The introduction to The Politics of Shelley: History, Theory, Form begins by returning to a 2001 volume in the Romantic Circles Praxis Series that addressed Shelley's politics. Homing in on the complexity of the possibility of a poem intervening in its immediate political context, the introduction frames the volume as sustaining the necessity of seeing through and beyond the antinomy of commitment and autonomy by rereading and reimagining the political in Shelley’s writings and his legacy.
Matthew C. Borushko
1. In 2001, the Romantic Circles Praxis Series published a volume devoted to politics in Shelley titled Reading Shelley’s Interventionist Poetry, 1819-1820. The volume comprises essays by Samuel Gladden, Robert Kaufman, and Mark Kipperman, which, taken together and along with the introduction by volume editor Michael Scrivener and the embedded responses by Steven Jones, carefully articulate—and necessarily complicate—what Marc Redfield has called “one of Romanticism’s greatest legacies: how to think of the political force of literary texts” (150). Gladden’s analysis of political and revolutionary bodies in Oedipus Tyrannus; or, Swellfoot the Tyrant; Kaufman’s delineation of a “literary trajectory” linking Shelley to the theorists involved in and the artists connected to Frankfurt School critical aesthetics; and Kipperman’s re-grounding of “The Mask of Anarchy” in the iconology of its moment—each foreground implicitly Redfield’s generative question by homing in on Shelley’s political poetry in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre in August 1819. And rightly so. As James Chandler has put it, “‘Peterloo’—like ‘The French Revolution’ on a higher scale or even ‘Romanticism,’ itself on a scale yet higher still—names an event of indeterminate duration that marks a transformation in the practices of modern literary and political representation, one understood in its moment to have revolutionary potential” (18). A crisis in the theory and practice of representation both political and literary, that is, along with a palpable sense of the emancipatory possibilities latent in this confluence of the political and the literary, then, demarcate the situation of 1819-20 into which Shelley sought to intervene with his poetry and prose.
2. Yet what does it mean—what could it mean—for a work of art to intervene in its immediate political context? What do we mean when we label a set of poems “interventionist”? Does the adjectival usage foreclose the judgment as to whether or not a work has, in actuality, intervened—or, perhaps more aptly, on whether or not it is even able to intervene, thus relegating the label “interventionist” to the level of stated intention? Shelley is perhaps more slippery on the subject of just how he imagined his writing to affect politics than we have given him credit for. As he articulated in a number of places in 1819 and 1820, Shelley certainly intended his work to intervene in at least a basic sense of the term. It is well known that many of his post-Peterloo efforts, including “The Mask of Anarchy,” were part of what he described—that is, what he pitched—to Leigh Hunt as “a little volume of popular songs wholly political, destined to awaken and direct the imagination of the reformers” (Letters 2, 191). Here Shelley foresees his poems affecting the “imagination”—not the actions or the strategies—of a specific group of individuals, the political and intellectual leaders of the reform movement. What is more, “wholly political” seems to imply that his other poems from this period, those not intended for the “little volume of popular songs,” must be at least partially “political.” Indeed, in the preface to the lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound, published in 1820, Shelley acknowledges his personal commitment to reform but specifies that “it is a mistake to suppose that I dedicate my poetical compositions solely to the direct enforcement of reform,” before going on famously to say “didactic poetry is my abhorrence” (Shelley 209). “Solely” here suggests, I think, that reform nonetheless remains a commitment of Shelley’s poetry, even when its antididactic aim is to offer “beautiful idealisms of moral excellence” (209).
3. These two representative attempts by Shelley, originating in the crucible of post-Peterloo British letters, to articulate the relationship between poetry and politics implicate his work in a longer conversation to which Adorno contributed the terms “commitment” and “autonomy” in “Commitment,” his response to Sartre’s What is Literature? Committed or interventionist art would be “wholly political,” aimed at the “reformers” (Letters 2, 191) and at the “direct enforcement of reform (209)”; autonomous art might be described as “beautiful idealisms of moral excellence” (209). As Scrivener writes in the Introduction to Reading Shelley’s Interventionist Poetry, 1819-1820, “the very word and category, ‘interventionist,’ is still vexed by the . . . binary opposition of escapist and interventionist, idealist and materialist, [and] resurrects a debate in which Adorno seems to have had the last word, but one has to emphasize ‘seems.’” Indeed, the deep insights of the previous Romantic Circles Praxis Series volume on Shelley’s politics reside in the ability of the contributions, along with the responses by Steven Jones, to think through and then beyond what Scrivener calls the “antimony of commitment and autonomy”—to activate, that is, the Shelley whose poetry can be “both autonomous and interventionist.”
4. The present volume sustains the necessity of seeing through and beyond this antinomy by continuing the work of rereading and reimagining the political in Shelley’s writings and his legacy. Indeed, as Mischa Willett demonstrates, the Victorian appropriation of Shelley’s ouevre into a binary of Matthew Arnold’s “ineffectual angel” on the one hand and, on the other, G. B. Shaw’s Shelley who penned the “Chartist Bible” leaves out a crucial feature of Shelley’s Victorian reception: the Spasmodics, whose indebtedness to Shelley comprises both a radical aestheticism and a critical politics, whereby the former provides the foundation of the latter. Often read apolitically and under the sign of Keats, the Spasmodic School is more accurately identified as Shelleyan, Willett argues. If, as Willett suggests, Sydney Dobell’s Spasmodic and Shelleyan The Roman (1850) inspired Giuseppe Mazzini, the Italian liberation leader, can we term this effect an intervention into politics by the spirit of Shelley? A similar question should be asked of the influence of Shelley’s ideas, mediated indeed by their Victorian reception, on the nonviolence of Mohandas K. Gandhi—a lineage that informs Borushko’s argument in the present volume for a close relationship, smithied in Shelley’s post-Peterloo poetics and then shaped in twentieth-century forms of political and aesthetic resistance, between art and nonviolence.
5. Michael Demson’s essay returns us to Britain in the aftermath of Peterloo, where the stakes of an author’s commitments and attempts at intervention come sharply into focus. Demson tells the story of “John Cahuac, a radical London publisher, who was effectively silenced and removed from any political discourse, and the fate of his satirical writings, almost entirely forgotten today.” As Demson contextualizes with rich comparative detail, both Cahuac and Shelley, coming from dramatically different class positions, turned to seditious satire in the months after Peterloo. Cahuac’s forgotten works, which he wrote as well as published himself, include a defiant open letter to Lord Sidmouth and a pamphlet titled “Who killed Cock Robin?: a satirical tragedy, or hieroglyphic prophecy on the Manchester Blot!!!” These and other of Cahuac’s writings aimed ultimately, as Shelley’s attempts at satire also aimed, Demson argues, to awaken the popular imagination to the need for political solidarity. But Cahuac was tried at least twice for seditious libel in his career, and in 1823 he was convicted of stealing an octavo edition of Lingard’s History of England (which he claimed he owned legally), for which he was sentenced to fourteen years transportation and sent to Van Dieman’s Land. He never returned. “Why crush a starving bookseller?,” Demson quotes Shelley writing to Leigh Hunt, for thereby “tyrants . . . strike in his person at all of their political enemies” and “divert the attention of the people from obtaining a Reform in their oppressive Government.” One could say that tyranny crushed Cahuac, and, as Demson argues and implies on a broader scale, one could also say that such actions forced Romantics and post-Romantics, including Shelley and those who take up his mantle, to imagine new forms of interventionist art.
6. The essays by Borushko, Lambier, and McGeough turn to the sensorium as the locus of new political possibilities in Shelley’s work. Borushko’s argument for the immanent nonviolence of art—differently inflected in Shelley, Adorno, and Jacques Rancière—relies upon, in the end, the resistance of aesthetic form to the existing order of the sensible. Through such resistance, a work of art at the same time reorders the realm of the sensible by virtue of its very existence. Indeed, this resistance and consequent redistribution, dramatized so aptly in “The Mask of Anarchy,” names what Rancière identifies as the truly critical politics of art. Rancière, whose writing on art and politics motivates not only Borushko’s but also Lambier’s and McGeough’s essays, challenges us finally to see past older, antinomian versions of the politics of a poem. In other words, Rancière enjoins us to move beyond “the relationship of the poet to politics” and “the presence of politics in the poem” in order to conceive “the very politics of the poetry, the manner in which poetry configures the space in which its productions are inscribed” (240). Lambier’s strategy to push this conversation forward locates Shelley’s thought in the debates surrounding rights in the Romantic age. Centrally, Lambier demonstrates that criticisms such as Hazlitt’s of Shelley—“I think he is chargeable with extreme levity,” Hazlitt writes—intersect with the language of critics in the legal-rights camp of natural rights theorists, such as Shelley, according to Lambier, whose work is a part of what Lynn Hunt has characterized as the invention of human rights. Shelley’s poetry and prose thus participates in the extension of rights to those groups who are excluded by the narrower circle drawn by constitutionalist interpretations of rights declarations.
7. McGeough’s contribution to the volume is another example of this. His ability to find in Shelley an “aesthetics of anarchism”—ultimately a reading of political form before, or as determinative of, political content—offers a new angle on a perennial issue in the critical conversation on Shelley’s politics: his relationship to the anarchist tradition. In a review essay from 1985, William Keach, reflecting on important advances in scholarship on Shelley’s politics by Michael Scrivener and P. M. S. Dawson, notes that both works reveal “the limitations of characterizing Shelley as an anarchist,” not only because of the distance between our definition of the term and Shelley’s use of it, but also because of the influence on Shelley of Thomas Paine’s—more so than William Godwin’s—views of government (126). Complicating this binary of Paine or Godwin but encompassing both possibilities, McGeough establishes the “dissensus,” a term from Rancière that both McGeough and Lambier place in conversation with Shelley, which appears in “The Mask of Anarchy” with the emergence of the “Shape arrayed in mail” that resists the ordering, the violent consensus, of the sensible established by Anarchy’s procession. In Lambier’s essay, it is Prometheus Unbound wherein Shelley stages dissensus: “the epipsyche of aesthetic experience places two senses of the world side by side, the prevailing order and a virtual alternative, thus opening up new possibilities for reconfiguration.”
8. On this point, the retrojection of Rancière’s notions of “dissensus” and the redistribution of the sensible onto Shelley’s works from 1819-1820, Lambier’s essay unites with Borushko’s and McGeough’s in their attempts to think beyond the old impasse between Shelley’s commitments and his moments of artistic autonomy. Indeed, the essays by Demson and Willett join the others in charting new political possibilities in our estimation of Shelley’s body of work—pathways that take us back to post-Peterloo repression through to the Victorian Shelleyans, and then forward to Rancière’s post-Marxism.
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