In an effort to square today’s findings that Romantic poets are early media theorists with Raymond Williams’s older claim that Romantic poets were “poets or sociologists,” the essay reframes Percy Shelley’s writing—and even his sometimes obscure poetic style—as engaged in a cultural sociology alert to the aesthetics of imaginative media. Grounded in sociological thought from Romantic-era sciences of society to Émile Durkheim, “Shelley amid the Age of Separations” suggests that the problem of “Romantic media” does not ultimately involve greater or better connectedness but rather the feeling of social dissolution amid heightened infrastructural concentration. The essay concludes by reading Epipsychidion (1821) and some of Shelley’s other works as inquiries into how poetry might model a form of relationality fit for modern societies, an interaction that is neither principally commercial nor amatory.
Shelley amid the Age of Separations:
Romantic Sociology and Romantic Media Theory
University of Connecticut
1. This volume, as the co-editors explain in their introduction, foregrounds the connection between new media and forms of social and intellectual organization during the Romantic era in England. While the term “media,” as we now know it, was not available until the later-nineteenth century (Guillory 321), media, multi-media, remediations, as well as media awarenesses and practices, and so on, are nowadays imputed to prior literary-historical periods, including Romanticism. What was or is especially Romantic about multi-mediality, then? Celeste Langan and Maureen N. McLane’s important essay, “The Medium of Romantic Poetry” adduces the period’s silent reading norms, the ballad revival, and “self-consciousness about the problem of poetry’s medium and the status of its mediation” (246), among other things. Overall, Langan and McLane’s essay makes a forceful case for “Romantic poetry as media theory” (256). Social organization, mentioned in this volume’s introduction, invokes another area of theoretical inquiry: sociology. But the relation between a “Romantic media theory” and a “Romantic sociology” is not immediately evident, even if it seems that it would have been difficult to think about “media” independent of that umbrella, “society,” howsoever imaginary or occult.  Setting out from observations on Percy Shelley, for whom “the problem of poetry’s medium” and social organization are inextricable preoccupations, my thoughts below lead to how Romantic media, in this instance, involve a range of searching desires pertaining to connection—desires that arise from, and at the same time constitute, a modern social imaginary.  Hybridizing a phrase from conjectural historian Adam Ferguson’s An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) and the title of Nancy K. Baym’s recent book, one could describe the most significant problem for Shelley as “Personal Connections in the Age of Separations.” In Epipsychidion (1821) and elsewhere, Shelley leaves discoverable a certain feeling of social disconnectedness amid heightened medial and infrastructural connectedness and a sense of how the poetic medium, under such circumstances, might model a form of relationality that is neither principally economic nor amatory.
2. The Shelley revitalized as media theorist in the concluding section of Langan and McLane’s essay—who is prominent even among his contemporaries in “establish[ing] a horizon for thinking the conditions of mediality” (257)—is, after all, simultaneously a sociologist. As Raymond Williams’ “The Romantic Artist” chapter in Culture and Society (1958) reminded us long ago, “what were seen at the end of the nineteenth century as disparate interests, between which a man must choose and in the act of choice declare himself poet or sociologist, were, normally, at the beginning of the century, seen as interlocking interests: a conclusion about personal feeling became a conclusion about society” (30). Williams’ observation tallies with Alvin W. Gouldner’s “sociology of sociology” (358), which notes the affinities between the inaugural, positivist strain of sociology in St. Simon and Auguste Comte, and European Romanticism generally (332-334).  Williams then proceeds in this now textbook account to describe the interrelated social transformations that undo these “interlocking interests” of poetry and sociology from one another, sealing the fate of Romanticism’s poetic brand of “criticism of industrialism” (43). “What happened, under the stress of events, was a series of simplifications” whereby “art became a symbolic abstraction for a whole range of general human experience” threatened by the modern industrial order, and thus, “a general social activity was forced into the status of a department or province, and actual works of art were in part converted into a self-pleading ideology” (47). With the conjuncture of developments responsible for the specialization and marginalization of literary culture in full view, he confesses that “the last pages of Shelley’s Defence of Poetry are painful to read” (47). Williams concludes almost elegiacally that “the bearers of a high imaginative skill become suddenly the ‘legislators,’ at the very moment when they were being forced into practical exile” (47).
3. From the viewpoint of Williams’ “The Romantic Artist,” poet or media theorist Shelley would at least partly undermine “poet or sociologist” Shelley. In such a psychomachia, the former’s assumptions about the linguistic-poetic medium and his typical handling of it—his style—would only exacerbate the broader social shifts underway “to isolate art, to specialize the imaginative faculty to this one kind of activity, and thus to weaken the dynamic function which Shelley proposed for it” (43). For if A Defence of Poetry (comp. 1821) exalts poetry over the other arts because language is the clearest among “mediums of communication” (513) for thoughts, at other moments Shelley stresses how language, once organized into poetry, is a profoundly unclear medium.  He wavers, as William Keach too has noted, between celebrating “language as the medium of poetry” and a “linguistic skepticism that runs throughout the Defence like a counterplot” (22). For example, in another well-known moment in the Defence, Shelley describes poetic composition as a “feeble shadow of the original conception” (531). It turns out that poetic language can be “a cloud which enfeebles” thought, just as much as the media used by “sculptors, painters, and musicians” that he demotes below those of poets (513). And the obscure poetic style he at times adopts further interposes between composition and audience, as though to overlay the linguistic “cloud which enfeebles” the poet’s conception with another layer of darkness—a “figured curtain” (533)—that could enfeeble normative kinds of comprehension and sympathy typically involved in reception. What good are perceptive sociological theories of modernity when conveyed in an opaque medium made doubly opaque? The embarrassment Williams confesses feeling at the peroration of Shelley’s Defence appears to be an embarrassment in glimpsing Shelley’s writing as an emblem of literary discourse in general, registering and responding to its own declining relevance in ways that served only “to isolate art, to specialize the imaginative faculty” further, caught in a perturbed, self-defeating pattern. 
4. But perhaps Shelley’s theories of artistic media, including poetic obscurity, play a special role in his poetic sociology. Williams, in another work, Marxism and Literature (1977), opens the way to this possibility as he outlines what a Marxist cultural sociology would look like. Overcoming the tendencies of bourgeois sociology, this sociology of culture would avoid neutralizing complex social and class relations into inert abstractions (“mass public,” “mass communication”) and fully account for imaginative works and the forms they take—all without reducing the imagination to “knowledge” nor the “social forms of language and movement and representation” (139) to categories like “books” (140). This sociology of culture would be “a task distinct from a reduced sociology of institutions, formations, and communicative relationships and yet, as a sociology, radically distinct from the analysis of isolated forms” (140). Briefly, it is “at once a ‘sociology’ and an ‘aesthetics’” (141). Shelley’s writing, on this view, need not chiefly be “self-pleading ideology” on behalf of literary culture, sociopolitically impotent and uncommunicative: it may be those things too, but it is also at once a sociology and an aesthetics, including a media aesthetics, to the extent that it is a sociology awake to the medial facets and specificities of imaginative works. Careful to avoid the theoretical reductions and neutralizations which make poetry a transparent index or deliverer of knowledge or which measure poetry on these grounds—as the prompt for Shelley’s somewhat humorless response, Thomas Love Peacock’s “The Four Ages of Poetry,” satirically does—Shelley’s Defence attempts to account for poetic form and media within a larger “enquiry into the principles of society itself” (511). 
5. At minimum, the recognition that Shelley is attempting at once a sociology and a media aesthetics clears up certain problems pertaining to his style. We are not dealing with the fetishization of literary obscurity for its own sake, of course, or even an “analysis of isolated forms” or media. The question of whether or not Shelleyan obscurity diminishes his political vision also begins to appear less urgent: as the argument goes, the obscurity of works like Prometheus Unbound (1820) and the actually miniscule supply and demand for many of Shelley’s works—about which William St Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004) provides statistical confirmation (218)—dampen the sociopolitical force of his writing.  But a better way to approach Shelley’s sometimes unclear style dismisses from the outset the assumptions “that a clear style results in a popular audience and that political engagement requires having the most extensive audience possible” (137), as Michael Warner has put it. In Warner’s terms, which happen to characterize Shelley’s predicament very well, “those who write [opaquely] might very well feel that they are [. . .] writing to a public that does not yet exist [. . .] and finding that their language can circulate only in channels hostile to it, they write in a manner designed to be a placeholder for a future public” (130). Better yet, Shelley’s opaque poetry is not only “a placeholder for a future public” but also a set of sociological reflections incorporating, and of course performed in, the poetic medium. Finally, there is more to say beyond the fact that Shelley strategically modulates his style based on his imagined audience, that his poetry can be “exoteric” or “esoteric.” This is certainly the case, as Stephen Behrendt’s illuminating discussion of Shelley’s stylistic decisions shows. Shelley himself reflected on the comparative accessibilities of his works: The Cenci (1819), a work “of a more popular kind” (Letters II:108), the “sermo pedestris” of “Julian and Maddalo” (comp. 1819) (Letters II:196), and the political songs of 1819, all against the obscurity of Prometheus Unbound.  But there is also the question of how Shelley imagines the clarity or unclarity of the poetic-linguistic medium beyond its bearing on the circulation of his works. What comes into view when obscurity is removed from the framework of audience or reception and recognized as a model of sociality?
6. If, per Williams, “a conclusion about personal feeling became a conclusion about society” for Shelley, and such conclusions about society integrate theories of imaginative media and the forms they take, it makes sense to begin with one of his conclusions about a personal feeling. The essay fragment, “On Love” (comp. 1818) sets out from a specific premise about social dissimilitude in similitude. The superficial, visual resemblances between the speaker and his addressees belie a profound disjunction between them:
7. Shelley’s fragment engages in sociological discourse concerning the separation of individuals in the specific context of modern societies defined by the division of labor. He joins Ferguson’s An Essay on the History of Civil Society as well as French positivist thought, all of which variously theorized how the division of labor impacted social and class relations. For example, Ferguson observes,
8. Appealing as it might be to dwell on how the Romantic era’s variety of written media—literary works, books, letters, newspapers—occasioned contact between individuals and formed networks (perhaps on the analogy of today’s social media), media in this period did not only bring people together, nor did the density of communicative networks necessarily mean a greater overall sense of affective contact or transfer. Shelley’s fragment hints at this fact insofar as the otherwise similar “external attributes” and an existing, underlying sense of connection or togetherness are what heighten the pathos of the lamented “interval” and “greater distance” he feels. More to the point, routine contact and more regular communication practices can and did aggravate, rather than alleviate, the feeling of social atomization, or even cause it in the first place. Here is Ferguson’s republican version of this thought: “The members of a community may [. . .] have no common affairs to transact, but those of trade: Connections, indeed, or transactions, in which probity and friendship may still take place; but in which the national spirit, whose ebbs and flows [. . .] cannot be exerted” (208). Later, Durkheim posits that a more concentrated form of social organization, arising from improvements in communications media and transportation infrastructure, as well as from urbanization, is the very cause of the division of labor. “The number and speed of the means of communication and transmission” (what he calls “material density”) meant that “similar occupations located at different sites over an area enter into fiercer rivalry” (Division of Labor 209); this evolutionary mechanism, in turn, drove the creation of newer, narrower specializations.  Durkheim emphatically puts it this way: “We state, not that the growth and condensation of societies permit a greater division of labor, but that they necessitate it. It is not the instrument whereby that division is brought about; but it is its determining cause” (Division of Labor 206). Now, “material density,” according to Durkheim, should ordinarily correspond, as it did in France, with “dynamic” or “moral” density, which he defines as the shared feeling of a collective life, where “individuals [. . .] are effectively engaged not only in commercial but also moral relationships with each other” and “live their life together in common” (Rules 92). But not so in England: “Roads, railways, etc.”—and one has to include those objects and practices put under the heading “media”—“serve commercial exchanges better than they can serve the fusion of populations” (Rules 93).  Communicative connectedness in England developed, as did the division of labor and commercial interdependence, without an attendant sense of large-scale sentimental social coalescence; networks of communication and transportation, far from only connecting people, were at the same time the very cause of “the interval between us” felt by Shelley.  With respect to analyses of Romantic or other media, one might say that ideally they would observe the distinctions between (say) sibling relationality versus one’s connection to a milliner or a solicitor—the latter are “connections, indeed [. . .] in which probity and friendship may still take place”—rather than reduce the complex dynamics of each interaction by incorporating them all into, or even positing in the first place, flat networks of affective circulation on the basis of communicative frequency or density.
9. Thus it is not only, in Wordsworthian terms, that “the increasing accumulation of men in cities” and “the uniformity of their occupations” caused “a craving for extraordinary incident which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifie[d]” (Lyrical Ballads 294). At the same time, as Wordsworth and Shelley probably grasped, “the rapid communication of intelligence,” along with “the increasing accumulation of men in cities,” were themselves responsible for the material concentration (i.e., “material density”) that led to a greater division of labor and the monotonous “uniformity” of each kind of work. Wordsworth’s depiction of his reading audience as those in a state of “savage torpor” (294) is a precise allusion to Smith’s figure of “the man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations [. . . and who] has no occasion to exert his understanding”: as Smith describes him, “the torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment” (II:782).  This kind of “torpor,” then, led to yet more craving after “the rapid communication of intelligence” for stimulation. Clearly, the issue in Romantic media is not exclusively or primarily the fact of connectivity: instead, the main problems are the historically specific sense of disconnectedness in concentration/connectedness (recall Ferguson’s identification of “intercourse after the bands of affection are broken”), and the possibility of connection amidst a pervasive, historically specific sense of disconnectedness (a big issue, among others, to which Romantic “poets or sociologists” addressed themselves). In this light, seemingly unremarkable lines from Romantic poetry become legible as compressions of significant questions about social structure: lines like “greetings where no kindness is” (“Tintern Abbey” 131) or “some inane and vacant smile” (The Cenci 3.1.277) come first to mind, but there are countless others. Not mere complaints about personal encounters with hypocrisy from social life, they together also form a poetic-sociological topos, a “charged semantic figure” (Goodman 7), marking the non-exchange of affects that bind and matter the most, amidst a present characterized by an intensified communications environment.
10. In response to the estrangement between individuals, felt to be yawning to the point that the ties constitutive of society were in danger of dissolution, Shelley in “On Love” proposes or wishes that love is an original psychic human principle that might reconstruct “community” (503). Colored by necessitarian doctrine, Shelley’s essay would like to believe that what Ferguson diagnosed as the broken “bands of affection” might be healed, and a social reintegration realized, by the magnetic, attractive force of “love,” a force as natural and universal as gravitation.  Shelley counters Smith’s own irreducible psychic principle, the “trucking disposition”: a “certain propensity in human nature [. . .] the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another” (I:25). Nevertheless, Shelley eventually intuits the inadequacy of love to the problem of sentimental dispersal-in-interconnectedness in a modern social order. He does so most vividly in Epipsychidion. His own disavowal of the poem—“it is a production of a portion of me already dead” (Letters II:262-263)—is arguably based on some recognition that his own brand of love resembles the ties of interdependence characteristic of modern commercial societies:
We – are we not formed, as notes of music are,
For one another, though dissimilar;
Such difference without discord, as can make
Those sweetest sounds, in which all spirits shake
As trembling leaves in a continuous air? (142-146)
11. But there is another problem, this one from the other direction. Epipsychidion intimates that love is equally in peril of lapsing into a morbid fusion of identities. As the poem hastens to an end, he writes:
We shall become the same, we shall be one
Spirit within two frames, oh! wherefore two?
One hope within two wills, one will beneath
Two overshadowing minds, one life, one death,
One Heaven, one Hell, one immortality,
And one annihilation. (573-74; 584-87)
12. But it is significant, then, that the poem also occasions in Shelley a serious consideration of how poetry might simultaneously be a communicative medium and, at the same time, not one. Epipsychidion begins and ends by viewing itself as a species of communication that may be “sufficiently intelligible to a certain class of readers” but “to a certain other class [. . .] incomprehensible” (“Advertisement” 392). That is, for select readers, poetry is a medium insofar as it conveys thoughts and feelings. Then again, for others, poetry is only tenuously, or perhaps not at all, a medium, remaining an “incomprehensible” interceding object; as in the lyric he appends to his “Advertisement,” these readers will be “Quite unaware of what thou dost contain” (393). Shelley frames Epipsychidion with reflections on how poetry may have an inbuilt capacity to transmit or not to transmit, a semantic on/off switch—or, the capacity to elicit something between these two poles of contact, perhaps like Keatsian half-knowledge, depending on the reader. Such modes of interaction, as can occur in relation to and around poetry, are also figured at the start of “The Sensitive-Plant”:
And it opened its fan-like leaves to the light
And closed them beneath the kisses of night (3-4)
13. In short, poetry can be clear or cloudy or dark, and everything in between. But might not poetry, for this very reason, model a form of interaction fit for “The Age of Separations” (Ferguson 175) then, and perhaps also now? Whatever else Epipsychidion has to say, it raises the question of how interactions might tend more toward the poetic. It is not as though Shelley is proposing that reading—literary reading—is how society actually works; rather this is how a society, of two or the totality, would be more bearable. Interactions would have the potential of connecting individuals in immersive, intersubjective relations, as in that of poet-audience or “stranger relationality” (Warner 74-75) among readers; such relations involve, but are not finally reducible to, dependencies of exchange and often surpass them toward a different kind of imagined solidarity. At the same time, individuals would be buffered against the intersubjective encroachments dramatized by Epipsychidion, in the same way that mediatedness and the potential for cloudiness, like an opt-out clause, allow readers to curse a work’s obscurity and shut the book, or have unintended responses or different responses than other readers, or altogether avoid reading the work—or, as the case may be, leave bottles filled with knowledge or poetry unopened. Such a vision never takes hold, failing to overcome the rule of communicative clarity in modernity or the priority of specialization. But it is worth appreciating Shelley’s attempts—as poet or sociologist or media theorist—at imagining a different basis for sociality. Something like: good “figured curtain[s]” make good neighbors.
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I thank Suzanne Barnett, Michael Gamer, Kate Singer, and Chris Washington, as well as the co-editors of this volume, for sharing with me their responses to an earlier version of this essay.
Christopher Herbert’s readings of a variety of canonical social scientific works demonstrate how theories of culture or society as a “complex whole” resort to “fantastical imagery of invisible forces and frameworks” (15) of relation. In a section that is pertinent here, Herbert shows that although Adam Smith in “The History of Astronomy” is alert to the magical connections (“inventions of the imagination”) on which systems depend, he relies on the same kind of fictional, invisible links in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) (i.e., custom and sympathy) and in The Wealth of Nations (1776) (i.e., exchange or “the trucking disposition”) (79-105). For similar conclusions, see Clifford Siskin’s “Novels and Systems” (209) and Ian Duncan’s “The Pathos of Abstraction” (43-44).BACK
 This last concept invokes Charles Taylor’s work, which defines a “social imaginary” as “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations” (23). Shelley’s poetic-sociological reflections deal in precisely such “notions and images” of social bonds and systems—both received “notions and images” and those he creates. BACK
 See also Regina Hewitt’s The Possibilities of Society (1997). It is useful to combine Hewitt’s understanding of Romantic “poetic sociology” (ix) (which, she argues, arrives in the wake of the French Revolution, far in advance of sociology’s belated discipline formation a century later) with John D. Brewer’s argument that pre-sociological discourse—like what Mark Salber Phillips calls “the discourse of the social” (18)—emerged in Adam Ferguson’s Scottish conjectural history, a key context therefore for Romantic “poetic sociology.” BACK
 Contrary to Raymond Williams, one recalls that Shelley himself was cognizant of his dual commitment to poetry and the social sciences, as well as the fact that poets were “being forced into practical exile”: “I consider Poetry very subordinate to moral & political science, & if I were well, certainly I would aspire to the latter” (Letters II:71). On Romantic poets’ very self-aware and deliberate engagements of moral philosophical discourse, see Maureen McLane (10-42). BACK
 At the start of the Defence, Shelley appears to decline taking on this largest of subjects—“let us dismiss those more general considerations which might involve an enquiry into the principles of society itself” (511)—but this is also a disclosure, via paralepsis, of the principal task at hand. BACK
 To give one example, Steven Goldsmith points out that Prometheus Unbound’s (1820) “internal political dynamics are taken to be one and the same as its political effects, by which I mean the way it participates in actual social struggles regarding the relations of power. The limitations of this otherwise valuable approach appear as soon as the liberating impact of the play is made to depend on readers, for indeed Shelley’s actual audience was and is very small and remarkably homogeneous” (211n3). This essay concurs with Goldsmith’s argument that Shelley’s effects—here I am maintaining poetic-medial-sociological insight—need to be reconstructed in a manner other than one that equates them directly with his works’ “internal political dynamics.” BACK
 Clifford Siskin too, in The Work of Writing (1998), links a communications development (the proliferation of printed matter in this same period) to an intensification of the drive to specialization in intellectual labor, i.e., into different kinds of modern professions (104 inter alia). BACK
 In the earlier work, The Division of Labor (1893), Emile Durkheim makes a similar exception for England: “Yet it may well be that in any given society, a certain division of labor, and in particular the economic division of labor, is very developed, although the segmentary social type is still very strongly pronounced. Indeed, this seems to be the case in England. Large-scale industry and commerce appear to be as developed there as on the Continent, although the ‘alveolar’ system is still very marked, as is demonstrated both by the autonomy of local life and by the authority preserved by tradition” (221n31). Following Durkheim, James W. Carey, in the American context, distinguishes between the “transmission” and “ritual” views of communication, which respectively correspond more or less to Durkheim’s “material density” and “moral density” (12-18). BACK
 Durkheim’s account of “material density” is corroborated by Miranda Burgess’ recent work (see, e.g., “Transport”), one aspect of which recovers the period’s networks of carriage. I believe there is something close to what Burgess calls “anxiety” in Epipsychidion’s troubled image of social agglutination, discussed below. BACK
 As P. M. S. Dawson puts it, “Shelley’s poetic use of language exploits the ambiguity present in the ordinary usage of ‘attraction’ (as both the physical force of gravitation and the moral force of love) to suggest that gravitation can be seen as physical manifestation of love, or love as the moral manifestation of gravitation” (28). BACK