Between Saints and Monsters: Elegy, Materialization, and Gothic Historiography in Percy Shelley’s Adonais and The Wandering Jew

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Building on Jerrold E. Hogle's thinking about Gothic historiography and Julia Lupton's analysis of Renaissance hagiography, this paper explores the Gothic as a reliquary of sorts where rejected and outdated forms of historical consciousness persist beyond the moment of their ostensible viability. Shelley's Adonais (1821) and The Wandering Jew (1810), I argue, demonstrate how historical thought itself is haunted by elements that cannot enter into history proper. In the oscillation between Keats’s preservation as celebrity and the Wandering Jew’s violent exclusion from rational history, we encounter an historical materiality that irritates the “progressive revelation” (Wasserman) that the elegy—one mode of Gothic hagiography—supposedly provides. Secular historiography, undertaken by what was called in the 18th century “the philosophy of history,” remains a theodicy that finds in elegy a poetic correlate to hagiography: in this model, all loss, violence, or suffering is read as a kind of felix culpa with elegy providing aesthetic compensation for trauma. Shelley, however, undermines these recuperative aesthetics in Adonais as the text unveils a materiality that falls outside ideal afterlife. This failed translation of the body gains its own corpus, so to speak, in the Wandering Jew. Shelley’s Wandering Jew suffers the discipline—in every sense of that word—of official historiography. Bypassing both the Church and the graveyard, the Jew exists as a counter-narrative to Christian and secular progressivism—for the “secular” is but the uncanny reiteration of Christianity, the continuation of Christian history in the form of its ostensible elimination. Living his afterlife perpetually wounded, the Jew collapses progressive history by bearing trauma materially out of the past and into the future. But Shelley’s Gothic, historical thought does not stop there. Rather, in shifting between the figuration of history as ideal (canonical) and as Real (traumatic), Adonais gestures, further, toward history's materialization: an action of historicization that cannot be fully rationalized by either kind of narrative figuration, or even contained between the poles of figuration and disfiguration. While it is indeed uncanny that the past should live on—as a negativity—into a future its suppression ostensibly renders possible, the root of this relation lies even deeper, in the tissue of historicization itself: historicism, in its various narrative forms, aims not to sensitize but to insulate consciousness from the “matter” of history.

Between Saints and Monsters: Elegy, Materialization, and Gothic Historiography in Percy Shelley’s Adonais and The Wandering Jew

Christopher Bundock
University of Regina

1.        “It is well known,” Robin Sowerby notes, “that the use of the term 'Gothic' to describe the literary phenomenon that began in the later eighteenth century has little, if anything, to do with the people from whom it is derived” (15). This is an obvious and yet strange pronouncement. For how can a term be “derived” from a source though have “little, if anything” to do with that same source? Sowerby is not wrong, though: a curious historical fissure divides the Gothic as an identifiable artistic mode popularized in the late eighteenth century from the mysterious tribes appearing on the fringes of the Roman Empire in the third century—tribes that would invade and overthrow that Empire. And yet, if “little, if anything” bridges these iterations of the Gothic, it is the tenuousness and also tenacity of the imagined derivation that demands investigation. After all, questions of historical reference, of nostalgia, and of the nostalgia of reference have been, as Jerrold E. Hogle argues, hallmarks of the neo-Gothic. Understood as a “locus of abjection” (“Counterfeit” 296), the Gothic is populated not strictly by misrepresentations, as this term implies an anterior and reliable presence, authority, or being that could be properly re-presented or even, decisively, presented. Rather, and especially in its Walpolean form, one encounters in the Gothic “spectres of counterfeits” (“Counterfeit” 293), such as the vampiric self-images Hogle identifies in Shelley's Triumph of Life “to which [Life's slaves] believe they must submit, even though those 'dim forms' are actually ghosts of what is dead.” In other words, just as Gothic tropes might “serve, on the one hand, as partially empty and nostalgic recollections of older fixed statuses [...] and, on the other, as announcements of statuses that were really recoined from older signs of them” (“Counterfeit” 298), so the historical orientation of the Gothic is both Epimethian and Promethean: intensely (re)productive though suspended, at once, by inherent displacement. The eighteenth-century neo-Gothic thus claims affiliation not directly with Classical or medieval history but with “the Renaissance counterfeit of the medieval” (“Counterfeit” 298), extending the Gothic into the future through an aesthetic and historical hauntology, wherein, like Derrida's revenant, the Gothic's historical originality is its unoriginality.

2.         From an historiographic perspective, the Gothic offers Romantic and modern culture a space in which to explore but also contain—through predictable, formulaic gambits—the institutional dismemberment and re-articulation often glossed as secularization. Originally referencing the expropriation of Church property (Blumenburg 20), secularization constitutes a broader historical and narrative pattern that reads modernity's reorganization of knowledge as a Frankenstein's Creature composed, so to speak, from the corpses of the saints. It is, in other words, a theory of history and a mode of historiography wherein modernity represents not the end of spirituality but rather the monstrous extension of a religious vitality that has been severed from transcendental guarantees: the Holy Ghost becomes Matthew Lewis' bleeding nun. In fact secularization's deeply Gothic ambivalence—for it crafts the future from a heap of broken icons—is at the heart of Romanticism's attempt to discipline the “frühen Neuzeit” (Koselleck 5), the sudden temporalization of history, that emerges in Romanticism's recognition that it is, in James Chandler's words, “the age of the spirit of the age—that is, the period when the normative status of the period becomes a central and self-conscious aspect of historical reflection” (78). The recourse to historiography as a response to a new sense of temporal discontinuity motivates, as a compensation, the rise of the philosophy of history, itself a kind of aesthetic ideology. Beginning as early as Voltaire but reaching its apex in the work of J.G. Herder and G.W.F. Hegel, the philosophy of history, rather than merely recording events, takes up the active figuration of history according to a rational principle that promises not merely accuracy but truth. This attempt at recuperating history as philosophy through hermeneutics stems, in other words, from the anxious realization that while the “past may be determining, [...] it is also determined, the object of a continuous interpretive activity by which we refigure the meaning of our historical position and the possibilities available to us. [As such,] [i]f history is a narrative, it is also a counter-narrative of what is as yet unrealized in the countless failed or suppressed projects of the past” (Collings 41). Without the guarantee of something like Herder's Humanität or Hegel's cunning of reason that can frame all events—either productive or ostensibly counter-productive—as part of a rational theodicy, what is to prevent the counter-narrative impulse from unmasking progress as what Walter Benjamin identified as catastrophe heaped on catastrophe?

3.         In the Romantic turn to history, the Gothic becomes the archive where such counter-narratives are incarcerated but also incarnated, that is, repressed and yet given substantial, bodily form. As Friedrich Schlegel notes, history becomes the discourse best suited to articulate the Romantic thinking of individuality systematically and of systematicity as organic individuality: “is it possible,” he asks, “to characterize anything but individuals? Isn't whatever can't be multiplied after a certain given point just as much a historical entity as something that can no longer be divided? Aren't all systems individuals just as all individuals are systems at least in embryo and tendency? Isn't every real entity historical? Aren’t there individuals who contain within themselves whole systems of individuals?” (51). Indeed, for Schlegel, “[t]here is no self-knowledge except historical self-knowledge” (107). The Gothic is this historical knowledge’s dark double—is the alterity that forms the dialectical ground of “individuality.” As an historical term that references its displacement in and of history, the Gothic performs an historical pseudo-figuration that parallels but suspends the basically Christian narrative of increasing freedom that Hegel, for instance, calls rational history. [1] 

4.         The parodic relationship between the Gothic and Christianity in aesthetic terms offers a model for the perverse relationship between Gothic and eschatological historiography. Just as the Gothic mode mortifies then inhabits the ruined Roman Catholic Church, expropriating not only its buildings, writings, and artworks but—more abstractly—its hierarchies, mysteries, and Spirit, so too does it reoccupy hagiography as the method for imagining how events become specifically historical. This is not to say that the Gothic is merely anti-Catholic, although this is a well-articulated strain in some of the most celebrated exponents of the mode. Rather, the Gothic functions as a reliquary for those practices, concepts, and histories that seem to be eclipsed by cultural revolutions, for systems persisting beyond the moment of their historical viability. Echoing and also extending Julia Lupton's argument that “Biblical typology represents [in the Renaissance] one of the foundational principles of modern periodization per se” (Lupton 23), the Gothic can be read as a gathering point for the negated shapes of historical consciousness, for the types that are displaced by their anti-types. Erich Auerbach argues that typological signs—like the lives in its biographical counterpart, hagiography—do not completely lose their historical validity or meaning when freighted with supplementary meaning. In the typological conversion of the Hebrew Bible into an Old Testament, the latter text does not, for instance, lose its status as God's word. Hence, when Moses' liberation of the Jews from Egyptian captivity and the subsequent forty years of wandering is recast as Christ's forty-day temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), the Mosaic story retains historical and mythical significance in its own terms even as it becomes a prophetic sign; while such an event can be read, retroactively, as a prelude or figura nevertheless “it remains an event, does not become a mere sign” (Auerbach 196). In this way history begins to fold over itself, becoming a tissue of non-identical narratives wherein the negated past remains annoyingly active and insistent.

5.         In Shelley's work we see a double displacement of this sort: Judaism is imperfectly absorbed by Christianity and Catholicism is imperfectly absorbed by a modernizing Protestantism. Shelley's Gothic reflects this overdetermination of historical forms by juxtaposing, overlapping, and blending together these different narratives of spirit that, from the perspective of a modern progressivism, ought not to come into contact. Given, for instance, the Protestant shift toward a personal relationship with Jesus Christ where he takes on the role of sole mediator between human sinfulness and redemption, one tends to associate Catholicism with border appeals to saintly intercession, to the possibility of conversation between Christians on earth and saints and angels in heaven. Yet as early as Henry VIII’s 1536 “Articles devised by the Kynges highnes maiestie” where he asserts Christ’s singular, salvational role, Protestant thought also praises and promotes worship of the saints. While opinion remained divided through the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries, James E. Wellington points out that “veneration of the saints and desire for their intercession are by no means the exclusive province of Roman Catholic worship” (189). Similarly, Christopher Hill notes that from the perspective of radical Protestant, apocalyptic thought “the conversion of the Jews and ‘the gathering of the Gentiles’ were necessary before the millennium could arrive” (22). This condition leads to a conflicted kind of Judeophilia in times of intensified millenarianism—like, for instance, the late eighteenth century. Protestant apocalypticism promotes Judaism only because Judaism’s total cancellation occasions Christian transcendence. Indeed, the emergence of the millenarian “London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews” in 1808 locates this essentially perverse relationship between anti- and philo-Semitism within the purview of the neo-Gothic. In fact, Shelley's own atheism rehearses this pattern of uncanny repudiation, where one rejected or negated formulation of spirit lives on, disguised within the reoccupying idea. In his diary Shelley reflects on his conversation with Byron and Lewis:

We talk of ghosts; neither Lord Byron nor Monk G. Lewis seem to believe in them, and they both agree, in the very face of reason, that none could believe in ghosts without also believing in God. I do not think that all the persons who profess to discredit those visitations really do discredit them, or if they do in the daylight, are not admonished by the approach of loneliness and midnight to think more respectfully of the world of shadows. (in Dowden 2.37–38)
In his turn to the Gothic, Shelley—thanks to an atheism that, like secularization, fragments and reorganizes rather than eliminates the ghosts of Spirit—repeats “a religious hysteria,” the roots of which “can most accurately be located in the uncanny sectarian doubleness at the heart of Christianity itself, that is, in the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism” (Hoeveler 27) and, even more radically, in Christianity's impossible elimination of Judaism.

6.         This context helps to understand the uncanny affiliation between Judaism and Catholicism in Shelley and begins to expose the place of the uncanny in the texture of Judeo-Christian history, where the past is never really past, never perfectly determined or exhausted. Just as secularization's fragmentation and reorganization of the sacred means, ironically, that theism functions all the more forcefully at the level of civil society—that the dispersal of religious institutions creates a mobile theism that circulates, on the commodity model, more widely and more freely than ever—so Walpole's attraction to the past on the basis of its supposed “emptiness” promotes, against his claim that “the dead have lost their power of deceiving,” the wide cultural and literary recirculation of modernity's prehistory (10.192). In Shelley, this recirculation of church property begins, innocently enough, as elegy—specifically, his elegy for John Keats. Yet, at the height of its recuperative effort, Shelley’s text discloses a materiality outside of recuperative figuration. In fact, this materiality goes beyond the indivisible remainders of history left over by typology and hagiography. Such materiality had been given tentative shape earlier in Shelley’s work as the Wandering Jew—one such haunting form of the past. And in Adonais, the wounded body of the Jew—the figure for the undead rather than the immortal—returns to interrupt the elegy by repossessing Keats’ corpse and suggesting that Christian and specifically Catholic forms of figuration are coextensive with a repressed history of disfiguration. Yet, ultimately, history cannot be reduced to a simple opposition between symbolization and defacement. Rather, the intensification of this opposition gestures toward a more radical moment of pre-historical materiality, to an event that can only be implied beyond the types and anti-types of historical representation.

7.         In the oscillation between Keats’ preservation as celebrity and the Wandering Jew’s violent exclusion from rational history, we encounter an historical materiality that irritates the “progressive revelation” (Wasserman) that the elegy, one mode of Gothic hagiography, supposedly provides. Secular historiography, undertaken by the philosophy of history, remains a theodicy that finds in elegy a poetic correlate to hagiography: in this model, all loss, violence, or suffering is read as a kind of felix culpa with elegy providing, like hagiography, aesthetic compensation for trauma. Shelley, however, undermines these recuperative aesthetics in Adonais as the text unveils a materiality that falls outside ideal afterlife. This failed translation of the body gains its own corpus, so to speak, in the Wandering Jew. Like C.R. Maturin’s Melmoth, Shelley’s Wandering Jew suffers the discipline, in every sense of that word, of official historiography. Bypassing both the Church and the charnel house of history, the Jew exists as a counter-narrative to Christian and secular progressivism—for the “secular” is but the uncanny reiteration of Christianity, the continuation of Christian history in the form of its ostensible elimination. Living his afterlife perpetually wounded, the Jew collapses progressive history by bearing trauma materially out of the past and into the future. But Shelley’s historical thought does not stop there. Rather, in shifting between the figuration of history as ideal (canonical) and as Real (traumatic), Adonais gestures, also, toward history's materialization, the action of historicization that cannot be fully rationalized by either kind of narrative figuration or even contained between the poles of figuration and disfiguration. While it is indeed uncanny that the past should live on—as a negativity—into a future its suppression ostensibly renders possible, the root of this relation lies even deeper, in the tissue of historicization itself: historicism, in its various narrative forms, aims not to sensitize but to insulate consciousness from the matter of history.

8.         According to Earl Wasserman, the remarkable aesthetic coherence of Shelley's Adonais “illumine[s] death” (175) by “translating Keats’ biography into a complex that is primarily conceptual” (278), thereby rendering both the work and, effectively, Keats entirely available to consciousness. Through Shelley’s “gentle breath” (173), Keats’ corpse is revived as “Adonais,” the composite figure of the Greek Adonis and the Hebrew Adonai (Wasserman 279-80). As with the Christian martyrs there is here an irony, identified by James Heffernan, that “Shelley’s celebration of Keats,” his “visionary transformation of the pastoral dreamer into a Miltonic genius,” nevertheless “required a poet weak enough to have been killed by the words of a reviewer so that he might be resurrected by the words of Shelley” (303). Indeed, Shelley repurposes Keats’ own Grecian urn: through his careful incorporation of elements from Keats’ poetry—nightingales and basil pots, among other things—Shelley rewrites Keats’ symbol of poetry as the “lucid urn of starry dew” in which “quick Dreams,” disconsolate, “Washed [Keats’] light limbs as if embalming them” (91,73, 92). True to the promise of his Platonic epigraph to give “New splendour to the dead,” Shelley’s poetic lucidity preserves Adonais, “like a star” (494), among “The splendours of the firmament of time” (388)—the latter a line Michael O'Neill identifies as containing “an image for the canon” (52). Shelley, then, is strangely complicit with the murder that then enables him to re-present Keats poetically and historically.

9.         As Joel Faflak notes, “the most overlooked and yet obvious Gothic feature of the text is the rotting corpse of Adonais at the centre of its mise-en-scene. One misses the corpse because of its obviousness, like Lacan's purloined letter, except in this case the object itself is uncanny” (n. Pag). But Shelley's text not only conceals Keats’ remains at the heart of its aestheticizing activity; the poetry, in addition, infuses life as such with creeping mortification. Figured as an awakening, Keats, as Adonais, takes life with him into the nether-realm, rendering corporeal existence into perpetual decomposition such that death becomes the only state of authentic being:

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,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit's knife
Invulnerable nothings.—We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay. (343-51)
Adonais' exultation is for his mourners—and Shelley’s readers—their katabasis. The “abandoned Earth” (368), the seat of organic life, becomes, echoing Calderóne's play, a dream, whereas the grave, through hope’s interment, becomes, as in Blake’s Book of Thel, disturbingly animated. [2]  If death reigns over life, Adonais feeds on death’s (im)mortality: “He lives, he wakes—'tis Death is dead, not he;/ Mourn not for Adonais” (361-2).

10.         Part of death’s attractiveness in Adonais stems from Shelley’s uncanny, pre-emptive commingling of aesthetic pleasure with Keats’ gravesite. In a letter to Peacock in December, 1818, Shelley describes the Protestant cemetery in Rome—the future gravesite not only of Keats but, only a few months later, young William Shelley and, ultimately, Percy himself—as “the most beautiful & solemn cemetery” he had ever encountered:

To see the sun shining on its bright grass fresh when we visited it with the autumnal dews, & hear the whispering of the wind among the leaves of the trees which have overgrown the tomb of Cestius, & the coil which is stirring in the sunwarm earth & to mark the tombs mostly of women & young people who were buried there, one might, if one were to die, desire the sleep they seem to sleep. Such is the human mind & so it peoples with its wishes vacancy & oblivion. (60)
Months later, Shelley recalls the atmosphere of this excursion, describing Keats in Death’s “pale court” reclining “as if in dewy sleep” (56, 61). Read proleptically, Shelley’s letter diagnoses Adonais as the product of an inversion of life and death that confuses metaphysical comfort with depression. At first glance, Shelley seems to enjoy imagining himself included among the spirits in this lovely garden and appears to sanction the imaginative fecundity that helps the mind overcome “vacancy & oblivion.” This reversal, however, where thought and life appear to be activated after death, is suspended by a series of qualifications. The desire named is, for instance, bracketed not once by twice by hypothetical turns of phrase—“one might, if one were to die...” Such rhetorical hedging casts its shadow across the ostensible desire for the “sleep they seem to sleep.” For what precisely is the object of desire here? Does the stress in the penultimate line fall on “sleep” or “seem”? Does Shelley find attractive “seeming sleep” taken as peaceful death or “seeming sleep” taken as secret (re)animation? Even the final line is reversible: while it appears that “vacancy & oblivion” name the setting that is populated by the mind’s lively “wishes,” Shelley’s awkward syntax allows one to read “vacancy & oblivion” as the “wishes” themselves.

11.         The complex relationships in Adonais among desire, death, and afterlife can be clarified by looking at how Shelley appropriates existing historical aesthetics. In The Afterlife of the Saints, Julia Lupton describes the complex symbolic economy of Christian hagiography in terms that prove germane to a reading of Romantic elegy broadly and Shelley's text specifically. Hagiography—literally, “sacred writing”—translates death into sainthood, offering the martyr a symbolic afterlife in the official calendars and canons of the Church. This system rehearses typological and figural hermeneutic practices that can be traced back at least as far as Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas—practices that attempt to redeem Christianity’s Classical and Hebrew past by figuring that past, retroactively, as the anticipation of the New Testament’s fulfilment. Christian biography, then, is related to a form of mortification as the very mechanism of symbolization and historical legitimation.

12.        For Lupton, Christian historiography is based on the symbolic structure of martyrdom dramatized in exemplary fashion by Christ: his crucifixion and burial marks the negative moment in the transition from the flesh to the spirit, man to God, pagan to Christian history, Old to New Testament. That is, hagiography illustrates the perverse relationship between symbolization and violence, where the mundane and ephemeral gains historical and indeed spiritual promotion through sublime dismemberment. Hence, martyrdom becomes a kind of trope, something that mediates between the past and “the Nachleben der Antike” (Lupton 5), just as hagiography, at the level of subjective biography, mediates between anonymity and sainthood. Crucially, in each case this formula acts as a way to recuperate negation—to put death to work, dialectically. For, if the martyr is always finally decapitated, this “loss of the head is not simply one dismemberment among others in a potentially infinite metonymic chain, but rather a symbolic recomposition of bodily fragments into a subjectivity gathered up by its very cancellation” (Lupton 53).

13.         Shelley’s inversion of life and death in Adonais complicates this final, decisive stroke—a stroke that would accomplish Keats’ cultural and aesthetic recomposition. It is not merely that Keats joins Chatterton, Sidney, and Lucan, “and many more, whose names on Earth are dark/ But whose transmitted effluence cannot die” (406-7). For, the kind of beneficent illumination these figures cast merely stains the insane purity Shelley attributes to his fallen Hyperion:

The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven's light forever shines, Earth's shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.—Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek! (460-65)
It is as if his very living on as a martyr—as a tragic, historical figure—would, for Shelley, hamper Keats’ transcendence. Rather than fusing him into the dome of glass, then, Shelley's text presents figuration—mere phenomenalization as giving cognizable form to images—as denigration: “stained” glass, indeed. Anticipating the paradoxical “shape all light” in the Triumph of Life, the apex of elegiac recuperation outstrips all aesthetic or intellectual comprehension, such that perfect redemption must coincide with imagination’s self-cancellation. The shattered dome thus gestures toward a transcendence that exceeds the comprehension of afterlife in reverential terms, which is perhaps why the text can describe the speaker’s “ensanguined brow,” in an irreverent pairing, as one “Which was like Cain’s or Christ’s” (305, 306). Adonais, then, aspires—or perhaps “expires”—to an existence neither entirely corporeal nor entirely spiritual. But, then, what is afterlife?

14.        If hagiography is the rhetorical archetype of the kind of historical and subjective recuperation continuous with secular, “enlightened” historiography, what is the significance of the conflicting, Gothic obsession with the undead? Unnatural, physical reanimation offers form to historical counter-narratives, a way for what is excluded from official accounts to confront history’s aesthetic ideology. Whether the vampire, Frankenstein’s Creature, or the Wandering Jew, such monsters live on perpetually but only because they are denied complete entry into prevailing symbolic systems, whether legal, moral, political or, ultimately, historical. Ironically, the absence of the final, deadly stroke that crystallizes and illuminates the saints’ en-graving in the official canon of the Church generates a wounded, Byronic exile who similarly lives beyond death but does so in terrifyingly physical, organic terms. [3]  As the extension of but also counterpoint to Adonais’ formal coherence, the text gestures toward a form of monstrous afterlife that recurs often in Shelley’s work as the Wandering Jew.

15.         The Wandering Jew appears across a wide range of Shelley’s works. According to the Medieval folkloric tradition, the Wandering Jew is cursed to roam the earth until the Second Coming for denying Jesus respite during the Passion. Echoing the story of Cain, God marks the Jew on the face. This disfigured figure thus plays a complex role in Shelley’s thinking on history, writing, and afterlife. For if the Jew’s body bears God’s wounding mark then he becomes in effect the sign of God—something like Blake’s “Divine Revelation in the Litteral expression” (Milton 49.15). Shelley’s Jew, forced—in Mathew Arnold’s germane phrase—to wander “between two worlds, one dead,/ The other powerless to be born,” seems literally to embody the meeting point between the mundane and the sacred, the letter and the spirit. In other words, he stands in a position similar to the Christian martyr. Yet, since he is denied corporeal finitude he is denied entry into hagiography’s symbolizing system, the same system that produces authorized history. In the final analysis, the Jew “marks” the irreconcilable distance between the “two worlds of life and death” (Prometheus 1.195) because he is, strictly speaking, denied access to both.

16.         While the Jew’s life is exactly coextensive with Christian history, he lives as a counterhistory to the ideology of progress and even as a countertrope to the logic of Christian hermeneutic and typological synthesis. For he reveals in his own flesh, to adapt Benjamin’s famous phrase, that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (Illuminations 256); through the Jew, Shelley finds a powerful emblem for the tyranny, violence, and regression within ostensible progress. In fact, in The Wandering Jew, the protagonist, Paulo, is unable to narrate his own story: while he represents the quilting point between autobiography and universal history, the Jew, here, suffers from a remarkable narrative aphasia. If the Wandering Jew is supposed literally to embody divine writing, if his wandering is a performance of meta-phora incarnate, he, at the same time, walks toward the indefinite future “to-come” intimated also in Shelley's lyrical drama, Hellas. Despite the attempt to make metaphor suddenly literal through the Jew’s body, the endlessness of his wandering generates a halting, episodic, and fractured autobiography.

17.        For instance, Paulo initially makes claims for a superior kind of vision, characteristic of conventional expectations concerning the prophetic “seers” with which he is aligned:

I pierce with intellectual eye,
Into each hidden mystery;
I penetrate the fertile womb
Of nature; I produce to light
The secrets of the teeming earth,
And give air’s unseen embryos birth:
The past, the present, and to come,
Float in review before my sight. (3.232-239)
This power—echoed in similar language by Ahasuerus in Hellas—is suspended, however, by Paulo’s difficulty in facing his own history when he attempts to narrate his life to Rosa and his only friend, Victorio:
At this short retrospect I faint:
Scarce beats my pulse—I lose my breath,
I sicken even unto death
Oh! hard would be the task to paint
And gift with life past scenes again;
To knit a long and linkless chain,
Or strive minutely to relate
The varied horrors of my fate. (3.431-438)
This is an acute instantiation of what Paul de Man has called autobiography as defacement. Paulo cannot articulate his own history because that history is literally the history of his own defacement, which means in a figurative and reflexive register the history of his exclusion from available forms of symbolic and narrative coherence. Biography, autobiography, and even elegy of the sort attempted in Adonais would only misrepresent the Jew’s relationship to history since narrative organization—with the implicit divisions into beginning, middle, and end—precisely cannot apply to the cursed peripatetic.

18.        The Wandering Jew dramatizes these two different relationships to historical figuration in a moment Blake would call a “minute particular.” Early in the poem, Paulo rescues a young novice, named Rosa, from a convent in Padua. The text suggests that Rosa is about to be punished by a brutal Abbess for indiscretions that remain, for the reader, obscure. The language and imagery in the scene suggests, in fact, that we are on the verge of witnessing human sacrifice. Rosa, “fainting” (1.147), is borne to “the fatal shrine” (1.183) by a group of nuns amidst a crowd whose “confused and open clamors” (1.176) suggest strong though impotent opposition to the proceedings. Given her name, it is additionally unfortunate that “The roses from [Rosa’s] cheek are fled/ But there the lily reigns instead” (1.148-149) and that she should be carried over a path of “fresh roses strew[n] upon the ground” (1.163). Paulo, observing the scene, witnesses Rosa’s sudden dash for the doors and, quickly navigating the crowd, manages to intercept her and carry her off just as she loses consciousness. In escaping from the Abbess, Rosa does more than simply preserve her corporeal life, though. More importantly, she flees from a site where the light of the Absolute is, literally, mediated by saints printed on the windows. She seems, in other words, to have lost any possibility of saintly promotion and concomitant historical legitimacy. And yet, describing the gloomy atmosphere inside the church, the speaker notices how the stain-glass windows, the “saint-cipher’d panes” (1.91), seem to distort the light they also transmit. These windows “tinged the pillars with varied stains” (1.93), anticipating the description, later, of Paulo’s own eye, his “chilling gaze” that “shot a lurid gleam of light” (1.240, 1.242). This stained and lurid light counterpoints the glorious illumination of the image of the saint in the window, suggesting that the distance between Paulo, whose “burning fillet blazed with blood” (2.204), and saintly incandescence might be read not as the failure of spiritual promotion but as life’s rescue from Catholicism’s cult of death—a Gothic caricature of Catholic extravagance familiar from Radcliffe and Lewis, among others.

19.        Paulo’s exclusion from various symbolic systems that translate finitude into spiritual afterlife through precise violence emerges in this episode in terms of how light is, on one hand, illuminating while, on the other, distorting. This casts the claims to historical and moral legitimacy made by the Church into shadow. For as the scene of near sacrifice suggests, the symbolic economy of hagiography, if instrumentalized, looks very much like a regression to precisely those pagan practices Judaism and Christianity alike aim to transcend. Such claims will, however, always be difficult to make if mundane life is entirely subordinated to afterlife—whether spiritual, aesthetic, historical, or some combination of the three. Indeed, Shelley exposes the persistence of this subordination by erasing Rosa from history through a kind of anti-hagiography. When Rosa chooses to flee from sacrifice and join company with Paulo, she forfeits participation both in Christian transcendence and official history. Shelley makes this clear through a dramatic caesura in the Fourth Canto of his poem. Rosa accidentally takes a fatal dose of poison. Shelley, however, does not narrate this moment with the kind of close detail characteristic of popular Christian hagiographic compendiums, like Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend. There is, rather, a sudden disconnect in the poem, as the speaker turns his attention to the calm summer night and then sings, allusively, about decaying flowers. In other words, Rosa’s exile by proxy means that, in representational terms, her death is incorporated into—or perhaps “incarcerated by”—a different metaphorical code. While her death cannot enter into the Church’s official history, it is written on or as nature, as if Classical myth displaces Christian transcendence—as if death, like the Wandering Jew’s monstrous life, remains disturbingly corporeal and present.

20.        In a sense, then, Paulo and Rosa return the concept of hagiography to its specifically Hebrew application as a description of the twelve books that form the final third of the Hebrew Bible. Many of the texts in this section are reclassified as “historical books” in the Christian redistribution of the Hebrew Bible into an Old Testament. By returning “sacred writing” to mundane history through his physical scaring that subtlety re-codes hagiography, Shelley’s Wandering Jew suspends Christian transcendence and apocalyptic historiography. With the opacity of a life resistant to the “redemption” of symbolization, Paulo’s history preemptively collapses Shelley’s key simile in Adonais: if “Life,” figured as

a dome of many-colored glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity
Until death tramples it to fragments,
The Wandering Jew then suggests that such a conception of life and death is, in fact, a product of the peculiar optics of the Christian Church. The illumination of life in this image suggests that living and sanctified afterlife uncannily overlap. The murder that, in The Wandering Jew, Rosa could escape has, in Adonais, already taken place: the rites have been performed and the oblation made. And yet, Adonais opens a way to the materiality that seems to have been veiled by its elegiac illumination. Moving from the image of the fractured dome backward in the text of Adonais, there is evidence that this collapse is imminent, as Shelley's lucidity frequently verges on translucence, turning instances of possible revelation—not through privation but, rather, their intensification—into sites of blindness.

21.         Pleasure, for instance, as the affective root beneath the aesthetic exigency that like

the one Spirit's plastic stress
Sweeps through the dull dense world, compelling there,
All new succession to the forms they wear (381-3)
motivates the beautiful, harmonious shape the text of Adonais takes. Poetry, even in its most melancholy instances, offers emotional, sensual, or intellectual recompense. And yet, that pleasure betrays the sorrow of elegy. As such, Shelley presents “Pleasure, blind with tears, led by the gleam/ Of her own dying smile instead of eyes” (114-15). Loath to acknowledge the vampiric economy wherein elegy, “like flowers that mock the corse beneath” (17), translates grief into beauty, pleasure’s personification becomes vaguely Oedipal and attempts to circumvent its own activity through self-blinding. Pleasure’s attraction to Adonais and, reflexively, its contribution to the poem’s composition, is intensified only through its simultaneous limitation. “Led” on by a “dying smile,” Pleasure’s pursuit (of herself) follows only as closely as the fading of that same pleasure will permit, will extended only according to an economy of diminishing returns.

22.         Not only does the text’s vision tend toward blindness but it gestures toward a more radical negativity, one outside the opposition of the visible and invisible. This is clearest where the poem approaches not merely invisibility but the unconscious. Consciousness, the power of intellectual enlightenment, interrupts radical transcendence by reducing the blinding brightness of the Eternal to the conditional terms of the understanding. Hence, consciousness becomes most acute and sensitive to “his mute voice” (27) as it approaches the abyss of unthought.

Nought we know, dies. Shall that alone which knows
Be as a sword consumed before the sheath
By sightless lightening?—th'intense atom glows
A moment, then is quenched in a most cold repose. (177-80)
Shelley's thought and language here short-circuits. At first, “Nought we know, dies” seems to say “nothing we know can die,” that, once elevated to the life of the mind, the passing world escapes death, effectively extending the sentiment from the immediately preceding lines where poetry “chang'd to fragrance” the “leprous corpse” (175, 172). But Shelley hesitates. The comma between “know” and “dies” interrupts any simple continuity between terms, as if Shelley approaches but then withdraws from thought and art's claims to ideal and sensuous preservation. The whole passage, in fact, checks itself, the speaker inhaling while the dead body “Exhales itself in flowers” (173). For the positivity implied within the rhetorical question—that, no, “that alone which knows” will fend off destruction—is extremely tenuous. The speaker seems, in short, to lose confidence in his own reassuring arguments in the very process of making those arguments. Read in light of the subsequent lines, it becomes possible, ultimately, nearly to invert the apparent meaning of “nought we know, dies,” to gloss it as “we can know nothing but that which dies.” This reading reorients the passage in ways that reveals continuity with the recognition, by the stanza’s end, that the mind that understands this sad fact of epistemology dies too. Yet, the mind does not comprehend its eventual loss of comprehension so much as intuit, as thought’s doppelganger, a negativity that is coextensive with consciousness. As if reflecting on the subtle powers of the fading coal of the mind in creation, human thought can be grasped only by a consciousness in the process of extinguishing itself. The mind can only know death if understanding is already, in that apprehension, dying, fading. For only a finite mind could be capable of understanding the pain of finitude. God could only know death and the grief of loss through human frailty—which is precisely why He had to create the world and then populate it with imperfect beings. Weakness, then, is strangely coextensive with Adonais’ aesthetic figuration. Keats is not fully recuperated but only temporarily revived in order to replay the process of losing, in order to dissipate the image the text is always on the verge of shaping.

23.         R.F. Leavis famously objects that in Shelley's poetry “there is nothing to be grasped [...]—no object offered for contemplation, no realized presence to persuade or move us by what it is” (210). For Leavis, reading “Ode to the West Wind,” this disagreeable instability is a result of Shelley's shifting, impatient imagery. Adonais has a similar effect but for different reasons: it is not the imagery but the apprehending consciousness itself that begins to lose its moorings. Destroying the coloured dome in what looks like an act of fanaticism means cancelling all figuration and consciousness, eliminating all categories of thought and rejecting the mediation necessary for knowledge. It is as if the senses and the understanding have become impediments rather than aids to perception—or rather, that perception itself is a diminishment of the surpassing brilliance that can only be indicated by its hostility to the mind. This eliminates both hagiographic sublation and monstrous protraction as ways of understanding history's (de)formation. Like a candle lost in the daylight, these historiographical models become inadequate not for any internal shortcomings but because understanding as such has, strangely, become a barrier to adequate expression: something about Keats exceeds both the figuration and disfiguration of his historical afterlife. So while the Jew offers a precedent for Adonais’ own unwriting of aesthetic history, even this figure cannot symbolize the sheer givenness of history as event or happening.

24.         In the instant of aesthetic and cognitive collapse, before elegiac mourning is recast and re-understood as melancholy monstrosity, Shelley's Adonais comes close to a material vision of history, that is, an apprehension of history as an activity that always exceeds its (dis)figuration. History in Shelley is not reducible to either narrative or counter-narrative, as it also includes the act of historicizing. As what enables but eludes mediation, this action cannot be understood by the histories it frames, nor can it be confused with history “in itself” as something objectively present. Instead, material history would be history severed from any narrative form, a sheer happening that is, at root, senseless—like a death, a gift, or even the gift of death. In this precise context, it is the gift of Keats’ death that is a donation, something purely given, and coded in the overdetermined proper name: Adonis, Adonai, á donner. This happening eludes Shelley's narrative containment—something begun from the instant Shelley mythologizes Keats' death as murder. Yet, the text's interruption of its own figures of understanding—light, consciousness—suggests that this gift's madness mars the poem's formal beauty. Just as one might respond to Leavis that the slippage among images in Shelley's “Ode” successfully performs the urgency and turbulence of the air—that to provide consciousness with an object would be to miss the point—so the collapse of the coloured dome hints at a power that cannot be rendered completely intelligible even in art.

25.         The matter of historical materiality here has to be taken in Judith Butler's sense as a process of “mattering” or coming into existence. The materiality of history is how history matters; materialization is the senseless action anterior to the meaning ascribed to that action by one historical paradigm or another. Shelley's late drama, Hellas, suggests one way in which such mattering makes an impression before disappearing into concepts of the understanding. The play abandons its organization to the unpredictable events immediately contemporary to Shelley, namely, the Greek revolt that erupts in March, 1821, against Turkish occupation. The action is framed as three scenes, book-ended and separated by visionary interludes, wherein Mahmud, the Turkish ruler residing in Constantinople, hosts various messengers who bring him news concerning the Turkish response to the Greek uprising. Shelley, however, does not simply borrow this Aeschylean technique as a plot formula; for Shelley, too, awaits updates, adjusting his text in response to the contingencies of the Rebellion in a display of what he calls, in the Preface, “newspaper erudition” (429). In other words, this text hovers over the moment of historical materialization, the moment of conversion or encoding where the senselessness of the unpredictable happening—something that precedes understanding—is made sensible, is made available for “proper history.” So, whereas “the strategies of historicism [...] evade the problematic and programming of inscription,” Shelley's text nevertheless manages to indicate the action “which precedes and partakes of the very mnemotechnic site of archival politics out of which the categories of politics, the human, and the aesthetic appear organized” (Cohen xi).

26.         Like consciousness itself, historical representation seems always and instantly to appropriate materiality, turning gifts—the sheer givenness of events—into deficits that have to be paid for through narrative explanation. This is also the danger in Adonais—that Keats may become a mere trope, that something as uncountable as (his) death might be put to work in the interest of Shelley's own vendettas against English bards and Scotch reviewers. Indeed, it is a danger inherent to the elegy as such, though often restricted to an affective complication rather than taken in broader historical, representational terms. “Where there is leisure for fiction, there is little grief” (1.163), remarks Samuel Johnson in reference to Milton's Lycidas; the elegy, as an effort to mourn loss, appropriates and then aims to eliminate sadness—or at least anaesthetize consciousness temporarily. As Gregory Nagy describes, elegy is founded on a conflicting gesture: “despite its claim to be a form of men's lament, elegy can simultaneously make a counter-claim: that it is also an antidote for the grief and suffering of lament” (39). And yet the elegy is often, as in Adonais, reflexive enough to question its own status as antidote. Indeed, the kind of Gothic counter-narratives to Christian history that traverse Shelley's oeuvre can be identified precisely within Shelley's elegy, suggesting that the Gothic organizes the negativity of elegiac self-reflexivity. For the aforementioned “ensanguin'd brow / Which was like Cain's or Christ's” (305-6) describes Shelley's self-figuration in the poem, identifying the voice of elegiac lament with none other than the Wandering Jew. In uttering elegy in the Gothic tongue, Adonais sharpens the contradiction between the forms of historical afterlife developed within each genre. One consequence of this is that the text becomes increasingly aware that death remains misapprehended in both genres—not for any fault of the genres but because death, the material event par excellence, is necessarily misapprehend by proper understanding.

27.         In an almost masochistic effort to expose its own internal conflicts, Adonais repeatedly attempts to treat death as an attribute. This treatment is necessary in order to preserve the consoling though suicidal desire to “hasten thither” and “No more let Life divide what Death can join together” (476-7). Such confusion is also behind the ostensibly comforting notion that what is beyond all deterioration—“from the contagion of the world's slow stain/ He is secure” (356-7)—is precisely that which is already deteriorated, just as “the past are all that cannot pass away” (432). Existence, however, is not an attribute; it is, rather, substantial, fundamental. Unlike quantities, qualities, modalities, relations or other modifications of being, existence's removal would negate the subject as such. In other words, death cannot join together nor can it preserve in any conventional sense, since what it would join together or preserve loses, at death, its being. “What Adonais is, why fear we to become?” (459). Such a line of thought is possible only if death, as non-being, has been confused with a way of being. For what the poem, in its relentless self-effacement of understanding, perception, and beautiful figuration, insists on is that what Keats is is, precisely, not. In fact, the first line of Shelley's elegy, “I weep for Adonais—he is dead!”—itself a kind of paraphrase of the genre—is deeply misleading, metaphysically speaking: death is the “state of being” in which one ceases to be in any state whatever, such that the verb “to be” becomes entirely hypothetical. At the moment of its most assertive declarations, of its most compelling presentation of objects, the poem is thus suspended by an implicit “as if.”

28.         Shelley seems to sense this conflict. For while it is a common enough—indeed, inevitable—error to think of death as a way of being, he stresses this error by characterizing death explicitly as an excrescence and stressing the hypothetical nature of this construction: “Now thou art dead, as if it were a part / Of thee, my Adonais!” (231-2). Death here has been added—though tentatively, as a kind of experiment—to a name that somehow persists beyond the logic of being and nothingness, as if Keats, as Adonais, is even more substantial, as if he is what he was, and now he is that and more—that is, dead. In this the text offers an alternative reading of Shelley's conclusion of Prometheus Unbound:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory. (4.570-8)
In the context of the Prometheian Age, Shelley’s conception of hope suggests irrepressible vitality and optimism, that out of not only the loss of concrete objects but its own negation hope can manage to perpetuate and even strengthen itself. In Adonais, however, hope becomes a trap. “Keep thy heart light lest it make thee sink/ When hope has kindled hope, and lur'd thee to the brink,” warns the speaker (422-3). Just as the rhythm of power’s diminishment across the text of Adonais makes possible a kind of affective and historiographical synchronization, one where loss is registered through the repetition of losing rather than the production of an image—effectively, the recuperation of loss as another form—so is Adonais aware of the sentimentalism it, as elegy, participates in. Given this awareness, the persistence rather than dissolution of the sentimental means that the text performs itself as sentimental—that is, like Walepole’s Gothic, Shelley’s text wears its own genre like a mask and then advertises this dissimulation. Such a performance is not exactly ironic but interested in producing a specific trajectory of consciousness: where Prometheus (re)produces hope, Adonais (re)produces the wreck. Keats's death is the thing Shelley contemplates and it is precisely hope, positivity and production, that he is aware his elegy must, in some way, keep its distance from. The Gothic interruption of luminous figuration and its subtle indication of a materiality that is deeply historical and yet outside historiography is not, therefore, pessimistic. Rather, when Shelley displaces sentimentality through a reflexive performance of the sentimental he also frees Keats, in part, from his figuration as the naive poet—that is, he frees him from his characterization as the lost object that, as Schiller argues, gives the sentimental shape of thought its nostalgic impulse. Keats has become death, has his being as dead, and exists as the inexistent. With an insane fidelity to the gift of death, Shelley would break his mind and his poem in the effort to say this logical impasse, to make splendid the impossibility of this gift's perfect return as art, knowledge, pleasure, or even history.

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[1] See Karl Löwith's The Meaning of History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1949) for the seminal articulation of the relationship between the eighteenth-century philosophy of history and theodicy. See also Hans Blumenberg's critique of Löwith in the first section of The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. BACK

[2] See Calderón de la Barca, Life is a Dream (1629-35). In his letters, Shelley notes on several occasions that, in the months leading up to his composition of Adonais, he is rapidly consuming the works of Calderón, calling him, in a letter to Peacock in August, 1819, “a kind of Shakespeare” (2.115). In a footnote to his draft of Adonais Shelley names Calderón among an expanded pantheon of literary greats (O'Neill 52). BACK

[3] In Life: Organic Form and Romanticism, Denise Gigante notes that “once life came to be seen [in Romanticism] as power, monstrosity came to represent life’s relentless fecundity and ‘the monstrous’ a mode of uncontainable vitality” (6). BACK

Published @ RC

November 2015