Romanticism and the Insistence of the Aesthetic
Shelley's Pod People
Karen Swann, Williams College
The reader of Shelley’s poetry repeatedly comes upon beautiful slumbering human forms that exist in charged non-relation to a social world. These forms suggest a fantasy of “the aesthetic” as that which is radically closed to human concerns. The Shelley circle’s posthumous constructions of “Shelley” as one who is not of this world are informed by an attentive reading of Shelley’s poetic figures, including figures of the aesthetic as that which does not matter in terms of human economies of desire and exchange. This essay appears in _Volume Title_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), University of Maryland.
A certain shape recurs in Shelley’s verse—a beautiful, slumbering human form. In Canto 10 of The Revolt of Islam, Laon discovers such forms amidst the ruins of a maddened civilization:
The stanza adumbrates three classes of being: the living, the dead, and the "as if not dead"—bodies suspended in and shrouded by their own nimbus, preserved intact within the wreckage. It is "strange" to find these hermetic figures here. They seem to insist on their radical extraneousness to human concern, on the way in which they simply do not matter—to the plot of this poem, to the scene in which they are posited. Yet that very insistence seems to place them in some relation—or charged non-relation—to the overtly social landscape in which they slumber.
Sometimes the living by the dead were hid.
Near the great fountain by the public square,
Where corpses made a crumbling pyramid
Under the sun, was heard one stifled prayer
For life, in the hot silence of the air;
And strange 'twas, amid that hideous heap to see
Some shrouded in their long and golden hair,
As if not dead, but slumbering quietly
Like forms which sculptors carve, then love to agony.
True aliens, these pod people only simulate the natural human body. They are also only "like" Romantic works of art, whether conventionally understood as expressing and inciting human passion, or rendered by Shelley as "seeds" and "dead leaves" that slumber, dormant, until futurity unlooses their incendiary social potential. Where these images are identified with motion, mutability, transference—the movement of trope and verse itself—the perpetual dreamers of this passage, with their factitious, arresting glamour, resist metamorphosis, the poetic turn, and all the transformative practices and values we have come to associate with Shelley's poetry. They are thus related to a construction of "the aesthetic" that descends to us from Kant through Adorno: "the aesthetic" as autonomous, enigmatic, auratic form. The stanza could thus be seen to pose the question of the relation of the aesthetic to the social field.
These beautiful dreamers live a posthumous life, beyond life and death, but transcending neither. I want to suggest that they speak to a fantasy of the endurance of the poet and the poetic work, not as endlessly renewable, socially-efficacious resources, but as forms radically closed to our concerns. They can thus be connected to an experience of Shelley's own poetry, which, however sympathetic we are with recent historicist work that insists on the poet's commitment to social and political change, can strike us as most wonderful at its most difficult and hermetic, the point where it fails to yield to our reading. They can also evoke the exquisite loveliness of Shelley himself as he appears in the accounts of his contemporaries—as the prematurely arrested figure who never was of our kind.
In the pages that follow I want to look at the Shelley circle's posthumous constructions of "the Poet"— the one who walks among us like a mercurial visitant from another world, and, more rarely, the closed, immobilized but equally unearthly form that slumbers forever in the hearts of those who knew him. These constructions are cultic but not naïve, I would argue. They are informed by passionate, attentive readings of Shelley's poetic figures, including figures of the aesthetic as that which adamantly refuses to matter in terms of human economies of desire and exchange. Perhaps, Shelley's ruthless Witch of Atlas suggests, the artist is most loyal to human needs and desires when his art preserves at its core a resistance to our demands.
I. Shelley's Bones
In 1869, when Edward Trelawny, the friend of Shelley, was in his late seventies, William Michael Rossetti, born after the poet's death, began a series of visits to him. These visits resulted in Trelawny's expansion and republication of his Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron, as Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author. They resulted as well in Rossetti's delighted acquisition of a little piece of bone:
He gave me a little piece (not before seen by me) of Shelley's skull, taken from the brow: it is wholly blackened—not, like the jawbone, whitened by the fire. He has two such bits of jawbone, and three (at least) of the skull, including the one now in my possession. I must consider how best to preserve it. [cited in Crane, 339]
Trelawny had these bones to give away because he was himself a relic—the last survivor of the small circle who orchestrated Shelley's cremation after his drowning in Italy. By the time Rossetti met him, he had been living for some years off his stories of the poet's last days. Here is his account of his first encounter with Shelley's skull, on the beach off the Via Reggia where the drowned body had washed up:
We were startled and drawn together by a dull hollow sound that followed the blow of a mattock; the iron had struck a skull, and the body was soon uncovered. Lime had been strewn on it; this, or decomposition, had the effect of staining it of a dark and ghastly indigo colour. [Records, 211]Attended by Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron, and assisted by a host of Italian officials, Trelawny proceeded to move the corpse onto a funeral pyre and to repeat the ceremony that had been performed for Shelley's friend Williams the day before:
After the fire was well kindled we repeated the ceremony of the previous day; and more wine was poured over Shelley's dead body than he had consumed during his life. This with the oil and salt made the yellow flames glisten and quiver. The heat from the sun and fire was so intense that the atmosphere was tremulous and wavy. The corpse fell open and the heart was laid bare. The frontal bone of the skull, where it had been struck with the mattock, fell off; and, as the back of the head rested on the red-hot bottom bars of the furnace, the brains literally seethed, bubbled and boiled as in a cauldron, for a very long time. . . . The only portions that were not consumed were some fragments of bones, the jaw, and the skull; but what surprised us all was that the heart remained entire. In snatching this relic from the fiery furnace, my hand was severely burnt; and had any one seen me do the act I should have been put in quarantine. [Records, 212-13]The fire consumes the elaborate machinery Trelawny has mobilized to produce this spectacle on a recalcitrant, modern landscape: in the end, all that stays with us is the boiling, fabulous body, with its unorchestrated energies, utterly transfigured into something rich and strange—into the elusive, ungraspable figure of poetic genius.
Or almost utterly. There is the matter of the bones and the heart that refuse to burn. These become "relics," parts to which accrue the magic of the lost one—like manuscripts, locks of hair, portraits, biographical anecdotes, other things that originate in physical proximity to the dead person. "Relics" can stand, or stand in, for the lost body itself, in the way a fragment can come to stand for the projected shape of a lost work or corpus. The heart acquired these latter values in the course of its afterlife, which began when Trelawny gave it at the cremation to Leigh Hunt, who begged it of him; Mary Shelley then wanted it, but the uncharacteristically unchivalrous Hunt wouldn't give it up until after some weeks of negotiation. The heart was then encrypted in a locked drawer of Mary Shelley's writing desk, folded in a page of Adonais, where it was discovered after her death and buried. Leigh Hunt, in the meantime, ever after mourned and eulogized its loss: "Cor Cordium," or heart of hearts, is the epitaph he put on Shelley's tombstone; "Let those who have known such hearts and lost them judge of the sadness of his friends," he writes in Shelley's obituary.
Like Rossetti, who wondered "how best to preserve" his bit of bone, these lovers of Shelley had the passion of collectors and hoarders. But what of Trelawny, who snatched these remains from the fiery furnace only to give them away? He reminds us that the labor of the circle is twofold: to collect the pieces, and to put them back into circulation. An adventurer who gave up a career at sea to follow the poets, the preserver of their deaths and their relics, Trelawny knew that these traces are the stuff of biography—little bits of material that begin in proximity to the person but only come into their full value when disseminated. If the heart, exposed in its cage, looks especially plummy, worth burning oneself for, perhaps this is less because it represents the core or essence of the biographical subject than because it is the figure of circulation. Trelawny, who tracks the metamorphic career of Shelley's body as it is drowned, buried, disinterred, burned, encrypted, and buried again, like to keep things moving: he keeps alive the "surprise" of the heart's spectacular appearance by passing it along; he keeps always a few bones in reserve, for the ever-renewed delight of the initiate. By these tactics he sustains the magic of the relic—its reference, not to the natural human body, but to the protean, otherworldly shape of the poet.
A professional romanticist could well find an interest in the career of Shelley's bones somewhat embarrassing: even during the nineteenth century such reliquarianism seemed a particularly excessive and dismissible manifestation of the romantic cult of genius. Yet Paul de Man's important essay "Shelley Disfigured" suggests that versions of this attachment may inform the very construction of Shelley's corpus and the entire history of his reception. In his brilliant, rigorous analysis of Shelley's "Triumph of Life," de Man identifies a poetics of disfiguration that repeatedly erodes and erases what it posits, that "warns us that nothing, whether deed, word, thought, or text, ever happens in relation, positive or negative, to anything that precedes, follows, or exists elsewhere, but only as a random event whose power, like the power of death, is due to the randomness of its occurrence" ("SD" 122). Paradoxically, Shelley's literal death by drowning before finishing the poem has operated to give positive "shape"—the shape of a fragment—to a text that is better described as a performance of this negative knowledge. "[W]hat we have done with the dead Shelley, and with all the other dead bodies that appear in Romantic literature. . . is simply to bury them, to bury them in their own texts made into epitaphs and monumental graves . . . They have been transformed into historical and aesthetic objects" ("SD" 122).
The cultic life of the dead Shelley might seem to be the most naïve and egregious of these monumentalizing strategies. Yet as de Man repeatedly demonstrates, it is not easy to disengage the valuative work of commemoration from the rigor of a reading. What "shape" circulates in these early accounts of Shelley? In Thomas Hogg's account of meeting Shelley at Oxford, his friend first appears as a "stranger," a visitant, who speaks with no natural voice and is animated by no natural life (SO 6-13). Here is Hogg describing Shelley sleeping:
. . . he would sleep from two to four hours, often so soundly that his slumbers resembled a deep lethargy; he lay occasionally upon the sofa, but more commonly stretched upon the rug before a large fire, like a cat; and his little round head was exposed to such a fierce heat, that I used to wonder how he was able to bear it. Sometimes I have interposed some shelter, but rarely with any permanent effect; for the sleeper usually contrived to turn himself, and to roll again into the spot where the fire glowed the brightest. . . . At six he would suddenly compose himself, even in the midst of a most animated narrative or of earnest discussion; and he would lie buried in entire forgetfulness, in a sweet and mighty oblivion, until ten, when he would suddenly start up, and . . . enter at once into a vehement argument, or begin to recite verses, either of his own composition or from the works of others, with a rapidity and an energy that were often quite painful. During this period of his occultation I took tea . . . [SO 40-41]
Shelley is here possessed of the charge of the poetic figure, and not just any figure, but his own as described by de Man: he is a shape all light, subject to periodic occultation; or, more fatally put, an evanescent and fading form, continually metamorphosing, vanishing, going under. In the words of William Hazlitt: "His person was a type and shadow of his genius. His complexion, fair, golden, freckled, seemed transparent with an inward light, and his spirit within him
He reminded those who saw him of some of Ovid's fables" (Critical Heritage, 336). And here is Trelawny, who in his Records describes his first encounter with Shelley, who simply disappears from a room of people: Trelawny asks, "Where is he?" and Jane Williams answers, "Who? Shelley! Oh, he comes and goes like a spirit, no one knows when or where" (Records 22). In the logic of these biographical testimonials, the drowning of this figure is merely a repetition of a characteristic disappearance. In the account of the Genovese captain who reported seeing the spectacle of the Don Juan in turbulent waters: "The next wave which rose between the Boat and the vessel subsided—not a splash was seen amidst the white foam of the breakers. Every trace of the boat and of its wretched crew had disappeared" (Cameron, 60).
--so divinely wrought,
That you might almost say his body thought.
The "Shelley" who appears in the memoirs of those who knew him is always on the brink of being lost. Most characteristically, he is lost in books—the natural setting for a poetic figure. The first time Trelawny meets him, he begins to read and translate Calderon: "Shoved off from the shore of common-place incidents that could not interest him, and fairly launched on a theme that did, he instantly became oblivious of everything but the book in his hand . . . After this touch of his quality I no longer doubted his identity" (Records 22). Trelawny's nautical figure suggests that Shelley's immersion makes him vulnerable to drowning. This is literally true: his inability to get his nose out of his book makes him a perilous sailor. But there's also a fatal logic at work here: Narcissus-like, the poet finds and loses himself in other scenes, in landscapes that do not support human life. He's always reading, and he always gravitates toward water, and no one likes to think of the combination, particularly Trelawny, who goes searching for him in a forest one day and stumbles upon an old man who guides him to an ominously Ovidian scene: "By-and-by the old fellow pointed with his stick to a hat, books, and loose papers lying about, and then to a deep pool of dark glimmering water, saying 'Eccolo!' I thought he meant that Shelley was in or under the water" (Records 103).
This ability to be transported lends Shelley his charm, makes him a marvelous and wonderful figure, a man like no other, according to the recollections of his friends. He seems to have inspired in them the stabbing emotion that a lover of books feels when watching the reader, the obsessive scholar, the writer, when that person seems to carry a capacity for immersion beyond all limits: a love that is an amalgam of identification, protectiveness and dread, and, no doubt, envy and rage. Such a figure seems on the one hand to be in constant need of rescue: to be reminded to come home, to eat, and periodically, to be fished out of the fire or the water. And yet one intervenes at his and one's own peril: when Shelley is sleepwalking or seeing ghosts, or when he's out in a boat over his head, one can only hold one's breath, for the merest gasp might tumble him out of the poise that sustains him. So he is kept alive by constant vigilance—the practical measures and magical thinking of the circle that forms around this mercurial stranger who does not seem to have attached himself to life.
It's hard to imagine that Shelley, an expert in the allure of the vanishing figure, doesn't intuit this; that there isn't an element of performance in his obliviousness to the world. This is suggested by another anecdote Trelawny tells. One day, swimming in the Arno, Trelawny "astonished the Poet by performing a series of aquatic gymnastics, which [he] had learnt from the natives of the South Seas." Shelley asks, "Why can't I swim?" Trelawny replies, "Because you think you can't," and advises him to try.
He doffed his jacket and trowsers, kicked off his shoes and socks, and plunged in; and there he lay stretched out on the bottom like a conger eel, not making the least effort or struggle to save himself. He would have been drowned if I had not instantly fished him out. When he recovered his breath, he said, 'I always find the bottom of the well, and they say Truth lies there. In another minute I should have found it, and you would have found an empty shell. It is an easy way of getting rid of the body.' [Records 91]On the one hand, this story tells the usual story: of the poet careless of his cage, always ready to leave this world. But on the other hand, how else could a man who can't swim captivate a man who learned his tricks in the South Seas than by this flamboyantly staged willingness to drown? How else could a man without the will to live provoke the dramatic interventions necessary to keep him afloat? Trelawny's Shelley is a little stooped from a life of being doubled over still surfaces; but it's not always possible to know if his Narcissus posture represents an extreme of self-forgetfulness or of ruthless self-absorption. And indeed, more than any positive image of Shelley as an ideal or etherial figure, it's that undecidability—the undecidability of a pure self-reflex—that constitutes his charm.
The Shelley that circulates in these early biographies is the projected phantasm of his verse: the personification of a negative knowledge and an ungraspable poetics, or, in de Man's words, "the glimmering figure [who] takes on the form of the unreachable reflection of Narcissus, the manifestation of shape at the expense of its possession" ("SD" 109). The posthumous creation of the circle that labored to give shape to the poet after his death, this glimmering figure is neither a naïve nor an escapable construction. It descends to haunt the most powerful of our modern readings of Shelley, for instance, de Man's—a haunting symptomized by de Man's gestures of figuration and his inordinate attachment to the figure that refuses to attach itself to any life supports whatsoever.
Death arrests this evanescent form. In death Shelley reminds Leigh Hunt of a "spirit" "found dead in a solitary corner of the earth, its wings stiffened, its warm heart cold" (Hunt ii, 105). His description recalls the splayed skeleton found—or fabricated—by Trelawny:
Two bodies were found on shore,—one near Via Reggia, which I went and examined. The face and hands, and parts of the body not protected by the dress, were fleshless. The tall slight figure, the jacket, the volume of Aeschylus in one pocket, and Keats's poems in the other, doubled back, as if the reader, in the act of reading, had hastily thrust it away, were all too familiar to me to leave a doubt on my mind that this mutilated corpse was any other than Shelley's. [Records 189-90]The stiffening of the glimmering figure into the determinate shape of the Poet recalls de Man's claim about the fate of Shelley's corpus, which "stiffens" into the rigidity of an historical and aesthetic object when read backwards through his death. Yet these descriptions of the poet's corpse suggest that "the aesthetic object"—the static, closed thing that comes to stand for art—represents less a detour from the rigors of reading than the limit-case of a Shelleyan poetics. Shelley's dead body is the formal, fixed rendering of an infinitely redoubled strategy of figuration. In death, Shelley's bones arrange themselves into the posture of the reader arrested in a moment of absorption, but too late to save himself from drowning; or, perhaps, of the reader already drowning—doubled over and lost in his book, or in the figure of the dead Keats—before death's random blow arrests him; or, even, of the reader halted before the "shape" of the dead Shelley, discovering herself already absorbed into his circle.
II. Live burial
Hunt's image of Shelley as a stiffened ephemeron recalls the exquisite bodies tucked away in the ruins in the stanza I began by quoting. These bodies can in turn be linked to the encrypted form that colonizes the circle after Shelley's death, causing it to stiffen into an obdurate, breakable formation. The beautiful hermetic dreamers of Shelley's poems provide a way to think about the problems attendant upon reading or mourning Shelley. How does one get hold or let go of a radically arrested figure?
Pod people occur throughout Shelley's work, but they are strangely insistent in The Witch of Atlas, Shelley's great autobiographical poem of 1820. The glamorous Witch is herself a pod person: she spends her days in a cave and her nights in a fountain or well, where she folds into a chrysalis form, a barely animated effigy of herself, recalling her author's stints as conger eel or occulted sleeper:
This lady never slept, but lay in trance
All night within the fountain—as in sleep.
Its emerald crags glowed in her beauty's glance;
Through the green splendour of the water deep
She saw the constellations reel and dance
Like fire-flies—and withal did ever keep
The tenour of her contemplations calm,
With open eyes, closed feet and folded palm.
During the poem the Witch moves out of the cocooning spaces of cave, fountain, and well of fire, to set out on travels that Stuart Sperry calls "a journey without goal or quest" (SMV 154). But like an otherworldly Johnny Appleseed, wherever she goes she collects and sows forms that mime her own encapsulated beauty. Most strikingly, she creates a somnolent Hermaphrodite that briefly accompanies her; then, in the last movement of the poem, she follows the Nile to the seat of human civilization, where she walks by night, "scattering sweet visions" and "observing mortals in their sleep." To the most beautiful of these she gives a "strange panacea" (lxix). When such a one dies, she unwraps the shroud, throws the coffin into a ditch, and lays the body out:
Thus her sports leave behind deposits—figures evocative of poets lost in their creations, of works whose contents have withdrawn into inscrutable form, and of observers absorbed in some other scene than the social landscape they inhabit—all of which have in common a posture that, borrowing from Adorno, one might call aesthetic "comportment" (AT 12).
And there the body lay, age after age,
Mute, breathing, beating, warm and undecaying,
Like one asleep in a green hermitage,
With gentle smiles about its eyelids playing
And living in its dreams beyond the rage
Of death or life; while they were still arraying
In liveries ever new, the rapid, blind
And fleeting generations of mankind.
The ubiquity of these withdrawn figures in The Witch of Atlas seems teasingly related to the text's almost complete lack of conversation, in 1820, with Shelley's ambitious, overtly political writing of 1819—a year that saw the completion of The Cenci and Prometheus Unbound and the composition of new works including The Mask of Anarchy, A Philosophical View of Reform, and "England 1819," all deeply engaged with post-Peterloo England. Indeed, we could speculate that The Witch's abstracted forms serve to foreground a certain absence of relation: the absence Mary Shelley protested and Percy Shelley insists on in his dedicatory stanzas "To Mary (On her objecting to the following poem, upon the score of its containing no human interest)," where he asserts that his poem tells no story and has no pretensions to an audience—it is like the kitten's objectless jeu, and the ephemeron that lives only for a day.
In her notes to Shelley's Posthumous Poems, Mary Shelley returns to the scene of this disagreement. At the time, she explains, she was urging Shelley to write on "subjects that would more suit the popular taste than a poem conceived in the abstract and dreamy spirit of The Witch of Atlas."
It was not only that I wished him to acquire popularity as redounding to his fame; but I believed that he would obtain a greater mastery over his own powers, and greater happiness in his mind, if public applause crowned his endeavors. . . . But my persuasions were vain, the mind could not be bent from its natural inclination. Shelley shrunk instinctively from portraying human passion, with its mixture of good and evil, of disappointment and disquiet. Such opened again the wounds of his own heart; and he loved to shelter himself rather in the airiest flights of fancy, forgetting love and hate, and regret and lost hope. [PW 388-89]The context of The Witch of Atlas, she suggests, is not the work of the year that preceded its composition but the professional and domestic disappointments that ushered in, plagued, and followed that burst of productivity. She's thinking no doubt of Shelley's failure to command any audience at all with his writing: by the time of The Witch's composition, The Cenci had been rejected by Covent Garden, and Ollier and Hunt were remaining silent on all the other pieces. And she hints at the private losses that marked this time: the death of William, the second of their children to die in Italy; her own subsequent depression; the death of at least one other Shelley baby and a further hardening of the couple's estrangement. Mary identifies Shelley with his Witch: like her, he cordons off an arena of "airy fancy" within which to sport, rather than engaging "human interest." And she suggests that the mercurial play of poet, work, and poetic figure exists in some relation to the sealed-over wounds of the heart.
Mary may not be right about this urbane poem, which could be said to have an uncharacteristically strong sense of audience. But she is suggestive about the Witch herself, who exists in a pointed, even comic lack of relation to human passionate life. Her first act is to bolt from the creatures who orbit in the "magic circle of her voice and eyes" (vii): she must leave, she tells them, because she is not of their kind, and not being mortal herself, she doesn't want to get attached to them only to have to suffer at their deaths (xxiii). Her problem with commitment, however, is nowhere more striking than when she abandons the "fair Shape" she herself has created out of a "repugnant mass" of "fire and snow" (xxxv):
We've been reading long enough to feel a plot coming on—a version of the Pygmalion myth. This is a Shelley poem: shouldn't the Witch poesy be destined to fall in love with her creation, to love it perhaps "to agony"? Yet by the end of the stanzas quoted, this possibility has been closed off: the Image is a "sexless thing," and its beauty has become the preoccupation of a new artist. For the Witch herself, the Image is less an object of fixation than a way to keep moving: she peremptorily commands it to "Sit here!" in her boat (xxxvii); at her command "Hermaphroditus" (the only time it is named) it spreads its wings and flies her upstream, where she and the poem abandon it (xliii).
A fair Shape out of her hands did flow—
A living Image, which did far surpass
In beauty that bright shape of vital stone
Which drew the heart out of Pygmalion.
A sexless thing it was . . .
The countenance was such as might select
Some artist that his skill should never die,
Imaging forth such perfect purity.
Indeed, the force of Shelley's story could be said to reside in its polemical resistance to the solutions of Pygmalion. Repelled by the "hardness" of the women of his state, the first ever to turn to prostitution, Pygmalion throws himself into his art; only when he sees and falls in love with the woman in the marble does he comes to know his own desire, which the gods then fulfill (Ovid, X, 244-300). His art is thus a form of therapy, a "working through" blocked impulses until desire comes to be known and to speak, and his story belongs to a popular class of narratives of human interest—stories of the heart's efforts to know and close with its objects. It is thus "romantic," at least in terms of popular accounts of that aesthetic: the tale casts the work as expressive of the genial artist's desires and suggests its power to effect the integration of the person and the overcoming of social antagonisms through its awakening of sympathy and love.
If in the Pygmalion story the aesthetic object serves the interest of the human subject, in the Witch's story the created form is impervious to human needs and aims. The impediment is perhaps in the object itself. The proper name "Hermaphroditus" refers us back to another tale from The Metamorphoses in which latency proves to be destiny. Already bearing the stitched together names of his famously libidinal parents Hermes and Aphrodite, "Hermaphroditus," at fifteen years old, has no interest in awakening to sexual desire: the plot turns on his refusal of the nymph Salmacis, whose pool Hermaphroditus visits. Struck by his beauty, she propositions him; he rebuffs her advances; she retreats into the woods but stays to observe him; he, "as if no one were looking at him," strips and bathes in her pool; incited by his beautiful form, she jumps into the pool after him and clings to his body. When he resists her, she calls to the gods to allow her never to be parted from this youth: and so he becomes "the Hermaphrodite"—an enervated half-man, half-woman. That is, it becomes a fallen, fixed version of what he was, in a doom he may have even invited: a creature forever before or beyond sexual life (Ovid IV, 287-390).
When Shelley imports this story to The Witch of Atlas, he suggests that the creator creates wo/man, not in her own image, but in the image of the Image. If Pygmalian falls in love with the human form he sees in the marble, the Witch's Shape is arresting for the way the marble—the formal, material dimension, the dimension of "Image" and "countenance"—swims up into the supposedly living thing. One is caught up, not by a promise of intimacy, but by an apprehension of the radical alterity of this apparitional form to human desire. The Witch's creation thus points to an "abstracting" tendency of Shelley's art, which critics have historically linked to his preoccupation with the "ideal" but which seems better described by, say, de Man's account of the poetry's strategies of "figuration." The Hermaphrodite and all the beautiful slumbering forms of The Witch of Atlas are adamantly unsubjectable: they refuse to satisfy, and they unmask the ruse by which a factitious, formal thing could be said to do so.
And yet—like Ovid's Hermaphroditus, whose flaunted unavailability incites the nymph Salmacis, and like the beautiful slumbering figure Shelley admired in the Villa Borghese, the Witch's Image is lovely, "surpassing" the beauty of Pygmalion's statue, and surely capable of becoming the object of someone's fascination if not passion:
Indeed, the Image is here the very figure of fascination: of consciousness playing about the countenance, creating and imbibing delicate and evanescent traces of an unfathomable affective life. This sweetly and gently monstrous countenance holds us if it fails to hold the Witch, and it does so in a way that evokes what could be said to be an Ur-scene of attachment, the experience of watching the baby sleep: watching the closed, fleetingly and delicately animated face of the creature to whom it is one's destiny to become attached as it is given over to what the psychoanalysts call "hallucinatory satisfaction," its "dreams"—neither belonging to it nor exterior to it, and indistinguishable from one's own fascination—sporting over its metamorphic countenance. In this setting, the observer's love could take the form of wanting to preserve forever this fragile dream of perfect self-sufficiency; to ward off permanently the creature's awakening to a consciousness of dependency and loss, the cost of its entry into human desire, human interest, and human exchange. The purest idolatry, such love would defend the primitive magic of the image from its erosion by life.
And ever as she went, the Image lay
With folded wings and unawakened eyes;
And o'er its gentle countenance did play
The busy dreams, and thick as summer flies,
Chasing the rapid smiles that would not stay,
And drinking the warm tears, and the sweet sighs
Inhaling, which, with busy murmur vain
They had aroused from that full heart and brain.
Human beings never willingly give up on a libidinal position, Freud tells us; artists least of all (Freud, 133). D. W. Winnicott even contends without reference to clinical evidence that artists, as a class, are "ruthless" because they simply refuse the guilt that comes with the depressive position (Winnicott, 26). It is possible to see what critics call the Witch's "limitations"—her failure to form attachments and respond empathically to a rich, complex field of human passions—as a beautiful refusal to lose. If under the regime of "the rage of death or life" archaic dreams must be forgotten in order that generation after generation of human subjects and their labor can be efficiently cycled into the liveries of various work masters, the Witch's sport would seem to refuse and foil that killing productivity—particularly when, moving from form to form "like a sexless bee" (lxviii), she takes the most beautiful out of circulation to deposit and abandon them in secret crypts. Her carelessness, her ruthlessness, her refusal of grief, her penchant for airy flight and her somnambulistic returns to the eerie loveliness of the abstracted human form—all derive their logic from her "defense" of poetry.
Thus the poem articulates a fantasy of the poet, the work, and the baby, not as sites for regenerative exchange, but as repositories that preserve magical, archaic things from a devastating human interest. This is a fantasy shared by psychoanalytic theory, which, like Shelley's circle, and like Romanticism in its highest and lowest forms, sometimes casts the artist—the one who is arrested before growing up—as a magical throwback to another dispensation, making good on our losses. In the terms of this fantasy, what we might want is not to be engaged by poetry's appeal to our passions, but rather, to preserve poetry's strange distance from human interest—to reassure ourselves that magical, hermetic poetic figures exist among us, slumbering in secret as we live out our days, entering our dreams by night, keeping alive the possibility of a ruthless, magical refusal of loss.
At the end of The Witch of Atlas the poem's somnolent forms lie suspended, "age after age," amidst a world that "rages" around them. This world is also a world of dreamers—misers, priests, kings, and lovers whose dreams, as a result of the witch's pranks, become parodic and utopic, unmasking "reality" itself as a collective dream. The witch finally and capriciously becomes the muse of an interventionist poetry. Yet still the figures she has encapsulated slumber on, in significant non-communication with even this transformed social field. The poem's ending suggests the insistent and perhaps founding obduracy of the "the aesthetic" to even the most admirable political visions; and it implies that art may be most loyal to humanity's dreams when it preserves, encrypted within it, a resiliently inhumane impulse—a ruthless refusal to speak to what we may only imagine are our concerns.
III. Coda: The Exquisite Corpse
In real life, of course, if out of idolatrous love you respect too much the capacity for hallucinatory satisfaction of babies, poems, or poets, they fail to thrive. It seems likely that both Mary and Percy Shelley suspected that this was the fate of the Shelley babies who died in Italy; it was arguably the fate of the stillborn poetry. And, psychoanalysis tells us, if a loved object dies before the work of attachment, which is also the work of letting go, is completed, the outcome is not the "working through" of mourning but a refusal to recognize loss: the magical incorporation of the object in the form of a blocking imago, in a move of "hallucinatory satisfaction." Thus the countenance of the sleeping baby who needs for nothing mirrors the exquisite corpse buried alive in the heart of the one who cannot grieve.
The Witch of Atlas was composed a year and two months after the death of William Shelley, the second of three Shelley children to die in Italy; the year anniversary of his death was marked by the death of the third, Shelley's "Neapolitan charge." The poem's embryonic, unawakened forms conjure these babies who can neither be restored to the living nor be put to rest, as well as the parents who can neither face their continued insistence nor let them die, nor puncture each other's hermetic isolation, nor independently heal the wounds of their separate hearts—in part because each holds the key to the other's sorrow. They speak to a fantasy of the body beyond sex and the engendering of life and death; and of the body that leaves encrypted babies everywhere, in the shape of quasi-aesthetic objects buried in textual graves. And they speak of the cryptic poem itself, with its aggressively flagged lack of relation to the heart's secrets.
It's possible to feel the pressure of these domestic circumstances in a cluster of poems from this period, including Epipsychidion and Adonais. In these poems, as well as in most biographical accounts of the Shelley marriage, the couple's stuck formation would seem determined by Mary Shelley's stuck mourning: she is the commissioned mourner, while he suffers indirectly when her "coldness" lays him to sleep; he could revive, he suggests half-heartedly, if only something could slake her wound. But what would it take to slake the mother's wound? She herself tells us in Adonais. Urania, the last to visit the corpse of her youngest born, makes an appeal to him and, indirectly, to Death (xxv):
The mother asks for one last word and one last kiss—one breach of death's seal, one instance of mutually avowed attachment—in order that she may get on with her grieving.
"Leave me not wild and drear and comfortless,
As silent lightning leaves the starless night!
Leave me not!" cried Urania; her distress
Roused Death: Death rose and smiled, and met her vain caress.
"Stay yet awhile! speak to me once again;
Kiss me, so long but as a kiss may live;
And in my heartless breast and burning brain
That word, that kiss shall all thoughts else survive
With food of saddest memory kept alive,
Now thou art dead, as if it were a part
Of thee, my Adonais! I would give
All that I am to be as thou now art!
But I am chained to Time, and cannot thence depart!
The Shelley babies in fact died in their mother's arms. But the scene anticipates Mary's experience of the loss of Percy, which had no last breaching moment; rather, the report of the mutilated corpse, the heartless breast, and the burning brain came to her from afar, to stiffen a pointed lack of relation. That report was Trelawny's, of course. After Shelley's death the circle transformed from a volatile dynamic to a formation demanding constancy and allegiance, a change blamed on Mary Shelley by Trelawny among others; historically, biographers have preferred his and Hogg's "lively" Shelley to Mary and Lady Shelley's "idealized" one. But the mercurial visitant and the stiffened form are each true, although to different experiences of loss. Trelawny, who thrusts his hand through the wall of the poet's body and delivers it of its previously enwombed form, gives birth to a Shelley possessed of a great heart, and purchases his own mobility in the process. This is the scene that Mary Shelley misses: and so she fails to escape the role of the commissioned mourner, forever constant to and immobilized by the encrypted, wounded heart and exquisite corpse.
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2 For accounts of the heart controversy, see Smith, pp. 1-2, and Hunt ii, 100-102. Hunt's obituary is reprinted in White, p. 321. For an astute account of the way the heart becomes emblematic of and imbricated in contestations about Shelley's cultural value, see Clarke, especially pp. 188-89.
3 In Shelley's Process, Jerrold Hogle argues that the poem's sport—its playfully capricious relation to plot and readerly expectations—is its mode of social engagement: the poem works to break the hold of mythic narrative, including those deployed to shore up a repressive modern order (pp. 211-22). But lining and countering this play, I would argue, is the poem's proliferation of figures of the "not-in-play": images that on the one hand gesture toward an art radically incommensurable with social experience, but on the other, verge upon the sort of fixity, glamour, and ideological potency Hogle claims the poem as a whole critiques.
7 This is the argument of Maria Torok's "The Illness of Mourning and the Fantasy of the Exquisite Corpse." My discussion here and throughout the latter part of this essay is deeply indebted to The Shell and the Kernal, the collection of essays by Nicholas Abraham and Torok in which Torok's essay appears.
10 For an especially virulent expression of this preference see Smith, pp. 1-36. London's "Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the Spectacle of Masculinity" begins with a brief, suggestive account of the gender dynamics implicit in various representations of the poet's death.