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The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Vol. 1. Edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat

Thursday, May 15, 2003 - 10:26
The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Vol. 1. Edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. xlviii + 492pp.  Illus.: 7 halftones.  $80.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8018-6119-5).

Reviewed by
Nancy Moore Goslee
University of Tennessee

Scholars and critics have long needed a new, complete version of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poetry.  His controversial politics, his marital complexities, his Italian exile, and his unexpected early death all contributed to a legacy of textual confusion that even the magisterial "Julian" edition of Roger Ingpen and Walter Peck in 1927 could not solve (see, The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 10 vols., edited by Roger Ingpen and Walter Edwin Peck, Julian Editions [London: E. Benn, Ltd.; New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1927]).  Now that Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat have given us Volume 1 of The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley (CPPBS), our needs have been answered with a profoundly well-planned, meticulously-executed edition.  Its editorial commentary and notes often read like the denouéments of detective stories, offering solutions to long-standing textual problems with a clear placement of these poems in the all-too-human contexts of compositional occasion and production difficulties.  This volume, the first of a planned seven or eight volumes in the completed edition, explains and tests the editorial principles that are to govern the entire project.  It then tests these principles on six groupings of Shelley's earliest published or otherwise circulated poems.  Volume 1 brings into focus scattered, suppressed, and virtually unknown works by this brilliant, busy, and oddly canny young poet.  If the uncanny of the gothic is the most unifying characteristic of these early works, the real uncanny here is the mystery of how the mature poet, with his verbal and intellectual brilliance, emerges from such derivative, if playfully derivative, poems as these.

As the editors point out, they have been able to benefit from the wealth of new textual evidence gathered by the ongoing catalogue of the Pforzheimer collection, Shelley and his Circle: 1773-1822, and from the facsimiles and transcriptions in Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics and The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts.  All of this rich vein of manuscript material, every rift loaded with ore, might have led the editors to plan a genetically-focused edition more like that of The Cornell Wordsworth or of G. M. Matthews' and Kelvin Everest's 1989 edition of Shelley for Longman, one that would place manuscript drafts and fragments on an equal footing with published works.  While The Cornell Wordsworth edition organizes its volumes around individually published works of the poet, it presents each successive chronological stage of a work, whether published or not, as equally valid.  The Longman Shelley editors sought to present all manuscript drafts or versions and published works in chronological order of composition.  Instead, Reiman and Fraistat turn in another direction.  Though drawing upon their extensive experience in editing the manuscripts and in investigating early posthumous editions, they structure their edition by employing recent editorial theories that emphasize the specific, shaping if not controlling circumstances of production.  They "present an authorially governed, historically focused, and text-centered edition that highlights the production, reception, and transmission of PBS's poetry" (xxix).  "Production" covers everything from first notebook drafts through typesetting, publishing, or circulating in some more informal way.

Thus, instead of presenting poems and fragments in the order of composition, they organize Shelley's poems by the order in which he published or attempted to publish them, or in which he "released" the poems, in type or in manuscript, to a group of friends or to a wider public.  This arrangement, they argue, preserves Shelley's intentions at a specific historical moment for a given version of a poem as it is related to other poems in the same volume or grouping.  In later volumes of the CPPBS, drafts and other pre-publication states of a poem will follow its published or "released" version, reflecting the edition's emphasis upon Shelley's controlling editorial hand.  Readers in search of a genetic development of Prometheus Unbound or of Adonais, to cite two complex examples, will still need to construct their own sense of stages or versions by first reading forward in the drafts and then skipping backward in the CPPBS volume to read forward again in Shelley's published version.   This arrangement foregrounds powerfully his attempts to reach public audiences, however limited those audiences may sometimes have been.

Because Shelley did not live long enough to make a collected edition of his own poetry, the editors will only occasionally have the problem of debating among earlier and later published versions, earlier and "final" intentions.  But their theory allows them to solve or dissolve that problem by accepting earlier and later versions as directed to different audiences in different historical circumstances.  It also allows them to sidestep some of the speculation about the dating of draft materials, though they do not hesitate--fortunately--to speculate about specific dating problems.

One of the rigorous intellectual pleasures of reading through this volume, a pleasure that will surely increase in later volumes, is to encounter the editors' hermeneutics of suspicion about the status of every transmitted text.  Evaluating each one freshly, they trace both in commentary and in collations how divergences or misjudgments in later editions may have arisen.  This evaluation, moreover, is transparent--rendering full and clearly laid-out arguments with balanced judgments as they retrieve neglected earlier scholarship and challenge entrenched editorial judgments.  They take as their model the edition of Henry Buxton Forman, one of the two major Victorian editions to follow Mary Shelley's invaluable collections.  In contrast to William Michael Rossetti's "adoption of aesthetic solutions to textual cruxes" (xxv), they follow Forman's "conservative scholarly method of correcting the corrupted texts by comparing them with primary editions" and with as many PBS and MWS manuscripts as he was able to locate or obtain access to.  Ironically, it was Rossetti who had access to far more of the manuscripts held by Shelley's descendants than did Forman.  For until the Bodleian Library received the final bequests of PBS manuscripts from the Shelley-Rolls family, in 1946 and in 1961, that access was jealously guarded (xxvii).

Each volume of the edition, like this one, presents the reading texts first, accompanied by collations of "primary authorities" at the bottom of each page.  Then, following the presentation of all texts for the volume, the editors place their very full commentaries.  Finally, they print "historical collations" for each text from "significant editions that . . . deserve attention because of their influence on subsequent texts and criticism" (xxxv).  Even if it requires two or three bookmarks as one works back and forth among these three sections to explore a given text in all its dimensions, this format is indeed very usable, and it emphasizes still further the "text-centered" focus of their edition.

For this initial volume of CPPBS, however, consultation of the manuscript notebooks is less important than it will be in later volumes.  With the exception of some poems enclosed in letters, no manuscripts remain from which these early poems emerged.  Even many of the published and printed texts had disappeared from sight and were only gradually rediscovered during the course of the nineteenth century.  Further, once rediscovered, some of them proved awkward to incorporate into the corpus of a Shelley protectively cased in an "angelic" image.  Even when later-nineteenth- and twentieth-century editions did publish these early poems, the editors did not or could not track down for personal inspection or collation all of the primary texts.  The volumes, or collections intended as volumes, included in this Volume 1 of CPPBS include:

  • Original Poems by Victor and Cazire;
  • The Wandering Jew; or, The Victim of the Eternal Avenger;
  • Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson; Being Poems Found Among the Papers of that Noted Female Who Attempted the Life of the King in 1786. Edited by John Fitzvictor; and
  • The Devil's Walk; a Ballad.

Also included in this volume are the poems included in Shelley's second Gothic novel, St. Irvyne; or The Rosicrucian; a Romance and ten early "poems and fragments . . . released privately to friends" from 1809-1814, but "never published or otherwise made public during the poet's lifetime" (295).

Only three copies remain of Shelley's first published volume, and no actual copies were available until 1838.  Original Poems by Victor and Cazire, set in type near Field Place, the Shelleys' family estate, was published in 1810 by the London publisher Stockdale and then suppressed because it was less original than its perhaps taunting title claimed; it included a poem plagiarized from "Monk" Lewis.  No manuscripts remain from this material, nor do "Victor" and "Cazire" reveal in the printed text or elsewhere which of them wrote which poems.  Earlier editions had assigned two or three poems to Elizabeth or "Cazire," and the rest to Percy or "Victor."  In an unpublished paper read at the 1992 Shelley Conference at Gregynog, Barbara Gelpi proposed that Shelley himself had written all the poems, using "Cazire," the name of a heroine in a Charlotte Dacre romance, to help him impersonate a woman's voice.  "This suggestion," Reiman and Fraistat write, "challenged us to assign individual responsibility for the authorship of each specific poem to PBS or Elizabeth Shelley" (156).  On the basis of spelling, diction, and subject matter, especially attitudes toward religion, they conclude that Elizabeth Shelley most probably wrote five poems for the collection and Percy Shelley the rest, with the exception of "St. Edmund's Eve," the plagiarized poem.  The Julian edition assigns responsibility for the plagiarized poem to Elizabeth's "copying," presumably excusing her for girlish naivete and excusing Percy for trusting her (I.413).  Perhaps following Ingpen and Peck, Matthews and Everest simply assign the plagiarized poem to Elizabeth and, thus, do not include it in their text; nor do they note the plagiarism.  Reiman and Fraistat suggest that the plagiarism is deliberate and that the "original" in the title is conscious taunting.  However, once they grant the possibility of deliberate misrepresentation, it would seem difficult to rule out Gelpi's theory that Percy imitates his sister's voice in the poems Reiman and Fraistat assign to her.

In addition to enjoying the misrepresentations of authorship, the editors argue, the siblings may have plagiarized because they needed more material to fill up their volume, the first pages of which had already been set in type.  Careful examination of the type in the three copies shows that several deviant letters appear twice or more in the volume--indicating that one signature or gathering had been printed, then the same type reset for the remainder.  Further, they propose that PBS or someone with an equally adolescent sense of humor helped to set the type since apparent errors of spacing create sexual innuendoes.  This bit of printer's devilry offers startling evidence for his interest both in the material body and in the material shape and transmission of his texts.

Transmission of the text for the next "volume" included in CPPBS presents a far more challenging problem.  Neither manuscript nor a printed volume supervised by Shelley remains for The Wandering Jew (WJ), though the editors cite evidence that during 1810 he tried to persuade several publishers to bring it out and had apparently sent manuscripts to at least one and possibly two of them.  One of these manuscripts, sent to Walter Scott's publisher Ballantyne in Edinburgh, was discovered and partially published in the Edinburgh Literary Journal for June 1829.  In 1831 Fraser's Magazine published a version of WJ that closely resembled the Edinburgh version.  Each contained material not included in the other.  Confirming the arguments in Adeline Glasheen's 1943 essay, Reiman and Fraistat agree that Shelley sent one version to Ballantyne and then, in Edinburgh when he eloped with Harriet, replaced it with a slightly revised, less religiously shocking version--and that this is the version published in the Edinburgh Literary Journal and, from Fraser's editor's redaction, in that magazine two years later.  From their collations, Reiman and Fraistat conclude as did Glasheen that the Fraser version of the poem also followed the same second manuscript; while Fraser's published more of that original, it also made substantial changes in the text.  Thus, they argue that the 1829 text is more reliable.  They also thoroughly challenge Thomas Medwin's claims to joint authorship of the poem: "The diction, the pace, and quality of the verse, the metaphysical, religious, and psychological concerns, and the great intensity of the four-canto poem published as WJ together with all the external evidence except Medwin's own testimony [thirty years after the poem's writing], point to PBS as sole author" (199).  Although convincing, most of this argument seems more of a critical than a textual argument, though an argument that gains plausibility given Medwin's textual unreliability in other cases.

As Reiman and Fraistat point out, the verse form and narrative scale of WJ resemble those of Scott's narrative poems published through 1810--The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake.  Yet Scott's increasingly sceptical framing of supernatural elements is less attractive to Shelley here than are the flamboyant horrors of Lewis's The Monk.  If WJ is still unknown to many readers today, Medwin's claims to have been primary author of Cantos I-III may be responsible.  Though Dobell collated the two periodical texts in 1887, and Woodberry included an amalgam of the two, Forman--and after him Hutchinson in the OSA Shelley, Locock, and Matthews in revising Hutchinson, excluded it, and Ingpen places it in an appendix (192).  Though Matthews and Everest in 1989 follow Glasheen, they do not accept the hypothesis of a second draft delivered to Ballantyne.

Where did Shelley obtain his plot of The Wandering Jew; or, The Victim of the Eternal Avenger?  Here, too, the documentary trail is complex.  Though familiarity with the outlines of the myth was widespread, Kenneth Cameron proposed that Shelley made use of a German eighteenth-century poem on the wandering Jew by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, translated and published in La Belle Assemblee in January 1809.  Yet Reiman and Fraistat suggest that this representation of a "Titanic victim-resister" does not emerge until Canto IV of Shelley's poem, and that the earlier cantos are based on a complex amalgam of a subplot of Lewis's novel The Monk and Ann Radcliffe's The Italian (202-03).  For "we feel that the portrayal of the rather lonely, domestic WJ differs" strongly from "the enemy of the Deity's injustice" in WJ Canto IV and in Queen Mab (202).  Reinforcing this link between the Gothic novels and the German poem, the editors found that stories adjoining the translation in La Belle Assemblee were also drawn from the "Bleeding Nun" subplot of The Monk--though this conjunction would seem to make their argument for a two-stage composition and characterization a little more difficult.

The "odd collection" of poems in Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson (PF), a "student prank" of Shelley's fall in Oxford, present fewer problems of textual transmission but more problems of critical evaluation, as it turns away from the conventions of the Gothic to the political and to a less-romanticized presentation of the sexual.  The volume was published in Oxford by Munday and Slatter in a small press run, most copies of which have vanished.  Though Percy and Elizabeth had already played with fictions of authorship in Original Poems by Victor and Cazire, this volume in the editors' view represents a much greater complexity.  The volume claims to be the writings of the mad washerwoman who had attempted to assassinate George III; it claims also that the collection is edited by a nephew unknown to history.  Shelley perpetrates further fictions, Reiman and Fraistat point out, in his title: the actual Nicholson was still alive, and none of the poems in the collection is a fragment.  The poems range from sentimental love-lyrics to "sexually risque schoolboy burlesque" to near-treasonable sympathy for regicides and other political assassins (249).  It also contains, the editors argue, allusions to sexual scandal within Shelley's own family.

Reiman and Fraistat comment that "attempts to find ideological or artistic coherence in the volume have met with frustration" (242), citing Cameron's limited focus on only two poems in arguing for a consistent political radicalism, and Marjorie Levinson's insistence on a more emotional, subjective unity through the persona of Nicholson.  Yet they make a far grander claim:  "The personae whom PBS chose as the author and editor of PF and his method in constructing PF seem to involve a nexus of mutually supportive public and private associations that anticipate (albeit in a crude form) the complex intertwining of traditional myth, literary precedent, historical allusion, scientific knowledge, and personal emotion that characterize his mature poetry" (240-41).  This claim seems to require a bit more qualification than the parenthetical offers--and the editors do back off a little, proposing that sceptical readers see the volume's personae as a set of "carnivalesque masks employed to shield the young poet from taking full responsibility for his opinions, his emotions, and (perhaps) his imperfect versification" (242).  This more sceptical reading leads the editors to the well-grounded suggestion that links this volume to the tradition of earlier "anti-establishment satire" and forward to PBS's later multiple framings of poetic assertions.  And they make a strong case for reading carefully PBS's representation of the problematic relationships between political idealism and violence, either of the left or of the right.  In a bibliographical puzzle posthumous not to Nicholson but to Shelley, the editors discovered that most of the extant copies of PF held in libraries are facsimile copies.  They have located and collated five legitimate copies and have carefully described their differences from the facsimiles.  Though the first of these facsimiles was fairly accurate, later ones were less so.

As in Posthumous Fragments, the poems Shelley includes in his second Gothic novel, St. Irvyne, completed in early 1811, gain dramatic complexity if not necessarily aesthetic merit from their placement in the prose narrative.  Flawed speakers utter flawed poems, enabling--so the editors ingeniously argue--the apprentice poet to disclaim and even mock their errors.  Because the poems appear in a novel that was, in fact, published and not suppressed, they must have reached the largest audience yet for his poetry.  Editorial notes on two of these poems become semi-essays, blending textual and aesthetic criticism.  "Song ('How swiftly through heav'n's wide expanse')" has a "textual history . . . [that] illustrates the intricate relationship between private and public poetry in PBS's canon" (273).  A "private love-lyric" written to Harriet Grove in 1810--copied into a letter to his family's music-master Edward Fergus Grahame, and then fused with another draft of love-lyric--appears in the novel as a song the heroine sings to charm bandits in a ruined castle.  "Excesses in both plot and diction [of the narrative setting] suggest that PBS was parodying as well as imitating his Gothic and sentimental models" (274), the editors argue.

Earlier in the novel, they propose, another lyric sung to a bandit-audience is contextualized in ways that point toward and parody thievery among authors.  This lyric, a ballad called "The death-bell beats," clearly resembles in plot the plagiarized ballad in Victor and Cazire.  Though Shelley lifts the Victor and Cazire ballad from Lewis's Tales of Terror, Lewis's whole collection was itself a "take-off" of Tales of Wonder, a collection which included Gothic material not only from Lewis, but also from Scott and Southey.  So if the "take-off" becomes a part of the genre of metrical and spectre tales, in his own Gothic novel Shelley is, like Lewis, both imitating and satirizing but not plagiarizing.  Yet this uncertain borderline between parody and plagiarism is echoed in the dramatic setting.  In the audience for the ballad's performance within the novel is a whole crew of "guilt-ridden" listeners, listeners who include figuratively both Lewis and Shelley.  We might ask whether Scott, in turn, read St Irvyne, since his 1813 poem Rokeby contains a similar scene.  In Rokeby, however, the minstrel-bandit is redeemed by his own song and, when realigned to the property-owners, helps to defeat his Gothic-rebel chief. In their note, Reiman and Fraistat reject another possible entanglement with parodic ballads, i.e., the suggestion by Matthews and Everest that "The Mad Monk," Coleridge's parody of Wordsworth, is Shelley's source.

In The Devil's Walk, however, the next of Shelley's "released" works, Coleridge is indeed a model.  "The Devil's Thoughts," an "anti-establishment" ballad written jointly by Coleridge and Southey and published in 1799, is accepted by the editors as a source for PBS's broadside ballad of 1812.  Reiman and Fraistat suggest that Shelley's disillusioning visit to Southey in December 1811 prompted this imitation of "The Devil's Thoughts," not to correct the earlier text but to correct its apostate authors.  His primary purpose, however, was to make his devil, like so many similar figures of the 1790s, a voice enabling radical critique.  In June 1812, the Shelleys had gone to Devon, hoping to support workers' demonstrations against food shortages.  When PBS's servant was arrested and jailed for handing out several documents without printers' names, the local constable apparently seized a copy of The Devil's Walk as one of those illegally printed documents.  The actual author only fell under suspicion and was not arrested.  Ironically, it is only because the constable sent this copy to the Public Records Office that we have a copy.  Following their earlier investigations of Shelley's type-setting for Victor and Cazire, the editors suggest that Shelley himself set the type for The Devil's Walk at the Barnstaple printer's shop, thus protecting the printer if not his own servant.  Certainly the Gothic lettering of the title points toward a close personal interest in the appearance of the broadside.  After Rossetti published his two-volume edition of Shelley's poems in 1870, "someone at the PRO alerted him" to the broadside, and Rossetti published both it and an earlier draft sent in a letter to Elizabeth Hitchener in the Fortnightly Review for January 1871.  Reiman and Fraistat explain that they use the original PRO sheet as their copy-text, since Rossetti had emended some of the punctuation.  Through their close examination of the printed broadside, moreover, they are able to say that nothing has been cut off of the bottom--hence, no printer's name or colophon had ever appeared on the sheet.

The intertextuality of The Devil's Walk satire reinforces the revision of Coleridge's and Southey's model which, in turn, reinforces the editors' interpretations of the earlier collections as deliberately allusive or parodic.  The Devil's Walk also looks forward to the satiric reversals in The Mask of Anarchy.   More immediately, it adds a further context for teaching Barbauld's Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, an almost exactly contemporary poem that also protests the political construction of famine.  In anticipation of the iconoclastic aims of Queen Mab a year later, the poem concludes with a hope that "Reason's penetrating eye" will make "His sulphured Majesty" less successful in his politic alliance with the establishment.

The last group of poems in this Volume 1 of CPPBS apparently did not fit any of Shelley's designs for a published or even surreptitiously-circulated volume.  Instead, each of them was separately and informally released to friends or family.  And in even sharper contrast to the earlier groups, some of these have the appearance of spontaneous writing for a specific letter or other occasion.  These ten poems or fragments are, thus, in some sense private documents and remain in a less "polished" or "finished" state than the poems PBS published or printed and attempted to publish (296).  The editors suggest, however, that this appearance of spontaneity may be a carefully calculated effect.  Reiman and Fraistat have worked "to retain the character of their informal, colloquial manuscript originals, while correcting" naive errors and supplementing the very sparse punctuation (296)--a compromise for readability, but a compromise which again is transparent for one who reads carefully the editors' commentaries and the collations of texts.

These last poems and fragments are placed in the chronological order of their release to a private correspondent, a chronology ranging from 1809-14.  In some cases, as the editors explain, the copy-text, even if the earliest remaining text, may be later than the anecdotal evidence for a poem's release.  Each of these poems presents its own shifting array of editorial problems, as can be seen from the slightly different headings for the editors' commentaries.  For a poem that may be the earliest surviving poem by PBS,  "A Cat in distress," the headings are: "Date of Composition," "Copy-text and Emendations," and "Sources and Occasion."  For another poem, "O wretched mortal, hard thy fate," the section headings are: "Provenance and Discovery" and "Editorial Issues."  This latter poem is new to the Shelley canon, having been discovered by Reiman in a notebook that belonged to Hogg at Oxford.  Because the holograph has no emendations and concludes with a graphic flourish, possibly, the editors argue, PBS wrote the poem elsewhere and then inscribed it as if spontaneously in Hogg's notebook.   Two poems addressed in letters to the Shelley family's music-master Grahame exhibit a "coarse Regency humor" in attacking PBS's father (315); they were probably omitted for this reason from earlier collections until Ingpen and Peck's 1927 edition and avoided by biographers and critics even longer, until the 1964 publication of those letters.  Thus, "Provenance and Public Knowledge" becomes a crucial category both for editorial discussion and for assessing PBS's attitudes toward patriarchal authority.  Fortunately, the editors did not feel bound by a single rubric in dealing with these complexities.

Given the difficulties of dating early drafts and fragments, the wisdom of Reiman and Fraistat's organization by publication of volumes or release of works to the public is certainly strategic.  Yet it leads to a whole range of critical insights as well.  It gives us a far more vivid sense of the process by which "poetic genius," if we can hypothesize about such a Blakean faculty, interacts with the contexts of historical milieux both large and small--and with the often limited, conventional literary genres of those contexts.  As the editors turn to works with a richer vein of manuscript drafts and versions, this editorial choice will come under greater pressure, but it indeed clarifies Shelley's authorial choices, particularly in terms of the public audiences he attempted to reach.  This volume demystifies powerfully the early stages of Shelley's career, stages of which many of us were all too ignorant.  Yet this volume's very elegance, thoroughness, and persuasiveness about Shelley's clarity of intentions at this early stage may remystify, for the moment, the next stages in the process of the poet's developing greatness.  We wait with anticipation for the next volumes in an edition that in its emerging greatness finally does justice to Shelley's poetry.