This is the paper I submitted for my MA thesis at Wayne State University this past winter. The full title is "Heaven Ruining In: Wave Imagery in the Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley."
In Shelley’s poetry wave images abound. There is a shared impulse from Alastor to Adonais to submit to turbulent waters and so be swept away like an elemental god. Almost always a solitary endeavor, the poet leaves behind the trembling throng as his spirit’s bark is tempest driven. Undoubtedly, such a quest is rather severe. Although Shelley once exclaimed, “I go on until I am stopped, and I am never stopped,” (Bloom, Best Poems 409) he nonetheless has many moments where he seeks the calm remove of Epicurean ataraxia. At these moments he longs for the consolation he finds in quiet reflective waters. “Moonlight on a midnight stream” he finds, “Gives grace and truth to life’s unquiet dream” (Reiman, Fraistat 94—unless noted all Shelley citations are from this edition). In the poem To Edward Williams he writes:
The sleepless billows on the ocean’s breast
Break like a bursting heart, and die in foam,
And thus at length find rest:
Doubtless there is a place of peace
Where my weak heart and all its throbs will cease (Shelley 682).
Although Shelley sought calm or at least release in still waters as well as in a kind of meteoric expiration, as in the close of Epipyschidion, he knew that he could not have both. However ghostly the demarcations, water cannot seemingly be experienced as both turbulent and calm.
What I am calling Shelley’s wave poetics is primarily this fluctuation between two states. It is not limited merely to psychic turmoil though; his divided allegiance between skepticism and idealism, reason and poetry, as well as a host of other issues can be seen reflected in these two images. Poetic imagery can take many forms, but in this essay I will deal chiefly with Shelley’s use of metaphor and personification. Shelley’s wave images are essentially visions of nature’s mutability. This mental picture in itself, though, is not enough to give coherence to mutability. His response to mutability was poetry and, as I will argue, it was essentially a poetics that strove to capture the essence of mutability while allowing for some sense of control. Owen Barfield in Saving the Appearances describes this relation between between image and poetry as an act of participation with nature. “To be intensely aware of participation is, for man, to feel the centre of energy in himself identified with the energy of which external nature is the image” (109). The wish to embody turbulence is captured in poems like The Sunset where “Genius and death contended” (Shelley 568). In the preface to The Revolt of Islam he writes, “I would fain/ Reply in hope--but I am worn away,/ And Death and Love are yet contending for their prey” (103-104). Shelley, despite occasional misgivings, embraces this contention of forces. His use of the lyric with its wavelike qualities can be seen as one method of representing them. Shelley’s poetry is most often noted for its ethereal ambiguity where all forms dissolve into one another; this merging of particulars into an amorphous whole is perhaps the most wavelike quality of all. Wave poetics then represents a host of experiences including questions of coherence and division, sensation and reflection.
One particular example might servfe to illuminate the tension between these divisions, especially since it often serves as the crux around which many of the critics I will be reading swerve, and that is poetry’s relationship to reason and science. Although I will explore how Shelley treats this divide in relation to wave imagery in subsequent sections of this paper I want to touch on it here first to present in rough outline the scope of the argument. Shelley’s interests in science are well known. He often represents himself as the archimago he was at Oxford and Eton conducting experiments in chemistry and electricity throughout the night. Critics like Carl Grabo in A Newton Among Poets and Desmond King-Hele in Shelley: His Thought and Work were amongst the first to explore at length the scientific dimensions of his poetry. However provoking their studies can be, they nonetheless tend to depict Shelley as merely versifying science rather than showing him as creating a poetics informed by science. More recent studies like those of Hugh Roberts and Timothy Morton, in applying contemporary concerns with chaos theory and environmentalism to his poetry, have revealed more fruitful ways in which Shelley applied his interests in the sciences to poetry. Perhaps naively, this essay seeks to push further the process begun by the likes of Morton and Roberts while hoping to maintain something of Shelley’s own understanding of the function of poetry; that it is prior to all other modes of thought. Relying first on Roberts and then on Angus Fletcher I will explore the most contentious aspect of this issue, the division in Shelley between his Humean skeptical materialism and his idealism, which I will argue is not an expression of Platonism. In a final defense of Shelley’s idealism I will show how Harold Bloom’s use of transumption, a mode of poetic allusion, reveals that idealism to be rooted in skepticism.
Shelley is following the conventions of his day when in The Defence of Poetry he states that poetic imagery preceded reason; that the earliest cultures were poetic before they were rational. The language of primitive cultures as of poets, Shelley writes in the Defence, is “vitally metaphorical” (Reiman, Fraistat 512). Shelley breaks from nearly all other theorists when he states that poetry is essential for all innovation and that reason is valuable only insofar as it is poetical (Fry, 164-65). In this respect Owen Barfield is indebted to Shelley when he makes his distinction between the poetic and scientific faculties:
If we must have a fundamental dichotomy, how much more real it is (though even this is properly a division of function rather than of person) to divide man as knower, from man in his other capacity as doer. Then, as knower, we shall find that he always knows by the interaction within himself of these poetic (poietikos) and logistic principles; and so we can divide him again, according to which of the principles predominates. If the poetic is unduly ascendant, behold the mystic or the madman, unable to grasp the reality of percepts at all - a being still resting, as it were, in the bosom of gods or demons - not yet man, man in the fullness of his stature, at all. But if the passive, logistic, prosaic principle predominates, then the man becomes - what? the collector, the man who cannot grasp the reality of anything but percepts. And here at last a real distinction between poet and scientist, or rather between poetaster and pedant, does arise. For if the ‘collector’s’ interests happen to be artistic or literary, he will become the connoisseur, that is, he will collect either objets d’art or elegant sensations and memories. But if they are ‘scientific’, he will collect - data; will, in fact, probably go on doing so all his life, to the tune of solemn warnings against the formation of ‘premature syntheses’ (139).
To summarize Shelley and Barfield: if the poet must be capable of making accurate descriptions of his environment if he is not to exist entirely in a realm of fancy or madness he must also have the poetic faculty. This involves the creation of metaphors, of bringing the objects of observation into fruitful relations with one another. If the one is necessary for communication could it be said that the other is necessary for life? Barfield says this quality should exhibit “strangeness,” which is not to say mere eccentricity, but “strangeness of meaning” (171). David Bromwich clarifies what a successful metaphor is for Shelley, saying “a living metaphor is understood without analysis, as a consequence and then a cause of the way we look at nature. Once we do grow conscious of using it figuratively… then the metaphor is already dead” (26).
Two examples on the function of poetry and metaphor in thought might help to clarify the scope of each. Writing on chaos science and the concept of emergence (how complex systems arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions), John Holland demonstrates the importance of metaphor to the scientific enterprise. Poetry’s use of metaphors, Holland argues, is comparable to science’s use of models. Models, like metaphors, contain what Holland calls “an established aura of facts and regularities” (210). A model is a “small, easily comprehended set of laws that yields a wide range of testable consequences” (203). Applying a model from one discipline to another comparable discipline allows for more nuanced extrapolations to be made. “Disciplines are like metaphors,” Holland writes, “they involve complicated auras that cannot be spelled out in any simple way” (212). The process of intuition and imagination is therefore something more than mere guesswork. Holland sums up his argument by citing Bacon’s aphorism, “Truth comes out of error more readily than out of confusion” (219). Shelley developed his interest in mutability and necessity early and relied on a limited number of images to represent them. Shelley’s development of these images by reiterating the vehicle in varied tenors throughout his poetry can be seen as comparable to the scientific method of replication and falsification. The use of a limited number of images gave him a framework within which to study and test his own conceptions.
Arguably the most purely poetic theorist of poetry (and so the most Shelleyan) is Harold Bloom. Bloom identifies Shelley as one of the principle masters of “the skeptical sublime,” a tradition he sees as beginning with Lucretius and continuing through Dryden, Milton, Tennyson, Pater, Swinburne, Whitman, and Stevens (Anatomy, 133-161). Bloom identifies Shelley’s placing of poetry prior to reason as the Lucretian emphasis on sensations over reflections (144). Bloom applies this to his own practice of literary criticism:
Words will not interpret themselves, and common rules for interpreting words will never exist. Many critics flee to philosophy or to linguistics, but the result is that they learn to interpret poems as philosophy or as linguistics. Philosophy may flaunt its rigors but its agon with poetry is an ancient one, and will never end… There is always and only bias, inclination, pre-judgment, swerve; only and always the verbal agon for freedom, and the agon is carried on not by truth-telling, but by words lying against time (Deconstruction, 7).
“Lying against time” is Bloom’s pragmatic understanding of poetry as our means of exerting freedom. Freedom exists for Bloom in the “swerve,” a concept he borrows from Lucretius. Developing Lucretius’s concept into a theory of poetic influence, Bloom argues that meaning only exists between poems. Meaning lies in the swerve one poet takes from another or a composite of others. Here Bloom differs from Shelley who saw language and poetry as mere fragments of an original unity. For Bloom, when a poet swerves from prior poems she is involved in an agon, or contest, with her precursor poet. Poetic victory is a result of the, at times, ambiguous quality of “strength.” Bloom suggests that strength can also be rendered as strictness (Anatomy, 251). Strength or strictness suggests the discipline that Holland saw as being involved in metaphors. The usefulness of Holland and Bloom is in their demonstrating how the juxtaposition of metaphors is the essence of poetry.
Shelley’s wave imagery seeks to capture the experience of the chaotic flux of sensations that flow through the mind. As Thomas Frosch has shown, this exercise often leaves the poet with a sense not of fullness, but of vacancy. The contrary impulse is for calm waters of reflection, a desire to give order and meaning to the eternal flux. In the second section of this paper I will explore at length these two tendencies in Shelley’s early poems Queen Mab and Alastor. In the third section I will read The Witch of Atlas as an example of how Shelley arrived at the sense that the flux itself can be an image of order. In the fourth section I will explore how these two modes correspond to Shelley’s interest in description with a reading of Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills. In the fifth section I will read Prometheus Unbound alongside Swinburne’s By the North Sea as a final exercise to see what light a Bloomian reading might shed on Shelley’s wave imagery.
The spectrum of Shelley’s wave imagery can be usefully illustrated in two early poems, Queen Mab and Alastor. The former is dominated by an early image of standing water reflecting the heavens that serves as a figure for the cosmological perspective Mab wishes to give her protégé Ianthe. It is a fitting image for the rest of the poem, which will outline much of Shelley’s political, philosophical, and ethical positions. The latter poem lacks such a central reflective image of standing water. When the image does appear much later in the poem it is circumscribed and occurs only after the solitary Poet has already been reft from his ideal. The image is of a small fountain in which the Poet peers inward in contrast to Ianthe’s heavenly chariot from which she peers outward. Alastor’s dominant image is of the poet’s river journey. There are tumultuous waves in Queen Mab, world-destroying waves of necessity, but they are nonetheless easily navigated by Mab’s chariot. In this they lack the psychic weight that they will have in Alastor’s boat journey. Shelley opens Queen Mab exclaiming “How wonderful is Death,/ Death and his brother Sleep!” (17). In Alastor the burden of necessity will not be borne as lightly or joyfully.
There is a shared use of wave imagery between these two poems, but what difference in knowledge has this made for Shelley? Both serve as metaphors for a kind of fullness of knowledge. In Queen Mab that is a kind of encyclopedia of knowledge while in Alastor it is a kind of phantasmagoric knowledge of vacancy. I want to ask now what is the nature of this shift in knowledge. How do these images, as David Bromwich said, serve as metaphors that Shelley sees through and not with? One answer can be gained by examining the pragmatic purpose the metaphor served for the poet. In analyzing the shifting focus of Shelley’s imagery some background on these two poems and their relationship to one another will help clarify the development of these two images.
The pragmatic purpose Alastor served for Shelley is often described as initiating him into the role of poet. The poem, indeed, is often read as an archetype for the incarnation of the poetic character. Queen Mab, on the other hand, seems to bear a different burden. In being representative of Shelley’s philosophical and political interests, its aim is to convert radical ideology into poetry. That is not to say that poetry is absent from the earlier poem. Thomas Frosch argues this contrary view saying that the poem is as much an expression of romance as of philosophy. The light imagery that fills the poem, he argues, is the light of the imagination and not of reason. As he says, “While it would be too much to say that the ideology of Queen Mab is a sugarcoating for its romance apparatus, that would be at least as close to the truth as the opposite position” (38).
Michael Scrivener usefully speaks of Shelley as a mediating bard, the poet who wishes to convey the visionary ideal to the ordinary world. Under this view Alastor works as a cautionary tale where the visionary misuses the potential of nature by scorning community for an ideal. Queen Mab, on the other hand, could be argued as the more successful poem since Ianthe is able to return from her visionary flight to society and her lover Henry in order to share what she has learned. Ianthe is not a mediating bard, though, but more of an ephebe, as Wallace Stevens would say, a poet in training. The failure of Queen Mab for Scrivener is that “Neither Queen Mab nor Ahasuerus is an accurate portrait of the mediating bard because the one is too detached, and the other not detached enough” (75).
Under this view Alastor might be seen as more of a footnote to the scheme begun with Queen Mab rather than Shelley’s true beginning as a poet. Shelley’s later edited and abridged version of Queen Mab, The Daemon of the World, could then be argued, as Mary Quinn has, as an attempt to veil the ideology of the earlier poem to make it more palatable for the general public (756). This would suggest that the revision was not one more step in a slow turning away on Shelley’s part from a more politically oriented career to one more solely poetic, but an affirmation of his political ambitions in a more covert form. The question at stake is the pitting of social vision against the poetic visionary. Scrivener resembles Barfield when he says that:
The problem of mediation, however, is difficult to resolve because the inspired poet, like the anarchist prophet, falls between the ideals of perfectibility and the actual historical situation. The poet-prophet has to translate the apocalyptic ideals into an earthly language capable of being understood by mortals. If he allows the ideal vision to dominate every other consideration, then he will write in a language few people can understand (78).
Scrivener’s comments are useful in highlighting the issue of perspective that is central to the argument of this paper. Confining myself solely to the water imagery in the two poems, I find, helps to differentiate the two poems and so understand why Alastor has become the model for the process of becoming a poet even if it is ultimately a dead end.
There is much of poetic interest to Queen Mab. The central image of the chariot’s crossing over the ocean and beyond into the cosmos gives us Shelley’s earliest experiment in the use of scale, one of his most prominent and noteworthy poetic achievements. The scene begins with an image of the Ocean, “The mirror of its stillness showed/ The pale and waning stars” (22). The chariot, ascending upward, passes through the atmosphere, “the chariot's way/ Lay through the midst of an immense concave/ Radiant with million constellations” (22). Having crossed into the heavens reflected in Ocean the poem moves to images of voyage:
The sea no longer was distinguished; earth
Appeared a vast and shadowy sphere;
The sun's unclouded orb
Rolled through the black concave;
Its rays of rapid light
Parted around the chariot's swifter course,
And fell, like ocean's feathery spray
Dashed from the boiling surge
Before a vessel's prow (23).
One can see here the germ for much of Shelley’s later poetry. There is an initial image, the heavens reflected in the sea of Ocean, followed by a seeing of that image as reflected in the world, the chariot’s actual voyage into the heavens. As the car ascends higher and higher the sun’s rays form a sea of light that the chariot moves through as through crashing waves. The movement is threefold: from sunrise and ocean to the cosmos pictured in the Ocean to the cosmos itself as an ocean. The scene ends with a return to the natural world. Reveling in the scope just presented the narrator exclaims to the “Spirit of Nature,”
Here is thy fitting temple.
Yet not the lightest leaf
That quivers to the passing breeze
Is less instinct with thee:
Yet not the meanest worm
That lurks in graves and fattens on the dead
Less shares thy eternal breath (23-24).
The scale has been brought round to the particular objects of nature that make up the grand scheme. It is interesting to note that Shelley will maintain a continual interest in the minute particulars of nature, something he undoubtedly developed a fascination with in his earlier experiments in chemistry, while never losing sight of the vast sweep of the cosmos. What Shelley will learn, though, is an ability to compress his imagery into much denser fragments.
In section II of Queen Mab he is, in a sense, both describing the movement of the first section, but from a more naturalistic perspective as well as giving a commentary on it. By gazing on the sunset and the effect of light playing against the clouds the appearance suggests to our imaginations other worlds. This vision is solitary:
If solitude hath ever led thy steps
To the wild ocean's echoing shore,
And thou hast lingered there,
Until the sun's broad orb
Seemed resting on the burnished wave…
Then has thy fancy soared above the earth,
And furled its wearied wing
Within the Fairy's fane (24).
Shelley loved dawn and dusk, those moments when the sun’s presence was felt, but did not dominate the horizon. His earliest poetry testifies to this love. In The Retrospect he states what would remain true to him throughout his poetic career “I joyed to see the streaks of day/ Above the purple peaks decay/ And watch the latest line of light/ Just mingling with the shades of night” (11). In Queen Mab he finds it almost a transcendent moment. The reflection of the sunlight upon the clouds and ocean creates the impression of palaces, “Then has thy fancy soared above the earth,/ And furled its wearied wing/ Within the Fairy’s fane” (24).
In contrast to this scene the description in Alastor of the Poet’s unnatural river journey uphill towards the source of language gives a much more vivid impression of Shelley’s use of turbulent water imagery. In the Queen Mab passage one can already see Shelley’s admiration for such turbulence. He describes comets as “trains of flame,/ Like worlds to death and ruin driven,” (23) but as part of his panoply they are nevertheless part of the Spirit of Nature’s “fitting temple.”
Alastor is Shelley’s first extended description of waves. The Poet is having a death wish just before determining to set to sea, “A restless impulse urged him to embark/ And meet lone Death on the drear ocean’s waste” (81). The imagery is mixed, it is a scene generally pleasant and calm, but with undertones of turbulence. He opens with a description of the sea and sky drinking in the daylight. In an image he will return to he describes the wind as blackening the waves by disturbing their calm shadowless flatness. Although not elaborated here the distinction is important. The mind under turbulence blackens thought so that it loses its ability to reflect. The river drives the Poet on, depriving him of the cosmological perspective of Queen Mab. The sea is described as tranquil and the day fair, but the wind as strong and he is like “a torn cloud before a hurricane” (81). His transformation is in stark contrast to Ianthe’s:
Ianthe's Soul; it stood
All beautiful in naked purity,
The perfect semblance of its bodily frame;
Instinct with inexpressible beauty and grace--
Each stain of earthliness
Had passed away--it reassumed
Its native dignity and stood
Immortal amid ruin (20).
Here Ianthe is little more than an embodiment of Hegel’s “beautiful soul” in contrast to the Poet of Alastor who is more similar to Hegel’s “lacerated” or “self-estranged soul.” In Alastor the two images of water are irreconcilable. The beautiful soul stands “immortal amid ruin,” it is somewhat static amidst the ruins of change. The lacerated soul understands that consciousness is a going beyond its own limits and so a constant tearing of itself (Schmidt 631).
The next verse continues the conflicting imagery. Odorous winds and resplendent clouds are present. The waters are “ruffled.” The sea is “chafed.” The wind is growing fiercer and now the waves are likened to the necks of “serpents struggling in a vulture’s grasp” (82). The poet is described as “calm and rejoicing in the fearful war/ Of wave ruining on wave” (82). Here is alas, Shelley’s true element and it is described in very mixed, but ultimately positive imagery. The passage of the day continues till twilight as the boat is cast along. When the poet finally emerges from the tempest he is a “frail and wasted form” (82) In having survived, though, he has become a part of that scene, “an elemental god” (82).
Standing water in Alastor is more deft in its incorporation of scale than it was in Queen Mab. What took the earlier poem several paragraphs to convey Alastor accomplishes in twelve lines:
…beyond, a well,
Dark, gleaming, and of most translucent wave,
Images all the woven boughs above,
And each depending leaf, and every speck
Of azure sky, darting between their chasms;
Nor aught else in the liquid mirror laves
Its portraiture, but some inconstant star
Between one foliaged lattice twinkling fair,
Or, painted bird, sleeping beneath the moon,
Or gorgeous insect floating motionless,
Unconscious of the day, ere yet his wings
Have spread their glories to the gaze of noon (84-85).
The Ocean in Queen Mab reflected the cosmos that Ianthe would journey through in her chariot ride with the Queen. The portrait here is much more intimate and much more concise. The Poet sees all of creation in one image—the stars, leaves, and flying insects held together in one whole. As he approaches closer he sees himself in the image as well. Gazing at the well stirs in him deep introspection whereupon he senses a being beside himself. This light “that shone within his soul” then proceeds to guide him on once again along the path he had been following. The path, though, only leads to solitude and ruin.
What is the difference then between these two poems in their use of standing and moving water? In Queen Mab the Ocean reflected the Heavens and all the cosmos that Ianthe, climbing the chariot, was allowed to view in their splendor. From this height she was instructed in Shelley’s radical ideology. There was turbulence in the chariot’s voyage, but it was controlled. In Alastor the Poet first suffers a crises of an unobtainable ideal that leaves him in a state of vacancy. Questing after his ideal leads him to spurn all community. The nakedness of the Poet is evidenced in the ship that he sails the turbulent waters with, “a little shallop” that “had been long abandoned” and in serious disrepair. The turbulence of the waves stimulates the Poet into exultation, “as though he had been an elemental god,” but the perspective he gains after rising to the mountain heights on his river journey is only of a deep and dark interior. If much of the energy of the Alastor volume is directed against those visionaries—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Napoleon—who failed their ideals, the title poem is concerned more with the contrary, of one who clings to and is destroyed by his ideal.
If the turbulent waters of Alastor are representative of the birth of the poetic character they are also a dead-end. In this section I want to explore how Shelley’s use of Lucretius and parallels with Lucretius to modern Chaos theory present ways of seeing turbulence and entropy as more than an exile leading to solitude and madness. Lucretius’s famed suave magno mari passage that opens Book II of On the Nature of Things, and quoted by Shelley in a note for Queen Mab, exemplifies many of the aspirations of the young poet before the composition of Alastor:
How sweet it is, when whirlwinds roil great ocean,
To watch, from land, the danger of another,
Not that to see some other person suffer
Brings great enjoyment, but the sweetness lies
In watching evils you yourself are free from.
How sweet, again, to see the clash of battle
Across the plains, yourself immune to danger.
But nothing is more sweet than full possession
Of those calm heights, well built, well fortified
By wise men’s teaching, to look down from here
At others wandering below, men lost,
Confused, in hectic search for the right road,
The strife of wits, the wars for precedence,
The everlasting struggle, night and day,
To win towards heights of wealth and power (52).
In Alastor as we have seen, Shelley forgoes the serene heights of Queen Mab to be plunged into chaotic waves. However, he returns to Lucretius after Alastor, though, for visions of chaos that can give birth to order. Lucretius suggests this idea in his famous concept of the clinamen or swerve:
…while these particles come mostly down,
Straight down of their own weight through void, at times—
No one knows when or where—they swerve a little,
Not much, but just enough for us to say
They change direction. Were this not the case,
All things would fall straight down, like drops of rain,
Through utter void, no birth-shock would emerge
Out of collision, nothing be created (58).
Jerrold Hogle sees Alastor as marking a transition in Shelley’s career where he begins to develop a concept that Hogle calls transference or “moving centers (32-33).” In Lucretius all atoms are continually falling until one swerves, a clinamen. This swerve causes a series of reactions in which atoms begin to cluster together in globules. Hogle’s argument is that Shelley moves away from any underlying foundational concept such as Power or Necessity to one of continual transference. His argument is essentially an advancement on the study of Shelley’s skepticism begun with C.E. Pulos and continued by Earl Wasserman and Jean Hall. Following Hogle’s argument Hugh Roberts in Shelley and the Chaos of History: A New Politics of Poetry applies these concepts to Chaos Theory. Roberts shares Scrivener’s view of Shelley as a mediating bard except he never gets as far off the ground. Roberts is more concerned with theory and Shelley’s mediation between Godwinian particularism and Post-Kantian organicism. Roberts sees organicism as an ongoing philosophical concern still being developed in the works of such scholars as Stanley Cavell and Martha Nussbaum. He refers to this general development in organicism as a project for “therapeutic idealism” or the reuniting of the disjointed parts of a particular society into one harmonious whole. Roberts follows the above tradition of Shelleyean skepticism in seeing the poet as more of a Humean materialist than a Platonist. But Roberts, although he admires the skeptical position and Hogle’s work in particular, feels their inability to adequately deal with Shelley’s idealism to undermine their argument:
Although Hogle would be willing to accept that one can discern skeptical and therapeutic frameworks intermingled in Shelley’s work, it is impossible, within the terms of his argument, to make anything of this. In principle, each Shelley text can mean, will mean, has meant, anything one cares to suggest. In the world of transferential drift any meaning one proposes will instantly appear reflected in the work one is reading. One cannot address the tension between any two tendencies in the work, because without relatively stable distinctions it is impossible for any tension to be maintained (135).
In place of this absolute particularism Roberts asserts Shelley’s indebtedness to the Post-Kantians and what he calls therapeutic idealism. The therapeutic attempts to heal the divisions between “mind and world, subject and object, citizen and state, that the radical Enlightenment had forced open (50).” Roberts calls this an anxiety of amnesia, a fear that the past will be lost unless concentrated effort is used to sustain it. Roberts argues that Shelley ultimately moves beyond this position in favor of one that he sees as anticipating developments in Chaos theory.
It is easy to distort scientific concepts when attempting to apply them to other fields. The study of complex dynamics, or chaos, has itself grown organically to include a range of phenomena through diverse fields including physics, engineering, economics, biology, and philosophy. The area that concerns this paper, turbulence, was one of the initial problems that led to the study of chaos in the first place. Turbulence in water and air is undesirable, creating drag for boats and aircrafts. Hogle’s globules in chaos are the eddies of air or water that form around what are called strange attractors. James Gleick attempts to summarize the idea of strange attractors as a means of finding patterns in seemingly chaotic systems. Without recourse to a strange attractor chaotic patterns resemble mere static. Gleick explains that we begin to make sense of this static by confining our information to what physicists call “phase space,” or the entire range of possibilities in a given system:
In phase space the complete state of knowledge about a dynamical system at a single instant in time collapses to a point. That point is the dynamical system—at that instant. At the next instant, though, the system will have changed, ever so slightly, and so the point moves. The history of the system time can be charted by the moving point, tracing its orbit through phase space with the passage of time (134).
That moving point is the strange attractor. By focusing on one point as it moves through space it makes change easier to observe. Patterns form around the strange attractor in the shape of fractals that might be likened to a synecdoche—the part representing the whole. Although fractals form patterns the system itself is nonlinear. Unlike a linear system, reversing the process would not bring one back to the starting conditions, but would only further develop the system. Roberts realizes that the fractal nature of chaos could suggest merely another route to the therapeutic:
Certainly, this is the most dramatic aspect of fractal organization, the organization displayed by large numbers of natural objects and processes, from fern fronds to frost crystals to the bronchial tubes in the lung, in which the details, and the details of the details, are miniature versions of the structure as a whole. If taken to its logical extreme—the hologram is an oft-cited real-world example—this would mean infinite detail with infinite redundancy; the whole would be everywhere manifest in the minutest parts—like a human being composed of identical homunculi. Chaos theory becomes an alternative route to therapeutic idealism (274-275).
Just as Roberts wishes to avoid the absolutes of atomism or absolute death he also wishes to avoid the therapeutic sense of absolute memory. Since neither of these polarities is capable of being experienced anyway. Chaos presents a model of how both cohere together in a single instant.
Roberts’s principal example of therapeutic idealism and its problems is taken from Edmund Burke. Roberts singles out Burke’s argument that when renovating buildings one should attempt to preserve the essence of the original structure as closely as possible as being particularly representative of the therapeutic quest. Opposed to this Roberts cites how Gothic architecture historically tends to move further and further from its original design with subsequent renovations. Furthermore, Roberts notes, historical changes are often indistinguishable to the layman from the underlying original structure. Relating Gothic architecture and the Gothic novel to chaos, Roberts points out how new forms of order emerge from these older forms in ways that could not be anticipated from the outset. I am hesitant to accept Roberts’s reading of Shelley, though, because it seems to neglect the burden I believe Shelley felt in accepting a world of complex flux. David Bromwich presents a more nuanced approach to Burke and the therapeutic:
It will now be plain that Burke’s historicism can be interpreted in at least two ways; and though I am partial to one, this seems the right place to summarize both: the reactionary argument which I want to reject; and the defensive argument which I want to put in its place. On the first view, Burke writes as he does because he has inherited an intuition—having been properly tutored to inherit it—of an eternal order of things which it is his duty to transmit to others. If anyone declines to receive his teaching, the cause must be a perverse failure of knowledge and self-knowledge alike. On the second view, Burke supposes that he himself has helped to make the order he admires. That order is daily advancing, but it may be overturned by the combined acts of human beings like himself, and like the unknown readers for whom he writes. But if this interpretation is accurate, then the rebels whom Burke deplores are, in his own eyes, candidates for success as plausible as himself. They too aim to build up an order by linking their choices each to each (55-56).
I have taken this tangent on Burke because I feel it underlies a general misconception in Hogle’s and Roberts’s argument against Shelley. Although the radical Shelley undoubtedly was opposed to Burke in political matters, as an exceptional classicist Shelley would undoubtedly affirm much of Burke’s positions. As Jean Hall argues, Shelley does not see poetic imagery to reside in a transcendent realm but to be entrusted to civilization. Poets must continually renew the language of poetry or it will degenerate into static forms, dead metaphors (17-18). Bromwich continues:
When nothing supports a sense of the past other than the reiterated words and repeated actions of people like Burke; when the very definition of human nature depends on the victory of such people, and their victory is not engraved in all our hearts—then for the first time, a general defense of history can take on an air of heroic defiance (56).
Shelley, as a revolutionary, was obviously less sensitive than Burke to the losses of time. Most famously in Ozymandias but in many other poems as well he took a grim satisfaction in knowing that time would eventually erode even the most seemingly permanent of tyrannies. Shelley was nevertheless very sensitive to the social disintegration brought on by post-Revolution particularism that he saw embodied in the philosophy of his mentor William Godwin. Scrivener points out the aspects of Godwin that were most troubling to Shelley:
…if human nature is problematic and unique as Godwin thought it was, and if truth is so difficult to discover that any and all mediating structures between people have vicious tendencies, then Godwin seems to have led us close to atomistic subjectivism. How can there be community or commonality if so little can be take for granted? The French materialists left us, at least, with a common human nature (22).
Other signs of particularism Shelley would have found in post-Kantians like Schiller and Schlegel. Romantic Irony, outside of being a mere literary technique of self-referentiality, could also be seen as a symptom of our fallen condition—a sign of the subject’s disengagement from its object. Schiller’s concept of the naïve and sentimental poet is another instance of this divorce from an original state of unity.
Shelley’s mediation between Hogle’s infinite transference and Roberts therapeutic idealism is illustrated in his poem “Ode to Heaven.” Shelley takes the central image of the poem, a drop of dew, from Coleridge in The Statesman’s Manual: “Are we struck with admiration at beholding the Cope of Heaven imaged in a Dew-drop? The least of the animalcula to which that drop would be an Ocean contains in itself an infinite problem of which God Omni-present is the only solution (Roberts 102-103).” The use of water as a reflective surface always appealed to Shelley, but within this image is also the concept of Lucretian atomism. We are all parts that reflect a whole. As Roberts argues, Shelley’s problem is how to present a coherent universe while avoiding the need to posit a God term uniting creation.
The Ode to Heaven, in its three sections, usefully illuminates Shelley’s complex relation to particularism and the therapeutic by having a voice speak for each position. In the first section a “Chorus of Spirits” speaks the voice of Schiller’s naïve poet who recognizes no divorce between himself and heaven. Many of Shelley’s familiar images are present—the solar cycle representing time and the continual flux of nature. Heaven is represented as an absolute, it is eternal, but it is interfused with our temporal reality. It is not merely the earthly canopy, but represents “wildernesses” of other planets and stars. The serenity of this passage could represent the poet who composed Queen Mab. Towards the close of this first section the name of Heaven begins to assume the form of a tyranny, “Even thy name is as a God” (296). Heaven becomes a name to be worshipped “with bended knees” (296). Even though other gods will come and go, Heaven as a transcendent realm, will continue to inspire devotion.
The second section could be argued, as Roberts does, as expressing the sentimental poet. Estranged from the vision of Heaven in the first section, the sentimental poet nonetheless makes a Heaven out of his mind. In my reading the sequence of voices in the Ode to Heaven mirror Shelley’s own poetic development. The first section represents an initially optimistic view that begins to seem too static. In the second section “A Remoter Voice” responds in language that recalls the claustrophobic and phantasmagoric images seen in the fountain of Alastor:
Thou art but the mind's first chamber,
Round which its young fancies clamber,
Like weak insects in a cave,
Lighted up by stalactites;
But the portal of the grave,
Where a world of new delights
Will make thy best glories seem
But a dim and noonday gleam
From the shadow of a dream! (297).
These two sections also mirror Shelley’s shifting use of scale in Queen Mab and Alastor. Without the cosmic scope of the first image there would be nothing against which to imagine an even larger potential reality.
Christopher Miller notes how the third “Louder and Still Remoter Voice” breaks from the preceding voices and from other poems like Ode to the West Wind and Mont Blanc where Shelley addresses nature as a “Thou” (6). Here Heaven is an it and the tone has altered to one of harsh rebuke:
Peace! the abyss is wreathed with scorn
At your presumption, atom-born!
What is Heaven? and what are ye
Who its brief expanse inherit?
What are suns and spheres which flee
With the instinct of that Spirit
Of which ye are but a part?
Drops which Nature's mighty heart
Drives through thinnest veins! Depart!
What is Heaven? a globe of dew
Filling in the morning new
Some eyed flower whose young leaves waken
On an unimagined world.
Constellated suns unshaken,
Orbits measureless, are furled
In that frail and fading sphere
With ten million gathered there
To tremble, gleam, and disappear! (297).
The final section continues the work of scale begun in the first two. In the second section Heaven is depicted as merely the cavern of the mind, the outer limit of our perceptions. The third has shifted to viewing Heaven as our own temporal reality, with us as mere Lucretian atoms. As mere drops driven through nature’s vascular system Shelley is suggesting that all is Lucretian process. He then turns to a static image, Heaven as “a globe of dew,” in order to emphasize the fragility of any idea of wholeness that we might entertain. The scope then expands beyond a mental construct of Heaven to include, as the “ten million,” the population of England. In this poem Shelley gives expression to how weak and fragile his idealism could be. But is it not as fragile as the state of England and the cosmos itself? This poem expresses perfectly Shelley’s impulse towards idealism as well as his severe skepticism towards such idealisms.
If the dominant tone of the Ode to Heaven is something less than celebratory The Witch of Atlas is something quite more. Harold Bloom describes the tone of the poem as urbane and singles out Shelley as being unique in his ability to carry the urbane to the level of the sublime (Visionary Company, 283, 330). Here is Shelley’s purest expression of idealism but an idealism rooted in a world of flux. For Roberts The Witch of Atlas and the Witch herself show dramatically the problematic relationship of poetry to the amnesiac order of change and to the therapeutic desire for coherence. Shelley is often confused with being a Platonist in his expressions of seeking a reality beyond the veil of experience. Although Shelley often refers to life as being composed of veils he is ultimately, as the Ode to Heaven demonstrates, more dedicated to the notion of reality as a state of flux than to an idea of any fixed and static transcendent realm. But given this position he could not help but use Platonic images to express his belief in the importance and efficacy of ideals.
In Shelley’s preface we are warned not to unveil his Witch. In the opening stanza the Witch is described as having existed before “those two cruel twins” Error and Truth had hunted from the earth all beautiful ideals such as the Witch herself. Shelley is not attempting to argue for a transcendent absolute, but rather present an ideal in a world of flux. The Witch herself is veiled just as she sees human forms as being veiled, but whatever fuller reality might lie in potential beneath these veils is only suggested. That Shelley has his Witch capable of converting all animals to herbivores as well as fulfilling the Biblical hammering of swords into plow-shares suggests the deliberately ambiguous quality of her ideal. Modern equivalents might range from ambitions to build a space elevator to the emergence of the technological singularity.
The Witch exhibits the quality of attraction that Hogle linked with the Lucretian clinamen. Just as the swerve of the atoms form around themselves globules of new worlds so the Witch draws to herself all the various animals and mythological creatures of creation. Most interesting for the purposes of my essay is her last visitor, Pan. The confrontation with Pan is particularly interesting in that it highlights the contrast between entropic flux and idealistic coherence. In Shelley’s earlier songs written for Mary’s Ovidian drama on Midas Shelley contrasted the isolated Apollo with the all-too-human Pan. Wasserman finds both sides to be lacking, “There are, then, two fundamental kinds of poetry: the inhuman, unvital, and possibly futile ideal and the tragic, disappointing human” (Shelley 56) I am curious why Wasserman reacts so negatively to these two largely celebratory songs. I would argue that Apollo represents poetry or at least an ideal of poetry while Pan represents the joy of flux before it has been transformed into poetry. Pan sings and pipes, but Apollo moves and acts. In stanza IX of The Witch of Atlas, the spirit of Pan comes to visit the Witch:
And Universal Pan, ‘tis said, was there,
And though none saw him,—through the adamant
Of the deep mountains, through the trackless air,
And through those living spirits, like a want
He past out of his everlasting lair
Where the quick heart of the great world doth pant—
And felt that wondrous lady all alone—
And she felt him upon her emerald throne (371).
Pan is represented as pervading all nature while the Witch is bounded to space. He is eternal, unlike the Witch who had a birth. As Apollo governs over medicine so the Witch in her solitary cave works as in a laboratory with vials and chalices conducting alchemical experiments. Shelley would likely grant her the acclimation of Apollo as well, “I am the eye with which the Universe/ Beholds itself, and knows it is divine” (389). Interestingly the root for divine, dyeu, means to shine or gleam so Shelley is being rather accurate in his description of the sun god Apollo’s illuminating the universe. One revealing line in the Song of Apollo suggests that some irony towards the god on Shelley’s part, “The sunbeams are my shafts with which I kill/ Deceit” (388). The enjambment suggests to me that Shelley, like his views on Heaven, was cautious in expressing too much enthusiasm, even to the god of poetry. Perhaps something of this irony carries over to the Witch when she feels compelled to weave a veil to soften her attractive powers. There seems to be more of a sympathy between the Witch and the world of flux. Perhaps this is the greatest difference between her and Apollo. Apollo represents poetry as the power of creation. The Witch shares this power, but also carries the ability to draw other beings towards her in an act of love. She creates harmony. Even after her veil is complete the spirits continue to visit her until she is finally forced to expel them. Even the longest-lived of all spirits are but fleeting images to her and so she must ultimately live alone.
For the first half of the poem the Witch is stationary, in her cave, on her emerald throne. In the second half she ventures down the mountain, first to her Austral haven and then down the Nile to visit the dreams of humanity. Off of her throne she comes to resemble Apollo less and less. In her boat she is not quite as haggard as the Poet of Alastor but is closer to him than Apollo. While his journey was “Like a torn cloud before a hurricane” hers is much more tempered “like a cloud/ Upon a stream of wind” (376). Both boats are frail, hers is a “mortal Boat” that was abandoned by Venus for being “too feeble to be fraught” (376) with the tempests that surround that planet’s orbit. Likewise the Poet’s boat of Alastor is frail and long neglected with gaping holes in its sides.
She lacks Apollo’s omnipotence while on her boat. Presumably it is for this purpose that she creates a Hermaphrodite since without him her boat cannot ascend. If the Hermaphrodite was made to give her company he does a poor job at it. She is sleepless, but he is always asleep and behaves, as Bloom says, more like a robot than Wilson Knight’s transcendent being (Shelley’s Mythmaking, 196). The Witch presents many odd and conflicting impressions. Is she imitating the course of Apollo in her night retreat to the Austral Lake? It is unlikely, she wanders and plays about and does not follow a steady course. Apollo is more of a static ideal and the Witch resembles him most when sitting on her emerald throne. Off her throne she possesses the wildness of Pan and the majesty of Apollo. The Austral Lake, of which she is a part, mingles together the two modes:
A haven beneath whose translucent floor
The tremulous stars sparkled unfathomably,
And around which the solid vapours hoar,
Based on the level waters, to the sky
Lifted their dreadful crags, and like a shore
Of wintry mountains, inaccessibly
Hemmed in with rifts and precipices gray,
And hanging crags, many a cove and bay.
And whilst the outer lake beneath the lash
Of the wind's scourge, foamed like a wounded thing,
And the incessant hail with stony clash
Ploughed up the waters, and the flagging wing
Of the roused cormorant in the lightning flash
Looked like the wreck of some wind-wandering
Fragment of inky thunder-smoke—this haven
Was as a gem to copy Heaven engraven,— (380-381)
Shelley composed the Witch of Atlas in a three-day outburst of creativity. There is always a quality of unpremeditated spontaneity in Shelley’s use of ottava rima as exemplified here (Robinson 110). The form tends to conceal its difficulty with a surface ease (108). The celebration of this passage reflects the sense of joy that this wild but coherent vision conveys. The tempestuous haven ironically is figured as a gem suggesting that there is something permanent and graspable in this vision of a chaotic Heaven. Shelley captures all the turbulence of Alastor, but now seems content for this wild chaos to exist for its own sake.
If the Austral Lake presents a vision of Heaven almost free of ambivalence then the Witch’s voyage down the Nile presents a vision of society as being redeemed or in the process of redemption. Her favorite pastime we are told is to ride down the current of the Nile. Once again we are presented with an image of moving water reflecting the world around it:
And where within the surface of the River
The shadows of the massy temples lie
And never are erased—but tremble ever
Like things which every cloud can doom to die,
Through lotus-pav’n canals, and wheresoever
The works of man pierced that serenest sky
With tombs, and towers, and fanes, t’was her delight
To wander in the shadow of the night (383).
Like the Austral Lake the river is lit up by the stars of Heaven. The stars are for Shelley the idealism that gives some direction or compass to mutability. The reflecting pool has also been seen in Shelley to reflect the poet’s mind. The clouds can doom the reflection to die by blocking out the light of the stars that allow the city to be reflected in the river. The Ode to Liberty, completed a month before Shelley began the Witch, applies similar imagery to a vision of Athens:
Within the surface of Time’s fleeting river
Its wrinkled image lies, as then it lay
Immovably unquiet, and for ever
It trembles, but it cannot pass away! (309).
Like the reflection on the Nile, the image of Athens is assumed to hold on although with some ambivalence—“immovably unquiet” is an apt description. In the Ode to Liberty tyranny is the cloud that blocks the starlight “over a waste of waves.” Before Athens arises as the first beacon of Liberty the waves are “dividuous,” nature and art are wild and uncultivated.
The Ode to Liberty is more direct in its implications than the Witch. In the Ode tyranny exists before the emergence of forms of liberty such as Athens, Rome, and the inspiration for Shelley’s ode, the Spanish Revolution that had occurred that spring. As in Prometheus Unbound, the tyrannous clouds that obscure the heaven illumined lake spring from men’s own thoughts:
O, that the wise from their bright minds would kindle
Such lamps within the dome of this dim world,
That the pale name of PRIEST might shrink and dwindle
Into the hell from which it first was hurled,
A scoff of impious pride from fiends impure;
Till human thoughts might kneel alone,
Each before the judgement-throne
Of its own aweless soul, or of the Power unknown!
O, that the words which make the thoughts obscure
From which they spring, as clouds of glimmering dew
From a white lake blot Heaven's blue portraiture,
Were stripped of their thin masks and various hue
And frowns and smiles and splendours not their own,
Till in the nakedness of false and true
They stand before their Lord, each to receive its due! (313-314).
As moving as the Ode to Liberty is the message is far more direct and less ambiguous than the Witch. As Stuart Curran notes, the dividing lines between good and evil are finely drawn with little space for a mediator between (177). The middle six stanzas show a kind of desperation as the poet shifts from one form of address to another to call up the spirit of Liberty. In the passage I quoted the poet cries out for the eternal image of Athens trembling on the water, but the poem ends in the dying of that voice and the drowning of the poet. Roberts notes how the Witch follows in the trend of many of Shelley’s poems, and not only the fragments, that end in a self-extinction. The Witch, though, although it trails off leaving its story to be continued on winter nights, is different in that there is still energy left to continue.
Why compare these two poems that are so different in intent? The Ode is a public summons to rise up in the name of liberty while the Witch is an expression of liberty itself. The Ode to Liberty like the Ode to Heaven is a rhetorically charged attempt to create a limited range of responses. The Witch of Atlas is intended only to evoke love and admiration for an image of freedom that also confers a sense of order and coherence. The seething wave like energy of the crowds documented in the Ode create out of themselves the clouds that block the vision of light that could guide them. In the Witch these distortions emerge quietly enough in the subconscious dreaming of humanity. Viewing pleasant scenes the narrating suggests, “A pleasure sweet doubtless it was to see.” Yet in the following passage where nightmarish visions are described the Witch stands aloof:
But other troubled forms of sleep she saw,
Not to be mirrored in a holy song—
Distortions foul of supernatural awe,
And pale imaginings of visioned wrong
And all the code of custom’s lawless law
Written upon the brows of old and young:
“This,” said the wizard maiden, “is the strife
Which stirs the liquid surface of man’s life” (384).
Shelley wishes to portray his Witch as one who embraces chaos and flux, but those same forces can seem indistinguishable from all that is oppressive in human experience. His suggestion is that we lack a centering ideal around which we can find direction:
And little did the sight disturb her soul—
We, the weak mariners of that wide lake
Where’er its shores extend or billows roll,
Our course unpiloted and starless make
O’er its wild surface to an unknown goal—
But she in the calm depths her way could take
Where in bright bowers immortal forms abide
Beneath the weltering of the restless tide (384).
The Witch is both set-apart from the weltering tide that we humans are driven about in as well as a part of it. This inconstancy of imagery returns when the Witch returns to an engagement with human affairs:
To those she saw most beautiful she gave
Strange panacea in a crystal bowl.
They drank in their deep sleep of that sweet wave,
And lived thenceforward as if some control,
Mightier than life, were in them; and the grave
Of such, when death oppressed the weary soul,
Was as a green and overarching bower
Lit by the gems of many a starry flower (385-386).
Shelley never totally embraced mutability and entropic change as these passages show. Nonetheless this passage suggests that there are moments when we can learn to share in the Witch’s spirit who glides over the waves of mutability with “some control.” The starry flower is a recurring image in Shelley’s poetry. Wasserman writes of this image as it appears in Adonais: “…flowers feed upon light to produce their own brilliance and scent, Shelley conceives of flowers and stars, fragrance and light, as related by a metamorphic transition which symbolizes the relation of earthly existence to immortal existence (323).” These are the same bright bowers in stanza LXIII that the Witch resides in and that we can dwell in too.
As Roberts suggested, The Witch of Atlas is the least ambiguous example of Shelley’s embracing of a creative chaos. Bloom writes that the poem “is a gesture of the confidence in the reality of relationship and the unreality of experience; death belongs to experience, life and poetry to relationship (Shelley’s Mythmaking, 203).” Appropriately it is the latter half of the poem, when the Witch has boarded her frail bark, that the poem makes its most vivid statements on living in flux. Bloom suggests that this is because “The Witch, as a kind of muse of mythopoeia, is predicated as a force eternally operative; her story cannot be concluded until the stubborn center itself is scattered (203).” As in Chaos theory, there can be no linear progress, the poem’s meaning is created where the Witch wanders and departs when she does. In the two following sections of this essay I will explore alternative expressions of turbulence. In section four I will examine Shelley’s observations of turbulence from the fixed ground of description. In section five I will turn to the Bloomian practice of misreading to explore the limits of Shelley’s wave imagery and question how they might be surpassed.
In Prometheus Unbound we are told of a poet who “will watch from dawn to gloom/ The lake-reflected sun illume,” but unlike descriptive poets such as James Thomson or John Clare Shelley’s poet will neither “heed nor see, what things they be;/ But from these create he can/ Forms more real than living man,/ Nurslings of immortality!” (232). The position of this paper has been that Shelley’s “Forms more real than living man” are not transcendent Platonic forms but representations or images of the constantly changing flux of mind and nature. This flux is what Shelley called in Mont Blanc “the everlasting universe of things” and, as Paul Fry notes, “things” is a rather comprehensive term that includes thoughts (167). Although this lyric skirts over the question of observation and description it is not entirely true that the Shelleyan poet was not adept at these skills. Angus Fletcher argues for the usefulness of discussing a Low Romanticism based in descriptive poetry against High Romanticism and he finds Shelley to be an interesting case of occupying both modes:
[Shelley is] the most revealing instance of a poet moving in both directions, but always tending toward the hyperscene... While poems like "Ode to the West Wind," or "Mont Blanc," or indeed many other similar poems seem to extend our vision to the outer edges of cosmic speculation, to the most sublime conceptions of time, life, universe, and destiny, there is in Shelley almost always a scientist's interest in the exact natural object. In short, he constantly shifts back and forth between the poet's own environment, let us say "the Euganean Hills" or some very different English countryside from which details are drawn, and that sublime hyperscene toward which his imagination seems always to have drawn him (137-138).
The Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills is a particularly apt poem to demonstrate Shelley’s “scientist’s interest in the exact natural object.” In this poem Shelley does watch from dawn to gloom a particular scene. The poem describes the course of the sun reflecting over the Padovan-Venetian plain, shining first at dawn on Venice and rising by midday to shine over Padua. As the sun crosses the landscape Shelley reflects on the rise and fall of civilizations. Keeping Fletcher’s observations in mind, while reading the poem one wonders to what degree the natural scene is shaping Shelley’s reflections and conversely how his mind is shaping them.
In a poem like Mont Blanc Shelley addresses this question directly. It is his clearest meditation on the relationship between mind and nature. Jean Hall notes how the poem differs from its model in Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey. Wordsworth’s poem begins with a natural scene that moves to an inner reflection while Shelley’s poem begins with the workings of the mind before moving to an observation on the mountain’s reflecting of those workings. As Hall writes, “he needs a model of the cosmos before he can begin to grasp the meaning of his experience (45).” Hall also notes the poem’s difference from Tintern Abbey’s serene flow between outer description and inner meditation. Mont Blanc consists of harsh transitions where the vision of power breaks disjunctively over the poet—“…what Shelley sees in the summit of Mont Blanc is an absolute discontinuity in nature, which is the terrible counterpart of the disjunctive flash of his vision. The Arve ravine is a place of life, filled with sound, color, living forms, and incessant motion; but the summit of Mont Blanc is its deathly reverse. Here rivers of water become the “frozen floods” of glaciers, and the world’s spectrum of colors is absorbed into the absolute white…” (50) If we accept Fletcher’s distinction the difficulty that emerges is how to single out those moments of description from reversions to a hyper-scene. Since Shelley often sees through his images, there tends to be a blurring of distinctions between what is mere description and what is not.
Harold Bloom notes Arthur Hallam’s distinction between poets of sensation (Shelley and Keats) and poets of reflection (Wordsworth) (Anatomy, 145). Wordsworth’s distance from the descriptive tradition inheres in his reliance on memory, “emotions recollected in tranquility.” Shelley, on the other hand, as Jean Hall argues, tends to view his scene through a language of images. Bloom writes, “Shelley, more than Keats, or perhaps any other poet in English is haunted by internalized images that possess the energy and vividness of direct sight (147).” Yeats was the first to recognize this aspect of Shelley in his essay “The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry” where he gives a moving description of his major images. There seems to me to be a difference between Fletcher’s depiction of Shelley’s interest in a “hyper-scene” and Bloom’s depiction of Shelley as a poet who thinks in images although that difference is hard to pin down. Fletcher singles out personification, the daimon singled out in capitals, as an important element in the history of descriptive poetry. “Much of the argument of this book therefore concerns the idea that only by understanding the poetic environments can we understand the internal conflict between daimon and description (40).” Fletcher wrote extensively of the “Daimonic Agent” in his seminal book Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Fletcher explicates the dilemma between daimon and description as the sense that the poem “simultaneously both is and is about a way of picturing nature (54).” He says of personification used in descriptive poetry, “The description then is intended to describe itself. My sense is that personification plays a central role in visionary poems, especially in descriptive vision, because poets are attempting to break the cycle of self-reflection. The daimons of personification speak for a horizon beyond the scene described and the passage describing (54).” I would like to suggest that while there are undoubted moments where Shelley refers to a hyper-scene more often than not such moments are actually more of his own wrestling with personification. In Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills the conflict between these two modes is quite apparent.
Shelley begins Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills as he did Mont Blanc, with a conceit. It seems as equally probable that he needed a framing metaphor to get this poem started as he did the earlier poem. The opening image is of life as a sea of misery from which islands of refuge are necessary for survival. The poem is written from one such island, an elevated promontory on which Shelley looks down at the plains shrouded in mist below. He imagines the misty plains as a tempestuous sea he and his characteristically battered ship are caught in. This initial strophe sets the pattern for the rest of the poem where an image is followed by commentary from the poet. Since Donald Reiman has already given a persuasive outline of the poem’s structure and argument I will not spend too much time on Shelley’s commentary save where it is important for understanding the descriptive passages I will be discussing. Since I am interested here in distinguishing between Shelley’s diversions to Fletcher’s hyper-scene from his use of personification, I want to concentrate on the areas of description where the contrast is most noticeable, principally the third and tenth strophes.
In this first scene Shelley seems to have immediately conjured up the images of tumultuous waters that are ever present with him when viewing the scene below. Initially we are not aware that the poem is structured around the course of the sun and so it can only be a later inference that this opening scene is a description of the plains at night. The poet describes the sky as “sunless,” but at this time we do not know if that is due to storm clouds or the time of day. At this point the boundaries between description and the figures of Shelley’s own construction are blurred. Earl Wasserman contrasts this poem with Shelley’s Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, “The poem is not a repudiation of the Hymn; rather, it redirects the same ideological and psycho-religious pattern to a wholly world-oriented view in order to ask what it reveals about life, rather than about divinity and immortality, as though it were the Hymn seen from the other side (198).” The Hymn, like The Witch of Atlas, takes as its theme the “spirit of beauty” that, however inconstantly, imbues life with meaning. Here, in this “world-oriented” poem, the objects not the source of beauty are examined—the green isles of refuge from which one might escape from the “sea of misery.”
It is not until the third strophe, though, that we learn the scope and structure of the poem. It is also the first extended passage of description. The central image is of the sunrise scattering a flight of rooks. Reiman compares this scene with Shelley’s only other depiction of rooks in “The Boat on the Serchio” where they are presented unambiguously as ill-omened birds, “Night’s dreams and terrors” that the morning sun drives away. Birds are figured four times in the poem and always with some ambiguity, as here. In the previous strophe Shelley imagined the wailing of “sea-mews” (seagulls) to be the cries of victims whose town has been invaded. We wonder if this is merely part of an imagined “hyper-scene” or if Shelley was actually hearing birds while composing the poem. The only obvious personification is the sea of misery that Shelley imagines. Here it is “the waters of wide Agony.” Although the poem opens with tumultuous waters throughout the remainder of the poem the poet is removed from the scene he describes. The daimonic drive of personification that pervaded The Witch of Atlas is not present here. Instead Shelley gives a suggestion of direction that nonetheless gives room for those impressions to be questioned. The rooks with “wings all hoar” are imagined as “grey shades” (112). These could be the “Night’s dreams and terrors,” but not necessarily. They are also majestic, they sing a paean to the rising sun, and when they take flight they are clothed in the sun’s rays, “their plumes of purple grain,/ Starred with drops of golden rain” (112). The birds are not driven away by the sun, but depart of their own accord cutting through the mist as it begins to clear. Although the poem then begins with a rejection of “the sea of misery” and a seeming embrace of the rising sun that dispels this mist it will continue to waver back and forth between how benevolent the course of time is. The sea is presented as giving birth to all things of beauty, to Venice and Padua, just as it will give birth to those sea flowers that will grow over their ruins when the Ocean reclaims them.
In the forth strophe the rising sun has now dawned over Venice’s spires and domes. Like the rooks it is both beautiful, but also suggestive of menace by giving the distant city the appearance of a burning altar. From this point until the tenth strophe Shelley’s poem seems dominated for me by Fletcher called the hyper-scene. The fifth strophe turns away from description to a meditation on the fate of Venice as being once a conqueror and now conquered. In the sixth strophe Shelley reflects on what we have already noticed, that his observations are no longer mere description but of a visionary quality:
Those who alone thy towers behold
Quivering through aerial gold,
As I now behold them here,
Would imagine not they were
Sepulchres, where human forms,
Like pollution-nourished worms,
To the corpse of greatness cling,
Murdered, and now mouldering (113)
Reiman usefully characterizes these paragraphs on Venice as representing the sunrise as both creative fire and its distortion. As can be seen here, Venice lives off of its past contributions to civilization without making any additions to them. In the eighth strophe the sun has risen fully in the sky moving beyond Venice to Padua. In the risen sun Reiman sees the imagery shifting away from light as creative power to light as reason. The universities of Padua are corrupted by the tyrannical rule of the city that has snuffed out the light of learning. Yet Shelley predicts that embers remain that will eventually rekindle and consume the tyranny that would contain them. The imagery, although moving, seems overly deterministic and lacks the ambiguity of the third strophe.
According to Reiman the vision in the third strophe relieved the poet of his solitude. The same healing powers return in the tenth where the poet turns from the sea of misery to his solitary promontory. This paragraph is one long sentence where the poet takes in the place where he stands and all the objects around him as well as the song he has been singing (this poem) and sees them as one “interpenetrated” whole (115). As in The Witch of Atlas this unity is symbolized by a star-flower. He describes “the noon of autumn’s glow” as being first like a purple mist and then like “an air-dissolved star/ Mingling light and fragrance, far” (115). The vision at noon blends the earlier mist of flux with an image of stability. The flower “Glimmering at my feet” (115) is only one of many elements—the grass, the mountains, the red and golden trellised vines—that point towards the heavens. The act serves the function that reflective waters had in the previous poems discussed of creating a coherent vision of reality. In earlier poems the poet would look on a body of water and receive a reflection of the cosmos suggesting that there was some mediation between him and his vision. It was always accompanied by a voyage through the world of flux. As in The Witch of Atlas, the ability to navigate the flux of nature and perceive it as something more than a sea of misery lies in the ability to hold onto some image of fixity to give it coherence. This is often represented for Shelley by the morning star, Venus, which Yeats called Shelley’s star of infinite desire (140).
A poem can serve as that image that holds together a world of flux. But even a poem, according to Harold Bloom, does not in itself possess a stable meaning. For Bloom, as I said above, meaning only exists between poems. In Bloom’s essay on Shelley in Poetry and Repression he identifies three major biblical tropes for God, “voice, fire, and chariot, or respectively a metonymy, a metaphor, and a transumption (87).” Bloom centers on the chariot as being the supreme image for Shelley and his strongest defense against the influence of his precursor Wordsworth. More central to this essay’s concerns, though, are Bloom’s statements on Shelley’s treatment of fire and water in his poetry.
Elaborating on fire Bloom says, “following Freud, we can speak of the Hebraic image of fire as a sublimation, as a perspectivizing metaphor (93).” Bloom finds metaphor to be “at once the most-praised and most-failing of Western tropes (Map of Misreading, 100).” As a sublimation, metaphor is a defensive gesture that normalizes desire. Bloom sees Shelley as beginning with a total identification with fire, but gradually distancing himself in later poems such as in Adonais and The Triumph of Life where fire loses its sense of rationality and comes to resemble what the Gnostic system of Valentinus referred to as “the dark affection” or “ignorance (Poetry and Repression, 105).” Bloom identifies Shelley’s use of the chariot with the trope of transumption or metalepsis. A metalepsis can be thought of as a sophisticated form of allusion in which a figure refers to something only remotely related to it or a combination of figures is used to represent a new figure. Bloom calls metalepsis a metonymy of a metonymy. “The metalepsis leaps over the heads of other tropes and becomes a representation set against time, sacrificing the present to an idealized past or hoped-for future (Map of Misreading, 103).” Bloom sees metaphor as a sublimation of aggression. Transumption then is antithetical to metaphor as a form of introjection. It “incorporates an object or an instinct so as to defend against it (102).”
Bloom is helpful in illuminating Shelley’s ambivalences towards flux. This may be severe distortion of Bloom, but how I understand him is that the fire of reflection or reason came to seem to Shelley as insufficient. The chariot, as a metaphor for poetry, became his dominant trope. What then is the Ocean of flux? Bloom writes:
Ocean, the matter of Night, the original Lilith or “feast that famished,” mothers what is antithetical to her, the makers who fear (rightly) to accept her and never cease to move towards her. If not to have conceived oneself is a burden, so for the strong poet there is also the more hidden burden: not to have brought oneself forth, not to be a god breaking one’s own vessels, but to be awash in a Word not quite one’s own. And so many greatly surrender, as Swinburne did (Map of Misreading, 15-16).
Bloom then goes on to quote an example of Swinburne’s surrender in By the North Sea, but I want to hold off on discussing that poem for the time being. Bloom suggests that the greatest poets do not flee from Ocean, but wrestle with it. Thomas Frosch, in his Freudian reading of Shelley, gives a helpful catalogue of Shelley’s unconscious ambivalences and a perspective on how Shelley fared in his engagement with the sea:
At times it seems that the deep truth is something Shelley would very much like to keep imageless. But what does Shelley wish to keep imageless? What does he wish not to know? What do his poems speak of in spite of themselves? In this study I have suggested a number of possibilities. He wishes not to know the true identity of his masked figures. He wishes not to know the strength of “self” in him, of unaltruistic ambitious and sexual impulses. He wishes not to know the strength of his positive feelings toward paternal figures—his wishes to be guided and saved, his impulses to imitate—and his negative feelings toward maternal figures—his anger and fear and his anxiety of self-loss. He wishes not to know that his idealization of the female is accompanied by an antipathy toward the maternal or that his idealization of liberty is accompanied by an impulse toward passivity. He wishes not to know the strength of aggressive, competitive, destructive impulses in himself. He wishes not to know, then, how overpowering both his passive and his active impulses are, his impulse toward merger and his impulse toward individuation. He wishes not to know how close to each other the ideal and the morbid are; how good and evil for him often seem to come from the same source; or, as much as he may be willing to acknowledge this abstractly, how deeply they are often involved in a Gordian entanglement. And he wishes not to know specific things or experiences, unknowable to us, that he does know. But he also wishes not to know that knowing itself is filled with peril: he would like to think of the mind as a beach that can be washed by erasing maternal waters, but those same waters, for him, have the power to drown (290).
Fletcher recognizes the sea as an image for all that is lawless and unbounded in human experience. Yet he also sees in wave imagery a model for poetical and political coherence. Shelley shares this interest that Fletcher finds epitomized in Whitman for imagining “groups of people as Ocean-swells of force which then spread and propagate (147).” Fletcher diverges from Bloom in seeing the Ocean as not something to be mastered, but mediated:
Consider the term “mediation” itself: it ties directly to the most ancient words for the middle, for measuring, and for medicine. In his etymological dictionary, Eric Partridge explains: “Whereas the Latin medicus is a measurer of man’s ills and injuries, meditation is the thought-measuring of an idea, a fact, a thing. The Indo-European root me-, to measure, is displayed openly in Old English metan, whence ‘to mete.’” We can still say that an authority metes out a reward or punishment. Meditation links to the Old Irish word median, which means to judge, and more importantly links all the way back to the ancient Greek medesthai, to attend to, to estimate. The etymologist gives us only the roughest road map, to be sure, but Partridge does point to one essential component of the meditative process—it is loosely “medical” in the sense of attending carefully, with the weight of meaning implied by the phrase “attending physician (193).”
For Fletcher descriptive poetry is at once the most capable means of depicting the flux of nature as well as the means of navigating within that flux. This paper has been concerned throughout with the question of mediating between flux and stasis. The central issue has been seen to be how to have coherence amidst chaos. Shelley’s greatest expression of coherence occurs in the fourth act of Prometheus Unbound in one of last of the Earth’s lyrics. In a swerve from Bloom I want to examine the forth act of Prometheus Unbound in the light of Swinburne’s poem By the North Sea to see what survives in his successor’s misreading. Before turning to Swinburne, though, I want to look at a similar tactic recently performed by Theresa M. Kelley in her article “Reading Justice: From Derrida to Shelley and Back.”
Kelley’s reading of Shelley through Derrida I take as a negative example of the clinamen, or what Bloom would call a misreading. Kelley centers on Prometheus’s act of repentance. She finds this to be more of an evasion of the act and likens it to Demogorgon’s refusal to name the origin of evil in his dodge, “the deep truth is imageless.” As she argues, that deep truth is not entirely imageless, but in fact looks quite a bit like Prometheus. Her Derridean reading of the play would have Asia more extensively question Demogorgon as well as Prometheus. As she says, “Asia… extends to Prometheus the love that she is, but without seeking to fold it into a strictly economized exchange in which Prometheus is made to yield up something in exchange. I confess that I wish she had.” Kelley concludes her essay citing Derrida’s reflection on ruins and contamination finding Shelley, in Prometheus Unbound, to have avoided the implications of this in his desire to present a final vision of harmony. Kelley quotes Derrida:
I do not see ruin as a negative thing. … it is clearly not a thing. … One cannot love a monument, a work of architecture, an institution as such except in an experience itself precarious in its fragility: it hasn’t always been there, it will not always be there, it is finite. And for this reason I love it as mortal, through its birth and its death, through the ghost or the silhouette of its ruin, of my own. … How can we love except in this finitude? Where else would the right to love, indeed the love of right, come from (96)?
I resist Kelley’s conclusions, though, because I feel she undermines the real struggles Shelley underwent in grappling with ruin. As I have tried to show in this essay Shelley not only continually wrestled with questions of ruin and turbulence, but it was in fact his natural condition. In many poems, especially in Adonais, he goes so far as to embrace the tempest in a suicidal gesture. The Triumph of Life, indeed, stands as a final testament to Shelley’s sympathy with insurmountable power of ruin. David Bromwich notes how Shelley’s fascination with death is often surprisingly free of morbidity. He suggests that this is because it is merely one more expression of his interest in all forms of change, even forbidden ones (“Love against Revenge”, 258).”
Following Bloom’s suggestion that meaning only exists between poems I want to turn now to an experiment in reading Prometheus Unbound through Swinburne’s By the North Sea. The most noticeable difference between the two poems is the greater degree in which Swinburne uses rhyme to accentuate his poem’s meaning. The poem is perfectly balanced with the first three sections composed of 15 octaves, 4 sestets, and 15 sestets and the following three repeating this configuration. The final seventh section is 7 octaves. Sections 1, 4, and 7 carry the dominant rhythm of the poem. The shorter second and fifth sections serve as quieter interludes while the third and sixth present the most turbulent action of the poem. The poem is not easy to summarize although each section can be read as an attempt to reconcile the poet with the sea. There is a progression to the poem as well and the final section functions in a similar way as Act IV of Prometheus Unbound where there is a movement from the Dionysian embrace of the sea to an Apollonian standing apart.
I do not have space to comment on the entire poem, but want to highlight a few sections to illustrate Swinburne’s agon with Shelley and what gains and losses can be observed in that contest. The poem opens with a description of clouds “Thick woven as the weft of a witch is/ Round the heart of a thrall that hath sinned” which recalls Shelley’s witch Poesy from Mont Blanc as well as his Witch of Atlas. The third stanza speaks of the seaside pastures being herdless and sheepless suggesting Shelley’s line from Prometheus Unbound, “It is the unpastured sea hungering for calm” (259). The context of the poem is Swinburne’s looking on the ruined town of Dunwich that had been eroded by the rising water level over a period of years. Like much of Shelley’s poetry Swinburne’s “song to the sea” (202) is concerned with questions of the nature of ruin, death, and necessity. And also like Shelley, Swinburne wishes to give himself over to the sea. He finds in it that “Slowly, gladly, full of peace and wonder/ Grows his heart who journeys here alone” (193). Swinburne, like Shelley, was an atheist. But like Shelley, he also was compelled towards using religious metaphors for expressing himself. Leslie Brisman argues that Swinburne is not so much interested in the Oceanic feeling as exploring “the desire at the heart of lesser expressions of desire, the desire to overgo… the limits of the Limiter who set bounds to the sea (216).” Swinburne, always the masochist, is more aware of his taboo relation to the sea that Frosch saw Shelley as repressing. The passage I quoted above “of a thrall that hath sinned” recalls Shelley’s injunction in his preface to The Witch of Atlas:
If you unveil my Witch, no priest nor primate
Can shrive you of that sin, -- if sin there be
In love, when it becomes idolatry (368).
Swinburne wishes, like Shelley, to preserve the mystery of the Witch as Bloom called “a something ever more about to be (Anatomy, 16).” Except for Swinburne this is, as Brisman notes, “the mystery of the cruelty of things (217).”
Swinburne makes a catalogue of those that have given themselves over to the sea. In stanza 11 of section 1 he sees those sailors who have perished on the coastal reefs as being blessed: “As the souls of the dead men disburdened/ And clean of the sins that they sinned,/ With a lovelier than man’s life guerdoned/ And delight as a wave’s in the wind” (191). He identifies this region in section 3, “Here is Hades, manifest, beholden/ Surely, surely here, if aught be sure!” (194). Swinburne’s vision of the sea as Homer’s Hades is calming, “None may doubt but here might end his quest” (194). Like Odysseus who could not grasp his mother Anticleia we cannot grasp the sea. The sea cannot be commanded, but only submitted to. In section 4 the poet reiterates the need to submit to the sea and argues the sea will reclaim us as it is now reclaiming Dunwich, “the grasp of the sea is as iron” (196). That the sea will reclaim the land is a comfort. “All solace is here for the spirit/ That ever for ever may be/ For the soul of thy son to inherit,/ My mother, my sea” (196). In the next stanza the theme of sin returns, to cross the border into the sea is a transgression, “the palm of possession is dreary/ To the sense that in search of it sinned” (196). The sea, seen until now as a source of purgation, in section 5 is revealed to be no less free from iniquity than ourselves:
The grime of her greed is upon her,
The sign of her deed is her soil;
As the earth’s is her own dishonour,
And corruption the crown of her toil:
She hath spoiled and devoured, and her honour
Is this, to be shamed by her spoil.
But afar where pollution is none,
Nor ensign of strife nor endeavour,
Where her heart and the sun’s are one,
And the soil of her sin comes never,
She is pure as the wind and the sun,
And her sweetness endureth for ever (198).
This passage seems to suggest that it is the sea’s contact with the earth that pollutes her and that only in her separation from the earth is she pure. In the darkest section of the poem, section 6, where even death is not safe from the ravages of the sea:
Tombs, with bare white piteous bones protruded,
Shroudless, down the loose collapsing banks,
Crumble, from their constant place detruded,
That the sea devours and gives not thanks.
Graves where hope and prayer and sorrow brooded
Gape and slide and perish, ranks on ranks (200-201).
Swinburne, in suggesting that it is the sea’s contact with the land that contaminates it, leaves little option for purity outside complete submission to the sea. Swinburne, perhaps more than any other poet, gives himself over fully to the Oceanic impulse, or as Brisman said, “to overgo the limits of the Limiter.”
Though the Gods of the night lie rotten
And their honour be taken away
And the noise of their names forgotten,
Thou, Lord, art God of the day.
Thou art father and saviour and spirit,
O Sun, of the soul that is free
And hath grace of thy grace to inherit
Thine earth and thy sea.
The hills and sands and the beaches,
The waters adrift and afar,
The banks and the creeks and the reaches,
How glad of thee all these are!
The flowers, overflowing, overcrowded,
Are drunk with the mad wind’s mirth:
The delight of thy coming unclouded
Makes music of earth.
I, last least voice of her voices,
Give thanks that were mute in me long
To the soul in my soul that rejoices
For the song that is over my song.
Time gives what he gains for the giving
Or takes for his tribute of me;
My dreams to the wind everliving,
My song to the sea (202).
I am more convinced by Swinburne’s poem because it presents the burden as well as the exuberance to be experienced in abandoning oneself to ruin and the sea. Swinburne never identifies with the Apollonian spirit as Shelley does, he identifies the sun as “The God” that he is content to submit to as he submits to the sea. Shelley was more ambivalent with both the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Swinburne wishes to drown in the maternal waters. Shelley has a fierce agonistic spirit that compels him both towards those waters, but to confront them and not to submit to them.
Against Swinburne’s poem I want to focus on one lyric near the close of Act IV that encapsulates Shelley at his most idealistic, The Earth’s lyric “It interpenetrates my granite mass” (280). The final act of the drama returns to the cosmological scope Shelley gave in Queen Mab. In this lyric the Earth is describing the effects of the relationship the Moon is having on him and he on the Moon. The Earth is thawing the frozen rivers of the Moon and the Moon is bringing out life from the crust of the Earth. The poem then shifts to seeing how the benevolence of these processes are rooted in the human perspective:
Leave Man, who was a many-sided mirror
Which could distort to many a shape of error
This true fair world of things, a sea reflecting love;
Which over all his kind, as the sun's heaven
Gliding o'er ocean, smooth, serene, and even,
Darting from starry depths radiance and life doth move:
Leave Man even as a leprous child is left,
Who follows a sick beast to some warm cleft
Of rocks, through which the might of healing springs is poured;
Then when it wanders home with rosy smile,
Unconscious, and its mother fears awhile
It is a spirit, then weeps on her child restored (280):
And yet Shelley is ambivalent, if our perspective distorts the healing changes of nature then nature too has a power to change our perspectives unbeknown to us. As in The Witch of Atlas the natural changes Shelley is hinting at are broad encompassing the widest range of scientific and poetic speculation. In this particular passage Grabo notes how much of the imagery is related to volcanic eruptions that however destructive initially give birth to more fertile ground and new life. The image of the leprous child, Grabo suggests, might be alluding to a volcanic spring that was believed to cure some skin ailments. Shelley here is not rising above flux and ruin or contamination for that matter, but is suggesting that the fluctuations of the Earth have as much potential to heal and preserve as they do to destroy.
Man, oh, not men! a chain of linkèd thought,
Of love and might to be divided not,
Compelling the elements with adamantine stress;
As the sun rules even with a tyrant's gaze
The unquiet republic of the maze
Of planets, struggling fierce towards heaven's free wilderness:
Man, one harmonious soul of many a soul,
Whose nature is its own divine control,
Where all things flow to all, as rivers to the sea;
Familiar acts are beautiful through love;
Labor, and pain, and grief, in life's green grove
Sport like tame beasts; none knew how gentle they could be!
His will, with all mean passions, bad delights,
And selfish cares, its trembling satellites,
A spirit ill to guide, but mighty to obey,
Is as a tempest-wingèd ship, whose helm
Love rules, through waves which dare not overwhelm,
Forcing life's wildest shores to own its sovereign sway.
All things confess his strength. Through the cold mass
Of marble and of color his dreams pass--
Bright threads whence mothers weave the robes their children wear;
Language is a perpetual Orphic song,
Which rules with dædal harmony a throng
Of thoughts and forms, which else senseless and shapeless were.
The lightning is his slave; heaven's utmost deep
Gives up her stars, and like a flock of sheep
They pass before his eye, are numbered, and roll on!
The tempest is his steed, he strides the air;
And the abyss shouts from her depth laid bare,
'Heaven, hast thou secrets? Man unveils me; I have none' (280-281).
In The Witch of Atlas Shelley refused to unveil his witch. Here Shelley, as well as Swinburne, present unveiled visions. Like Swinburne’s lyric, Shelley’s is a marriage of mutability and poetry. Swinburne has come to a greater recognition of the ruin and contamination inherent in the sea. The cost Shelley paid in losing this agon was one Swinburne never ventured, a desire to preserve an Apollonian vision of the sea. Swinburne submits to the sun, his God, as he does the sea. Shelley resists the sun, even here, even as he sings in its voice.
It is almost universally agreed that Shelley’s poetry is marked by turbulence. Whether that is between his skepticism and idealism, his interests in science and his romanticism, or most recently, in Thomas Frosch’s account, of his Freudian division of allegiance between the mother and the father. I have traced in this paper how these divisions can be seen through his two images of standing and moving water. Whether it is nobler in the mind to submit to this ocean of flux or to resist it has been one of the questions I have sought to elucidate. The use of idealisms, even those grounded in materialism, were useful to Shelley. Presenting an ideal vision of poetry such as Shelley presents still receives quite a bit of resistance today. Timothy Morton’s comments on Angus Fletcher’s A New Theory for American Poetry in his book Ecology Without Nature although not directed toward Shelley nonetheless betray the general distrust of such a view of poetry:
His suggestive idea that the long, sinuous lines in Whitman and his descendants establish ways of reaching out toward and going beyond horizons, and of creating an open-ended idea of nature, is a valuable account of a specific form of poetics… I am, however, less confident than Fletcher of the utopian value of poetics (22).
Although Shelley is given to utopian hopes for poetry, far more than Fletcher for that matter, what I find to be at issue for Morton, as well as Roberts, is the privilege that critics like Fletcher give to poetry. The privileging of poetry over other modes of thought is a decidedly Romantic view that, as Thomas Frosch notes in Shelley and the Romantic Imagination, is currently out of fashion:
I think too that Romantic poems celebrate Romantic desire even when they present it negatively or tragically and that that celebration is an essential part of what draws readers to Romantic poems. At a time when even Romanticists bend over backward not to be too romantic, the goal of this study is to bring back into view—even into a view influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis—the beauty, depth, and exhilaration of the Romantic myth of imagination in its Shelleyan inflection.
What Frosch calls the distinctly romantic aspects of Romanticism and I have called the privileging of poetry are two terms that I feel point to the same problem—a desire for poetry to speak on its own grounds unmediated by other modes of thought. Frosch’s summary of current trends then, I find, helps to clarify Morton’s lack of confidence. Reading critics like Angus Fletcher or Harold Bloom one will not find a utopian value of poetics so much as a project to define poetry as a distinct mode of thought and especially, in Bloom and Shelley’s case, a mode distinct and prior to other modes.
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