In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Shelley in SeasonRichard Holmes
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
The Unacknowledged Legislator: Shelley and Politics 
by P.M.S. Dawson.
Oxford, 312 pp., £16.50, June 1980, 0 19 812095 8
Show More
Shelley and his World 
by Claire Tomalin.
Thames and Hudson, 128 pp., £5.95, July 1980, 9780500130681
Show More
Show More

If all poets have their psychic season, Shelley belongs to the very late stormy autumn and the very early frosty spring. His is a time of transitions: of high winds, wild hopes and freezing regrets. Both poetically and politically, it is an equinoctial world: restless, dangerous, brimming, beautiful and often cruel. This is the season of the Alastor-poet’s long pursuit, of Prometheus chained to his rock (pierced by ‘moon-freezing crystals’), of Julian’s evening ride with Count Maddalo, of the Wild West Wind, the breath of Autumn’s being.

But there is also a summer Shelley. Hot, brooding, slow, disenchanted with the world, taciturn, sunburnt, anxious to get away from it all. Here he is in a letter to Mary, written from Ravenna in August 1821 (he was holidaying with Byron, always an unsettling experience): ‘My greatest content would be utterly to desert all human society. I would retire with you – our child to a solitary island in the sea, would build a boat, – shut upon my retreat the floodgates of the world. I would read no reviews – talk with no authors ... On this plan I would be alone – would devote either to oblivion or to future generations the overflowings of [my] mind ...’ The passage is quoted both by Paul Dawson and Claire Tomalin, and I can give no better indication of the different styles and standpoints of their two books than by reproducing their comments on it.

Dr Dawson, whose work is a detailed, scholarly study of Shelley’s political ideas, writes with characteristic gravity: ‘Such a plan is not really Utopian, for a Utopia is a complete blueprint for a regenerated society, and what Shelley is concerned about here is the tactics of self-preservation in an obstinately unregenerated society ... It may be objected that Prometheus plans to retire from a regenerated world, but the point there is that Prometheus and Asia have no business in such a world, for they are immortals. Prometheus’ job is done ...’ Shelley’s remark is thus immediately located in its philosophic context: the problem of Utopian idealism or ‘Perfectibility’ in Shelley’s thought – what Keats called, critically, his ‘magnanimity’. Dr Dawson then produces the interesting paradox that in his poetry – Prometheus Unbound, Act Three – the idea of the retreat from the world is post-revolutionary, an act of triumph and victory. So the life and the poetry are held in tension, a political tension between desire and achievement – one of the central themes of his book and an endlessly fascinating one. But we also see at once what Dawson will not give us: any direct human touch, any sense of irony or humour, any immediate appreciation of Shelley’s extraordinary and frequently self-contradictory character, any hint of the sad and sometimes ludicrous emotional complications of his life which produced such an outburst. (In fact, Shelley had just heard of the notorious Elise Foggi scandal about him and Claire – an abortion, an illegitimate child, etc.) But perhaps such things are not relevant to a poet’s political thought?

Claire Tomalin (whose biography of Shelley’s mother-in-law, Mary Wollstone-craft, will be well-known) responds, as one might expect, in a much more personal way. ‘Against this wounded cry must be set the knowledge that Shelley was welcoming Byron’s project to come to Pisa, ready to change his own plan of wintering in Florence to be with him, and was very shortly to find the company of the Williamses utterly indispensable.’ This is a fundamentally different approach: a quick, sympathetic reaction, immediately followed by the biographer’s ironic knowledge of the realities of Shelley’s domestic arrangements, their ceaseless changes and disruptions. Then comes the hurrying narrator’s voice – ‘very shortly’ – promising us the delusive charms of Jane Williams, the guitar, the boat and Casa Magni by the sea. Everything is alive, swift, detailed, full of feeling. Again, it is clear what we will miss: any time to reflect, any chance to see the larger pattern, any real opportunity to enter into the speculative world of Shelley’s intellectual and visionary existence. But this is precisely the limitation of her given format: the short, illustrated text providing an introduction to an author ‘and his world’, restricted in terms of space and stylistic arrangement, and chained – however elegantly – to a procrustean bed of narrative fact.

This, then, is what widely separates these two accounts of Shelley. Yet both contain a similar enthusiasm, an excitement with the subject in hand, which is wonderfully contagious; through several summery days of reading and note-taking – in libraries, in hayfields – they have both given me immense pleasure. In the end my preference has leaned towards Claire Tomalin’s work, as the more intensely executed of the two, but both have their own challenge and special charm.

From beginning to end, Dr Dawson is full of unexpected nuggets, and he is obviously a fine and individualistic researcher. We are given, for example, a new fragment of Shelley on contraception, and a wholly new look at Shelley’s essay ‘On Christianity’ – written at Marlow in 1817 – which is revealed as a key text in his philosophy of the moral and political reformer. There are two brilliant opening chapters on Shelley’s split political background. One part was formed by the radical Whigs, George Fox and the old republican roué the Duke of Norfolk, who proposed the notorious toast to ‘our Sovreign, the People’; the other by the new concept of the ‘democratic revolution’, with its French and American antecedents – Godwin, of course, Tom Paine, Francis Burdett, Cartwright and, interestingly, William Hazlitt. Throughout, Dr Dawson pays Shelley the tribute – a rare one, as it would certainly have been in the days before the pioneering work of the American scholar Kenneth Neill Cameron – of taking his politics seriously. He examines in particular his attitudes (and numerous pamphlets) concerning the Parliamentary Reform movement, the Irish question, the philosophy of Radicalism and Anarchism, and the notion of the imaginative writer as a ‘legislator’ for society.

This famous phrase first appeared, not in the literary ‘Defence of Poetry’, but in the highly political and semi-subversive essay of 1820, ‘A Philosophical View of Reform’, which was suppressed for a hundred years: ‘Poets and Philosophers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. Dawson suggests an intriguing new source: Godwin’s Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (1804), in which he speaks of the poet as ‘the legislator of generations and the moral instructor of the world’. The Shelleyan legislator is not, in fact, necessarily a poet: he is the man of moral imagination – the two terms become virtually synonymous in Shelley’s later writing – who is gifted with the power of ‘passionate comunication’ above other men. Poetry, in this sense, ‘legislates’ because it produces both freedom and order in men’s minds. ‘Poetry frees us from slavery,’ remarks Dr Dawson, ‘which is really despair of our own powers, by demonstrating that we are not eternally bound to what is actual, as Prometheus was bound to his cliff by the belief that Jupiter was omnipotent.’ Later, he somewhat dryly adds: ‘it is, of course, natural for an anarchist to insist that true order and true liberty are the same thing.’

This characteristic aside brings me to my one general reservation about the book. We do not really know where Dr Dawson himself stands on these issues: he will not judge politically, he will not evaluate. Yet the ultimate viability of Shelley’s radical political beliefs is surely very important. (It was on such grounds that T.S. Eliot rejected him.) Can they really be treated – say, like Milton’s religious ones – as a mere poetical frame? In the long, central discussion of Shelley’s anarchism, Dr Dawson suddenly writes: ‘In the perspective of philosophical anarchism it is moral progress that is really at issue. Does the acquirement of factual and scientific knowledge, the improvement of technological resources – the whole Baconian enterprise – really serve to make society juster or more moral?’ But just as a confrontation seems unavoidable, Dr Dawson performs a neat veronica: ‘But it would be a mistake to see the issue in these terms. Perfectibility is less a theory than it is an attitude of mind ...’ The Shelleyan bull – and he could be bullish at times – rushes safely by. But Shelley should be treated as he so often was: dangerous. He is dangerously alive still.

Claire Tomalin’s slim book, for all its formal limitations, never has this sense of playing safe. It is intensely alive, intelligent, questioning, responsive and informative at every point. She has carried off the rather stunning task of summarising Shelley’s hectic, shiftless life (and the biographic controversies that still surround it) in some thirty thousand words with remarkable elegance and effect. A vivid, amusing and yet heartbreaking picture of Shelley emerges: poetry, politics, travel, friendships, love-affairs, scandals, mysteries, children, visions – all gracefully combined. The narrative flows with speed and clarity, just occasionally held back by an aptly chosen and unusual quotation. Here, with typical surprise, is Teresa Guiccioli, Byron’s mistress, not on Milord, but on Shelley during that last summer:

    It was said that in his adolescence he was good-looking – but now he was no longer so. His features were delicate but not regular – except for his mouth which however was not good when he laughed, and was a little spoiled by his teeth ... He was also extraordinary in his garb, for he normally wore a jacket like a young college boy’s, never any gloves nor polish on his shoes – and yet among a thousand he would always have seemed the most finished of gentlemen. His voice was shrill – even strident, and nevertheless it was modulated by the drift of his thoughts with a grace, a delicacy that went to the heart ... Perhaps never did anyone ever see a man so deficient in beauty who still could produce an impression of it ... It was the fire, the enthusiasm, of his Intelligence that transformed his features.

The rare touches of interpretative comment that Claire Tomalin allows herself are always shrewd and highly personal. She prefers Peacock of all the close friends, and notes how Hogg was continually jealous of Shelley’s inexplicable success with the women in every household ‘from mistress to maidservant’. She sympathises with Mary’s dilemma, and justly observes the familiar pattern of ‘the benevolent man whose benevolence towards the world outside his family enrages his wife’. After Mary’s breakdown in 1819, she writes: ‘Shelley possessed what Mary did not: a spirit that renewed itself, or at worst, continued to sing even in despair. He had streaks of self-hatred, the bitter self-hatred of the idealist and experimenter with life who sees his experiments fail but cannot become a comfortable apostate. He had suicidal leanings. The lines

Bright reason will mock thee
Like the sun from a wintry sky

express perfectly his wincing reaction to the condemnation of people of good sense.’

She dismisses the politically-motivated shooting incident in North Wales, and cuts smartly through the endless difficulties surrounding Shelley’s ‘adopted’ child at Naples, Elena Adelaide Shelley. Her solution is quite simply that Shelley and Claire – Mary’s step-sister – were lovers in 1818, and Elena was their illegitimate child, whom they decided to leave behind at the Italian Foundling Hospital. I agree with the first part of the thesis, but cannot accept the second: how Claire’s eyes would have flashed at such a decision! ‘Imagine my despair of good!’ said Shelley of the charge ‘that I have committed such unutterable crimes as destroying or abandoning a child – – that my own.’

I wish that the book had given just a little more space to Shelley’s essays: ‘On the Devil’, ‘On Christianity’, ‘On Sculptures in Rome and Florence’, ‘On the Greeks’. Yet Claire Tomalin’s guiding remarks on the poetry are excellent, and I have never seen the lines on the death of Harriet Shelley – ‘The cold earth slept below’ – placed with more just and poignant effect. She also gives an entirely fresh presence to one of Shelley’s almost forgotten later lyrics, ‘Two Spirits: An Allegory’, introducing it with wonderful suggestiveness – a real act of criticism – as a key to his whole life’s endeavour. A word is in order about the 104 illustrations in the book, which include Turner, Bonnington, Samuel Palmer, Goya, a miniature of the bewitching Cornelia Boinville (disturbingly like Lady Caroline Lamb), a sketch-plan by Edward Williams of the interior of the Don Juan boat, showing folding tables, lockers, and ‘Shilo’s library’ skilfully fitted round the bulkhead. Ah, dreams of summer!

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 2 No. 22 · 20 November 1980

SIR: Richard Holmes remarks in his review of Paul Dawson’s book on Shelley’s politics (LRB, 16 October) that ‘Dawson suggests an intriguing new source’ for Shelley’s famous phrase about ‘unacknowledged legislators’ in ‘Godwin’s Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (1804)’. This may be intriguing, but is not new. It is 34 years since George Woodcock remarked in his biography of Godwin that the phrase ‘was lifted almost word for word from The Life of Chaucer’ (which was published in 1803), and 33 years since the publication of the Shelleys’ Journal showed that Shelley read the book in 1815. Similar considerations apply to several other novelties Holmes discovers in Dawson.

Nicolas Walter
Harrow, Middlesex

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.