Fry, “A Modest Creed”: Saving Skepticism in Shelley and Cavell

Printer-friendly version

“A Modest Creed”: Saving Skepticism in Shelley and Cavell

Paul H. Fry
Yale University

1.         A neglected book by D. G. James, Scepticism and Poetry (1937), works out a systematic argument in keeping with T. E. Hulme’s pronouncement that Romanticism is spilt religion. James argues, thinking mainly of Wordsworth, that the Romantic imagination is a secular negation of religion—in other words, that the visionary life of poetry fundamentally opposes the tenets of received religion. Yet further, the Romantic imagination as James views it arises from a necessary basis in skepticism, not just from the antinomian heresies (emphasized by T. S. Eliot) that moved Harold Bloom to call Romanticism “protestant” in the Introduction to the second edition of The Visionary Company (Bloom xvii-xxi). The argument goes that when you invent gods or even interpret them, you don’t believe in one, just as when you invent objects, worlds, and other minds or recognize that you need to construct such things through interpretation, you’re uncertain about their existence, or their exact nature in and of themselves. James does not address what Stanley Cavell calls “object skepticism and other minds skepticism” (or “skepticism and solipsism” [Quest 55]), and Cavell for the most part does not emphasize religious skepticism. It still seems to me, however, that if we transvalue James’s critique of the Romantic imagination into something like simple description, we point directly forward to Cavell’s concerns and back to Shelley’s—including, incidentally, his announced “necessity of atheism.”

2.        Cavell, similarly, sees skepticism as a necessary point of departure whenever he confronts the wholly secular dispute between the two traditions of philosophy he works with, and between which he hopes in some respects to mediate. From among many possible moments of this sort I single out the anecdote in his recent autobiography, Little Did I Know, about a sneering positivist teaching assistant he encountered when he was at UCLA:

As I approached the group the teaching assistant was saying [to Hans Meyerhoff]: “We know now that every assertion is either true or false or else neither true nor false; in the former case the assertion is meaningful, in the latter case cognitively meaningless. If you go on saying to me that this line of Rilke’s is cognitively meaningful, I smile at you.” (Little Did I Know 252-53)
Cavell says Meyerhoff, in an unguarded moment, was then drawn into a dispute on the positivist’s turf—that is, within the roped-off echo chamber of the verifiable and the falsifiable that has caused so many philosophers and nearly all scientists to turn a deaf ear to poetry. But Cavell, in questioning the true and false as a sufficient condition for knowledge (“certainty is not enough,” he says in the early Must We Mean What We Say? [258]), clearly saw this moment as a spot of time, his morning of election: “To discover a different mode of response to such an assault,” he writes, “became as if on the spot an essential part of my investment in what I would call philosophy” (Little Did I Know 253).

3.         We can see how Shelley puts this dispute, clearly a version of what Socrates called the ancient quarrel between the poets and the philosophers, in the facetiously complex opening genealogy of the witch in The Witch of Atlas:

Before those cruel Twins, whom at one birth
Incestuous Change bore to her father Time,
Error and Truth, had hunted from the earth
All those bright natures which adorned its prime,
And left us nothing to believe in, worth
The pains of putting into learned rhyme,
A lady-witch there lived on Atlas’ mountain
Within a cavern, by a secret fountain. (49-56) [1] 
Error and Truth are interdependent concepts rendered foundationless by change and time; yet change and time themselves beget error and truth because flux makes fixity seem desirable. And then, once they are empowered as permanent dictators of thought, error and truth leave poetry nothing to say. Up to a point, this is the argument of the Defence of Poetry writ small: far from being even the verifiable and the falsifiable, error and truth are merely the hardening of the arteries of metaphor into the large codes of fraud and woe that govern human thought. Here is where skepticism plays its role. As Stuart Curran says, “the point of skepticism is to free one from those external forms that settle questions by tyrannizing the mind” (Curran 205 [2] ). Poetry is not superseded once and for all by science and political economy, as the proto-positivist Peacock had argued in the pamphlet that provoked Shelley’s Defence, The Four Ages of Poetry. To the contrary, poetry is, through change and time, not only the origin but the perpetual renewal and reinvigoration of science. As Emerson says in “Fate” (echoing Shelley and quoted by Cavell), “We are lawgivers” (qtd. in Quest 40).

4.        Or rather, as Shelley concludes in The Witch of Atlas, poetry would have continued to breathe the life of metaphor back into the death-in-life of equationality if it hadn’t sequestered itself, like Shelley’s witch, from all things mortal. If this had not happened, in other words, poetry would have made possible the paradigm shifts altering Thomas Kuhn’s “normal science.” It is to be feared, Shelley says in the proleptic stanza I have quoted, that the Malthusian triumph of enlightenment (or triumph of light) is so complete that error and truth have swept the field and left nothing for “learned rhyme” to revitalize. From the couplings of equationality—from all those sterile a = b’s—nothing can be born. Malthus’s proposed birth control is realized as the very essence of normal science itself, in contrast with the Shelleyan metaphor proclaiming that love is metaphor because both love and metaphor involve endlessly renewed perceptions of similitude in dissimilitude, always in studied opposition to political economy (Cf. Pulos, “Shelley and Malthus,” esp. 115.) In Defence of Poetry the great secret of morals is love (517; cf. Fry, “Shelley’s Defence of Poetry in Our Time”; Hogle, “Shelley’s Poetics” 188; Keach 1-41). Cavell would sometimes call the great secret of morals love as well, and sometimes “acknowledgment.”

5.        The trouble is, though, that in The Witch of Atlas there is no amorous procreativity, as the witch and her hermaphrodite are scarcely in a position to give birth to anything. By 1820, Shelley’s thinking about poetry as a happy consequence of that skepticism that subverts error and truth is beginning to be less confident than Cavell’s. Cavell warns, in the Introduction to Disowning Knowledge, against “the application of some philosophically independent problematic of skepticism” to the very literature that discloses the problematic (1). I hope not to violate this warning, but for a clearer sense of what might best be called a mutual reading of Shelley and Cavell, I shall find it necessary to go back a year or two in Shelley’s work, and of course to explore Cavell’s understanding of Romanticism as well. But I shall come back to Shelley’s latest works in the end. [3] 

6.        In In Quest of the Ordinary, Cavell’s interest in British Romanticism is confined chiefly to Wordsworth and Coleridge, but it is helpful to begin with his one mention of Shelley, introduced in contrast with the other two:

Romanticism’s work [. . .] interprets itself [. . .] as the task of bringing the world back, as to life. This may, in turn, present itself as the quest for a return to the ordinary, or of it, a new creation of our habitat; or as the quest, away from that, for the creation of a new habitation: Wordsworth and Coleridge would represent the former alternative; Blake and Shelley, I believe, the latter. (Quest 52-53)
This passage explains Cavell’s confinement of his argument to Wordsworth and Coleridge. Such is Cavell’s primary interest throughout his career—inclusive of the film and Shakespeare criticism—in the recovery of the quotidian; but it nonetheless identifies clearly the moment of crisis turned to advantage from which Shelley’s poetry arises.

7.        Our hope to inhabit another world can only derive from our uncertainty about whether or how we inhabit this one. “The Sensitive-Plant,” for example, describes the death and putrefaction of this world, a garden, which follows upon the sudden death of the Lady who has tended it—one of Shelley’s many figures for inspiration, or Intellectual Beauty. Within the body of the poem no apparent reversal of this decay seems possible: If winter’s here no spring can be expected. But then in his so-called “Conclusion” (and the first-time reader may feel surprised that such a conclusive poem would need a surplus conclusion), in the same facetious and self-effacing tone that comes and goes in The Witch of Atlas, Shelley announces an article of faith. He does not know what became of the Sensitive-Plant or the Lady, he says, but still,

In this life
Of error, ignorance and strife—
Where nothing is—but all things seem,
And we, the shadows of the dream,

It is a modest creed, and yet
Pleasant if one considers it,
To own that death itself must be,
Like all the rest,—a mockery.

That Garden sweet, that lady fair
And all sweet shapes and odours there
In truth have never past away—
’Tis we, ’tis ours, are changed—not they. (9-20)

8.        It is the obverse of this speculation that provides its logic. If we were certain about what life is, if we placed all our confidence in some semblance of the real as truth, then our thinking would be conditioned by certainty, by the dogmatic finality of error and truth. In that case, accordingly, we would be certain that death is, as it certainly seems to be, the opposite or absence of life. There would be no scope or opening for conjecture, hopeful or otherwise. But suppose life could be conceived as dead or insubstantial, as Shelley says here and as Cavell says it is in the moment of Romantic skepticism. It could follow then that death, which certainly does seem at least different from life, if not opposite, may be the alternative habitation Cavell or Shelley seeks, where the plant and the Lady realize an existence that in life was only conjectural. [4] 

9.        This turn of thought exhibits the necessary grounding of poetry in skepticism of which D. G. James felt obliged to disapprove. In more than one sense, certainty closes the subject. Shelley makes the same move again in Adonais. Here he contrives to reconcile the rhetoric of faith-based consolation in Christian elegy with the liberatory moment of skepticism. The despicable Quarterly Reviewer is one of the “carrion kites that scream below” (335), kites that soon become carrion themselves. This dead vulture, whose “cold embers choke the sordid hearth of shame” (342), raises, in his very mode of being, the question whether anything here on earth is alive. In doing so he proves—proves unfalsifiably, that is—that Keats is now more alive than he ever was in life:

Peace, peace! He is not dead, he doth not sleep—
He hath awakened from the dream of life—
’Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife
.     .     .     .—We decay
Like corpses in a charnel. (343-49)
In a more fully political register the inversion of life and death enabled by skepticism becomes the proto-Marxist dialectic epitomized in “England in 1819,” where leeches “drop, blind in blood, without a blow,” and all the evils of the Regency are “graves from which a glorious Phantom may/ Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day” (6, 13-14). The political dialectic is worked through again as a complex figure of longing in the “Ode to the West Wind.” It is only in urbane and colloquial poems like the “Letter to Maria Gisborne” that the death-in-life premise is openly acknowledged as a hyperbole to which exceptions may or may not prove the rule. In that poem, Leigh Hunt is “one of those happy souls/ Who are the salt of the Earth, and without whom/ This world would smell like what it is, a tomb” (210-11). It is not clear whether Hunt is alive in his role as a preservative of dead meat, but at least he may be.

10.        The notion that those who are dead in soul are also somehow lifeless in body and spread death by contagion is present in Shelley’s poetry from the beginning, as in “To the Emperors of Russia and Austria” from the Esdaile Notebook: “No, cowards! Ye are calm and still, / Keen frosts that blight the human bud” (11-12). Here, though, not all the tyrants are in suspended animation, as Napoleon is very much alive. Also, the dialectical implications of this moment, which is Shelley’s socialized version of Coleridge’s death-in-life, are not in play: no future life follows in speculation from present death.

11.        A fuller and more subtle version of this idea in the later verse, only seemingly undialectical, does arrive at a conjecture about eternal life by detaching the principle of life from its evanescent material manifestations. The Cloud in the poem of that name is sometimes both visible and tangible, sometimes invisible and latent, but always and forever, as an allegory of the soul, alive: “I change, but I cannot die” (76). Both the evidence of the senses and the premises of scientific “error and truth” insist on the ephemerality of living being, as in an organic process world. Shelley however insists on another way of reading science itself, in this case meteorological science. In a mechanized world like that of Holbach, “the” cloud can persist only as the persistence of substance, chemical or otherwise, and “cannot die” only because it has never lived. Shelley for his part does not necessarily disagree with Holbach in this poem; for him it is not finally the Lucretian persistence of organic matter that defies death, but rather the cloud as idea—as the necessity governing the cycle of clouds—that is alive. In lending the cloud reflection and the power of speech Shelley is not just making an object conscious, like a talking animal. (This is never what he does, for example, with his many choruses of elements, nor for that matter with the West Wind.) Rather he metonymically conceives the expressiveness of thinking as the expressiveness of what is thought—the idea—as though the idea were itself consciousness, hence vital. Skepticism in this case, although it allows a passage from the material to the immaterial, is revealed through the necessary bridge of metonymy from thinking to what is thought. Yet if the thought thus enabled turns out to consist in saying that vitality is not an attribute of organic substance but somehow transcends it, this metonymy actually corresponds to the dialectic of Shelley’s moral and social metaphors. The living death, again (frozen, “calm,” and so on), of flawed human subjects lends plausibility to the conjecture about life elsewhere. Surely it is reasonable, Shelley supposes, that life must be somewhere. [5] 

12.        Cavell’s way of securing the place of skepticism entails the same turn of thought. As Cavell argues and as Josh Wilner reminds us, [6]  Romanticism is an expression of disappointment at Kant’s “settlement” with skepticism. We can build up the world through the senses in a reliable way, Kant says, but reason discovers itself in its unconditioned autonomy precisely through the realization that we cannot ever know the thing in itself. About this Cavell says, by now rather famously: “You don’t—do you—have to be a Romantic to feel sometimes about that settlement: Thanks for nothing” (Quest 31). As I’ve already suggested, Shelley, by contrast, arguably sees his opening, his chance, in this very settlement, even though he and his philosophical mentor, Sir William Drummond, disliked Kant (cf. Peter Bell the Third 518-32). Certainly, however, Cavell in his view of the matter has identified the structure of the Romantic quest in a Shelleyan way. That form of Romantic irony which is a vacillation between desire for unmediated intimacy and desire for transcendence—the problematic, likewise, of Faust’s two souls—can be understood as an opening for effective dialectical negation. Shelley sees this moment as sheer negation. Mont Blanc is “remote, serene, and inaccessible” (97), a whiteness or a Wordsworthian blank. Volcanic as he may be (cf. Matthews in Reiman and Fraistat 558), Demogorgon is still a formless darkness mounting the chariot of the appointed Hour not as an agent but as an allegorical expression of the simple fact that Jupiter’s time has come. It is against this blankness or darkness, this denial of agency, meaning, causation, or creative origination, that as an act of defiance “the human mind’s imaginings,” as Shelley puts it at the end of “Mont Blanc” (143), autonomously and groundlessly create meanings, including a meaning even for Mont Blanc itself. As Tillotama Rajan says, “[the mountain’s] very existence as a form which is physically present yet spiritually vacant provokes the mind into constantly constructing and deconstructing its ideals” (Rajan 87). “The deep truth,” according to Demogorgon, “is imageless” (Prometheus Unbound, II, iv, 116). The indescribable being-what-they-are of things-as-they-are that Shelley after Hobbes and Godwin also calls Necessity, is the “vacancy” (cf. Shelley, “On Life” 507) that skeptical philosophers must sometimes leave us with. It is a useful vacancy that opens up unlimited space for the positings of the imagination.

13.        It seems to me that at times Cavell’s argument would be more clearly delimited if he would distinguish more emphatically between ontological skepticism (doubt as to whether things and other minds exist at all, an emergent modern anxiety that Cavell associates with Descartes and Shakespeare) and epistemological skepticism. It is the latter, epistemological skepticism, which clearly emerges from the Kantian “settlement” as the concern of Romanticism. Kant makes it evident in the passage Cavell quotes from the Prolegomena that there is really no ontological stumbling block to pause over, at least for pre-critical thought: “The understanding therefore,” says Kant, “by assuming appearances, grants the existence of things in themselves also, and so far we may say, that the representation of such things as form the basis of phenomena, consequently of mere creations of the understanding, is not only admissible, but unavoidable” (qtd. in Quest 30). None of the Romantic authors Cavell treats in In Quest of the Ordinary doubt the existence of the world. They only wonder what its nature is, particularly whether it is alive or dead, and whether the imagination can bring it to life, or back to life. It is true that as a boy Wordsworth needed to hug a tree to be sure it existed, but we are likely to agree that that is not a characteristic moment, any more than the Intimations Ode is a characteristic poem. Wordsworth’s childhood idealism vertigo does not in fact play a role in Cavell’s consideration of that poem. As for Shelley, he is emphatic as early as 1813: “I have examined Hume’s reasonings with respect to the non-existence of external things [. . .]. What am I to think of a philosophy which conducts to such a conclusion?” (Letters, I, 380) The apothegm one finds in “On Life” and elsewhere (with something like it in the Conclusion to “The Sensitive-Plant”), “nothing exists but as it is perceived” (506), is quite often read as though existence itself were at issue. But Shelley is here simply agreeing with the whole skeptical tradition, not just Kant, that it is the nature of things’ existence that depends on perception. The Romantic worry, I think it fair to generalize, concerns not the nonexistence of things but their intrinsic insignificance. Let us assume, then, that the skepticism that matters for present purposes, as would not necessarily be the case if one were a Cartesian or a Shakespearian (in Cavell’s view: I take Hamlet to be in Shelley’s camp), is epistemological, not ontological.

14.        Cavell argues, in any case, that the First Generation’s response to the Kantian settlement was animism (cf., inter alia, Quest 69). Josh Wilner’s Cavellian reading of “Tintern Abbey” builds on that claim until he reaches his linguistic turn. There is no doubt that as a matter of intellectual history, still best documented by H. W. Piper in The Active Universe, animism as sanctioned in science by Priestley, Erasmus Darwin, and others was indeed a temporary investment for the authors of Lyrical Ballads. By the time of Coleridge’s response to Wordsworth in “Dejection,” however, this belief has faltered. In our life alone, says Coleridge, does nature live. I myself would argue, in any case, that the animism even of “Tintern Abbey” is expressed at best ambiguously and can just as easily be read as a shockingly radical materialism. My reading of Wordsworth’s quest for the unmediated objecthood of the world, wholly in agreement as I am with Cavell about Wordsworth’s desire to find common ground between consciousness and realia, inclines me to believe that the reunion is not noumenal but phenomenal. Our “widest commonalty” is not with a responsive life in things but rather the widest somatic commonalty, or community, of the poet’s embodied being with the being of other bodies. Not animated bodies, that is, but bodies as things in the world. Hence the need in Wordsworth to reduce consciousness to a moment of almost impercipient marginality, idiocy, senility, or emptying out such that “‘all is tranquil as a dreamless sleep’” (Fry, Wordsworth, passim).

15.        In any case, even if one refuses the premise of animism while retaining the logic of its desire, that does not alter the problematic of skepticism as Cavell presents it—for example as follows:

but since [our very inhabitation of the ordinary] is from time to time perceptible to us—we who have constructed it—as extraordinary, we conceive that some place elsewhere, or this place otherwise constructed, must be what is ordinary to us, must be what Romantics [. . .] call “home.” (Quest 9)
For Shelley in Prometheus Unbound, the ordinary (in Cavell’s sense, that from which the large codes of fraud and woe have estranged us) is “this place” otherwise constructed, “somewhat changed” (III, iv, 71). For the Shelley of “Sensitive-Plant” or “Adonais,” on the other hand, it is “some place elsewhere.” The painted veil which those who live call life is the skeptical ground for any construction of homecoming, here or elsewhere. It is well, therefore, to pause for a moment over what Cavell means by “construction,” as that will bring me to the threshold of another way of understanding construction, a view in agreement with Wilner’s and one implicit in this paper, no doubt, from the beginning.

16.         The first part of The Claim of Reason is devoted to reflections on “criteria” in Wittgenstein, distantly related to what J. L. Austin calls “conditions” governing the effectiveness of utterances. It is importantly true, as Cavell points out, that “the fate of criteria, or their limitation, reveals [. . .] the truth of skepticism” (Claim 7ff.). He additionally insists, however, that for Wittgenstein and Austin such markers of skepticism (if either philosopher is really prepared to call them that) are what establish a community of understanding, ensuring the avoidance of interpretive misfire among all who share the criteria relevant to a given communication. This is an implicitly communitarian or political idea that Shelley enters into wholeheartedly. The claim of reason is that to know myself, to understand why I am saying something and what are the stakes of my utterance, is to know shared criteria. By this means I understand myself politically, as someone who belongs in a community of minds (cf. Claim 25). As in Blake and Shelley, to achieve individuation, which is to abandon the mere given-ness of truth and error as certainty, is not just to share criteria (that would still perhaps partake of certainty) but to know that they are criteria. In that case they are at once “ordinary”—effective with or without reflection—and also poetized, constructively emergent from skepticism.

17.        The limiting power of criteria (you can’t move your king into check or move a pawn backward, for example), which discloses their arbitrary function, highlights the importance of agreement about them precisely as a consequence of their groundlessness. Their shared coherence is enabled by the absence of correspondence, about which all and sundry might disagree. Thus when we acknowledge the conditioning of what can be thought and said, even if we are Romantic visionaries, there can be no danger of solipsism or private language, not even the danger of wild deviation among those who are positively certain of “the facts.” This is clearest when our criteria misfire. Fascinated by Austin’s example of the goldfinch at the bottom of the garden in the essay called “Other Minds,” Cavell, following Austin, states in more than one place that goldfinches have red heads (cf., e. g., Claim 132). But what we agree to call a goldfinch in the United States has a black head. Only the European goldfinch has a red head, or more precisely a red face. We do not invoke this or any other trait of the bird (That particular bird? The species?—the American females of which, by the way, have grayish-yellow heads)—we do not invoke this trait as evidence of the bird’s existence as a thing in itself or even that of the species or the male of the species. We invoke it as a limiting criterion that distinguishes this bird from other birds; hence, in this case, a geographical context is necessary for the criterion to work. If criteria are truly markers of skepticism, in other words, they need to be recognized as semiotic, not semantic. The likelihood that neither Wittgenstein nor Cavell would agree with this conclusion perhaps raises the question just how firmly their arguments are rooted in the necessity of skepticism. But Shelley in any case would, I think, agree, following Locke among others. Even though his “almost” in the following passage may imply that he only accepts the weak form of the argument, he still does say: “almost all familiar objects are signs, standing not for themselves but for others” (“On Life” 507).

18.         One thing is clear, though. For Saussure as much as for Wittgenstein or Cavell, there is no private language. And likewise for Shelley. Limitation is fate, for Shelley as much as for Emerson. Limitation can also be called Necessity, as in the “necessity of atheism,” which does not mean that God does not exist but rather that our limited nature does not enable us to posit God’s existence. Contrary to appearance, this mode of limitation is a guarantor of freedom. It is not in the nature of water to flow uphill; hence, it feels unnatural when the boat of the Witch of Atlas is piloted uphill by the hermaphrodite. That is the limitation, the necessity governing the behavior of water, as one might say; yet when water is free to flow downhill it realizes its nature. When a dam is put across it, its nature is inhibited, revealing the politically crucial distinction in Shelley between necessity as freedom, the self-actualizing nature of things, and power as constraint, the coercive denaturing of things. The individual, in sum, is in and of itself already the political, just as Cavell argues in The Claim of Reason; and that is how the Shelley of Prometheus Unbound can join Blake and Hegel in writing the great novel of individual consciousness and the history of the human mind in society simultaneously.

19.         The medium of this allegorical possibility (possible because after all ontogeny does recapitulate phylogeny), and likewise the domain of limiting criteria, is language. Language in turn contributes to the necessity, the limitation, of human being. It is just here that we may find the later Shelley straying from Cavell’s understanding of the liberating power of skepticism and moving closer to a form of linguistic determinism that has had a more signal influence on literary studies than Cavell has had to date. This emergent idea in Shelley must evidently have moved the colleagues who banded together in the book called Deconstruction and Criticism to take The Triumph of Life for their common subject matter. [7]  Shelley introduces his own linguistic turn of thought twice in Prometheus Unbound itself, and likewise in the Defence of Poetry, but manages in those texts to shield himself from its unsettling consequences.

20.        The Defence repeatedly follows eighteenth-century speculation (together with recent interest in the Homeric cycle) in calling language at its origin a “cyclic poem” (e.g., 523), a database of dynamic metaphors that all poets access in writing their individual fragments. Consider Shelley’s telltale revision in saying that the muse Urania dictated to Milton nightly his unpremeditated verse, given that Milton actually says she “inspires easie, or dictates nightly” his unpremeditated verse (532, 532n.). Milton leaves open the possibility that inspiration is non-verbal, pre-verbal—in short, that thought precedes language—whereas Shelley’s revision insists that inspiration is language itself. The “Spirit” that speaks for most of the “Ode to Liberty” is said by the speaker to offer the same sort of dictation: “there came / A voice out of the deep: I will record the same” (14-15; italics mine). Comparably, when Asia in Act Two of Prometheus Unbound recounts the gifts of Prometheus to man, she says “He gave man speech, and speech created thought, / Which is the measure of the universe” (II, iv, 73-74). Earth returns to the theme in Act Four when she says “Language is a perpetual Orphic song/ Which rules with daedal harmony a throng / Of thoughts and forms, which else senseless and shapeless were” (IV, 415-17).

21.        Shelley under this emergent semiotic outlook is no longer confirming the possibility of belief in the way he might have managed when he really could imagine skepticism to be a sort of mulchification of dead leaves that promises a coming spring. Such signs of linguistic determinism as those I have just enumerated do not help Shelley to believe that mere wind can be through his lips the trumpet of a prophecy, any more than Hobbes believed it when he said that to be inspired is to be blown up like a bagpipe. In The Triumph of Life inspiration comes by shapes all light in whatever form has become destructive at relentlessly repeated intervals. As John Hodgson puts it, “the triumph of life is the failure of imagination” (Hodgson 619). This misfortune occurs not because inspiration doesn’t arrive, just as it always did, in the form of a dictating Intellectual Beauty (“herself a poet,” as Shelley said as early as Alastor [161]). The muse of light has still arrived. The misfortune occurs because what Shelley seems now to conceive as the Nachträglichkeit or supplementarity of language constantly erases successive traces of itself in a loop or “fold” (Triumph 547) of repetition-with-a-difference that feels like a Dantesque punishment. As Shelley’s Rousseau says in the complex figures (or “disfigurations”) canonized by Paul de Man (“Shelley Disfigured” 99): first, “And still her feet, no less than the sweet tune / To which they moved, seemed as they moved, to blot / The thoughts of him who gazed on them, and soon / All that was seemed as if it had been not” (382-85); and again, having drunk the cup of Nepenthe offered by the beautiful but already dissolving shape all light, Rousseau says:

Suddenly my brain became as sand

Where the first wave had more than half erased
The track of deer on desert Labrador,
Whilst the fierce wolf from which they fled amazed

Leaves his stamp visibly upon the shore
Until the second bursts—so on my sight
Burst a new Vision never seen before.— (405-11)
It is possible to construe this imagery as an optative, holding at bay the destruction of change by repetition, as in the optative of the “Ode to Liberty”:
O, that the free would stamp the impious name
Of KING into the dust! Or write it there,
So that this blot upon the page of fame
Were as a serpent’s path, which the light air
Erases, and the flat sands close behind! (211-15)
Yet even as early as “Ozymandias” the lone and level sands stretch far away, obliterating any form of confident knowledge (that of art as well as tyranny) that can be inscribed. The arbitrariness of language never would have emerged as what Saussure considers the essential fact of language as long as the referents of signs continued to be known in themselves with certainty. This arbitrariness can be accepted in relation to “error and truth” as long as it can be cordoned off as a preventable liability or trivial crux; but when viewed as the fundamental property of language it is disclosed both by and as skepticism. This “strong” conception of the semiotic works well enough for Shelley—and perhaps implicitly for Cavell—as long as it can be seen to enable constructive speculation. But when signifiers become traces that endlessly erase traces, Shelley’s “Life,” itself the animation here or elsewhere about which he had hitherto speculated hopefully, simply pulverizes the imagination, so that “[d]eath cannot liberate Rousseau from Life” (Dawson 281). The whole process begins when Shelley says, in launching his account of Life’s triumphal chariot, “A vision on my brain was rolled” (40).

22.        It is important to acknowledge those places in Shelley that would appear at least to bracket skepticism. The “Ode to Liberty,” a poem that seems especially ambivalent when revisiting Shelley’s typical patterns of thought, puts into linguistic terms, again in the optative mode, the famous assertion of the Defence. The mind in creation is a fading coal, reversing the premise that language precedes thought and rhetorically implying that thoughts are closer (at least) to realities than words: “O, that the words which make the thoughts obscure / From which they spring [. . .] / Were stript of their thin masks and various hue” (234-37). Yet language deracinated from thought and language productive of thought lead unfortunately to the same doubtful result, still leaving it unclear (if, after all, everything else is unclear) whether language or thought came first. When hope itself, as a mere word, becomes one of the “passions” that destroy hope (as in “Ozymandias” or Triumph), skepticism is no longer constructive but turns grimly pyrrhonic. It is then subject to the charge of inadvertent certainty—falling back into the arms of error and truth—to which critiques of skepticism have always resorted. “O Heart and Mind and Thoughts what thing do you/ Hope to inherit in the grave below?” (“Sonnet: ‘Ye hasten to the grave!’” 13-14) The only trace of skepticism here, as Shelley turns against the hope of “Sensitive-Plant” and “Adonais,” lies in the improbable notion that rhetorical questions are put as questions just in case they may have a surprising answer.

23.        Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, there is the passage in Shelley’s second Note to Hellas (in relation to 197ff.) in which he seems to acknowledge that skepticism is not a necessary condition of perception but is itself a conditioned form of perception: “That there is a true solution of the riddle [of a supreme being in this context], and that in our present state the solution is unattainable by us are propositions which may be regarded as equally certain” (462). In our present state? As opposed to some future state enabled by science, or by poetry as science? How are we to read this very different sort of profession of hope—different, that is, from that which is itself enabled by skepticism? It would appear perhaps that, through this “present” qualifier, error and truth have been here restored to Shelley’s good graces, and that therefore when the “true solution” is revealed, Peacock will turn out to have been right and there will be nothing further for poetry to do after all. If the truth is known, why should the atavistic yearnings of poetry be dragged in to embellish or undermine it?

24.        Any sort of special pleading to square this passage with Shelley’s views as set forth in the argument of this paper will seem awkward, no doubt, but this much at least can be said: If the “true solution” were something comparable to phlogiston or galvanism or the elixir vitae, the “secret of life” that many today still patiently seek, then Shelley could in this passage be convicted of having failed to learn the lesson from adventurers in speculative science that he might have learned best from Swift’s Projectors. As with the anecdote of Gertrude Stein’s last words, and as Cavell argues continuously in The Claim of Reason, to know what the solution is you have to know what the riddle is. You have to know that riddles, the presumed fundamental questions, are as much conditioned by “criteria” as their answers are. We might have thought that Shelley of all people would understand that caveat and respond to the dilemma constructively, as he and Cavell for the most part attempt to do.

25.        So if we risk forthwith supposing Shelley not to mean what he says, honoring what we take to be his more circumspect outlook, what can Shelley possibly mean in this surprising passage from the apparatus to Hellas? What he might mean, and elsewhere says, is that things undoubtedly are what and as they are, this state of affairs being what he has always called “necessity.” (The far looser sense of the necessary as the self-identity of things is nowadays enshrined in the street wisdom of “it is what it is.”) In that case the solution to the “riddle” is that only doctrinaire thought supposes there to be either a solution or a riddle. But “our present state”—even Shelley’s own present state—prevents us from resting content with this awareness because of what Cavell calls the Romantic impatience with Kant’s settlement. As a multitude unarmed with skepticism (hence immersed in what Shelley so often bitterly calls “human thought” [e. g., “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” 15]), we seek and nearly always find solutions in ideology. But even as poets, Shelley far more sympathetically argues (and Cavell would argue too), in the face of that “vacancy” which is not so much a riddle as, simply, “silence and solitude” (“Mont Blanc” 144), we express defiance and hope with the aid of the intellectual beauty that at the end of “Mont Blanc” Shelley calls “the human mind’s imaginings.”

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry. Rev. ed. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1971. Print.

Cavell, Stanley. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy. New York: Oxford UP, 1979. Print.

---. Disowning Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. Print.

---. In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988. Print.

---. Little Did I Know: Excerpts from Memory. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010. Print.

---. Must We Mean What We Say? Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976. Print.

Clark, Timothy. “Shelley After Deconstruction: The Poet of Anachronism,” Evaluating Shelley.” Ed. Timothy Clark and Jerrold E. Hogle. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1996. 91-107. Print.

Curran, Stuart. Shelley’s Annus Mirabilis: The Maturing of an Epic Vision. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1975. Print.

Dawson, P. M. S. The Unacknowledged Legislator: Shelley and Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980. Print.

De Man, Paul. “Shelley Disfigured.” The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia UP, 1984. 93-124. Print.

Eldridge, Richard and Bernard Rhie, eds. Stanley Cavell and Literary Studies: Consequences of Skepticism. New York and London: Continuum, 2011. Print.

Fry, Paul H. “Shelley’s Defence of Poetry in Our Time.” The Reach of Criticism: Method and Perception in Literary Theory. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984. Print.

---, Wordsworth and the Poetry of What We Are. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008. Print.

Hoagwood, Terence Allen. Skepticism & Ideology: Shelley’s Political Prose and its Philosophical Context from Bacon to Marx. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1988. Print.

Hodgson, John. “The World’s Mysterious Doom: Shelley’s The Triumph of Life.” ELH 42 (1975): 595-622. Print.

Hogle, Jerrold E. “Shelley’s Poetics: The Power as Metaphor.” Keats-Shelley Journal 31 (1982): 159-97. Print.

James, D. G. Scepticism and Poetry: An Essay on the Poetic Imagination. 1937. London: Allen & Unwin, 1960. Print.

Jewett, William. Fatal Autonomy: Romantic Drama and the Rhetoric of Agency. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997. Print.

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

Keach, William. Shelley’s Style. New York: Methuen, 1984. Print.

Matthews, G. M.. “A Volcano’s Voice in Shelley.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald Reiman and Neil Fraistat. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2002. 550-68. Print.

O’Neill, Michael. “‘What’s Aught but As ’Tis Valued?’: A Reading of The Sensitive-Plant.” Evaluating Shelley. Ed. Timothy Clark and Jerrold E. Hogle. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1996. 111-31. Print.

Piper, H. W. The Active Universe. London: Athlone Press, 1962. Print.

Pulos, C. E. “Shelley and Malthus.” PMLA 67 (1952). 113-24. Print.

---. The Deep Truth. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1954. Print.

Rajan, Tillotama. Dark Interpreter: The Discourse of Romanticism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980. Print.

Reiman, Donald. Intervals of Inspiration: The Skeptical Tradition and the Psychology of Romanticism. Greenwood, FL: Penkevill, 1988. Print.

Rubin, Merle R. “Shelley’s Skepticism: A Detachment Beyond Despair.” PQ 59 (1980): 353-73. Print.

Ruston, Sharon. Shelley and Vitality. Houndmills: Palgrave, 2005. Print.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. 2nd ed. Ed. Donald Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.

Ulmer, William A. Shelleyan Eros: The Rhetoric of Romantic Love. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990. Print.


[1] All Shelley quotations are from Reiman and Fraistat (ed.): poems by lines; prose by page; Prometheus Unbound cited by Act, scene, and lines. BACK

[2] Ulmer for his part (11) wants to trace this point back to Pulos, The Deep Truth BACK

[3] Skepticism is often considered the key concept to have emerged in postwar Shelley criticism, the arguing point that rescued him from his dismissal—by Arnold following through to Leavis and beyond—as an ineffectual and muddle-headed idealist. One increasingly hears (skeptical) impatience with the acceptance of skepticism in Shelley as a given, but it has not yet been dislodged. The pioneering work was that of Pulos, The Deep Truth. Since then the most sustained research aimed at pinning down the exact nature of Shelley’s skepticism has been that of Rubin, Reiman (see Intervals of Inspiration, ch. 5), and Hoagwood. I am encouraged by Hoagwood’s well-informed contention that Shelley’s skepticism is dialectical and—to some extent in disagreement with Pulos—epistemological rather than ontological. As Hoagwood puts it, cuttingly but I think fairly, “the influential accounts of Shelley’s skepticism were written when literary critics were still being told that Berkeley and Hume engaged in dogmatic denials” (Hoagwood 20). Skepticism can also function as the hesitation in judgment that inhibits moral and political agency. See, e. g., Jewett 135-64. BACK

[4] For a sensitive reading of the Conclusion to this poem as inconclusive, see O’Neill (111-31). BACK

[5] On this subject in relation to science, especially in relation to contemporary debates about whether life was intrinsic to matter, see Ruston, who points out that Shelley’s friend, the surgeon Sir William Lawrence, was accused by his opponents of believing that life was “nothing,” i.e., not a substance (17-18). In general, supporters of Lawrence were called “modern sceptics” (20). BACK

[6] Here and below, I refer to Wilner’s paper, “ ‘Communicating with Objects’: Romanticism, Skepticism, and the ‘Specter of Animism’ in Cavell and Wordsworth” (see Eldridge and Rhie 152-162), which I heard first at a Cavell conference at Harvard on Oct. 15, 2010, then in a later version on a “Cavell and Romanticism” panel at the International Conference on Romanticism in Lubbock, Texas, Nov. 13, 2010, where I read a version of the present paper. BACK

[7] While not wholly unsympathetic with the deconstructive turn in Shelley criticism, Clark raises the question of “anachronism,” pointing out the extent to which Shelley himself was conscious of anachronism, and enlists Tillotama Rajan in The Supplement of Reading (1990), as follows: “[The Triumph of Life], while essentially deconstructive, does not present a process of pure erasure” (qtd. in Clark and Hogle 338). BACK


Published @ RC

July 2014