18 OCTOBER 1997

On Devils, and the Devil; or Vice's Versus
Stuart Curran
University of Pennsylvania

One day years ago when I was a graduate student working in the collection of the Keats House in Rome, I took advantage of its three-hour lunch break to explore the Borghese Gardens. There, high above the Spanish Steps overlooking Rome, I came upon what we call a Punch-and-Judy show mounted on a small carnival wagon playing before a seated crowd of eager and, in modern parlance, highly interactive children. Suddenly upon the familiar scene of the quarrelsome couple hectoring and pummeling each other there swept a large puppet dressed in black who stopped the other action head-on, being greeted by the young audience in a mixture and awe and delight: "il diavolo!" they squealed. That was the first word of Italian I ever understood, and, as pleased with that recognition as the children were with theirs, I returned to the library where my subject, it should be said, was Count Cenci, another figure who, in the second act of Shelley's tragedy, sweeps on to the stage anticipating just such a histrionic effect on his audience.

I cite this anecdote by way of introducing two topics related to this edition of "The Devil's Walk." Given the hypertext medium, I suppose I could run them simultaneously, perhaps scrolling in parallel tables. But I came to praise the editors, not to steal their thunder (or rattle their thunder-sheets). If their impressive textual tour-de-force wishes to stage itself as a black apparition, it is because they are devilishly smart and know it. So was their subject, who has a knack for scourging the devil and playing his advocate at one and the same time.

First, then, the medium itself. This edition of "The Devil's Walk" reveals how remarkably the capacities of hypertext can at once concentrate on the text as a field of inquiry and open it up to a broad historical elaboration impossible within a traditional linear mode of textual representation. The lovely paradox, surely cherished by the editors, is that the copytext of Shelley's "Devil's Walk" consists of a single broadside sheet in the Public Record Office that because it lacks a printer's designation was never technically published. A one-page sheet that exists in one unpublished copy, it turns out, can produce a homepage of considerable complexity, including clear reading texts of the broadside and letter texts, an exact diplomatic transcription of the letter version, a critical edition of the broadside version, plus a photofacsimile of the broadside. That amounts to five individual texts, to which we can add the unelaborated textual variants offered by the present editors, or a rendering of the variants through which their predecessors have reinterpreted various nuances of its meaning (or perhaps reimagined the poem itself), as well as valuable textual and critical annotations. The hypertext medium adapts itself effortlessly to all such applications in a refined combination of clarity, totality, and economy, proving the essential point of this model endeavor, that an electronic representation can vie for superiority over a paper version. Yet, what is most exciting to me about this example is that the medium also allows, indeed encourages, the instant contextualization the editors pursue, as they set this individual poem with all its aggregate of variants in historical relation to other examples of its subgenre written across the two generations of Romanticism. With this addition, the "text" of "The Devil's Walk" truly becomes a "hyper-text," and its usability is extended into a cultural realm with many possible further elaborations.

Which brings me to the second line of inquiry, the curious phenomenon of diabolism in British Romanticism. Stretching from the gothic excesses of the 1790s to Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) and Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), Romantic diabolism in almost all cases features a double vision that may be said to reach its apex in the deconstructive artistry of Hogg's novel. This literary continuum operates within a surprisingly complex framework. With few exceptions (Shelley's mad/bad early novellas, Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, may be the principal ones) it is written tongue in cheek, studiously replicating a mythic archetype in which neither the writers nor their putative readers have any faith. Indeed, as the universality of attacks on Methodists in this set of poems would indicate, it is exactly those fanatic evangelists who give credence to the devil as a literal ideological force who constitute an irresistible target for satire wherever the devil as figure walks or rides. But the paradox takes yet another turn, for here at the far end of the Enlightenment, and in the midst of a scientific revolution whose reversion to contituent atoms as the material basis for all existence is transforming the life and chemical sciences, such a literary diabolism, premised on skeptical realism, becomes the principle vehicle for resuscitating an obsolete allegorical literary mode accompanied by a host of reductive personifications. This odd development has political implications that allow us, I think, to distinguish in fairly sharp ways between Shelley's impersonation of the devil and those of his poetic contemporaries.

By the time of the original "Devil's Thoughts" of Coleridge and Southey, that is, 1799, the cover of allegorical abstractions for a critical politics might be thought not just prudent but necessary. But in this case the medium outstrips the message. In the abstract even Pitt might say he was against War and Taxation. There is a sense in which the skeptical underpinnings of the mode vitiate any true radicalism, as if the two poets, knowing there is a line they cannot cross, dangle a daring foot across it toward the end, threatening to name names, then plant themselves safely back within the security of an inane pun ("General Conflagration"). To reflect on how easy it was for Southey to recast the entire poem into a reactionary broadside against reform in 1827 must, in retrospect, frame for us the essentially unradical nature of the original, however it pretends to be otherwise.

Byron takes a slightly different tack, one that is surprisingly prescient of the high comic voice into which his satiric voice later matures. The entire conception of the poem is informed with aristocracy. Where plebeian poets make their devil walk, Byron's devil, having loaned out both the Rolls Royce and the Honda (or something rather similar), can easily afford a taxi. Moreover, he can truly name names, can point his finger, can shrewdly recast the headlines from the contemporary press and make them seem to pass for an actual indictment of corruption in high places. The reason this author can do all these things is hinted at in the poem: he is a legislator, and not just any legislator but a peer of the realm. So we are escorted into the highest of places, the House of Lords, a precinct from which by birth we are all excluded, even those elected to the other House (into which Byron's devil is also licensed to wander as he wills). Byron can taunt those other peers for being long-winded or lachrymose, certain, since sentiments may safely be registered in parliamentary debate within that enclosure that in print might catch the eye of a crown lawyer, that not even the tearful Eldon will think such an exercise in calculated whimsy worthy of dry-eyed prosecution.

With Shelley's broadside, as is surely indicated by the fact that under existing British law no printer would dare attach a name to it, an entirely different world opens out of this mode. Byron invokes the Coleridge-Southey original to show off his superiority over its authors. Shelley quotes the poem directly to indicate that he would recast its equivocations into a wholesale indictment of the system and only by implication of those who would toy with rather than attack it. Fresh from his quixotic Irish crusade he is deeply serious. He is likewise -- and this is what to me makes his poem rightly the center of a hypertext colloquy -- already accustomed to this impersonation, a role he has been rehearsing for most of his minority and in which he will star for the rest of his life. Here is Newman Ivey White as Shelley enters upon his teens in the company of his siblings at Field Place:

He developed . . . devices for improving upon humdrum reality. Fantastic costumes were devised in which to personate spirits or fiends while Bysshe, as the arch-fiend, rushed through a passage with a flaming liquid in a portable stove. According to neighbourhood tradition he once set fire to a faggot-stack so that he might have "a little hell of his own." And when he was about fifteen one of the first words he taught his brother John to say was "debbie" for devil. (Shelley [New York: Knopf, 1940], I, 25.)
There is nothing, one may suppose, quite like dying as an unreconstructed adherent of the Satanic School of Poetry to concentrate the memories of neighborhood gossips about the days when the enfant was first endeavoring to be truly terrible. Still, no one with a long acquaintance with Shelley would ever discount the general applicability of these anecdotes. From the intoxicating megalomania of the childhood games to the demonic hyperbole of his adolescent fantasies to the cool, distanced ironies of Mephistopheles he so unerringly captures in the translation from Faust occupying his last months, Shelley lived within an ambience to which other poets just took occasional excusions.

Doubtless, there are psychobiographical speculations to bring to bear on this odd and never-outgrown obsession. But I'm not good at these inventions, so would rather point to how the most serious diabolist of them all truly incorporates the double vision accompanying this mode across the Romantic age.

The editors of this hypertext have narrowed down the many potential "related texts" that might be associated with "The Devil's Walk" to Shelley's other broadside of the period, his Declaration of Rights. You may all think this is because they want systematically to contextualize the political energies spilling out of the poem. But I am sure (knowing well the devilish sense of humor by which Fraistat likes to turn the world upside down) that the prose piece is really present for the send-off with which Shelley marshals his prospective legions at the very end and almost off the page: Awake!-arise!-or be for ever fallen.

As there are Bysshe Shelley the revolutionary arch-fiend and Timothy Shelley the reactionary arch-fiend, there are always two devils in Shelley, of opposite disposition though usually coexistent. One is that Satan with with whom (Shelley presumes) Milton secretly sympathized, calling the masses into revolution and attacking the cabal of Church and State portrayed as a symbiotic parasite in "The Devil's Walk." The other is a true embodiment of evil who exists without beliefs, without commitment except to survival, without faith in the self or in others. The difficulty for Shelley -- and a sign of the essential honesty of his exploration of his own obsession over the years -- is that one can modulate into the other, the way Prometheus unwittingly produces and promotes Jupiter; or, worse, as Beatrice Cenci finds herself trapped within her father's intricate negations; or even, worse still, as Mephistopheles' universal irony (that is Satan -- is it not -- who falls asleep as the sun rises in "The Triumph of Life"?) inverts the universal ideological commitments through which all of us damned trail in the wake of the chariot of Life (that is Satan -- is it not -- parodying Milton's Son at its helm?).

There is a great deal more to be said on this score, perhaps by a respondent, or in the MOO environment. But my universalizing sweep across Shelley's career brings me back to the technology at the heart of this exercise. A paper edition of Shelley has no particular focusing effect: we leaf through it or dive in as we wish. As with divining your course through a random stab at the Bible, the result of a standard edition is to allow an always different poet to capture your attention. The curious phenomenon of the hypertext is how it rivets one's attention iconically so that, suddenly, an entire oeuvre begins to coalesce around a single set of verses. Or is this the last laugh of these impish editors, who pick the most ephemeral of all Shelley's published (so-to-speak) poems and ask us to create Pandemonium from its unprepossessing materials?

Notice, snake that I am: I end with an unanswerable question.



Last modified September 1997.