her loveliness” and his ascent “to the throne of the Supreme Cause” (W, VII, 128). Shelley had no doubt started seeing in the manner of Plato and Dante, but his idea of making woman the symbol of Reality may also have drawn its reinforcements from several other different sources.16 One might question Shelley's conflation of Dante, Milton and other poets and thinkers, but there is no reason to distrust his reading of Dante. In fact, Dante, maintains Shelley, “understands the secret things of love even more than Petrarch” (W, VII, 128). Shelley's avid interpretation of the Dantean analogy must be understood, with all its complex divagations, as an essential part of the syncretic poetic process in which the imagination sees unified and coherent structure of various other similar poetic mythologies and analogical metaphors. It is quite plain to Shelley's mind that the Commedia is “a perpetual hymn of everlasting Love” (W, VII, 128), that in Dante's exegetical model Beatrice is the controlling symbol of his metaphysics, religiosity and poetic vision and that Dante's initial love for Beatrice is transformed into spiritual ecstasy. Thus Shelley must have clearly seen in Dante the fusion of the Christian idea of love and the Platonic Eros. Of course, it would be utterly unfair to suggest that Shelley shares, much less endorses, Dante's theology and metaphysics.

Significantly, Baker talks about Shelley's gynecomorphism,17 and I. A. Richards describes Asia as Prometheus' “Shakti.18 That Shelley never stopped contemplating the Absolute as a hypothesis and that he saw in the figure of woman the possibility of mediating and representing the Idea are not coincidental. Dante's Beatrice, Blake's emanation, Jung's anima, the Sheikina in Kabbalistic thought, the Virgin Sophia in Jacob Boehme, the Eternal Feminine in Goethe and the Shakti in Indian thought clearly suggest an extremely significant archetypal method of imagining in woman the symbol-idea of reality. Shelley exhibits a keen sense of tradition and continuity in noting a distinguishing characteristic of Dante's mind: “The poetry of Dante may be considered as the bridge thrown over the stream of time, which unites the modern and the antient World” (W, VII, 129). The speedy and intrepid intellectual absorption of a large body of different images and ideas from several traditions enabled Shelley's encyclopedic mind to create, through a continuous process of subversion and transvaluation, mythic structures and archetypal symbols and images, thus situating modern intellectual progress in the context of tradition and the history of ideas.19 Emily is both an analogical metaphor and concrete universal in the myth Shelley's imagination has created in Epipsychidion. But while modern critical theory, especially the approach rooted in the sociology and philosophy of gender, may debate the basis of the choice of woman as the symbol-idea, it is clear that Shelley's imagination, by participating in the archetypal quest for the ideal, has linked itself with tradition. The alignment with tradition, as Bate points out, is the act of joining together or what Keats calls an “immortal free-masonry.”20

The present study is an attempt to interpret and evaluate Shelley's Epipsychidion, assuming that although it is an individual whole, it is a manifestation of his poetic consciousness, centered around his conceptions of the imagination and of love. In my discussion of the poem, I propose to consider Shelley's theory of the imagination and the visionary process, giving special attention to the general and particular problems that arise from the poem. The primary focus of my discussion, however, is on the poem as a total verbal structure, from which there emerges the main poetic argument concerning the quality of vision and the artistic process. In this textual study of the poem, I plan to use the ideas of Plato and Plotinus, Dante's conception of Beatrice, Buber's Theory of I-Thou and Jung's idea of the anima archetype as possible approaches to the reading of the poem. The central subject of quest in Shelley's myth of reintegrated wholeness and spiritual transcendence is the woman, the epipsyche. Emily is the symbol of the envisioned reality and the medium of realizing the Absolute. The epipsyche is the emanation in the Neoplatonic sense, the anima archetype in the Jungian sense, and the Thou in Buber's sense. The woman figure in Shelley's imagination is the incarnate vision of Intellectual Beauty or of Love in the sense in which Diotima defines it in the Symposium. In a larger sense, the epipsyche, “a soul within the soul” ([Epipsychidion, 455), is the aesthetic-spiritual representation of all that the poet creates, the poem, his universe, his vision, his love, liberty and the community of being. In considering Epipsychidion, especially Shelley's conception of the epipsyche, in the light of Jung's anima archetype and the Indian idea of shakti, I have endeavored to provide a new focus for understanding the nature of the soul's struggle for psychic regeneration and completeness. My discussion of the poem and of the woman figure shows that Shelley not only anticipated Jung but also thought in terms of the archetypes. Towards the end of Epipsychidion, the metaphor of annihilation, as I have argued, suggests the annihilation of ego, the non-self, an act which the imagination performs for the recovery of the anima. Indeed, the archetypal pattern of progressive ascent of the human mind in Shelley is in the tradition of Plato, Dante and Jung.


The criticism of poetry requires not only a consideration of the nature and function of the imagination and poetry but also a formulation of some hypotheses and assumptions in the light of the poet's own donnée and the broad literary tradition of which he is a part. The study of Romantic poets like Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley posits a special challenge, because their deep concern with the function of the imagination and poetry has created a comprehensive Romantic aesthetic according to which poetry is conceived as the “highest activity of the human mind.”21 “A poem,” says Shelley in the Defence, “is the image of life expressed in its eternal truth” (W, VII, 115). Poetry, by creating universal and eternal forms of existence, enables the imagination to participate “in the eternal, the infinite, and the one” (W, VII, 112).22 Such a conception of a poem or poetry entails, in the most comprehensive sense, a kind of knowledge or wisdom through which the imagination perceives eternal forms of love, beauty, truth and good; and it, therefore, places poetry at the anagogic level of Dante. But since poetry is “the expression of the imagination” (W, VII, 109), and since “All things exist as they are perceived” (W, VII, 137),23 the reality or truth that a poem embodies is that which the imagination perceives. Insofar as poetry or the imagination is concerned, this is the only reality or truth that exists. In the process of creating or imagining, poetry reveals universal, infinite and eternal wisdom. In fact, the creation of knowledge is one of the two functions of the poetical faculty, the other being the communication of pleasure (cf. W, VII, 134). But when Shelley says that poetry is “the centre and circumference of knowledge” (W, VII, 135), he means, as Coleridge does, that poetry is wisdom: it includes not only all other kinds of knowledge but also the vision of life and universe.24

The verbal structure of the poem, therefore, contains images of eternal, infinite and unified wisdom or consciousness in relation to the total dream of man. These images in the universal and mythic sense, then, become what Frye calls monads or anagogic symbols.25 This is the sense in which wisdom, Logos, according to Coleridge, becomes the poetic genius or the communicative intellect of “the infinite I Am.”26 The perception of “the infinite I Am” in the self is higher consciousness that comprehends the subject and the object as a unity. This dynamic principle of reconciliation of the opposites, manifesting itself in “the Sum or I Am,” is the “spirit, self, and self-consciousness.” “In this, and in this alone,” adds Coleridge, “object and subject, being and knowing are identical, each involving, and supposing the other.” In this state of unified consciousness the images become symbols of identity.

The infinite consciousness of unity in Shelley—and in Blake and Coleridge—is the projected dream of the mind to experience ultimately the absolute telos and reality beyond the world of time and space. This desire of the imagination for infinite unity and identity with the absolute is eternal and apocalyptic.27 Consequently, the structural pattern of imagery and symbolism and total meaning, the mythos and dianoia, communicate the infinite consciousness of totality imagined in the mind. As Frye observes:

When we pass into anagogy, nature becomes, not the container, but the thing contained, and the archetypal universal symbols, the city, the garden, the guest, the marriage, are no longer the desirable forms that man constructs inside nature, but are themselves the forms of nature. Nature is now inside the mind of an infinite man who builds his cities out of the Milky Way. … Anagogically, then, poetry unites total ritual, or unlimited social action, with total dream, or unlimited individual thought. Its universe is infinite and boundless hypothesis: it cannot be contained within any actual civilization or set of moral values, for the same reason that no structure of imagery can be restricted to one allegorical interpretation. Here the dianoia of art is no longer a mimesis logou, but the Logos, the shaping word …28

In the anagogic sense the mythos of the poem is the total dream which includes all that the imagination creates and desires to realize in “the infinite, the eternal, and the one.” But what gives ultimate dimension to this dream is the dianoia, the Logos.

“But the anagogic perspective,” adds Frye, “is not to be confined only to the works that seem to take in everything, for the principle of anagogy is not simply that everything is the subject of poetry, but that anything may be the subject of a poem.”29 If the poem as an individual unit has the original acorn of wisdom, the sense of continuity and infinite unity of poetry will be implicit in the poem. Such a conception of continuity and infinite unity means that the poem, its mythos and dianoia, will relate to the total corpus of literature. Shelley defines this total, comprehensive and continuous form as “that great poem, which all poets, like the co-operating thoughts of one great mind, have built up since the beginning of the world” (W, VII, 124). The anagogic response, therefore, implies a comparative and morphological response, and the opening of the stubborn and still centre of wisdom. Hence, we may note Frye's view of the verbal universe of the poem and the nature of critical response:

Thus the center of the literary universe is whatever poem we happen to be reading. One step further, and the poem appears as a microcosm of all literature, an individual manifestation of the total order of words. Anagogically, then, the symbol is a monad, all symbols being united in a single infinite and eternal verbal symbol which is, as dianoia, the Logos, and, as mythos, total creative act.30

Considered from this view, Epipsychidion is an anagogic poem, embodying the infinite consciousness of unity with the absolute. The persona in Epipsychidion seeks ultimate unity with the epipsyche who is the daughter, bride, sister and soul as well as the universe, isle and paradise.

The “eternal truth” is the universal and total meaning that the imagination gives to mythos. In creating the “image of life … in its eternal truth,” the imagination experiences, both epistemologically and ontologically, the reality of existence. Since the poem is a representation of “eternal truth,” as opposed to the local, historical and temporal truth, it is one long metaphor of continuity, universality and permanence. The perception of “eternal truth” of existence, such as the one that Shelley proposes, implies a process of transcendence beyond the temporal-spatial reality. It is by this process of transcendence that the “eternal truth” is revealed in a moment of eternity.


The foregoing discussion has focused on the conception of poetry, the philosophy of knowledge and the theory of language and metaphor. The central issue in the history of Romantic thought is the intellectual perception of Reality and its embodiment as the symbol-Idea. Can that which is Infinite be finitized? Has Shelley's imagination perceived the essential identity of the world of sense and Intellectual Beauty? Since Reality in the Kantian aesthetic of Idealism is transcendent and inaccessible to Understanding (Verstand), Kant as an epistemologist was able to define the possible limits of knowledge. However, transcendent Reality, as Coleridge tried to assign his own meaning to Kant's ideas, is accessible to Reason (Vernunft) through moral consciousness.31 While Hegel departed from the Kantian metaphysics and defined beauty as “the sensuous semblance of the Idea,”32 he could not help the Romantic imagination in its search for the Absolute. Finally, it was Schelling who, as Abrams points out, had to go to the Plotinian idea of the One and the many.33 Significantly, Kant, despite the inexorable limitations he placed on knowledge, did not succumb to Humean scepticism.34 Scepticism, according to Hegel, recognizes “the dogmatism of common sense” and the “untruth of the finite,”35 but Humean scepticism, as distinguished from Greek scepticism, is positivistic in nature. “Genuine scepticism,” like that of Plato, is a philosophical method of knowing Truth: understood in this context, most seekers of Truth would be considered sceptics. But negative truth, as Wasserman rightly observes in his discussion of Shelley's scepticism, leaves a perilous vacancy in the mind.36 Coleridge's self-doubt in the Dejection Ode was merely a temporary phenomenon, and Coleridge, following his recovery, had appropriated new meaning to Kant's Verstand and Vernunft, thus giving the “‘primary imagination’ the dignity of being the ‘prime agent of all human perception.’”37 Shelley, too, gives primacy to the imagination in perceiving the highest form of unity of consciousness, but without admitting any limits to the intellection of Truth. We may call Shelley a sceptic in the Platonic tradition,38 especially since Shelley, like Plato, often employs the dialectical conflict between appearance and reality not only as a method of recognizing the impermanence and the “untruth of the world of sense” but also as a basis of dealing with the philosophical problems of expansiveness, penetrability and permanence. Frye identifies the imagination in Shelley with Vernunft,39 probably because the redemptive vision of Intellectual Beauty is predicated by moral conscience. Insofar as the limits of knowledge are concerned, the Berkeleyan symbol of the veil and the metaphor of annihilation in Shelley firmly and clearly define the epistemology and the ontology of the Idea. The joy or ananda that the Romantic Image is supposed to communicate results from the illuminating and refulgent power of the Idea.

The theory of knowledge in Romantic aesthetic inevitably presupposes the identity of subject and object—somewhat after Schelling's doctrine of identity, that Coleridge calls “essentially pantheistic.”40 The ability of the imagination to perceive the Absolute in appearance not only explains the nature of the Absolute but also posits a way for the freedom of the human mind. After all, to be able to perceive the Absolute in appearance is to achieve a corresponding degree of expansiveness of one's own mind. Even Hegel's conceptualization of the Absolute or Idea rests on its manifestation; thus art or beauty, according to Hegel, is the manifest sensuousness or supersensuousness.41 Northrop Frye maintains that when Shelley says that “‘The hypothesis of a pervading spirit co-eternal with the universe’ remains unaltered,” he implies that “God, if he exists at all, can exist only as existence, an aspect of our own identity and not as a hypothesis attached to the natural order.”42 Apparently, Frye's Blakean elucidation of Shelley's statement focuses on the intellectual perception of Reality as existence and the projected correspondence between existence and perception. Insofar as art is concerned, the perception of Reality in terms of its manifestation either in appearance or in existence defines the nature of the poetic image. Shelley's notion of the protrusion of Reality centers on the aesthetic and spiritual vision of analogy, identity and unity—and, hence, of its representation in the poetic symbol. Significantly, Shelley, as one may construe from the metaphysics of symbol,43 goes beyond the Kantian categories and the Hegelian conception of the Absolute or Idea.

Although the elevation of the object-existence to a level of animation or sensuousness may be deemed as philosophically illogical, the imaginative identity of subject and object, aesthetically speaking, implies a higher level of consciousness. This consciousness of the self may no doubt be characterized as ego, but the manifestation of consciousness means the perception of the other. Wasserman notes the paradox in Shelley's intellectual philosophy: “Although he [Shelley] aspires to escape appearances and to exist in the Absolute (in which case he would exist no longer), the Absolute would not exist were it not for its appearances.”44 It may, however, be argued that since nothing would appear without Reality, any genuine quest for the Absolute must not mean an escape from or indifference to appearance. At the same time existence in the realm of Reality implies not only an unobtrusive acceptance of self-sufficiency and independence as attributes of each of the two realms but also a protracted denial of any authentic search for truth. In Shelley's imagination, the paradigmatic structure of reality envisages the identity of the world of sense and the world of spirit while retaining the dualism between appearance and reality as an integral part of the epistemology of truth. But in the felicitous state of heightened consciousness the mythopoeic and symbolist imagination of Shelley soars far beyond the search for identity with the object-world, seeking a “higher unity”45 and harmony. In his incessant search for “eternal Forms,” Shelley often outreaches the conceivable limits of epistemology and crosses into the realm of ontology. The epistemological-ontological argument in Epipsychidion, especially the poetic vision of Emily, shows that Emily as the metaphysics of Idea is both the symbol and the discourse and that Emily as poem, art and Idea converges into the unity of mind and spirit.46


  1. Aurobindo Ghose, The Future Poetry (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1953), p. 181.

  2. Carlos Baker, Shelley's Major Poetry: The Fabric of Vision (1948. New York: Russell, 1961), p. 217.

  3. See M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (1953. New York: Norton, 1958), p. 126.

  4. William Michael Rossetti, Memoirs of Shelley. With a Fresh Preface (1886. New York: AMS, 1971), p. 103.

  5. F. R. Leavis, Revaluation: Tradition & Development in English Poetry (1947. New York: Norton, 1963), p. 222.

  6. Ian Jack, English Literature 1815-1832, Vol. X of The Oxford History of English Literature, ed. E. P. Wilson and Bonamy Dobrée (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), p. 90. Also see Edmund Blunden's perceptive estimate of the poem, in his Shelley: A Life Story (1946. London: Oxford UP, 1965): “For the pervading spirit of his poem, he found a prototype in Dante's Vita Nuova; and for the mysteriousness and its share in bringing his beloved's pre-eminence into the attention of posterity his model was Shakespeare's Sonnets” (p. 235).

  7. See the headnote by Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers in Shelley's Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts and Criticism (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 372. Also see Donald H. Reiman's perceptive reading of the poem in his Percy Bysshe Shelley (Boston: Twayne, 1969), pp. 25-33. “The poem,” remarks Reiman, “explores the origin, nature, and function of the central core of meaning and value within the human psyche” (p. 125). Harold Bloom, in Shelley's Mythmaking (New Haven: Yale UP, 1959), notes that Epipsychidion “is a poem about poetry”; it “exists to record the struggle of image-making” (p. 210). Note Harold Bloom's observation in “The Unpastured Sea: An Introduction,” in Romanticism and Consciousness: Essays in Criticism, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Norton, 1970), pp. 394-95: Epipsychidion, “a bewilderingly problematical work,” “most directly concerns itself with the mind in creation.” Woodberry's important note on “Lines Connected With Epipsychidion,” in The Poetical Works of Shelley, ed. Newell F. Ford (Boston: Houghton, 1975), is extremely relevant: “From these lines, and also from other fragments, it is to be inferred that a poem, substantially Epipsychidion, was in Shelley's mind before his meeting with Emilia Viviani, and that she was also the inspiration of it than the occasion of the form it took” (p. 446). In “Dante,” in Selected Essays, new ed. (New York: Harcourt, 1964), T. S. Eliot characterizes Vita Nuova as “vision literature” and maintains that “the attitude of Dante to the fundamental experience of the Vita Nuova can only be understood by accustoming ourselves to find meaning in final causes rather in origins” (p. 234). “It is not, I believe,” adds Eliot, “meant as a description of what he consciously felt on his meeting with Beatrice, but rather as a description of what that meant on mature reflection upon it” (p. 234, emphasis added). But while Eliot sees in Dante's vision an incontestable conflation of sexual desire and religious ecstasy, he is critical of Shelley's design and sensibility in Epipsychidion. However, his suggestion about the critical approach to reading Vita Nuova is extremely helpful in understanding the significance or insignificance of Emilia Viviani. And there is Benjamin Kurtz's forceful reminder: “Read the Epipsychidion as a poem of prostitution, and its transportations become ridiculous exaggerations of the intoxications of lust” (The Pursuit of Death: A Study of Shelley's Poetry [New York: Oxford UP, 1933], pp. 262-263).

  8. C. S. Lewis, “Shelley, Dryden, and Mr. Eliot,” in English Romantic Poets, ed. M. H. Abrams (1960. New York: Oxford UP, 1965), p. 263.

  9. Lewis, p. 262.

  10. Shelley's Mythmaking, p. 205.

  11. Cited in Earl R. Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading (Baltimore: John Hopkins P, 1971), p. 443. “The principle of authentic reading,” remarks Frye, “is particularly important in connection with the two chief poetic influences on Shelley.” These two poets Plato and Dante, adds Frye, “were for Shelley poets of Eros” (A Study of English Romanticism [New York: Random, 1968], p. 123). See the following observation by Herbert Read: “But there is nothing vulgar about the philosophy expounded in Epipsychidion. The only comparable work, by which it was much influenced, is Plato's Symposium, and the one is as pure and noble in conception as the other, though Shelley himself compared his poem to the Vita Nuova of Dante” (“Shelley's Philosophy,” in The Major English Romantic Poets: A Symposium in Reappraisal, ed. Clarence D. Thorpe et al. [1957. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1970], pp. 210-11).

  12. Shelley's Mythmaking, p. 206.

  13. This is Northrop Frye's term, though not essentially his meaning, used by him in his essay “On Value-Judgments,” in The Stubborn Structure: Essays on Criticism and Society (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1970), p. 70.

  14. James A. Notopoulos, The Platonism of Shelley: A Study of Platonism and the Poetic Mind (1949. New York: Octagon, 1969), pp. 276 and 278.

  15. The Platonism of Shelley, p. 278.

  16. Wasserman, in his Shelley: A Critical Reading, suggests Song of Songs as a possible source.

  17. Carlos Baker, Introduction, Selected Poetry and Prose of Percy Bysshe Shelley (New York: ML, 1951), p. xv.

  18. “The Mystical Element in Shelley's Poetry,” Part II, The Aryan Path, 30 (July 1959), 293. James H. Cousins, in his The Work Promethean (1938. Port Washington: Kennikat, 1970), suggests the significance of Prometheus and Asia along this line. According to Cousins, Prometheus and Asia are “the atman and buddhi (the essential ego and intuition)” (p. 31).

  19. See, for example, Stuart Curran's enlightening approach to understanding Shelley's mind in his Shelley's Annus Mirabilis: The Maturing of an Epic Vision (San Marino: HL, 1975). “Shelley,” remarks Curran, “is the last of the English Renaissance poets and among the first of its modern ones, and, like the Dante he venerated in the Defence of Poetry, his work has become a ‘bridge thrown over the stream of time’” (pp. xix-xx). Also see Stephen Spender's Introduction to A Choice of Shelley's Verse (London: Faber, 1971). “Like Goethe,” remarks Spender, “Shelley had sensibility and intellect capable of absorbing a great deal of theory, information, and philosophy, and transforming them into his imaginative language. It is when he does this that he … enters a stratosphere of ideas into which is absorbed Greek philosophy, Oriental mysticism, The Divine Comedy, Faust …” (p. 12).

  20. W. Jackson Bate, The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (1970. New York: Norton, 1972), p. 129.

  21. My assumption that the Romantic aesthetic or Romanticism is a unified movement with some common fundamental literary objectives is, of course, contrary to Arthur O. Lovejoy's assertion, made in his essay “On the Discrimination of Romanticisms,” in Essays in the History of Ideas (1948. New York: Putnam's, 1960), that there are “Romanticisms.” See René Wellek's two essays “The Concept of Romanticism in Literary History” and “Romanticism Re-examined,” in Concepts of Criticism, ed. Stephen G. Nichols, Jr. (1963. New Haven: Yale UP, 1971); and essays of Northrop Frye, M. H. Abrams and Lionel Trilling in Romanticism Reconsidered, ed. Northrop Frye (1963. New York: Columbia UP, 1968). However, we may note Geoffrey Hartman's interesting observation: “We still need an answer to Lovejoy's scepticism concerning the usefulness of the concept or term Romanticism. Wellek began answering some twenty years ago, but one sometimes feels that if Lovejoy had written Wellek's article Wellek would have countered with Lovejoy's. The debate is a twenty-year standoff” (“Theories on the Theory of Romanticism,” The Wordsworth Circle, 2 [1971], 51).

  22. Cf. Wordworth's view of poetry as “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge” (Preface to the Second Edition of the Lyrical Ballads, in Wordsworth: Poetical Works, rev. ed., Ernest de Selincourt, ed. [London: Oxford UP, 1966], p. 738); Coleridge's conception of poetry in Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross (1907. London: Oxford UP, 1965), I, 160-202; II, 10-12. We may especially note Coleridge's elucidation of his conception of the imagination or poetry as the “Sum or I Am”: “But if we elevate our conception to the absolute self, the great eternal I Am, then the principle of being, and of knowledge, of idea, and of reality; the ground of existence, and the ground of the knowledge of existence, are absolutely identical, Sum quia sum; I am, because I affirm myself to be; I affirm myself to be, because I am” (Biographia Literaria, I, 183). As compared to the Romantic view of poetry, Tate and Ransom also identify poetry with a “kind of knowledge,” a limited and concrete knowledge. In The World's Body (New York: Scribner's, 1938), Ransom remarks that “poetry is the kind of knowledge by which we must know what we have arranged that we shall not know otherwise” (Preface, p. x). The views of several “new” critics on poetry have been summarized in Wilfred C. Barton, “Shelley and the New Criticism,” Diss. Tulane, 1967.

  23. This important conception also occurs in “On Life” (W, VI, 196) and in “Speculations on Metaphysics” (W, VII, 59).

  24. See Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1957. New York: Atheneum, 1957), especially pp. 125-27. Note the following statement: “‘Poetry,’ said Coleridge, ‘is the identity of knowledge’” (p. 125).

  25. Anatomy of Criticism, p. 121.

  26. Biographia Literaria, I, 202. The unidentified quotations are from Chapter XII. “An idea, in the highest sense of that word,” maintains Coleridge, “cannot be conveyed but by a symbol” (Biographia Literaria, I, 100). See Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (1942. New York: NAL, 1951), p. 173. Note Coleridge's definition of a symbol: “In the Scriptures they are the living educts of the imagination; of that reconciling and mediatory power, which incorporating the reason in images of the sense, and organizing (as it were) the flux of the senses by the permanence and self-circling energies of the reason, gives birth to a system of symbols, harmonious in themselves, and consubstantial with the truths of which they are the conductors. These are the wheels which Ezekiel beheld … a symbol … is characterized by a translucence of the special in the individual, or of the general in the special, or of the universal in the general; above all by the translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal. It always partakes of reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in the unity of which it is the representative. The other are but empty echoes which the fancy arbitrarily associates with apparitions of matter, less beautiful but not less shadowy than the sloping orchard or hill-side pasture-field seen in the transparent lake below” (“The Statesman's Manual,” in The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. W. G. T. Shedd [1853. New York: Harper, 1884], I, 436-38).

  27. See Frye, Anatomy, p. 119.

  28. Anatomy, pp. 119-20.

  29. Anatomy, p. 121.

  30. Anatomy, p. 121.

  31. See Basil Willey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (New York: Norton, 1973), p. 90. Also see Owen Barfield's discussion in What Coleridge Thought (Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1971), pp. 104-14. In his perceptive essay “Coleridge and Kant's Two World,” Arthur O. Lovejoy maintains that “the moral consciousness seemed to Kant, as to Coleridge, not merely to demand but logically to imply ‘freedom’” (Essays in the History of Ideas, p. 264).

  32. Cited in Suresh Raval, Metacriticism (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1981), p. 35.

  33. M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1971), p. 223. Frank Kermode, in Romantic Image (1957. New York: Vintage, 1964), notes “that English poets—using the same ultimate sources, Boehme and Swedenborg, the Germans of the later eighteenth century—developed their own way of ‘recalling us to the truth of the image’” (p. 5).

  34. See Ernst Cassirer's essay “Goethe and the Kantian Philosophy,” in Rousseau, Kant, Goethe: Two Essays, trans. James Guttmann et al. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963), pp. 61-98.

  35. Walter Kaufmann, Hegel: A Reinterpretation (1965. New York: Anchor, 1966), p. 69. Kaufmann's commentary on Hegel's essay on scepticism, especially the references to Hegel's exposition of Hume's scepticism, is extremely relevant to our discussion.

  36. See Shelley: A Critical Reading, p. 151.

  37. Willey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, p. 89.

  38. See C. E. Pulos' argument in his The Deep Truth: A Study of Shelley's Scepticism (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1954). But note Hegel's important differentiation between Humean scepticism and Greek scepticism: “Hume's assumes as basic the truth of the empirical, of feeling, of intuition, and from that base contests general determinations and laws—because they lack justification from sense perception. Ancient skepticism was so far from making feeling and intuition the principle of truth that, on the contrary, it turned first of all against the senses” (Cited by Kaufmann in Hegel, pp. 69-70). Thus for Plato and for Hegel scepticism was directed against the world of common sense, appearance and finitude. In the history of European philosophical thought, the word “scepticism,” including its blanket application to all modes of scepticism, is somewhat misleading. John W. Wright, in his Shelley's Myth and Metaphor (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1970), makes the following observation on Pulos' study of Shelley's scepticism: “Unfortunately he [Pulos] makes only three passing references to A Defence of Poetry and misses the evidence it offers of Shelley's synthesis of empiricism and platonism, skepticism and idealism” (p. 3). Significantly, Wright mentions Berkeley and Coleridge as possible sources in the transformation of Shelley's philosophical thought.

  39. Note Frye's important observation about Shelley's imaginative universe: “Thus there appears in Shelley, as in his predecessors, the conception of a model world above the existing world. This model world for him, however, is associated not with the Christian unfallen world, not even with the Classical Golden Age, in spite of some allusions to the latter in the Defence, but rather with the higher reason, Vernunft as distinguished from Verstand, which so many Romantics identified with the imagination” (The Critical Path: An Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism [Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1971], p. 95).

  40. Editor's n11, Chapter IX, Biographia Literaria, The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. W. G. T. Shedd, III, 270.

  41. See Raval's discussion of Hegel's aesthetic in his Metacriticism, pp. 32-35.

  42. A Study of English Romanticism, pp. 13-14.

  43. I believe the matter of defining analogy, identity and unity must encompass, among other matters, broad and comprehensive questions of epistemology, ontology and metaphysics. See, for example, William F. Lynch's discussion of analogy in his Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of Literary Imagination (1960. Toronto: NAL, 1963), pp. 150 ff. It is important to remember that in de Man's critical theories there has been a concerted effort to seek reversal of “the opposition between symbol and allegory” (Raval, p. 190). “The traditional definition of symbol,” notes Raval in his discussion of de Man's philosophy, “is essentialist and represents what Sartre would call ‘bad faith’: it yearns for a condition of being that human beings cannot authentically acquire” (p. 190).

  44. Shelley: A Critical Reading, p. 149. Apparently, Wasserman's argument is based on Appearance and Reality by F. H. Bradley, a favorite of T. S. Eliot. I am indebted to Wasserman's observation about the similarity between Shelley and Bradley. Note Bradley's argument: “Appearance without reality would be impossible, for what then could appear? And reality without appearance would be nothing, for there certainly is nothing outside appearances. But on the other hand Reality (we must repeat this) is not the sum of things. It is the unity in which all things, coming together, are transmuted …” (Appearance and Reality: A Metaphysical Essay, 2nd ed., Introd. by Richard Wollheim [London: Oxford UP, 1969], p. 432). Evidently, Bradley's philosophy attempts a modern articulation of the philosophies of Spinoza, Hume and Hegel; likewise, Shelley has tried to articulate the idealist philosophies of Plato and Berkeley and the empiricist thinking of Hume and Locke. After all, the philosophical debate on the metaphysics of Reality rests on the nature of consciousness and identity. Refer to Bradley's important note on the problem of “the human-divine self-consciousness” in the following lines from Shelley's “Hymn of Apollo”: “I am the eye with which the Universe / Beholds itself and knows itself divine …” (n1, p. 396).

  45. René Wellek, Concepts of Criticism, 1963, p. 186. In his search for “a single Form of Forms,” Shelley, according to Abrams, “goes beyond Plato and approximates Plotinus, for whom all considerations had been drawn irresistibly into the vortex of the One” (The Mirror and the Lamp, p. 127).

  46. See Frank Kermode's use of these two terms in Romantic Image, Chapter VIII.

Barry Magarian (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Shelley's The Cenci: Moral Ambivalence and Self-Knowledge,” in Keats-Shelley Review, No. 10, Spring, 1996, pp. 181-203.

[In the following essay, Magarian highlights themes of moral indeterminacy and self-knowledge in The Cenci.]


Shelley's play The Cenci (1819) has, at its heart, a journey into the centre of the human psyche which precipitates its heroine's fall from grace into moral and emotional myopia. During this journey some of the deepest of human fears are revealed in the person of Beatrice as she is conducted towards the ‘darkness of the abyss’, as Shelley puts it in the Preface to the play.1 In this respect the play shares with the earlier Julian and Maddalo (1819) a similar insistence on the nature of what is psychologically disruptive. The Maniac of that poem is presented to the reader in a state of indistinct and fluctuating mental equilibrium. The changing states of his mind are vividly portrayed. Similarly, Beatrice's internal make-up, with all its susceptibility to change and disruption, is what Shelley asks the reader to latch onto in his play. It is my purpose in this essay to undertake a close reading which will illustrate the way the play draws the reader into a complicitous relationship with it. Such a relationship allows for the creation of moral and emotional ambiguities that Shelley refuses to resolve for us. Rather, Shelley implies that the only resolution that might be arrived at can come only from the reader's own confrontation with his or her own self, a confrontation which will echo Beatrice's tumultuous negotiations with self-knowledge.

Like Julian and Maddalo, Shelley's play also adopts an austere and clinical style that Shelley thought to be more conducive to the expression of dramatic passion: ‘I have avoided with great care in writing this play the introduction of what is commonly called mere poetry’.2 Shelley gravitates towards Wordsworth's view of poetry as expressed in the Lyrical Ballads (1798): ‘[The first volume of these poems] … was published, as an experiment … to ascertain, how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation … [poetic] pleasure may be imparted’.3 Shelley's statement on the matter makes a formal bow to Wordsworth: ‘I entirely agree with those modern critics who assert that in order to move men to true sympathy we must use the language of men.’4 This ‘familiar’ style signals the work's greater realism, as Shelley eschews the poetic style of Prometheus Unbound (1819)—the tragedy's stylistic and philosophical counterpart. As Carlos Baker puts it, Shelley seeks to depict ‘what is’ as opposed to ‘what might be’.5

The central problem of the play revolves around how the reader is to evaluate Beatice's moral status. It is impossible to arrive at a definitive interpretation of her character that will place her within the confines of a simple and clear-cut morality. Shelley's achievement here is to present his heroine whole. We are allowed to step inside her mind and experience her reactions to her plight with unsurpassed intensity. It is difficult to judge Beatrice simply because we identify with her so completely; fully to exonerate her or fully to condemn her demands an objective framework that we are simply not given. This deliberate blurring of objectivity is Shelley's means of involving the reader in the assessment and indeed recreation of the moral universe he sets up. Shelley presents us with his drama, then detaches himself from its meanings by involving his readers in acts of interpretative evaluation that he himself cannot provide given that his own objectivity is complete. This lends the play its air of indeterminacy. Earl Wasserman also sees this difficulty as intentional: ‘That we have been baffled in our efforts to make … simplistic evaluations of Beatrice is not, as has been frequently concluded, Shelley's failure or even his confusion of objective, but the actual fulfilment of his goal.’6 Shelley's indeterminate presentation of Beatrice is something that the reader has to unravel for himself, in much the same way as Julian and Maddalo suggested that a definitive meaning for the poem could only be found in the reader himself: ‘the unconnected exclamations of his agony will perhaps be found a sufficient comment for the text of every heart.’7 This transference of the interpretative initiative onto the reader is directly linked to Shelley's essential view of dramatic writing as stated in the Preface to the play: ‘The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself.’8

But, as so often with Shelley's Prefaces, his tone of authorial lucidity prepares the reader for a clear-cut piece of literature that is not forthcoming. Shelley's view of Beatrice in the Preface does not invite any hesitance in our assessment of her act of ‘retaliation’ against her father. Such retaliation is clearly wrong:

Undoubtedly, no person can be truly dishonoured by the act of another; and the fit return to make to the most enormous injuries is kindness and forbearance, and a resolution to convert the injurer from his dark passions by peace and love. Revenge, retaliation, atonement, are pernicious mistakes.9

The last sentence, with its implied connection with Christian sentiment (for a similar instance of this Shelley's Essay on Christianity (probably 1817) provides an example: ‘The absurd and execrable doctrine of vengeance seems to have been contemplated in all its shapes by this great moralist [Jesus Christ] with the profoundest disapprobation’10), is absolute and uncompromising, so much so that Stuart Curran assumes that Shelley is in fact talking about the historical Beatrice, rather than Shelley's creation: ‘Shelley here, it must be emphasised, is referring to the Beatrice of history; his premises are inadequate to encompass the character whom he created.’11 It is tempting to agree with Curran; if this is the case it would allow us to consider the Beatrice of the play, as opposed to the historical Beatrice, in a light that wasn’t as judgemental as that of the above extract. In the play the reader's overbearing urge to identify with her and sympathise with her act of ‘retaliation’ must, however, eventually be subjugated to the fact that Beatrice does finally dispense with moral imperatives—a fact that leads to the need to judge her, in spite of her sympathetic quality. Thus we can only identify with her up to a point. Beyond that her actions are at the best questionable and at the worst immoral. In addition, because there is no unambigously good character in the play who is also fully developed we seize on Beatrice in a manner that brings into sharper focus the fact of her defilement and the horror of this than her subsequent degeneration into moral degradation: the part of the play that contains the greatest moral cruxes.


As Stuart Curran puts it ‘Within the perverse framework of this tragedy, to act is to commit evil.’12 Within this climate of moral perversion, it becomes harder and harder, and in the end impossible, for Beatrice to live up to the Promethean ideal that Shelley articulates in the Preface (‘the fit return to make to the most enormous injuries is kindness and forbearance’13) and in Prometheus Unbound (‘I wish no living thing to suffer pain.’ (I. 305)) In addition, it is also her mind that is unhinged by the Count's act of incestuous rape. Prometheus can still say in the midst of his plight ‘Yet I am king over myself’. (I. 492) His mind has not been violated. Beatrice's mental freedom, however, is taken away from her. In other words the external world of evil impinges on the internal world of Beatrice's mind, whereas Prometheus, in the midst of external devastation, preserves the inner sanctum of well-being: ‘Not me, within whose mind sits peace serene / As light in the sun, throned’. (I. 430-1)

However, in The Cenci, not only is Beatrice's antagonist, that is, her father, corrupt, so too is the very fabric of the ruling order which she repeatedly asks help from. Wasserman brings this point into focus: ‘What [is] … revealed is the moral invalidity of theology and the legal system, upon both of which Beatrice has modelled her actions.’14 Earlier Wasserman makes a point that anticipates this: ‘there consistently hovers over The Cenci [the] … intimation that theology is invented for the sake of human oppression and that the God of Christianity may be only the imaginary projection of a Count Cenci’.15

Shelley makes explicit this connection between the expediency of oppression and Christianity in this passage from The Moral Teaching of Jesus Christ (1815-1817?): ‘[Christianity] … is the strongest ally and bulwark of that system of successful force and fraud and of the selfish passions from which it has derived its origin and permanence’.16 Certainly in the play itself Count Cenci and the Pope appear as rivals rather than standing together in any hierarchal system in which virtue is the criterion for moral superiority. Cenci's ‘I little thought he [the Pope] should outwit me so!’ (I. i. 20) is revealing in its nonchalance and absence of any sign of appropriate deference. Camillo's later lines about the Pope, by their implicit but nonetheless insistent suggestiveness, cement notions that offer authorial modes of action as echoing and endorsing paternal ones:

He holds it of most dangerous example
In aught to weaken the paternal power,
Being, as ‘twere, the shadow of his own.

(II. ii. 54-6)

Wherever Beatrice turns, then, she meets with the ‘prismatic and many sided mirror’17 of corruption. A line from Charles The First (1822), ‘If God be good, wherefore should this be evil?’ (Scene I, 21), can in some ways stand over The Cenci as an ironic gloss on the foundations of evil in the play, for throughout it Shelley suggests that God is not good and actually on Cenci's side:

Aye, as the word of God; whom here I call
To witness that I speak the sober truth;—
And whose most favouring Providence was shewn
Even in the manner of their [his sons] deaths …
Was stabbed in error by a jealous man,
Whilst she he loved was sleeping with his rival;
All in the self-same hour of the same night;
Which shews that Heaven has special care of

(I. iii. 55-8, 61-5, my italics)

James Rieger goes so far as to see Cenci, God and the Pope as three strands of the same thread of immorality: ‘The tragedy's great developmental irony is Beatrice's growing awareness, uncompleted until the moment that the herdsman waits for her around the corner, that Cenci, Clement, and Almighty God form a triple entente.’18 Without the presence, then, of an unambiguous moral framework to fall back on it is harder to view anybody's actions within a clear light. Cenci's legacy is the predominant motif in the play, whether it takes the form of his speeches, or the form of resemblances that characters' utterances begin to make to Cenci's linguistic traits. For example, Lucretia, the most passive character in the play is given to utter the phrase ‘Would it were done!’ (IV. iii. 38) which is a remembrance of Cenci's ‘Would that it were done!’ (II. i. 193). Shelley wants us to perceive this resemblance, as it betokens the way in which Cenci's evil has filtered imperceptibly into the other characters' psyches. This fact is unignorable and makes it difficult to distinguish the characters' actions as clearly their own and not merely the derivative of an initial spark of evil. Thus all actions in the play can be seen, on one level, to be derived from the principal act of the play, Cenci's rape of Beatrice. All that goes before the rape leads to it and all that comes after derives from it. The impact that the rape has on Beatrice is so great as to lead to the circumstances that create the remaining events of the play: Cenci's murder and the trial of Beatrice. In addition, Beatrice's rape, and its aftermath, call into question the larger issue of characterisation within the play. The difficulty the reader has in evaluating her character and its various transformations makes itself felt only after she has been raped. This difficulty also accounts for the difficulty of the play.


The opening of The Cenci, which perhaps takes its cue from the opening of Webster's The White Devil (1610-12?)19 in that it has a similar sense of rushing in headlong without an initial setting of the scene, immediately sets up the expectation of a kinship between moral expediency and religion. In particular the first line of the play suggests the way in which a ‘murder’ is just another item on someone's agenda, a ‘matter’ for merely administrative concern: ‘That matter of the murder is hushed up’. (I. i. 1) The stress on the unreality of this proceeding is indicative of the way in which the proponents of justice operate. We are prepared in the very first line of the play for the picture that Camillo (the same speaker) paints of the Pope in Act V:

He looked as calm and keen as is the engine
Which tortures and which kills, exempt itself
From aught that it inflicts; a marble form,
A rite, a law, a custom: not a man.

(V. iv. 2-5)

In the first extract, in embryonic form, are the beginnings of what will later be elaborated as both the Count's and the law's inhumanity. The Pope is not, in fact, ‘a man’, just as Cenci admits he is not in these lines:

I do not feel as if I were a man,
But like a fiend appointed to chastise
The offences of some unremembered world.

(IV. i. 160-2)

The phrase ‘of some unremembered world’ alerts the reader to Cenci's detachment: he serves another existence, as removed as an abstraction but as real as the power that the Count wields.

Camillo's first speech, then, immediately strikes a balance between the need for judgement and the overwhelming subservience to expediency that must necessarily undermine and distort judgement. His closing two lines (‘As manifold and hideous as the deeds / Which you scarce hide from men's revolted eyes’ (13-4)) suggest ineffectuality, in that the terms used are understated as if Camillo here gives the Count's barbarity an edge of civility. His words are a little muted by the fact that the Count is there beside him. Both ‘manifold’ and ‘revolted’ are words that invite stronger words that are not forthcoming. The lines finally give the impression of petering out in a mood of partial acquiescence. Even at the start of the play the moral signposts are clouded over and unclear.

Cenci is not simply a straightforward monster. He is himself a cunning and masterful creator of linguistic methods. His language builds its effects with a subtlety that suggests something that transcends mere evil:

True, I was happier than I am, while yet
Manhood remained to act the thing I thought;
While lust was sweeter than revenge; and now
Invention pulls:—Aye, we must all grow old—
And but that there remains a deed to act
Whose horror might make sharp an appetite
Duller than mine—I’d do,—I know not what.

(I. i. 96-102)

It is worth pausing here to offer a paraphrase of the passage in order to bring the psychological subtlety of the writing. Cenci says that when he was a young man he was happier than he now is because he could turn his thoughts into actions; and suggests that pleasures of the flesh were of more appeal than revenge. Now, however, he admits that his vitality has waned because of age and decides he will replace it with something else: namely, the execution of a deed that will be so horrible as to reawaken that vitality. He ends by admitting, however, that he does not know what the deed will be. Shelley compresses all this meaning into a passage of great economical clout that nonetheless does not sacrifice stylistic assurance for the sake of brevity. Rather the meaning dictates the form; the passage's power lies in its winding compressiveness and concentration. The way that Shelley has decked out the passage with tantalising pauses and half-realised reticence makes Cenci's evil the more disquieting and compelling. The phrase ‘and now / Invention palls’, for example, allows the verse to subside into a quietness that is eerie. What comes next—‘Aye, we must all grow old’—impresses because of its sense of false self-effacement. Coming where it does the phrase builds its effects with telling power. Cenci, of course, does grow old but with age no suggestion is forthcoming of any corresponding lessening of his capacity for cruelty. The pause before ‘I know not what’ also confirms Cenci's ability to pry on his interlocutor's mind with a deceptive ease and effectiveness. He lets both the reader and the person he is addressing wait.

Cenci is indeed something of a supreme manipulator of language. Of all the characters in the play Cenci is unique in that he controls thought and language, rather than letting them control him. In the following passage he builds his effects with careful deliberation:

If, when a parent from a parent's heart
Lifts from this earth to the great father of all
A prayer, both when he lays him down to sleep,
And when he rises up from dreaming it;
One supplication, one desire, one hope,
That he would grant a wish for his two sons
Even all that he demands in their regard …

(I.iii. 22-28)

Cenci is here putting on his ‘public’ voice and, in doing so, expectations are aroused in the reader of a display of a moral propriety that is not forthcoming. He builds up a web of ironies with benign ease and fosters a mood of pleasant anticipation. This is then dashed by the announcement of his sons' deaths, which is nonetheless perfectly in accord with his phraseology, while contradicting in meaning the import of this passage, which is, apparently, one of benevolence and well-being. The first line, with its insistence on the word ‘parent’ suggests a liturgical harmoniousness that is echoed in the repetitive movement of ‘One supplication, one desire, one hope’. Similarly the lines ‘both when he lays him down to sleep, / And when he rises up from dreaming it’ paint a picture of fully-rounded methodicalness and a quiet dutifulness. The whole piece, with its quasi-Biblical air, is cunningly strategical and leaves the reader in the expectation of an emergence of moral equilibrium. Everyone is taken in, except Beatrice, who makes a comment that immediately alerts the reader to the dissonance that results from the clash between the Count's manner and his meaning. This clash is characteristic of Shelley's refusal to offer his reader objectivity as a means of interpreting his main characters. We too are taken in by the Count so that, as readers, we lack the same moral assurances and certainties that the characters in the play lack. We become involved in the meaning of the events of the play as do the characters within it. We face the same dilemmas and difficulties and our reactions are taken up in the person of Beatrice, a character who voices the inner fears, insecurities and anxieties of the reader. Beatrice thus becomes the mouthpiece of both the audience and the reader, in a similar way to which the narrator of The Triumph of Life (1822) assumes the viewpoint of the reader. It is therefore impossible to judge Beatrice without in some way bringing our own fundamental beliefs into the very arena of morality in which such judgements might reside. This inseparability is Shelley's method of ‘teaching the human heart … the knowledge of itself’20 and forms one of the play's strands of indeterminacy. In judging Beatrice we must also judge ourselves.

Cenci's command of language confirms that, more often than not, language is a distorted transmitter of meaning in the play. There is an insistence on how words often limit and control thought, rather than liberate it. As Orsino puts it in Act V: ‘Shall I be the slave / Of … what? A word?’ (V. i. 98-99) Language has a heavy responsibility, insubstantial and impotent though it is; it can make all the difference yet also, paradoxically, only further emphasise intransigence and inflexibility. Beatrice's lines after she has been raped point to the parody of experience that words represent:

          Of all words,
That minister to mortal intercourse,
Which wouldst thou hear? For there is none to tell
My misery …

(III. i. 111-114)

This implies that to use any word would be equally ineffectual: language is relegated to a position of insignificance, and speech, with its insistence on sequential logic, would betoken an internal order that is simply not there. As Ronald Tetreault puts it: ‘[Beatrice is] poised between a language that controls her and a troubled awareness of its consequences’.21

Shelley's philosophy of language in the play takes as its starting point this passage from his own prose piece Speculations on Metaphysics (1817) which stresses the way in which words are only substitutional in their recreation of the mental condition: ‘Words are as the instruments of mind whose capacities it becomes the Metaphysician accurately to know, but they are not mind, nor are they portions of mind.’22 This philosophy informs the play and, in particular, characterises many of Beatrice's utterances. These utterances derive their power from this notion of the sheer unparaphrasability of experience.

A passage from Marino Faliero (1820) also echoes The Cenci's view of language. Byron's play, as Charles Robinson has pointed out23, is similar to Shelley's in that it too is an historical drama that has at its centre sexual violation. In this passage there is a common interest in the discrepancy between action and its expression:

          … the die was thrown
When first I listen’d to your treason.—Start not!
That is the word; I cannot shape
my tongue
To syllable black deeds into smooth names,
Though I be wrought on to commit them.

(III. i. 55-59)24

The passage is characterised by the way in which this discrepancy is palpable and perceivable. The Doge's words impress with their insistent drive towards truth. His stoical matter-of-factness makes no concessions to ambiguity or the veil of distortion. The phrase ‘smooth names’ effectively suggests complicity's habit of twisting truth to its own ends but with consummate discretion. However, in The Cenci language has much more of a foothold within all the characters' beings: it directs their actions as much as reflects on them. The Doge's expression here of the discrepancy between the act and the verbalisation of it is far too absolute to be uttered by anybody in The Cenci. Nobody enjoys such objectivity and independence. Instead language is either being moulded into an instrument by which truth can be perverted or is remoulding a character's thoughts. The note of misrepresentation is struck here:

          and we trust
Imagination with such phantasies
As the tongue dares not fashion into
Which have no words, their horror makes them dim
To the mind's eye.—

(II. ii. 83-87, my italics)

The word ‘fashion’ suggests tempering, making more tame—almost an automatic reaction to the nature of ‘such phantasies’—in addition to meaning ‘making up’. The discrepancy between mental creation and verbal utterance results in the need to control and rein in. The nature of such phantasies is suggested in another passage from Speculations on Metaphysics:

If it were possible that a person should give a faithful history of his being, from the earliest epochs of his recollection, a picture would be presented such as the world has never contemplated before. A mirror would be held up to all men in which they might behold their own recollections, and, in dim perspective, their shadowy hopes and fears,—all that they dare not, or that daring and desiring, they could not expose to the open eyes of day.25

The emphasis is on how the ‘picture’ that is ‘presented’ is self-contained and prevails from early on: this internal potential for what is latently disquieting is available to everybody, though counterbalanced by the need to keep thought hidden and concealed.

The impotence of language in the play is engendered by the climate of existentialist unknowingness in it. Beatrice's final cry from the heart in Act V is a clear instance of an occasion in the play when a character looks into the ‘abyss’ and confronts the inner emptiness of a godless universe:

          If there should be
No God, no Heaven, no Earth in the void world;
The wide, grey, lampless, deep, unpeopled world!

(V. iv. 57-59)

The nihilistic vision that this speech contemplates, while remoulding Claudio's speech from Measure for Measure (III. i. 117-131)26, is one bereft of indications of moral reassurance or the confirmation of an ultimate security that is, for example, available to the characters of Shakespeare's play in the person of the Duke. What The Cenci lacks is an unambiguously good person who can provide a sure moral orientation point. In Measure for Measure even though the Duke's methods are at best debatable the fact that is important about him is preserved; he is outside the limits that mark off fallible humans' insights. There is no such safety net to fall back on in The Cenci.

The act of Beatrice's rape is the clearest instance in the play of its glimpse into chaos. Shelley's comments on incest are revealing, in this regard:

Incest is like many other incorrect things a very poetical circumstance. It may be the excess of love or of hate. It may be that defiance of every thing for the sake of another which clothes itself in the glory of the highest heroism, or it may be that cynical rage which confounding the good & bad in existing opinions breaks through them for the purpose of rioting in selfishness & antipathy. (To Maria Gisborne, November 16 1819)27

The latter half of the third sentence of this passage is relevant to The Cenci and possibly has the play in mind, written as it was after the completion of the tragedy. (Shelley was copying The Cenci for the press on August 11 1819, according to Reiman and Powers.28) However, Shelley's distinctly two-sided view of incest strikes one as a little too precise to be tenable. It may simply be the case that, as occurs with his presentation of incest in The Revolt of Islam (1817), Shelley's preoccupation with modes of extremity borders on caricature. The incestuous relationship of Laon and Cythna, though symptomatic of positive familial harmony, asks us to suspend disbelief too greatly:

And such is Nature's law divine, that those
          Who grow together cannot choose but love,
If faith or custom do not interpose,
          Or common slavery mar what else might move
          All gentlest thoughts …


In The Cenci Beatrice and Cenci ‘grow together’ but there is no love between them because of Cenci's ‘slavery’—his subjugation of Beatrice. The above lines seem to endorse Mary Shelley on Shelley's view of evil: ‘The prominent feature of Shelley's theory of the destiny of the human species was that evil is not inherent in the system of the creation, but an accident that might be expelled … Shelley believed that mankind had only to will that there would be no evil, and that there would be none.’29 But in The Cenci evil is inherent: it is in fact the normal mode compared with which goodness seems an aberration. Giacomo's following lines provide an example that illustrates that whenever people in the play look for moral guidance they find only moral discord:

I am as one lost in a midnight wood,
Who dares not ask some harmless passenger
The path across the wilderness, lest he,
As my thoughts are, should be—a murderer.

(II. ii. 93-96, my italics)

Giacomo is addressing Orsino; there is an accompanying suggestion that Giacomo wants Orsino to show him the way but, ironically, ‘harmless’ is what Orsino is not. Giacomo is lost within his own mental murkiness—the danger is both external and internal, an objective enactment of a subjective state of mind. The first line is borrowed from the opening of Dante's Divine Comedy, as rendered here in Mark Musa's translation:

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
For I had wandered off from the straight path.

(I, 1-3)30

Dante the pilgrim then tells how he encounters Virgil, who guides him down into the underworld. Virgil is an assured figure of morality. He provides affirmation in the midst of confusion. No such moral assurances are available to Giacomo. His statement of fear confirms that the play is stripped of the order that the hero of The Divine Comedy has access to. The moral universe of Dante's poem is carefully structured and ordered. By contrast, the moral universe of The Cenci is structured only in so much as it is consistently either confused or susceptible to chaos.


The characterisation of Beatrice is the area that offers the severest problems of indeterminacy in the play. It is also the area of the play in which we are most likely to find the play's essential meaning or meanings. Part of the difficulty that the reader is faced with stems from the fluidity of Beatrice's characterisation. She is the central character of the play and, Macbeth-like, changes from an initial state of stoicism tempered with humanity to a limbo of madness, and then finally, at the very end, to a kind of pragmatism that is partly divorced from those initial qualities of humanity. It is hard to evaluate Beatrice because at each turn of the play we must evaluate a new dimension to her character. She in turn is stripped of the means by which she could properly assess herself and her actions. As Stuart Sperry puts it: ‘at the last she is unwilling or unable to see that she has been perverted’.31 Beatrice's ignorance about herself precipitates her actions which, in turn, complicate the reader's view of her. After she is raped she becomes a far more shadowy figure in the sense that her concerns and emotions revolve exclusively around one end—the murder of her father. The celebrated chasm speech illustrates the way in which this exclusivity prevails:

          there is a mighty rock,
Which has, from unimaginable years,
Sustained itself with terror and with toil
Over a gulph, and with the agony
With which it clings seems slowly coming down;
Even as a wretched soul hour after hour,
Clings to the mass of life; yet clinging, leans;
And leaning, makes more dark the dread abyss
In which it fears to fall: beneath this crag
Huge as despair, as if in weariness,
The melancholy mountain yawns … below,
You hear but see not an impetuous torrent
Raging among the caverns, and a bridge
Crosses the chasm; and high above there grow,
With intersecting trunks, from crag to crag,
Cedars, and yews, and pines; whose tangled hair
Is matted in one solid roof of shade
By the dark ivy's twine. At noon day here
’Tis twilight, and at sunset blackest night.

(III. i. 247-265)

The passage as a whole strikes one, on one level, as a declaration of the need for an unflinching resolution. What impresses is the language's functional directness, its raw concision and the way in which it creates its effects with a combination of empirical detachment and cool foreboding. The passage is also strongly suggestive in its psychological incisiveness. As Michael O’Neill comments: ‘The subjective dimension—the relevance of the passage to the spiritual states of both Cenci and Beatrice—is strong enough to prevent us from reading the lines as a piece of “isolated description” [this phrase refers to the Preface]’.32 Beatrice's psyche is at the core of the passage—the rape and the shockwaves that it has caused filter into the imagery. The words ‘tangled hair’ (262) recall the ‘wandering strings’ of hair (III. i. 7) that are undone and are a symbolic projection of the loss of Beatrice's virginity, and indeed self-possession. As in Alastor (1816) the poetry creates its effects by marrying natural landscapes with mental states. But there is also a mood of intensely felt barrenness and primitive violence. The speech can be interpreted as a controlled eruption from the unconscious. Its phraseology is alive to the way passion lies buried in the depths of the mind, like the ‘mighty rock’. The word ‘unimaginable’ also points to the difficulty of visualising these passions, fraught as they are with a sense of danger and vastness. The powerful alliterative pull of ‘terror and with toil’ alerts the reader to the manner in which Shelley is making Beatrice self-conscious about language, allowing her to be aware of its potential for unleashing an implicit but disquieting powerfulness. It is as if the rape has tapped a part of her mind previously locked away and dormant, and which has now been given an opportunity to re-emerge in all the starkness of an imaginative outburst. The lines ‘Even as a wretched soul hour after hour, / Clings to the mass of life’ (252-253) recall the phrasing of one of Beatrice's earlier speeches:

          ’tis substantial, heavy, thick,
I cannot pluck it from me, for it glues
My fingers and my limbs to one another …

(III. i. 18-20)

The drawn out feel of the first line of the first extract (252) suggests the accumulative pull of the first line of the second extract (18) and the words ‘pluck’ and ‘glues’ create a mood encapsulated in the phrase ‘Clings to the mass of life’—namely one of claustrophobic entrapment and sexual repugnance.

The speech closes by reprising the feel of lines 16 to 22 from Act III, scene i. Here we see again, in a different manifestation, the legacy of this mood of claustrophobic violation: ‘and high above there grow, / With intersecting trunks, from crag to crag, / Cedars, and yews, and pines; whose tangled hair / Is matted in one solid roof of shade / By the dark ivy's twine.’ (260-264) The language stresses an ever-present self-reflexiveness in its repetitions and alliterations: ‘from crag to crag’; ‘solid roof of shade’. These phrases all point to a sense of the ubiquitous and unavoidable. A ‘solid’ roof of ‘shade’ in particular, by making concrete something that is intangible, suggests a certain muscularity, barriers of unalterability, as if Beatrice's mind is no longer flexible. The reemergence of the rape in so many various incarnations in the speech testifies to Shelley's mastery of language here. The fact of this variousness indicates that the memory of the rape remains engulfing and disorientating. The reader is presented with an array of imagery that leaves us groping for a reference point. There is at once too much and too little to grasp onto.

The transformation in Beatrice's character is apparent in the gradual change in the way in which she speaks. After Act III her speeches become increasingly like the Count's, touched by megalomania and an unreal apprehension of her own status. As Stuart Sperry puts it: ‘in the end [Beatrice] … becomes her father's child in a way she was not at the outset of the play.’33 The resemblances in her speeches are the outward signs of this. For example, after Savella's arrival she says: ‘Both Earth and Heaven, consenting arbiters, / Acquit our deed.’ (IV. iv. 24-25) This sounds like Cenci's:

Aye, as the word of God; whom here I call
To witness that I speak the sober truth;—
And whose most favouring Providence was shewn
Even in the manner of their deaths.

(I. iii. 55-58)

But with this echo comes the suggestion that the fact that God should sanction something in this play is not necessarily good. There is a strong hint here that Beatrice too has replaced integrity with expediency and gone back on her very first remark: ‘Pervert not truth’ (I. ii. 1). Beatrice's immovability is stressed in a way that also reminds one of Cenci's unflinching, sub-human will:

          The deed is done,
And what may follow now regards not me.
I am as universal as the light;
Free as the earth-surrounding air; as firm
As the world's centre. Consequence, to me,
Is as the wind which strikes the solid rock
But shakes it not.

(IV. iv. 46-52)

The Shakespearean resemblances (lines 48 to 51 are a reworking of Macbeth's: ‘I had else been perfect, / Whole as the marble, founded as the rock, / As broad and general as the casing air’ (III. iv. 20-22)34), seem to have been inserted here to help us see that, beneath the apparent affirmation, there is a grave distortion involved in Beatrice's self-mythologising picture of herself. Like Macbeth she has lost sight of herself.

The most telling sign of the way in which Beatrice's character has transmuted into a resemblance of Cenci's is the fact that as Beatrice approaches Marzio in Act V, scene ii, he covers his face, just as Beatrice covered her's when Cenci approached her in Act II, scene i. She has in fact become the visible incarnation of her father. Shelley, by making these resemblances to Cenci, is undermining our desire to side with Beatrice. These echoic nuances are subtle but hard to ignore. They point to the way in which evil reflects itself in the play—whether it is in the way that religion is synonymous with injustice or in the way in which characters' corruptions filter into each other. There is no escape from evil and Beatrice's decline into it reinforces this feeling. I share Wasserman's view that this is part of the didactic intention that Shelley saw as being at the root of drama. He sees her moral ambivalence as being designed to ‘[engender] … our internal debate … and cause us to know ourselves.’35 As Shelley puts it in A Defence of Poetry (1821): ‘In a drama of the highest order there is little food for censure or hatred; it teaches rather self-knowledge and self-respect.’36 This passage, however, rather uneasily weighs notions of ‘censure or hatred’ with notions of ‘self-knowledge and self-respect’. The two seem to have been juxtaposed as if they were exact opposites and mutually exclusive. In addition the first part of Shelley's sentence relates to the internal issues of the drama, whereas the second concerns what that drama might bring forth, externally, in the sense of a lesson having been learnt or absorbed from the enactment of the play. The slipperiness of the passage testifies to a mode of indeterminacy that leaves a residue of the unfathomable in the reader's mind.

The speech that closes Act IV is one of the most subtle in the play. In it are variously combined motifs from Beatrice's period of initial righteousness, ‘though’ now twisted into something that resembles Shelley's description of Michelangelo's Christ in The Last Judgement: ‘Under the holy Ghost stands Jesus Christ in an attitude of haranguing the assembly. This figure which his subject or rather the view which it became him to take of it, aught to have modelled of a calm severe awe-inspiring majesty, terrible yet lovely, is in the attitude of common place resentment.’37 The phrase ‘terrible yet lovely’ recalls Shelley's description of Beatrice in the Preface: ‘Beatrice Cenci appears to have been one of those rare persons in whom energy and gentleness dwell together without destroying one another’. (My italics)38 Beatrice has lost that quality here; she gives an impression of caricature and token sentiment:

She knows not yet the uses of the world.
She fears that power is as a beast which grasps
And loosens not: a snake whose look transmutes
All things to guilt which is its nutriment.
She cannot know how well the supine slaves
Of blind authority read the truth of things
When written on a brow of guilelessness:
She sees not yet triumphant Innocence
Stand at the judgement-seat of mortal man,
A judge and an accuser of the wrong
Which drags it there.

(IV. iv. 177-187)

The speech builds to a partial climax, partial because it is opposed by the tone Beatrice employs, one that holds nobility and a parody of nobility in suspension. The speech is full of images of both token malevolence (‘beast’, ‘snake’, ‘supine slaves’) and token virtue (‘brow of guilelessness’, ‘triumphant Innocence’). Beatrice's apprehension of virtue has become too simplistic and reduces it to the level of a commodity, quantifiable and unreal. We cannot quite believe in her exalted claim for ‘triumphant Innocence’ which is dragged to ‘the judgement-seat of mortal man’, undercut as this sentence is by the rhetorical posturing Beatrice cultivates, which in turn suggests her own moral myopia. She cannot conceal her own telling self-righteousness which pierces the veil of the irony that she also draws across her import here. Beatrice's innocence has been inflated, by her continual denial of guilt, into a caricature.

By the end of the play she does manage to regain a large measure of self-knowledge and assume a more benign quality once more. In one of her last speeches she dimly realises that she has become the visible incarnation of her father:

          Even though dead,
Does not his spirit live in all that breathe,
And work for me and mine still the same ruin,
Scorn, pain, despair?

(V. iv. 69-72)

His spirit has lived on in her and she has unwittingly worked for him. This fact is at first shrouded in the cocoon of Beatrice's self-deception and so, at first, it is difficult to perceive the true import of these lines. The way the realisation emerges—that she has become her father—accounts for the true significance of these lines. Beatrice's view of her actions is one that fails to take into account her own guilt. It is left up to the reader to fill in the gaps in Beatrice's apprehension of herself. It is only when we do this that the play finally rises to the heights of its own dramatic methods. Though we have all along identified with Beatrice, though of all the characters she has been the only one we could emphathise with, in many ways she was the one person that we needed to be most objective about. By the end of the play the vistas of such objectivity begin to come into sight as Beatrice perceives the nature of the moral universe of the play, and with her perception comes Shelley's insistent reminder that the reader, not Shelley himself, must supply his own moral frameworks within which to place Beatrice's perceptions.

In her final speech Beatrice reclaims a dignity and stoical resignation that we have not witnessed since Act I. The quiet ordering of life implicit in the binding of the hair is a final gesture toward the life that is about to be denied. It also suggests, as Stuart Peterfreund has pointed out, that ‘Beatrice … [symbolically reclaims] her purity, if not the literal physical fact of her virginity’.39 This last speech finally puts the ‘monster of thought’ to rest as Beatrice's mental state subsides into a gentle suspension—gentle enough to be communicated through language and not in spite of it. This final act of resignation does allow us to discern that a type of integrity has reemerged here, though earlier quashed within the play's environment of overbearing corruption. If Shelley had not allowed it to have been quashed then The Cenci would be an altogether less ambivalent work, and not one that continually presses on the reader the need for a definitive interpretation of Beatrice's status—and of the play's meaning, so closely tied up are the two—while consistently refusing to provide an assured basis for arriving at such an interpretation. In The Cenci Shelley's achievement has been to confront the reader with moral ambiguities that we know we must somehow resolve while showing the way in which these ambiguities are beyond resolution. We leave the play in the dark, feeling chastened and yet still expectant.


  1. In this article quotations from and references to Shelley's poetry and prose are taken from Shelley's Poetry and Prose, A Norton Critical Edition, (eds.) Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York and London: Norton, 1977), hereafter PP. The quotation from Charles The First is taken from Shelley's Poetical Works, Oxford Standard Authors, (ed.) Thomas Hutchinson, corr. G. M. Matthews (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), hereafter PW. PP, p. 240.

  2. PP, p. 241.

  3. Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads (ed.) R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones (first pub. 1963; London and New York: Methuen, 1986), p. 241.

  4. PP, p. 241.

  5. Carlos Baker, Shelley's Major Poetry: The Fabric of a Vision (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1948), p. 142.

  6. Earl R. Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971), hereafter Wasserman, p. 121.

  7. PP, p. 113.

  8. Ibid., p. 240.

  9. Ibid.

  10. The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Julian Edition, (ed.) Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck, 10 vols. (first pub. 1926-30; London: Ernest Benn, 1965), hereafter Julian, vol. vi, p. 232.

  11. Stuart Curran, Shelley's ‘Cenci’: Scorpions Ringed With Fire (Princeton: Princeton University, 1970), p. 139.

  12. Ibid., p. 132.

  13. PP, p. 240.

  14. Wasserman, p. 94.

  15. Ibid., p. 92.

  16. Julian, vol. vi, p. 255.

  17. PP, p. 491.

  18. James Rieger, The Mutiny Within: The Heresies of Percy Bysshe Shelley (New York: George Braziller, 1967), p. 115.

  19. John Webster, The White Devil, (ed.) John Russell Brown, The Revels Plays (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1960), p. 7.

  20. PP, p. 240.

  21. Ronald Tetreault, The Poetry of Life: Shelley and Literary Form (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), p. 137.

  22. Julian, vol. vii, p. 63.

  23. Charles E. Robinson, Shelley and Byron: The Snake and Eagle Wreathed in Fight (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 144.

  24. Byron, Poetical Works, Oxford Standard Authors, (ed.) Frederick Page, a new edition corr. by John Jump (3rd edition; Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 417, ll. 55-9.

  25. Julian, vol. vii, p. 64.

  26. William Shakespeare, The Riverside Shakespeare, (ed.) G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), pp. 566-67, ll. 117-31, hereafter Shakespeare.

  27. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, (ed.) Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), hereafter Letters, vol. ii, p. 154.

  28. PP, p. 236.

  29. PP, p. 271.

  30. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, vol. i, Inferno, trans. Mark Musa (London: Penguin Books, 1981), p. 67, ll. 1-3.

  31. Stuart M. Sperry, Shelley's Major Verse: The Narrative and Dramatic Poetry (Harvard and Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), hereafter Sperry, p. 137.

  32. Michael O’Neill, The Human Imaginings: Conflict and Achievement in Shelley's Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 84.

  33. Sperry, p. 137.

  34. Shakespeare, p. 1326, ll. 20-2.

  35. Wasserman, p. 121.

  36. PP, p. 491.

  37. Letters, vol. ii, pp. 80-81.

  38. PP, p. 242.

  39. Stuart Peterfreund, ‘Seduced by Metonymy: Figuration and Authority in The Cenci’, in The New Shelley: Later Twentieth-Century Views, (ed.) G. Kim Blank (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan Press, 1991), p. 191.

Michael Erkelenz (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “The Genre and Politics of Shelley's Swellfoot the Tyrant,” in The Review of English Studies, Vol. XLVII, No. 188, November, 1996, pp. 500-20.

[In the following essay, Erkelenz views Shelley's Swellfoot the Tyrant as both an adaptation of Aristophanes's work and a critique of contemporaneous British politics.]

In her well-known note on Oedipus Tyrannus; Or Swellfoot the Tyrant, Mary Shelley describes how Percy Shelley first came to conceive of the poem. While reading aloud the ‘Ode to Liberty’ (more likely, in fact, his just completed ‘Ode to Naples’), he soon found himself ‘riotously accompanied by the grunting of a quantity of pigs brought for sale to the fair’ ‘held in the square, beneath [his] windows’.1 The interruption reminded him of the famous scene in Aristophanes where Dionysus, rowing Charon's boat across the bottomless lake into the Underworld, is infuriated by the dissonant croaking of a chorus of hellish frogs. This association led Shelley to the first scene of Swellfoot: Swellfoot at his devotions in the temple of Famine is interrupted by a chorus of pigs grunting their ‘eighs’, ‘aighs’, and ‘ughs’ (I. i. 17, 19, 23), as the frogs in Aristophanes croak ‘brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax’.2 Like Aristophanes' degraded Dionysus, Swellfoot responds with rising anger and finally shouts them down. Mary Shelley's note reveals that Percy's ‘political-satirical drama on the circumstances of the day’ owes much to the ‘satiric drama of Aristophanes’.3Swellfoot, indeed, has often been described as an Aristophanic comedy. But what makes it so, and how, as such, it answers to the ‘circumstances of the day’ have never been adequately discussed. As he had already done in the ‘Ode to Naples’, Shelley in Swellfoot draws on the conventions of a Greek literary form to address an unresolved political crisis. How Shelley imitates Aristophanes and how this imitation seeks to influence its readers' views on the Caroline Affair are the subjects of the present essay.


The opening scene aside, Swellfoot's debt to Aristophanes is far from obvious. The title suggests that the poem may be little more than a burlesque imitation of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus; and, indeed, we find explicit parody of Sophocles from the very beginning. The first scene may call Aristophanes' comedy to mind but its more obvious model is in fact the first scene of Sophocles' tragedy. As Oedipus emerges from his palace to hear the supplications of the afflicted citizens of Thebes, so Swellfoot enters the temple of Famine and encounters a chorus of afflicted and supplicating pigs. Shelley means to draw a parodic contrast between Oedipus' mode of kingship and Swellfoot's. Where Oedipus greets his subjects with a compassionate altruism, Swellfoot shows the pigs only a pitiless egoism. This moment of high parody (surely a commentary on the British government's treatment of petitioners like the Blanketeers) seems to clinch the suggestion of the title. However, a problem soon arises. After the first scene, Shelley's plot parts company with Sophocles' and explicit parody of Oedipus Tyrannus ends.4

Shelley's comic Advertisement to the play offers a subtly different view of its genre. It presents Swellfoot not so much as a burlesque imitation but as a parody of the tragic kind in general. Swellfoot is a ‘remarkable piece of antiquity’: an authentic classical tragedy dramatizing ‘the wonderful and appalling fortunes of the Swellfoot dynasty’. Some ancient ‘learned Theban’ wrote it, but in the days ‘before the duties on the importation of Attic salt had been repealed by the Boeotarchs’ (p. 390). In other words this learned Theban had no access to the wit of Sophocles and other Attic tragedians and so must have written an entirely independent version of the Oedipus story. Shelley's joke turns on the fact that in classical times, Thebans were renowned for dimwittedness. Swellfoot's author, denied the example of Attic genius, treats the same subject as Sophocles but in a way inadvertently mock-tragic. He thought he was writing a tragedy. The Advertisement helps explain why Shelley abandons explicit parody after the first scene. From this point on, he parodies the genre as a whole.

If, then, Swellfoot is essentially a mock-tragedy with the odd moment of specific burlesque, what of its relation to Aristophanic comedy? Shelley would have known from August von Schlegel's Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature that both specific burlesque imitation and general mock-tragedy are essential elements of Aristophanes' art: ‘not merely single scenes, but the very form of tragic composition was parodied’.5 Perhaps Shelley understood Aristophanic comedy as amounting to little more than a combination of these elements and composed his own Aristophanic drama accordingly. Swellfoot has never been treated as anything more than some kind of parody. Critics who have called it ‘Aristophanic’ were probably thinking along these lines.

I would suggest, however, that Shelley's adaptation of Aristophanes is more knowing and sophisticated than this. While Schlegel emphasized the importance of parody to Aristophanes, he also knew that parody ‘does not exhaust the essential character of comedy’:

parody always supposes a reference to the subject which is parodied, and a necessary dependence on it. The old comedy however is a species of poetry as independent and original as tragedy itself; it stands upon an equal elevation, that is, it extends as far beyond the limits of reality into the regions of a creative fancy.6

Old Comedy is just as inventive as tragedy. Shelley took this lesson on board and borrowed from Aristophanes something far more essential than mere burlesque: the typical structure by which Aristophanes articulated his ‘independent and original’ comic plots.

The kind of structure I have in mind is not Old Comedy's often discussed ‘formal’ structure but what Alan Sommerstein calls its ‘functional structure’7 or what G. M. Sifakis prefers to name its ‘narrative understructure’ or ‘genre narrative structure’.8 The comedies of Aristophanes have long been thought to share a common structure consisting of a succession of tightly defined formal elements: prologue, parodos, agon, parabasis, and exodus. In recent, related but separate publications Sommerstein and Sifakis propose that the more characteristic structure of Aristophanic comedy is in fact functional rather than formal. A common set of functions performed by a given play's characters articulates the seemingly diverse plots of all eleven surviving comedies. While the formal structure of Aristophanic comedy varies considerably between Aristophanes' early practice and his late, ‘the functional structure’, claims Sommerstein, ‘undergoes very little alteration from the beginning to the end of the poet's career, and it may well be that this was Aristophanes' own distinctive contribution to the history of Athenian comedy’ (p. 13).

Sommerstein, who first proposed this argument, sees a pattern of four functions, while Sifakis identifies eight. These eight amount, really, to Sommerstein's four, more finely discriminated.

1. An unsatisfactory situation characterized by some kind of ‘villainy, or lack, or misfortune’ is made known.

2. Some ‘decision/plan’ is hit upon ‘to counteract misfortune’ (p. 129). In Sommerstein's terms, some political or social ‘underdog’ conceives of a ‘fantastic project (“Great Idea”)’ for ‘putting things right, for achieving sōotēeriāa [escape, rescue] for himself, his family, his city, or … the whole Greek world’ (p. 11).

3. The ‘service or help of a supernatural or quasi-magical helper is obtained’ (p. 129).

4. There is often a ‘transference’: ‘in seeking to rectify their misfortune, or the misfortune of others, several persons in the comic stories have to move from one place to another, cover long distances, or even be transferred to a different world, in order to reach the place where the object they desire to obtain is situated, or where they have to fight for their objective’ (p. 130).

5. ‘Opposition or obstacles’ to the hero's plan arise and must be overcome. This usually includes physical violence and struggle (pp. 130-1).

6. Violence, however, always eventually gives way to ‘persuasion exercised in debate’. Often the hero or his surrogate(s) takes one side of the debate and the villain the other. Sometimes the hero serves not as a debater but as the judge of the debate. In all cases the success of the hero's plan hinges on the outcome. This function corresponds with that part of the formal structure known as the ‘agon’.

7. The result of the debate invariably leads to the enactment of the plan and the ‘liquidation’ of the original ‘villainy or misfortune’ (p. 131).

8. ‘The accomplishment of the end aimed at’ results in a ‘triumph’ ‘enjoyed by the seeker-hero, and/or by the persons standing for the object of the quest’. This consists of everything from ‘ritual marriage’ to ‘licentious womanizing’, ‘communal feasting’, ‘sacrifices and preparations of sumptuous meals’, or ‘drinking parties’ (p. 132).

Sifakis grounds this elaboration of Sommerstein's briefly put argument in the theory and methodology of Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folk Tale. The poets of Attic Old Comedy, he claims, ‘spun their yarns and wove their own tales after a time-honored pattern’ deriving from the form's origins in folk tale and myth (p. 138). Old Comedy first dramatized traditional tales and myths, making use of their recurrent narrative patterns. When the focus of Old Comedy turned to more immediate social and political concerns, the influence of these narrative patterns, as distinct from the stories themselves, persisted (p. 139). Thus, as Sifakis specifically demonstrates (pp. 140-2), the same pattern of functions exists in every one of the eleven surviving comedies. Sifakis chooses to use the phrase ‘narrative understructure’ or ‘genre narrative structure’, where Sommerstein uses ‘functional structure’, to acknowledge the source of this pattern.

The structure that Sommerstein and Sifakis find in Aristophanes can also be found in Shelley. But in Swellfoot this structure is hidden beneath the play's burlesque action. The key to discerning it lies in compensating for the fact that Shelley wrote the play in the persona of a ‘learned Theban’. This Theban, we must notice, brings to bear on the events dramatized a perspective very different from Shelley's own. He is a ‘hog from Epicurus' herd’ (‘Epicuri de grege porcus’)9 who writes in the Dorian dialect of Sparta and her allies (of whom Thebes was one) and not in the Ionian dialect of democratic Athens (‘Advertisement’, p. 390). He is, in other words, no ‘lean pig’ sympathetic to the suffering swine but, rather, a contented hog firmly of the tyrant's party. Much the same can be said of his modern translator, another persona who needs to be distinguished from Shelley himself. Making no apology for ‘suppressing a seditious and blasphemous Chorus of the Pigs and Bulls at the last Act’ (‘Advertisement’, p. 390), he too must surely look upon Swellfoot's plight sympathetically. Such sympathy inevitably calls for a tragic dramatization of the action. And so, in so far as Shelley writes in the guise of an anti-Jacobinical ancient Theban and translates in the guise of a modern Tory classicist, he dramatizes the action from the point of view of Swellfoot and his wizards and composes an inadvertently comic classical tragedy. However, in so far as he writes as a radical republican deeply committed to the abolition of monarchy, he sympathizes with Iona and dramatizes events comically. If we begin, then, with the assumption that Iona represents the real hero-seeker of Shelley's drama, a typical Aristophanic plot will gradually emerge. If we read the action from Iona's point of view, we shall begin to find every one of Sifakis's eight functions.

1. In the opening scene, Swellfoot's hymn of thanks to Famine and his treatment of the supplicating chorus establish the initial villainy against which the real hero acts. The ‘settled Swellfoot system’ (II. i. 27) is at heart oppressive and corrupt. The pigs are governed by a king whose qualities are the exact opposite of Sophocles' Oedipus. He is selfish, tyrannical, and merciless. He ignores the customary duty of monarchs to make ‘pity’ a ‘royal thing’ (I. i. 38). He aggrandizes himself by actively depriving the pigs. And he stoutly refuses to hear of any reform by means of which the pigs' sufferings might be alleviated.

2. The subsequent encounter between Mammon and Purganax implicitly articulates the hero's plan or ‘Great Idea’ for counteracting Swellfoot's villainy. Purganax raises the issue of the oracle. Mammon, ironically, responds sceptically (‘you arch-priests’, Purganax complains, ‘believe in nothing’, I. i. 126-7). But Mammon foresees another danger:

… prophecies, when once they get abroad …
Contrive their own fulfillment. This Iona——
Well—you know what the chaste Pasiphae did,
Wife to that most religious King of Crete,
And still how popular the tale is here;
And these dull Swine of Thebes boast their descent
From the free Minotaur. You know they still
Call themselves Bulls, though thus degenerate,
And everything relating to a Bull
Is popular and respectable in Thebes.
Their arms are seven Bulls in a field gules;
They think their strength consists in eating beef,—
Now there were danger in the precedent
If Queen Iona——

(I. i. 131, 135-47)

Swellfoot's government is starving the pigs and has driven Iona from the land, sending the Gadfly after her. Mammon fears that Iona might return to Thebes and imitate the actions of her grandmother Pasiphae. The pigs of Thebes are in fact bulls who have degenerated into servile swine. Were Iona to incite them with her aggressive sexuality and be hailed a second Pasiphae, she might give birth to another Minotaur. Like some anti-Circean witch, in other words, she might transform servile pigs into rebellious man-bulls and bring the settled Swellfoot system tumbling down. Mammon's hypothetical fears spell out an absurd and fantastical ‘Great Idea’. As Aristophanes' Lysistrata organizes a sex-strike to end a civil war, Iona plans adultery on a massive scale to bring an end to tyranny.10 As she herself puts it, she will ‘repos[e] ❙ With confidence upon the grunting nation’, throw ‘herself, her cause, her life, her all, ❙ Her innocence, into their Hoggish arms' (II. i. 160-3).

3. The exchange between Mammon and Purganax ends with the arrival of the Gadfly who announces triumphantly that he has ‘driven [Iona] close to you’ (I. i. 256). Purganax called him up from the depths of hell to chase Iona abroad and keep her there. As he explains to Mammon:

                                                                                … this foul beast
Has tracked Iona from the Theban limits,
From isle to isle, from city unto city,
Urging her flight from the far Chersonese
To fabulous Solyma, and the Aetnean Isle,
Ortygia, Melite, and Calypso's Rock,
And the swart tribes of Garamant and Fez,
Aeolia and Elysium, and thy shores,
Parthenope, which now, alas! are free!
And through the fortunate Saturnian land,
Into the darkness of the West.

(I. i. 165-75)

Mammon's Gadfly has urged Iona's flight further and further ‘from the Theban limits’. Moving eastward towards the Thracian side of the Hellespont (Chersonese), and then south-east to Jerusalem (‘fabulous Solyma’), they eventually turn towards Sicily (‘the Aetnean Isle’) and Naples (‘Parthenope’), move up through the rest of Italy (‘the fortunate Saturnian land’), and pass on ‘into the darkness of the West’. The ‘West’, the mythical site of the Underworld, appears to represent the furthest possible limit of Iona's flight. The Gadfly seems to have gadded her all the way to hell. Yet a flight into the ‘West’ must also, of course, lead to London. The trip, ironically, proves a round one; and the Gadfly sent to persecute Iona proves himself her inadvertent, supernatural helper. Like the giant dung-beetle who carries Trygaios to heaven in Aristophanes' Peace, this Gadfly, also called a beetle ‘fed on dung’ (I. i. 163), magically transports Iona back to Thebes even as he appears to be driving her away.

4. Shortly after Purganax dismisses the Gadfly, Swellfoot enters to confirm Iona's arrival: ‘She is returned! Taurina is in Thebes, ❙ When Swellfoot wishes that she were in hell!’ (I. i. 281-2). Iona's supernatural helper has clearly ‘transferred’ her to a place where the ‘fight for [her] objective’ will take place.

5. Here she encounters various forms of opposition to her plan, most involving physical violence. Purganax, knowing very well where the seat of her power lies, has already sent a rat against her thin enough to ‘crawl in and out ❙ Of any narrow chink and filthy hole’ (I. i. 178-9). This having failed, Loactonos attempts to have the army seize her; and Dakry attempts to persuade the mob to turn against her. The pigs, however, rally to Iona's defence and Mammon is forced to think of a more devious way of coming between them. He sends Purganax into the Public Sty to make the ‘Gentlemen and Boars’ (II. i. 1) a ‘solemn speech’ (I. i. 405). A trial should be convened in which Iona's virtue can be put to the ‘test’ of the ‘Green Bag’:

                                                                      This divining Bag …
Is filled with liquor, which if sprinkled o’er
A woman guilty of—we all know what—
Makes her so hideous, till she finds one blind
She never can commit the like again.

(II. 1. 80, 82-5)

What Mammon plans, of course, is a sham-trial that will inevitably lead to the ‘uglification of the Queen’ (I. i. 409) and hence the breaking of her sexual hold over the pigs. ‘A number of exceedingly lean Pigs and Sows and Boars’ (p. 403), however, break in on the assembly to defend the Queen ‘with walls of brawn, ❙ And palisades of tusks, sharp as a bayonet’ (II. i. 143-4). Purganax finally meets with success only after Iona arrives and agrees to undergo the test. She intends to turn it against her persecutors and so knows ‘that [her] foes even thus prepare their fall’ (II. i. 191).

6. Physical opposition, therefore, gives way to a formal trial where ‘persuasion’ is ‘exercised in debate’. But the issue of the trial itself (Iona's guilt or innocence) is not immediately the issue of the debate. The trial itself involves nothing more than the sprinkling of the Green Bag's liquor. Explicit persuasion is exercised only by the various choruses vying for the favour of the goddess Famine. The chorus of the priests, representing the interests of Swellfoot and his court, call upon Famine to maintain the political status quo. The chorus of the pigs call upon her to sponsor revolutionary violence. Liberty, Iona's surrogate, entreats Famine to ‘remit’ her ‘accustomed rage’ (II. ii. 99) and allow ‘the standard-bearers in the van of Change’ to be her ‘appointed stewards, to fill ❙ The lap of Pain, and Toil, and Age!’ (II. ii. 96-8). As Dionysus in Frogs judges a contest between Euripides and Aeschylus, the goddess Famine is asked to choose between the competing claims of two forms of tyranny on the one side and true liberty on the other. This contest, clearly, has a bearing on the result of Iona's trial and the success of her Great Idea. If Iona really is to bring an end to tyranny, then Liberty must persuade Famine to accept her claims and form a ‘brief alliance’ (II. ii. 102).

7. In the event, Liberty's entreaty appears to succeed. Iona's Great Idea is enacted and villainy ‘liquidated’. Just as Purganax is about to empty the Green Bag over Iona, Iona snatches the bag and empties it over Swellfoot and his whole court. They are ‘instantly changed into a number of filthy and ugly animals, and rush out of the Temple’ (p. 408). Iona reveals that the real adulterer in the land is Swellfoot himself. Rather than turning on her and preserving the Swellfoot system, the pigs, as a result, make a rush for the loaves around the altar:

The image of Famine then arises with a tremendous sound, the Pigs begin scrambling for the loaves, and are tripped up by the skulls; all those who Eat the loaves are turned into Bulls, and arrange themselves quietly behind the altar. The image of Famine sinks through a chasm in the earth, and a Minotaur rises. (pp. 408-9)

Those not tripped up by the skulls (death?) eat the sacramental loaves and thereby receive the body of their god. However, the god in question is no longer the goddess Famine but the Minotaur who rises in her place. Iona vanquishes Swellfoot but does not in the process set loose a revolutionary mob maddened by famine. Eating the loaves transforms the pigs into bulls that ‘arrange themselves quietly behind the altar’. They await the direction of Iona and the other ‘standard-bearers in the van of Change’. As the oracle makes clear, there may yet be a civil war instigated by reactionaries, but, for the moment, Iona's victory over tyranny is complete. She vanquishes Swellfoot's tyranny on the one hand and the potential tyranny of the mob on the other.

8. The play ends with a ‘triumph’, formally defined by a typical Aristophanic exodus: the chorus dances from the stage singing a celebratory ode. Functionally, this triumph consists of Iona and the chorus setting off after Swellfoot on a celebratory hunt suggesting both a scene out of Tom Jones and a Bacchic revel. ‘Now’, says Iona,

                                                  let your noses be as keen as beagles’,
Your steps as swift as greyhounds', and your cries
More dulcet and symphonious than the bells
Of village-towers, on sunshine holiday;
Wake all the dewy woods with jangling music.

(II. ii. 120-4)

Swellfoot is not only, or even primarily, a burlesque imitation of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus or of a Greek tragedy in general. Shelley's explicit dramatization of Swellfoot's ‘tragic’ fall negatively articulates the comic rise of a modern Lysistrata: Iona, drawing on the powers of an aggressive, female sexuality, defies the unjust male authority tyrannizing Thebes and achieves sōotēeriāa for herself and her entire city. At the heart of Swellfoot, therefore, lies a comic plot defined by the very ‘narrative understructure’ common to all Aristophanes' surviving plays. If Shelley's learned Theban has written a comically incompetent Greek tragedy, Shelley himself has written a fully fledged Aristophanic comedy.


Having spent several years of virtual exile abroad, the estranged wife of George IV returned to Britain on 5 June 1820. George had recently ascended to the throne and the feisty Caroline was determined to claim her rights as Queen. The government, pressured by George's impatient demands for a divorce, offered Caroline various inducements to relinquish her rights and return whence she came. Caroline, however, could not be bought. On 6 June the government had already obtained parliamentary consent to strike up a secret committee to investigate allegations that Caroline had committed adultery while abroad. Evidence collected by spies who followed Caroline during her travels was brought before the committee in a green bag, a commonly used container for legal documents. Once it became clear that negotiations with Caroline would not succeed, the government acted upon the committee's findings and introduced a Bill of Pains and Penalties against her in the House of Lords. The ensuing trial began on 17 August. In mid-November, the Lords finally passed the bill, but so narrowly that it seemed certain to suffer defeat in the Commons. Despite the apparent success of the government's case, the bill was abandoned. During George's coronation on 19 July 1821 the Queen was barred from entering St Paul's. She died suddenly a few weeks later.

Any account of the political function of Shelley's Aristophanic comedy must begin by correcting the view of the Caroline Affair and Shelley's attitude towards it that has prevailed in Shelley studies from at least the time of Carlos Baker to the present day. No critic, not even the most recent, has looked upon the Affair as having had any real political significance.11 On the contrary, critics often appear to be perplexed, even embarrassed, that Shelley should have shown sufficient interest in the crisis to write about it. Michael Scrivener, for example, a critic both historically minded and particularly sympathetic to Shelley's politics, comments: ‘[Shelley] takes the Queen Caroline affair as the plot material which he transforms into an argument against Malthus and in favor of libertarian reform.’12 This not entirely unjust account of the poem betrays an uneasiness with Shelley's ostensible subject-matter. Somehow Swellfoot cannot be about anything so trivial as the Caroline Affair. So, the sympathetic critic searches for a more flattering view of Shelley's intentions. The Affair, he submits, is only the occasion for a more serious subject. It is only the incidental ‘plot material’ out of which Shelley builds an argument ‘against Malthus and in favor of libertarian reform’. Shelley might have chosen any number of different materials for the same purpose.

One has considerable sympathy for Scrivener's approach. How could Shelley have shown any interest in a tawdry marital dispute that, in letters of 30 June and 12 July 1820, he himself dismisses as absurd?13 Carlos Baker suggests that ‘Shelley was simply holding up his end of the Whig party line’. The persecution of the Queen ‘provided Opposition groups with a standard around which they enthusiastically, though no doubt quite cynically, rallied’.14 The opposition, in short, grabbed at a chance to bring down the Tory government and Shelley was merely doing his part. Kenneth Neill Cameron essentially agrees: ‘[Shelley] was no partisan of the queen and hoped only that her situation might help to bring down the Tory administration and advance the cause of parliamentary reform.’15 Gerald McNiece makes a similar claim. Shelley wrote Swellfoot to express his ‘rather feeble partisanship for Caroline's party’ but he was none the less certain ‘that the cause of liberty and moderate reform could make no gain through Caroline’.16 These are the kind of views that Scrivener is reacting against. If Shelley wrote the poem out of a half-hearted sense of political duty, we have no reason to take it seriously. We might even lend a sympathetic ear to Ronald Tetrault's recent denunciation. He calls Swellfoot a ‘vicious satire’, a betrayal of Shelley's ‘deepest commitment as a poet’, a ‘step backward’, and a ‘failure of imaginative energy and moral vision’.17

The answer to the view that the Caroline Affair was politically insignificant and that Shelley's interest in it was at best lukewarm lies not in shifting attention to some argument against Malthus but in reassessing the nature of the Affair itself. As one historian has written, ‘it is a mistake to dismiss this affair as merely the final, unfortunate, or amusing outburst of Georgian “coarseness” before the onset of Victorian “refinement”’.18 It will no doubt surprise those who see the Peterloo massacre as bringing the political protests of the post-war years to a climax that the Caroline Affair, in fact, gave rise to ‘the largest agitation of the entire pre-Chartist period, dwarfing that of which Peterloo was a part’.19 From the moment Caroline touched ground at Dover until the days following her death, massive outpourings of public support occurred almost daily. Large crowds celebrated her arrival at Dover and Canterbury and lined her entire route to the capital. In London, crowds attacked the houses of ministers and government supporters.20 Ominously, some troops in the London garrison began showing signs of disaffection and had to be marched out of the capital. In mid-August, after the second reading of the Bill of Pains and Penalties, the government felt sufficiently threatened to order the artillery moved up from Woolwich. ‘Two regiments of Life Guards were posted in Palace Yard and another in Westminster Hall, where a train of field-pieces was also stationed.’21 Throughout the summer and autumn, Caroline regularly received addresses and resolutions of support carried to her residence at Brandenburgh House by huge processions of ‘London tradesmen, representatives of parishes, wards, and other groups of opinion within the capital’.22 Similar addresses and resolutions were sent in from the provinces.23 By the end of October, ‘the Queen was receiving up to thirty deputations per day’.24 When the government finally dropped its bill, ‘London was illuminated for five nights’.25 A service of thanksgiving was held at St Paul's. The Queen arrived at the head of what Carlos Baker describes as ‘a sorry little group of retainers’26 but what The Times reported ‘as the largest crowd in the history of the capital’.27 Her retinue included ‘the Common Council of the City of London and a guard of honour composed of 1,000 gentlemen on horseback’.28

At no time during the Liverpool administration was the likelihood of a genuine civil insurrection greater. Of this the government itself was in little doubt. After it withdrew the Bill of Pains and Penalties, George Canning told his wife, ‘I verily believe that a hostile proceeding would have brought on a convulsion in the country’.29 The Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, later called the moment when the London troops refused to stand to duty ‘the most serious crisis in the whole of the post-war period’.30 Other government ministers and supporters commented similarly.31 But perhaps the most genuine indication of how the government viewed the situation was its prosecution, fining, and imprisonment of more radical leaders and propagandists in the wake of the Caroline Affair than at any time since the 1790s.32 The Caroline Affair was much more than a tawdry personal dispute outrageously politicized by a cynical opposition. It was, in fact, a lightning rod for the most powerful and universal expression of political dissent that nineteenth-century Britain had yet seen.

Inevitably, this expression of political dissent involved a far greater issue than the Queen's persecution by a cruel husband and his lackey-ministers. The addresses and resolutions brought before her at Brandenburgh House consistently linked the rights being denied the Queen with the rights that the government had withdrawn from the people. The Habeas Corpus Act had long been repealed. And only months before the Caroline crisis blew up, the government passed the notorious Six Acts, legislation that added considerably to existing restrictions on the freedom of the press and the right of assembly. It did not go unnoticed that the government's allies abroad were all absolutist states. Moreover, specific government policies and legislation aside, the period in general witnessed the accelerating erosion of the old-style paternalism of the British state, a paternalism whose benefits many considered their right. The doctrines of Thomas Malthus, which included a proposal to repeal the poor laws, were never more persuasive than in the immediate post-war years. In prosecuting the Queen's cause, therefore, the protestors were also consciously prosecuting their own:

It is no common dispute then between two high Personages in which mere curiosity and natural interest taken in the affairs of the great are concerned; because the means taken by the agents of the powerful Party—the Green Bag, the Secret Committee, &c.—are the identical means which were lately used by the Oligarchy to deprive the people of their dearest rights. The People therefore are doing no more than protecting their own liberties when they oppose themselves to an attack of this illegal and unjust nature against the Queen; and they would be destitute of all love of justice, humanity, and decency, if they patiently suffered Ministers to trample on the remaining safeguards of their liberties … the English People must now either force the Ministers to retract their present outrageous measures, or that right must again give way to might, and an enormous item be added to the swelled and rankling catalogue of our Political Wrongs.33

The government's attempt to deny the Queen her constitutional rights seemed only another instance in which it endeavoured to undermine or even overturn the constitution. For those who agitated, in other words, the defence of the Queen really involved nothing less than the defence of the British constitution itself. The Queen's cause was only the most legitimate means by which such a defence could be launched.

Even at a distance in Italy, Shelley was, as usual, sensitive to the deeper political implications of events. Of this, Swellfoot itself provides the clearest evidence. When the pigs rally to Iona's defence at the end of the first scene of Act II, they echo those real-life addresses to Caroline of which the newspapers of the day were full:

                    Hog-wash has been ta’en away:
                              If the Bull-Queen is divested,
                    We shall be in every way
                              Hunted, stripped, exposed, molested;
                    Let us do whate’er we may,
                              That she shall not be arrested.
Queen, we entrench you with walls
of brawn,
          And palisades of tusks, sharp as a bayonet …
                    Those who wrong you, wrong us;
                    Those who hate you, hate us;
                    Those who sting you, sting us;
                    Those who bait you, bait us;
The oracle is now about to be
Fulfilled by circumvolving destiny;
Which says: ‘Thebes, choose reform
or civil war …’

(II. i. 137-44, 147-53)

Just as those who agitated on behalf of the Queen consistently linked the preservation of her rights to the preservation of theirs, so the pigs identify their cause with Iona's. They recognize, in fact, that the real issue underlying the dispute between Swellfoot and Iona is the necessity for constitutional change. ‘Thebes’ (referring here to the king and not to the citizens?) must now choose between reform and civil war. Shelley saw the Caroline Affair as bringing to a crisis the whole post-war struggle for political amelioration. Britain now had to choose between launching a second Glorious Revolution or fighting another civil war.

To claim with McNiece and the others that Shelley's partisanship for the Queen's cause was feeble and to suggest thereby that his interest in Swellfoot was lukewarm is surely misguided. The Queen's cause and the cause of reform were inextricably linked. Shelley's often cited comments in the letters of 30 June and 12 July do not so much dismiss the Queen's cause as express impatience with those who offered canting defences of her sexual innocence. On that account Shelley was convinced of her ‘guilt’. But this conviction had no necessary bearing on his support for her political actions.

In the letter of 12 July he praises Leigh Hunt's ‘excellent remarks’ on the Caroline Affair in The Examiner.34 Over the course of the summer of 1820, Hunt wrote an extraordinary series of editorials in defence of the Queen. In the first of these, the one that Shelley may well have had in mind, he explicitly declined to consider the question of Caroline's sexual guilt or innocence. He chose, instead, to launch a furious attack on the sexual double standard and to argue for her sexual rights:

whether the Queen is to be found guilty or not in the eyes of the law, she will still have been an unjustly-treated woman. … The laws of society were of the other sex's making. They partake of the selfish mistakes common to separate bodies of the powerful, and more common in proportion to the barbarism of the period. The laws and customs relating to women, for obvious reasons, have retained more of the selfishness and barbarism than almost any others; men, generally speaking, indulge themselves as they please, and yet demand all the while fidelity from the women, whom they have taught to confound such indulgence with want of affection. … Now a woman in this situation, who is also heiress to a crown or wears one, and is therefore fenced about with additional restrictions … is in the very worst of all these womanly situations. We know of no right which a Prince has to doom such a woman to a premature and perhaps endless widowhood, whether to indulge himself in his humours, or for any other purpose. We know of no right which he has to say to her, ‘Leave me, Madam, for I do not like you:—but take care how you imitate my example, and like anyone else. Divest yourself of our common nature, I charge you’.35

In these comments, I suspect, lie the origins of Shelley's Lysistratan heroine. The Queen's sexual exploits were not to be condemned but celebrated as a reasonable response to tyranny. As the summer progressed and more information about events in Britain became available to him, Shelley no doubt developed his views of the Affair beyond those expressed in the letters. By 25 August, the day he started Swellfoot, his commitment to the cause could not have been doubted.


Why did Shelley look to Aristophanes when he set out to write a comedy on the Caroline Affair? The choice was by no means obvious. Other satirists of the Affair chose differently. They tended to incorporate ‘Caroline's history and grievances into the framework’ of ‘gothic melodrama and domestic romance … two of the preeminent forms of English working class fiction’. Caroline became ‘the heroine of a gothic-romantic fantasy’.36 She was depicted as the ‘fair damsel of a medieval romance’ ruthlessly persecuted by a cruel, tyrannical king.37 What Iain McCalman has called ‘the Queen Caroline “aesthetic”’38 dominated the enormous body of pro-Caroline propaganda to which the Affair gave rise. In writing an Aristophanic comedy, Shelley was clearly, and perhaps consciously, staking out new ground.39

Moreover, not only did his approach differ from that taken by most other satirists but it must have seemed in itself uniquely unsuited to his ends. Although Aristophanes was a favourite author of Shelley's friend and fellow radical Thomas Love Peacock, he was in 1820 generally associated with Tory politics. Over the course of the 1810s the Tories played a prominent part in an extraordinary effort to rehabilitate Aristophanes' reputation. For centuries Aristophanes had been the subject of often vehement denunciations by those who took exception to his obscenity and who held his satirical portrait of Socrates in Clouds responsible for this ‘natural Christian's’ judicial murder. As early as the 1780s Richard Cumberland defended Aristophanes against these age-old charges in the Observer. Although Cumberland was no Tory, Tories soon took up Cumberland's cause. In 1813, after the publication of a collection of translations by Cumberland and others, the Cambridge-educated classicist Thomas Mitchell wrote a long, favourable account of both the translations and the plays themselves in the Quarterly Review. In 1814 Mitchell, again writing in the Quarterly, gave a favourable mention of Aristophanes in his review of the French translation of August von Schlegel's Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, a work that itself included a long, detailed, and highly positive assessment of Aristophanes and Attic Old Comedy. In 1815 John Black published the first English translation. In 1819 the New Monthly Magazine published a series of essays on ‘The Early Comic Writers of Greece’, one of which was devoted to Aristophanes. Mitchell, again writing in the Quarterly, used the English publication of Friedrich von Schlegel's History of Literature, Ancient and Modern (1818) as the occasion for a third lengthy defence of Aristophanes. And he had more to say about Aristophanes in a Quarterly essay on the ‘State of Female Society in Greece’. In 1820 Mitchell published the first volume of a new translation of the comedies and used an adaptation of his review of Schlegel's History as the introduction. This publication occasioned yet another lengthy review article in the Quarterly. Its author, the Tory satirist John Hookham Frere, was himself engaged in producing what was even before its publication a celebrated translation. Excerpts were published in Frere's own article and in Blackwood's in 1819.40 Coleridge included an excerpt at the head of an essay in The Friend. He claimed that, if Frere could be persuaded to publish his translation, it would ‘form an important epoch in English literature’.41

In a story well known in Shelley's day, Plato is said to have told the Sicilian tyrant Dionysus II that he should read Aristophanes if he wanted to learn about Athenian society. Underlying Tory interest in Aristophanes during the 1810s was the view that comedies provided the most accurate picture possible of late fifth-century democratic Athens. Mitchell remarks, for example, that in Knights Aristophanes held up a mirror ‘to his fellow-citizens, where the ruler and the ruled saw themselves reflected with equal fidelity, and by which posterity has gained a complete knowledge of the greatest historical phaenomenon that ever appeared, the Athenium Demus’.42 In his review of Cumberland's translation, he spells out just what this knowledge amounts to:

We are apt to view the Athenians, as they did themselves, through the magnifying glasses of Marathon and Plataea; but a more odious people, as to their internal economy, never existed. … Such … were the people whose amusements, morals, and politics, Aristophanes undertook to criticise, to amend and to direct.43

For Tory translators and critics, Aristophanes at once exposed and severely criticized the moral and political vices of Athenian ‘mobocracy’. Hence the Tories, led by the Quarterly, compaigned to bring Aristophanes to the attention of the literate public. At a time when democratic reform was vigorously urged (and much more vigorously repressed), the exposition of the pernicious inadequacies of the Athenian constitution was particularly urgent.

Much of the Tory writing on Aristophanes, consequently, contains a surprising number of references to contemporary politics. In the preface to his translation, for example, Mitchell justifies the harsh view of Athenians taken in his introduction (first published, of course, in the Quarterly) by referring to the Cato Street conspiracy:

For any warmth of expression, which may have been used in discussing the political character of the Athenians, this is certainly not the time to apologize. Aware, as the writer is, that in a constitution so nicely balanced as our own, any exclusive view of politics ought carefully to be avoided;—yet, when an outrage necessarily growing out of those studied attempts long made to degrade the Crown and Aristocracy of England, and even to assimilate her admirable constitution to that of the democracies of Italy or Greece, is perpetrating in our streets—he may rather doubt, whether he has held up the inward hollowness and rottenness of one of these democracies in a manner sufficiently striking, than a fear that he has exposed her corruptions and her crimes in language too glowing. In the atrocious transaction, which at this moment fills every heart with indignation and horror, England has, for the first time, witnessed one of those foul scenes, which so often stain the pages of Thucydides.44

A letter sent to the New Monthly Magazine applies an excerpt from Knights to the French Revolution:

I was very much struck the other day with a scene in one of the comedies of Aristophanes, which forcibly brought to my mind the trite remark that ‘there is nothing new under the sun;’ for much as we have been accustomed of late years to consider the revolutions of our times in the light of new discoveries, it will appear, I think, from the condensed view which I now send you of the comic delineation of the Athenian satirist, that he was perfectly well versed in all the arts by which states may be overthrown, and the vilest of the people raised to power and popularity, while the virtuous and honorable are reduced to wretchedness.45

In the New Monthly's extended essay on Aristophanes, the anonymous critic applies the lessons of Ecclesiazusae to the contemporary reform movement:

Upon the whole, this indelicate and singular performance may be considered as a burlesque upon all wild Utopian forms of government, and those crude and undigested plans of reform of which the turbulent innovators of Athens, in common with more modern patriots, were such professed admirers.46

And, in his review of Mitchell's translation, Frere equates Aristophanes' depiction of the Athenians with that of the time's leading historian of Greece and presents this as a corrective to other more deluded and pernicious contemporary views:

Since the publication of Mr. Mitford, nothing has appeared, so calculated to convey a true impression of the character of antiquity, or to efface those theatrical and pedantic notions, which are become the source not only of infinite absurdity and distortion of mind among scholars, but of much practical mischief and error, in proportion as the blunders of the learned are diffused among the vulgar.47

In his mammoth ten-volume History of Greece, William Mitford ‘more than anyone else legitimized the use of Athenian history as a vehicle for debating in detail the wisdom and viability of modern democratic government. … His volumes on Greece were a panegyric, largely derived from Country party ideology, on the virtues of the balanced English constitution and a polemic against those who would undermine that balance in the name of democracy, the people, or antique precedents.’48 Frere, clearly, sees Aristophanic comedy serving the same didactic purpose to which Mitford puts Athenian history. As all the above quotations in fact demonstrate, the Tories explicitly enlisted Aristophanes as an ally in their contemporary ideological war against any form of democratic innovation.

So, why would Shelley write an Aristophanic comedy when other satirists found gothic-romantic fantasy a more promising vehicle and when the Tories were everywhere claiming Aristophanes as one of their own? Gothic-romantic fantasy would, of course, have been appropriate had Shelley wished to argue Caroline's sexual innocence. As the letters of 30 June and 12 July show, however, he was pretty well convinced of her sexual ‘guilt’ and could have had no interest in defending Caroline as the poor, chaste princess whose reputation had been unjustly maligned. Such a defence of the Queen would only have reduced the Affair to the tawdry domestic quarrel that Shelley critics have always seen it as. Or, at best, it would have presented the political crisis as involving little more than a singular failure of kingship:

                    I have heard your Laureate sing,
                    That pity was a royal thing;
Under your mighty ancestors, we Pigs
Were bless’d as nightingales on myrtle sprigs,
Or grasshoppers that live on noon-day dew,
And sung, old annals tell, as sweetly too.

(I. i. 37-42)

The chorus's complaint clearly reflects the view that the problem lies with Swellfoot and not with monarchy in general. Yet it is equally clear that Shelley is satirizing the chorus's naïve faith that ‘pity’ was once ‘a royal thing’. Its claim that the pigs once sang as sweetly as nightingales is wonderfully absurd. Shelley only mocks the view of the crisis to which a gothic-romantic treatment would have lent itself.

The Tory classicists prepared the way for Shelley's pursuit of his real interest in the Affair. By presenting Aristophanes as an aristocratic critic of the Athenian constitution, they established a connection between his comedies and the causes of constitutional reform and civil peace. Aristophanes sought to persuade the Athenians to amend their constitution and end their ruinous participation in the Peloponnesian War. Shelley sought to persuade the British similarly: they needed to amend their constitution if only to avoid a ruinous civil war. What better means of persuasion could he have chosen than to write a comedy in the manner of Aristophanes? The Tories ensured the existence of a wide audience, classically educated and otherwise, who could appreciate Shelley's adaptation and understand its import. So, instead of presenting Caroline as a wronged princess, he presents her as a modern Lysistrata leading Britain to a second Glorious Revolution. Instead of defending her sexual innocence, he celebrates her sexual prowess as a benevolent instrument of political reform. Iona, significantly, makes her first appearance in the play at the very moment when the two sides in the conflict are about to come to blows. By agreeing to undergo the test of the Green Bag, she acts to prevent civil violence. An audience for whom the virtues of Aristophanes had been demonstrated would certainly have found Shelley's Aristophanic presentation of Caroline amusing and disarming. At the same time, it would also have been disturbed that the events of the Caroline Affair should fit so convincingly the patterns of an Aristophanic plot. Whose constitution needed reforming? Perhaps we should not be surprised that Swellfoot was one of the few works on the Affair that the government bothered to censor. Shelley turned a Tory genre back upon the heads of the Tories.

Moreover, Shelley was by no means content to leave the Tory view of Aristophanes unchallenged. His invention of a translator prepared to find and suppress sedition and blasphemy in Swellfoot parodies Tory classicism. This classicist cannot recognize an Aristophanic comedy when he sees one. In his Observer article, which Shelley knew,49 Richard Cumberland claims that Aristophanes and his fellow comedians ‘were in high favour with the people on account of the boldness and personality of their satire, and for the same reason proportionably obnoxious to the nobles and magistrates, whom they lashed without mercy’.50Swellfoot clearly conforms to this view of Attic Old Comedy. Yet Shelley's translator cannot imagine that Swellfoot presents the plot from the point of view of the king and his wizards for purposes of satire. For a Tory, Aristophanic comedy can only satirize the democratic ‘mob’. Hence the translator mistakes satire for a genuine tragedy, albeit a Boeotian one. As his invention of a Tory translator shows, Shelley is self-consciously presenting his own version of an Aristophanic comedy.

The function of Swellfoot the Tyrant is closely allied to that of the ode that Shelley was reading aloud when he first thought of the play. In the ‘Ode to Naples’ Shelley draws on the example of Pindar's odes generally and his first Pythian in particular to celebrate and encourage the ‘Glorious Revolution’ that established constitutional government in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.51 At the time an Austrian army stood poised to march south and restore ‘order’. In Swellfoot Shelley was again seeking to defend constitutionalism by writing within the tradition of a classical Greek literary form. But here the constitution in question was that of Britain itself. In the summer of 1820 it must have appeared to Shelley, who was fond of drawing such associations, that the very spirit of bloodless, democratic revolution that had brought constitutionalism to Naples also possessed Britain.52 The Caroline Affair, like the revolution in Naples, presented both threats and opportunities. The triumph of George and his government over the claims of Caroline might have contributed to a general erosion of existing democratic rights and even a return to absolutism. It might also have led to civil war or a full-scale revolution on the French model. Constitutionalism in Britain, as much as in Naples, was under threat. On the other hand, the widespread popular support Caroline received also gave rise to the possibility that the ruling classes, like those in Naples, would give way to popular will and democratize the country further. The dispute between Caroline and her husband had all the tawdriness and absurdity of an Aristophanic comedy. More importantly, it also had all the political import. Hence Shelley's choice of genre. In writing an Aristophanic comedy on the Affair, Shelley addressed the admirers of Aristophanes who were well accustomed to laughing at the absurdities of democratic Athens. Royalist Britain was just as absurd and stood just as urgently in need of reform.


  1. Mary Shelley, ‘Note on Oedipus Tyrannus’, in Shelley: Poetical Works, ed. T. Hutchinson (Oxford, 1905), 410. All references to Oedipus Tyrannus cited in the text are from this edition.

  2. Frogs, in Aristophanes, ed. and trans. B. B. Rogers, Loeb Classical Library (London, 1924), II, 1. 209.

  3. Mary Shelley, ‘Note’, 410.

  4. Shelley's range of paratragic reference extends beyond Oedipus Tyrannus even in the first scene. Swellfoot's admiring self-description at I. i. 1-10 ironically echoes the taunt that Bosola directs at the dying Cardinal in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi: ‘I do glory ❙ That thou, which stood’st like a huge pyramid ❙ Begun upon a large and ample base, ❙ Shalt end in a little point, a kind of nothing’ (ed. E. M. Brennan, 2nd edn. (1983; repr. London, 1987), V. v. 75-8). Swellfoot's pyramid will also one day topple. His lackey spies will also turn against him. The general relevance of The Duchess to a play on the Caroline Affair is obvious.

  5. Augustus Wilhelm von Schlegel, A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, trans. J. Black (London, 1815), i. 192. Shelley read Schlegel in March 1818 (F. L. Jones, in his edn. of Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Oxford, 1964), ii. 484).

  6. Schlegel, Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, 193.

  7. A. Sommerstein, in his edn. of Acharnians, The Comedies of Aristophanes, i (Warminster, Wilts., 1980), 11. Further references to this work appear in the text.

  8. G. M. Sifakis, ‘The Structure of Aristophanic Comedy’, Journal of Hellenic Studies, 112 (1992), 128, 129. Further references to this work appear in the text.

  9. Horace, ‘Epistles’, in Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica, ed. and trans. H. Rushton Fairclough, Loeb Classical Library (London, 1929), i. 4, 16.

  10. In a book published after this article was written, S. E. Jones also briefly notes similarities between Lysistrata and Swellfoot (Shelley's Satire: Violence, Exhortation and Authority (Dekalb, Ill., 1994), 190 n. 40).

  11. An exception to my claim is S. E. Jones whose excellent discussion of Swellfoot appeared too late for me to take full account of here. Jones's view of the Affair's political import is similar to my own (see his Shelley's Satire, 125-6).

  12. M. Scrivener, Radical Shelley: The Philosophical Anarchism and Utopian Thought of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Princeton, 1982), 262-3.

  13. Letters, ed. Jones, ii. 207, 213.

  14. C. Baker, Shelley's Major Poetry: The Fabric of a Vision (Princeton, 1948), 176, 175.

  15. K. N. Cameron, Shelley: The Golden Years (Cambridge, Mass., 1974), 356-7.

  16. G. McNiece, Shelley and the Revolutionary Idea (Cambridge, Mass., 1969), 68, 69.

  17. R. Tetrault, The Poetry of Life: Shelley and Literary Form (Toronto, 1987), 160. Critical dismissals of Swellfoot begin with Mary Shelley's note on the poem. Her ‘hesitation’, she says, ‘of whether it would do honour to Shelley’ prevented her from ‘publishing it at first’. She urges us not to judge the poem ‘for more than was meant. It is a mere plaything of the imagination; which even may not excite smiles among many’ (p. 410). These views have, no doubt, influenced many modern evaluations. But they need to be placed in the context of Mary Shelley's efforts to present the public with a depoliticized Shelley. For a fascinating discussion of these efforts see Neil Fraistat's article, ‘Illegitimate Shelley: Radical Piracy and the Textual Edition as Cultural Performance’, PMLA 109 (1994), 409-23.

  18. J. A. Hone, For the Cause of Truth: Radicalism in London, 1796-1821 (Oxford, 1982), 307.

  19. C. Calhoun, The Question of Class Struggle: Social Foundations of Popular Radicalism during the Industrial Revolution (Chicago, 1982), 110.

  20. I. J. Prothero, Artisans and Politics in Early Nineteenth-Century London: John Gast and his Times (Folkestone, 1979), 134-5.

  21. J. Stevenson, ‘The Queen Caroline Affair’, in J. Stevenson (ed.), London in the Age of Reform (Oxford, 1977), 123-4, 126.

  22. J. Stevenson, Popular Disturbances in England, 1700-1870 (London, 1979), 200. See also Hone, For the Cause of Truth, 311, and Prothero, Artisans and Politics, 136-7, 138-40, 141-2.

  23. For a report on such expressions of support from the provinces, see The Examiner, no. 653 (2 July 1820), 428-9.

  24. Stevenson, ‘The Queen Caroline Affair’, 129.

  25. Hone, For the Cause of Truth, 309.

  26. Baker, Shelley's Major Poetry, 175.

  27. Stevenson, ‘The Queen Caroline Affair’, 132.

  28. Ibid.

  29. Quoted in Hone, For the Cause of Truth, 309.

  30. Stevenson, ‘The Queen Caroline Affair’, 124.

  31. T. W. Laqueur, ‘The Queen Caroline Affair: Politics as Art in the Reign of George IV’, Journal of Modern History, 54 (1982), 422-3.

  32. Hone, For the Cause of Truth, 318.

  33. Leigh Hunt, The Examiner, no. 654 (9 July 1820), 433.

  34. Letters, ed. Jones, ii. 213.

  35. The Examiner, no. 650 (11 June 1820), 370, 371.

  36. I. McCalman, Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840 (Cambridge, 1988), 176, 163.

  37. Laqueur, ‘The Queen Caroline Affair’, 463.

  38. McCalman, Radical Underworld, 173.

  39. For evidence that Shelley knew at least some of the satires inspired by the Affair see N. I. White, ‘Shelley's Swellfoot the Tyrant in Relation to Contemporary Political Satires’, PMLA 36 (1921), 332-46.

  40. [R. Cumberland], The Observer: Being a Collection of Moral, Literary and Familiar Essays, 3rd edn. (London, 1790), iii. 135-65; [T. Mitchell], ‘Translations of the Comedies of Aristophanes’, Quarterly Review, 9 (1813), 139-61; [T. Mitchell], ‘Schlegel's Cours de Litterature Dramatique’, Quarterly Review, 12 (1814), 112-46; H. M., ‘The Early Comic Writers of Greece—Aristophanes’, New Monthly Magazine and Universal Register, 12 (1819), 389-405; [T. Mitchell], ‘View of Grecian Philosophy.—The Clouds, &c.’, Quarterly Review, 21 (1819), 271-320; [T. Mitchell], ‘State of Female Society in Greece’, Quarterly Review, 22 (1819), 163-203; T. Michell, The Comedies of Aristophanes, vol. i (London, 1820); [J. H. Frere], ‘Mitchell's Translations of Aristophanes’, Quarterly Review, 23 (1820), 474-505; ‘Specimen of an Unpublished Translation of Aristophanes’, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 4 (1818-19), 421-9.

  41. The Friend, ed. B. E. Rooke, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge 4, Bollingen Series 75 (Princeton, 1969), i. 18.

  42. Mitchell, ‘View of Grecian Philosophy’, 276.

  43. Mitchell, ‘Translations of the Comedies of Aristophanes’, 144.

  44. Mitchell, The Comedies of Aristophanes, i, pp. xii-xiii.

  45. J. W., ‘The Sausage-maker, from Aristophenes’, New Monthly Magazine, 3 (1815), 313.

  46. H. M., ‘The Early Comic Writers of Greece’, 403.

  47. Frere, ‘Mitchell's Translations of Aristophanes’, 505.

  48. F. M. Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (New Haven, 1981), 194-5.

  49. Shelley refers to both the Observer article and Thomas Mitchell's ‘View of Grecian Philosophy’ in a letter that he wrote to the Examiner in Nov. 1819 (Letters, ii. 145). The letter concerns the government's prosecution of Richard Carlisle on charges of blasphemy.

  50. Cumberland, The Observer, iii. 120.

  51. See M. Erkelenz, ‘Unacknowledged Legislation: The Genre and Function of Shelley's “Ode to Naples”’, in B. T. Bennett and S. Curran (edd.), Shelley: Poet and Legislator of the World (Baltimore, 1996), 63-72.

  52. Such associations certainly occurred to others. ‘In July [the radical leader Major John Cartwright] was trying to organize a public dinner in support of the revolutions in Spain and Italy. He linked the revolutions abroad, demands for reform of Parliament, and the Queen's affair. … Popular hand-bills were openly hinting at the threat of the succession and appeals were being made to the example of revolutions on the continent. Under the title “Revolution in Naples effected by Solders”, a hand-bill printed by William Benbow praised the conduct of the army of Naples for imposing “a representative free Constitution”. It concluded: “Feeble indeed is the tenure of the throne that depends on the arm of power, and is not fixed in the love of the subject”’ (Stevenson, ‘The Queen Caroline Affair’, 124, 126-7).

John F. Murphy (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Time's Tale: The Temporal Poetics of Shelley's Alastor,” in Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. XLV, 1996, pp. 132-55.

[In the following essay, Murphy discusses the sense of narrative time in Shelley's Alastor.]


While Shelley's reputation as a poet has often rested upon an estimate of his talents as a lyricist, critics of the last decade have complicated this judgment by increasingly focusing on the poet's engagement with that literary mode most conspicuously at odds with lyricism: narrative. In this latter group the work of Tilottama Rajan stands out as the most extensive and theoretically ambitious to date. Her recent essay, “The Web of Human Things: Narrative and Identity in Alastor,” continues her previous efforts to reverse the traditional valorization of lyric over narrative in Romantic studies.1 Recapitulating the canonical reading of Alastor as an allegory of visionary failure, Rajan rescripts this loss as the deconstructive triumph of narrative. She argues that the Romantic desire for internalized self-identification and lyric totality, doubled from narrator to hero, is repeatedly frustrated by the narrative's network of traces, displacements, and deferrals—a textual unweaving which registers “the inevitable functioning of language as difference” as it resituates the lyric self within “a temporal and historical world … no longer purely defined by the subject.”2

Rajan's reading well demonstrates how a diacritical mode such as narrative can function to demystify the powerful Romantic impulse towards lyric idealization and enclosure. Yet her deprecation of Aristotelian emplotment in lieu of a “critical narrative” whose sequencing of connection and difference is recursive rather than progressive leads her to follow the critical tradition of the poem in neglecting the peripety that, as I wish to argue here, twists the narrative's plot. In opposition to the prevailing view that the fate of Alastor's hero only worsens as his quest continues after the dream-vision, I shall argue that his developing understanding of life's temporal arc leads him to a consoling recognition that the poem's narrator and its commentators, focused in the main on the early triptych of events surrounding the dream-vision, largely discount.3 Narrative, so appraised, can be understood as a constructive mode, one which enables Shelley to articulate a model of self-identity and recognition based upon an act of temporal emplotment.

Viewing the poem from this perspective, I am particularly interested in the concept of plot, a persistently downplayed feature of poetic discourse but one which has recently drawn its share of general theoretical reassessment, most notably in Paul Ricoeur's three-volume Time and Narrative and Peter Brook's Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative.4 Of these two, Ricoeur's theory is especially useful for clarifying the Shelleyan hero's radically temporal understanding of his quest, and it is to his characterization of narrative time that I initially wish to turn. Drawing upon Heidegger, Ricoeur states that our sense of time first develops as we learn to reckon with it, to do things “in time.” At this level we turn to nature to help orient us: “the first measurements of the time of our preoccupation are borrowed from the natural environment—first of all from the play of lights and the seasons.”5 For Ricoeur this initial reckoning then gives way to a deeper sense of time in which the self not only performs actions and engages in events in accord with nature's cycles, but achieves a level of historicity by identifying the arc of these activities in terms of its own extension between birth and death. In this latter stage, according to Ricoeur, the self emplots itself dynamically in time through a reflective act of “making-present” that involves both anticipation and recollection: “Through repetition the character of time as stretching-along is rooted in the deep unity of time as future, past, and present, the backwards movement towards the past is retrieved in the anticipation of a project.”6 For Ricoeur, however, this unfolding process must go one crucial step further.

Ricoeur insists that such acts of emplotment must not only reflect the temporal embeddedness of personal experience, but that they must be transmitted from the self to another. Questioning Heidegger on this point, he argues: “Must we not call into question the very first analysis on which Heidegger's repetition is based, I mean the analysis of a heritage of potentialities understood as something that is transmitted from oneself to oneself? Is not heritage always something that is transmitted from another to oneself?”7 Ricoeur is particularly interested in how narrative functions in this role—that is, in how narrative in a work such as the Odyssey serves as a discursive mode which relays the significant temporal patternings of human experience throughout a community of listeners. For him, as well as for Alastor's narrator, who in stanza three expresses the elegiac desire to locate the untimely death of his poet-quester within a sphere of human acknowledgment, the vexing question thus becomes: in what sense can narrative emplotment take us from personal time, the Heideggerian arc of historicity, to a more collective and shared experience of human temporality, something akin to cultural time?

This last feature of Ricoeur's argument, which distinguishes it from a Heideggerian thematics of time, is especially pertinent in appraising his argument as a response to what remains the most influential discussion of Romantic temporality, Paul de Man's “The Rhetoric of Temporality.” In this essay de Man argues that the destabilizing forces of temporal noncoincidence invariably undermine the Romantic idealizations of the self-nature relationship championed by post-war critics such as M. H. Abrams, Earl Wasserman, and W. K. Wimsatt. Employing Wordsworth's Prelude as his exemplary text, de Man argues that the poet's true insight into the self-nature relationship occurs only when he dispenses with the purely organic model of a spatially-enclosed unity for a more genuine and authentic representation—namely, the temporal dialectic in which the self, “caught up entirely within mutability,” feels the pathos of its mortality in the face of nature's eternal cycles.8 This moment that de Man describes so well, the self's realization of its own death in the face of nature's unceasing rhythms, is consonant with Ricoeur's use of Heideggerian historicity: knowledge of one's history as a being thrown into the world pivots on a recognition of the finite human arc that stretches from birth to death.9 According to de Man, however, the difficulty lies in the act of temporal retrieval that would recover an individual's past and shape it into a coherent and meaningful whole; in his negative theology the self's resurrection of the past is doomed by the rhetorical impossibility of discovering the “pure anteriority” of its origins.

For Ricoeur, on the other hand, the potency of narrative lies precisely in its ability to retrieve the past, to recover what has died. Echoing Walter Benjamin, he asks: “Must not something or someone die if we are to have a memory of it or him or her? is not otherness of the past to be seen fundamentally in death? and is not repetition itself a kind of resurrection of the dead?”10 Ricoeur's faith in narrative recovery derives from his conception of literary tropes. Unlike de Man, who in “Semiology and Rhetoric” recasts the allegorical undoing of symbolic presence as the metonymical undoing of metaphorical identity, he aligns narrative with metaphor at the outset of Time and Narrative, and views the two as synthetic acts which draw heterogeneous elements into an intelligible whole: “In both cases, the new thing—the as yet unsaid, the unwritten—springs to us in language. Here a living metaphor, that is, a new pertinence in the predication, there a feigned plot, that is, a new congruence in the organization of the events.”11 Lest his faith appear blind, however, he does admit that narrative discourse is incapable of transcending the temporal aporias of phenomenal experience first identified by Augustine: “Emplotment replies to the [temporal] aporia with a poetic making of something capable, certainly, of clarifying the aporia … but not of resolving it theoretically.”12 The purity of repetition, the figure de Man sets up when he speaks of the failure of the sign to “coincide” with its predecessor in the signifying chain, is here replaced with a repetition that is same-but-different, continuity cast within a frame of difference it cannot dissolve. Ricoeur emphasizes the value of narrative as an organizing mode capable of articulating the past in telling ways, but he stops short of identifying it as a rhetorical device capable of naturalizing experience into an unbroken chain. Thus, although the two theorists similarly focus on the temporal embeddedness of human experience, Ricoeur replaces de Man's rhetorical skepticism with a constructive model which valorizes narrative as an enabling trope that organizes time rather than falling prey to its potentially disruptive flow.


At the outset of his poetic career Shelley's own concern with this question of temporal organization is manifest. Against the quotidian flow of “Time, the conqueror” (IX.23),13 Shelley's Queen Mab offers an imaginative act of emplotment which appears to renovate rather than discard the temporality of human consciousness. Speaking of the poem to a prospective publisher in 1812, Shelley states that “The Past, Present, and Future are the grand and comprehensive topics of this poem,”14 and he has Mab reiterate this promise at an early juncture of her narrative: “the past shall rise; / Thou shalt behold the present; I will teach / The secrets of the future” (II.65-67). Yet, unlike a later poem such as “Lines written among the Euganean Hills,” in which the persona speaks of “Twining memories of old time / With new virtues more sublime” (lines 158-59), Mab does not apprehend the temporal modalities of past, present, and future as standing in any significant dialectical relationship to one other. Shelley's zealous critique of all manner of authority leads him to see the present as a repetition without difference of the moral errors of the past. Anticipating a later remark to Byron that an epic be structured as a series of pictures, the poet sustains his moral critique in the first seven cantos through a series of vignettes which effectively collapse past and present into a repeatable episode of authoritarian fraud.

In the final two cantos of the poem, on the other hand, the future is clearly distinguished from the present and the past, but to the point that it must obliterate all prior memories:

                    The present now is past,
And those events that desolate the earth
Have faded from the memory of Time,
Who dares not give reality to that
Whose being I annul. To me is given
The wonders of the human world to keep,
Space, matter, time, and mind. Futurity
Exposes now its treasures; let the sight
Renew and strengthen all thy failing hope.


Since Mab has chronicled a past and present of unremitting moral error, it is understandable that her brave new world assumes this apocalyptic dimension. Even so, there is hardly an indication of how such a change will occur. Mab knows the secret “wonders” that enable this transformation, but they remain the excluded middle of her narrative. In this mechanical cosmos driven by a materialist will which surges impersonally onward, Ianthe thus remains blinded to precisely how futurity's treasures materialize. Moreover, the disjunctive tenor of this revelatory turn is not entirely consonant with the Godwinian claim of “gradual renovation” (VIII.143) Mab subsequently espouses. This contradiction, unresolved in the poem, certainly supports the critical claim that Shelley was at this early point of his poetic career swimming in a sea of intellectual thought he had not fully mastered.15 Yet the contradiction also points to a tension that will persist beyond the epic opening of Shelley's career, and figure prominently in his next major effort, Alastor: does visionary consciousness, exemplified in this poem as Mab's revelatory future, overcome or intensify the self's experience of time?

That Shelley was interested in this latter alternative is clear from a note to Queen Mab that curiously anticipates Alastor. Glossing a line which stresses the immanence of Mab's revelatory future (“man … stands / Immortal upon earth” [VIII.209-11]), Shelley comments: “Time is our consciousness of the succession of ideas in our mind … If, therefore, the human mind, by any future improvement of its sensibility should become conscious of an infinite number of ideas in a minute, that minute would be eternity.”16 Rather than transcending the conditions of time, visionary experience can instead improve them by intensifying the duration of our temporal consciousness. The poet continues:

I do not hence infer that the actual space between the birth and death of a man will ever be prolonged; but that his sensibility is perfectible, and that the number of ideas his mind is capable of receiving is infinite. … Thus the life of a man of virtue and talent, who should die in his thirtieth year, is, with regards to his own feelings, longer than that of a miserable priest-ridden slave, who dreams out a century of dulness. … Perhaps the perishing ephemeron enjoys a longer life than the tortoise.17

This passage uncannily prefigures Shelley's own life, which abruptly ended during the poet's thirtieth year. In terms of poetic development it suggests Shelley's immediate interest in a subject less “grand and comprehensive” than the broad meliorist effort of Queen Mab: the personalized stakes of an individual who is born, lives, and dies. Indeed, with the creation of Alastor three years later this “perishing ephemeron” whose temporal arc is valued for its intensity becomes a capable figure of the poet's imagination, reappearing on his stage in a dramatically increased role.

During the summer months that immediately preceded the composition of Alastor in 1814, the concept of the perishing ephemeron did in fact re-enter the poet's life with a sense of personal urgency: Shelley was misdiagnosed as consumptive.18 In her supplementary note to the poem Mary Shelley details the effect this turn of events, along with the “sad realities” of financial and familial strain, had upon Shelley: “Physical suffering had also considerable influence in causing him to turn his eyes inward; inclining him rather to brood over the thoughts and emotions of his own soul, than to glance abroad, and to make, as in Queen Mab, the whole universe the object and subject of his song.”19 Brooding over thoughts of his own premature death, Shelley in his inward turn produces the allegorical life-history of a similarly mortal individual, one whose temporal arc, like that of the hero for Benjamin's storyteller, initially assumes transmissible form at the moment of death.

The poet's sharpened sense of this inevitable human ending and what it may signify is initially apparent in the Preface to Alastor. According to Shelley, whether one fails to love fellow human beings through a “generous error” such as the solipsistic Poet's misplaced search, or through a more “detestable error” such as the spiritual lethargy of the “morally dead,” the admonishment which concludes his Preface is the same: “Those who love not their fellow beings live unfruitful lives, and prepare for their old age a miserable grave” (p. 70). Although cast in negative terms, Shelley's comment articulates the fundamental logic of narrative closure. If an individual's life-history is a narrative that reaches its culmination in death, then the right preparations are necessary to ensure this story's proper ending. Echoing Benjamin and Sartre, Peter Brooks observes: “the narrative must tend towards its end, seek illumination in its own death. Yet this must be the right death, the correct end. The complication of the detour is related to the danger of short-circuit: the danger of reaching the end too quickly.”20 For the morally dead of Shelley's Preface it is simple enough; their unremittingly miserable lives prepare them for a miserable grave. They may have lived a life long in chronological years, but as Shelley's Queen Mab note and the preface to Alastor indicate, their lack of intensity and conviction has significantly diminished this duration. For the Poet, on the other hand, the situation is more complex.

He does clearly match the profile of those who succumb to the danger of short-circuit, becoming not long after his dream vision a failed quester whose “scattered hair / Sered by the autumn of strange suffering / Sung dirges in the wind” (lines 248-50). Indeed, the narrator of the poem and its commentators interpret this relatively early burnout as an irreversible condition, as an ill-fated choice which deters the Poet from any preparations he might have made for what Peter Brooks terms “the right death.” As a result the narrator-turned-elegist is only capable of praising the virtuous qualities of the Poet displayed before his misguided turn, finding no illumination in the fact of his death, while subsequent criticism, typified by Timothy Clark's recent conclusion that the unresolved “failure” of the Poet leads to “tragic blight,” can only describe his fate in cautionary terms.21

It is quite possible, however, to consider the contrary alternative. Eclipsing the Poet's failed search for the figure of his dream is the recognition he finally comes to achieve about the temporal significance of his life, a recognition he is only able to achieve as his own life—and hence the plot of his narrative life-history—winds down to its natural conclusion. That Shelley would have placed a great importance upon the Poet's own understanding of his death is not surprising, given his own brush with death at this time. As Mary Shelley's supplementary note to the poem once again glosses, “The death which he had often contemplated during the last months as certain and near, he here represented in such colors as had, in his lonely musings, soothed his soul to peace” (p. 67). “Soothed his soul to peace” describes not only the recuperative conditions of Shelley the poet as he repairs from his illness under the oak-shades of Windsor Park; the phrase well describes, as we shall see, the consoling turn of Shelley's Poet as he recuperates from the failure of his quest during the final episodes of his life-history.


As the poem initially unfolds, the question of personal time quickly becomes a question of narrative time. At the very outset the narrator reflexively turns to nature for temporal stability, invoking “the great Mother” whose diurnal and seasonal influxes have “imbued my soul” (line 2). His sense of temporal measurement in this case derives from his preoccupation with the natural world, not from the abstract demarcations of Aristotelian clock-time. However, this natural piety soon gives way to an interest in human fate, as his “obstinate questionings” of nature's deep mysteries are directed towards “forcing some lone ghost, / Thy messenger, to render up the tale / Of what we are” (lines 27-29). Although nature may supply the grounds for this inquiry, it is the speaker's human condition, “what we are,” which inspires the inquiry, a fact that the passage's pronoun shift from second-person to first-person serves to illustrate. Moreover, the speaker's use of “tale” suggests his interest in broaching this question in narrative terms, an interest subsequently borne out as he turns to the emplotted human experience of a fellow poet whose “untimely tomb” (line 50) has not received its proper recognition. Thus, while the narrator will become so enrapt in the failure of his subject that he can draw no solace from this hero's final turn, he is at the outset perfectly in tune with the evolution of narrative time as Ricoeur outlines it: from a grounding in nature's cycles emerges a concern with the finite arc of human temporality, a concern whose significance is to be comprehended and circulated as a “tale” that speaks to the communal concern of “what we are” (emphasis mine).

As a storyteller of the sort Benjamin favors, this narrator moves from his ending, the organic fact of the Poet's death, to the series of events that have led to this unacknowledged fate. Beginning with the early events of the Poet's upbringing, the narrator emphasizes the central role played by both the immediate natural world (“Every sight / And sound from the vast earth and ambient air” [lines 68-69]) and by mankind's intellectual heritage (“divine philosophy” and “all of great, / Or good, or lovely, which the sacred past / In truth or fable consecrates”[lines 71-74]). From a temporal perspective, this description of the Poet's early youth stresses his encounters both with the present influxes of nature and the past truths of cultural history, an emphasis that is repeated when the Poet journeys forth to seek new truths and is said to “linger long” (line 98) over nature's peaceful wonders and to have “lingered, poring on memorials / Of the world's youth” (lines 121-22). Patient and vigilant, the Poet's “preoccupation [with the world] … determines [his] sense of time,” as Ricoeur puts it.22 Yet he is not without limitations at this point. The poet appears to have little sense of the future, the temporal mode of expectation, and he also appears to be blinded to his fellow human beings, particularly the infatuated Arab maiden who brings his meals. Her scene is introduced with the temporal adverb “Meanwhile,” a grammatical marker that allows the storyteller to identify alternate lines of action; but here the adverb betokens an opportunity lost rather than gained. “Meanwhile” introduces a domestic eventfulness which, unlike the hieroglyphic events on the ancient wall, escapes the notice of the Poet. Thus, although he has amply involved himself with the present wonders of nature and the cultural past of mankind, this wandering figure does not yet appear capable of directing his newly-gained knowledge towards any discernible end, least of all the moral sphere of interpersonal relations.

The Poet's subsequent dream-vision responds to this predicament. In the classical world the belief was commonly held that dreams pointed to one's future, and as this dream set in a classical locus begins, it appears to serve such an aim: “A vision on his sleep / There came, a dream of hopes that never yet / Had flushed his cheek” (lines 149-51; emphasis mine). Certain features of this vision have a particularly Wordsworthian resonance, and it is the poet's two great lyrics on human time, “Tintern Abbey” and “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” which frame the vision as it moves from hopeful dream to waking despair.23 Throughout the first two-thirds of “Tintern Abbey” the Wordsworthian persona binds the past to the present through the solitary celebration of nature's continuous “beauteous forms.”24 In the concluding section of the poem, however, his vision of future celebration involves the mediation of another self, his younger sister Dorothy, the kindred figure to whom he wishes to transmit this rapturous experience. Alastor's “dream of hopes” like-wise images the Poet's future through the mediation of an idealized other, a sympathetic spirit who, like Dorothy, is described chiefly in terms of her voice:

                                                            He dreamed a veiled maid
Sate near him, talking in low solemn tones.
Her voice was like the voice of his own soul
Heard in the calm of thought; its music long,
Like woven sounds of streams and breezes, held
His inmost sense suspended in its web
Of many-coloured woof and shifting hues.
Knowledge and truth and virtue were her theme,
And lofty hopes of divine liberty,
Thoughts the most dear to him, and poesy,
Herself a poet.

(lines 151-61)

Just as the imagined presence of Dorothy's kindred spirit enables the Wordsworthian persona of “Tintern Abbey” to situate his solitary reverie within a shared context of community, to transmit the experience for future commemoration, so too this imagined figure of the maiden suggests a new possibility for the solitary Poet: the future prospect of sharing his own “thoughts” of “knowledge and truth and virtue” with others of like sentiment. In this instance the proximity of terms such as “truth,” “virtue,” and “liberty” recalls Shelley's own rhetoric of engagement in his earlier tract An Address, to the Irish People, in which an individual is held in high moral esteem “if he be a virtuous man, if he loves liberty and truth.”25

Like Wordsworth's “Tintern Abbey” Coleridge's meditative lyrics such as “This Lime-tree Bower My Prison” and “To Wordsworth” also recommend this example, and as Reeve Parker has argued, in so doing they indicate the crucial role intersubjectivity plays in establishing the temporal continuum of the self: “A sense of one's continuousness—literally a sense of past and future bound to an ontological present—is … inconceivable ‘without the action of kindred souls on each other’.”26 Such intersubjective grounding clearly underlies the symbolic charge of the Poet's dream: to envision a figure whose “Thoughts [are] the most dear to him” (line 160) is for the Poet to envision a future where the solitary experience of revery is capable of being transformed, as it is for Wordsworth and Coleridge, into the shared experience of sympathetic spirits. Shelley echoes this view by defining love as an epipsychical doubling of one's virtuous qualities in another in the first paragraph of the Preface to Alastor, which not only points to the poem's dream-vision but recalls the dialogic framing of the greater Romantic lyric as practiced by Wordsworth and Coleridge: “The intellectual faculties, the imagination, the functions of sense, have their respective requisitions on the sympathy of corresponding powers in other human beings” (p. 69).27 Consonant with this theme, the narrator's invocation in Alastor states that once inspired a poet must not only modulate his “strain” with the elements of nature, the “murmurs of the air” and the “motions of the forests and the sea” (lines 45-47), but with the “voice of living beings” and “the deep heart of man” as well (lines 48-49).

Whereas a lyric such as “Tintern Abbey” describes this correspondence between self and other in reverential terms, as the blessing that the Wordsworthian persona bestows upon his sister, Shelley's poem marks its difference by turning profanely against such piety, eroticizing the relationship in the second half of the vision by collapsing the distance between self and other through a coupling which is “frantic,” “breathless,” and “dissolving” (lines 186-87). The danger of this coupling becomes clear when the Poet awakes the next day. In the cold light of morning his anguished separation “shock” (line 192) indicates that he has come to view the veiled maiden as an immediate object of desire rather than as a representative figure who has conveyed the moral “theme” of human involvement to him. But then, “eagerly pursu[ing] / Beyond the realms of dream that fleeting shade” (lines 205-6), the Poet clearly “overleaps the bounds” (line 207) of dream interpretation, investing the “shape” of the veiled maiden with a separate ontological status beyond her role as condensed dream figure.28 As Shelley intimates in his Preface, the Poet runs into trouble not because he is an image-maker weaving together various ennobling human qualities into “a single image,” but because he turns into an image-hunter who “seeks in vain for a prototype of his conception” (p. 69).

Shelley's own fragmentary “Speculations on Metaphysics” further clarify this turn of events.29 In a metaphysical rumination which evokes Alastor by employing a river analogue for the human mind, Shelley laments the difficulty of unifying an individual's perceptions into a “faithful history of his being” (p. 64). Like the experience of the Poet in his dream vision, this imagined scenario begins with a self-mirroring in which individuals “might behold their own recollections, and, in dim perspective, their shadowy hopes and fears, all that … they could not expose to the open eyes of day” (p. 64). And like the Poet's waking response to his experience, they too encounter problems in drawing the significance out of these shadowy recollections:

But thought can with difficulty visit the intricate and winding chambers which it inhabits. It is like a river whose rapid and perpetual stream flows outwards;—like one in dread who speeds through the recesses of some haunted pile, and dares not look behind. … If it were possible to be where we have been, vitally and indeed—if, at the moment of our presence there, we could define the result of our experience,—if the passage from sensation to reflection—from a state of passive perception to voluntary contemplation, were not so dizzying and tumultuous, this attempt would be less difficult. (p. 64)

As a gloss on Poet's response to his dream, this passage suggests the underlying problem of the Poet's erotic coupling. In order for the waking Poet to make “the passage from sensation to reflection” it would naturally follow that he reflect upon the implications of his dream, drawing out the symbolic significance of its concrete particulars. Still dazzled by the waking afterimage of this coupling, however, the Poet is incapable of making this transition to “voluntary contemplation,” and hence is unable to “define the results of our experience” (emphasis mine). Seduced by the alluring sensual imagery of his dream vision, he falls prey to what Shelley terms, in a passage from his “Speculations on Morals,” the “narrow limit” of “[s]elfishness” and “personal gratification,” the egotistical self-interest of “savage solitude” which precludes true moral “disinterestedness” (pp. 75-76).

While the Poet's dream unfolds with the promise of sympathetic identification envisioned in “Tintern Abbey” and other greater Romantic lyrics, his misreading of this dream thus results the following morning in the separation anxiety characteristic of Wordsworth's great ode:

                                                                                Whither have fled
The hues of heaven that canopied his bower
Of yesternight? The sounds that soothed his sleep,
The mystery and the majesty of Earth,
The joy, the exultation?

(lines 196-200)

Echoing Wordsworth's famous couplet (“Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream”), these lines point to the problem of temporal retrieval that vexes the middle of both Shelley's and Wordsworth's poem. As he comes to accept the consoling compromise that the philosophical mind brings, the Wordsworthian persona ultimately forgoes the dream of a pure time-consciousness capable of recovering the past in its original splendor. Shelley's Poet, on the other hand, seems unwilling to compromise. He posits his past dream as a phantasmal future, and searches recklessly throughout the natural world for it. Quite at odds with the vigilant lingering of his travels before the dream, this journey skews the diurnal cycle as he travels “night and day” (line 230) through “a weary waste of hours” (line 245), accelerating “beyond all human speed” (line 361). Even when the Poet's tiny shallop slows to a “gentle motion” (line 399) and he appears ready to approach the immediate natural world in terms of its own languid ethos by decking himself with the surrounding flora, his desire to retrieve the past image of his dream pushes him onward before he can enact the ritual. While the poet productively engages both nature's presence and culture's past before his dream vision, his headlong leap towards the futurity of his ideal object now disregards both the present and all but the most limiting past.

Within the terms of Ricoeur's argument, then, the Poet's life-history to this point supplies an allegory of temporal divisiveness. In this case, his failure can be located within the temporal thematics delineated at the outset: the Poet is unable to draw the three “extasies” of time—past, present, and future—into a coherent unity or vision. Yet a second possibility remains. The Poet may be unable to renegotiate the realm of productive temporal activity and engagement envisioned in his dream, but it is still possible for him to organize his life-history, to emplot his dark fate as a means towards discerning its significance. Echoing critics before him, William Keach has commented that Shelley's poem diverges from Wordsworth's ode because neither its speaker nor its hero can reach the “deeper level of wisdom and acceptance” the Wordsworthian speaker achieves.30 While this may be so if we accept the narrator's concluding elegy as the last word on the Poet's life, the Poet's own actions and words during the final episodes of the narrative tell a different story, one that squares more favorably with the consolation of Wordsworth's ode.


In terms of narrative development, this turn begins when the Poet encounters a new temptation along the course of his journey, the disembodied “Spirit” (line 479) whose shining eyes beckon him to follow. Edward Strickland, in response to the standard reading of the passage as “another temptation to let Nature suffice,” surmises that this spirit is less a temptation from nature than from the Poet's own mind, and hence it repeats the earlier dream-vision as the self-projection of an illusory object of desire: “The veiled maiden is born of dream and reborn of self-induced trance.”31 During the scene, however, the narrator's language suggests the adjustment the Poet has made in responding to visionary enticements such as the veiled maid. After his dream the waking Poet never questions the ontological status of his ideal object; his concern lies solely with locating this figure. In this latter instance, on the other hand, the ontological uncertainty of the apparition is highlighted in the opening description—“A Spirit seemed / To stand beside him” (lines 479-80)—and this uncertainty is carried through to the final gesture of allurement—“[the two eyes] seemed … to beckon him” (lines 490-92). Even more telling is the Poet's response to this beckoning: “Obedient to the light / That shone within his soul, he went, pursuing / The windings of the dell” (lines 492-94). If this response is understood as a capitulation to the new enthrallment of the starry eyes, then it would appear that the Poet continues the error that has tyrannized him since the aftershock of the dream. But we are given no indication that the Poet has chosen to follow the beckoning, and the typographical break here into a new stanza may suggest a break of another sort.

Turning away from this new version of temptation, the Poet's obedience to his inner light suggests his fidelity to his already established plight. In this regard, even though the Poet may no longer be capable of dying a timely death—that is, a death that would conclude a productive, fully-lived life—he has begun to recognize his own mortal fate, and it is this fate that he now chooses to encounter, rather than chasing after a new phantom of visionary allure. Intertextual support for interpreting the Poet's response in this manner can be found in one of the poems that Shelley includes in the Alastor volume, “‘O! there are spirits in the air.” After employing language and imagery strikingly similar to the Alastor passage (“Thou didst hold commune” and “thou hast sought in starry eyes,” lines 10, 13), the speaker in the lyric advises his addressee, supposedly Coleridge, not to chase after the “fiend” of visionary allure, but to “Be as thou art. Thy settled fate, / Dark as it is, all change would aggravate” (lines 35-36).32

This recognition, implied in the Poet's obedience to his established course, becomes explicit shortly thereafter when he gives voice to his thoughts while following the rivulet towards its source:

                                                                                                    “O Stream!
Whose source is inaccessibly profound,
Whither do thy mysterious waters tend?
Thou imagest my life. Thy darksome stillness,
Thy dazzling waves, thy loud and hollow gulphs,
Thy searchless fountain, and invisible course
Have each their type in me: and the wide sky,
And measureless ocean may declare as soon
What oozy cavern or what wandering cloud
Contains thy waters, as the universe
Tell where these living thoughts reside, when stretched
Upon thy flowers my bloodless limbs shall waste
I’ the passing wind!”

(lines 502-14)

In line with the critical tradition that views the events of the Poet's journey after the dream as a series of repetitions without substantive difference, Lisa Steinman sees this passage primarily as another example of unreformed source-hunting, as one more instance of the Poet's downward spiral within “the endless regress of consciousness.”33 While it is true that the Poet's initial question here recapitulates his earlier yearnings for an inaccessible origin, his own answer does, however, indicate the change which has occurred. He deflects the question of the stream's origin by focusing on the pertinence of its imagery for his already-established plight. Responding with “Thou imagest my life,” the Poet claims that the images of the stream “Have each their type in me.” Thus, if immediately after the dream the Poet desires to literalize his vision, eschewing its figurative possibilities, he is now able to understand the imagery he perceives as a reflecting indicator or “likeness” of his own vexed human history. Moreover, as the speech continues the Poet recognizes that only death will allow the full significance of his life to emerge, since the universe will “Tell where these living thoughts reside” only when his corpse has begun to “waste” in the wind. Intimations of mortality now preoccupy his thoughts, and he begins to comprehend the significance of his life through its own sense of an ending.

Not long thereafter, the narrator, who has remained largely unobtrusive up to this point, offers his own speech, railing against death for the devastation it causes throughout the world (lines 609-24). Like the Poet's “O stream! … Thou imagest my life” speech, this reflective aside is framed as an apostrophe: “O, storm of death!” (line 609). Unlike the earlier passage, though, this aside is a speech of protest rather than acceptance, as the narrator argues that the Poet's fate, as well as the fate of many others, has been unfairly mandated by Death's ubiquitous brother “Ruin” (line 618). Critics have generally found the narrator's bleak concluding elegy to be an accurate register of the Poet's dark fate in the poem, and one could certainly cite this reflective aside on the “devastating omnipotence” of the death's “colossal Skeleton” (lines 611-13) in support of such a view. Yet the Poet's own attitude towards death, expressed in his own words, stands in contrast with this view; he has gone beyond the perspective of the narrator in his Lear-like acceptance of his plight.34 Certainly the narrator's troubled response to the Poet's fate, both in this aside and in the concluding elegy, is a heartfelt lament over the waste of one so talented. Nonetheless, it tends to miss the point of the Poet's own developing recognition of his temporal fate—the awareness and acceptance of his finite arc which informs his apostrophe to the stream.35 In this instance the marked speech of the Poet's apostrophe functions dialogically, as a counterpoint to the authorizing claims of the larger narrative in which it is embedded.

The subsequent deathbed scene illustrates that the narrator, though his reflections on the significance the Poet's life may be called into question as his story draws to an end, remains a reliable chronicler of the details of this life. Beginning with the Poet's temporal preparation for the future through recollection of the past, the narrator states: “Yet a little, ere it fled, / Did he resign his high and holy soul / To images of the majestic past” (lines 627-29). The diegetic compression here indicates the relative insignificance of any single image in the face of the Poet's gesture itself, his turn to a past whose impersonal marker (“the majestic past”) intimates that personal desire may finally be situated within a collective or archetypal order. As the scene continues, the actual moment of the Poet's death is then extended forward through the narrator's minute recording of the Poet's deteriorating physical signs, and a parallel between his declining state and the night's declining astral light is established:

                                                                                he lay breathing there
At peace, and faintly smiling:—his last sight
Was the great moon, which o’er the western line
Of the wide world her mighty horn suspended,
With whose dun beams inwoven darkness seemed
To mingle. Now upon the jagged hills
It rests, and still as the divided frame
Of the vast meteor sunk, the Poet's blood, …
… grew feebler still:
And when two lessning points of light alone
Gleamed through the darkness, the alternate gasp
Of his faint respiration scarce did stir
The stagnate night:—till the minutest ray
Was quenched, the pulse yet lingered in his heart.
It paused—it fluttered.

(lines 644-59)

Earlier, when the Poet's time-consciousness is skewed during the frenzy of his quest, the events of his life are no longer attuned to the organizing revolutions of nature's light. In this deathbed scene, however, the decelerated pulsations that strain the lyre of his being, apparent in a term such as “lingered,” recapture the slower pace manifest before the dream-vision. As a result, while the events of the Poet's life have not evolved as a productive temporal extension grounded in nature's cycles, the event of his death does unfold through a series of temporal extensions—evident in a phrase such as “It paused—it fluttered” and in adverbs such as “Yet,” “till,” “still,” and “now”—which defer the Poet's final breath until the harmonious moment when the night sky's last gleam goes out (lines 659-60).

In both the concluding lines of this section and in the elegiac passage that follows, however, the narrator's emphasis remains on the loss he cannot reconcile. By continuing to view the Poet's earlier dream-vision as the defining synecdoche for a failed life (“a dream / Of youth, which night and time have quenched forever” [lines 669-70]), the narrator once more downplays the later developments of the plot, in particular the Poet's growing recognition of his mortality and the final “peace” (line 645) this knowledge brings.36 Unlike Benjamin's elegiac singer, who unequivocally accepts death as the culminating episode of life's temporal arc, this event only generates the narrator's desire for the power to overcome it in an alchemical extension of life (“O, for Medea's wondrous alchemy” [line 672]). The actualities of the Poet's life have come to interest the narrator less than the possibilities which have been lost, and in this sense the visionary cycle is recapitulated—the Poet has now become an irretrievable “fleeting shade” for the narrator: “But thou art fled … ah! thou hast fled! … but thou art fled” (lines 686, 688, 695). In addition, while it may be accurate to identify the Poet's fall as a “speedy ruin,” it is somewhat misleading for the narrator to say of the Poet's fate that “It is a woe too ‘deep for tears,’ when all / Is reft at once” (lines 713-14) when, as he said of the landscape earlier in the narrative, “A gradual change was here” (line 532). The chastening of the visionary drive and the acceptance of mortal limits, that theme of gradual accommodation Wordsworth's ode teaches, becomes the lesson of time both learned and lost in Shelley's Alastor.

The last two lines of the poem, the narrator's moral to his story, only serve to heighten this irony. Lamenting the Poet's loss he concludes: “Nature's vast frame, the web of human things, / Birth and the grave, that are not as they were” (lines 719-20). Tilottama Rajan highlights “the web of human things” as the narrative's telling metaphor, as the linguistic tissue or intertexture of proliferating differences and displacements that will never fall into (plot) line as a progressive sequence.37 Yet the phrase that follows this image of the human web compromises this prospect of unstoppable narrative circulation: “Birth and the grave,” the beginning and the end of the temporal line that demarcates the narrative of an individual's life-history. Fearing he was on the brink of death during the summer of 1815, Shelley had good reason to reflect on this finality, and with his protagonist he shared the recognition of human mortality it inspired. The narrator may be right that “the web of human things” is not as it once was with the passing of this perishing ephemeron, but “Birth and the grave,” those natural starting and stopping points for the tales of what we are, remain stationary and unsurpassed while we try to sort out and through the vexing middles. “Birth and the grave,” in this regard, becomes the narrative's thrilling secret of time; perhaps banal and pedestrian in contrast to the thrill of the visionary hunt, they supply the homely knowledge that finally drives the errant knight's allegory home.

As a narrative whose message may have escaped its messenger, Shelley's poem thus demonstrates Jonathan Culler's point that the dual narrative logics of story and discourse, though interwoven, do not necessarily rise to a synthesis.38 In this light the narrative recalls that other Romantic quest voyage, Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, whose concluding moral stands in problematic relation to the events which have preceded it. Perhaps Ricoeur's similar division of narrative into interrelated episodic and configurative dimensions best frames this turn of events: “every narrative combines two dimensions in various proportions … the episodic dimension, which characterizes the story as made out of events … [and] the configurational dimension, according to which the plot construes significant wholes out of scattered events.”39 Although the episodic performance of the narrator may be successful (he quite ably narrates the Poet's gradual change), his configurative performance proves lacking. Focusing in the end chiefly on the Poet's early failure, the narrator turns the episodic plot he has so ably advanced into a partly misleading conclusion. Or, to recall Shelley's own phrasing, the narrator fails in defining the “result” of the Poet's experience. Such turning or troping, as J. Hillis Miller has noted, is part and parcel of narrative's recursive self-delusion: “the [narrative] ‘unreadability’ [of past experience] is indicated by the reuse of the figure or some new version of it even when it has been shown to be illusory or deceptive.”40 Shelley's poem is surely a testament to the power of this reflex, evident in the elegiac narrator's desire to recapitulate his fallen hero's visionary search. Yet the story of Alastor need not be reduced to a deconstructive egress of misreading upon misreading. Embedded within the story's downward spiral is a counterplot of temporal recognition: the hero's acceptance of his finite history, a re-reading of experience too late to enable his impotent life but soon enough to illuminate both its end and the narrative's own ironic sense of an ending.


  1. Brian Nellist follows G. M. Matthews in noting that readers still “persist in seeing Shelley as preeminently the master of the personal lyric” (“Shelley's Narratives and ‘The Witch of Atlas,’” in Essays on Shelley, ed. Miriam Allott [Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1982], 160). Against this critical view that “does not readily think of him as a narrative poet” (160), Nellis examines “The Witch of Atlas” in terms of its fictional narrative status, while William Crisman extends this focus upon Shelley's exploitation of narrative strategies in “Psychological Realism and Narrative Manner in Shelley's ‘Alastor’ and ‘The Witch of Atlas,’” Keats-Shelley Journal, 35 (1985), 126-48. The most significant theoretical work in this regard, however, remains Tilottama Rajan's sustained reappraisal of this generic mode for Shelley and his Romantic counterparts. In addition to her recent discussion of Alastor in “The Web of Human Things: Narrative and Identity in Alastor,” in The New Shelley: Later Twentieth-Views, ed. G. Kim Blank (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991), 85-107, see “Romanticism and the Death of Lyric Consciousness,” in Lyric Poetry: Beyond New Criticism, ed. Chaviva Hosek and Patricia Parker (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 194-97, and “The Erasure of Narrative in Post-Structuralist Representations of Wordsworth,” in Romantic Revolutions: Criticism and Theory, ed. Kenneth R. Johnston, Gilbert Chaitin, Karen Hanson, and Herbert Marks (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 350-700.

  2. Rajan, “The Web of Human Things: Narrative and Identity in Alastor,” 85-89.

  3. As Norman Thurston has pointed out, “some critics have in fact concluded that the last half of Alastor is irrelevant and disproportionate,” in “Author, Narrator, and Hero in Shelley's Alastor, Studies in Romanticism, 14.2 (Spring 1975), 119-31 (124). Or, like John C. Bean, “The Poet Borne Darkly: The Dream-Voyage Allegory in Shelley's Alastor,Keats-Shelley Journal, 23 (1974), 60-74, they examine the latter part of the journey but focus on the negative turn of events, following the critical consensus that the Poet's fate remains “ill” (74). Besides Rajan, recent critics who have reaffirmed this skeptical reading of the Poet include Christopher Heppner, “Alastor. The Poet and the Narrator Reconsidered,” Keats-Shelley Journal, 37 (1988), 91-109; and Donna Richardson “An Anatomy of Solitude: Shelley's Response to Radical Skepticism in Alastor,Studies in Romanticism, 31.2 (Summer 1992), 171-95.

  4. See Paul Ricoeur's Time and Narrative: Vols. I-III, translated by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); and Peter Brook's Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Vintage Books, 1984). For a discussion of Romantic poetry which devalues plot by emphasizing the Romantic “victory of character over action” see Robert Langbaum's The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in the Modern Literary Tradition (New York: Norton, 1957), p. 210. Concerning Shelley's poem, this critical bias is evident in Ronald Tetreault's remark that “The poem's conflict is evident not at the level of plot but at a deeper psychological level of the Narrator's ambivalence towards his subject” (The Poetry of Life: Shelley and Literary Form [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986], p. 46).

  5. Ricoeur, “Narrative Time,” in On Narrative, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 169. Although Ricoeur's fullest treatment of this subject is found in the three-volume Time and Narrative, I shall focus on this essay because it most succinctly summarizes his position.

  6. Ricoeur, “Narrative Time,” p. 178.

  7. Ricoeur, “Narrative Time,” p. 184.

  8. Paul de Man, “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” in Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota press, 1971), pp. 196-200.

  9. Jerome McGann has critiqued Ricoeur's argument on this point of Heideggerian historicity: “One simply wants to point out that such a view of human temporality never achieves a social dimension. … Heidegger's and Ricoeur's temporality needs to be supplemented with a conception of time as history” (“A Response to James Kee,” in Romanticism Past and Present, 9 [1985], 73). The difficulty of this critique is that it conflates the positions of Heidegger and Ricoeur. As I have identified above, Ricoeur may root his theory in a temporal thematics derived from Heidegger, but he supplies a “fundamental correction” (“Narrative Time,” 166) to the Heideggerian insistence on the monadic fate of the self by emphasizing the ability of narrative repetition to situate individual fate in a transmissable network of socio-historical relations. McGann, or any critic with materialist affinities, still may wish to take issue with Ricoeur's model of transmission, but such a question is quite separate from the claim that Ricoeur's position offers no such genealogy.

  10. Ricoeur, “Narrative Time,” 186.

  11. De Man, “Semiology and Rhetoric,” Diacritics, 3.3 (1973), 33; and Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, I, ix.

  12. Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, I, 6.

  13. Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: Norton, 1977). All quotations of Shelley's poetry and prose are from this text unless otherwise noted.

  14. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), I, 358.

  15. As Desmond King-Hele notes in his discussion of the poem in Shelley: The Man and the Poet (New York: Yoseloff, 1960): “Sometimes Shelley contradicts himself completely. After telling us that man is a trivial parasite in a determinate universe, he continues as if it were most important that the more down-trodden parasites should, presumably in defiance of determinism, dispose of their oppressors and develop Godwinian virtues” (p. 42).

  16. The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Neville Rogers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), I, 325.

  17. Rogers, I, 325-26.

  18. Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (London: Quartet Books, 1974), p. 286; and King-Hele, p. 62.

  19. Rogers, II, 64.

  20. Brooks, pp. 103-4.

  21. Timothy Clark, Embodying Revolution: The Figure of the Poet in Shelley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 140 (see also note 3).

  22. Ricoeur, “Narrative Time,” 169.

  23. A substantial body of criticism devoted to the Wordsworthian influences of Shelley's poem has developed during the last few decades, as G. Kim Blank documents in Wordsworth's Influence on Shelley: A Study of Poetic Authority (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988), esp. chapter 3. While a good deal of this critical effort has been focused upon explaining the failure of the Poet in terms of the dangers Wordsworth had cautioned against in The Excursion (see Blank, p. 229). William Keach's “Obstinate Questionings: The Immortality Ode and Alastor,The Wordsworth Circle, 12 (Winter 1981), 36-44, views the failure of Shelley's quester as a tragic rendition of the most troubling moments in Wordsworth's Ode (39). Like Keach I believe that Wordsworth's Ode illuminates the fate of Shelley's Poet, but I shall argue against his conclusion that Poet is unable to resolve his obstinate questionings, claiming instead that the Poet does in fact learn the temporal lesson of a philosophical mind.

  24. William Wordsworth, Wordsworth: Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, rev. Ernest de Selincourt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), II, 260. All quotations of Wordsworth's poetry are from this edition, hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  25. “An Address, to the Irish People,” in The Prose Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. E. B. Murray (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), I, 8-38 (13).

  26. Reeve Parker, “‘To Willam Wordsworth’: Coleridge and the Art of Analogy,” in English Romantic Poets, ed. M. H. Abrams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 255.

  27. In “On Love” Shelley similarly states that we seek for a “meeting with an understanding capable of clearly estimating the deductions of our own, an imagination which should enter into and seize upon the subtle and delicate peculiarities which we have delighted to cherish and unfold in secret …” (Shelley's Poetry and Prose, p. 474).

  28. In “Shelley's Skepticism: Allegory in ‘Alastor,’” ELH, 45.2 (Summer 1978), 255-69, Lisa Steinman offers some support for this view by opposing the visionary's maddening pursuit of the veiled maiden to the narrator's more chastened desire in the invocation merely to identify “a likeness or image, which will reveal something to him” (261). Similarly, Timothy Clark has commented in Embodying Revolution: The Figure of the Poet in Shelley (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1989), p. 103, that “The poet's dream, then, is not in any sense a visionary or mystical moment, but essentially an introspective crisis, the dawn of self-knowledge and self-consciousness.”

  29. In The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck, 10 vols. (London and New York: Ernest Benn and Charles Scribner's Sons, 1930), VII, 64; unless otherwise noted, subsequent references to Shelley's prose are cited in this edition.

  30. William Keach, “Obstinate Questionings: The Immortality Ode and Alastor,The Wordsworth Circle, 12.1 (Winter 1981), 41.

  31. Edward Strickland, “Transfigured Night: The Visionary Inversions of Alastor,” Keats-Shelley Journal, 33 (1984), 156-57. See also William Crisman, “Psychological Realism,” 135.

  32. Shelley, “To—‘Oh! there are spirits of the air,’” in The Complete Works, I, 201. For a full discussion of the intertextual relation between Alastor and the poems of Shelley's Alastor collection, see Neil Fraistat's “Poetic Quests and Questioning in Shelley's Alastor Collection.” Keats-Shelley Journal, 33 (1984), 161-88.

  33. See Steinman's “Shelley Skepticism: Allegory in ‘Alastor,’” 263. More recently Andrew Cooper has made the similar point in Doubt and Identity in Romantic Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), p. 185, that the Poet is unable “to recognize repetition as such, … patterns of repetition-with-a-difference.”

  34. Both the poet and Lear forgo a troubled hearth (“alienated home,” line 76) for a trial in nature, exercise questionable judgment along the way, and conclude their lives with a recognition of the pathos of human transience. As Edmund remarks in response to Lear's appearance during their final act: “men / Are as the time is” (V.iii.31-32). Among Shelley critics, Timothy Clark has commented in Embodying Revolution, p. 141, that “Much of Shelley's work during 1815 has strong affinities with Greek tragedy.”

  35. In “Poetic Quests and Questioning in Shelley's Alastor Collection” Neil Fraistat similarly comments on the narrator's inability to comprehend the ironies and implications of his tale: “However, unlike the more self-aware Wordsworth of ‘Tintern Abbey,’ the Narrator of ‘Alastor’ does not control fully the implications of his language. He is ignorant, for example, of the irony involved in calling himself a ‘long forgotten lyre’ awaiting the breath of Nature for inspiration” (167).

  36. John Bean also notes that the Poet's journey “illustrates the poet's awareness of human finitude,” but for Bean this leads towards a “nihilism and despair” that the final scene can only uneasily balance (“The Poet Borne Darkly: The Dream-Voyage Allegory in Shelley's Alastor,” 64).

  37. Rajan, “The Web of Human Things: Narrative and Identity in Alastor,” 106-7. Rajan's argument is anticipated by Jerrold E. Hogle, who argues in Shelley's Process: Radical Transference and the Development of His Major Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) that the poem valorizes the transpositional impulse of creativity, described at one point as “sheer relational formation and deformation,” over and above the desire for closure which results in “a stoppage of all process” (p. 56).

  38. Jonathon Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 178.

  39. Ricoeur, “Narrative Time,” 174.

  40. See “Narrative,” p. 27 in Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). See also “‘Reading’ Part of a Paragraph in Allegories of Reading,” Miller's more extended discussion of narrative as a deconstructive trope in Paul de Man's critical writings, which appears in Reading Paul de Man Reading, ed., Lindsay Walters and Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 155-70.


Percy Bysshe Shelley World Literature Analysis


Shelley, Percy Bysshe (Poetry Criticism)