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Early Shelley: Vulgarisms, Politics, and Fractals

Shelley Comes Of Age: His Early Poems As an Editorial Experience

by Donald H. Reiman

  1. IN SPITE of George Bernard Shaw's enthusiasm for Queen Mab , Kenneth Neill Cameron's admiration for Shelley's youthful radicalism, and a renewed interest in Gothic literature, "the young Shelley" has never received much respect, being treated, rather, as "Shelley the Kid." Most biographers either laughed or frowned at his youthful enthusiasms, and several editors chose to exile his early poetry--including even Queen Mab --to the backs of their editions under the damning heading of "Juvenilia." Such condescension (of which I've been guilty at times) parallels that with which T.S. Eliot, F.R. Leavis, and other critics once viewed Shelley's poetry as a whole. They declared that, however much they may have doted on it while they were immature, they could no longer read it when they grew up. As I noted in my first book, those critics' failure to comprehend Shelley's mature poetry grew out of four problems that I labeled: first, "unnatural piety" (the tendency of Shelley's heirs and enthusiasts to claim that everything he did was right, good, and true and that his poetry mirrored his angelic genius)--a stance that led to a strong reaction from those who did not feel themselves to be a part of this magic circle; second, "literary fundamentalism," or the critics' tendency "to transubstantiate mythical truth into fact" and then criticize it as erroneous; third, "critical myopia," or a failure to pursue research on the meanings of Shelley's words and literary conventions beyond the critics' own limited knowledge; and, finally, the lack of accurate texts of Shelley's writings.

  2. During the past forty years scholar-critics of Shelley have made progress on all of these fronts, but the weak spot in Shelley studies remains an inadequate knowledge of both the canon and the significance of his early poems, to which few scholars other than the editors have given as much attention as might seem merited for a leading poet of the era which demonstrated that "The Child is father of the Man."

  3. Neil Fraistat and I have been aided in our work on the Johns Hopkins edition of The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, by strong institutional support (primarily from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Maryland, and the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation) and some excellent research assistants. In the fall of 1992, as we began work on the first volume, we optimistically assumed that we would be able to finish editing the early poems rather quickly, since they were said to be fairly simple-minded and had been, we supposed, treated thoroughly by previous editors--especially in Volume I of the Longman Edition of The Poems of Shelley begun by the late G.M. Matthews and completed in 1989 by Kelvin Everest.

  4. At the very outset of our work in 1992, however, Neil and I were confronted by a problem regarding the earliest volume in Shelley's poetic canon that previous scholars had all finessed: at the Shelley Bicentennial Conference at Gregynog, Wales, Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi delivered an interesting paper in which she suggested that none of the poems in Original Poetry by "Victor and Cazire" (1810) had been written by Shelley's sister Elizabeth, as Shelleyans had universally believed since the discovery and republication of the first text of that long-lost volume in 1898. Instead, Gelpi argued, Percy Bysshe Shelley himself was ventriloquizing in the persona of a woman the poems attributed to his sister. Though Neil and I believed Gelpi to be mistaken, she had raised an important question that no previous editor had studied in detail: Which poems in the "Victor and Cazire" volume actually were by P.B. Shelley and which, if any, could plausibly be attributed to Elizabeth Shelley, a year younger than he? We began immediately to gather the external evidence for dual authorship, which we found on the title page of Original Poetry ; in Shelley's contemporary letters; in the journal of Shelley's cousin Harriet Grove; in John Joseph Stockdale's 1826 account of how he came to publish the volume; and in reminiscences that Hellen Shelley, the younger sister of Percy Bysshe and Elizabeth, sent to Lady Shelley in the 1850s, just before Thomas Jefferson Hogg wrote his Life of Shelley. We also scanned the poems for internal clues--dissecting their subject-matter, tone, and diction, as well as repetitions and variations in their orthography and phrasing. Our stylistic and orthographic analysis was complicated by the lack of any samples of poetry attributed to Elizabeth Shelley outside of the "Victor and Cazire" volume. To detect the substantive and stylistic signature of a sixteen-year-old girl from a landed family during the Regency, our best guides were the contemporary journals of her Wiltshire cousins Harriet and Charlotte Grove, which included comments on the personality of Elizabeth Shelley, and the novels of such female writers of similar class and background as Jane Austen (whom the Groves read with delight).

  5. Readers of the Johns Hopkins edition of The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley will judge for themselves whether we have succeeded in sorting out the evidence, but at least we have grappled with the question of authorship and concluded that a few poems in the volume--including the first two verse-letters, usually assigned to Elizabeth Shelley--were, indeed, probably written by her, a finding that agreed with the external evidence provided by Shelley and his contemporaries, all of which pointed to Original Poetry as being the work of two authors.[1]

  6. Our study of the "Victor and Cazire" volume and Percy Bysshe Shelley's subsequent four publication projects that involved poems not only added to our knowledge of repetitive patterns in his composition, arrangement, and publication of them, but we saw that practices that Shelley established at the beginning of his poetic career were echoed in his later writings. Without attempting to exhaust this topic, let me cite just a few literary tendencies present in Shelley's earliest work that persisted in his mature poems. His interest in cooperative or joint authorship, appears not only in the "Victor and Cazire" effort, but also in his joint composition with his sister Elizabeth of a lost comedy that they submitted to the stage anonymously and in his collaboration with his second-cousin Thomas Medwin of the earliest version of The Wandering Jew ; this desire for communal composition was repeated when he and Mary Godwin jointly compiled and published History of a Six Weeks's Tour . Elizabeth Shelley's long verse-letters lead off the "Victor and Cazire" volume of 1810 to catch the reader's human interest, before concluding with Shelley's own heavier fare--climaxing in a difficult poem of guilt and supernatural judgment involving the Wandering Jew entitled "Ghasta; or the Avenging Demon." Six years later History of a Six Weeks' Tour , the joint production of Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin, begins with Mary's travel letters and their joint journal and ends with the cryptic and philosophically challenging "Mont Blanc." (These and other works in the later Shelley canon show also how addicted he was to the construction of Trojan horses within which to smuggle his subversive ideas into the homes of unsuspecting readers.) Percy Bysshe and Mary W. Shelley continued their mutual intellectual and artistic collaboration by reading and editing most of each other's writings until William Shelley's death in 1819 led to Mary's severe depression and a partial distancing in their marriage, but the cooperative habits they had developed early in their life together led them to continue to assist each other in their writing projects at least sporadically till Shelley's death, and Mary Shelley's editorial labors affected Shelley's writings till late in her life.

  7. Another pattern that Shelley established early in his career was his tendency to revise and then recycle the same poem in different contexts. For example, he used the poetic fragment found at the end of Original Poetry by "Victor and Cazire" as the first poetic attempt in Chapter 1 of St. Irvyne . Later in the same romance, he introduced a poem made up with the first four stanzas of a ten-quatrain love poem that he had written to Harriet Grove while they were courting, but there he rounded off the lyric with a revised stanza from a less happy poem, written to Harriet after her family had broken off their engagement, thereby turning the original love lyric into a lament for love thwarted. This pattern of revising and using earlier material in new contexts appeared again when he published revised excerpts from Queen Mab as "The Daemon of the World" in the Alastor volume. As Michael Neth and I noted in connection with The Hellas Notebook , in late 1821 or early 1822 Shelley went so far as to redraft completely in Bodleian MS Shelley adds. e.7 the poem beginning "I arise from dreams of thee"--virtually the same poem that two years earlier he had given to Sophia Stacey. (Two other surviving holograph fair-copies, one entitled "The Indian Serenade" and the other "The Indian Girl's Song, further complicate the story."[2])This simulated composition of a "new" romantic lyric may have been done either to give it to Jane Williams (as Medwin's Life of Shelley would have it), or perhaps (as Trelawny testified in a manuscript now at John Murray's) to use in a competition with Byron, in which each was to compose lyrics to be sung to an Indian or Arabic melody. But whether Shelley recomposed from memory--or else pretended to compose for the first time--a poem that he had already used to impress Stacey, either to demonstrate his poetic facility vis-a-vis Byron, or to express his feelings for Jane Williams, we are faced with judgments of his motives.

  8. These recyclings, like Shelley's plagiarism of a long poem from Monk Lewis' Tales of Terror that led to the suppression of the "Victor and Cazire" volume, cast light on an aspect of his poetic talent that has been almost universally overlooked: Shelley, unlike Byron or even Keats, was not a facile or prolific versifier. He invariably struggled to find and arrange words that could articulate his inchoate feelings and subtle ideas. References in his letters to his early Gothic poems and romances express surprise and dismay that he had not written enough to fill the number of pages or volumes that he promised to the printer or publisher.[3] Now, from analysis of malformed type characters found in the "Victor and Cazire" volume, we have determined that the printing was suspended and the type of the first part of the volume was distributed before the last part was typeset. During that hiatus, Shelley was probably scrambling to gather or write enough new material to fill a volume of the size for which he had contracted with the printer, but apparently he and Elizabeth Shelley were unable to provide sufficient poetry to do so. At that point (as the collation indicates), Shelley wrote down from memory--rather than copied--the long poem by Monk Lewis entitled The Black Canon of Elmham; or, St. Edmond's Eve so as to swell the volume to its promised size. Since the other poems in it contain smaller plagiarisms from Byron and other contemporary poets, the title Original Poetry was (as Kenneth Neill Cameron suggested) almost certainly Shelley's way of disguising his plagiarisms as part of a clever prank. To Cameron's insight, we can now add the more general observation that Shelley was forced into this subterfuge by his inability to write as fluently as he wished to do--and believed others did. (This experience, by the way, may have been in Shelley's mind in 1816, when walking with Keats on Hampstead Heath, he advised the younger man not to scrape together all his occasional poems in order to publish the volume dated 1817 that Keats himself later characterized as his "first blights.")

  9. As the foregoing example indicates, Neil and I have tried to take into account the relations between Shelley and his printers and publishers. By exploring his poetry from this perspective, we have noted a number of instances where Shelley's close interest in printing and typography may have influenced the nature of his texts. Philadelphia Phillips, daughter of one of the Phillips brothers who ran the printshop at Worthing, Sussex, where both Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire and The Necessity of Atheism were typeset, left reminiscences of Shelley that were transmitted through a nephew with whom she later lived: "She said he took great interest in the art of printing, and would often come in and spend hours in the printing office learning to set up types and help" her (Philadelphia Phillips) with her work.[4] Though Neil and I have no evidence that Shelley actually set much type for Original Poetry, we do believe that he may have put his knowledge of the craft of printing to practical use in at least two later publications. One was the broadsheet entitled The Devil's Walk , which is now mounted in an annotated hypertext edition on the Romantic Circles website and which I commend to your exploration. The most outre example of Shelley's printing activity appears, however, in Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson , the third published volume containing his poetry. This volume caused a sensation among the students at Oxford when it was issued by J. Munday in Oxford in November 1810. Through typographical analysis, we have uncovered, we believe, a hitherto unnoted reason for its celebrity among the undergraduates. The second poem, an Epithalamium sung by the souls of Francois Ravaillac and Charlotte Corday, contains several lubricious passages in which these two assassins--of Henry IV (Henry of Navarre) and Marat respectively--express their passion for each other and describe their preferred kinds of lovemaking. Toward the end of one passage appear these lines that apparently convey a more political message (lines 109-112):

    Bu t wat is sweeter to revenge's ear
          Than the fell tyrant's last expiring yell?
    Yes! than love's sweetest blisses 'tis more dear
          To drink the floatings of a despot's knell.[5]
    The first two words of this quatrain appear in all later editions as "But what"; here they contain an apparent typographical error, in which the h of "what" is missing and the t of "But" has slipped to the right until it is equidistant between the Bu and wat. This apparent typo has been silently corrected by all previous editors, presumably on the assumption that the type-characters had worked loose in the chase, the letter h had fallen out, and the t had shifted slightly toward the neighboring word. But all five copies of Posthumous Fragments that we examined contain exactly the same typographical error, with identical spacing between the letters, a uniformity that should not occur in a situation where pressure was applied and released for each page impression, unless lead spaces had been inserted to keep the loose types in the same location. Shelley, it seems to us--perhaps egged on by Hogg and other friends--purposely introduced the typo here to produce a vulgarism very amusing to the sophomoric mind: "But what" has become "Bu t wat"-- a sure-fire way to sell a poem at Oxford in 1810. (As the Oxford English Dictionary points out, Robert Browning, raised in a much more sheltered environment than Shelley's, employed the word "twat" in the first edition of Pippa Passes under the misapprehension that it "denoted some part of a nun's attire.")
  10. There are many stories--most originating in the Victorian period--about the "virginal" mind of an angelic Shelley and how he could not abide coarse speech and impure stories. Then why did he enjoy Byron's company so much? He was, Byron said, the finest gentleman ever to walk across a drawing room; what we sometimes forget is that Byron's implicit ideal is a Regency aristocrat, who need be burdened by few restrictions of thought, word, or deed. As has recently come to light, Shelley wrote not one but two early verse-letters to his friend Edward Fergus Graham, a music-master a few years older than Shelley who had been raised--or at least sponsored--by Shelley's parents. After hearing rumors that Graham has been carrying on an affair with Mrs. Shelley and had thus cuckolded the father whom Shelley despised, Shelley says in the first verse-letter that he is disinclined to believe the accusation on the grounds that Elizabeth Pilfold Shelley (then forty-eight) was too old to attract a young stud like twenty-five-year-old Graham. In the second verse-letter, however, Shelley not only admits the possibility of a liaison between Graham and Elizabeth Pilfold Shelley, but he positively encourages Graham to cuckold Timothy Shelley by sleeping with Shelley's own mother. The story is more convoluted than there is time to tell here--or even in The Complete Poetry --but fortunately this second verse-letter to Graham has recently been purchased for the Pforzheimer Collection and will appear, with a facsimile, in Volume IX of Shelley and his Circle , where there is room to explore those complexities more adequately.

  11. The paramount implication of the foregoing examples is that Shelley, like Byron, was a scion of the Regency aristocracy and in his youth was influenced by their coarse attitudes and language. Shelley's draft manuscripts abound with drawings and doodlings, and besides his well-known sketches of romantic landscapes, sailboats, and demonic figures, he also did playful sketches of two boys in Eton costume urinating into a stream and (among the drafts of Adonais ) sketched a small naked male figure with a spear (probably representing John Keats as Adonis) who was being urinated upon by a headless torso (probably representing the anonymous reviewers of the Quarterly Review[6]). These late drawings, like the early typographical vulgarism, remind us that Shelley (unlike some of his Victorian admirers) never put on prudish airs. As he wrote in a note on the sculpture of an athlete at an Italian museum, "Curse these fig leaves; why is a round tin thing more decent than a cylindrical marble one?"[7] As an angry young man, in 1817 he vehemently declared in Laon and Cythna, both in its Preface and the poem (, that "to the pure all things are pure!" including brother-sister incest, though he added in a footnote to the Preface, "The sentiments connected with and characteristic of this circumstance have no personal reference to the Writer."

  12. The foregoing examples merely sample some kinds of research involved on a few of the simpler poems in Volume I of The Collected Poetry that I have taken the lead with. Neil Fraistat has thus far centered much of his attention on Queen Mab , Shelley's comprehensive articulation of his world view during the period of his strongest affinity for the ideals of the Enlightenment. Much of his time was, therefore, devoted to reading the works of the major French and British writers who influenced Shelley during the period--Holbach, Rousseau, Volney, Erasmus Darwin, Godwin, etc., as well as tracking down the specific sources of Shelley's quotations and references to facts about astronomy, theology, marriage customs around the world, vegetarianism, Eskimos, Hottentots, and so forth.

  13. Thanks to the Collate program developed by Peter Robinson at Oxford, our grad-student colleagues have collated and recollated our proposed texts against both the primary authorities and earlier critical editions, and the results have aided us both to weed out errors in our own work and to identify textual cruxes where other editors felt the need to revise the words, pointing, or orthography of Shelley's manuscripts and original editions. While analyzing hundreds of these textual cruxes, Neil and I made it our policy and goal to retain the reading found in Shelley's copy-text, even where all earlier editors had emended it, except where we could convince each other that the original reading cannot not be justified within the contexts of its immediate syntactical unit and the larger structures of stanza, canto, or poem. Our notes note both where and why we finally did emend the text and comment on many cases where we declined to do so--usually because we found concrete evidence that Shelley's text was congruent with literary precedent, contemporary usage, or specific ideas or information in books used by, or at least available to him. During this process of trying to understand his poetry sentence by sentence and word by word, we traced Shelley's unusual diction to the poets who used these words earlier--and comment in our notes upon Shelley's debts and innovations, as well as their significance.

  14. The scholarly procedures that I have mentioned are, of course, standard practices of responsible editors everywhere. But simply by using them consistently, we discovered what I wish to leave with you this afternoon: Shelley's earliest, least sophisticated poems, which every critic who has dealt with them has, at some time or other, laughed at as puerile nonsense--have gained credibility from this editorial process. They turn out to be much more interesting psychologically, intellectually, and aesthetically than we would have thought possible when we began. Not that we have discovered new masterpieces but, as some study of The Devil's Walk on the Romantic Circles Website may suggest, a scholarly historical edition of Shelley's early poetry can add substantially to the interest of those early poems themselves, as well as to the understanding of one of England's greatest poets and most complex human beings.


1. The editors of the Longman Edition dealt with the question of authorship in Original Poetry in a very strange way, totally omitting the opening two verse-letters from their collective edition as not being the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley, but including all the other poems by "Victor and Cazire" without questioning their authorship. back

2. See The Hellas Notebook: Bodleian MS. Shelley adds. e.7 (Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts , XVI), ed. Donald H. Reiman and Michael Neth (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1994), pp. l-liii (notes on p. lxiv) and 146-55. The study of "I arise from dreams of thee" begun by Reiman and Neth has been extended and complicated by Reiman and Michael O'Neill on pp. 329-49 of their edition of Fair-Copy Manuscripts of Shelley's Lyrics in European and American Libraries (Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics: Shelley , VIII [ Garland, 1997]). back

3. See, for example, his reaction to John Joseph Stockdale, the publisher of St. Irvyne : "I did not think it possible that the romance would make but one small volume, it will at all events be larger than Zastrozzi" (Letters , ed. F. L. Jones [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), I, 21. (St. Irvyne is actually less than 90% the length of Zastrozzi .) back

4. See Roger Ingpen, Shelley in England (London: Keagan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1917), 188-89. back

5. These lines closely echo both the language and thought of lines in Scott's "Cadyow Castle," in which the hero Bothwellhaugh begins his account of why he assassinated the Regent Murray (whose men had burned Bothwellhaugh's house and murdered his wife) in these words:

Sternly he spoke-- "'Tis sweet to hear
     "In good greenwood the bugle blown,
"But sweeter to Revenge's ear,
     "To drink a tyrant's dying groan."

6. For a reproduction of this page (folio 34 verso of Bodleian MS. Shelley adds. e. 20), together with discussion of its implications, see Shelley's `Last Notebook': Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts , VII, ed. Donald H. Reiman (New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990), pp. 320-321, 374-375; or Donald H. Reiman, "Shelley's Manuscripts and the Web of Circumstance," esp. pp. 233-35, in Romantic Revisions , ed. Robert Brinkley and Keith Hanley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992). back

7. See Shelley's "Notes on Sculptures in Rome and Florence," in Shelley's Prose , ed. David Lee Clark (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954), p. 346. back

Published @ RC

August 1997