18 OCTOBER 1997

Response to Donald Reiman's Shelley and Popular Culture: "The Devil's Walk"
Michael Scrivener

I want to commend not only Don Reiman's interesting essay, but also both him and Neil Fraistat for entire hypertextual event of The Devil's Walk--the remarkably thorough editing of the text, the contextual information, the glosses, and also the Early Shelley essays edited by Neil that appear in the Romantic Praxis section of Romantic Circles. Following the various leads provided by Don and Neil is a real education.

Don's paper makes the following major claims: (1) because PBS wanted to reach a wide audience he used popular poetic forms to disguise his unconventionally radical ideas (there is an extended parallel drawn between PBS's situation and Blake's; Blake also used popular poetic conventions but beyond the time they were actually popular) (2) his actual (small) audience was not for lack of effort; (3) there are two kinds of PBS poetry, one popular and one learned and Miltonic, the latter being more abstract, subtle, and symbolic than the former.

Rather than discuss the many things upon which Don and I agree, I shall concentrate on the points where we seem to differ.

Poetry that is in vogue in the late 18th and early 19th centuries is not "popular culture." Don seems to conflate the two throughout the paper for both Blake and PBS. Form alone does not make something "popular." Examples of popular literary culture include ballads hawked on the streets, songs sung in taverns, chapels and homes, and inexpensive printed matter that was widely read (chapbooks, pamphlets, less often newspapers [expensive for most people because of the taxes--until Cobbett's 1816 two-penny "trash" avoids the tax altogether]). The Bible, Paradise Lost, Robinson Crusoe and Pilgrim's Progress were the most popular books. And of course Paine's illegal Rights of Man part 2. John Clare, with little formal education, loved James Thomson's poetry when he found it. I think one can make only rough distinctions between literary conventions that are "popular" and ones that are "learned" because much that is popular is actually learned, complex, not easy to comprehend fully and immediately, and depends on conventions and traditions. The more coherent binary is "popular" and "elite," a binary that emphasizes the social dimensions of literature, not its form or intertextuality. Exactly how much English poetry really requires a classical education in order to understand it? Very little, and anyway by the 18th century at least there were so many translations and popularizations of classical lore that one could pick up enough knowledge to make sense of the work. Few poets are as allusive as Shelley, and one must be eternally grateful for the generations of critics--including Don--who have recovered the various intertextual meanings. How many of us, on our own, could have discovered all the literary and philosophical allusions in Prometheus Unbound? Not me. Few of us are as well educated as Shelley was. We probably shouldn't be reading him. But we do. And so did plebeian radicals of all sorts (Spenceans, Owenites, Cooperativists, Chartists) in the 19th century, with Allen Davenport urging his fellow workers to read the most challenging Shelley poems, like Prometheus and Revolt of Islam. Queen Mab was more popular with workers, but I doubt the typical Oxbridge graduate in the 19th century made much sense of Prometheus either.

An important determinant of popular literary culture is publication. (The parallel with Blake might be pertinent in ways that Don does not mention: Blake's method of self-publication guaranteed a small readership. Also, many of the statements in Declaration of Rights are like "Proverbs from Hell"--less figurative and Aesopian than Blake's, but proverbial nonetheless.) PBS's method of distributing The Devil's Walk (DW) was clearly desperate, not only because the text was so obviously illegal (seditious, blasphemous, and libelous toward the king and regent), but because PBS did not utilize any already existing radical network. In 1815 he does indeed connect successfully with Spencean radicals (Cannon, Fair) who publish The Refutation of Deism in The Theological Inquirer and a third of Queen Mab in a long review. Because of this experience, Queen Mab was later pirated and became a central text in working-class radicalism in the 19th century. As we all know, however, PBS did not cultivate his connection with the Spencean underground that Iain McCalman has written about, but PBS chose rather to align himself with the Leigh Hunt circle of reformers. After 1815 he certainly wrote works that were ultra-radical in form and content--The Mask of Anarchy, Swellfoot, and Popular Songs--but he was hampered by his dependence on Leigh Hunt, hardly an ultra-radical. If PBS after Peterloo had sent his most radical work to one of the Spenceans, it would have been published long before 1832.

There is nothing in the style and form of DW that is not in other very good radical songs and ballads in the 1790s-1820s. Thelwall's "Sheepsheering Song" (Poetry and Reform 115-18) has a similar panoramic sweep satirizing contemporary social and political life. JT develops cumulatively the symbol and image of "sheering," as PBS develops the symbol and image of gluttonous, self-indulgent, even vampirish consumption. Both are structured as satirical apocalyptic poems with moments of bitter humor.

The style and form of "popular" poetry, however, are ideologically neutral, as one can see in Betty Bennett's anthology of war poetry or most pertinently in Southey's reactionary revision of his formerly radical satire, The Devil's Thoughts. The decisive ideological factors are the poet's own words and the mode of publication. The Spencean Songbook, for example, was used in radical meetings and at taverns (roughly, the radical sector of the "plebeian public sphere"), where they were sung, read, memorized, revised, and otherwise performed and reproduced. The RS-STC poem of 1799 in the Morning Post would have made its way through the Whiggish social network and institutions (more or less, the liberal sector of the "middle-class public sphere"). The very nature of newspaper publication made possible imitations, piratings, and reprintings. Some pirated editions of the RS-STC poem, eg, printed "General Gascoigne" rather than "General ______," thus making a pointed reference to Ireland 1798. Shelley's DW, unfortunately, was kept out of the public sphere almost entirely.

Most of Shelley's poem is really quite good, better than STC-RS's. Lines 46-47: "My cattle . . . dine on news of human blood." The satire before this has depended on inversion and substitution: angelic/satanic, good/bad, appearance/reality. Another kind of satire partakes of the subtle symbolism Don reserved for "mature" works. Were Satan's cattle to thrive, that would be enough within the logic of inversion, but here PBS has them dining on news of human blood. Dining--how genteel! Not directly on blood, but "news" of blood--distant reports. This contrast of geographical distance and moral responsibility is similar to what happens in Blake's "London": "Blood runs down palace walls." More: they "sup on the groans of the dying and dead." Consuming something that is as immaterial but emotional as groans captures the moral decadence PBS is satirizing. The next six stanzas are equally brilliant, with the repetitive "Fat" and the hilarious picture of the Prince Regent ("And pantaloons are like half moons"). The poem stalls at line 80 and doesn't get going again until line 118; from there to the end it is once again very strong. The "hell-hounds, Murder, Want and Woe" are like Prometheus Unbound's Furies and the allegorical monsters of Mask of Anarchy. The apocalyptic ending is pure Shelley, or as Linda Brigham says, Shelley-ish, as PBS works through satire to get to the visionary apocalypse dependent entirely on human agency, not the divine intervention that underpins both millennial and apocalyptic forms.

--MS, OCTOBER 1997


Last modified October 1997.