Teeth of Mouldy Blue

Laura Quinney

  • The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Volume I edited by Donald Reiman and Neil Fraisat
    Johns Hopkins, 494 pp, £58.00, March 2000, ISBN 0 8018 6119 5

The poems in this volume will not persuade anyone to care for Shelley who does not do so already: they are often bad, sometimes dreadful, juvenile works which Shelley wrote between the ages of 17 and 22. These years, from 1809 to 1814, were the most chaotic of his life; he tried to make his own fate but succeeded chiefly in precipitating a series of disasters. His behaviour alternated between defiance and misgiving. In 1810 Shelley went to Oxford, where he met and beguiled Thomas Jefferson Hogg, and languished over his rejection by his cousin Harriet Grove, who was frightened by the unorthodoxy of his ideas; he was soon sent down for co-authoring, with Hogg, ‘The Necessity of Atheism’ (though he wavered about acknowledging his authorship of the pamphlet); he broke with his family, and fell into a depression; in his loneliness, he persuaded Harriet Westbrook, a pleasant young woman, to elope with him, and then established an unsatisfactory triangulated household with her older sister, Eliza; they wandered about, visiting, among other places, Ireland, where Shelley tried to foment revolution; he fled Harriet and Eliza, partly on the grounds that they were intellectually unsympathetic; he sought a mentor and father substitute in William Godwin, and then alienated him by eloping with his daughter, Mary; he discarded Harriet and their two small children, and in 1816 she drowned herself. His actions were reckless, destructive and poignantly venturesome; they had consequences which darkened his life to the end.

What is remarkable is that this life, so careening and confused, was also characterised by a fixed intellectual tenacity, and a tenacity of craft, which eventually enabled Shelley to write poetry of singular power and originality. The new edition reveals this consistency. In gathering together all his earliest pieces, including some that have been unavailable in standard editions of the collected poetry, Donald Reiman and Neil Fraistat’s meticulously edited volume brings out the aims Shelley had for his verse, and the effects he sought, which remained surprisingly uniform.[*] Largely derivative in form and content, the poems divulge almost nothing of interest about his ideas, but they are more subtly telling: they display his characteristic sensibility, they show something of his intensity and his struggle to find an adequate means of expression for it, and they uncover stylistic designs that he spent roughly six of the ten years of his adult life working to perfect.

The major works in this volume are the first two books of poems that Shelley published – Original Poetry; by Victor and Cazire (1810), Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson (1810) – his broadsheet, The Devil’s Walk (1812), and a fascinating book-length poem he did not manage to publish: ‘The Wandering Jew; or, The Victim of the Eternal Avenger’ (written 1809-10). There are also ‘Ten Early Poems’, most of them harvested from his letters, and a handful of verses from his Gothic novel St Irvyne (1811). This edition does not contain the poems, also written between 1809 and 1814, that Shelley assembled in his projected book of ‘minor poetry’, ‘The Esdaile Notebook’, which will be included in the second volume.

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[*] Longman is also pubishing a complete Shelley, edited by Kelvin Everest and the late Geoffrey Matthews; the second volume, covering the period from 1817 to 1819, was recently released (879 pp., £95, 1 June, 0 582 03082 x). This comprehensive, accessible text is intended primarily for the use of college students; Reiman and Fraistat’s will be the definitive scholarly edition.