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Jacqueline Mulhallen - Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary. Review by Philip Connell

Tuesday, July 5, 2016 - 15:32

Mulhallen, Jacqueline. Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary (London: Pluto Press, 2015). 176 pp. (Cloth, $80.00, ISBN 9780745334622; Paperback, $20.00, ISBN 9780745334615).

Philip Connell

Selwyn College, University of Cambridge

In the Preface to Julian and Maddalo, a thinly-veiled portrait of Shelley and Byron’s intellectual friendship and philosophical differences, Shelley describes his own fictionalized character in the following terms: ‘Julian is an Englishman of good family, passionately attached to those philosophical notions which assert the power of man over his own mind, and the immense improvements of which, by the extinction of certain moral superstitions, human society may be yet susceptible. Without concealing the evil in the world, he is forever speculating how good may be made superior. He is a complete infidel, and a scoffer at all things reputed holy […]. Julian, in spite of his heterodox opinions, is conjectured by his friends to possess some good qualities. How far this is possible, the pious reader will determine. Julian is rather serious.’ Jacqueline Mulhallen’s excellent short biographical account of Shelley’s political radicalism may be taken as a gloss on the poet’s own self-description. Her Shelley is not just a speculator, but a committed activist, whose short life was indeed devoted in large part to the improvement of human society. Her book is by no means uncritical of Shelley’s intellectual prejudices and moral failings, but it is also deeply committed to the poet’s ameliorative optimism of the will, and his continued relevance to a human society which remains all too susceptible of immense improvements.

Mulhallen is already the author of an illuminating book on The Theatre of Shelley, and this new volume demonstrates her familiarity with some of the most important recent work on the poet. She incorporates some pertinent discussion of Shelley’s interest in vitalism, for example, and acknowledges his recently rediscovered Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things (1811), a key document of Shelley’s precocious political activities as an undergraduate at Oxford. Those activities, of course, culminated in the Necessity of Atheism, which did indeed confirm Shelley as ‘a complete infidel and a scoffer at all things reputed holy’, and swiftly led to his expulsion from the university. Shelley’s subsequent career as a poet and political author is narrated by Mulhallen with economy and expertise. She is not, however, writing exclusively, or even primarily, for an academic audience, although the latter will appreciate her careful and well-judged engagements with previous scholarship on Shelley’s radical politics by P. M. S. Dawson and Michael Scrivener. Rather, her book stands self-consciously in a tradition that extends back through Paul Foot’s Red Shelley to the Chartist and working-class appropriations of Shelley’s poetry in the nineteenth century. As such, it is concerned not simply to introduce a new generation of readers to Shelley’s life and work, but also to provide a summary and accessible historical context for his reformist thought. The resulting interludes on the existing state of things in Britain and Ireland—political, social, and economic—are condensed and informative, although readers with prior knowledge of the period may pause over some of her claims. By no means all nineteenth-century republicans ‘were in favour of equality’, for example; Wordsworth did not recommend, in his Two Addresses, that ‘the Commons should be chosen by the Lords’, although Peacock and Shelley may have chosen to believe so.

The book should, however, properly be read as a work of informed advocacy rather than tasked for its partialities. This is not to suggest that Mulhallen is insensitive to the more problematic aspects of Shelley’s political life and legacy. She brings a contemporary radical sensibility into bracing conjunction with nineteenth-century history (‘At that time philanthropy meant a love of humanity and desire for equality rather than tax-deductible donations to charity’); but she also sternly reproves Shelley for his class prejudices, his reflex anti-semitism, and his ‘unforgivable’ abandonment of his pregnant first wife. The accusation of ‘elitism’ has frequently been treated as a comparable failing, particularly by those readers unsympathetic to Shelley’s politics. Mulhallen seeks to acquit the poet from this charge, but her defensiveness—understandable in a determinedly popularizing work of political biography—leads her to underestimate the complexities of Shelley’s self-conception as both a poet and reformist, his highly developed sense of audience, and his repeated attempts to harness his poetic imagination to both ‘esoteric’ and ‘exoteric’ ends. A politically sympathetic reader unfamiliar with Shelley’s works could indeed be forgiven for wondering why he so consistently pursued the emancipation of humanity through the medium of verse. Mulhallen has very little to say about the radical import of Shelley’s poetic language, as opposed to the ostensible political content of works such as Queen Mab, Prometheus Unbound, and The Mask of Anarchy. Only in her final pages does she turn to the Defence of Poetry, demonstrating its close connections with A Philosophical View of Reform and Shelley’s conviction that ‘the flourishing of art accompanies a struggle for liberation’. If we are to understand Shelley as both ‘poet and revolutionary’ (the subtitle of this book), a more searching exploration of these terms’ conjunctive relation is surely necessary. It is to be hoped that this stimulating introduction to Shelley’s life and radical politics will encourage its readers to do just that.