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Reading Shelley's Interventionist Poetry, 1819-1820


Michael Scrivener, Wayne State University

  1. After deconstruction, New Historicism, and a socially aware formalism, how are we to read those works by Shelley that seem to be interventionist, The Mask of Anarchy, Swellfoot the Tyrant, the lyrics and ballads that were to be published as Popular Songs? Thus the origin of the 1999 MLA panel on reading Shelley's interventionist poetry of 1819-20. The first of several historical ironies is that none of the interventionist poetry did much intervening at the time it was written, as only Swellfoot was published in Shelley's lifetime, and Swellfoot perished soon after its discovery by the Society for the Suppression of Vice that consigned every copy to the fire. From the unextinguished hearth of Shelley's writing, however, sparks intervened not just in 1832, with Leigh Hunt's Masque of Anarchy, but, as we learn from Rob Kaufman's paper, in the 1930s and 40s in translations and appropriations by the German left, Brecht, Benjamin, and Wolfenstein. The "loving anachronism"—Steven Jones's happy phrase—of reading Shelley with and against historical moments and political crises that are irreducibly unique and particular, "incommensurable" (Jones again), confirms those lines in Adonais (stanza 46) about the "fire" outliving the "parent spark."1 Shelley's satires survive not as objets d'art in a museum of cultural monuments but as provocations, dialectical interventions, pretexts for speculation. Swellfoot comes to life as the transgressive body of Iona/"Queen Caroline" in Samuel Gladden's paper, while the Mask of Anarchy occasions a new meditation on committed art—or rather, provokes readings by Mark Kipperman and Rob Kaufman that are an Aufebung of the older discussions of politics and art.

  2. The very word and category, "interventionist," is still vexed by the older discussion of engaged art. The binary opposition of escapist and interventionist, idealist and materialist, resurrects a debate in which Adorno seems to have had the last word, but one has to emphasize "seems." Kipperman's observation that Adorno's critique does not really work with early nineteenth-century political satire rooted in popular iconography is just one of the many qualifications one must make of Adorno's strictures against committed art. In Tom Stoppard's recently revived The Real Thing a character who is a playwright, Henry, provides trenchant criticism of writing whose only virtue is its political commitment. Henry's speeches repeat a version of Adorno's ideas that art, to be authentic, must explore the intrinsic qualities of its own materials and must develop immanently from its own form according to its own self-creating teleology.2 Rob Kaufman has aptly identified the Kantian "constructivist" argument that lies behind Adorno.

  3. How can art be both autonomous and interventionist? The four papers offer similar but different answers. Gladden's Swellfoot places before us the queen's "body"—textual and physical—that challenges patriarchal power and its various "erections" with sexually transgressive symbolism. The urgent political crisis of hunger and scarcity becomes aesthetically shaped in mock heroic style that exploits the contemporary political symbolism of the "swinish multitude." Rather than idealize Queen Caroline as many of the queen's supporters did at the time, Shelley's satire ratchets up sexual excess a few more notches by making sexuality an omnipresent image and theme. The poem, then, intervenes on the side of the queen, but in such a way that the very terms of the political controversy are made problematic. "Pigs," for example, are both police and pressmen; the play's conclusion depicts a scene of revenge that is troubling, not celebratory; Queen Iona's lusty presence in the public sphere destabilizes rather than validates the phallocentric logic of the Queen Caroline Affair's political discourse.

  4. Rob Kaufman's paper offers two answers, a carefully documented and richly textured historical reconstruction of the German left's engagement with Shelley at several levels (formal and ideological), and a briefer statement on the Kantian constructivist assumptions behind Adorno's aesthetics. The bullying pronouncements on art's political role characteristic of literary Stalinism are nowhere to be found in Kaufman's account of the German Marxists' appropriation and translation of Shelley. The Stalinists defined support for a political action or "line" as the only way someone could be politically committed; alternatives were either irrelevant—utopian—or "objectively" fascist. In Kaufman's narrative Shelley plays an emancipatory role even in a context dominated by the Communist Party. At the levels of language, form, and genre the intervention of the English Shelley unsettled older assumptions and stimulated new ways of using language. Shelley's effect on Brecht was more formal—stimulating a rethinking of the modern lyric and satire—than ideological.

  5. Mark Kipperman's paper approaches the question of commitment through the ethical, starting with the "scandal" of Shelley's aristocratic exile but hardly ending with it, as the actual social origins of writing are not ultimately decisive anyway. Shelley's political thinking through the form of the poem, The Mask of Anarchy, tests and challenges the readily available conceptualizations about politics and explores new possibilities. The poem itself is a "scandal to literary form and decorum." Shelley is our contemporary—although our ages are also incommensurate—because of the poem's development of the problem of forgiveness within a revolutionary culture. Hardly an ideological evasion of political conflict, forgiveness is a difficult labor of deconstructing oppression without also reproducing it.

  6. Steven Jones's responses to the three papers offer yet another way out of the antinomy of commitment and autonomy. As dialectical satires, Shelley's poems are on a continuum with Marx's own satirical writing, Brecht's satires, and Benjamin's commentary on satires. The satirical genre itself—its capacity for self-reflection and turning against itself, its ability to appropriate omnivorously any kind of discourse, its materialistic position always already within the Lebenswelt of social actors—in effect dissolves the antinomy, as any and every maneuver within satire is also a social action. Within satire the political has to have aesthetic form, and there cannot be satirical form without also political meaning.

  7. As we have given up the older Historicist task of recovering the past as it really was (wie es war), we must content ourselves with alternative and lesser objectivities—intersubjectivities?—provided by Freud, Marx, Derrida, Adorno, Benjamin, Kant and others. As we look at these "interventionist" poems—were there a more conceptually adequate label for these works!—one cannot help but notice the intransigent literariness of these texts, subverting any easy transitions from poem to political action3:Swellfoot's classical puns and allusions, the Mask's generic complexities (including, as Morton Paley has delineated, its affiliations with the apocalyptic), and the Popular Songs' irony. An ideological complexity is gender, a prominent category in Gladden's analysis of the transgressive body of the "queen," and present as well in The Mask of Anarchy, particularly the last third of the poem spoken "as if" by a female "Earth." According to Anne Janowitz, the poem's maniac maid and maternal earth are voices that counter the male-centered individualism that marks one line of Romanticism.4 The Mask, in Kipperman's account, by blocking retaliation makes possible a form of development that is dialogic and ethical, and that deconstructs masculine violence. The Bruderschaft in Kaufman's account of the German left's Shelley runs strongly counter to individualism and suggests a universalism, not just homosocial bonding: not just mein Bruder Shelley, but unser Bruder Shelley. Whether directly, as in Iona, the maniac maid, and maternal earth, or indirectly, through nonviolent forgiveness and revolutionary brotherhood, Shelley's poems reconfigure gender categories.

  8. There is a word that has powerful resonance in the context of these four papers: translation. Swellfoot exploits parallels and differences with classical Greek, as its English is shadowed and shaped by the classical allusions. In Kaufman's paper translation from English to German and back to English is at the center of his narrative. As Benjamin writes in his wonderful essay, translation entails a dialogue between two languages, two separate traditions; translation is not the substitution of one word for another. It is obvious that one has to translate from English to German but it is an act of translation also—loving anachronism—that brings Shelley and his world to us now in 2001. A "voice from over the Sea": the words of Shelley always have to travel a long distance; their strangeness never wholly disappears, but as we read, we notice the "before unapprehended relations of things."

  9. These papers force us to make connections between real and symbolic bodies. In Gladden's paper the actual queen's body and her various symbolic incarnations parallel the similitude between the politically insurgent people and the poetic swine. Real bodies also disturb Kaufman's paper, notably Haenisch, executed by Stalin for his alleged political crimes, and Benjamin, buried at the border of Spain and France. Shelley's physical presence in Italy is the "scandal" with which Kipperman's paper begins, and it ends with the problem of retaliation and revenge, the problem of political violence. As we have learned from the work of Steven Jones, the problem of violence is at the very heart of satire. How do we know whether symbolic constructions—by Shelley and us—merely repeat—wiederholen— or work through—durcharbeiten—concentrations of already inscribed meaning? When is allegoresis just an instance of bad transference unchecked by self-critical awareness?5 The four papers, without explicitly engaging in the Freudian project, maintain a conceptual clarity about real bodies and their symbolic contingencies that enhances rather than mystifies our understanding of Shelley and history.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. "The Task of the Translator. An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire's Tableaux parisiens." Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969. 69-82.

Janowitz, Anne. "'A Voice from across the Sea': Communitarianism at the Limits of Romanticism." At the Limits of Romanticism. Essays in Cultural, Feminist, and Materialist Criticism. Eds. Mary A. Favret and Nicola J. Watson. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994. 83-100.

---. Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Jones, Steven E. Shelley's Satire. Violence, Exhortation, and Authority. DeKalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1994.

LaCapra, Dominick. Representing the Holocaust:History, Theory, Trauma. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994.

Paley, Morton D. "Apocapolitics: Allusion and Structure in Shelley's Mask of Anarchy." Huntington Library Quarterly 54 (1991): 91-109.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley's Poetry and Prose. Eds. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977.

Stoppard, Tom. The Real Thing. London: Faber and Faber, 1984.

Wolfson, Susan J. Formal Charges. The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997.


1.   All quotations from Shelley's writing are taken from Reiman and Powers, ed., Shelley's Poetry and Prose.

2.   The play has been revived on Broadway to rave reviews and several Tony Award nominations.

3.   Susan J. Wolfson's reading of the Mask—discussed by Mark Kipperman—finds that the poem's literariness subverts its political intentions sufficiently enough to render the poem an ineffective example of political poetry. Her close reading raises problems and issues that require the kind of serious attention Kipperman gives to it (195-206).

4. A version of Anne Janowitz's essay also appears in her book, Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition, in chapter 3, "The Sun and the Tree: Lyrics of Liberty."

5.   Dominick LaCapra has used the Freudian paradigm of traumatic repetition, acting-out, and working-through to approach historical understanding.

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Published @ RC

May 2001