Wheatley, "Paranoid Politics: Shelley and the Quarterly Review"

Romanticism and Conspiracy

Paranoid Politics: Shelley and the Quarterly Review

Kim Wheatley, College of William and Mary

  1. "The quarterly is undoubtedly conducted with talent great talent & affords a dreadful preponderance against the cause of improvement. If a band of staunch reformers, resolute yet skilful infidels were united in so close & constant a league as that in which interest & fanatisism [sic] have joined the members of that literary coalition!" In this passage from a letter to Thomas Love Peacock (Letters II, 81), Percy Bysshe Shelley recognizes the hegemonic power of the Tory Quarterly Review, and suggests that the way to counteract its influence would be to oppose one cabal with another. Elsewhere, in other letters and in his mature poetry, however, Shelley implicitly questions both the worth of conspiratorial activity and the straightforward effectiveness of the printed word. In this paper I will analyze part of the dialogue between Shelley and the Quarterly Review, the fiercely reactionary reviewing periodical that he regretfully saw as "conducted" with "great talent." The paper is taken from my book-in-progress, provisionally entitled Beyond Paranoid Politics: Shelley's Poetry and its Reception, which attempts to recover Shelley's ethical and aesthetic idealism by identifying the interaction between Shelley's poetry and its early readers as itself an enactment of Shelleyan idealism.(1) In what follows I will begin with some general remarks on the rhetoric of the reviewers, and I will then suggest how the dialogue between Shelley and the Quarterly complicates the dynamics of that rhetoric, while in this case remaining within -- as opposed to moving beyond -- paranoid politics.

  2. I see the rhetoric of early nineteenth-century reviewers, and the Quarterly in particular, as a historically-specific version of the "paranoid style," a totalizing discourse of self-aggrandizement and persecution. I use the phrase "paranoid style" -- taken from Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics -- to characterize not only the violent attacks that Shelley and other poets inspired, but also the vituperative language of the reviewing periodicals in general in early nineteenth-century England. Obsessed with the threat of revolution, users of the paranoid style -- conspiracy theorists by definition -- ascribe to their enemies the ability to effect large-scale social and political change. According to Hofstadter, for the paranoid rhetorician, "History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power" (29).(2) Within the Romantic era version of paranoid politics, both Tory and Whig reviewers translate their intense partisanship into a vocabulary of moral absolutism. Adopting Miltonic and apocalyptic imagery, traditionally exploited by English political rhetoric, these spokesmen for the establishment characterize their adversaries as Satanic rebels against orthodoxy. They tend to pin the blame for actual or potential social unrest on one demonic individual or a small band of conspirators, singling out reformers, including Shelley, for personal attacks and accusing them of corrupting readers. Since in early nineteenth-century England, the publication of reformist texts is a key element in extra-parliamentary political activity, this particular version of the paranoid style involves a preoccupation with the efficacy of the printed word. The establishment reviewers habitually take what Hofstadter calls the "characteristic paranoid leap into fantasy" (11) when describing the influence of reformist texts, whether journalism or poetry. These writers imagine seditious sentiments not only automatically affecting readers, but also magically reaching even the illiterate, by means of contagion. Their belief in an apparently depersonalized contagion conflicts with their belief in the predominance of individual agency, but the paranoid style is not undermined by its contradictions, it is sustained by them.

  3. This extravagant and unstable rhetoric locks the supporters of the Tory government, their Whig antagonists and their shared opponents -- reformers -- into mutually empowering positions. Shelley -- eventually classed as a conspirator in Byron's "Satanic School" -- is excoriated in terms similar to those used against popular radical journalists such as William Cobbett. In what I call the Satanic scenario, reformers embrace the role of defiant rebels, not realizing that in putting the spokesmen for the establishment in the position of God to Milton's Satan, they are allowing them to dictate the terms of public debate. (3) Although it is clearly disabling for reformers, at the same time the Satanic scenario recoils on the Tories, forcing them to give reformers -- including Shelley -- the semblance of power by figuring them as diabolical. Shelley of course could embrace the role of defiant rebel on occasion (notably as the author of Queen Mab), and I would suggest that insofar as Shelley's later poems -- including Prometheus Unbound and Adonais -- antagonize the reviewers, they also take a Satanic position. In my larger project I argue that in dialogue with its reception, Shelley's poetry ultimately sidesteps the assumptions underlying the early nineteenth-century paranoid style. The present paper however restricts itself to an analysis of the interplay between Shelley and the Quarterly in terms of the Satanic scenario. First, though, I will briefly address the question of the causes underlying the reviewers' persecutory rhetoric. What motivates this particular outbreak of cultural (as opposed to clinical) paranoia?

  4. Why were the reviews so mean? How, that is to say, can we account for what Terry Eagleton, in The Function of Criticism, calls the "scurrility" and "sectarian virulence" (37) of the Quarterly and the Edinburgh Reviews? Eagleton and other materialist critics working on the Romantic period, notably Marjorie Levinson in Keats's Life of Allegory, tend to explain the reviewers' excesses with reference to class anxieties; that is to say, they assume that "sectarian virulence" is grounded in something other than political partisanship. By contrast, from a post-Marxist perspective François Furet in his account of conspiracy theory rhetoric in revolutionary France, Interpreting the French Revolution, sees politics itself, rather than socioeconomic forces dictating changes in politics, as the new ground. While Furet's inversion of the distinction between base and superstructure may provide a satisfactory explanation for post-revolutionary French conspiracy theory, the English paranoid rhetoric of the same period calls for a more multifaceted account. Lynn Hunt refines Furet's interpretation in her Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution. She points out that the way in which "Furet characterizes revolutionary government as in some sense pathological" preserves the "assumption that the essential characteristics of politics can only be explained by their relation to a social ground. . . . When politics come first, the situation is by definition abnormal" (12). Lynn Hunt instead stresses that political and social determinants are intertwined (13), while also claiming that the "centrality of conspiracy in revolutionary rhetoric cannot be sufficiently explained in historical terms" (42). I would suggest that there are rhetorical as well as historical reasons for the English Romantic-era phenomenon of paranoid rhetoric, and that no single ground for the reviewers' extremism can be identified. Persecution, that is to say, feeds on itself, gathering a self-perpetuating momentum. It is all too easy to see the irrationally defensive tone of the reviewers as a paranoid overreaction to an exclusively political or class-based threat. Impassioned language need not be the result of some hidden (or not so hidden) anxiety: it may invent a threat rather than -- or as well as -- responding to one.

  5. Romantic writers' own explanations for what Coleridge, in Biographia Literaria, called the "damnatory style" of reviewing themselves point to the overdetermined nature of that style in their particular historical moment (238). Hazlitt, for example, in his various attacks on the Quarterly Review and its editor, focuses on political and religious bigotry (William Gifford is a party tool) and, predictably, personalities (William Gifford is a nasty person). Yet Hazlitt also claims that the reviewers calculatingly engage in "assassination" to make money (16: 239). In addition, Coleridge, in Biographia Literaria, points to a quasi-psychological "habit of malignity in the form of mere wantonness" (238). The discrepancy between what Coleridge calls a "habit of malignity" and what Hazlitt calls "cold-blooded mercenary calculation of . . . profits" (16: 239) raises the question of whether the reviewers believe in what they are saying or are self-consciously engaging in vituperation for the sake of financial gain. This distinction however becomes a false one, since persecution can both absorb multiple motivations and generate more of the same, crossing from one frame of reference to another. Motives based on class, politics, marketing considerations, and personal animosity, intersect and become indistinguishable from each other -- as in Shelley's linkage of the terms "interest & fanatisism." In addition, each of these motivations may be subordinated to the impulse to entertain: persecution is fun! Hence the power and pervasiveness of paranoid rhetoric. Fittingly, in view of the paranoid rhetorician's reliance on tropes of contagion, paranoid fictions are themselves contagious. The rest of my paper will argue for a sort of permeability between Shelley and the reviewers: they respond paranoically to him while at the same time ironically anticipating his challenge to their assumptions, and he publically undercuts their paranoid stance while privately embracing the Quarterly's own demonizing rhetoric.

  6. The Quarterly attacked Shelley three times during his lifetime, in 1818, 1819, and 1821. Shelley responded to the first two of these attacks both publically, in the Preface and text of Prometheus Unbound, his major confrontation with the Satanic scenario, and privately, in letters to his publisher, Charles Ollier. Both Prometheus Unbound and Shelley's attack on the Quarterly reviewers in Adonais can be read as at once critiquing and participating in the mutually empowering and mutually circumscribing antagonisms of paranoid rhetoric. In the rest of this paper I will focus on Shelley's most direct engagement with the reviewers' terms, in a passage from Act II of Prometheus Unbound and in one of his letters to Ollier.

  7. The Quarterly's first attack on Shelley is a digression in a hostile review of Leigh Hunt's Foliage.(4) On one level, Shelley is singled out merely because he is a friend of Hunt's, just as Keats is attacked by Blackwood's Magazine partly for the same reason. Regardless of the initial impetus for the attacks, from the point of view of the reviewers, Shelley turns out to be the ideal target for persecution. Not only are his political beliefs almost unspeakably objectionable, his life exemplifies the connection between radical opinions, lax moral principles and immoral behavior. Since Shelley is a wicked man, it follows that his poetry is perverted. Before it even reviews his work, the Quarterly establishes Shelley's reputation as a figure of diabolical wickedness. However, the reviewers' own extravagant rhetoric ironically anticipates Shelley's own attempts to unsettle the centrality of individual agency. At the same time, as we will see from Shelley's private reaction to the Quarterly, these personal attacks teach the poet on the one hand, the impossibility of directly evading the self-perpetuating logic of the Satanic scenario, and, on the other hand, the potential benefit to be gained from the reviewers' efforts to demonize him.

  8. The first attack on Shelley by the Quarterly is somewhat oblique. Shelley's name is not actually mentioned in the Quarterly's article on Hunt's Foliage, most of which takes a dismissive tone towards the "namby-pamby" (327) Hunt. The reviewer's tone, however, becomes suddenly heightened when he refers to Shelley:

    We may be very narrow-minded, but we look upon it still as somewhat dishonourable to have been expelled from a University for the monstrous absurdity of a 'mathematical demonstration of the non-existence of a God': according to our understandings, it is not proof of a very affectionate heart to break that of a wife by cruelty and infidelity; and if we were told of a man who, placed on a wild rock among the clouds, yet even in that height surrounded by a loftier amphitheatre of spire-like mountains, hanging over a valley of eternal ice and snow, where the roar of mighty waterfalls was at times unheeded from the hollow and more appalling thunder of the deep and unseen avalanche, -- if we were told of a man who, thus witnessing the sublimest assemblage of natural objects, should retire to the cabin near and write [atheos] after his name in the album, we hope our own feeling would be pity rather than disgust. (J. T. Coleridge, "'Foliage,' by Leigh Hunt," 328-9)

    But of course it really is disgust. This startlingly energetic description of Shelley in the Swiss Alps builds on a rumor concerning Shelley's inscription in an inn's guest-book. The attack of course depends on the commonplace notion that sublime mountain scenery confirms orthodox Christians in their faith.(5) Yet the aggressively opinionated stance of the reviewer is momentarily suspended by his own rhetorical evocation of a sublime experience. His contemplation of what is to him Shelley's crucial moment of Satanic rebellion unexpectedly produces not an image of supremely audacious individualism but rather something like a distinctively Shelleyan response to the external world. The "man" passively "placed on a wild rock" is already "among the clouds" yet dizzyingly looks up to even higher peaks as one extreme boundary gives way to another. Perceptions slide in and out of focus as the waterfalls and avalanches are intermittently "unheeded" and "unseen." The reason the writer of the passage pulls himself up short towards the end and repeats "if we were told of a man" is that by this point the human being has been eliminated from the picture. The instance of defiance -- the observer's self-description -- comes only after the observer has become absorbed into the landscape from which he is accused of being unnaturally detached. This personal attack at once confirms Shelley's notoriety and undermines the individual identity of the hypothetical "man" who represents him.

  9. Shelley read this review in October, 1818, and replied to it in Act II of Prometheus Unbound, written early the following year. Timothy Webb has shown that part of a speech of Asia's was provoked by the Quarterly's image of Shelley in the Swiss Alps.(6) Asia's speech ends:

    Hark! the rushing snow!
    The sun-awakened avalanche! whose mass,
    Thrice sifted by the storm, had gathered there
    Flake after flake, in Heaven-defying minds
    As thought by thought is piled, till some great truth
    Is loosened, and the nations echo round
    Shaken to their roots: as do the mountains now.

    (Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, II, iii, 36-42)

    I would suggest that Asia's image of the avalanche calls into question the oppositional stance that Shelley's reviewers accused him of taking. The phrase "Heaven-defying minds" gives an impression of Satanic defiance, but the passage as a whole represents a far less individualized, less deliberate form of human agency. "There" at the end of the third line refers both back to the avalanche and forward to "minds," giving the avalanche an external as well as an internal location. The phrase "in Heaven-defying minds" at once qualifies "Flake after flake" and "As thought by thought is piled," unsettling the boundary between the two. The concentration of participles ("rushing," "awakened," "sifted") locates energy in the avalanche as well as in the "Heaven-defying minds," but the passive verbs, "is piled," "Is loosened," avoid ascribing intention or will either to the "minds" or the snow. Instead of the avalanche being anthropomorphized, the social and political revolution to which it is compared takes on the inevitability and unpredictability of a natural phenomenon. Asia's speech implies that change is not the result of individual -- or conspiratorial -- acts of rebellion, but the widespread recognition of an already existing "truth."

  10. This passage also calls into question the straightforward notion of cause and effect implied by the reviewers' conspiracy theory rhetoric. The interplay between active and passive verbs and between tenses de-emphasizes the temporal progression implied by "till" and "after." The outcome of the piling up of thoughts: "some great truth/Is loosened," turns out to be less decisive than one might expect: "some great truth" sounds vague, as if whether the truth is beneficial or destructive is irrelevant. The parallel between "Is loosened" and "is piled" suggests that instead of entailing a break with the past, change is on a continuum with the paradoxically unwilled preparation for the change. The "Heaven-defying minds" do not cause the revolution, but neither do they merely accompany it. Asia's speech rewrites revolution as an impersonal process which cannot be pinned down to a particular time or place. Rather than simply oppose one image of Satanic defiance with another, then, the passage undoes the notion of defiance as both a stance taken by an individual and as an ongoing purposeful activity taking place over time.

  11. Published before that reply by the poet, the Quarterly's first full-length article on Shelley was a very hostile review of Laon and Cythna and The Revolt of Islam, written, like the review of Foliage, by John Taylor Coleridge, although Shelley became obsessed with the idea that it was written by Robert Southey (but I'm not concerned here with personal paranoia). The reviewer begins by suggesting that Shelley's radicalism is so extreme that it can do no harm: "he might almost be mistaken for some artful advocate of civil order and religious institutions" ([J. T. Coleridge], "Shelley's Revolt of Islam," 460). However, towards the end of the article, the reviewer grants Shelley and his poem a power which he had earlier denied. "He has indeed, to the best of his ability, wounded us in the tenderest part. -- As far as in him lay, he has loosened the hold of our protecting laws, and sapped the principles of our venerable polity; he has invaded the purity and chilled the unsuspecting ardour of our fireside intimacies" (469). The poem itself has performed these quasi-sexual assaults on society and domesticity, but the reviewer goes on to imagine Shelley, by extension, as the possessor of monstrous vanity, "desperate malignity," and "a proud and rebel mind" (471). He then predicts Shelley's death by drowning.

    Like the Egyptian of old, the wheels of his chariot are broken, the path of 'mighty waters' closes in upon him behind, and a still deepening ocean is before him: -- for a short time, are seen his impotent struggles against a resistless power, his blasphemous execrations are heard, his despair but poorly assumes the tone of triumph and defiance, and he calls ineffectually on others to follow him to the same ruin -- finally, he sinks 'like lead' to the bottom, and is forgotten. (471)

    After associating Shelley with the sublime in the article on Foliage, the same reviewer here connects him with a potentially sublime though also melodramatic scene from Exodus. This passage is unstable, not so much because its language is hyperbolic but because its imagery and syntax work against each other. The initial Biblical metaphor is disconcertingly concrete: Shelley himself particularly enjoyed the broken chariot wheels, referring to the image in a letter to Ollier as "comical" (Letters II, 163). At the same time, the Quarterly's attack makes the poet the pretext for an abstract moral fable representing the fate of all blaspheming sinners. As such, Shelley the individual is incidental to the reviewer's narrative, which might be why he is described with a surprising lack of agency. The sentence's ostensible subject is Shelley, but it begins without attaching the opening comparison to a main clause. Shelley suddenly becomes "him," pursued by the "waters." The passive verbs "are seen," "are heard," confirm the futility of Shelley's "struggles" but they also make him elusive, especially since one next finds that he has been metonymically reduced to "despair." When Shelley finally emerges as the subject of the sentence it is only because by then he is on the point of being submerged in the "ocean." The final image of sinking attempts to dispose of Shelley, but despite the Biblical allusion it leaves the reader with such an impression of bathos that it undercuts its own containment of the already rather ludicrous Satanic figure.

  12. Shelley's private response to this passage, in a letter to Ollier dated October 15, 1819, is suggestive:

    I was amused, too, with the finale; it is like the end of the first act of an opera, when that tremendous concordant discord sets up from the orchestra, and everybody talks and sings at once. It describes the result of my battle with their Omnipotent God; his pulling me under the sea by the hair of my head, like Pharaoh; my calling out like the devil who was game to the last; swearing and cursing in all comic and horrid oaths, like a French postillion on Mount Cenis; entreating everybody to drown themselves; pretending not to be drowned myself when I am drowned; and, lastly, being drowned. (Letters II, 128)(7)

    Shelley imaginatively embellishes the scene conjured up by the Quarterly, filling it with activity. For the reviewer's solemn description of an encounter with death, he substitutes a noisy, crowded spectacle. In a rapid succession of lively similes, he translates the reviewer's insinuations into a humorous "battle" between himself and a personally vindictive God who physically drags him beneath the waves. The poet who is so passive in the reviewer's account becomes an energetic "devil" who instead of persuading "others" to be damned, politely entreats "everybody" literally to "drown themselves." Shelley's added detail, "pretending not to be drowned myself when I am drowned," transfers agency to himself at the moment of complete loss of control. His willful misreading of the passage in the Quarterly shows him eagerly accepting a Satanic stance: the fact that Shelley embraces this picture of himself as the devil implies an appreciation of the limited but lively power to be gained by Satanic defiance. Drawing with his reviewer on a shared discourse of paranoia that floats free of any single ground, Shelley implicitly (though not necessarily consciously) recognizes the appeal of working within the system. At the same time, the reviewer's uneasiness with that system oddly anticipates Shelley's own later poetic attempts to evade it, confirming that those most resistant to Shelley can thus be seen as collaborating with his challenge to the premises underlying paranoid rhetoric.


(1) The first half of this paper refines the claims of my earlier article, "Paranoid Politics: The Quarterly and Edinburgh Reviews." back

(2) Hofstadter adds, "Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He is a free, active, demonic agent. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history himself, or deflects the normal course of history in an evil way" (32). back

(3) My sense of the relationship between God and Satan takes for granted what Marjorie Levinson calls "the lesson we first learned from the Romantics. Namely, that Satan is always God's product, structural complement, and support-system" (41). That is to say, the stance of a defiant rebel tends to uphold the orthodoxy that it purports to challenge, as Shelley powerfully dramatizes in Prometheus Unbound. back

(4) The author of this review is thought to be John Taylor Coleridge because he refers in a footnote to having known Shelley at Eton (see Reiman, Romantics Reviewed 758). In the same footnote J. T. Coleridge refers to a poem which he does not name but which is evidently Laon and Cythna. He reviewed this poem in the Quarterly for April, 1819 (see below), though at this point wonders "whether it would be morally right to lend it notoriety by any comments" ([J. T. Coleridge], "'Foliage,' by Leigh Hunt," 327). He also claims to "know the author's disgraceful and flagitious history well" (327). back

(5) Cf. Frances Ferguson's reading of "Mont Blanc" (1816). Ferguson claims that Shelley "does not destroy the mountain's symbolic value but merely inverts it" (203), given that "the sublime [is] the aesthetic operation through which one makes an implicit argument for the transcendent existence of man" (213). back

(6) Webb deciphered Shelley's notation on the draft MS. copy of this passage: "This was suggested by the [Quarterly Review]" (13). back

(7) The word "am" in "am drowned" is missing from the manuscript of this letter as transcribed in Shelley and his Circle (Reiman, 6: 926-927). back

Works Cited

[John Taylor Coleridge?]. "'Foliage,' by Leigh Hunt." Quarterly Review 18 (January 1818): 324-335.

[John Taylor Coleridge]. "Shelley's Revolt of Islam." Quarterly Review 21 (April 1819): 460-471.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. Ed. George Watson. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1975.

Eagleton, Terry. The Function of Criticism. London: Verso, 1984.

Ferguson, Frances. "Shelley's Mont Blanc: What the Mountain Said." Romanticism and Language. Ed. Arden Reed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984: 202-214.

Furet, François. Interpreting the French Revolution. Trans. Elborg Forster. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Hazlitt, William. Complete Works. Ed. P. P. Howe. 21 vols. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1930-34.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and other essays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.

Hunt, Lynn. Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984.

Levinson, Marjorie. Keats's Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Reiman, Donald H. The Romantics Reviewed: Contemporary Reviews of British Romantic Writers. Part C: 2 vols. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1972.

Reiman, Donald H., ed. Shelley and his Circle 1773-1822. Vol. 6. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ed. Frederick L. Jones. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964.

---. Prometheus Unbound. Shelley's Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company. 1977.

Webb, Timothy. "'The Avalanche of Ages': Shelley's Defence of Atheism and Prometheus Unbound." KSMB 35 (1984): 1-39.

Wheatley, Kim. "Paranoid Politics: The Quarterly and Edinburgh Reviews." Prose Studies 15 (1992): 319-343.