RESPONSE TO MICHAEL O'NEILL
Andrew M. Stauffer
University of Virginia
1. Michael O'Neill's essay helpfully suggests that the Devil in Shelley's early poem "The Devil's Walk" can be seen as an index to the "quarrel between the satirist and the ameliorist in Shelley" (para. 4). O'Neill makes the point that when Shelley identifies with the Devil as one who can see corruption behind various virtuous masks, he commits his poem to a satiric vision. However, as O'Neill notes, this identification -- or "sympathy for the Devil" -- makes Shelley uneasy, and his poem concludes with an attempt to separate his vision of humanity from the Satanic (and satiric) one (para. 1). By the end of the poem, Satan has become another "Tyrant" to be deposed by the clearer sight of "Reason" (137). Shelley's poem thus performs its author's anxieties, stanza by stanza, over his relationship as a poet to the evil he sees in the world.
2. No surprise, then, that it often seems a "rowdy babel" (O'Neill, para. 1). Reading "The Devil's Walk," one confronts the type of poetry Yeats was thinking of in articulating his judgment of Shelley in A Vision:
His political enemies are monstrous, meaningless images....he can never see anything that opposes him as it really is....He lacked the Vision of Evil, could not conceive of the world as a continual conflict, so, though great poet he certainly was, he was not of the greatest kind.[(1)]
Yeats may be wrong here about Shelley, but "The Devil's Walk" offers little evidence by way of rebuttal. The objects of Shelley's anger in this poem -- generally priests, kings and warfare, and eventually the Devil himself -- appear as caricatures, easy targets for satire's scourge. The poem has a kind of facility about it (underscored by its blatant debts to Coleridge and Southey's "The Devil's Thoughts") that is rather charming in the letter version, but not in the more finished broadside text where serious political commentary is attempted. Furthermore, its language can sometimes approach incoherence as Shelley's indiscriminate rhetoric breaks its moorings. What can it mean, for example, to say that the Spanish battlefields after the British siege of Bajados are "Where Hell is the Victor's prey,/ Its glory the meed of the slain."(55-56)? Similarly, why conclude the poem by imagining that Satan's "cheek shall be,/ Bloodless as his coward soul."(142-43)? This last seems to be a stock epithet imported from another context,[(2)] since the Satan of this poem appears neither cowardly nor red, and cannot be killed by bloodletting. Given the publication history of "The Devil's Walk," Shelley may have been more interested in raising the emotional temperature generally than in crafting complex structures or careful figures. As Kenneth Cameron observes, "In this stage of his career Shelley did not regard himself primarily as a writer or poet but a social thinker using poetry and fiction as propaganda media."[(3)]
3. In any case, O'Neill's recognition that "the proximity between Satan and the poet is uneasily close" in "The Devil's Walk" seems particularly true of the first third of the poem, when the Devil is occupied with seeing through false fronts, of "every Saint"(17), of the "Poor lambkins"(30), and of the "Priest"(33). The first 10 stanzas present the Devil disguised as a "natty...Beau"(8) who can identify his "promising live stock" (24) despite their righteous masks. In this section of the poem, Shelley seems to take glee in participating in the Devil's wicked discernment. He can rather easily imagine himself as Satan when confronting the hypocrisy of false virtue, since here the Father of Lies acts as an agent of truth. However, as Shelley considers undisguised evil from stanza 10 forward, the poem changes tonal registers and moral perspectives, becoming angrier, less playful, and less friendly to the Devil.
4. We see the Devil in stanza 10 congratulating himself on his "Cattle"(46) that are thriving "Close by the very Throne" (44). However, if we discount stanza 18 (the Cain and Abel lines taken directly from Coleridge and Southey's poem and arguably not part of Shelley's imaginative work here), the Devil drops out of the poem for a long stretch as Shelley decries state-sponsored violence and oppression. War is the primary focus of Shelley's indignation in these later sections of the poem, and his frequent references to eating carrion and drinking blood (e.g., 47, 51, 58, 64, 127) do much to separate Shelley's perspective from Satan's. We next encounter the Devil in stanza 23, capering foolishly, wholly externalized, and daring "as he is, to appear"(113). The phrase is reminiscent of Prometheus' curse of Jupiter, "let the hour/ Come, when thou must appear to be/ That which thou art internally"(1.297-99), and it presents the Devil as another tyrant unmasked. Near the end of the poem, when we glimpse the Devil attended by his "hell-hounds, Murder, Want and Woe, / For ever hungering"(124-25), we know how far the poem has moved from the insouciant mockery -- and sympathy for the Devil -- of its early stanzas.
5. In "The Devil's Walk," the twenty-year-old poet was still learning how to manage the competing claims of satiric rage and millennial hope. At the eleventh hour, after a nearly universal condemnation of humanity, the poem swerves by asserting the redemptive powers of "Reason." O'Neill finds the poem's ending "rhetorical, a shade perfunctory" and "formulaic" (para.6). It is certainly pale illumination next to the darkness visible of the preceding stanzas. Furthermore, its presence does indicate a characteristically Shelleyan formula at work. One thinks of "England in 1819," which begins with a torrent of abuse ("An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King") and proceeds to other targets ("Princes," "Rulers," "An army," "laws," "Religion," and "A Senate"), only to end with an attempt to pull up from the sonnet's nose-dive into the abyss.[(4)] All of these enumerated evils, he writes, "Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may/ Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day"(13-14). Arguably coming too late, this "glorious Phantom" occupies the same position as the "sons of Reason" (140) in "The Devil's Walk": the provider of enlightenment to the mystified and broken world presented in the preceding lines.[(5)] In general, one finds that Shelley's satiric poetry contravenes its initial wrath with more utopian, conciliatory imaginings. We hear Prometheus's curse and then its retraction: both are required in order for Jupiter to fall.
1. William Butler Yeats, A Vision (New York: Collier, 1966; orig. pub. London: Macmillan, 1937), pp. 43-44.
2. Perhaps Shelley was remembering Shakespeare's Richard II, where Richard, fearing the loss of his crown when he learns his Welsh allies have defected, exclaims, "But now the blood of twenty thousand men/ Did triumph in my face, and they are fled;/ And till so much blood thither come again,/ Have I not reason to look pale and dead?" (3.2.76-79). In general, the poem seems influenced by the language and tropes of Shakespeare's second tetralogy. See Henry V, 1.1.6-8, and esp. 2.2.121-142, for example.
3. The Young Shelley: Genesis Of A Radical (New York: Macmillan, 1950), p. 116.
4. "England in 1819," Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: Norton, 1977), p. 311.
5. An identical "glorious Phantom" appears at the end of Shelley's radical prose critique An Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte (1817), here as the spirit of "British Liberty" that may yet be reborn from the ashes of oppression. See The Prose Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. E.B. Murray (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), vol.1, p. 239.