The Dark Side of the Light: The Triumph of Love in Shelley’s The Triumph of Life

This essay challenges Paul de Man’s famous reading of figurality in Percy Shelley’s The Triumph of Life to show how the poem thinks love as a figural-material quantum entanglement between two people that models a new materialist politics. I argue that for Shelley the “shape all light” and its interaction with the rainbow evince one instance of this figural-material phenomenon. This interaction I read as a form of what Karen Barad calls “quantum entanglement,” when the subject and object—as in physics’ double-slit quantum light experiment—emerges as a new entity that brings a novel spacetime into being. As Shelley theorizes it in the poem, this merger of subject and object, or lover and lover, allows him to finally conceive a love that serves as a cornerstone for a radical politics. While we tend to see the poem as breaking off into irresolution, Shelley’s poem, on my reading, instead envisions how two-person spacetimes are a triumph of love over the nihilistic autocratic politics of anarchy that the poem depicts running wild in the pageantry of life.

Response: A Love Supreme

The Triumph of Life compels us to read it, asserting how much reading, Romanticism, and reading Romanticism are all different modalities of compulsion that structure our cultural, historical, and material lives. Yet as much as the origins of this volume might have been based on this insight, each of the essays collected here alight upon a dimension of Shelley’s poem—for Khalip the figure of the last, for Fay the notion of the pre-vocative beyond, for Pyle the operations of the minor, and for Washington the activity of post-Newtonian light—that eschews the compulsions of visuality for an encounter with in Fay a non-optical alterity and in the other three something defined by either its own passing, boundedness, or willingness to let go. In doing so, these latest readings of Shelley’s work are not so much compelled by the triumph of (human) life as energized by the emergence of a Shelleyan queer love defined more by the act of non-possession than anything else.

Very Last Thing: Rousseau, Shelley, Hujar

This essay reads the third-to-last line of Shelley’s , “as if that look must be the last,” as an aside that asks what occurs after that last look. In a post-Waterloo poem that imagines a hallucinatory end-of-the-world scenario amidst several last things, including a kiss, Shelley explores the adjacencies opened up by his unfinished late piece. It also turns to disparate works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Peter Hujar that serve as further instantiations of the kind of lastness that the poem complexly meditates on.

Rhymes of Wonder: Otherness without Distortion

Focusing on the import of the last four lines of The Triumph of Life, "Rhymes of Wonder: Otherness without Distortion" explores the possible future that lies beyond the horizonal walling off of a triumphal Life that Shelley’s poem describes. Using Deleuze and Guattari to follow the traces of where dizzying speed can get us, the essay suggests that Shelley was headed with full speed toward the post-human, breaking off only with the stumble that inevitably occurs when human language fails to articulate what it cannot imagine. What remains is sound, the aural-oral capacity that tunes us in to life itself, to a living nature that cannot be captured by words yet within which we are thoroughly enmeshed. This is the enlightenment that Shelley’s poem gestures toward, against optically driven scientific knowledge; against the human condition as totalizing knowledge; against the impermanence of the material. Whereas the main part of The Triumph considers forms of self-willing within the human experience, it’s abandoned final lines suggest that Shelley intended to reread the alienating aspects of that self-willing as the first steps toward an alternate otherness that, in its beyondness, holds out the promise of a freedom from the human as a freedom from the distortions of suffering per se.

"My Pang Shall Find a Voice": Manfred and The Sufferings of Young Werther

In May 1820 Byron encountered Goethe’s remarks on Manfred which, as translated by Hoppner, began:

Byron’s tragedy, Manfred, was to me a wonderful phenomenon, and one that closely touched me. This singular intellectual poet has taken my Faustus to himself, and extracted from it the strangest nourishment for his hypochondriac humour.
Goethe simultaneously demotes Byron to a derivative of himself and diverts attention from the most sensational instance of “hypochondriac humor” in the eighteenth century, his own autofiction, The Sufferings of Young Werther. This essay pursues the textual histories through which the authors sought to distance themselves from protagonists too close to themselves, the revisions Goethe made in successive editions of Werther and Byron’s suppression of the original third act of Manfred, which Goethe could not have known. The original third act, however, was preserved in the seventeen-volume edition of Byron’s works published by John Murray in 1832-33. Attention to the activities of the editor, John Wright, in the construction of that edition, drawing upon unpublished materials in the John Murray Archive of the National Library of Scotland, reveals the interplay between the desires to establish posthumously the standing of Byron and to enhance the commercial value of Murray’s property, and the dissemination of the rejected “hypochondriac” materials. Wright’s preservation made them available for Alfred Bunn’s melodramatic presentation of Manfred at Covent Garden in 1834. Wright’s less notorious but more significant editorial intervention came when he inserted into his preface to Marino Faliero Byron’s withdrawn dedication of the play to Goethe, responding directly to the charges of 1820. In highlighting the arc from the rejected third act of Manfred in 1817 to the historical drama of 1821 Wright brings forward Byron’s ongoing exploration, across multiple and different genres, of the conditions that give rise to the obsessions of his protagonists.

Love in the First Degree: Manfred, Byron, and Incest

This essay suggests that Byron’s Manfred contains not an expression of Byron’s guilt about his incest with his half-sister Augusta Leigh, as previous critics have suggested, but rather considerable evidence of his lack of guilt. It argues that the play displays incest and torment, but in fact does not link the two, instead displaying Manfred’s love for Astarte as deeply felt without regrets. The essay then argues that one finds the same combination of deep love and lack of regret in Byron’s remarks about his relationship with his half-sister, as well as in the representations of incest in his other works. It suggests that this acceptance of incest links to Byron’s commitment to rational thinking and personal freedom, and it invites future criticism to explore this connection in more detail.

The Dashes in Manfred

"The Dashes in Manfred" examines the ways in which one aspect of Byron’s manuscripts has been translated by his editors. The dash is one of the most distinctive and controversial features of Byron’s writing and is the vehicle for the silent part of his voice. Like many other editors, I think that accidentals can be substantive. In this paper, I look at the cultural associations of the dash, its translation from manuscript into print in Byron’s particular case, and the different versions of  Manfred that come into sight (and hearing) if we use Byron’s manuscripts as a musical score.

The Iconography of Forgiveness: Manfred's Astarte

What this essay explores is the way in which the illustrations of Byron’s poetry, particularly images of his two heroines, Manfred's Astarte and The Giaour's Leila, reveal a great deal about the public response not so much to Byron’s poetry but rather to their own projected narratives and fantasies about Byron on to his poetry. Perhaps counter-intuitively, I will argue that it is by taking a careful look at the ways in which Byron’s heroines are illustrated that we are granted a window into the public view of the poet himself.

Staging Manfred

Alfred Bunn’s production of Manfred (Covent Garden, October 29,1834 to February 18, 1835) maintained a successful season and was regularly performed during subsequent years. The major constituents, however, were in unfortunate competition. Stage lighting gave emphasis to the immense paintings by Thomas and William Grieve. The playbill forewarned the audience that “Chandeliers around the Front of the Boxes will not be used on the Evenings of the Performance of Manfred.” The backdrop paintings were crucial to Bunn’s production. “In order to produce the necessary effects of Light and Shade,” downstage action took place in the shadows. Henry Gaskell Denvil in the lead role as Manfred sought to impersonate the author, though dead and gone, reanimating himself as the character condemned to an internal vigil. His performance was intended as another stage enactment of Lord Byron and his personal scandal, representing on stage an impersonation of Byron performing the role of the Byronic character. The impersonations had become more familiar to London audiences than any of the fading memories of the poet. As Byron himself confessed, Edmund Kean was exceptionally skilled in his impersonations. When Denvil took on the role of Manfred at Covent Garden, his performance was burdened by expectations that he would not simply impersonate Byron in that role, but also reprise Edmund Kean’s well-known impersonations of Byron. Also competing with Denvil’s performance as a voice in the shadows beneath the vast backdrop paintings, was the full orchestral score by Henry Rowley Bishop, who rearranged lyrics as popular opera with elaborate solos and choruses. Among the most striking alterations was the retention of the song of the witches (“As the raven sits / On the raven stone”) from the concluding scene of Byron’s original version. Bishop has transformed the song for Ellen Tree, with chorus, at the close of her scene as the Witch of the Alps. Bishop also altered Byron’s revised conclusion, substituting a song made of lines from The Giaour (“This—as the stream and ocean greet”). Bunn succeeded in adapting Manfred as a spectacular musical production, but Bishop’s abbreviated and rearranged libretto deprived the audience of much of Byron’s dramatic poem.

Dark Prometheus: Manfred and the Last Infirmity of Evil

As Manfred glimpses “the last infirmity of evil” from his position on the Jungfrau, he confronts a post-moral order dependent on a particular kind of relinquishment, the obverse of the forgiveness that Shelley’s Prometheus attains at the outset of his play. He claims prematurely, “I have ceased / To justify my deeds unto myself,” and his pursuit of such a mental and moral state in fact determines the action of the remainder of the play, just as his initial voiced desire for “forgetfulness” and “self-oblivion” must be achieved. At this early point in the play, Manfred’s solitude is “peopled with the furies,” just as Shelley’s Prometheus is tortured on his rock by Jupiter’s “hounds of hell.” Both heroes have something to get over: Prometheus, his vengeance and Manfred, his conscience. Going (like Nietzsche) beyond good and evil, Manfred represents an existential Romantic heroism in sharp contrast to Shelley’s messianic version; his humor is the golden laughter of a careless god.