*Shelley, Percy Bysshe
Shelley, Percy Bysshe
If Percy Bysshe Shelley regarded poets as unacknowledged legislators, it was in the medium of prose that he explicitly formulated this creed. In the small body of essays, prefaces, and fragments that form his prose corpus, Shelley treats religion, morals, politics, and literature not as separate critical concerns but as aspects of a cultural totality constructed by and constructing his role as a poet—a role far removed from that of the “ineffectual angel” described by some later readers. Indeed, Shelley’s last and bestknown essay, “A Defence of Poetry” (1821), defines poetry in explicitly functional terms as culturally mediated expression that “communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community.” Whether as poet or polemicist, idealist or skeptic, Shelley writes as an engaged citizen.
Shelley’s first public appearances as an author explore two poles of the expressive resources available to a prose writer. His first two prose publications, “The Necessity of Atheism” (1811) and “An Address to the Irish People” (1812), emerge from the philosopher’s closet and the hustings respectively. Its mild, reasoned tenor notwithstanding, the first resulted in Shelley’s expulsion (along with a friend) from Oxford. While the second effected no practical result beyond bringing home to its author the volatility of religious issues, it demonstrates a grasp of the plain style so effectively employed by radical writers like Thomas Paine and William Cobbett. The same year Shelley published “An Address” he also made an intervention on behalf of press freedoms in “A Letter to Lord Ellenborough,” addressed to the judge who had recently convicted a bookseller and publisher for publishing Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason.
The “Letter” speaks with what Blake terms “the voice of honest indignation,” adeptly assuming the persona of an Englishman asserting his outrage at an infringement of traditional liberties (“Whom has he injured? What crime has he committed?”).
An alternation between philosophical and popular modes characterizes Shelley’s subsequent prose—a dichotomy reflecting a division among his poems as well. The common threads running through all of these works, however, are an engagement with the social good—whether it concerns diet (“Essay on the Vegetable System of Diet,” wr. 1814–15) or political suffrage (“A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote Throughout the Kingdom,” pub. 1817)—and a rational public voice. While its author was sometimes portrayed by contemporaries as a self-dramatizing young Werther figure, Shelley’s prose eschews the personal, idiosyncratic, and often confessional impulses of the Romantic essay as practiced by Lamb, De Quincey, and Hazlitt. Shelley was a child of the Enlightenment and his essays reflect the encyclopedic cultural purview and the rational vantage of 18th-century moral philosophy. His writing is learned, employing even the most recondite classical references with ease, and capable of philosophical sophistication, treating fundamental questions in pieces like “Essay on Love” (wr. c. 1818) and “Essay on Life” (wr. c. 1812–14), for instance, with rigorous economy of exposition (“The words, I, you, they are not signs of any actual difference subsisting between the assemblage of thoughts thus indicated, but are merely marks employed to denote the different modifications of the one mind”). The work is fully engaged as well, directing its energies of inquiry to the most immediate issues affecting daily life. For Shelley, as a poet, these issues are ultimately implicated in the status and function of poetry in an age when the dominant modes of inquiry were rational in nature. In 1820, his friend Thomas Love Peacock published a witty essay entitled The Four Ages of Poetry, in which Peacock argues that poetry has outlived its usefulness: “It can never make a philosopher, nor a statesman, nor in any class of life an useful or rational man. It cannot claim the slightest share in any one of the comforts and utilities of life of which we have witnessed so many and so rapid advances.” In reply, Shelley wrote “A Defence of Poetry”—his best-known essay and, along with Wordsworth’s preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1800), a central critical document of English Romanticism. Taken together, both essays clearly look back to the Elizabethan controversy sparked by Stephen Gosson’s School of Abuse (1579), an angry attack on poetry that provoked Sir Philip Sidney to write his famous Defence of Poesy (1595). Where Gosson takes the moralistic line of puritanism, however, Peacock argues from the bloodlessly practical perspective of utilitarianism.
What makes Shelley’s reply so effective is that it, too, proceeds from the principle of utility—albeit a much less reductive version.
Like Peacock’s essay, which traces poetry’s decline as a cultural force from its vital role in primitive heroic cultures to its puerile decadence at present, Shelley’s “Defence” is conceived on the model of the Enlightenment cultural survey. It starts out from the premise that “poetry is connate with the origin of man,” arguing for the priority of imagination over reason. Shelley’s method is by turns logical and declamatory, alternating rational exposition (“Reason is the enumeration of quantities already known; imagination is the perception of the value of those quantities, both separately and as a whole”) with rhetorical figures (“Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance”). Shelley uses the term “poet” in its broadest sense as an originator of knowledge, a category necessarily including “all the authors of revolutions in opinion.” This argument—that it is through new figures of speech, new modalities of language, that new ways of thinking emerge—is what validates the heightened, declamatory language employed in the essay by Shelley when he speaks in the persona of the legislator/seer the essay itself celebrates: “[Poetry] is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred. It is at the same time the root and blossom of all other systems of thought; it is that from which all spring, and that which adorns all.”
Rather than arguing against utility, then, the essay argues against a narrow conception of utility, and awards the civic laurel to poetry in the service of a higher utility.
Born 4 August 1792 at Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex. Studied at Syon House Academy, Isleworth, Middlesex, 1801–04; Eton College, Berkshire, 1804–10; University College, Oxford, 1810–11: expelled for the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. Eloped with Harriet Westbrook, and married, 1811 (died, 1816): one daughter and one son.
Visited Ireland, 1812; lived in Lynmouth, Devon, Tremadoc, Wales, near Windsor, and on the continent, 1812–15. Left Harriet Westbrook for Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (i.e. the writer Mary Shelley), daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, 1814, and married her after Westbrook’s death, 1816: two sons and one daughter. Lived in Geneva, 1816, Great Marlow, Buckinghamshire, 1817, and Italy, from 1818. Drowned in a sailing accident in the Mediterranean, in the Gulf of Spezia near Lerici, 8 July 1822.
Essays and Related Prose
Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations, and Fragments, edited by Mary Shelley, 2 vols., 1840
The Prose Works, edited by H.Buxton Forman, 4 vols., 1880
Prose Works, edited by Richard Herne Shepherd, 2 vols., 1888
Shelley’s Prose, or, The Trumpet of a Prophecy, edited by David Lee Clark, 1954;
corrected edition, 1988
Selected Poetry and Prose, edited byAlasdair D.F.Macrae, 1991
The Necessity of Atheism, and Other Essays, 1993
The Prose Works, vol. 1, edited by E.B. Murray, 1993
Poems and Prose, edited by Timothy Webb and George E. Donaldson, 1995
Other writings: poetry, two romances, and the verse drama Prometheus Unbound (1820).
Collected works editions: The Complete Works, edited by Roger Ingpen and Walter Edwin Peck, 10 vols., 1926–30; The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts, editor-in-chief Donald H.Reiman, 21 vols., 1986–95.
Dunbar, Clement, A Bibliography of Shelley Studies, 1823–1950, New York: Garland, 1976
Engelberg, Karsten Klejs, The Making of the Shelley Myth: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism of Percy Bysshe Shelley 1822–1860, London: Mansell, and Westport, Connecticut: Meckler, 1988
Erdman, David, The Romantic Movement: A Selective and Critical Bibliography, New York: Garland, 10 vols., 1982– (in progress)
Cameron, Kenneth Neill, The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical, New York: Macmillan, 1950; London: Gollancz, 1951
Cameron, Kenneth Neill, Shelley: The Golden Years, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1974
Dawson, P.M.S., The Unacknowledged Legislator: Shelley and Politics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980
Delisle, Fanny, A Study of Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry: A Textual and Critical Evaluation, Salzburg: University of Salzburg Institute for English Language and Literature, 1974
Hoagwood, Terence Allan, Skepticism and Ideology: Shelley’s Political Prose and Its Philosophical Context frotn Bacon to Marx, lowa City: University of lowa Press, 1988
Keach, William, Shelley’s Style, New York: Methuen, 1984
Scrivener, Michael, Radical Shelley: The Philosophical Anarchism and Utopian Thought of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982
Verkoren, Lucas, A Study of Shelley’s Defence of Poetry: Its Origin, Textual History, Sources, and Significance, New York: Haskell House, 1970 (original edition, 1937)
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