More than a Feeling: Shelley’s Affect

Taking as its main focus Shelley’s lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound, this essay examines the Romantic treatment of feeling as a kind of affective ecology sustained by love. The poem reconstitutes feeling, not as it indicates a subject formed by Enlightenment notions of words or looks, but as an unrestrained jouissance that constitutes the event of feeling itself. This event shatters the subject so that, as if to tarry with a Jupiterian desire to conscript meaning, the subject can feel its truth.

More than a Feeling: Shelley’s Affect


1.         Many of Romanticism’s ur-texts, from The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) to The Prelude (1850), apotheosize the eighteenth century’s increasing attention to feeling. Our sensate response to the world—sentio ergo sum—spurred Romanticism’s feeling enterprise as a part of its critical response to feeling. Put another way, Romanticism struggles to understand affect as expression, cognition, and cogitation, as when Wordsworth tempers the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling through the tranquil recollection of emotion. This cognitive latency (feel first; think later) demanded a measured response to feeling’s autonomous rhythms, the symptom of any number of enthusiasms—religious, political, sexual, etc.—that excited concern. Scholarship has long shared this (strangely passionate) distrust of feeling (e.g., Wimsatt and Beardsley’s attack on affective criticism as Romantic subjectivism). [1]  Spurred by, among other things, a return to the body in feminist and queer theory and the transformation of emotion into a scientific object, we are now rethinking feeling in Romanticism as a complex matrix of representational and cognitive possibilities. Feeling and thinking are far more interrelated than previously felt or thought, and feeling itself is anything but ancillary to being. [2] 

2.         Part of this effort requires that we parse feeling’s difference from itself. Rei Terada distinguishes emotion as “a psychologically, at least minimally interpretive experience whose physiological aspect is affect” from feeling, “a capacious term that connotes both physiological sensations (affects) and psychological states (emotions)” (14–15). For Brian Massumi, feeling is affect materialized as virtual existence, a “zone of indistinction” that he reads as a kind of political ecology (66). Affect is a “system” of “autonomic responses” that the cognition of emotions “may seize upon . . . [in order to] . . . ‘qualify’ or name them, but in doing so it ‘dampens’ their force or ‘resonance.’” Emotion “is affect ‘owned and recognized’; it translates affect into ‘conventional, consensual’ form, where it can be given ‘function and meaning’” (cited in Favret 1159). Or as Michael Hardt argues, feeling transforms the “ontology of the human” by “illuminat[ing] . . . both our power to affect the world around us and our power to be affected by it, along with the relationship between these two powers” (xi). Each of these cases speaks implicitly to a Romantic impulse at once to understand and thus name feeling, and to give it free rein as a kind of psychochemical radical transferring and transforming of relations between subjects and their world. [3]  What we feel along our pulses registers the natural and preternatural (uncanny) psychosomatics of our sensorium as it touches and withdraws from the world. As Wordsworth says, “we cannot chuse but feel / That [man’s works] must perish” (The Prelude [1805] 5.20), which rather ambivalently prefers feeling to rational determination and marks feeling as our unavoidable lot tied to a death that we unavoidably must feel. Our “works” are rather beside the point, for feeling is our work, whether we like it or not.

3.         This essay takes its cue from these authors as well as from accounts more specifically targeting Romanticism. For Julie Carlson, Percy Shelley’s use of simile, as embodied thought, unlike metaphor, which subordinates reality, registers language’s affective pull as the feeling relationality among selves as others. By enacting their difference from reality, similes offer a non-defensive, non-coercive relation to the very antagonism they stage. Richard C. Sha reads this relation in terms of the motion or force of emotion as a “metalepsis” of the human and nonhuman (both mechanical and divine), an unstable but productive relational matrix that subjectivity materializes: “Emotions . . . literally matter because of the force they contain,” Sha writes, “the mechanism by which the mental becomes somatic and emotion is communicated” (23, 22). Emotions lack agency, but not intentionality, and thus confuse the “border between matter and sociality,” so that “affinities are necessarily multiple, and by implication, transient” and “fungible” (31). This paradoxical transfer informs Terada’s sense of how passion undoes “intentional subjectivity” to mark the “nonsubjectivity within the very concept of the subject” (4–5), the non-human within the human. And for Jacques Khalip, the above lines from Book Five of The Prelude suggest an inhuman automaticity that expresses an “extreme kind of purposiveness without purpose—a zero-degree relation of carelessness, a relation without relation” (631).

4.         What does feeling “mean” as a form of inhuman cognition that at once locates us in and beyond the world? I ask this question of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820), in which the global effects of feeling are writ large as cosmic phenomenon. Feeling is the eruption and rupture of a material happening embodied through its subjects as feeling’s virtual presences, feeling as virtual presence. Alain Badiou describes this rupture as “the event.” For Badiou, within the givenness of any situation, delimited by the dominant ideology of its social order, what that order excludes and thus renders invisible threatens to erupt. “The structure of situations” does not itself “deliver any truths”; rather, the rupture constitutes the truth of “rupturing with the order which supports it, never as an effect of that order” (xii). The event is thus a random, local, subjective breach that calls attention to whatever exclusions made and sustain the situation, a defamiliarizing moment that calls it to its situatedness.

5.         For my present purposes, I would argue that emotion carries the event’s rupturing force, as in the spontaneity of Wordsworthian feeling. But to Badiou’s sense of the event’s radical, incommensurate singularity, I would add that emotion’s sheer immanence is at the same time tied to that which incites it or to the situation in which it erupts—Wordsworth’s sense of emotion’s recollection. In the simplest terms, emotion at once explodes and gauges the situation it explodes, is at once apart from and embedded within, and thus responsive to and responsible for, the situation. Put another way, by materializing subjects as subjects, emotion registers their embeddedness within any situation’s ideological constraints, but also marks them as exceptions to its (and to the subject’s) rule. In the “perpetual Orphic Song” (4.415) that is the fourth act of Shelley’s lyrical drama, Panthea and Ione are awakened by the Voice of Unseen Spirits, who bring news of Prometheus’ unbinding and subsequent union with Asia, a marriage and transformation of unfathomable proportions. [4]  That they are “Unseen Spirits,” as if to say Spirit might or could be seen, and that we know or hear of them as “Voice,” is only one instance of the synaesthetic complexity with which Shelley’s verse confronts us:

Bright clouds float in Heaven,
Dew-stars gleam on Earth,
Waves assemble on Ocean,
They are gathered and driven
By the Storm of delight, by the panic of glee!
They shake with emotion—
They dance in their mirth—
But where are ye? (4.40-47)
Here, the entire earth constitutes, and is constituted by, an affective ecology whose happiness at once agitates and is agitated by “Storm” and “panic.” Contrary to the poem’s otherwise idealist and idealistic slant, Shelley’s environment is both self-possessed and possessed by the agents of its unfolding—who are, in turn, possessed by its autonomous functioning and self-possessed enough at once to be shaped by and to endure its arbitrary purposiveness.

6.         The key word here is “shake,” which marks the power of emotional response in excess of itself, something that exceeds cognitive recognition. It also marks the ambivalence of one’s feeling response to the world as an agency without agents, a force materialized through the expressions that it generates in turn. Coincidentally, the OED defines “emotion” as “movement, disturbance, perturbation, or instance of this” by citing Shelley’s “Love’s Philosophy,” first published in Posthumous Poems (1824): “The fountains mingle with the river, / And the rivers with the ocean, / The winds of heaven mix forever / With a sweet emotion” (1–4). Emotion also means “an agitation of mind; an excited mental state. Subsequently: any strong mental or instinctive feeling, as pleasure, grief, hope, fear, etc., deriving esp. from one's circumstances, mood, or relationship with others.” [5]  “Sweet emotion” and “shake with emotion” thus suggest both Heraclitean contingency and pantheistic interconnection (in “Love’s Philosophy,” Shelley continues: “Nothing in the world is single; / All things by a law divine / In one another’s being mingle” [5–7]). Here an emotive nature is not the world humanized, as in a nature rendered “instinct with feeling” by the poet, to borrow a common (by Shelley’s time even hackneyed) phrase, but rather (to borrow another Shelleyan word) enkindled by and as its own sensorium. “Instinct” signifies an autonomous, unwilled self-fashioning, a nature imbued with or animated by feeling but also an innate, spontaneous impulse that disturbs or resists rational cognition, as in Darwin’s account of species formation. Eventually emotion becomes a transitive verb: “to cause to move; to make emotional” and “to affect or imbue with emotion; to make emotional” (OED), which denotes our current understanding of “emoting” as performance. Ironically, this aesthetics of feeling partly recalls Aristotle’s purgation of emotion (katharsis ton pathematon) and reminds us that feeling stages our subjectivities without our knowing: we only come to know feeling once we feel or see it “staged” for us in turn. [6] 

7.         Put differently, in and through feeling we both find and lose our bearings in the world. Shelley’s rejoinder, “But where are ye?”, asked directly of Ione and Panthea, also addresses all of us as subjects, a dilemma embedded in the ultimate question of Shelley’s truncated final poem: “Then, what is Life?” To say that the cognition of where we fit in the world is more than a feeling, to name this essay’s title, suggests a super-addition that makes feeling relevant, understandable—an Aufhebung in which affect and emotion meet to become cognizable, in which we become cognizant of feeling as feeling. But more also indicates the event of emotion that feeling itself cannot sublate or render normative, feeling as an excess beyond itself. Feeling is thus both superfluity, something that neither rationality, mental cognition, nor understanding can easily assimilate, and a superabundance that imbricates us within the larger affective matrix that situates us within the world. Binding the above etymologies is emotion as “political agitation, civil unrest” (which again echoes Badiou’s sense of the event), but also of “a movement from one place to another, a migration” (OED). Shelley’s poem senses a world moving both within and beyond its own boundaries. Feeling registers this migratory impulse as a threat that also leads humanity, and its detrimental effects, beyond itself to a brighter but also radically unknown (and thus equally terrifying) future. Prometheus Unbound, perhaps the most intensely idealistic of Shelley’s texts, expresses an “idealism without absolutes.” [7] 

8.         In his Preface to the poem, Shelley speaks of poets as “the combined product of such internal powers as modify the nature of others.” They express the power of poetry as a “mimetic art” that “creates by combination and representation,” to produce “some intelligible and beautiful analogy with those sources of emotion and thought,” by which he means “the mind of man” and “nature” (208). For Shelley this “analogy” takes the form of “imagery . . . drawn from the operations of the human mind, or from those external actions by which they are expressed” (207). This creative reciprocity between mind and world immediately (dis)locates images of the brain, like those of a dream, to a transitional space that is at once communal and nowhere, which is to prompt the question of where such images reside and what effect they might have. Shelley locates the poem’s impetus in an effort to “annihilate” the “moral interest of the fable which is so powerfully sustained by the sufferings and endurance of Prometheus,” by attempting to “conceive of him as unsaying his high language” (206). This rethinking of language’s power to convey, control, and coerce thought is an attempt to discover and explore a radically different vocabulary that would express “some unimagined change in our social condition or the opinions which cement it” (208). That the future remains “unimagined” suggests Shelley’s “‘passion for reforming the world,’” yet without a plan to do so, which invokes the customary disparagement of a Shelleyan politics out of touch with reality. But to mark change as “unimagined” is to mark the negative potentiality of three possibilities: a catastrophic outcome avoided, as in the recurrence of despotism against all resistance to the contrary; a future that may or will never come, as in the frustrated hope for political change; or, most radically in Shelley, an event left unfulfilled so as precisely to make way for its possible occurrence. This unimagined “something evermore about to be” evokes a sense of threat that haunts Act One as Prometheus struggles to recall his curse against Jupiter. Yet as we shall see, it haunts the poem’s movement toward its future—toward the future—as a progress without telos, a trajectory that materializes as if from and within the motions of its own immanence, which is to say the immanence of emotion itself.


9.        In his opening speech, Prometheus rails against Jupiter for the toxic emotions—“fear and self-contempt and barren hope” (1.8); “mine own misery and thy vain revenge” (11)—over which Prometheus “Hast [been] made [to] reign and triumph, to thy scorn” (10). For Jupiter’s attempt to legislate another’s emotional life—for how Jupiter’s tyranny tries to make Prometheus feel—Prometheus, who refuses to accept the emotions that result from the affect transmitted by Jupiter’s reign, feels not “Disdain” but “pity” for Jupiter (53). Hence, in Act One Prometheus is no longer made to endure but actively asks to endure, not what his curse said, but how it was said, how it might now be recalled in order to transform its effect. Which is why the Phantasm of Jupiter, not of Prometheus, repeats the curse, to which Prometheus replies, in one of the poem’s most moving statements of the ethics of affect, “It doth repent me” (303). Having been “made” to rule an emotional “empire” not of his making, and thus reluctantly estranged from an emotional life he longs to claim, Prometheus, who nonetheless “endure[s],” turns outward to “Earth” and “Heaven” to ask if they have “seen” or “heard [his] agony” (15, 24, 25, 26, 27, 29). This gesture is less to gain sympathetic witness to his eternal “pain” than to reclaim, not the words, which “are quick and vain,” but the toxic affect that fueled and sustained the curse’s utterance, the breath of which left Earth’s “wan breast . . . dry / With grief,” and “the thin air . . . stained / With the contagion of a mother’s hate / Breathed on her child’s destroyer” (30, 303, 176–79).

10.         Earth and Heaven are thus impoverished by the sound of the curse, at first repeated in the four Voices of mountains, springs, air, and whirlwinds. On one hand, Earth resounds with the “dying fall” that encrypts the curse’s ruinous effect. On the other hand, Earth’s “Caverns” remain “tongueless,” except to hear the “hollow Heaven” and “Ocean’s purple waves” cry “Misery!” to the “pale nations” (107, 108, 109, 111). Between Philomel and Echo, that is to say, affect might be heard—sounded—in either violent or transformational ways. More particularly, in the transmission of affect [8]  that eventually transforms the life of the poem’s emotional landscape, the text emphasizes the sound of echoes, an odd displacement that paradoxically marks the very thing that echoes are, the mode of their difference from themselves as difference itself, and the echo as sound’s difference from itself. This is why Prometheus “hear[s] a sound of voices—not the voice / Which [he] gave forth” (112–13; my emphasis), as if to take ethical and moral responsibility for the effect his emotions have, not just on others, but on the environment that both marks him and upon which his existence inevitably leaves its mark. Prometheus accuses the Earth of not knowing him, and implores her not to “deny” him his “dreadful words” (185). But this is only to mark her “inorganic voice” (135). It is more critical that he hears the “melancholy” (152) carried by that voice in order to mourn the mourning of its past effects and affect. That is to say, Prometheus would move past the cycle of mourning itself, emblazoned as what Panthea, having heard the Chorus of Furies come to tempt Prometheus to despair, calls “A woeful sight—a youth / With patient looks nailed to a crucifix” (584–85). Such is the logic of Jupiter’s emotional tyranny that “In each human heart terror survives / The ravin it has gorged” (618–19) and men “live among their suffering fellow men / As if none felt” (630–31). This is at once to legislate the self-predatory nature of affect (not unlike Freud’s notion of guilt internalized as the superego in the name of a self-lacerating and thus self-governing conscience) and to atomize subjects so as to pre-empt any movement of feeling and thus neutralize its potential resistance.

11.         His immortality at first keeps Prometheus from hearing the sound of his own (past) voice; as the Earth reminds him, “How canst thou hear / Who knowest not the language of the dead?” (137–38). But his eternal nature reflects a broader emotional landscape, less the timeless utopianism that uncannily depends upon an equally endless cycle between hope and despair for its possible apocalypse (hence the Christian redemptive eschatology that Prometheus eschews), than “merely” the harbinger of things to come, in which the future remains radically unknown so as not to predetermine and thus constrain its emotional life. This is, paradoxically, why dread and terror as much as love and hope sustain this life as a “voice to be accomplished” (3.3.67). Earth, who “dare[s] not speak” the words of the curse, instead has been “mediat[ing]” upon them “In secret joy and hope” (184–86), “Preserve[d], a treasured spell,” among “the inarticulate people of the dead” (183–84). Like the frozen affect of the melancholic, she encrypts the source of her lament, the refuge, as Shelley writes in Adonais, of “what is still dear” as that which “Attracts to crush, repels to make thee wither” (473, 474). The curse is thus “dreadful” because it bears the hope of a secret that, as Nietzsche suggests in “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense,” becomes the empty center around which a mobile army of metaphors and metonymies orchestrate themselves in order to exert the force of truth. Arriving to “execute” a “doom of new revenge,” Jupiter’s son Mercury compels Prometheus to “Clothe . . . in words” the “secret known” to Prometheus of the term of Jupiter’s tyranny (355, 375, 371). Like the Foucauldian psychiatrist who feeds the discursive regimes of power by coaxing the confessant’s internal life into the open, Mercury’s promise of redemption and thus happiness, signified by the remedial authority of his “serpent-cinctured wand” (324), feels to Prometheus like the Sword of Damocles (396–405).

12.         Yet Prometheus tarries with the pharmakon in other ways, for he risks re-agitating the same emotional pestilence he was unwillingly made to incite, like a toxin injected into bodies—given bodily form—(hopefully) to mobilize antibodies against the poison it cultivates. That is to say, he must claim the curse’s affect as his own in order both to reject and to transform its affective coding. He calls up the archive or Wayback Machine (as it were) of his emotional life in order, like Shelley’s notion of poetry’s re-creative effects from existing causes, to envision this life’s hardwiring otherwise. Very early in the poem Prometheus pities and thus disavows Jupiter’s tyranny. But again, only once he “endures” the variously toxic causes and effects that lead to pity do the various Furies, sent to torment his desire back into bodily (i.e., verbal) form, vanish (634). The text allegorizes this excoriating process when the Earth says that the words of Prometheus’ curse “shall be told” (191), a powerfully passive construction that immediately displaces the force and thus potential affect of their saying:

The Magus Zoroaster, my dead child,
Met his own image walking in the garden.
That apparition, sole of men, he saw.
For know there are two worlds of life and death:
One that which thou beholdest, but the other
Is underneath the grave, where do inhabit
The shadows of all forms that think and live
Till death unite them, and they part no more;
Dreams and the light imaginings of men
And all that faith creates, or love desires,
Terrible, strange, sublime and beauteous shapes. (192–202)
The passage reads as an uncanny template of Lacanian self-encounter. In cursing Jupiter, Prometheus became what he beheld, as if to enter the mirror stage in which we witness for the first time the symbolic contours of our selfhood as self, yet simultaneously recognize that our desire for this self is constituted precisely by the desire of self we witness in the other. Such an encounter turns both sides of the reflection into a specular exchange or transference from which it seems impossible to escape. We might say that the poem begins with Prometheus recognizing this trap. Put another way, the passage invites the subject to witness his own (“sole”) death as the burial of a potential (“unimagined”) life that is less the site of a possible repression (for Shelley repression signals inevitable death) than the unconscious that psychoanalysis can never presume to know. Or to paraphrase Prometheus answering Mercury asking about the “period of Jove’s power,” “I know but this, that it must come” (412–13).

13.         The Earth invites passage through the mirror stage to a different constitution of things that does not depend upon the tyrannical power of the gaze in which the other and its Jupiterian authority hope to catch subjects. This “Infinity [that] shall be / A robe of envenomed agony” (288–89) signifies the endless cycle of a possible redemption calcified in the image of a crucified saviour. Gazing upon the Phantasm of Jupiter, Prometheus “see[s] the curse on gestures proud and cold, / And looks of firm defiance, and calm hate, / And such despair as mocks itself with smiles, / Written as on a scroll” (258–61). Shelley’s hermeneutics of facial anatomy suggests Charles Bell’s Essays on the Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression (1824), which reads in the face’s visual topography a spiritual dimension. And Bell’s text anticipates Charles Darwin’s The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (1872), which re-thinks the relationship between mind and body in terms of a biology of emotion that links mental states to the human and animal movement across and between species through time and space. Like Bell, Darwin uses illustrations as well as photographs to visualize and materialize emotion in process. Yet Shelley’s poem avoids this materialization precisely for its desire (as Massumi notes) to “capture” affect as emotion. As Ione notes after the appearance of Jupiter’s Phantasm, this image of emotion is “but some passing spasm” that would have us, in the words of the First Fury, “die with our desire” (314, 351).

14.         In this way, the melancholy of Earth’s voice, which is the echo of Prometheus’ own desire, carries a transforming, semiotic energy. Julia Kristeva accounts for language’s unsteadily disruptive but renewable force as the semiotic chora, an “essentially mobile and extremely provisional articulation constituted by movements and their ephemeral stases” (Revolution 24). Similar to the primary processes in Freudian dreamwork, the chora is comprised of “‘energy’ charges as well as ‘psychical’ marks” (25), both the force of the drives and the impressions they leave behind. Associated with the infant’s biological attachment to mother, and thus constellating the matrix of all intersubjective relationships, the semiotic denotes the psychic “binding” of our instinctual and libidinal “motility.” It thus registers the inextricable link of the material and the psychic as part of a “signifying process” into which all subjects are born and out of which they emerge (25). The semiotic marks the residual materiality of the mother’s body, which is also to say of any primordial sustaining presence or force that registers the subject’s first bodily experience. It thus also marks the matrix of our environmental disposition in the world, the transferential space of our attachment to things, and the energy that at once sustains this relation and perpetually disrupts and (re)generates its manifestation as relation. The semiotic denotes the reciprocal movement of melancholy itself, of how we are at once born from a past without origin and borne toward a future with trajectory but without telos. Or as Kristeva writes, without “a bent for melancholia there is no psyche,” for “there is no imagination that is not, overtly or secretly, melancholy,” an “impossible mourning” for “an inaccessible—and inaccessibly lost—object” (Black Sun 6, 9). Melancholic semiosis—the melancholy of semiosis—thus also sustains the affect of sound—the sound of affect—that carries the work of affect itself in the poem, the echoes of sound that mark the intrinsic movement through space of sound as an object “inaccessibly lost.”

15.         At the end of Act One we anticipate the arrival in Act Two of Asia’s “transforming presence—which would fade / If it were mingled not with [that of Prometheus]” (832–33), which is to say the affective life Act One has worked hard to release—or rather, to keep “unregarded” (3.4.179), to borrow a word from a different context in Act Three. Once the last of the Furies vanishes, Prometheus invokes “two woes: / To speak and to behold” (646–47). Earth having “spare[d]” (647) him one by re-calling the echoes of his curse, the poem now tackles the second vehicle by which emotion has transferred itself: the Enlightenment power of the gaze. Earth thus calls upon “those subtle and fair spirits / Whose homes are the dim caves of human thought”; who “behold / Beyond that twilight realm, as in a glass, / The future” (658–63); and who “breathe, and sicken not, / The atmosphere of human thought” (675–76). This glimpse into, as opposed to gaze upon, the future carries the affective force of “despair / Mingled with love, and then dissolved in sound” (756–57) before it can calcify into image. The force of affect in the poem will now be carried by the materiality of sound that contains it, not as emotion, but as a feeling in which, as Panthea says struggling to speak, “all . . . words are drowned” (758). This “form of Love” (763), like Shelley’s “shape all light” in The Triumph of Life, is constituted by the “sense” of sound that “Remains . . . like the Omnipotence / Of music when the inspired voice and lute / Languish” but carries on “through the deep and labyrinthine soul” (801–05). [9] 

16.         The force of this form, which is to say the form that the force itself takes as feeling—the form of feeling—is Ione and Panthea’s reading of the turmoil in Prometheus’ soul while sitting at his feet throughout Act One. Specifically, Panthea reads this affect as it is registered by Ione, then carried by Panthea to Asia as the “wordless converse” (2.1.52) that has all along been transpiring between Asia and Prometheus. [10]  Asia instructs Panthea to “Lift up thine eyes / And let me read thy dream” (55–56), which is actually two dreams, one of which, tellingly, she “remember[s] not” (61). In the other dream Panthea envisions the liberation of Prometheus’ body, coerced by the feeling of Jupiter’s tyranny, to reveal “the glory of that form / Which lives unchanged within,” through which “his voice fell / Like music which makes giddy the dim brain / Faint with intoxication of keen joy” (64–67). Imploring Panthea to “lift thine eyes on me,” she “[feels] / His presence flow and mingle through my blood / Till it became his life and his grew mine / And I was thus absorbed” (70, 79–82). To Asia, the transmission of these “words” are at first “as the air”: “I feel them not . . . oh, lift / Thine eyes that I may read his written soul!” (108–10). This exchange materializes feeling, not as emotion, but as the situation or event of its own unfolding, the “written” quality of this experience as “soul” being the shape it takes as it unfolds. The interchange between Panthea and Asia thus transpires as through a glass darkly, a mirror without surface in which the transmission of affect is “dark, far, measureless / Orb within orb, and line through line inwoven” (116–17).

17.         This transmission having been enacted in the first scene, the sound of echoes is then transported in the second scene through a Semichorus of Spirits, which revives the melancholy voice of Earth as it fades, “Till some new strain of feeling bear / The song” (2.2.34–35) into the third scene, where music materializes on Earth a sound “Awful as silence” (2.3.36). Asia describes this event as the “sun-awakened avalanche” that unleashes the “thought by thought . . . piled” by “Heaven-defying minds,” “till some great truth / Is loosened, and the nations echo round / Shaken to their roots” (37, 39–42). Asia and Panthea are carried as if to the previously “tongueless caverns” of the Earth, specifically the cave of Demogorgon in which “A spell is treasured but for thee alone” (88). Here they confront “a mighty Darkness / Filling the seat of power,” “Ungazed upon and shapeless:—neither limb / Nor form nor outline” (2.4.2–6). But, “[they] feel it is / A living Spirit” (6-7). In her confrontation with Demogorgon, Asia is told that, ultimately, “the Abysm / [Cannot] vomit forth its secrets,” for “a voice / Is wanting, the deep truth is imageless” (114–16). In one of the poem’s key statements of the ineluctability of necessity, it would “avail [not] to bid thee gaze / On the revolving world” or “to bid speak / Fate, Time, Occasion, Chance and Change,” for “To these / All things are subject but eternal Love” (117–20; my emphasis). In this way, “eternal Love” comes to signify that moment in which feeling, as event, ruptures things as they are to reveal, to return to Badiou, the truth of the subject’s experience. Put another way, this truth of experience, at the moment of its happening, becomes radically incommensurate with the situation from which it emerged, yet within which it remains ineluctably enmeshed except as it (potentially) shifts this situation’s terms of reference.

18.         The poem’s utopian thrust suggests that transformation attends this evolution. As Asia ascends from her encounter, Panthea tells her she can feel “How thou art changed!” but “dare not look on thee”: “I feel, but see thee not” (2.5.16–17). Emissary of the atmosphere of love that is the Earth transformed by a kind of cosmic “sympathy” (34), the voice of Spirits alone now governs the poem’s unfolding, in which the “breath” of the “Life of life” is exchanged “between” the “lips” they “enkindle,” and are then “screen[ed] . . . / In those looks where whoso gazes / Faints, entangled in their mazes” (2.5.48–53). Shelley’s use of “screen” means at once, paradoxically, to obstruct, to divide, to protect, and (to borrow Shelley’s own use in Queen Mab [1813]), to “conceal, obscure, or disguise” (OED). Taken together, the “screen” also evokes for us as contemporary readers an instance of cinematic encounter in which neither gaze holds the other captive but instead suggests a reciprocity, not between bounded subjects, but of an agency without agents. In this moment of Heideggerian Schein, existence simultaneously reveals itself to and hides itself from our grasp, [11]  now expressed by Spirits through their sense of spirit: “And all feel, yet see thee never / As I feel now, lost forever!” Emotion and affect, mind and body, thought and sense are inextricable from one another in these matrices of feeling in which Asia experiences her “soul [as] an enchanted boat”: “Till like one in slumber bound / Borne to the Ocean, I float down, around, / Into a Sea profound, of ever-spreading sound” (82–84). Here the two-way circuit of desire that keeps subjects in their place through a Jupiterian transmission of affect is now “Without a course—without a star— / But by the instinct of sweet Music driven” (89–90).

19.         It is in light of the disembodied materiality of sound accomplished in Act Two that we then read the dramatic irony of Jupiter’s opening speech in Act Three. Here he anticipates a spirit “which unbodied now / Between us, floats, felt although unbeheld, / Waiting the incarnation” (3.1.44–46), shortly after which Demogorgon arrives to take Jupiter to “dwell together / Henceforth in darkness” (55–56). Instead, Hercules arrives to unbind Prometheus, enacted without fuss in a stage direction at the opening of Scene Three. This apparently negligible event at same time signifies the quantum and cosmic space and time of transformation itself between the at once adamantine and utterly ephemeral nature of a Jupiterian emotional tyranny. In the cave to which Prometheus and Asia will retire (which journey remains at the level of prophecy in the poem), Prometheus enjoins Ione to “chant fragments of sea-music,” which shall resonate with “echoes of the human world, which tell / Of the low voice of love, almost unheard” (27, 44–45):

And lovely apparitions dim at first
Then radiant—as the mind, arising bright
From the embrace of beauty (whence the forms
Of which these are the phantoms) casts on them
The gathered rays which are reality—
Shall visit us, the progeny immortal
Of Painting, Sculpture and rapt Poesy
And arts, though unimagined, yet to be. (49–56)
Yet as if to scatter these “fragments” of “wandering voices” and “shadows . . . / Of all that man becomes” (57–58), Prometheus then implores her to give to the Spirit of the Hour the “curved shell that Proteus old / Made Asia’s nuptial boon,” which contains a “voice to be accomplished” (3.3.65–67). Thus “Loosening its mighty music . . . it shall be / As thunder mingled with clear echoes” (81–82), what Act Four calls “an Ocean / Of clear emotion” (96–97). Echoes that are “clear” are at once pure, bright, transparent, unclouded, capable of allowing sound to pass without obstruction—again, screens both through and upon which sound might transfer. As Prometheus then bends to kiss the ground, Earth responds, “I hear—I feel—” (84). Here the “sound” and “look” of feeling mobilize its meta-global economy as Prometheus’s “touch runs down / Even to the adamantine central gloom / Along these marble veins” (“stony veins” [1.153]) as “The Warmth of an immortal youth shoots down / Circling” (3.3.85–90). Like Panthea’s absorption by and in Prometheus, or Prometheus by and in Asia, unbound Prometheus becomes the avatar of an unrestrained feeling that is at once the blood and breath of the earth’s affective ecology, the agency of its sound and sight. Or as Prometheus says to the Spirit of the Hour, “We feel what thou hast heard and seen” (97). As if further to mark this final transformation of feeling, the Spirit, prophesying the “mighty change as I had felt within / Expressed in outward things” (129–30), acknowledges how humans will be “Speaking the wisdom once they could not think, / Looking the emotions once they feared to feel” (157–58). This last phrasing visualizes emotion, as in Bell or Darwin, as if to mark the image’s capacity to register and thus fix feeling, yet also as if to fulfill the poem’s promise of an unrestrained emotional life, the migration of feeling across subjective borders, unchecked throughout the world and beyond. [12] 

20.         Yet in a final, remarkable turn, Act Three “[tears] aside” the “painted veil . . . called life” that “mimicked, as with colours idly spread, / All men believed and hoped” to reveal man “Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed—but man” (190–92, 194–95). To leave man “but man” is to reclaim a feeling humanity lost through Jupiter’s tyranny but regained through the possibility of love. Yet man also remains “Nor yet exempt, though ruling them like slaves, / From chance and death and mutability,” the “clogs of that which else might oversoar / The loftiest star of unascended Heaven / Pinnacled dim in the intense inane” (200–01, 202–04). In Act Two, as we have seen, Demogorgon tells Asia that “All things are subject to [Fate, Time, Occasion, Chance and Change] but eternal Love.” Within this penultimate context, feeling materializes, not the utopianism of love, which would be once again to trap “All men” in what they “believed and hoped,” but a future to come in (as Reiman and Fraistat annotate “intense inane”) a “formless void of infinite space” (269n). Here what remains incommensurate nonetheless registers with “intense” force, the indistinguishable locus of feeling itself as the air we breathe. In this sense, although Shelley calls it love, which is to invoke the political idealism of a society renovated by sympathetic encounters without violence, terror, or tyranny, it is also love as the inevitability and unavoidability of encounter that is our feeling life. Like drive as the difference between desire in Freud’s psychic economy, feeling moves always with an unanticipated trajectory. Or as Shelley writes in “On Love,” “It is that powerful attraction towards all that we conceive or fear or hope beyond ourselves when we find within our own thoughts the chasm of an insufficient void and seek to awaken in all things that are a community with what we experience within ourselves” (503). Love materializes this desire to have “another’s nerves . . . vibrate to our own, . . . the beams of their eyes . . . kindle at once and melt into our own” (503).

21.        Here, however, the feeling mode that would transform the world is a “perpetual Orphic song, / Which rules with Daedal harmony a throng / Of thoughts and forms, which else senseless and shapes were” (415–17). In this “work [that] shall be called the Promethean” (158), feeling is (necessarily) in constant flux, what Sha calls the “motion of emotion”: “Break the dance, and scatter the song; / Let some depart and some remain” (159–60); or, “Even whilst we speak / New notes arise . . . What is that awful sound?” (184–85). In such gaps Ione hears “under-notes, / Clear, silver, icy, keen, awakening tones / Which pierce the sense and live within the soul” (189–91), a labyrinthine reality—Earth’s “multitudinous Orb” (253)—described at length (194–318). Yet we can recall that Daedalus, who built the ground upon which Ariadne danced or the labyrinth into which Theseus carried Ariadne’s golden thread so that he could slay the Minotaur and get back out, also created wings for Icarus to fly to the sun, a story without a happy ending. Shelley’s conceptualization of feeling as a labyrinthine matrix from which it is impossible to extract ourselves because there is no “beyond” to this world, one in which feeling traces Deleuzian lines of flight between things that are themselves in flight, is haunted by the specter of fallen gods. [13]  The transfer of emotion that transpires within and sustains the poem’s environment by Act Four, like that between Asia, Ione, and Panthea, materializes a circuitry in which no one knows whose desire is whose.

22.         That is as feeling should be, which carried even to its cosmic dimension produces an endlessly generative movement between beings and things—or rather things as beings; or as the Moon says, illuminated by the light of an earth renovated by the love between Prometheus and Asia, “Gazing on thee I feel, I know” (4.363). This loss of identity is not a problem insofar as it signifies a kind of unrestrained communication between people and things that is Shelley’s ideal of a world liberated from the Jupiterian tyranny of words and looks, the uninhibited flow of a “wordless converse” that finds Shelley inspired by the spirit of Godwin’s ideal of unrestrained conversation. Yet Shelley’s description in “On Love,” and the Moon’s subsequent statement that “a lover or chameleon / Grows like what it looks upon” (4.483–84), encrypts the possibility of subjects at once formed and trapped in the mirror stage of their own constitution. In this world of “A universal sound like words” (518), Demogorgon’s final speech rings rather ominously. It speaks of “Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom and Endurance” as “spells by which to reassume / An empire o’er the disentangled Doom” (562, 568–69). This is to register the entangled labyrinth of feeling as the only spell we have, the drive of affect reflecting a mindless force that is our being without Being. Here I am reminded of Khalip’s notion of the inhuman automaticity or relationality between things. In this way the poem re-invokes the complex Lacanian circuit of desire in which we only know our desire as that of the other, through which neither sides owns desire but rather circulates in the non-space of transference between their subjectivities. Put another way, in the “wordless converse” that is the exchange of feeling, we are eternally left to find our own way. This is neither tragedy, nor comedy, nor farce, but it does locate feeling itself as incompossible with any experience that is the very situation it materializes and by which it is materialized.

23.         Perhaps this is where Shelley means to leave us. In Act One the Chorus of Spirits sing, “Though Ruin now Love’s shadow be” (780), as if, like Benjamin’s Angel of History, we proceed into the future, like Orpheus walking away from Eurydice, always by virtue of the past disaster of a feeling incommensurate with itself. In Queen Mab, Shelley’s vision, torn between idealism and skepticism, is over-ambitiously cosmic, as if (unintentionally, but inevitably) out of touch with the world it seeks to express and thus reform. The empiricism of the poem’s labyrinthine footnotes threaten to deflate the poem’s otherwise lofty visionary spirit, like Shelley’s warning in A Defence of Poetry (1821) that the world threatens to bury us with our knowledge. Certainly the political dimension of Shelley’s verse, especially as he envisions its devastating progress in The Triumph of Life (1824), imagines an idealism without absolutes. In this sense, Prometheus Unbound is resolutely earthbound, though anything but terrestrial, for here Shelley envisions nothing less than an ecology sustained by its own emotional life, a vitality of cosmic expansiveness that marks the inextricable link between human and nonhuman sensoria. We remain unable to grasp this broader feeling network because we exist in its midst as both its products and generators. Feeling sustains the poem’s atmosphere as part of a global emotional ecology. This ecology indicates not just the transfer between subjects and the world, but the movement of affective transference that is literally the air we breathe, the very mode and matrix of our existence. Subjects call the world into emotional existence and this existence materializes their emotional lives—the life of emotion—in turn. Joy, hope, happiness constitute the possible fulfillment of the poem’s emotional life as something devoutly to be wished for but ruinously possible, an existence in which, as Shelley concludes the poem, we must “love” and “bear” and “hope, till Hope creates / From its own wreck the thing it contemplates” (573–74). Which is to say that Shelley also seems aware that affect shatters the subject. Leo Bersani argues that “Freud’s most profound originality . . . is to propose . . . that the sexualizing of the ego is identical to the shattering of the ego” (66). In this catastrophe “affect [is set] free from psychic organization; unbound affect produces the excitement of jouissance,” which at its most extreme is that of a “satisfied aggression [that] at once hyperbolizes the ego and risks shattering its boundaries” (67). Put another way, only this catastrophe of feeling—this feeling of catastrophe--reminds us we are alive. Shelley’s lyrical drama labours resolutely against aggression. And yet, the poem’s jouissance of unrestrained feeling works by a shattering or “scattering” that refuses to let subjects settle—refuses subjects altogether except as they are conscripted into being by the event of feeling itself. The truth of this event disrupts things as they are, but means always tarrying with Jupiterian desire to know this meaning’s—this feeling’s—truth.

Works Cited

Badiou, Alain. Being and Event. Translated by Oliver Feltham, Continuum, 2005.

Bersani, Leo. “The Power of Evil and the Power of Love.” Intimacies, by Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips, U of Chicago P, 2008, pp. 57–88.

Bewell, Alan. “Darwin and the Mobility of Species.” Marking Time: Romanticism and Evolution, edited by Joel Faflak, U of Toronto P, 2017, pp. 45–67.

---. Romanticism and Colonial Disease. Johns Hopkins UP, 1999.

Brennan, Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Cornell UP, 2004.

Carlson, Julie. “Like Love: The Feel of Shelley’s Similes.” Romanticism and the Emotions, edited by Joel Faflak and Richard C. Sha, Cambridge UP, 2013, pp. 76–97.

Faflak, Joel. “Dancing in the Dark with Shelley.” Constellations of a Contemporary Romanticism, edited by Jacques Khalip and Forest Pyle, Fordham UP, 2016, pp. 167–85.

Faflak, Joel and Richard C. Sha. “Introduction.” Romanticism and the Emotions, edited by Joel Faflak and Richard C. Sha, Cambridge UP, 2013, pp. 1–18.

Favret, Mary A., “The Study of Affect and Romanticism,” Literature Compass, vol. 6, 2009, pp. 1059–66.

Hardt, Michael. “Foreword: What Affects Are Good for.” The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, edited by Patricia Clough with Jean Halley, Duke UP, 2007, pp. xi-xiii.

Khalip, Jacques. “Contretemps.” Literature Compass, vol. 13, 2016, pp. 628–36.

Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez, Columbia UP, 1989.

---. Revolution in Poetic Language. Translated by Margaret Waller, Columbia UP, 1984.

Massumi, Brian. “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat.” The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, Duke UP, 2010, pp. 52–70.

Rajan, Tilottama. The Supplement of Reading: Figures of Understanding in Romantic Theory and Practice. Cornell UP, 1990.

---. “Introduction.” Idealism without Absolutes: Philosophy and Romantic Culture, edited by Tilottama Rajan and Arkady Plotnitsky, State U of New York P, 2004, pp. 1–13.

Sha, Richard C. “The Motion Behind Romantic Emotion: Towards a Chemistry and Physics of Feeling.” Romanticism and the Emotions, edited by Joel Faflak and Richard C. Sha, Cambridge UP, 2013, pp. 19–47.

Shelley, Percy. Posthumous Poems, edited by Mary Shelley, J. and H. L. Hunt, 1824.

---. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. 2nd edition, edited by Donald Reiman and Neil Fraistat, Norton, 2002.

Terada, Rei. Feeling in Theory: Emotion after the “Death of the Subject.” Harvard UP, 2001.

Washington, Chris. “The Dark Side of the Light: The Triumph of Love in Shelley’s The Triumph of Life,” unpublished essay.

Wordsworth, William. Poetical Works, edited by Thomas Hutchinson; revised edition by Ernest de Selincourt, Oxford UP, 1981.

---. The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850, edited by Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill, Norton, 1979.


[1] Mary Favret reminds us of this “attack” in “The Study of Affect and Romanticism.” BACK

[2] See Faflak and Sha. BACK

[3] See Sha. BACK

[4] All quotations from Shelley’s writings, except where noted, are taken from Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, cited by page number for prose, and act, scene, and/or line number for poetry. BACK

[5] In “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth writes that he has “felt / A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused” (Poetical Works 94–97). BACK

[6] Jungian analyst and author Marion Woodman once explained this to me in the simplest and yet most profound terms in terms of the therapeutic situation: to apprehend feeling, which is for her the core of gaining access to one’s unconscious life, one must turn the feeling into an image; but to complete the process, one must then learn to feel the image. BACK

[7] I borrow this phrase from the title of a volume of essays edited by Tilottama Rajan and Arkady Plotnitsky on the afterlife of German Idealism. They speak of Romanticism an “idealism without absolutes, rather than any kind of absolute materialism or idealism,” which is also to read the influence of German Idealism as “not only configured by materiality but also” as something that “itself reconstitutes the material: both ‘materiality’ as a concept, and the material with which philosophy deals” (2). BACK

[8] I borrow this phrase, of course, from the title of Teresa Brennan’s trenchant book, which asks us to re-think, non-pathologically, how affect and its energy of feeling is absorbed by and between subjects, and thus both permeates and blurs the boundary between mind and body. BACK

[9] Here I mark my indebtedness, again, to Julie Carlson’s analysis of Shelley’s similes as invoking the “feel” of love, and to an unpublished essay on The Triumph of Life by Chris Washington that reads the poem as what I would call the triumph of, to borrow a word from Deleuze, an incompossible love: love as incompossible. Washington writes: “Shelley’s theory of love suggests not the egoistic chaos of a world lost to political anarchy but rather a radical politics of love that creates worlds anew. Love is an intra-action that manifests new types of life, of living on, from a future-yet-to-come, of spacetimes on a world without us we could never have possibly anticipated because those worlds do not yet exist” (courtesy of the author). BACK

[10] My ensuing reading of this “wordless converse” is indebted to Rajan’s account of Prometheus Unbound in The Supplement of Reading. For Rajan, communication through the eyes bypasses language, yet offers an exchange equally complex. In Rajan’s deconstructive reading, affect, like language, functions (or threatens to function) logocentrically to close of its own complexity, whereas I might argue for a more Kristevan reading in which affect, like the semiotic, persistently disrupts any symbolic or representational system. That is to say, affect at once perpetuates the ocular transference of affect, but circumvents the coercive power of the gaze. BACK

[11] On the cinematic ontology of Shelley’s imagery, see my “Dancing in the Dark with Shelley.” BACK

[12] I take my sense of the motion of emotion, again, from Sha, and my reading of feeling’s migratory potential, which I will explore in a further essay on Prometheus Unbound, is indebted to Alan Bewell’s essay in Marking Time: Romanticism and Evolution on the mobility of species as a kind of postcolonial globalization of worlds. See also Bewell on Prometheus Unbound as “biosocial utopia” (Romanticism and Colonial Disease 211). BACK

[13] In his reading of The Triumph of Life, Washington, playing on Blanchot’s etymology of disaster, meaning “fallen star,” very movingly expresses this notion in terms of us, like Shelley, inhabiting the time of falling and fallen stars in which the only possibility left is love. BACK