Teeth of Mouldy Blue
- 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.
[*] 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.
Vol. 22 No. 20 · 19 October 2000
I was astonished to see the superb new Longman edition of Shelley’s poems, edited by Kelvin Everest and the late Geoffrey Matthews, dismissed by Laura Quinney (LRB, 21 September) in a footnote as ‘intended primarily for the use of college students’, while the Reiman/Fraistat Johns Hopkins edition reviewed is described as ‘the definitive scholarly edition’. The bizarre truth is that after a century of neglect, two scholarly editions of Shelley’s complete poems are simultaneously underway, one in America, one in Britain, both meticulously edited and exhaustively annotated. Neither can claim to be definitive, because it is in the nature of scholars, editors, and even ordinary readers to disagree. And at £58 for Vol. I of ‘several’ (Johns Hopkins), or £95 for Vol. II of three (Longman), neither is within reach of college students or the general reader. But both editions should lead to cheap, reliable and comprehensive reprints, free from the errors and omissions that have plagued all editions since 1839, when Mary Shelley defied Shelley’s father and presented the complete works of this great radical poet to a still unawakened earth.
Editor, ‘London Review’ writes: Laura Quinney was asked to review Reiman and Fraistat’s edition, and wrote her piece, before the Everest and Matthews volume made itself known to the LRB (Longman didn’t send a copy here, or alert us to its publication). When the Longman edition came to our attention, we sent it to Dr Quinney in the belief that it would be better to mention it briefly than not at all. Putting Dr Quinney’s remarks in a footnote was an editorial decision. As to whether or not the Johns Hopkins edition is the ‘definitive scholarly’ one, it may be worth quoting from Kelvin Everest’s acknowledgments in his (very fine) Longman edition: ‘Like all students of Shelley, I am indebted to Donald Reiman, whose depth of Shelley scholarship is without parallel.’
Vol. 22 No. 21 · 2 November 2000
The editorial note printed after Judith Chernaik’s letter (Letters, 19 October) seems churlish. No doubt Longman, publishers of the Everest/Matthews edition of Shelley, are poor salesmen and should not have left the LRB in darkness about their second volume, published this June. Nonetheless their Volume I – the relevant one, since it more than covers the period of the Reiman/Fraistat under review – was published in 1989 and has been long established as the pre-eminent standard. While there are minor differences in attribution and dating between the two editions, every poem printed in Reiman/Fraistat has been available in Everest/Matthews for more than ten years, and with a full (though not bloated) scholarly commentary. Reiman and Fraistat quite naturally employ Everest/ Matthews throughout as one of their chief textual and critical yardsticks. To my knowledge, Geoffrey Matthews was freely offering Reiman, and all other interested Shelleyans, his help and encouragement, and access to primary discoveries and research, right up to his untimely death in 1984. Since that sad event, Kelvin Everest has of course acknowledged both Reiman and Fraistat in the two Longman volumes so far published. It seems a final meanness that the LRB’s note – unwittingly, surely – implied a one-way indebtedness only.
Editor, ‘London Review’ writes: No slur was intended on either the memory of Geoffrey Matthews or the Longman edition. Of course Reiman and Fraistat acknowledge and praise Matthews and Everest in their introduction, observing that ‘the modern fortunes of Shelley’s texts improved when G.M. Matthews … began re-editing all of PBS’s poetry for the Longman series.’ They also point out, however, that the Longman editions were ‘conceived as a series of student textbooks’, and that Volume I of Matthews and Everest’s edition ‘modernises some of the punctuation and orthography and does not include complete collations of either the primary sources or intervening editions’. Furthermore, Reiman and Fraistat have been able
to make effective use of the wealth of new textual evidence made available by the publication of Shelley and His Circle: 1773-1822, the catalogue of the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection, New York Public Library (10 volumes to date, 1961-), the Shelley volumes of Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics (9 volumes, 1985-96) and The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts (23 volumes, 1986-99), which were in the early stages of publication at the time of Matthews’s death.
This would suggest that, without in any way diminishing the achievement and contribution of Matthews, Everest and everyone else (including Judith Chernaik) involved in the Longman edition, or the importance and usefulness of those volumes, the Johns Hopkins edition promises to be the more complete, and to that extent closer to being ‘definitive’. Let’s hope this correspondence is now closed.