Keach, "Young Shelley"

Young Shelley

by William Keach

  1. [NOTE: If you follow a link that takes you out of this document, use the back button on your browser to return.]

  2. "IL BUON tempo verra"--this was the motto on the older Shelley's Italian ring. It's my belief that the good time will come when students being introduced to Shelley don't begin with the Alastor volume of 1816. In our own time the Shelley whose career essentially begins with (and in part comes to be defined by) Alastor has been powerful and influential: this is, after all, Earl Wasserman's Shelley, and Harold Bloom's. Unless we're teaching from the Norton Critical edition or some other anthology devoted exclusively to Shelley, we find it difficult even to assign the earlier work. The Norton Anthology begins with the Alastor volume poems, as do such older established anthologies of British Romanticism as those edited by Russell Noyes and David Perkins. And the habit continues: neither Jerome McGann's Romantic Period Verse nor Duncan Wu's Romanticism: An Anthology nor Anne Mellor's and Richard Matlack's British Literature 1780-1830 include Queen Mab or anything earlier.

  3. We miss a tremendous opportunity if we don't begin with Shelley when he was exactly our students' age, eighteen to twenty-one, experimenting with writing and with sex as many of them do, trying to negotiate new social and financial relations with his family--and throwing himself into a life of serious political activism that most students these days find impossible even to imagine, much less to realize. I missed this opportunity myself as a teacher for too long. My talk is partly an appeal, then, for a revised pedagogical agenda. Those of us who care about Shelley should stop assuming that if we want to talk about Queen Mab or "An Address to the Irish People" or even Zastrozzi, our only audience will be other Shelleyans or perhaps a captive audience of graduate students. I'm not so naive or disingenuous as to suggest that teaching these or immediately contemporary Shelley texts to undergraduates is a simple, straight-forward matter. But then teaching Alastor itself, or "Mont Blanc," or Prometheus Unbound, or "The Sensitive Plant," or "The Triumph of Life" to undergraduates is never a simple, straight-forward matter. We have much to gain, I believe, by doing more with the early Shelley than just mentioning his struggles at Eton and Oxford, shaking our heads over his menage  with Harriet Westbrook and T. J. Hogg, or offering a three-sentence summary of that amazing philosophical and political vision in verse that turned out, as Richard Holmes puts it, to be "the most widely read, the most notorious, and the most influential of all Shelley's works [in the first half of the nineteenth century] . . . and established itself as a basic text in the self-taught working-class culture from which the early trade union movement of the 1820s, and the Chartism of the thirties and forties was to spring."[1]

  4. We can begin afresh by asking our students to contemplate the range and extent of writing Shelley produced and got printed between the spring of 1810 (Zastrozzi ), when he was seventeen, and May of 1813 (Queen Mab), when he was still twenty: two gothic novels, two volumes of verse, five political tracts/pamphlets, one satirical ballad, one 2800-line political-philosophical vision. My inventory omits, of course, the Esdaile Notebook poems, many of which Shelley wanted to gather into a third volume of political verse, and his project for a novel on the French Revolution, "Hubert Cauvin." The approach I'm sketching out is likely to provoke at least some students to ask the key question: "But is any of this stuff any good?" And here I think we couldn't do better than to return to the great book from which my title is borrowed. In The Young Shelley, Kenneth Cameron concedes--too much and too quickly, in my view--that Shelley's pre-Queen Mab poems of late 1811-early 1812 "are of no literary value": "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."[2] But when he comes to Queen Mab, a poem with an enormous impact precisely as propaganda, Cameron constructs the right enabling perspective for much of Shelley's early verse: "That the style of the poem has some weaknesses of immaturity is undeniable and inevitable. . . . But the degree of one's sensitivity to these faults depends largely on one's reaction to the content. The unsympathetic reader, failing to enter into the spirit of the poem, will see mainly faults; the sympathetic reader, catching something of its impassioned flow--'horror and scorn and hate and fear and indignation'--will find passage after passage of power and beauty. Queen Mab is a revolutionary poem, not a parlor poem, and must be evaluated in terms of its own genre and not of some other" (242). This is, you may say, special pleading. But it's the right kind of special pleading for encouraging an informed and vital response to much of Shelley early writing. Through his unfashionable and quaint-sounding invitation "to enter the spirit of the poem," Cameron articulates the imperatives concerning genre, historical context, and authorial agency that need to inform all reading, including reading that foregrounds language and stylistic performance.

  5. I want to offer three brief instances of what it might mean to follow Cameron's lead in The Young Shelley and develop critical readings of the early verse rooted in an engaged attentiveness to context and content. These instances won't include "Zeinab and Kathema" from the Esdaile Notebook--valuably included in the Norton Critical edition--though this poem would make a good and possibly even earlier point of departure. It establishes (among other things) how much of the pre-Queen Mab verse is overtly political. I suggest instead that we begin a little later, not just with Shelley himself, travelling about the north of England in late 1811 and settling for a time in Keswick to be near Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, but with a broader grasp of what the country was like the first full winter of the Regency. The war with France had grown increasingly unpopular, in part because the country was in the grip of severe economic crisis brought on by the Continental blockage and by wartime inflation. A terrible harvest led to further increases in food prices, as well as shortages. There were local disturbances across the country, the most dramatic of which were the food riots and frame-breakings in Lancashire. In response to these disturbances, the government had sent troops into many areas: according to Holmes, who follows E. P. Thompson's account, "the occupation army stationed at trouble spots in England exceeded the whole of Wellington's force fighting on the Spanish peninsula" (96).[3] What Shelley saw in the north during the winter of 1811-1812 was "the appalling lack of proper housing, savage working hours and factory conditions, and the complete absence of educational or medical facilities among the manufacturing populations. Class antagonisms were sharpened by the indiscriminate use of troops to 'keep the peace' for the local employers and property-owners" (96-7).

  6. Shelley's poetry from this winter shows him trying to find a form and an idiom that would register his outrage at the economic and social suffering he was witnessing--and that would connect him with an audience among those segments of British society that, he thought, had both the interest and the power to initiate political change. These impulses are evident in the Esdaile Notebook poem called "A Tale of Society As It Is: From Facts, 1811." Actually written in early January 1812, this poem is conspicuously indebted to Wordsworth and--as is the case with all the poems I want to focus on--to Southey, the only one of the famous Lake District writers whom Shelley managed to meet during his time in Keswick. Shelley's conversations with Southey at this time would have major consequences for the rest of his career; imagining the nineteen-year-old radical visiting the author of Joan of Arc and Wat Tyler two years before Southey's appointment as poet laureate and finding him comfortably settled into Toryism is one of the keys to understanding Shelley's evolving relationship to first-generation romanticism. Southey, for his part, famously wrote that young Shelley "acts upon me as my own ghost would do. . . . the difference between my own opinion and his is--that he is 19 and I am 8 and 30."[4]

  7. It's the Southey of "Hannah" and "The Sailor's Mother," along with the Wordsworth of "The Affliction of Margaret" and "The Old Cumberland Beggar," that Shelley is responding to in "A Tale of Society As It Is." But with its unmistakably Godwinian title, this poem goes far beyond anything Southey or Wordsworth ever wrote in condemning the effect of imperialist war on British workers and poor people. Though cast in an entirely different idiom, the best passages share something "in spirit" (as Cameron might say) with the finest anti-war poem produced at this moment, Anna Barbauld's "Eighteen Hundred and Eleven." Shelley's aged, impoverished mother sees her only son conscripted into canon fodder,

    . . . when the tyrant's bloodhounds forced her child
    For tyrant's power unhallowed arms to wield,
    Bend to another's will, become a thing
    More senseless than the sword of battlefield. (18-21) [5]
  8. The image of human beings turned into tools of violence is one that Shelley would use later to elaborate the links between capitalistic economic exploitation and imperialist war. When the son returns seven years later, a wounded "shadow of the lusty child / Who, when the time of summer season smiled, / For her did earn a meal of honesty" (65-7), Shelley emblematizes the lives of thousands compelled to deliver and suffer "the vulgar tyrant's blow," only to come home

    Withered and sapless, miserably poor,
    Relinquished for his wounds to beg from door to door. (103, 107-8)
    Whether we agree or not with Holmes's judgment that this is "the first of Shelley's important poems," we should think about giving "A Tale of Society As It Is" a chance in our classrooms, now that Clinton has led the way to ending welfare as we never knew it.
  9. My second instance of the young Shelley's experiments in interventionist verse was begun in Keswick around the same time as "A Tale of Society As It Is," though it was revised and expanded during the following summer when the Shelley's were living at Lynmouth, near Barnstaple in Devon. "The Devil's Walk: A Ballad" again addresses, this time much more overtly, the older generation of poetic turncoats: it parodies Southey's and Coleridge's jointly written "The Devil's Thoughts" of 1799 in ways that are quite different from and yet prefigure Shelley's masterpiece in this mode, the brilliant burlesquing of Wordsworth in Peter Bell the Third. The complications in this early performance arise from Shelley's playfully subversive identification on occasion with Satan, and from our knowledge of Southey's later contemptible rumor-mongering concerning the "League of Incest" supposedly flourishing in the summer of 1816 on the shores of Lake Geneva. In Shelley's broadside ballad, Beelzebub draws out the corruption of state and church with winning panache:

    . . . to St. James's court he went,
    And St. Paul's Church he took in his way,
    He was mighty thick with every Saint,
    Though they were formal and he was gay. (15-18)

    (Click here to go to the Romantic Circles electronic edition of Shelley's The Devil's Walk, which also provides Southey's and Coleridge's Devil poems.)

  10. The devil surveys his domain in language that Shelley would recall and recast in "The Mask of Anarchy"; his well-fed minions are as

    Fat as the fiends that feed on blood,
    Fresh and warm from the fields of Spain . . .
    Fat--as the death-birds on Erin's shore,
    That glutted themselves in her dearest gore.
    And flitted round Castlereagh,
    When they snatched the Patriot's heart, that HIS grasp
    Had torn from its widow's maniac clasp,
    And fled at the dawn of day. (51-2, 57-62)
    The imagery of corpulence leads, inevitably, to a savagely hilarious portrait of the Prince Regent--itself enough to have the author arrested. But it was Shelley's Irish servant Dan Healy, not Shelley himself, who was caught on 19 August 1812 wheat-pasting copies of "The Devil's Walk" on walls around Barnstaple and imprisoned for six months.[6] Accounts of the incident depict the aristocratic radical having (perhaps by prior agreement) a servant take the rap for him--but nevertheless coming under serious surveillance by the office of the Home Secretary. The text of "The Devil's Walk" in volume one of the Longman edition is based on the copy of the poem forwarded to Lord Sidmouth at the Home Office by his agents.
  11. When we read Queen Mab from the vantage point of these earlier, much more provisional attempts to use poetry as a political weapon, we put ourselves and our students in a better position to respond to the political content and reception of Shelley's first major poetic project. Queen Mab is strikingly different from the two poems I've just looked at, of course--in style, in intellectual ambition and register, in anticipated readership. "Let only 250 Copies be printed," Shelley wrote to Thomas Hookham; "A small neat Quarto, on fine paper & so as to catch the aristocrats: They will not read it, but their sons & daughters may."[7] This seems a long way from postering poetry in the streets of Barnstaple. Yet Shelley first began thinking about Queen Mab during the winter of 1811-1812; the project grew out of his interventionist response to the conditions he saw around him then and during the following months as immediately as did the other, less formally and philosophically ambitious political poetry of this period.

  12. I have time to indicate only briefly what rethinking Queen Mab might mean in the context of our broader effort at rethinking the early Shelley. David Duff has already done some valuable rethinking for us in a chapter called "Romance and revolution in Queen Mab" in his 1994 book titled Romance and Revolution.[8] Duff's book challenges assumptions that the category "romance," during the cultural period for which it would come to provide the conventional name, necessarily signals a deflection or retreat from material history and politics, emphasizing instead romance's distinctive, though sometimes contradictory, connections with social pressure, conflict, and a belief that the world might be different than it is. He shows that the revival of romance and chivalric ideology in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was not an exclusively reactionary development--that the conservative deployment of chivalric romance so important in Burke and Scott must be grasped in dialectical opposition to its progressive and sometimes radical appropriations in Hunt, Peacock, and Shelley. Duff's chapter on Queen Mab begins with juxtaposed epigraphs from Barbauld's "An Address to the Opposers of the Corporation and Test Acts" (1790) and Shelley's "Declaration of Rights" (1812), indicating a useful determination to extend Cameron's emphasis on the young Shelley's efforts at "a revival of the revolutionary mood of the early 1790s." Without slighting the poem's indebtedness to Enlightenment republicanism and materialism, Duff shows that Shelley's fierce anti-capitalist attacks on "commerce" have important links to previous deployments of a medievalized chivalric ideology, that Shelley adapts motifs from Spenser's Faerie Queene through a perspective decisively shaped by Volney's Ruins of Empire and Southey's orientalist epics.

  13. Despite an equivocal and hesitant analysis of the idea of "revolution" itself in Queen Mab, Duff's work puts Shelley's first major poem at the center of a freshly historicized and politicized debate about the meaning of "romanticism." He helps us see the force of Cameron's judgment: when it comes to imagining a political and historical future fundamentally different from and better than the present, the young nineteen- or twenty-year-old Shelley, and the old Shelley in his late twenties, burned and burn with a continuous, if sometimes flickering, flame.


1. Shelley: The Pursuit (New York: Dutton, 1975), p. 208. Subsequent page-references are given parenthetically in the text. back

2. The Young Shelley: Genesis Of A Radical (New York: Macmillan, 1950), p. 116. back

3. See The Making Of The English Working Class (New York: Knopf and Random House, 1963), p. 564. back

4. Letter to John Rickman (M.P.), 6 January 1812, quoted in N. I. White, Shelley (New York: Knopf, 1940), 1: 618-20. back

5. All quotations are from volume 1 of The Poems Of Shelley , ed. Geoffrey Matthews and Kelvin Everest (London and New York: Longman, 1989). back

6. See headnote to "The Devil's Walk" in the Longman edition, 1: 230-1. back

7. The Letters Of Percy Bysshe Shelley , ed. Frederick L. Jones (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 1: 361. back

8. Romance And Revolution: Shelley And The Politics Of A Genre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 54-114. back