Irony and Clerisy
"Frail Spells": Shelley and the Ironies of Exile
Forest Pyle, University of Oregon
The "frail spells" of my title appear in the third stanza of Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" (1816) where they follow the series of questions addressed to the "Spirit of BEAUTY." The celebrated questions that constitute the hymn's second stanza are elaborations of the first question posed to the spirit: "where art thou gone?"(l.15). "Why," asks the speaker, "dost thou pass away and leave our state, / This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?"(ll. 16-17). "Intellectual Beauty," that which unlike church or state most deserves our "vows" of worship and celebration, has "pass[ed] away" without explanation; and the poem announces the withdrawal of the spirit of beauty in the form of hymn to its absence or, more precisely, to the "path of its departure." The spirit of this beauty is nothing if not divine, for it is a spirit that "consecrates" with its own "hues" all "it dost shine upon / Of human thought or form" (ll.13-15). Why, asks the poem's speaker, has this divine spirit of beauty been exiled from us, an exile which, whether self-imposed or enforced by worldly powers, leaves our state, our worldly actuality, a place of desolation.
Far from proposing an answer to this question—which would, after all, require the poem to speak in the name of the spirit—the subsequent stanza serves instead to nullify the entire history of proposed answers, to demystify the claims of all those "sage[s] or poet[s]" who may fancy that they have heard a response:
No voice from some sublimer world hath everPlacing God and Heaven in the company of ghosts, the lines appear to be a straightforward declaration of Shelley's radical philosophical skepticism. The passage spells out his critique of the "uttered charms" of the various religious and philosophical ideologies that, try as they might to seduce us into belief, cannot "avail to sever" the irreducible condition of "doubt, chance, and mutability" from the sensual world. But the critique is not so straightforward as it first appears, for Shelley qualifies his refusal of the power of these "frail spells": their "uttered charm might not avail to sever" "doubt, chance, and mutability" from our worldly perception. If this qualification does not diminish the force of the poem's repudiations, it does nonetheless demonstrate the necessity of countering the "uttered charm" of onto-theology with the act of a demystification: a spell can be rendered "frail" only when the "charm" of its utterance is revealed.
To sage or poet these reponses given--
Therefore the name of God and ghosts and Heaven,
Remain the records of their vain endeavour,
Frail spells—whose uttered charm might not avail to sever,
From all we hear and all we see,
Doubt, chance, and mutability. (ll. 25-31)
Shelley's demystification of the "frail spells" of poetry, theology, and philosophy can be extended to his political critique of the nation-state and the nationalisms that institute and preserve it. From Shelley's effort to vacate all false groundings comes a poetics of the idea that conducts a politics of love and liberty beyond the "frail spells" of national character or identity. In the idiom of Shelley's critical neoplatonism, there can be no idea of the nation: the idea is always in exile and the nation always the scene of the actuality of power. Thus, the idea is in a perpetually ironic relation to the nation and to the clerisies that would institute it. Which is why, according to Shelley, the poet must in an entirely positive sense remain an "unacknowledged legislator of the World." If "all authors of revolutions are poets," as Shelleys declares in the Defence, it is because as "hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration," they liberate us from what in The Triumph of Life he calls "thought's empire over thought." The moment poetic legislation is acknowledged is the moment that poets begin laying down the law, the moment they cease their service to the idea and enlist themselves in the actualities of institution. It is, in other words, the moment they claim to pass from the "awful shadow of some unseen Power" to the light of the aesthetic state.
Shelley's critique of the desire for the state places the poet's famous lament in the hymn—"why dost thou pass away and leave our state, / This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?" (ll.16-17)—in a curiously ironic light: statelessness, it seems, is an originary condition; and beauty only "lends" "for some uncertain moments" (l.37) its "glorious train" (l.41). Beauty's perpetual disappearance leaves a "vacancy" in "our state"; but it is also by virtue of that very vacancy that the "voices" which sage and poet alike call truth—the "voices" of God and ghost and Heaven—can be recognized as echoes of their own "uttered charms." Shelley would voice his commitment to the power of "vacancy" in his 1819 prose fragment "On Life" where it is quite explicitly the "duty" of critical philosophy not to "establish" or institute truth but "to destroy error, and the roots of error" (477). The destruction of error, an interminable critique, necessarily results in the "leaving" of a vacancy: "It leaves, what is too often the duty of the reformer in political and ethical questions to leave, a vacancy" (477). This is, moreover, not merely the "duty of the reformer in political and ethical questions," but the role of the poetic imagination as Shelley conceives it in a poem as late as Epipsychidion: it is an illuminating negation, a "reverberated lightning" that "As from a thousand prisms and mirrors, fills / The Universe with glorious beams and kills / Error" (ll. 166-69).
To sing a hymn to intellectual beauty is to invoke the incantatory "charm" of the hymn form and defiantly sing in praise of vacancy, the vacancy left by this aesthetic spirit's exile from our state. To sing a hymn to intellectual beauty is thus to be both perverse and reverent and to join one's voice to a non-nationalist chorus which, like the silent voice of the mountain in "Mont Blanc," has the capacity to "repeal large codes of fraud and woe" such as those "sealed" in English statutes. To sing this godless but still sacred hymn is to give worship to the absent spirit of beauty and every form and thought it consecrates. If the proper worship of the spirit of beauty demands an initial demystification of the "frail spells" of god and ghosts and heaven, this worship nonetheless makes good on its vows only through the conjuring, the "calling" of phantoms: in the sixth stanza, the poet, asking the silent spirit to confirm that he has indeed "kept his vows," declares that "even now / I call the phantoms of a thousand hours / Each from his voiceless grave..." (ll.63-65).
Ghosts, gods, spirits, phantoms: if each of these figures by turns haunts or inspires Shelley's poem, its success as a "hymn to intellectual beauty" depends upon a rigorous distinction between them. It is not, in other words, a matter of opposing anything like actual reality or the living present to the spectral properties of the ghost; it is, rather, a question of distinguishing the differences between God and Spirit, between ghosts and phantoms. While the phantom, for instance, may suggest the spectral qualities of the ghost, the phantom for Shelley is not mere ideological delusion but the shadowing forth of something ideal, such as the appearance of the Spirit of "Intellectual Beauty" addressed by the poem. But since one cannot see this Spirit, the distinctions the poem insists upon between spirit and ghost or phantom and god depend on measuring and evaluating their various effects, which might be characterized as the difference between the theological and the aesthetic. It amounts to measuring the differences between the "frail spells" of "God and ghosts and Heaven" on the one hand and the "hues and harmonies of evening" or the "memory of music fled" (ll.8,10) on the other. But such distinctions are not so easily maintained, as the poem's early praise to the "grace" and "mystery" of the spirit beauty demonstrates. It may well appear that the poem has challenged the "frail spells" of theology only to succumb to the theologizing charms of the aesthetic. Thus, the speaker declares to the spirit of beauty that its "light alone" "gives grace and truth to life's unquiet dream" (ll.32,35).
And yet, as many readers have stressed, intellectual beauty is not to be confused with sensuous beauty; and thus the hymn is addressed not to the aesthetic as such—not to the sensory manifestation of the spirit—but to the spirit of beauty itself. This means that the aesthetic exists only in the realm of likeness and that its figural model is that of the simile. But if the "visitations" of the "awful shadow of some unseen Power" leave us with a string of similes, they are similes that, as Carol Jacobs has rightly noted, do not operate in the service of similarity: "The first stanza of the 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty' ... is an attempt to define that elusive poetic force through a long series of similes whose terms of comparison seem peculiarly at odds with one another" (171). Our "state" is thus one of failed likenesses, a potentially interminable series of figures which, in Jacobs's words, "mark the refusal of language to define by affirming an identity"(171). No linguistic system based upon a principle of identity could "define" a spirit which not only remains unseen but whose own "seeing" is nothing more than an "inconstant glance"( l.6).
If such a "spirit fair" does not preside over the idea or form of any national community, it does nonetheless exert deep binding powers of its own. In the poem's last lines, where this hymn becomes supplication, the poet-suppliant beseeches the spirit of beauty to lend him its power as "one who worships thee, / And every form containing thee, / Whom, SPIRIT fair, thy spells did bind / To fear himself, and love all human kind" (ll.81-84). No one is likely to confuse this with the International, but it is a hymn which, after sounding the emptiness of the "frail spells" of "God and ghosts and heaven," turns its praise to an exiled spirit whose genuinely binding spells are those solely of universal love. If a hymn is not merely a song of praise or adoration but also a form of spell, then one of the intended effects of this hymn to intellectual beauty is to extend its sacred powers to its singers and readers: it is intended to place those who utter it under the spell of love. This is its effect on the poem's own speaker who feels the "shadow" of Beauty's spirit fall upon him as a kind of counter-charm, an antidote to the "poisonous names with which our youth is fed" (l.53). The result is something like a conversion experience in which the eruption of an ecstatic "shriek"—"I shrieked, and clasped my hands in extasy" (l.60)—prompts the declaration of poetic vows. Thus, the comings and goings of the spirit of beauty, a power both unseen and unheard as such, are according to Shelley figured through its phantoms and known only through its effects, like the blind falling of a shadow. And yet it is by its very inconstancy that the spirit of beauty generates the binding force of love, that which the poem's last line identifies as the "love of all human kind." The hymn declares the "hope" that it is within the scope of Beauty's "unseen Power" to "free / This world from its dark slavery" (ll.69-70). If this sounds more than a little like the "spectropoetics" that Derrida unearths in his reading of Marx, perhaps this likeness accounts more than a little for Marx's famously sympathetic assessment of the poet. And perhaps it is because Marx and Shelley, both illegitimate heirs of the Platonic tradition, recognize in this cluster of specters—ghosts, gods, spirits, phantoms—the elements of a theory of ideology.
To evaluate the nature of this idealist but genuinely political critique of the actuality of the nation-state, one needs only to situate it alongside On the Constitution of Church and State (1829). For Coleridge, of course, there is an idea of the nation; and what he calls the "ever-originating idea" of nation is understood to precede and inform the "Idea of a Constitution" (12) and the insititutions of the nation-state. The origins of this "ever-originating idea" are not, moreover, empirical in nature: Coleridge regards the origin of the nation as a "pure fiction" (14), but one which is the very condition of its effectivity. For the idea of the nation to secure the state and overcome the class divisions that threaten to undo the sense of a national community, the national fiction must be entrusted to what he calls a "permanent class of order," a "national clerisy." It is thus this national clerisy—a secular poetic intelligentsia—that would effect and adminster what Coleridge would openly acknowledge as the "spell" of that "ideal object" called the nation.
When Shelley's poems address the state of the nation, as in those works provoked by the Peterloo massacre, the nation finds its truest expression as the vehicle of oppression: England is itself the "veil" or "mask of anarchy." "England in 1819," a sonnet which Shelley sent to Leigh Hunt with no illusions that it would be published, identifies the institutions of the English state as a set of graves:
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;The dating in the title (which, it seems, was Mary's addition) is significant not because things might be better in 1820 or, say, 1832 but because the phrase "England in 1819" demonstrates that the nation is bound to this date: the nation itself is now "Time's worst statute," imprisoned to actuality. Indeed, the very form of the sonnet seems to be oppressed by the actualities of the nation it describes: this strange sonnet is a static catalogue of phrases and clauses, an enumeration of the ills that characterize the English state in 1819: "An old, mad, despised, and dying King"; "Princes, the dregs of their dull race"; "Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know"; "A people starved and stabbed"; "Religion Christless, Godless"; "A senate, Time's worst statute, unrepealed." The litany extends for twelve lines without hint of turn or, in Shelley's words, "repeal." It is not until the closing couplet that this poem finds its verb, its agreement secured in the static form of the copula: the institutions of the state "are graves." Significantly, the poem turns after this agreement has been reached or, as Adorno might have said, after this identity between subject and copula has been "extorted." The poem's final prepositional phrases herald, through the explosive enjambment of the last lines, the disruptive force of the "glorious phantom": these institutions "Are graves from which a glorious phantom may / Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day."
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th'untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time's worst statute, unrepealed --
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.
The sonnet's implicit articulation of literary form and political history is the focus of a recent fine reading by James Chandler, who has appropriated the title of the sonnet for his own impressive study of "the politics of literary culture and the case of Romantic historicism." Chandler attends closely to the list of social evils that comprises the body of the sonnet and argues persuasively that "the terms of the times in Shelley's catalogue—the conditions of his tempestuous day—are not simple evils and are not simply overcome by the arrival of an enlightening 'deus ex machina.' Rather, these conditions, these terms of social existence, are in each instance the source from which the illuminations will spring..." (30). For Chandler the ills as they are enumerated by the poem rise to the level of historical "conditions"—genuinely contradictory ones at that—which must be "read, like fine print, not merely seen" (31).
By attending to the necessity of "reading," Chandler's argument here and throughout his enormous book has the entirely salutary effect of returning our attention to the radical historicizing already at work in Shelley (or, as his other chapters demonstrate, in Scott, Byron, and Keats). Chandler achieves this, moreover, without resorting to the sort of critical contortions evident, for instance, in Marjorie Levinson's celebration of Keats's "badness": while Keats's Life of Allegory is certainly a virtuoso performance, it also constitutes something like an end-around of the "romantic ideology." In his own assessment of the new historicism, Chandler asserts that much of the work that has been conducted under this rubric claims a "historiographical, even a political advance over any historical paradigm one uncovers in the Romantic era, but that appearance may itself depend on covering over ... the complexity and density of historicist thought in Romantic writing" (139). Chandler's understanding of the "complexity and density of historicist thought" in Shelley concentrates on the poet's notion of the "spirit of the age" which Chandler characterizes as the poet's "preoccupation with contemporaneity" (106). Chandler's Shelley is thus a poet whose work not only reflects upon his own socio-historicical movement but also "situates itself in that movement" (525).
And yet, should Chandler's reading of Shelley's engagement with his historical "conditions" (such as those inscribed in the sonnet) have the desired (and desirable) results of prompting closer critical attention to Shelley's conceptions of history, the poetics of contemporaneity will reveal itself to be but a "case" of futurity. Thus, if Shelley's poetry is often "written at the suggestion of the events of the moment" (407), as he says in his preface to Hellas, its call is to and from the future: poets are, after all, the "hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present" (508). Without this poetic mirroring of futurity's shadows, England in 1819 would remain a "book sealed." But if poetry opens the book of the future, it does not spell out its contents in advance. "England in 1819" calls upon the phantom as the redemptive force of history, but the power of this resurrected phantom is qualified by the subjunctive mode and figured as potentiality. And yet it is also the turn from the indicative to the subjunctive that opens this redemptive potential: one might call it the grammatical vehicle of the phantom's liberation from the "graves" of the nation-state.
The England in 1819 that is represented to us in Shelley's "England in 1819" thus qualifies as what Walter Benjamin, in an essay written during his own exile, would call a "state of emergency" (257) from which the messianic phantoms of the poem "may / Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day." That the sonnet—its method and its effects—should be so precisely illuminated by Benjamin's "Theses on History" demonstrates Shelley's incompatibility with historicism: for Shelley as for Benjamin history is not composed of events unfolding through "homogenous, empty time" (261). And like Benjamin's "historical materialist," Shelley "cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop (262). This is "England in 1819": the poetic "sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, ... a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past" (263). As with Benjamin's sense of a "weak messianic power (eine schwache messianische Kraft), a power to which the past has a claim" (254), a messianism without the messiah, Shelley's phantoms would "blast" the state "out of the continuum of history," a revolutionary break with its historical conditions (262).
One might assert that Shelley's manipulation of the sonnet form, the sudden force of the enjambment in the closing couplet, expresses his sense of the disruptive power of revolutionary illumination; but it would be more to the point of Shelley's own "Benjaminian" poetics and politics to say that the poem is less an expression of his historico-political understanding than that the poem itself—the poetic resources that are conjured in and by the sonnet—produces this sense of historical and political possibility. Much of the power of the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" derives from a similar poetic act, its performance of the call to "the phantoms of a thousand hours / Each from his voiceless grave," a call intended to invoke the spell of redeeming love in the phantom conjuring of futurity. In the later sonnet the subjunctive agency of the phantom is conjured to "repeal" not the spell of "God and ghosts and heaven" but the spell of actuality. Thus, what we might call the critical redemption value of Shelley's poetry, including the sonnet "written at the suggestion of the events of the moment," resides not in its reference to the present or the empirical but in its blank opening onto futurity.2. Shelley in Exile
It should not require either the imperative to historicize or the call to read Shelley's historicizing to make us aware of the fact that Shelley's poetic assessment of the state of England was composed during his own self-imposed exile. By a logic already inscribed in the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," Shelley's poetry would seem to propose that the painfully ironic condition of exile frees the poet from the actuality of the nation to imagine its future illumination. Exiled from England and thus distanced from the spells cast by God and ghost and nation, Shelley can conjure the phantoms of the idea and embark on a poetry which, if unrealizable in actuality—literally unpublishable—is perhaps redeemable by futurity.
But exile must also be understood as a spatial predicament, as the displacement from that thing or idea which one conceives or conceived of as home. Edward Said has made the idea—and, importantly, the value—of the form of displacement known as exile and the forms of its representation the pivot of his critical project. Said devotes a chapter of his Representations of the Intellectual to the topic of "intellectual exile"; and the important essay, "Secular Criticism," which introduces The World, the Text, and the Critic, opens with a formative discussion of the relationship between exile and culture. Most recently, Said's Culture and Imperialism is framed by discussions of the condition of the exile and concludes with this definition: "Exile is predicated on the existence of, love for, and a real bond with one's native land; the universal truth of exile is not that one has lost that love or home, but that inherent in each is an unexpected, unwelcome loss" (CI 336). While it is not my intention to liken the peculiar situation of Shelley's exile from England with, say, the Palestinian diaspora or to presume that Shelley's poetry of displacement necessarily contributes anything useful to those scholars and activists who are working to theorize and address the conditions of exile in the twentieth century, Shelley's poetics of exile does at any rate anticipate Said's own description of "liberation as an intellectual mission":
Yet it is no exaggeration to say that liberation as an intellectual mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialism, has now shifted from the settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, energies whose incarnation today is the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and artist in exile, the political figure between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages. (CI 332)
If Shelley offers us a convergence of radical poetic, philosophical, and political discourses which is unprecedented if not unsurpassed in British literary history, it could be argued that this radical gift is indeed the result of its "unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies." Moreover, Said's own definition asks us to conceive of a "universal truth of exile" in which the relationship to "home" is severed and marked "inherent[ly]" by "unexpected, unwelcome loss." Though Said clearly seems to regard the "unhoused" condition of the exile to represent an epistemological, cultural, and political advance over the various cultural and political nationalisms that persist in the wake of decolonizing struggles, what Said describes as the "universal truth of exile" is nonetheless predicated on the existence of a "real bond with one's native land." What the exile's loss of a "real bond with one's native land" teaches us is that the experience of exile is as temporal as it is spatial, a temporality that is opened up in the very space of the (now lost) home.
For Said the temporality of this relationship is characterized by the language of love and loss: "exile is predicated on the existence of, love for, and a real bond with one's native land" (CI 336). To regard the condition of the exile as the condition of the lover poses an interesting problem in the case of Shelley, not simply because of his ambivalence to the England he had left behind, but because of his own conception of love. In his fragment "On Love," written in the wake of his translation of The Symposium and bearing its influence throughout, Shelley prefaces his definition with an autobiographical account of the writer as an exile from the "sympathy" of countrymen. Here, however, the domain of countrymen extends to humankind itself, the very humankind to which the poet had hoped to "bind" himself through "love" in the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty":
I know not the internal constitution of other men.... I see that in some external attributes they resemble me, but when misled by that appearance I have thought to appeal to something in common and unburthen my inmost soul to them, I have found my language misunderstood like one in a distant and savage land. The more opportunities they have afforded me for experience, the wider has appeared the interval between us, and to a greater distance have the points of sympathy been withdrawn. (473)
"I have found myself understood like one in a distant and savage land": or, in other words, like an exile forever severed from the bonds, the "points of sympathy" that would consitute a community. However much the subsequent definition of love owes to Aristophanes's discourse in The Symposium, it is presented as a definition written by a lover in exile:
[Love] 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. (473)
For Shelley's lover, the condition of exile is not, as Said would have it, "predicated on the existence of ... a real bond with one's native land," but on the originary absence of such a bond: "one's native land," in other words, is predicated on exile; it is a love-effect produced from "the chasm of an insufficent void."
To assert that the nation is an imaginary projection or ghostly conception is, by this late date, old news. Indeed, as any reader of Coleridge's On the Constitution of Church and State can attest, it was old news by 1829. But judging by the volatility of recent debates and events, it is certainly also the case that the ideological question of the origin of the nation is no more settled now than it was for Coleridge or Shelley. I believe that to come to terms with the nature of Shelley's commitment to "liberation as an intellectual mission" one must come to terms with the implications of his insistence that one's relationship to one's "native land" necessarily takes the form of a spell. This would render exile a fully ironic condition—close perhaps to what de Man in "The Rhetoric of Temporality" calls "absolute irony" (216)—if we understand irony to be a permanent disjunction between modes of knowledge which is registered subjectively as loss or displacement.
Thus, while I do believe Shelley's "intellectual mission" and poetic project are indeed closely linked to their "exilic energies," the consequences of his work are such that they offer none of what Said has called, in reference to Eric Auerbach, "the executive value of exile"(WTC 8). What this means is that by the time of Shelley's last work the very exile of the idea, the position from which the "frail spells" of ideology had been demystified—indeed, the very possibility of demystification—no longer stands outside ideology's own purview. The result is that Shelley's poetry comes to recognize exile as yet another in the extending line of "spells": the poetry, we might say, ironizes the ironic position of exile. It refuses to make the ironic condition of exile into the privileged epistemological position from which a cosmopolitan clerisy might emerge. A concomitant result is a radical poetry which reflects upon the very production of "spells" and "spelling." Whether one wants to describe this development in Shelley's poetry, a development legible as early as "On the Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery" and certainly inscribed throughout The Triumph of Life, as an event on the order of an epistemological break from his earlier critical idealism or as a tightening or torquing of that idealism to its breaking point is beyond the scope of this discussion. What I am interested in exploring in what remains of my essay is what happens to both idea and actuality, to both nation and spell in two passages from The Triumph of Life.
I am interested first in the scene in which the poet-narrator encounters the "triumphal pageant" that accompanies the conquering chariot's advance: "where'er / The chariot rolled a captive multitude / Was driven"(ll.119-20). The list of those imprisoned to this "triumphal pageant" is an extensive one:
all those who had grown old in power
Or misery,—all who have their age subdued,
By action or by suffering....
All those whose fame or infamy must grow
Till the great winter lay the form and name
Of their own earth with them forever low— (ll.121-27)
The scope of enslavement is such that only the "sacred few" can be said to escape it; and the poet's account of the "sacred few" is worth noting:
All but the sacred few who could not tame
Their spirits to the Conqueror, but as soon
As they had touched the world with living flame
Fled back like eagles to their native noon.... (ll.128-31).
The lines rearticulate a structure we have identified in Shelley's earlier poems: all those touched by the worldly actuality of power, whether philosopher or statesman or theologian, are enslaved to the "Conqueror." Only those who managed to flee the world and to place their thought in exile, namely Christ and Socrates, have successfully avoided this defeat. Christ and Socrates belong to this sacred group of exiles because, as de Man put it, "they are mere fictions in the writings of others" (RR 97). In the poem, moreover, they are not named as such: Socrates and Christ are referred to as "they of Athens and Jerusalem," a metonymic identification which figures them in terms of their displacement.
But the status of exile in this reading of the "triumphal pageant" is altered in the course of the poem by the poet-narrator's encounter with the figure of Rousseau or, more accurately, "what was once Rousseau." This disfigured Rousseau explains to our narrator that "all who gaze upon this spectacle will be turned from spectators to "actor or victim in this wretchedness." Thus, one of the principal effects of this "turn"—from which no spectator is exempt—is the erasure of the difference between actor and victim.
"What was once Rousseau" then recounts to the poet the story of his own entrancement:
Thou wouldst forget thus vainly to deplore
Ills, which if ills, can find no cure from thee,
The thought of which no other sleep will quell
Nor other music blot from memory--
So sweet and deep is the oblivious spell. (327-331).
This spell is powerful and delightful enough to erase the very potential of personal memory and of ethical judgment. "Oblivious" works as adjectives often do in Shelley's poetry: the spell manufactures forgetfulness because, as a spell, it is itself "oblivious." This obliviousness extends to Rousseau's distinction between past and present and, at the very moment of its recalling, returns the poem to the present tense: "Whether my life had been before that sleep / The Heaven which I imagine, or a Hell / Like this harsh world in which I wake to weep / I know not" (ll. 332-335). The effect of this spell is thus deep enough to "confuse sense" and to unground all knowledge. The Triumph of Life, both poem and pageant, is thus the triumph of actuality and the disappearance of idea and exile from their place in Shelley's critical neoplatonism; and it marks the awareness in Shelley's poetry of the consequences of irony as permanent parabasis, one of which is the permanence of ideology. "Spelling" is in this sense far from frail: it implies a condition, a "turn" or "fit" for which there is no outside, no recovery. To call this poetry radical is to suggest that it delivers poetry itself to its radical, to its own vacancy where the phantoms that may burst from their graves do so not in order to "illumine our tempestuous day" but, by the "kindling of inextricable error," cast a spell of "light more dread than obscurity." The effect of this dread bright light is the voiding of all "frail spells" and the awareness of their necessity.
To those who continue to be committed to the historicist project that has come to dominate the Anglo-american study of romanticism, my reading will doubtless appear as yet one more example of the "frail spell" cast by the "romantic ideology," which in the contemporary context may well be but another name for deconstruction. But sustained attention to the workings of Shelley's texts disclose something more than the representations of their age or the literary displacements of the empirical condition of exile; Shelley's texts are limit cases of poetic thought and practice in a Romanticism which may well be far from exhausted conceptually. The continuing power of Shelley's most demanding work resides in its ability to reckon with the political as well as poetic implications of an epistemological irony so extensive that it disqualifies the claims of any clerisy to escape it, including the clerisies of contemporary criticism.Works Cited
Benjamin, Walter. "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
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Chandler, James K. England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism. U of Chicago P, 1998.
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Romantic Circles / Praxis Series / Irony and Clerisy / Pyle, "'Frail Spells': Shelley and the Ironies of Exile"