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Kim Wheatley, Shelley and His Readers: Beyond Paranoid Politics

Thursday, August 24, 2000 - 12:31
Kim Wheatley, Shelley and His Readers: Beyond Paranoid Politics. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999.  xi + 278pp. $34.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8262-1221-2).

Reviewed by
G. Kim Blank
University of Victoria, British Columbia

Quite early in his writing career, Percy Bysshe Shelley came to accept, with varying amounts of resignation, resentment, and disappointment, that he was more or less writing for posterity—not that this ever stopped him from wanting to reform his own world, or from confronting hypocrisy, injustice, and tyranny. Once an idealist, always an idealist—well, it helps considerably if you die young. Shelley knew this very well, fatalistically prefacing his first mature poem, Alastor (1816), with a few lines from Wordsworth's Excursion (1814):

                    The good die first,
And those whose hearts are as dry as summer dust,
Burn to the socket.

Shelley ironically turns Wordsworth's own words against his older and now disappointing contemporary, who, as Shelley laments in his sonnet to Wordsworth, was as good as dead anyway; as for those dry-hearted survivors, Shelley may well have had in mind his contemporary reviewers. Kim Wheatley's Shelley and His Readers examines the relationship between Shelley and his contemporary reviewers, sensibly noting that in his early writing Shelley's radicalism is openly oppositional, resulting in equally oppositional reviews, while later poems, like Adonais and Prometheus Unbound, remain radical but sometimes manage to subvert or divert the reviewers' reactionary responses with their highly aestheticized form. The result, then, of poetry like Shelley's might be to encourage readers to separate the political from the aesthetic.

Wheatley thoroughly sets the stage for her study by first of all laying out her critical terms of reference, followed by a description of the scene of reviewing in which Shelley's work was to be judged. In the case of the former, Wheatley draws her terms from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter, who characterizes rhetoric of the "paranoid style" as "heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy" (1). The paranoid writer believes that individuals—enemy conspirators, no less—can, through their words, control and manipulate the masses, leading to the complete breakdown of morals and society. Wheatley recognizes and examines this political paranoia found in both the Tory and Whig reviewers of early nineteenth-century Britain. Most importantly, she points to Shelley's participation in the paranoia by writing with reviewers, more than readers, in mind. His absolutism is as extreme as that of those he condemns. As Wheatley puts it, "the story this book tells is one of sometimes unwitting collaboration between the poet, his reviewers, and eventually the Shelley circle" (9).

One interesting feature introduced early in Shelley and His Readers is Robert Southey's role in this paranoid scene. Wheatley notes that he was not just "one of the most prolific contributors to the most influential Tory periodical [the Quarterly Review]" but saw himself as "a self-appointed spokesman for the age" (19). Southey imagines the lower classes ignorantly consuming the seditious message of populist publisher-reformers like Leigh Hunt and William Cobbett. In 1812, Southey writes in the Quarterly Review:

These are the topics which are received in the pot-house, and discussed over the loom and the lathe: men already profligate and unprincipled, needy because they are dissolute, and discontented because they are needy, swallow these things when they are getting drunk, and chew the cud upon them when sober.

Here and elsewhere Southey points to conspiracy, crisis, and contagion. He is, as Wheatley suggests, blindly fearful of the prospect of revolution, and his rhetoric clearly polarizes his culture; the lower, cud-chewing classes are gullible and susceptible to contamination. Southey also believes that the printed word is where this dis-ease begins and spreads, and where ultimately the battle will be won or lost; those Satanic voices must not win the day, or all hell (or at least something like communism) might break out. Sounding a little like one faction of today's media critics, Southey goes on to write that newspapers reporting on the details of nasty crimes can only serve to increase criminal activity.

The Quarterly went after Shelley three times between 1818 and 1821. Shelley's primary fault—and, perhaps, reason for his original notoriety—is his association with Hunt, who had spent a couple of years in jail for "seditious libel" against the Prince Regent. Shelley's life and personality (university expulsion, atheist, adulterer) are thus evidence of what you might become by hanging out with or reading such stirrers of discontent and immorality. Actually, Shelley didn't fully mind being associated with Satanic labeling: any publicity is good publicity, and besides, figures like Milton's Satan had something interesting to say. But not all the reviews of Shelley's work were negative. Four articles in Blackwood's Magazine published anonymously by John Gibson Lockhart note Shelley's originality and genius, while at the same time regretting his politics and philosophy. Surprisingly, Lockhart does not attack Shelley's history or lifestyle, though elsewhere he seems to have little trouble going after Hunt on personal grounds. Wheatley suggests that perhaps Lockhart does not pursue Shelley personally because of the poet's class and its relation to "aesthetic merit" (55). Shelley may be a scoundrel, but he is also a gentleman.

The bulk of the study centers on three works. The first is Queen Mab, which is seen as a "quintessential Satanic text" (59). An examination of the rhetoric of contemporary reviews over the many years of the poem's complicated publishing history, from 1815 to 1821, makes Wheatley's point that reviewers believed such texts could bring about negative social change, and that immoral ideas would spread throughout the land, not unlike the plague. Armed with this view—and it is suggested that Shelley too believed "conspiratorial and contagious models of textual efficacy" were bound together—some reviewers damned the poem as they would damn the author (67). The poem's views on marriage were even used as evidence to block Shelley's case for custody of his children after the suicide of his first wife, Harriet; what a text says necessarily reflects the values of the author: evil text = bad father. Others beyond the courtroom were more enthusiastic about the poem, noting its beauty and the author's capable use of the allegorical dream vision. The effect of this response makes the poem less threatening, since the style and poetical devices (especially personification) were not just recognizable but agreeable. A couple of reviewers even compared Queen Mab to Southey's Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), giving the approving kiss of conformity.

The most paranoid responses to Queen Mab came in 1821 with a pirated edition of the poem. One review in particular suggests that Queen Mab is especially dangerous because its polluting evil is dressed in poetic splendor; the poem is evidence of perverted and demonic genius. This review even goes so far as to present details of Shelley's looks (his "external appearance" hides the "explicit demon"), his evil associations, and debauched history, demonstrating how, as Wheatley puts it, "the Satanic persona of Shelley takes on a life of his—or its—own" (99).

Wheatley's second case study is Prometheus Unbound. Here Shelley sets himself up for trouble by admitting, in his Preface, that he has a "passion for reforming the world." It makes little difference to a reviewer from the Quarterly that Shelley in the same paragraph qualifies the statement, or at least makes it less clear. As far as the reviewer is concerned, the cat is out of the bag: "He professes to write in order to reform the world. The essence of the proposed reformation is the destruction of religion and government. Such a reformation is not to our taste." Mind you, part of the trouble is figuring how the poem might encourage such destruction.

Prometheus Unbound doesn't exactly motivate its readers (Shelley said he intended it for "5 or 6 persons") to take up arms and storm Westminster. If there is a revolution in the poem, it might be, as Wheatley clearly and cleverly explains, in the more subtle way it pushes some readers—that is, a few of the potentially hostile reviewers—beyond paranoid politics to the position where literary beauty and aesthetic appreciation go beyond politics. Writes Wheatley: "Whereas the impulse to separate art and politics is not new, the impulse to make beauty and the apolitical mutually defining would seem to take part in a cultural change that is retrospectively identified with Romanticism" (143). This is a considerable observation, since it is gleaned from a poem about the struggle between oppressor and oppressed, a poem in which violence seems to be used as the means to put down authority: Jupiter doesn't exactly volunteer to take a fall. Demogorgon had to out-muscle him.

Adonais, the third poem Wheatley considers in detail, is shown to contribute significantly to Shelley's image alteration. To put it another way, a funny thing happened to Shelley's reputation immediately following his death: the subversive devil is transformed into a depoliticized angel. A growing Shelley circle—including the likes of Hunt, Horace Smith, William Hazlitt, Edward John Trelawney, Thomas Medwin, and, of course, Mary Shelley herself—works hard to associate their poet with the fiction of Shelley's famously indulgent and idealized self-portrayal in Adonais. Wheatley puts the complexity of this much better: "The chance juxtaposition of Shelley's death and his elegy for Keats leads Shelley's friends, in themselves constituting a procession of mourners commemorating a dead poet, to realize a version of the elegy's own complex revision of Shelley's idealized identification with the beautiful" (195). One gets the feeling that there is room to say more about the relationship between our own idea of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley's construction of his own image, and the original construction of Shelley's reputation by his contemporary reviewers and those who actually knew him. Wheatley's study does very well to open this beyond the limiting pallor of deconstruction or historicism.

Shelley and His Readers is a good book. It makes appropriate use of biographical material, stays away from jargon, is sensibly ordered (with abundant pointers, restatements, and conclusions), and is well researched. Along with Stephen C. Behrendt's excellent Shelley and His Audiences (1989) and Karen A. Weisman's challenging Imageless Truth's: Shelley's Poetic Fictions (1994), we now have a growing number of studies suggesting how Shelley's language is determined by a complex engagement with his idea of reader and audience. In the end, though, Shelley no doubt would have preferred the unconditional positive regard of an immediate and large general readership to the feared verdict of an unknown posterity. A year before he drowns, Shelley writes, "The decision of the cause whether or no I am a poet is removed from the present time to the hour when our posterity shall assemble: but the court is a very severe one, & I fear that the verdict will be guilty death."