Bysshe Inigo Coffey, Shelley’s Broken World: Fractured Materiality and Intermitted Song. Reviewed by Michael Neth
Michael J. Neth
Middle Tennessee State University
Bysshe Coffey’s Shelley’s Broken World is a broad-ranging study: one part old-fashioned history of ideas; one part monograph on Shelley’s heretofore underappreciated practice of bringing much of his verse to life within the pauses and “limit-points” of sensory perception, cognition, and prosody―in the domain of the “[i]ntermittent states of being, vacancies, suspensions, strange immaterial formulations, [and] tenuous and porous networks” that “lace throughout his poetry” (8); and one part close reading of individual passages in several poems, carefully chosen to reinforce the author’s central insight that “intermittence is a pervasive quality not only of [Shelley’s] prosody but of the incidents his verse describes” (8). Coffey argues that Shelley’s “fascination with the voice, breath, and its repertoire of effects” enables him “to transgress the confines of the present and tangible object, to chart and animate the divide between material reality and the world of what he and his contemporaries would have called the soul” (14, 15).
Evincing a “persistent return to interruption” (194) both in the form and content of Shelley’s poetry enables Coffey to distinguish his approach from those of two critics who immediately came to mind as I perused the book: Jerrold Hogle, with whose Shelley’s Process this new book shares a sustained ability to discuss difficult abstractions cogently and clearly; and Michael O’Neill, according to Coffey “one of Shelley’s finest readers” (18). But Coffey forges a path different from both. He diverges from O’Neill “in attaching more weight to the importance of philosophical thought in Shelley’s verse and prose” (19) than the latter, albeit while sharing O’Neill’s dislike for Shelleyan metaphysical system-builders such as Earl Wasserman. And he demurs from Hogle’s Ur-concept of transference insofar as, “in emphasizing figural and intellectual movement, [it] downplays the importance of breakage, intermittence, and rupture. [For Hogle] [p]rocess becomes the terminus” (11).
Coffey traverses ground that will be familiar to Shelleyans in his discussion of the formative influence upon the young poet of Lucretius, Hume, Godwin, Drummond, Holbach, and others whose ideas helped shape his transgressive worldview at a young age. He also revisits the issue of how critics have sought to categorize Shelley and draws our attention back to C.E. Pulos’s still-read The Deep Truth (1954), with its influential thesis that Shelley’s skepticism enabled him to reconcile antithetical extremes of empirically-based materialism and Platonic idealism. But here again, Coffey offers an interesting caveat. Although the dialectic whereby Shelley’s skeptically-based meliorism simultaneously “provided an answer to the New Criticism’s distaste for Shelley’s supposedly confused and untenable ideas” and set the stage for “a younger generation ready to give Marxist criticism (with its synthesizing routines) a trial, . . . too much pressure has been placed on scepticism as an agent of intellectual and poetic coherence in Shelley, and it has become something of an unthinking critical twitch . . . [that] turns everything into its own nature and makes it difficult to think outside its totalizing parameters” (100).
This passage exemplifies Coffey’s consistent ability to focus simultaneously on individual precepts and the larger universe of critical discourse they have adumbrated but sometimes also obscured in seeking to fathom poetry as nonpareil as Shelley’s. But an even more significant virtue of Shelley’s Broken World is its use of vanguard historical and biographical scholarship to limn new readings of his verse. Coffey accomplishes this by exploring numerous works whose titles appear on the handwritten register that has come to be known as the “Marlow List,” now in possession of the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle (Pforz. Shelleyana 1082). Nora Crook, who has compiled an annotated edition of the List to be published on Romantic Circles, identifies some 310 titles that may represent 1500 total volumes, taking into account multi-volume sets. These are the books that did not accompany Percy and Mary when they left Marlow early in 1818 for Italy on what would become Shelley’s final departure from Britain. These volumes suffered the inglorious fate of confiscation by Robert Madocks, the Shelleys’ cabinetmaker to whom they had been entrusted, and later became part of a large sale held in Oxford in 1829. (Some few of them have been traced in the intervening two centuries.) With documentation that the poet did indeed own these books and, omnivorous reader that he was, very likely read them, Coffey infers that Shelley “retained much of their substance in his astonishing memory” (19n).
Armed with this knowledge, the author revisits the speculations of earlier critics who lacked access to the Marlow List and persuasively amplifies our knowledge of how Shelley could have encountered the ideas of various thinkers and writers for whom there currently exists no conclusive proof of his acquaintance with their published works. These include major figures like Newton, the Cambridge Platonist Henry More, and Kant. For instance, in the opening two chapters where Coffey reconstructs the poet’s implicit command of the history of scientific and philosophical materialism that would help explain his fascination with lacunae in and limit points upon our perception, he shows that, through Shelley’s ownership of Southey and Coleridge’s Omniana, he would have encountered Southey’s chapter on More’s allegorical poem, A Platonick Song of the Soul. Although deriding a poem he considered mystical nonsense, Southey nevertheless provided extracts and a gloss, including one passage “where Shelley might have encountered the idea of the soul living in the interval or the gap between the world of the spirit and the brutish world of matter” (39), thereby enriching his interest in materia subtilis, the notion whereby More bridged the gap between matter and spirit by characterizing the soul as a form of subtle matter. Shelley’s ownership of Bayle’s massive multivolume Dictionary Historical and Critical (probably in the English translation published throughout the 1730s), also on the List, contains several detailed entries in which Bayle analyzed More’s ideas. Shelley’s possession of John Mason Good’s lavish two-volume, quarto bilingual Lucretius (a set I own and for which I share Coffey’s evident enthusiasm) would have supplied Shelley with much information on the material soul via Good’s “fascinating scholia” (37). In his first two chapters, Coffey also provides sources―some on the Marlow List, others we know he probably owned thanks to surviving correspondence in which he ordered them from booksellers―that would account for Shelley’s likely familiarity with Newton’s vis inertiae, defined as an object’s tendency to resist change and remain in its present state of rest or motion, creating “a world where passivity and resistance have their own kind of power” (60). He also shows Shelley’s presumed acquaintance with More’s, Newton’s, and even contemporaneous medicine’s various notions of the sensorium (for More, the place where the soul resides).
Having established how Shelley conceptualized a world of fractured materiality, Coffey’s subsequent chapters transcribe interludes from the verbal music expressing this vision in his verse. The third chapter of the book examines Shelley’s ongoing fascination with death and the question of some sort of posthumous survivability of thought. Coffey considers the “Poems About Mary” in the Esdaile Notebook and Shelley’s ambiguous statements in his correspondence with Elizabeth Hitchener. He sees these poems as anticipating Alastor’s greater accomplishment, described in Chapter Four. For Coffey, Alastor “is the start of a poetic and intellectual experiment that was to dominate much of his poetic life: the development of an intermitted song capable of articulating and discovering the fractured contours of life” (99). This chapter contains an account of Shelley’s departure from standard eighteenth-century prosody in his uniquely developed sense of the pause and how it can “suggest the indeterminate states that interrupt normative consciousness, such as sleep, mania, dizziness, fainting, weakness, and exhaustion” (101) through “alternation between extremes of speed and stasis” resulting in “pronounced and sudden pauses” (107, 106). Chapter Five reads the eponymous “hero” of Peter Bell the Third as a “formal Puritan” who, like Wordsworth in “Ode to Duty” and in his later “Thanksgiving Ode,” chooses the Kantian will and ethical commitment to duty over his own earlier celebration of “the still, sad music of humanity” and our “one human heart” (146-147). Using Epipsychidion as an example of Shelley’s self-described “weak verse” and “votive wreaths of withered memory,” the last chapter considers Shelley’s deliberate employment of different forms of rhyme to illuminate “various intermittences―poetic, cognitive, spiritual, [and] bodily” (175). A coda revisits the fragmentary Triumph of Life and ends with Coffey’s judgment that “[o]ur human frailties fed [Shelley’s] poetic and ethical vision,” which challenges “the strange world of vital materialism” in verse self-consciously embodying and reflecting an alternative “beautifully broken world” (195).
As I read this remarkable book I found myself asking questions: how does Shelley’s signature use of the privative suffix with its inherently trochaic foot (viewless, voiceless, deathless) figure into his prosodic innovations and “fainting periods”? Do Shelley’s against-the-grain experiments with pauses and periods in English show an antagonistic engagement with August Böckh’s seminal essay De Metris Pindari in the 1811 first volume of Böckh’s epochal edition of Pindar? Böckh rewrote the history of Greek verse metrics by hypothesizing Greek colometry as a period “extending over many lines of the written text” (M.L. West, Greek Metre, 4). Böckh’s Pindar is not on the Marlow list, but Michael Erkelenz noted in 2000 that internal evidence in the competing metrical systems of Ode to Naples suggests that Shelley might have known Böckh’s at that time revolutionary theory. These are the sorts of issues that Shelley’s Broken World may prompt readers to explore. Predicting the half-life of a critical monograph is probably risky and certainly presumptuous. Nonetheless, I venture to say that Coffey’s book will influence and enrich our understanding of Shelley’s achievement for a long time.
One minor correction: the first volume of C.D. Locock’s four-volume The Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley was issued in 1906, though the remaining three were indeed published 1908-1909 (161n). This edition, in large-format royal 16mo, comprised part of “Methuen’s Standard Library” and has no editorial apparatus or commentary, each volume instead bearing a headnote to its contents. The subsequent 1911 edition exclusively consulted by modern textual scholars added editorial commentary and select collational variants at the back of both volumes.