18 OCTOBER 1997

Shelley and Popular Culture: The Devil's Walk
Donald H. Reiman
University of Delaware

Even though Percy Bysshe Shelley (PBS) failed to reach a wide audience during his lifetime, it was not for want of trying. From the start of his career, he desired to be popular as well as original, and in spite of what he described in an early letter as a tendency to "mingle metaphysics" with even his love lyrics, he reached out to the burgeoning reading public of his day by attaching his ideas to popular events, genres, poetic styles, and modes of discourse in both poetry and prose. Happily, his continuing efforts to appeal to a wider readership paid off not long after his death, when appreciative readers among the self-educated bourgeoisie as well as among classically educated readers steeped in English poetry of the learned Miltonic tradition began to read and admire his works.

Among PBS's early efforts to reach "the people" with his political views was his broadsheet ballad entitled The Devil's Walk, the text and history of which are available in the hypertext edition of Reiman and Neil Fraistat on Romantic Circles. Shelley's hopes for the impact of this controversial handout failed, however, when the local authorities in North Devon arrested and jailed his Irish servant Daniel "Hill" (né Healey) and seized many of the copies of the poem, and by this decisive action forced PBS and his companions to jettison the rest of the copies and flee the area. But the style that he adopted for this effort suggests how and why he was ultimately able to reach the broader public that he sought.

One way of considering Shelley's attempts to link his ideas to popular culture is to compare his early poetry with that of William Blake (1757-1827). Each young man drew upon the genres and styles of writing that were in vogue when he began his literary career. Poetical Sketches, Blake's first volume of poems that he is said to have written between the ages of fourteen and twenty (i.e., ca. 1771-77), was printed in 1783 and distributed among his friends and patrons but apparently never sold. In Blake's poems here we see the clear influences of the ballad tradition, as exemplified in Bishop Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765, 1767, and 1775 et seq.), the Nordic myths and histories popularized in England by Percy's translation of Paul Henri Mallet's Northern Antiquities (2 vols., 1770), and the poetry of James Thomson, William Collins, and Thomas Gray--some of the last of whose later poems were also influenced by both Celtic and Norse traditions. These influences can account for the form and some of the content of Blake's lyrics on the seasonal and diurnal cycles, his ballad romances (e.g., "Fair Elenor"), and historical narratives ("Gwin, King of Norway"), if not for the final three attempts at prose poems that conclude Poetical Sketches. These last works may owe something to Macpherson's "Ossian" poems, which were initially "discovered" about 1760 and gradually gained a readership that extended beyond those who had a vested interest in promoting Celtic history and culture.

By 1791, when Blake wrote The French Revolution and had it typeset (though again not published), the vogue of "Ossian," once associated with Scottish and Irish nationalisms, had gained considerable vogue in England because of the rise of a new generation of readers and writers who, responding to other strains of the revolt against a moribund neo-classical rationalism, sought out emotionalist primitivism not only in folk traditions, but also in the Sentimental and even among the supernatural horrors of the Gothic. Correlative with the increased influence of "Ossian" was that of Thomas Chatterton's "Rowley" poems, which originated in approximately the same period as the earlier mentioned influences, but again were delayed in their impact, until the romantically tragic tale of neglected youthful genius was added to the emotional cauldron.

Of the foregoing fin-de-siècle strains, three--"Ossian," Chatterton/ "Rowley," and the Gothic--were artificial creations by writers who did not themselves give credence to the myths they were generating; and even Percy's ballad collections not quite as primitive as they were purported to be. All these literary phenomena were, perhaps, attributable to the general Sentimentalism of the period that was generated in England by a general discontent in Britain with "things as they are" but no agreed-upon program for changing them. The writers and their responsive audiences knew that there was something rotten in the state of England, but the solution to the malaise appeared more and more distant as they faced the phantasmagoria of alternatives personified by Danton, Robespierre, the Thermidorians, and Napoleon: libertine, bloodless tyrant, bureaucrats, and egoistic conqueror.

Being unable to deal with their ideals in the present tense, popular British writers and their readers reached back into history to commemorate their society before the first throes of the Industrial and Capitalist Revolutions had threatened not only "Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain," but also the livelihoods of the small artisans of the class to which Blake himself belonged. The economic upheavals were being intensified by the mobilization for the French wars till England stood upon the brink of a major socio-political upheaval such as Scotland had undergone during the aftermath of the Stuart uprising of 1745 and the depopulation of the Highlands. Those caught in the maelstrom therefore tended to cling to traditions that looked back nostalgically to simpler and more heroic times, when the good guys wore Kendal green and the bad guys rode black horses, before the land enclosures enacted by lawyers and corrupt lawmakers doomed the society of small tradesmen, craftsmen, farmers, and shepherds and even the forests of England to perish under the weight of historical "progress." (John Keats's chief contribution to this genre was his extemporaneous poem called "Robin Hood.")

Blake, after following the ballad tradition's tales of private loves and sorrows and exploring his personal religious ideas in All Religions Are One and There Is No Natural Religion (1788), Songs of Innocence (1789), The Book of Thel (1789), and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1972) found that the developing events of the French Revolution gave a new social impetus to his writings, and in both The French Revolution (1791), which he set in type and proofed but did not publish, and his engraved prophecies Visions of the Daughters of Albion and America (both1793), Blake adapted Ossian's long, unrhymed periods weighted with exotic names of human and semi-divine protagonists whose deeds and words are inflated into a rhetoric of exhortation. This effort often resulted in tendentious speeches and hazy moral judgments about important sounding actions, as in America, Plate 3, where the lines,

The Guardian Prince of Albion burns in his nightly tent.
Sullen fires across the Atlantic glow to America's shore:
Piercing the souls of warlike men, who rise in silent night.
Washington, Franklin, Paine & Warren, Gates, Hancock & Green
Meet on the coast, glowing with blood from Albion's fiery Prince.

introduce a speech by Washington that depicts "Albion's wrathful Prince" as "A dragon form clashing his scales at midnight."

Perhaps Blake's writings never caught on with readers sufficiently to get his poetry reviewed or to elicit public discussion because, by the 1790's, the models he followed were obsolescent as living poetic traditions. By then the works of "Ossian" were widely considered Scottish frauds perpetrated on the British literary establishment, and by that time Robert Burns had already carried the genuine popular lyric tradition beyond the reach of most other practitioners--certainly including Blake. (Note that Wordsworth avoids direct comparison with Burns by more often using the dramatic possibilities of the ballad tradition to portray the character--and often the limitations--of children or speakers of humble origins, than he employs ballads to articulate his own personal emotions.) Ossianic poetry had by the turn of the century became the subject of scholarly antiquarians, who argued, for example, to what extent Macpherson had collected his ancient writings of "Ossian," or whether he had invented them. The edition of Ossian that Shelley owned in 1809, for example (his copy is now in the Pforzheimer Collection, NYPublic Library), contains a dissertation on Macpherson's role in the work, tracing many of the epic similes and metaphors to Homer, Virgil, the Bible, Shakespeare, and other staples of a good British education and thereby placing "Ossian's" writings in the learned literary tradition, rather than as part of primitive or popular culture.

Shelley's writings became a focus of controversy and the object of ideological attack from the very start, partly because his early works follow so closely the current popular literary fashions that their subversive messages were patently aimed at influencing the widest possible audience. The three brief reviews of Original Poetry by "Victor and Cazire," for example, attack both the puerility of the opening verse letters by his sister Elizabeth Shelley ("Cazire") and the use of current Gothic conventions and diction. As the Gothic works of Horace Walpole, William Beckford, and "Monk" Lewis made clear, the mode was designed to undercut both British literary and moral conventions. Reinforced by Germanic ghost ballads by Schiller, Goethe, and their contemporaries, several of which were published in translations by Lewis, Walter Scott, and Robert Southey in Tales of Wonder, and dramas by Lewis and by Kotzebue and other German dramatists, as well as in its domesticated strain by Ann Radcliffe, the Gothic became a central force in English writing during a twenty-year span ca. 1790-1810. Thus PBS's two Gothic novels and such early poems as those in Original Poetry, The Wandering Jew, and many poems later included in The Esdaile Notebook dwelt in a land already seen as controversial, and yet prized by younger readers who wished to give vent to emotions not expressed in the neoclassicism-gone-to-seed that was the approved expressive form of the older generation.

In The Devil's Walk (hereafter DW), as in those earlier writings, PBS's basic symbols and tropes derive from Biblical and popular writings or from contemporary history, science and practical arts, rather than from the classical tradition, represented in this case by Milton's epics of Paradise. As Neil Fraistat and I note in our Commentary to DW, for example, PBS follows Bible-based popular tradition in using a variety of names--Devil, Satan, Beelzebub, and Old Nick--to refer to the central evil nature, in opposition to Milton, who separately personified each of these and other names to create a polydemonoligarchy in Paradise Lost. In Ghasta; or, The Avenging Demon from the "Victor and Cazire" volume and again in Queen Mab, PBS's portrayals of death and the Last Judgment follow the orthodox Anglican theology of his day, which on these matters was quite distinct from both Roman Catholic and Reformed Protestant theology. Similarly, in DW the poet views the source of evil as a unity manifesting itself multifariously through human agency, a perspective that accords with both popular conceptions of evil and PBS's own developing Manichaean world-view, which emerges most fully in the rejected false start of an early Faustian version of Hellas now known as "The Prologue in Heaven."

But beyond PBS's decision in these instances to follow popular belief rather than the learned tradition that created fictions in genres deriving from Greek and Latin poetry and drama, PBS wrote DW in direct imitation of a poem that he knew to possess popular appeal, since it had created a stir and been widely reprinted and imitated for more than a decade in daily newspapers, the "lowest" and most popular of the print media of his day. The Southey-Coleridge poem entitled "The Devil's Thoughts," which can be found with other imitations on the Romantic Circles Website, remained one of the most effective political poems during the whole of the Romantic period, being often reprinted to attack the societal establishment at different times of political controversy and spawning several imitations, including one by Lord Byron (also reprinted on our RC site).

In his later works PBS repeatedly attempted to disguise his subversive poems under the sheep's clothing of popular literary forms: Queen Mab as children's literature; Mont Blanc at the end of a conventional series of travel letters and diaries; Laon and Cythna as oriental romance of the kind pioneered by Byron but turned into an escapist entertainment by several of Byron's friends, including Thomas Moore in Lalla Rookh; The Cenci as an Italianate Jacobean drama; OEdipus Tyrannus; or, Swellfoot the Tyrant as a burlesque pamphlet on the dispute between George IV and Queen Caroline, dozens of which were circulating in London about the time he wrote; and Hellas as a journalistic report on the Greek War of Independence. That PBS made these wolves too large and vigorous to remain disguised is a tribute to his innovative and sometimes egregious imagination, rather than a refutation of his intentions. He wished for the audience that Byron enjoyed, but he had not the reputation as a writer or as a man--and possibly not a commonplace enough mind--to aspire in that direction. For that reason, when left to his own devices, not worrying about an audience, he wrote much more abstract and subtly symbolic works, such as Prometheus Unbound, The Witch of Atlas, and Epipsychidion. And here the public's loss is pure gain for true lovers of the farther shores of poetry.



1. See Shelley, Letters, ed. F. L. Jones (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), I, 16.

2. For analyses of this and the other canceled false starts of PBS's last completed poem, see The Hellas Notebook: Bodleian MS. Shelley adds. e. 7, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Michael Neth (Volume XVI of The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts). New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1994. See Shelley, Letters, ed. F. L. Jones (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), I, 16.


Last modified September 1997.