One never knows, for these sorts of judgments are rightly a matter of debate, but I feel fairly safe in speculating that few will want to claim that Shelley's "The Devil's Walk" should be placed among his greatest works. The interest the poem arouses must surely be a function of the fact that it was Shelley who wrote it. If we had no way of tracing its author, if it were not connected to a body of work that commands attention, it is unlikely the poem would receive such careful and precise editorial contextualization. What interests me, then, if I may be forgiven for saying so, is not so much the poem itself, but the circumstances of how it comes down to us, and, more generally, what these matters imply about what has been called a work of art's "mode of existence" or ontological status. This seems to me an especially crucial line of thought to pursue when dealing with a poem that, by all indications, understands itself as an intervention in contemporary politics. For what can it mean when a poem written with a specific political purpose in 1812 disappears for nearly sixty years and re-emerges in the very different setting of 1871? This poem clearly missed its immediate mark, as did a more powerful poem such as "The Mask of Anarchy," and I want to think about that in relation to the whole question of literature and politics.
One way into these matters is by way of Rene Wellek, who devoted a chapter to the mode of existence of a poem in Theory of Literature. Referring to Ingarden's notion of a "structure of determination," Wellek argues for a fundamental identity of the object, even while recognizing the fact of historical change. Wellek reasons that the poem is preserved through print, but is not identical to its printed form because, if the books were destroyed, it could continue to exist in memory and in oral performance. Yet, although the phonemes and the syntactic units form the basic structure of the work, the true or real poem is not identical to sound- patterns either, because it also transcends them and may be silently read in the memory. But neither is the poem identical to the mental states of the author or of those who experience it, for each of these experiences must be different, even for the same reader at different times, and can only partially realize the true poem.
Nonetheless, although it appears at times that he holds a Platonic notion of a poem as unchanging ideal, Wellek demurs: "There is no need to hypostatize or 'reify' this system of norms, to make it a sort of archetypal idea presiding over a timeless realm of essences. The literary work of art has not the same ontological status as the idea of a triangle . . ." (153). One reason is that history plays a role. The work is not static but develops over time. Although we have lost so much linguistic and cultural context as to make our experience of the Iliad, for example, very different from that of the ancient Greeks, "[s]till, it could be scarcely denied that there is a substantial identity of 'structure' which has remained the same throughout the ages. This structure, however, is dynamic: it changes throughout the process of history while passing through the minds of its readers, critics, and fellow artists" (155). But not all of these experiences are equal. There is a right and a wrong about these matters: "All the different points of view are by no means equally right. It will always be possible to determine which point of view grasps the subject most thoroughly and deeply. A hierarchy of viewpoints, a criticism of the grasp of norms, is implied in the concept of the adequacy of interpretation" (156). History is taken into account, but its force is completely neutralized by Wellek's stance against "relativism."
I could extend this exposition, but enough has been said to raise the basic issues and to set up a contrast with more recent understandings of the same questions. For, according to Wellek, a printed version of a poem is nothing more than a materialization of an object whose actual existence transcends its own materiality. Discussing early editions of Shelley, however, Neil Fraisat argues that the work's materiality is itself the significant element, and that we require a "critical vocabulary for discussing the ways textual editions reproduced Shelley for readers, a vocabulary that can help situate textual editions dialectically as certain kinds of performances, informing--and informed by--their cultural moment" (409). Drawing on McGann's work on the theory of textual editing, Fraistat wants us to see that the particular bibliographical (page format, paper, typefaces, price, etc.) and linguistic (paratextual elements such as prefaces, dedications, etc.) codes of a work "ultimately constitute each edition's monumentalized discourse. And that discourse itself might itself be thought of as a rhetoric of Shelley, a cultural performance locating the textual space of the edition within the particularized social space of its production and reception" (410). If so, it is not at all the case that the poem has a character independent of any edition; rather, each edition gives the poem a particular character. Adequacy of interpretation, to use Wellek's phrase, is not determined by an approximation to an object's transcendent identity, but is unremittingly specific and particular and historicized.
I accept the force of this argument, and it leads me not just to consider the specific historical context of an early nineteenth-century edition of Shelley, but also to reflect on the particular conditions in which we receive Shelley today. I refer not to the whole issue of hypertext, which others may address, but to the question of the possible attenuation of the politics of any poem once time passes and the poem drifts, as all writing must do, from its first historical contexts. Wellek's neutralization of history by implication neutralizes politics. But it would be hasty, in my view, to automatically equate historical interpretation with political action. If Wellek's view places art in a too-distant sphere that transcends history, theories of historical mediation cannot unreflexively assume art's immediacy. Indeed, art requires the scholar's mediation to make it accessible, and historical perspectives only increase that burden. A quick look at the way the reception of Shelley's poem affects its character underscores this point.
Shelley's poem, printed anonymously in order to evade prosecution, was effectively suppressed and all but forgotten. But when it was rediscovered in the Public Record Office and published by W. M. Rossetti in 1871, the very circumstances of its recovery altered its character in the way that Fraistat suggests a particular edition might. No longer anonymous, it was reproduced within the context of the youthful production of a famous poet whose reception had already taken a certain direction. It was classified, and coordinated with poems of a similar character in the poet's corpus and elsewhere, and then it could be duly ignored for generations, or suddenly have much attention drawn to it. Certainly, there was no longer any question of suppressing the poem or prosecuting its author, who, together with the objects of his attack, was long dead. It comes down to us now as "art" and not (primarily) as an intervention in our contemporary political debates. One might say that death has removed its sting.
Or has it? To pursue this question we need to ask, what possible form of intervention can "literature" make? For Shelley's poem is no longer topical, arousing the defenses of its immediate environment, but is removed into a different historical time and a museum-like space. Any talk of intervention, apparently, must take into account the special temporality that literature inhabits. One cannot talk cogently of intervention, it would seem, without discussing the details of specific receptions. Nor can one, by a kind of wishing, insist that the literature of the past possesses the urgency and immediacy of its own moment in ours. Yet many poets, Shelley included, have understood their activities as addressed also to the future. Were they self-deluded?
I think not. Poems are suppressed, and authors, or their servants, imprisoned for good reasons. Because ideas have the power to shape opinion. This holds true, I argue, even when the poem no longer intersects with its original time, but enters that other, longer-term temporality, and assumes the potential to intersect with an unimaginable number of times and places. The work will take on a different character as it emerges in unforeseen contexts. It will need to undergo a process of allegorization in order to take on significance in a different time and place. Castlereagh, for instance, is hardly a pressing current concern; but governments and ministers are. We must be alert to both the powers and limits of those allegorizations, because they are specific forms of mediation. But ideas continue to make people think and to shape opinion. And Shelley's poetry, as varied and open to interpretation as any great corpus is, still constitutes a precious resource to many of us, fully justifying the time devoted to a rarely-discussed instance of his work.
I close with a quotation from Isaac D'Israeli, who wrote a chapter in 1795 "Of the Political Influence of Authors": "An eloquent author, who writes in the immutable language of truth, will one day be superior to every power in the state. His influence is active, though hidden; every truth is an acorn which is laid in the earth, and which often the longer it takes to rise, the more vigorous and magnificent will be its maturity" (175- 76). We may question what is meant by "the immutable language of truth"; but I would be very reluctant to concede that the mode of existence of a poem, allowing it to assume different shapes across history, does not constitute a very formidable instance of power.
--RG, SEPTEMBER 1997
D'Israeli, Isaac. An Essay on the Manners and Genius of the Literary Character. London, 1795.
Fraistat, Neil. "Illegitimate Shelley: Radical Piracy and the Textual Edition as Cultural Performance." PMLA 109.3 (May 1994): 409-23.
Wellek, Rene. "The Mode of Existence of a Literary Work of Art." Theory of Literature. 3rd. Edition. New York, 1962. Pages 142-57.
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