Keach and Shelley

Denis Donoghue

  • Shelley’s Style by William Keach
    Methuen, 269 pp, £18.00, April 1985, ISBN 0 416 30320 X
  • Ariel: A Shelley Romance by André Maurois and Ella D’Arcy
    Penguin, 252 pp, £1.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 14 000001 1

His is a fine book, but I wish Mr Keach had supplied a more explicit context for it. Apart from saying that Shelley’s language hasn’t been adequately described, he relies on the reader to know how the critical debate stands. He assumes too much, so I’ll mention some of the matters he takes for granted.

The case against Shelley has been stated so insistently by modern critics that you would imagine they had invented it. But Arnold, Eliot, Leavis and other opponents have merely refined what Hazlitt said in 1821 and Mary Shelley said, among more laudatory things, in 1824. The gist of it is that Shelley’s sense of reality is immature. ‘His bending, flexible form,’ as Hazlitt put it, ‘appears to take no strong hold of things, does not grapple with the world about him, but slides from it like a river.’ Shelley’s style – Hazlitt still – ‘is to poetry what astrology is to natural science – a passionate dream, a straining after impossibilities, a record of fond conjectures, a confused embodying of vague abstractions.’ Mary Shelley’s note on the poems of 1822, like her note on ‘The Witch of Atlas’, observed that Shelley couldn’t ‘bend his mind away from the broodings and wanderings of thought, divested from human interest, which he best loved’.

The sustained academic defence of Shelley began with two books by Carl Grabo, A Newton among Poets (1930) and The Magic Plant (1936): fighting books, but no match for Leavis’s dismissive account of Shelley in Revaluation (1936). Herbert Read, G.Wilson Knight, Frederick Pottle and many other defenders argued that Shelley’s poetry is sustained by the coherence of its imagery, and that the work as a whole shows an extremely intelligent mind fully in touch with the philosophy and science available to him. More recently, scholars have made much of his relations to Locke and Hume rather than to Plato.

The most formidable defence of Shelley is Harold Bloom’s Shelley’s Mythmaking (1959). Bloom dealt with the case by shifting its ground. We are to read Shelley as ‘an agnostic mythmaker’: ‘from his concrete I-Thou relationships, the poet can dare to make his own abstractions, rather than adhere to formulated myth, traditionally developed from such meetings.’ Bloom’s authority was Martin Buber’s distinction, in I and Thou, between the two primary words, I-Thou and I-It:

When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing for his object. For where there is a thing there is another thing. Every It is bounded by others; It exists only through being bounded by others. But when Thou is spoken, there is no thing. Thou has no bounds.

Bloom translated the distinction into his own terms: Experience and Relation. The act of I-It can only annotate a fallen world of experience. I-Thou projects a new relation. Shelley’s poems don’t willingly allude to an experience with the aim of recalling it or sharing it with the reader. They don’t even imagine a new experience on the analogy of an earlier one possessed and remembered: if they do, they report a vision lost. Time is not for Shelley the mercy of eternity but an affront to the endlessness of desire. His poems propose relations by virtue of the mind’s typical capacity to project new instances of itself: as the fruit, in ‘The Witch of Atlas’, turns the light and dew

by inward power
To its own substance.

What such poetry presents is the force of desire rather than any images it would be adequate to cull from experience. Bloom says: ‘The image Shelley seeks is one which can embody the confrontation of life by life, the living which is a meeting of Thous, relationship as dialogue, in which experience and its necessary objects disappear.’ So it’s beside the point to say, with Donald Davie in Purity of Diction in English Verse, that in ‘The Sensitive Plant’ and ‘The Witch of Atlas’ Shelley ‘takes a common object such as a rose or a boat, and the more he describes it, the less we remember what it is.’ Or to refer, with Leavis, to Shelley’s ‘weak grasp upon the actual’. There is no merit in urging Shelley to buck up and look hard at a rose or a boat. The disability of any image, settled upon as an act of I-Thou, is that it loses its ideal character at once and becomes an It. As Bloom says, ‘the rational event quickly runs its course; the image cannot hold the Thou.’ Besides, ‘the deep truth is imageless.’ Poetry is lost in the poem, as Shelley concedes in The Defence of Poetry.

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