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Early Shelley: Vulgarisms, Politics, and Fractals

Introduction: The Return of the "Wild Boy"; or, Reading Early Shelley

by Neil Fraistat

  1. ALMOST 50 years after the fact, Hellen Shelley recalled a visit her famous older brother made to her school: "He came once with the elders of the family, and Harriet Grove, his early love, was of the party: how fresh and pretty she was! Her assistance was invoked to keep the wild boy quiet, for he was full of pranks, and upset the port wine on the tray cloth, for our schoolmistress was hospitable and had offered refreshments; then we all walked in the garden, and there was much ado to calm the spirits of the wild boy" (Hogg's Life of PBS , ed. Wolfe, I, 27). Critics have contrived as well, with perhaps more success, to keep the "wild boy" quiet. The Great Divide in Shelley studies perennially has been between Alastor (1816), which is generally viewed as Shelley's first mature poem, and all of his preceding work, which is usually dismissed as the juvenilia of a "wild boy," immature both in craftsmanship and thought. As a result, with the notable exception of Kenneth Neill Cameron's monumental The Young Shelley, Shelley's early work either is not seriously engaged, or is engaged in a merely cursory way, to map how Shelley grew beyond it.

  2. A careful look at Shelley's early work, however, would show that he is capable, virtually from the start, of writing polished verse in a range of stylistic registers, and that the early verse, even in its most apparently eccentric gestures--perhaps especially in these gestures--is very much a part of its own cultural habitus rather than merely being personally idiosyncratic. In its moments of wildness, then, its more abandoned forays into Sensibility, the Gothic, political satire, and vulgarity, Shelley's early verse offers an aesthetics of excess and a politics of resistance that provides telling access to the fissured byways of early Regency culture, as well as to Shelley's art and thought in general. For far too long, the early Shelley has existed in a state of spectral supplementarity to the "real" Shelley. The essays of this volume, which were originally commissioned for a session on the young Shelley at MLA in 1996, begin to explore what it might mean to give voice to the "wild boy."

  3. In the opening essay of the collection, Donald H. Reiman examines Shelley's early textual strategies and practices, revealing several important continuities throughout Shelley's poetic career, some of which vex any attempt to separate cleanly the "early" from the "mature" Shelley. William Keach next considers the political commitments of Shelley's early verse, calling both for the development of critical readings of this verse "rooted in an engaged attentiveness to context and content" and for a pedagogy that focuses classroom attention on the writing Shelley produced between the spring of 1810 and summer of 1813. For Timothy Morton, who, in the following essay, reads the topology of Queen Mab, the "sublime, dizzying, spiralling poetics of Shelley, minted as he tries to fit the asymmetrical ideologies of capitalism and ecology together, persist throughout his work" in what Morton describes as a "fractal" poetics that is not simply Utopian in its desires, but "Ecotopian." Finally, Linda Brigham responds to the previous essays, turning our attention to the problematics of authorship, agency, and the continuity of identity that necessarily complicate any return to the "early Shelley." She notes that attempts to chart the continuities in Shelley's canon must be alive to a range of differentials: "the terrain [of the verse from 1813-1820] does not change uniformly; in the case of topoi, for example, or in the way Shelley's language relates to things, it changes less than in the case, of say, the manner in which his work incorporates other texts, or in the rhetorical quality of his poetry, the manner and degree of its didacticism."

  4. As Brigham also reminds us, the Shelley we get is a function of our own perspective. The more closely we look at Shelley's early verse, the less homogeneous and easily dismissable this verse will appear--and the more its wide-ranging and complex engagements will unfold. Taken together, the essays in this volume argue for such a collective change of focus. Let us by all means return, then, to Queen Mab--an epic apotheosis of the Jacobin Imaginary that--in its phantasmal structure, in its exploration of the gap between words and things, in its anxieties about revolutionary agency and revolutionary change--is also simultaneously the first great crisis poem of the Jacobin Imaginary. But let us also begin to read with critical attention the nuanced tonalities and craftsmanship of such early lyrics as "To Mary, who died in this opinion," and "Why is it said thou canst but live"; the dizzying Gothic implosions of The Wandering Jew; the satiric vulgarities of The Devil's Walk and those astonishingly Oedipal verse epistles to Edward Fergus Graham; and the lyrics of (often) overheated Sensibility and (sometimes) overwrought political protest in the Esdaile Notebook and the early poetic volumes. In the return of the repressed "wild boy," we stand to gain not just new insights on early Regency culture, nor even a different "early Shelley," but an entire poetic career freshly reimagined.


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Published @ RC

August 1997