Shelley’s Pauses: Systemic Change in Laon and Cythna

This essay examines two interrelated strategies Shelley uses to conceive of the systemic context for individual agency. In both cases, Shelley portrays agency as moving or acting upon air. First, drawing on new scientific accounts, Shelley examines the weather as a global system that is subject to local variability. Comparing the movement of weather to the movement of ideas, Shelley postulates that systemic change occurs when air from a “free” region moves into and temporarily disrupts air that has been tainted by despotic social and political structures. In this analogy, weather provides a model for the action of poetry because air is the medium through which the poet acts on readers by literally changing their breath. And the second way Shelley explores the possibility of systemic change is through adopting and altering poetic form to move readers’ breath. Poetic form proves such an important resource for Shelley not only because it shapes readers’ breathing to its metrical patterns but because it carries forms from the past—forms that have outlasted their original historical moment—into the future.

Shelley’s Pauses: Systemic Change in Laon and Cythna

Anne Frey
Texas Christian University

1.        Like many of his fellow Romantics, Shelley aimed to change the system. To call his target “the system” might sound a bit anachronistic, but Clifford Siskin sets the origin of this usage—of system as the totality of things as they are—in the Romantic period (“Novels” 202). For Shelley, the “system” includes the kind of combined economic and political institutions that limit human possibility, whether in medieval Venice in The Cenci, in the Ottoman Empire in Laon and Cythna, or at home in Britain in “The Mask of Anarchy.” But the insidious danger of a system is that it extends from these social and political institutions to form the worldviews and expectations of a population. Successful revolution therefore requires a change in the public mind alongside changes in political structure. Shelley hoped to exert agency within such a totality, and in Laon and Cythna he asks how an individual can exert any change in a system and an associated way of thinking that are all encompassing. In Laon and Cythna, I argue, Shelley imagines that the best chance for change comes from creating “pauses” in the system. Pauses allow for some limited freedom for agency and change without falling prey to the self-defeating illusion that individuals control the direction and pace of social change. At moments when the system pauses, Shelley awaits a future audience to read and carry forward his ideas. And once he has conceived change in this way, his own poetry becomes a tool that—in its formal techniques and interventions—is capable of inciting a slow, gradual process of change.

2.        In this paper, I examine two interrelated strategies Shelley uses to conceive of the systemic context for individual agency. In both cases, Shelley portrays agency as moving or acting upon air. First, drawing on new scientific accounts, Shelley examines the weather as a global system that is subject to local variability. Comparing the movement of weather to the movement of ideas, Shelley postulates that systemic change occurs when air from a “free” region—represented in the poem by the ocean—moves into and temporarily disrupts air that has been tainted by despotic social and political structures.

3.        In this analogy, weather provides a model for the action of poetry because air is the medium through which the poet acts on readers by literally changing their breath. And the second way Shelley explores the possibility of systemic change is through adopting and altering poetic form to move readers’ breath. Poetic form proves such an important resource for Shelley not only because it shapes readers’ breathing to its metrical patterns but because it carries forms from the past—forms that have outlasted their original historical moment—into the future. As Andrew Franta argues, for Shelley “poetry is a process defined as much by its transmission from one generation to the next as the immediate circumstances that govern its production and reception,” and “this long-term view of the process of writing . . . claims for poetic form itself the privilege of a future perspective on the present” (113). For Shelley, particular poetic forms provide one resource for stepping outside of one’s own era, into both the past that originated forms and the future that will continue to adapt them. Literature is not a system of its own nor part of “the system” because it adopts forms and genres that outlast the historical systems that produced them. [1]  And when they are utilized in a new literary and historical context, literary forms provide a way of creating the gaps and pauses that Shelley thinks provide the opportunity for systemic change. The temporal distance of poetic form, then, means that form allows the poet a position from which to step outside the “system,” defined as the totality of society itself. Working within the constraints of the Spenserian stanza and taking advantage of the possibilities for pauses and caesuras it provides, Shelley makes air itself signify in what he imagines is a politically effective way, namely as opening literal sound gaps in an oppressive political order. As Shelley sees it, the Spenserian stanza’s pauses provide a structure for change even if the (conservative) politics of Spenser’s own Faerie Queene did not recognize this potential. And in exploring Shelley’s interwoven ways of imagining air—one working within the global weather system, the other using a temporally distanced form to leverage pauses in the system—I track how Shelley envisions his own poetic forms as a source of potential future change.

Revolutionary Pauses

4.        In an 1817 letter, Shelley suggests that he writes Laon and Cythna to portray “the beau ideal as it were of the French Revolution” through the story of a Greek revolt against the Ottoman Turks. As multiple commentators have noted, the “revolution” in Laon and Cythna is not “ideal” in the sense of successful. [2]  The revolt fails when surrounding nations’ armies come to the despot’s aid, slaughtering the remaining rebels and ushering in famine and plagues that decimate the population; the hero and heroine are murdered at the stake. The poem presents an ideal revolution, then, in the sense that it demonstrates how revolutions arise and why they fail, and defends even failed revolutions as necessary steps in human progress. In the case of the French Revolution and the Greek revolt in Laon and Cythna, the system of despotism is too strong for any individual revolt to succeed for long.

5.        But Shelley suggests that revolutions inevitably fail not only because despots lend each other armies but because individuals who grow up surrounded by tyranny do not know how to embrace freedom. When revolutionaries acquire power, then, they only know how to use it despotically. In the preface to Laon and Cythna, Shelley argues that the people’s very difficulty in acquiring genuine freedom demonstrates why tyranny is so pernicious: “if the revolution had been in every respect prosperous, then misrule and superstition would lose half their claims to our abhorrence” (101). The French Revolution failed not because its goals were incorrect but because it attempted large-scale social change too quickly. In A Philosophical View of Reform and elsewhere, Shelley therefore argues for gradual change, which he says will allow people to learn the responsibilities of freedom.

6.        Shelley casts his “ideal French Revolution” as a Spenserian romance, and also moves the rebellion from France to Greece. The romance genre offers Shelley a way of conceiving individuals acting for broader social classes and nations. Shelley reinterprets the genre to ask how any individual can effect change within a system whose coherence and all pervasiveness is an essential part of its power. But the Spenserian romance and the Spenserian stanza also themselves offer a case study for Shelley in gradual change, and in working within (but extending) both literary tradition and the “forms” of the day. Shelley’s subtitle for Laon and Cythna, “A Vision of the Nineteenth Century in the Stanza of Spenser,” emphasizes both the potential disjunction between Spenser’s day and the “nineteenth century” and the potential of genres to find new meaning in a new time. After Byron used the stanza form in his bestselling Childe Harold, the Spenserian stanza indeed became to some degree a “form” of Shelley’s day. Nevertheless, as Greg Kucich has argued, Shelley’s decision to adopt Spenser’s stanza form is somewhat surprising, given his opposition to Spenser’s religious and monarchical politics. And Shelley takes more than just a stanza form from Spenser. The plot of Shelley’s poem correlates with Book One of the Faerie Queen, albeit revising several monarchical elements of Spenser’s plot into a more republican light (Kucich 272). [3]  In choosing a Spenserian stanza form even as he distances himself from Spenser’s politics, Shelley suggests that change accrues through making small adjustments in the existing poetic tradition. Spenser’s stanzas will in Shelley’s hands invoke the kind of change that their most famous practitioner neither sought nor foresaw. And the anachronistic endurance of Spenser’s forms from the past remind us of the potential power of Shelley’s forms to stir change in ways he could not foresee. Form, precisely because no poet is the author of forms, allows a poem to stand in the past, present, and even future simultaneously.

7.        When Shelley explains why he decided to write Laon and Cythna in Spenserian stanzas, however, he sets aside his interests in systemic political change and attributes his decision solely to aesthetics. First, he suggests, he found the Spenserian stanza form more forgiving than other forms: in Milton’s blank verse there is “no shelter for mediocrity.” And second, he suggests, “I was enticed also by the brilliancy and magnificence of sound which a mind that has been nourished upon musical thoughts can produce by a just and harmonious arrangement of the pauses of this measure” (104). Shelley aestheticizes political concerns throughout Laon and Cythna. But I will argue that Shelley uses the pause for a political as well as aesthetic purpose and that the pause encapsulates the poem’s strategy for intervening in the political and social systems it indicts.

8.        The pause illustrates one way in which a formal intervention creates the opportunity for systemic change without tyrannically determining the direction of that change. As many readers have noted, Shelley calls poets the “legislators of the world” and argues that they will stir the dead leaves, implant the seeds, and light the sparks of future change (to cite metaphors used in Laon and Cythna and more famously in the “Defence of Poetry” and “Ode to the West Wind”) but yet insists that poets cannot know the form this change will take; poets cannot see how the future will use or transform their ideas. Shelley portrays this kind of indirect agency in Laon and Cythna when Cythna and the Hermit, each inspired by Laon’s words and actions, spread his ideas and incite revolt. Cythna in particular applies Laon’s ideas to a new and particular goal, arguing that women and slaves should rebel against domestic tyranny. Because Shelley emphasizes that future readers will shape his ideas, in the preface to Laon and Cythna he claims that he does not write didactic poetry, but rather hopes “to awaken the feelings, so that the reader should see the beauty of true virtue, and be incited to those inquiries which have led to my moral and political creed, and that of some of the sublimest intellects in the world” (100). [4]  And as Deborah Elise White has argued, because Shelley wants to locate meaning in the future but cannot see the future, he resists language’s referentiality (103). Speaking through pauses, poetic form provides a way in which poetry can communicate non-semantically, non-representationally, and without specifying a determinate vision. Moreover, in Shelley’s use, the pause thematizes the moments in which speech or action awaits interpretation, in which listeners will either adopt or revise or reject the poet’s ideas. In Laon and Cythna, I’ll argue, Shelley uses the pause to model how one agent may transmit a revolutionary idea in a system pervasively inimical to such a view, and how form provides the resources for such systemic change.

Moving the air

9.         Throughout Laon and Cythna, Shelley compares the thoughts and movements of characters to weather phenomena. In Canto II, which describes how Laon first develops an awareness of the possibilities of freedom even while living amongst Ottoman tyranny, Shelley is particularly aware of air currents. Laon is able to grasp an idea of human possibility even within tyranny for two reasons. First, the Greek ruins “speak” to him, providing visual evidence that there was in the past, and might someday be again, a different political and social order, that “such man has been, and such may yet become!” (766). And second, he literally grows up in different air: on the coast, at the edge of land and sea, he watches “o’er the still sea and jagged islets. . . the light of moonrise” and “the clouds near the horizon driven” (750-1, 752). Because long oppression has turned his fellows “evil,” he is the only one who “wandered forth / to see or feel” nature (699, 708-9). But it is the sea air and the ancient towers that provide Laon both a way of reaching out of the current tyrannical atmosphere and a content to transmit.

10.        I’m interested in Shelley’s discussion of oceans, air currents, and weather more generally because Shelley uses descriptions of weather to consider what it means to live as part of a system and how it might be possible to see outside of the social and political system that shapes an individual. As Mary Favret has compellingly argued, the Romantic period saw a change in the scientific understanding of weather; the classical idea of weather as deriving from the peculiar geographical or topographical features of a specific place became less important than a model in which weather was a global system, in which air and moisture moved from place to place so that one place’s weather would become another’s. [5]  For Favret, weather then calls attention to mediation. In Laon and Cythna, Shelley sees the weather as part of a global system and describes the motion of people and ideas through cloud metaphors. He compares the gathering rebels to “clouds inwoven in the silent sky / By winds from distant regions meting there” (3568-9). And when the foreign-born armies begin their killing rampage, Shelley describes them too as clouds: “The infantry, file after file, did pour / Their clouds on the utmost hills” (3888-9). In both cases, the cloud metaphors emphasize that the people move as a part of a transnational political system. And while clouds can transmit either tainted or “free” air, Shelley envisions Laon, like the clouds, moving clean ocean air to inland regions and “human thought” from its source to the listening masses. Laon comes closest to describing himself as a cloud when he leaves the Hermit and travels to the rebellion-in-progress. Although he does not here adopt meteorological language, his motion is cloud-like: “O’er many a mountain-chain which rears / Its hundred crests aloft, my spirit bears / My frame, o’er many a dale and many a moor (1696-8). He continues moving like a cloud in the next stanza: “My powers revived within me, and I went / As one whom winds waft o’er the bending grass, / Through many a vale of that broad continent” (1702-4). In describing both individuals and armies as clouds, Shelley suggests that they can transmit new air to a locality, but he also underlines the difficulty of escaping the kind of global system in which despots support each others’ regimes.

11.        The ocean has a particular status in Shelley’s interlocking models of meteorological and sociopolitical systems because it is part of the global weather system but somewhat independent of the socio-political system. Although certainly subject to claims of sovereignty and national dominance (Britannia, after all, aimed to “rule the waves”), the ocean is less governable than land. But Shelley solves this problem in correspondence between these two levels of systems by depicting the ocean as a source of both clouds and of the free thought or philosophical truth that cannot be perverted by politics. Shelley was highly observant of the clouds. Marilyn Gaull suggests that Shelley’s 1820 poem “The Cloud” likely relies on Luke Howard’s widely read 1803 Essay on Clouds, which describes the transformation of clouds and defines the nomenclatures of cloud types still in use today (591). In “The Cloud,” Shelley describes the cloud’s motions as it forms from evaporated water, moves across spaces, and raises storms or dissipates: it “bring[s] fresh showers for the thirsting flowers, / From the seas and the streams” (1-2). He also emphasizes the importance of the ocean within this life cycle, as the vast repository for and ultimate destination of the water that forms clouds. Shelley depicts the ocean as the “geni” or “Spirit” that inspires the clouds’ motion: lightning is the “pilot” of the cloud, but the pilot is

Lured by the love of the genii that move
         In the depths of the purple sea;
Over the rills, and the crags, and the hills,
          Over the lakes and the plains,
Wherever he dream, under mountain or stream,
          The Spirit he loves remains (23-28).
The “Spirit” of the ocean is a source for clouds in the same way that the “intellectual beauty” or the “source of human thought” to which Shelley refers in “Mont Blanc” feeds thought. But if the 1820 poem defines the ocean as the ultimate origin for clouds, Shelley also describes water evaporating from previous downpours. A local climate can transform the character of the water. But the global system that carries water from the ocean determines that ultimately water will return to its source, and the oceans themselves—subject to no single tyrant—remain the pure source. [6]  Even when the lightning “dreams,” and regardless of where the cloud goes, it retains a knowledge of its ocean origin.

12.         If the ocean is the “spirit,” or the “source of human thought,” it is also the source of Laon’s positive vision for humanity. Whether because it is the “origin” of moist air, or because oceans are less governable than land, ocean air communicates freedom. Even if tyranny fogs all land, the sea retains its own air. Shelley depicts Laon and Cythna taking in sea air and carrying it or breathing it back out. As we’ve seen, in Canto 2 the sea air helps teach Laon to envision a more free humanity. In Canto 6 when Laon and Cythna retreat from the rebels’ losing battle to a Greek ruin on a rocky outcropping overlooking the ocean, they hear the “motion of water” when the steed carrying them “pause[s].” Shelley suggests that even if they soon lose awareness of their environment and “only heard, or saw, or felt the other,” their love for one another proves that they have absorbed “thoughts” from the “utmost Ocean / Of universal life” (2544, 2594-5).

13.         As Cythna later sits by herself overlooking the ocean, Shelley describes her internalizing the sea air to create her own “atmosphere”:

Her lips were parted, and the measured breath
Was now heard there;—her dark and intricate eyes
Orb within orb, deeper than sleep or death,
Absorbed the glories of the burning skies,
Which, mingling with her heart's deep ecstasies,
Burst from her looks and gestures;—and a light
Of liquid tenderness, like love, did rise
From her whole frame,—an atmosphere which quite
Arrayed her in its beams, tremulous and soft and bright. (4261-9)
When Cythna “absorb[s] the glories of the burning skies,” she radiates in turn a “tremulous” atmosphere that sheds light on her. In the first two lines, Shelley describes her “measured breath” as if she is absorbing and then radiating poetry in order to create her new atmosphere. And Shelley puns on poetry’s ability to form reader’s breath when he inserts a double dash after the pause, “the measured breath / Was now heard there;--,” the “there” pointing to the space where the reader (like Cythna) breathes. Cythna and poetry alter the atmosphere by breathing out the ocean air, which is pure and free air, taken straight from the imaginative source.

14.         When describing the air on land, Shelley’s cloud metaphors often depict clouded thought, the pernicious ideas rooted in a system of tyranny, that prevent individuals from understanding or seizing the possibilities for human freedom: Shelley, for example, refers to “the cloud of that unutterable curse / Which clings upon mankind (932-3). Calling these misperceptions clouds suggests that they might dissipate: Cythna describes public opinion as “more frail / Than yon dim cloud now fading on the moon / Even while we gaze, though it awhile avail / To hide the orb of truth” (3271-5). But these clouds are dependent on the overall atmosphere, and so they “wither not” in a tyrannical climate (3455). Tyranny, Shelley suggests, literally creates a poisonous “atmosphere”: people cannot escape, either physically or mentally, the air that surrounds them. When Laon at the beginning of the poem attempts to educate his countrymen about their government’s tyranny, he at first succeeds: his thoughts like “vapours,” “invested with the light / of language” are “bright in the outspread morning’s radiancy,” and “all bosoms made reply” (805-8). However, Laon’s words are only “vapours” floating through the despotic atmosphere, and so as soon as the listeners breathe, they take in the old polluted air again. Laon recalls, “I could feel the listener’s senses swim / And hear his breath its own swift gaspings smother/ Even as my words evoked them” (813-15). When the air the listener breathes is tainted by despotism, breathing, the very act that keeps him alive, returns him to the structures that keep him in poverty and tyranny. Laon himself grew up in different air, in unpopulated regions, in nature and the liminal space of the seashore, and so received a different moral education.

15.        But even Laon himself must be careful how he shares his ideas, or his visions will oppress another. In Canto II, as Laon speaks to his listeners, “all things became / Slaves to my holy and heroic verse” (933-4). And when Laon shares his vision with Cythna, the “sway” of his thoughts was “gathering like a cloud / The very wind on which it rolls away” (938-9). At this moment, he imagines himself controlling the transmission of his own thoughts by passing them to his sister. Laon must learn to speak powerfully, and create air in which individuals can breathe freedom, without imposing his own vision of that freedom. For Shelley, ultimately the poet’s power comes precisely from not controlling the terms of his own transmission. And if Shelley aspires to have his own poetry do the work of clouds, moving moist ocean air to dry locations, he finds in the Spenserian stanza a resource and tool.

Pausing with Spenser

16.        The Spenserian stanza’s rhyme scheme—ababbcbcc, with the first eight lines in iambic pentameter and the ninth line (the second line of the concluding couplet) an Alexandrine—is appropriate for a poem thematizing gradual change: the “b” rhyme at the end of the first quatrain is extended into a couplet, providing an initial resting point for the poem, which after moving forward to “c” then returns to “b” before ending with a “c” couplet. And even the finality of this “c” couplet is rendered less definite by the two lines’ uneven rhymes (iambic pentameter in line eight followed by an Alexandrine in line nine). As we’ve seen, however, in accounting for his choice of form, Shelley credits not any political use but rather the aesthetic qualities of the stanza’s pauses. The Spenserian stanza enables several kinds of pauses. The stanza dictates one caesura, in the middle of the Alexandrine in line nine. Since most of Shelley’s stanzas are end-stopped, he inserts pauses between stanzas. In the rhyme, the repetition of the “b” rhyme in the fourth and fifth lines can also create a brief pause, through a sense of elongation. Shelley also uses relatively frequent enjambment to create pauses in the iambic lines and occasionally moves the caesura in the Alexandrine. While Shelley may certainly appreciate the aesthetic variety of pauses, he also employs these pauses to comment on the conditions of and possibility for systemic change.

17.        For Shelley, a pause is not only a temporary stop, but a moment at which the poet awaits—and the outcome of his speech depends on—mediation. A “pause” stops action, but what happens next is determined by his listeners. When Shelley in the poem’s dedication to Mary suggests that “Truth's deathless voice pauses among mankind!” he means that truth—through his poetry, of course—temporarily speaks to humans. He depends on “mankind” to listen. When the hermit tells Laon about the revolution underway, he repeatedly describes the action as “paused”: the rebels have been victorious, but the Othman’s armies continue to resist. The hermit worries that without Laon’s intervention, the rebels, raised in a tyrannical political system, will themselves turn tyrants and seek revenge on the Othman’s soldiers. Laon must convince them to lay down their arms and escape from the system of violence. When Laon addresses the rebels, he describes the effect of his speech as pausing their passion: “Ah, ye are pale,—ye weep,—your passions pause,— / Tis well! ye feel the truth of love’s benignant laws” (1799-1800). Shelley follows Godwin in critiquing passion’s sway over reason and Holbach in suggesting that governments structure individuals’ passion. [7]  Freedom requires pausing this passion in order to substitute a law grounded in love for tyranny. Laon himself pauses (marked with double dashes) repeatedly in his speech. He stops their action but must rely on their own emotions to feel “love” rather than rage.

18.        It’s ironic that Shelley describes the rebels “weeping” even as their passions pause. In reading this scene, Timothy Morton notes not only Shelley’s critique of passion but his appeal to a non-verbal sympathy. The rebels are moved in part because Laon, scraped by a spear, is bleeding: “Full communication between creatures does not need the symbolization of sympathy in words: sympathy can be felt on the pulses, it is written in the heart.” [8]  Shelley also distinguishes here between passion, which would impose one person’s vision on another, and emotion that responds to and registers a shared humanity. “Weeping” and “love” recognize the demands of others in a way that “passion” does not. Similarly, when Laon stops the rebels from executing the Tyrant, the pause he induces allows the rebels to witness and be moved by a different kind of emotion, the child’s love for her father:

The murmur of the people, slowly dying
Paused as I spake; then those who near me were,
Cast gentle looks where the lone man was lying
Shrouding his head, which now that infant fair
Clasped on her lap in silence;--through the air,
Sobs were then heard” (2026-8).
Here, Laon’s speech readies the crowd for compassion, but it is the child’s love that stirs in the rebels “soft looks and speeches meet” (2034). In both of these instances the “pause” allows the crowd to connect emotionally with a scene taking place before it. Emotion then works in the manner Robert Mitchell describes, in which emotion is “understood as sights of intensity which enabled the emergence of something new” (20). The “pause” is effective first in stopping the systemic violence, but also in opening the space for individuals to recognize emotions of love and compassion that would offer a space from which to critique the system in which they have been formed. And in working through a “pause,” Laon has learned how to halt others’ passions without turning them into slaves of his own vision.

19.        Shelley envisions the pause as a bodily response. Thomas H. Ford has recently argued that the Romantics viewed air as the medium of poetry, with meter shaping its movements; when read out loud, poetry acts on the reader’s vocal column, reshaping air and determining when the reader will breathe. [9]  Shelley puns on his control over the reader’s breath in one Alexandrine from Laon and Cythna: he notes that “Victorious Evil” seeks to make women slaves “till they had learned to breathe the atmosphere of scorn” (981). Here the line describes the way a political system teaches characters how to breathe as well as determining the character of the “atmosphere” they take in; placing the caesura after the word “breathe” calls our attention to the way that poetry, and not only despotism, teaches patterns of breath. Shelley envisions his poetry’s stresses and pauses literally shaping readers’ breath. And although Shelley most frequently thematizes his action on readers’ bodies in describing breath, he also draws poetry’s common association between metrical iambs and the human heartbeat. As Kirstie Blair notes, the heartbeat modeled meter both in its regular rhythm and the way that rhythm can vary because of emotional charge. [10]  A pause, for Shelley, would also momentarily stop the heartbeat to change its rhythm.

20.        The Spenserian stanza moves readers’ voices and breath between two different metrical patterns (pentameter and Alexandrine). More importantly, however, Shelley plays with the kind of change the pause invokes, and with the ability of meter to transform both readers’ bodies and literary form, by moving the typical pauses within the stanza, and most notably the caesura. While the vast majority of Shelley’s stanzas place the caesura in its standard spot, in the middle of the final Alexandrine line, he moves the pause to thematize the movement of social systems. When in Canto 5 Laon promises that the rebels will forgive the tyrant’s soldiers for murdering their compatriots, Shelley uses pauses to mark the change in spirit that forgiveness enables. Stanza X ends with a standard Alexandrine: “Ye stabbed as they did sleep—but they forgive ye now” (1809). Stanza XI moves the pause, and allows a reading of the line as trochaic before the pause, but iambic after: “Even as to thee have these done ill, and are forgiven!” (1818). When discussing the way soldiers act for despots, then, the line takes a rhythm that could seem irregular or, if we compare metrical beats to heartbeats, unnaturally distorted; it returns to iambs when the rebels show human sympathy and forgiveness. In both examples, the pause separates the soldier’s vindictive action from the forgiveness that demonstrates that the rebels have abandoned their tyrannical mindset and are ready to claim freedom. If Laon’s “pause” creates a systemic break, then, Shelley uses the metrical pause to evoke these breaks.

21.        In the execution scene in Canto 11, Shelley repeatedly moves the caesura to show a systematic change in people’s thinking, as the crowd’s sympathies waver between allegiance to state and religion and allegiance to Laon and Cythna. In this scene, Laon, Cythna, and the priest repeatedly “pause” each others’ actions. When Laon (here disguised as “the Stranger”) stops a man from killing him, Shelley emphasizes the systemic potential of his action by adding a pause to the line: the assailant “Sate silently—his voice then did the Stranger rear” (4004). Later, Cythna’s arrival pauses the execution in progress: “All thought [she] was God’s Angel come to sweep / The lingering guilty to their fiery grave,” and the masses turn to pray to Laon, whom they were about to burn at the stake (4520, 4522-3). As Cythna temporarily moves the social order, Shelley moves the caesura one half foot forward: the masses “With crushing panic, fled in terror’s altered mood’ (4530). The next stanza calls his effect a “pause,” and inserts an extra pause in the line between her arrival and the action it produces: “They pause, they blush, they gaze,--a gathering shout / Bursts like one sound” (4531-2). The priest then “check[s]” this “sudden rout” (4533-4). This stanza moves the final caesura forward as the priest moves the crowd back into the religious system: “‘But he misdeems / That he is wise whose wounds do only bleed / Inly for self.’—Thus thought that Christian Priest indeed” (4537-39). The subsequent stanza again moves the caesura as the priest makes his case for executing Cythna, even if this means reneging on their promise to Laon: “Is it mine/ To stand alone, when kings and soldiers fear, / A Woman? God has sent his other victim here” (4546-8). The revolt as a whole, we now see, was only (but still significantly) a pause in the history of tyranny. One final movement of the Alexandrine’s caesura occurs at the moment when the Tyrant’s (and Cythna’s) child dies, along with her mother: “The tyrant’s child fell without life or motion / Before his throne, subdued by some unseen emotion” (4592-3). After watching her mother die, the child exits the tyrant’s control through death.

22.        Shelley analyzes how listeners (and readers) learn from pauses when describing the effects of Cythna’s victory speech. Following their defeat of the Othman’s army, Cythna stands atop the victory altar to address the rebels. Shelley prints the text of her speech, but in the subsequent stanza describes her extra-linguistic communication:

Ere she had ceased, the mists of night entwining
Their dim woof, floated o'er the infinite throng;
She, like a spirit through the darkness shining,
In tones whose sweetness silence did prolong,
As if to lingering winds they did belong,
Poured forth her inmost soul: a passionate speech
With wild and thrilling pauses woven among,
Which whoso heard, was mute, for it could teach
To rapture like her own all listening hearts to reach. (2272-80)
Cythna speaks through “pauses” in part because the atmosphere of tyranny has not completely dissipated. The return of “mists” and darkness at the opening of the stanza prefigures the return of despotic power. The enjambed line describing the mists “entwining / their dim woof” emphasizes tyranny’s enduring power by carrying the mists across lines. Cythna “shine[s]” through the mist of tyranny and improper thinking. Shelley again suggests tyranny’s pervasive control when he describes “the dreamlike music. . . . falling in pauses, . . . . Like beams through floating clouds on waves below,” as if people only hear music when the “clouds” of political despotism pause (2084-7). Cythna’s speech and the revolution itself, then, are merely a pause in the despotic order. But Cythna also speaks through “pauses” because Shelley characteristically describes silence as more powerful than language. Cythna’s speech, of course, is printed in the stanzas preceding this one, so neither Cythna nor Shelley are actually communicating without words. But the stanza suggests that nonverbal communication is even more powerful than the printed words because people are able to take a “silent” message as their own. In the penultimate line the pauses inserted before and especially after “mute”—“whoso heard, was mute, for it could teach”—briefly render the readers mute like the listeners. If listeners can only speak the language they learned under tyrannical rule, then they must be mute to hear Cythna’s message. The next stanza describes Cythna’s speech and the listeners’ necessary silence using metaphors Shelley will develop more famously in “Ode to the West Wind.” He compares Cythna’s voice to a “mountain stream,” her listeners to the “withered leaves of Autumn” that her voice sweeps into a bay; while her voice “sleeps / In the shadow of the shores” the leaves “wake / Under the wave;” her “speechless calm” incites this “living change” in the “multitude so moveless” (2281-9).

23.        In rendering her listeners “mute,” Cythna ironically speaks for freedom and stirs the conditions of freedom only in the act of silencing others. Such a teaching method, however, is compatible with Shelley’s insistence that the speaker neither imposes his or her ideas on listeners, nor determines the form they will take into the future. The message depends on the listeners’ “hearts.” The caesura in the final line occurs at the moment of transmission from Cythna to her listeners, between “rapture like her own” and “all listening hearts.” In a kind of chiasmus, the mute listeners “reach” for the “rapture” which Cythna’s pauses demonstrate, claiming her message as their own. Cythna must “pause” her listeners to enable their “hearts” to “reach.” Cythna’s effect on listeners’ hearts emphasizes once again that a pause allows individuals to respond with their own emotional reaction to the scene before them. But in making the “heart” the entity that learns from pauses, Shelley also depicts the body as the site of poetry’s teaching, as if Cythna’s pauses teach listeners’ hearts a new rhythm.

24.         Through her “wild and thrilling pauses,” Cythna speaks in the kind of extra-linguistic form that Shelley envisions continuing, free of specific referents, into the unknowable future. And in these lines, his puns reflect his argument that the stanza form provides the form that will endure; the form itself creates a pause. In the mid-stanza couplet beginning in line four, Shelley describes Cythna’s success as a speaker by the way her “tones” “linger” even beyond the words she speaks: “in tones whose sweetness silence did prolong, as if to lingering winds they did belong.” While tone is not a formal quality, Shelley’s comparison of her tone to “lingering” winds here calls our attention to the enduring effects of the Spenserian stanza in shaping Shelley’s lines. Not only does the “silence” “prolong” her tones (a nice hope, perhaps, for poetry’s transmission into the future), the stanza form demands that Shelley “prolong” the initial quatrain by turning the second “b” rhyme into a couplet, and to do so he adds a simile referring to the ur-Romantic trope for poetic inspiration, winds. Moreover, in these lines both the form and content comment on poetry’s ability to step outside of its time. Cythna’s voice is like “lingering winds” that delay the inevitable return of tyranny’s “mists,” and the line uses its self-consciously poetic wind simile in the midst of narration to create the couplet, denoting poetic form’s ability to link past, present, and future utterances. The metaphor of “lingering winds” in this first couplet also references the “b” rhymes’ back and forth movement between the “a” and “c”; the discussion of “prolonging” and “lingering,” then, ultimately argues for the lingering effects of stanza forms themselves. Because poets rely on future listeners to reinterpret their message, the poet’s forms (like Cythna’s tones) will “linger” even after her words.

25.         Cythna demonstrates the effects of form in a second sense when she circulates among the celebrating masses. Shelley next attributes the change she incites to her form, embodied in her person and her name. As Cythna circulates, Laon reports, the listeners “fed on her form,” and “ate, of Liberty, / And Hope, and Justice, and Laone’s name” along with their vegetarian, tyranny-free, banquet (2319, 2296-7). In Shelley’s model, form is like a vegetarian dinner, hurting no one, but also allowing individuals to take the ideas that Cythna represents and transform them, as a body transforms food into energy. Her name is a type of form because it aspires to form’s repeatability: she adopts the name from Laon and changes it, both by adding the feminized “e” and by inhabiting it to carry out her own actions. [11]  Her name further becomes a form at the end of the rebellion, when multiple young men and women surrender to the executioners and die claiming to be “Laon” and “Laone.” For Shelley, turning an individual into a form does not mean making them the liberal isolated individual of political and economic theory, but rather allowing others to adopt and transform their identity.

26.        Shelley uses architectural ruins as another model for and instance of the way in which forms create structures that will support future change. In Canto 2, when Laon describes his first inklings of freedom, the ancient Greek ruins teach him to stand above and outside of the poisoned air surrounding him. When Laon envisions his future, he announces that he will be a tower: “and who shall stand / Amid the rocking earthquake steadfast still, / But Laon? On high Freedom’s desert land / A tower whose marble walls the leagued storms withstand!” (789-92). The Greek towers evoke both temporal and spatial distance from the present air and political systems. The towers were built in a different political system, and their height suggests that they reach above the polluted air of current tyranny. [12]  And the ruins are emblematic of form for Shelley not only because they indicate a distance from present political systems, but also because they are being transformed in the present, as they both fall apart and provide a scaffolding for natural vegetation.

27.         Shelley’s descriptions of the ruins emphasize the way in which nature has grown on, in, and through the built structures. Shelley suggests that the ruins enable the growth of nature and humanity in a way that the cities and the tyrannical political structures they host do not. [13]  But more crucially for my point, these descriptions observe what Robert Mitchell calls entwining, the way in which nature parasitically builds on past human structures. [14]  For Shelley, this entwining demonstrates the present learning from and altering the past. When the Hermit takes Laon to a coastal tower to recover, Shelley calls the tower “A changeling of man’s art, nursed amid Nature’s brood”; the chamber is “tapestried” with “rare mosses,” and the openings in the lattices allow Laon to see the moon (1429-30, 1432). When Laon and Cythna retreat from the battle to the cliff over the sea, they take shelter in a ruin that has been similarly transformed by nature. On the roof of the hall, “fair clinging weeds with ivy pale did grow, / Clasping its gray vents with a verdurous woof” (2575-6). It is “from that lone ruin” that they can hear “the murmur of the motion / of waters” (2535-6).

28.        The ruin, in these stanzas, is the spatial equivalent of the pause, with holes that allow Laon and Cythna to view the stars and meteors, and that allow leaves to blow inside and vines to grow through its walls. The holes suggest that it is the very changes and evolutions of the past form that enable its visionary capacity. As the ruins themselves decay into and are transformed by nature, they lose some of their original context, and instead provide a glimpse of a natural world exterior to both the present and the past. “(By analog, we can think of the way Shelley’s use of the Spenserian stanza wrests it from its Elizabethan context). And the holes, then, transform the air from the atmosphere of tyranny surrounding Laon and Cythna to a transparent visual and aural medium, enabling them to see the sky and hear the ocean.

29.        Shelley’s reference to the meteor notably illustrates the way in which ruins allow a view of an “air” untainted by both past and present systems. In Shelley’s day, a scientific consensus had only recently emerged that meteors originated from outside of the earth (Janković 151). When Laon and Cythna, then, look “through a rent / Of the ruin” to see “from the morass, / A wandering Meteor by some wild wind sent,” Shelley once again implicitly argues that decayed old forms and the pauses or air they structure allow Laon and Cythna (and poets and readers) to see outside of the political system and the “atmosphere” it produces (2615-17). Tying “rent” and “sent” together in rhyme intensifies the connection between the hole in the ruin and the meteor it allows Laon and Cythna to view. Like the oceans, this meteor derives from outside the socio-political system in a manner that resembles the ideal sources of Shelley’s philosophy. And the knowledge it provides Laon and Cythna is illustrated through the sexual union (against custom) of brother and sister: “The Meteor showed the leaves on which we sate, / And Cythna’s glowing arms, and the thick ties / Of her soft hair” as well as her “deepening eyes,” “marble brow, and eager lips” (2623-6, 2630). I read Shelley’s ruins, then, as a register of the way in which form, as a decayed and transformed past structure, provides the “rents” that allow us to see outside of our atmosphere.

30.        Shelley calls attention to the specifically poetic resonance of this formal structure in the next stanza when he describes the ruin as a resting place for dead leaves:

The autumnal winds, as if spell-bound, had made
A natural couch of leaves in that recess,
Which seasons none disturbed, but in the shade
Of flowering parasites did Spring love to dress
With their sweet blooms the wintry loneliness
Of those dead leaves, shedding their stars, whene’er
The wandering wind her nurslings might caress;
Whose intertwining fingers ever there
Made music wild and soft that filled the listening air. (2578-86)
The ruin provides a space for the leaves to gather and to support “flowering parasites” in the Spring. Shelley’s description of the flowers and “music wild” suggests the wind, ruin, and leaves together make new poetry from the detritus of the past. Calling the fallen flower blossoms “stars” emphasizes their origin in an exterior time (distant like the heavens), and credits this distance for their beauty. But Shelley also emphasizes that poems support future change, as the wind considers the leaves the “nurslings” of future times. The ruins of Shelley’s poetic structures can also accrue new generations of dead leaves, and new blooms that array themselves parasitically on the support of old forms. Nancy Moore Goslee suggests that the ruins, like Romantic fragment poems, “tempt us to imagine a completion; yet such completions have a conjectural openness that might differ radically from controlling intentions, whether individual or cultural” (71). Shelley in particular imagines future readers completing his forms when his poems too become ruins.

31.        During Laon’s execution Shelley implicitly compares him to towers, asking to what degree his death transforms his action into a form. Laon observes the surrounding towers from atop his execution pyre:

I, Laon, led by mutes, ascend my bier
Of fire and look around; each distant isle
Is dark in the bright dawn; towers far and near,
Pierce like reposing fames the tremulous atmosphere. (4491-4)
Laon’s bier is like the towers that seem to “flame” in the atmosphere. As Laon literally burns into a ruin himself, he also becomes a tower, both in his elevated height and in his evocation of a message that does not fit his times. And the flames of both Laon’s execution and of the sun shining on the islands renders the atmosphere “tremulous;” the smoke that kills Laon, then, alters the atmosphere, and Shelley sees in the atmosphere the kind of vibration that turns air into a medium, rendering it capable of transmitting Laon’s vision even through the systematic tyranny surrounding him. Literally, of course, this is the effect of the smoke. But Laon and Cythna, in voluntarily standing (and dying) in opposition to the despot’s political system, bring on this smoke. And even in death, the ruined Laon may inspire others as he had been inspired by Greek ruins.

32.        One of Shelley’s linguistic structures for moving the caesura illustrates the way in which form provides a scaffolding for individual agency. Shelley in several places moves the caesura by placing either a name or a noun referring to the characters, set off by commas, in the first feet of an Alexandrine line. For example, after Laon narrates how his best friend turned against him, he addresses Cythna: “Since kin were cold, and friends had now become / Heartless and false, I turned from all, to be, / Cythna, the only source of tears and smiles to thee” (853-5). In Canto 11 Shelley sets off the name “Laon” in describing the procession leading Laon to his execution: “I’the midst appears / Laon,--exempt alone from mortal hopes and fears.” In both examples, setting off the name also marks the character’s exclusion from their larger communities, both because of their separate vision and (in Laon’s case) impending death. Shelley also occasionally uses this positioning to mark identities which also carve people out of the mainstream, such as “a woman” and “an atheist.” The final appearance of this pattern occurs when the child speaks to Laon after their death, and announces that she belongs to him as well as to Cythna. This time the line carves a space for a small group, a “we”: “again / We meet, exempted now from mortal fear or pain” (4664-5). In each case, placing the name at the beginning of the line either definitely moves the caesura (leaving the remainder of the line to be read like iambic pentameter) or adds a second caesura. [15]  Marking an individual’s name off suggests that individuals find agency for themselves by using their name to move the pauses, in the process creating a space for themselves within the structure of the poetic line. Such movement also shows a fairly limited and even ambiguous degree of agency, since it’s possible to read the name either moving the caesura or adding a second caesura. Regardless of how we scan the line, though, these examples show Shelley making small adjustments within form to find a space for the self. And Shelley’s use of names to move form also provides another way to account for Shelley’s oft-remarked distancing of himself from his Romantic-era audiences: the poet is privileged not only by the clarity of his vision but by the very forms of his utterances, as his movement within form provides a resource for agency that everyday actors lack. [16] 

Poems against systems

33.        Shelley portrays the socio-political system as a totality from which only a few (like Laon) can escape. But he simultaneously suggests that even systems that seem totalizing to those inside—like the political tyranny of the Ottoman Empire—do have an exterior. If, as Clifford Siskin suggests, Romanticism was the era in which system was no longer a genre that aimed to define a comprehensive totality, but rather a knowledge claim embedded in multiple genres, then we can see Shelley finding in the very contest between overlapping global and local systems a possibility of exerting change. [17]  Shelley uses the weather as a metaphor for the way in which global and local systems intertwine. Shelley portrays poetry as part of the global weather system. Poetry’s air inevitably reflects the sociopolitical systems of the author’s day, but also challenges these systems. First, poets employ forms from a past day that juxtapose past systems to the present and that hopefully endure to represent the present to the future. Second, poets draw from the “source of human thought” to envision and enact change to the both the political and metrical systems. And poetry imports ideas from the ineffable source of human thought in order to change society just as the weather (in Shelley’s vision) originates in deep ocean currents; but once both move to land they can also become mired in local political systems.

34.        In his “Defence of Poetry,” Shelley calls meter a system, but somewhat qualifies this definition: meter is “a certain system of traditional forms for harmony and language” (484). Poetry more generally, he suggests, is not a system, but rather, because of its origin in imaginative thought, the “root and blossom of all systems of thought” (503). Poetry starts new systems because it can reach outside current social and political orders. But even if poetry at times serves systems, the best poems can never be completely encompassed by any particular system. In this, Shelley finds Milton exemplary: Paradise Lost “contains within itself a philosophical refutation of that system of which, by a strange and natural antithesis, it has been a chief popular support” (498). In Laon and Cythna, Shelley certainly aims for a “philosophical refutation” of the systems of his day. And he suggests that if meter is a system, this is because it acts on its readers both mentally and physiologically, temporarily extricating them from other systems of which they are a part as it dictates their breath, alters their heartbeat, changes the rhythm of their speech. Meter dislodges present systems because metrical forms derive from prior eras, and will hopefully carry into an unforeseeable future, but also because they create pauses in the order. Equally importantly, since even the most regular systems of meter allow for variation, Shelley employs this variation to pause the reach of social and political structures, and to train readers’ physiological responses. And these physiological changes carry an ideological charge if they allow readers to even temporarily escape both the teaching and the air that have been tainted by despotism.

35.        The pause models one way in which form provides a resource for change: originating in another era, it stands apart from the current socio-political system. If Shelley chooses the stanza form in part for its pauses, then, it’s not only because he finds them “musical.” Shelley invokes change by inhabiting the Spenserian stanza’s form and moving it, imagining that he will temporarily transform readers’ air and breath, and through them, create rents in the systems of the present. But if Shelley hopes that his meter—and in particular its pauses—will act as brief systems to dislodge the political systems of his day, he does not want his poems or their forms to harden into systems. Instead, he envisions his greatest success as the moment when future readers create rents in his own forms. This, for Shelley, is the form of systemic change.

Works Cited

Bewell, Alan. Romanticism and Colonial Disease. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003. Print.

Blair, Kirstie. Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

Burgess, Miranda. British Fiction and the Production of Social Order, 1740-1830. New York: Cambridge UP, 2000. Print.

Cronin, Richard. "Asleep in Italy: Byron and Shelley in 1819." The Politics of Romantic Poetry: In Search of the Pure Commonwealth. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. 156-80. Print.

Duff, David. Romance and Revolution: Shelley and the Politics of a Genre. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.

Duffy, Cian. Shelley and the Revolutionary Sublime. New York: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.

Favret, Mary A. War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2009. Print.

Ford, Thomas H. "Poetry’s Media." New Literary History 44.3 (Summer 2013): 449-469. Print.

Franta, Andrew. Romanticism and the Rise of the Mass Public. New York: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print.

Gaull, Marilyn. "Shelley’s Sciences." The Oxford Handbook of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ed. Michael O’Neil and Anthony Howe. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. 577-593. Print.

Gladden, Samuel Lyndon. Shelley’s Textual Seductions: Plotting Utopia in the Erotic and Political Works. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Goslee, Nancy Moore. Shelley’s Visual Imagination. New York: Cambridge UP, 2011. Print.

Holbach, Paul Henry Thiery, Baron d’. The System of Nature, or Laws of the Moral and Physical World. Trans. H.D. Robinson, 1868. 2 Volumes. Ontario, CA: Batouche Books, 2001. Print.

Hubbell, J. Andrew. "Laon and Cythna: A Vision of Regency Romanticism." Keats-Shelley Journal 51 (2002): 174-197. Web. 15 May 2013.

Janković, Vladimir. Reading the Skies: A Cultural History of English Weather 1650-1820. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000. Print.

Kaufmann, David. The Business of Common Life: Novels and Classical Economics Between Revolution and Reform. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. Print.

Kucich, Greg. Keats, Shelley, and Romantic Spenserianism. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1991. Print.

Mitchell, Robert. Sympathy and the State in the Romantic Era. New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Morton, Timothy. Shelley and the Revolution in Taste: The Body and the Natural World. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994. Print.

Nersessian, Anahid. "Radical Love and the Political Romance: Shelley After the Jacobin Novel." ELH 79.1 (Spring 2012): 111-34. Web. 11 May 2013.

Robson, Catherine. Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2012. Print.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "A Defence of Poetry." Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers. New York: W.W. Norton, 1977. 480-508. Print.

---. "Laon and Cythna or The Revolution of the Golden City." The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 4 vols. Ed. Neville Rogers. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975. Vol. II. 99-273. Print.

Siskin, Clifford. "Novels and Systems." Novel: A Forum on Fiction 34.2 (Spring 2001): 202-215. Print.

---. "The Problem of Periodization: Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the Fate of System." The Cambridge History of English Romantic Literature. Ed. James Chandler. New York: Cambridge UP, 2009. 101-126. Print.

---. "Mediated Enlightenment: The System of the World." This is Enlightenment. Ed. Clifford Siskin and William Warner. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010. 164-172. Print.

Ulmer, William Andrew. Shelleyan Eros: The Rhetoric of Romantic Love. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1990. Print.

White, Deborah Elise. Romantic Returns: Superstition, Imagination, History. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000. Print.

Wolfson, Susan. Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997. Print.


[1] Miranda Burgess and Robert Kaufman both suggest that Romantic-era literature critiques the dominant political-economic system. Kaufman revises Luhmann’s model of system to suggest that literature served a functionally differentiated system of its own (18); Burgess argues that Romantic writers resisted defining literature as systematic (10-14). Shelley, I’m arguing, defines system through the more totalizing definition of system that Siskin traces to the Romantic era and sees literary form as providing a position from which to stand outside of the system. On Shelley’s vision of the temporality of change, see Mitchell 163-203. BACK

[2] See especially Cian Duffy, who notes that Shelley’s concept of “beau ideal” resembles his idea of “intellectual beauty” (171). BACK

[3] On Shelley’s revisions to Spenserian romance, see also Duff and Hubbell. BACK

[4] Critics have debated whether Shelley’s vision turns didactic despite his stated goals. Ulmer calls the poem didactic (56). White suggests that Shelley was aware that a poem showing scenes of pedagogy risks didacticism and in Canto 1 “appears devoted to aestheticizing these pedagogical scenes, replacing language with what the poet-narrator calls ‘melody’ (289) and didacticism with imaginative communion,” as he seeks “truth without reference” (133, 134). BACK

[5] For a complete discussion of the changing scientific understanding of weather, see also Janković 126-30. BACK

[6] On the relationship of political system to environment in Shelley, see also Alan Bewell, who argues that for Shelley, “diseased environments are not the cause of social and political disorder but are their result” (217). BACK

[7] Holbach argues that while passions are “necessary to the conservation of man”—and form through his “organization,” “habits,” and “education”—“government gives them play, conducts them towards to those objects, which it believes itself interested in making desirable to its subjects” (I, 105). BACK

[8] Morton 113; on passion see esp. 125-6 and 137-8. BACK

[9] Ford argues that “the idea that what rhythm arranges and patterns is atmosphere, is formed bodies of air, provides the basis for the poetics of Lyrical Ballads, and indeed for the poetic age which that volume heralds” (460). Such an idea is possible in part because the term “atmosphere” begins in the late eighteenth century to refers to emotional and conceptual rather than merely physical environments (458). BACK

[10] Catherine Robson suggests that the connection of iamb and heartbeat was felt more prominently in a culture that emphasized memorization and performance of poetry, when reciters knew that they must calm their heartbeat to “glide into the mesmeric state of the reciter of the successfully memorized, fully internalized poem, when body and words beat as one in measured familiarity” (112). While Laon and Cythna was too long to be memorized, reading the poem aloud could create similar effect. BACK

[11] For additional significances of the name Laone, see especially Nersessian 130. BACK

[12] Shelley recognizes that this claim might be illusion, however. When imprisoned for killing a soldier, Laon initially imagines that he is above the clouds, as if outside the tyrant’s political system: from his ancient “column” on the hill, “The islands and the mountains in the day / Like clouds reposed afar” (1239-40). But when he sees a boat, and remembers that it carries Cythna into slavery, he realizes that his sense of distance was in fact “frenzy” and “madness;” he does not “[know his] own misery” and remains in the grip of the tyrant’s political order (1238). BACK

[13] Samuel Lyndon Gladden reads Shelley’s vine-covered ruins as “liminal spaces in which elements of nature and civilization mix and meld together,” aiding and thematizing characters’ recuperation (246). Gladden argues that elsewhere in the poem Shelley “turns . . . to the natural world as a register for the unnatural condition of tyranny” (247). BACK

[14] Mitchell, writing on Wordsworth’s The Ruined Cottage, describes entwining as demonstrating “nature’s colonizing negativity,” its tendency to “erase all remnants of human activity” (148). For Shelley, in contrast, it is important that the forms of the past are not completely erased, but remain as a scaffolding for the present. I nonetheless cite Mitchell’s term to call attention to the way in which Shelley’s vines, like Wordsworth’s in Mitchell’s description “rechanneled the powers of the dead, turning them in a different direction” (148). BACK

[15] Shelley occasionally uses a similar structure within iambic pentameter lines to mark Laon’s agency. As Laon leaves the Hermit, Shelley sets “I left,” “my way,” “my frame” each at the beginning of a line, followed by punctuation that marks a pause, to show Laon exerting his agency within the revolution already begun by Cythna and the Hermit (1694, 1696, 1698). BACK

[16] As Susan Wolfson notes, Shelley was aware that the poems he directed toward the lower classes were unpublishable. Wolfson sees the form of “The Mask of Anarchy” commenting on this distance between author and reader (196-8); Andrew Franta reads the form commenting as well on the temporal distance between present and future readers (121-2). Richard Cronin notes that Shelley holds two incompatible attitudes toward the lower class’s participation in reform. On the one hand, influenced by Cobbett, he argues that the lower classes must demand a portion of political power; on the other hand, he is hesitant to trust the lower classes to revolt themselves, and instead suggests that the Whig intellectual elite should argue on their behalf (164-6). BACK

[17] See “The Problem of Periodization” and “Mediated Enlightenment.” BACK


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