Shelley's political legacy passed through an often-neglected school of writers to world leaders and revolutionaries globally in the decades following his death. When assessing his legacy, we should not overlook those early, ardent appreciators known as "the Spasmodic School." Alexander Smith, Sydney Dobell, J. Stanyan Bigg, and even James Thomson B.V. took Shelley's call to a revolution conducted through imaginative sympathy seriously, and together, helped to fan his "fading coal" to flame.
Shelley’s Spasmodic Afterlife
1. Matthew Arnold’s much-derided jibe about ineffectual angels is not the only remark on Shelley’s political impotence. Early reviewers were quick to dismiss both his radicalism and radical ambition. The Quarterly Review, for example, compares him (presciently) to a drowning man, flailing his arms about to no avail, as Kim Wheatley has shown (8). Wheatley argues that reviewers’ vituperative recrimination of his project amounts to a kind of paranoid politics, casting his gestures as ineffectual for fear of their possible political power.
2. Scholars such as Mark Redfield, Paul Foot, David Duff, and Cian Duffy have recently made inroads into recreating the political Shelley, suppressed for so much of the century that followed him, and ignored for much of ours. Likewise, Shelley’s influence on later poets has been repeatedly, if not comprehensively, remarked through the work of Anthony Harrison, Herbert Tucker, and others.
3. But a reconsideration of the political (broadly considered) in Shelley is due in the wake of recent scholarship from Slavoj Žižek and Jacques Ranciere, among others, tying the political and aesthetic. The bifurcation of those concepts is still very much with us. Eugene Stelig wrote in 2013, for example (of Wordsworth), “by the end of the decade, the identity conflict between poetry and politics was essentially over, having been resolved in favor of the former” (745-6). That attempting to write political poetry creates an “identity conflict” is taken for granted. This essay considers another dimension of the political in Shelley: not a revolution of the mind, nor the moral force of his verse and example, but the realpolitik carried on in his name, and the politico-poetic revolution he actually enacted.
4. Among the most important of Shelley's legacies is the overlooked school of poets writing in the years following his death, known at first derisively, and then popularly as the "The Spasmodics." The Spasmodics took Shelley as their hero and model, and unlike him, lived to see their (his) politico-poetic vision take shape. Through the Spasmodics then, Shelley’s trumpet of prophecy sounded to legions of readers both in the English literary world and beyond.
5. My claims in this essay are three: 1) that despite Arnoldian-Victorianist portraits of Shelley as politically-ineffectual (and this despite the fact that, whatever his intentions, he largely was ineffectual during his short life) Shelley’s effect on the popular generation of poets immediately following his death was both profound and heretofore unremarked, 2) that the most popular school thereof—the Spasmodics—are better categorized as a Shelleyan rather than Keatsian, and 3) that this is so in part because of their works' political force, despite that modern Victorianist critics—like the Victorians before them—call their work “apolitical.”
6. This reconsideration will, I hope, do a few things for us. It extends work already begun by Susan Schmidt and Michael Rossington on Shelley’s reception worldwide in the years following his death, especially among the working classes. It also offers a glimpse at how early Victorians—Christians, moralists—began the project of rehabilitating Shelley’s work, and reputation, making it (if only slightly) more palatable for domestic consumption. In that, it participates in conversations on the Romantic/Victorian divide hosted by Richard Cronin and Anthony Harrison and gives us a picture of how Romantic, and more specifically, Shelleyan, poetics were incorporated into what afterward became known as the early part of a new period. Some ancillary questions pop up that might be further considered elsewhere: what does the Shelleyan poetic project actually look like, as distinct from Keatsian/Huntian/Byronic? What would a School of Shelley look like, if not this?
The Spasmodic Poets
7. So far have their magnificent stars fallen, that before saying anything substantive about the Spasmodics, a short introduction is required.  The Spasmodic poets are a group of once-popular writers working mainly on ars-poetic epics in the 1850s. Philip James Bailey (1816-1902), Sydney Dobell (1824-1874), Alexander Smith (1830-1867), and J. Stanyan Bigg (1828-1865) are the principle authors in this group, but there are other minor writers, and some major ones who can be so classed.  Understood as inheritors of the Romantic tradition, their work outsold everything in the nineteenth-century apart from Byron, but since they were mostly working-class writers, and because of Victorian critical reaction to late-Romantic epistemology, their fame died quickly by the 1860s.
8. In their 2004 special issue of Victorian Poetry, editors Charles LaPorte and Jason Rudy note that Spasmodism “struck nearly all readers as a demonstrably new mode of poetic composition,” featuring “a wavering between poetic identities—masculine and feminine—virile and susceptible” (422, 424). Herbert Tucker points out their attention to “the sanctity of the moment of heightened perception, and the totality of the truth to which creative poets enjoy privileged if fitful access” (429). Both are expanding on George Saintsbury’s definition of Spasmodism as
9. This is not quite true, however. Not only did earlier critics consider the Spasmodics a “school of poetry,” with similar traits and goals and members, but the members themselves seemed to have thought of themselves as belonging to such a group and common project. The Cambridge History of English Literature described in 1922—44 years before Cronin’s reference—that they constituted “a fairly definite group, of which...[Bailey] was the leader: the so-called Spasmodics” (147). Contemporary reviews also categorized these same authors as belonging to “a definite group”: an article from The Leader in 1854 treats Bigg, Dobell, and Massey under the heading “The Latest School of Poetry.” Smith himself writes in his posthumous collection of essays Last Leaves, “While noticing this ebb and flow of poetical reputations, it may not be too much to infer that the oblivion to which the Spasmodic School has been consigned for the last few years has been to a considerable extent undeserved” (174). In fact, The Scottish Review wrote of the Spasmodics as early as 1855, "Tennyson can scarcely be said to have founded a school; Bailey has" (347).
10. The Spasmodics then, were not “a school only in name” as Rudy, Cronin, and others argue, but were thought of immediately as one, with fixed members and characteristics, and thought of themselves as belonging to one. Although it is true that there isn’t a formal aesthetic charter in place like Shelley’s Defence of Poetry or Wordsworth’s prefaces to Lyrical Ballads announcing an express purpose, the Spasmodics comprise a coherent school and a serious movement that merits discussion both as a group of individuals working toward a common aesthetic and as a body of work.
11. Furthermore, the Spasmodics were not only a school appreciated by the masses but were influences on most of the important poets then living. Charles LaPorte has recently shown how Smith’s aesthetic balance informed and structured Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s masterwork, Aurora Leigh. Heather Morton has shown Spasmodic influence on Swinburne. The Rossettis were ardent admirers. Dobell was a close friend and literary encouragement to the Brontes. And these are just a very few. As will be shown, since they conceived of themselves as Shelley’s wild west wind, blowing change and revolution hither and yon, their widespread poetic influence ought to be considered as part of Shelley’s legacy.
12. Finally, the Spasmodics were not only influential poetically, but politically, to which notion we will shortly return in more detail. However little we think of them now, the Spasmodics affected world leaders in Italy, Germany, and Russia, among others, which we can add to Shelley’s attempts at reform in Ireland, England, and Greece, since he can be considered the movement’s progenitor. Some of this work on Shelley’s political influence has been done. Bouthaina Shaaban, for example, maps references to Shelley in the Chartist press, a valuable reference for scholars working either on Shelley’s reception or on Chartism. That Shelley's poetry was read by revolutionaries is not new knowledge, but that his politico-poetic ideals were fleshed out, more or less instantly upon the widespread availability of his poems, is.
13. The Spasmodics are referred to by their contemporaries as having belonged to “The School of Keats” (Clough 159). One critic in the Saturday Review compared Keats and the Spasmodics under the heading "Poetical Nuisances":
14. Even now scholars set them alongside Keats, thinking they wrote apolitical, escapist verse in an anti-classicist mode. I argue that we've been wrong on both those scores and that “The School of Shelley” is the more appropriate label due to the Spasmodics’ deep engagement with his work and various homages to it, and for their Shelleyan political engagements.
15. Among Shelley’s first and most ardent readers were the Chartists. Chartist poet Thomas Frost records how reading Shelley made him “a chartist, and something more” (cited in Sanders 8). W. J. Linton records the reading of Shelley’s Queen Mab as one of his formative experiences (cited in Sanders 8). If Shelley’s attempts at political insurrection didn’t always materialize, his attempts at poetical insurrection did. Shelley spawned a cadre of imitators—ballad-mongers, rebels—and many of these found their ways to Chartism.
16. In what he calls “the Chartist Imaginary,” Mike Sanders shows how poetry was, for that group, no mere decoration but an essential component of the movement, since it “transforms the consciousness of the reader” (9). This is Shelley’s project written on the polis. Sanders explains how exposure to writers like Burns and Shelley created in working-class writers a transformation that was “qualitative and total…it does not alter any specific opinions held by its readers, but is experienced by them as the acquisition of new powers in general” (10).
17. Chartist readings of Shelley are important here because many Chartists were also Spasmodics, and vice versa. In fact, some say the movements are indistinguishable.  Ernest Jones is the most important of these double agents, since he was widely acknowledged the last leader of the Chartists and is also included among the first Spasmodics. Phyllis Mary Ashraf, who also lists Shelley as an exemplar for Chartists in her Introduction to Working-Class Literature in Great Britain also has Ebenezer Jones and Gerald Massey as Chartist poets, which is important, since they are also always listed among Spasmodics. In any case, Spasmodism and Chartism shared numerous members, aesthetics, and concerns.
18. Not content simply to read Shelley’s verse, and to espouse his politics, many Spasmodics penned him various forms of homage. James Thomson—the last Spasmodic—is known to history by his nom de plume, “James Thomson B.V.,” which serves to distinguish him from the earlier James Thomson, author of The Seasons, and to acknowledge his debt to his two heroes. “Bysshe Vanolis” is meant to reference Shelley’s middle name and the German poet Novalis. Thomson writes a defense in 1860 called simply “Shelley,” deriding the harsh treatment Shelley received both during and after his life. Thomson argues,
19. In 1861, Thomson writes a long narrative poem, again called “Shelley,” wherein he both recalls the earlier poet, and imitates his syntax. The poem begins,
UPON a grassy slope of shore I lay
Hour after hour, from sunset into night,
Outgazing tranquil o'er the tranquil bay,
And dreaming in a mood of rare delight.
Yes, for some hours, sky-pure sea-calm star-bright
My spirit was in tune with heaven and earth,
Nor felt the discords of its mortal birth. (1-7)
20. Thomson was not alone among the Spasmodics in revering Shelley. Sydney Dobell’s lecture, “On the Nature of Poetry,” delivered in Edinburgh in 1857, was a direct answer to Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, and his own poems owe much to Shelley’s. Dobell’s friend and collaborator Alexander Smith offered a clear-eyed summary of Dobell’s indebtedness: “Of all recent writers,” Smith writes, “[Dobell] bears the closest resemblance to Shelley. He has much of Shelley’s impracticability, exaggeration, and hectic over-color; he has all Shelley’s subtlety, analytic habit and power, splendor of imagery, dramatic instinct, and rich-flowing lyrical impulse” (189). Smith may be overstating the case, as would be usual, but he’s not far off the mark.
21. Though it is possible the Spasmodic poets came independently to appreciations of Shelley, they were likely encouraged so to do by the editor cum patron George Gilfillan (1815-1873). Reverend Gilfillan, an immensely popular minister from Dundee, Scotland, is probably the second most important critic in the early Victorian period, after Carlyle. Like the rest of the Spasmodic School, his reputation has faded, but as author of Walter Scott’s biography and the best-selling Bards of the Bible, editor of Robert Burns, and much else, he was for a time a tastemaker without parallel. Gilfillan is often credited with having founded the Spasmodic School, since he was an early supporter of Alexander Smith and Sydney Dobell, to a large extent architecting their careers.
22. Gilfillan possessed a remarkable breath of literary taste and was in a position to inflict that taste on others. As LaPorte and Rudy note, “he worked toward broadening the usual horizons of the British poetic tradition” (427). They point out, rightly, that many lesser-known British poets, from Gilfillan’s volume of the same name, have been vindicated by history:
23. Though most now condemn Gilfillan's moralizing conservatism, we should recognize how forward was his defense of the Satanic School in the 1830s (Buckley 50). Comparing Shelley to Keats, Gilfillan writes that the former is “superior”
24. The Spasmodics were criticized, as was Shelley, largely for the socio-political instability that their work suggested, and from the same quarters. This claim warrants a more space than I can give it here, but it is easy to imagine how Smith’s epic A Life-Drama that crescendos in a rape scene, Dobell’s Balder wherein a man kills his wife, might unsettle a conservative readership. Kirstie Blair reads a prejudice in early reviewers, noting how terms like “‘irregular” and “perverted” hint at the potential immorality of this writing, and carry possible connotations of sexual depravity,” a sexual depravity associated in the Victorian mind primarily with Shelley and Byron.
25. It is no surprise that the chief critic of Spasmodism, was William Aytoun, Tory and editor at (where else?) Blackwood’s Magazine from 1839 to his death in1865. Aytoun wrote damning articles about Shelley and published them alongside damning articles about the Spasmodics, because to him, and to many, they comprised one movement: radicals. Aytoun is also where the term comes from. We owe “Spasmodic” as a specific poetic group to Aytoun, who pilloried these writers under that name in his satire Firmillian (1854), but we owe the literary term to Charles Kingsley, who in 1853 used it to describe Shelley’s verse:
26. Spasmodic politics were more or less exactly in line with Shelley’s. It was a working-class movement from the beginning. Bailey’s first readers were the gathered printers and mechanics who helped produce the book and thereafter formed a literary club. Smith was himself a pattern-tracer in a Glasgow manufacturing house. Dobell was a religious non-conformist. Bigg was a firebrand editor. Jones was a Chartist. For the most part, they threw themselves into reformist causes with Shelleyan vigor.
27. This is important to note because even contemporary scholars have imagined the Spasmodics as merely an aesthetic movement, uninterested in politics. Richard Cronin calls Smith’s work “entirely apolitical,” claiming that “by the time he wrote A Life-Drama, Smith had already given up on politics” (“Alexander Smith and the Poetry of Displacement”).
28. Cronin here is likely following Arthur Hugh Clough, Matthew Arnold’s friend and fellow Spasmodic detractor. Where Cronin calls Smith “escapist,” and “obsessed with the Kentish countryside,” Clough writes “Yet really, and truth to tell, is it not, upon the whole, an easy matter to sit under a green tree by a purling brook, and indite pleasing stanzas on the beauties of nature and fresh air” (99)? But that is not the Spasmodic project anymore than it is Shelley’s.
29. True, Smith had been attending Chartist meetings, participating in a working men’s educational co-op, and editing a reformist journal before publication of A Life-Drama (1853), and as Cronin points out, seeing the two Chartists hung in the town square was likely sobering. But his work didn’t leave the political at that point, nor at any other.
30. To mark A Life Drama as the end of Smith’s political phase is an odd choice, since his very next poetic effort was a collaboration with the Marxist/Chartist Sydney Dobell, called Sonnets on the War (1856). There are few more politically engaged collections of poetry in the entire age: Sonnets covers British positions on Hungary, America, Italy, and the Crimea, in a pull-no-punches manner. With titles like “The Army Surgeon,” “The Wounded I,” “The Wounded II,” “Vox Populi,” “Sebastapol,” and “The Cavalry Charge,” the charge that the Spasmodics were “apolitical” hard to maintain indeed.
31. Neither were these very political young writers simply twittering away in golden bowers about the war. Their poetry was actually read, and, some say, affected the outcome of certain political revolutions. The Italian liberation fighter Guiseppe Mazzini (also friends with another Spasmodic, Ernest Jones) wrote that Dobell’s The Roman was the poem he would have written about Italy, had he been a poet (Kierstead 71) .
32. We should notice how rare this is. We have poems that interpret or record political events, and ones about revolutionary leaders that are popular with people, but rare is the political poem which is timely and forceful enough to have been read, much less lauded by the leaders of the movement it represents. And the poem was effective, as Christopher M. Kierstead writes. Mentioning The Roman as a template for Rossetti’s later confrontation of the “Italian Question,” he argues that Dobell’s poem “was a politically useful means of vindicating the Italian cause in the minds of the British public at a time when it needed reassurance after the downfall of Mazzini’s short-lived Roman Republic in 1849” (71).
33. Mazzini continues his exhortation to Dobell, seeming himself to channel Shelley, “and what you write flows from the soul, the all-loving, the all-embracing, the prophet-soul” (qtd. Kierstead 71). “Prophet-soul” is right; in an avocation coincident of “A Song: ‘Men of England,’” Dobell, dropping all poeticisms, wrote in 1867 to the Italian rebels, “Fight! you mad, magnificent, foolish nation” (Ellis 210). Add that Spasmodist Ernest Jones was a personal friend of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and the political range of Spasmodic poetics broadens significantly.
34. In a kind of answer to claims that Shelley didn’t accomplish more politically, Kierstead writes, “Ultimately, the poet does not claim for himself the role of leader but instead, the role of instigator—one who senses the greatness of the cause and acts with an almost mystical force in bringing political events to fruition” (71). Mark Kipperman likewise writes defending Shelley’s interventionist political poetry from detractors such as Matthew Arnold and, more recently, Susan Wolfson. He states that Shelley’s hope in The Mask of Anarchy for the “moral force of the masses’ protest” involves both a “class demand” for “urgent material needs,” and a renewed “self-respect” in which they, the victims, “stand for the absolute moral order of reciprocal justice” (9). “Self-respect” is the “something more” alluded to by Hood who said that reading Shelley “made me a Chartist, and something more.” The “mystical force” Krierstead mentions is what Kipperman likely has in mind when he answers concerning Shelley’s political potency,
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Wheatley, Kim. “Paranoid Politics: Shelley and the Quarterly Review.” Romanticism and Conspiracy ed. Orrin N.C. Wang: RCPS, 1997. >http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/conspiracy/wheatley/kim2.html
 James Thompson (B.V.), George Gillfilan, Gerald Massey, and J. Westland Marston are also associated with the Spasmodics, as are early Arthur Hugh Clough, Tennyson’s Maud, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh. BACK