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.

There is also a moral question. An image is bound to be a nuisance, if the ‘Thou’ Shelley wants to invoke is nothing less than Life itself. Bloom makes an enormous concession to his opponents when he says that ‘Shelley far too often forgets that you confront an ultimate Thou only through a particular thou.’ The question of Shelley’s sense of a particular thou would be returned to the critical agenda, and could only be answered, as Leavis insisted, by a critical analysis of language in each poem. The unmediated vision that Shelley seeks is impossible, as he often bitterly admitted, and the pursuit of it raises a question of vanity. It is a moral consideration that I-Thou must not be allowed to lapse into the Narcissism of I-I. Yeats thought that Shelley kept his poetry intact by differentiating his symbols, so that the tower and the cave in ‘Laon and Cythna’ suggest ‘a contrast between the mind looking outward upon men and things and the mind looking inward upon itself’. But Yeats is not an impeccable witness, he had his own problems with caves and towers, and looked to Shelley for endorsement.

But this is a point of crisis in Shelley’s poetry. In his essay ‘On Life’ he rejects ‘the shocking absurdities of the popular philosophy of mind and matter’, and he adopts, as Keach and other scholars have noted, ‘the intellectual philosophy’ most clearly given in Sir William Drummond’s Academical Questions. Keach quotes the passage in which Shelley’s position, at least for the moment, is clear: ‘Nothing exists but as it is perceived. The difference is merely nominal between those two classes of thought which are vulgarly distinguished by the names of ideas and of external objects.’ That the thoughts which are called real or external objects differ ‘but in regularity of recurrence’ from hallucinations and dreams was a position Yeats, too, accepted in his Shelleyan moods. In the Defence Shelley seems to think the classes differ only as ‘vitally metaphorical’ words gradually become dead metaphors. Another version of the predicament is Hume’s in the Treatise of Human Nature, that since we can never conceive anything but perceptions, we must make every thing resemble them.

Shelley accepted the condition, and not as a predicament. In the Defence he insists that ‘poetry defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions.’ The only disability is that idealism must fail in the end: the world refuses to be transformed. In ‘Julian and Maddalo’ Shelley deals with his misgiving by giving it a separate hearing. Keach aptly refers to ‘Julian’s belief in the power of mind to dissolve and transform all impediments to ideal self-realisation, and Maddalo’s dark pessimism about the soul’s blindness and limitation’. What Leavis and Davie resent is that most of Shelley’s poems – except for ‘Letter to Maria Gisborne’ and ‘Peter Bell the Third’, which might have been written by a good Augustan – were written by Julian rather than by Maddalo. Such readers have always wanted ‘heard melodies’ to sound for ‘those unheard’, and they deride as spiritual vanity any apparently direct raid upon the Absolute. They are epitomists, and have common sense and much of the character of language on their side.

But there are other readers who are not even convinced that the asserted relation between heard melodies and the words in which they are to be apprehended is at all secure. For such readers, what Bloom calls Shelley’s ‘search for a Thou which would not become an It’ should not be derided by the assumption that the proper words for every Thou are already sensibly in place. Keach’s book, as I read it, intervenes at this point. But it is a reply to Empson rather than to Leavis or Davie. In Seven Types of Ambiguity Empson remarks that Shelley ‘seldom perceived profitable relations between two things, he was too helplessly excited by one thing at a time, and that one thing was often a mere notion not conceived in action or in an environment.’ Empson’s positivism doesn’t allow any room for doubting what a thing is, or what differentiates one such thing from another, or how a notion fails to be a thing, or how an action and an environment acquire the stable forms he gives them. The ambiguity he has in view ‘occurs when the author is discovering his idea in the act of writing, or not holding it all in his mind at once, so that, for instance, there is a simile which applies to nothing exactly, but lies half-way between two things when the author is moving from one to the other’. One might, he says, ‘regard as an extreme case of the transitional simile that “self-inwoven” simile employed by Shelley, when not being able to think of a comparison fast enough he compares the thing to a vaguer or more abstract notion of itself, or points out that it is its own nature, or that it sustains itself by supporting itself.’ Empson didn’t think much of Shelley’s procedure, but he conceded that ‘even with so limited an instrument as the short-circuited comparison, he could do great things,’ and silently gave an example from ‘The Triumph of Life’:

And others mournfully within the gloom
Of their own shadow walked, and called it death.

It is Keach’s aim to show the great things Shelley could do with self-inwoven figures, and their source in his general theory and practice of language.

The book begins with a study of The Defence of Poetry, emphasising the mixture of buoyancy and scepticism in Shelley’s sense of language. Sometimes Shelley regarded words as the mere phonetic shadows of thought; sometimes, like Asia in Prometheus Unbound, he believed that Prometheus ‘gave man speech, and speech created thought.’ Shelley’s idealism asserted the constitutive power of language; his scepticism noted not only the habit by which a Thou congeals into an It but the fact that the triumphs of poetry are but partial and fleeting. This mixture of idealism and scepticism in Shelley has made him a hero to adepts of Deconstruction. In Deconstruction and Criticism(1979) J. Hillis Miller associated Shelley in this character with ‘the co-presence in any text in Western literature, inextricably intertwined, as host and parasite, of some version of logocentric metaphysics and its subversive counterpart’, and quoted the passage in ‘The Triumph of Life’ about the bubble of the phenomenal and historical world:

              Figures ever new
Rise on the bubble, paint them as you may;
We have but thrown, as those before us threw,
Our shadows on it as it passed away.

Keach emphasises that only in an ideally-transformed world could language have constitutive or Orphic power; in the world as he found it, Shelley knew, with Bacon, that words, ‘as a Tartar’s bow, do shoot back upon the understanding of the wisest, and mightily entangle and pervert our judgment’. He learned his style more from that despair than from the hope it affronted.

Keach’s main interest is in those images which, as Shelley noted in the Preface to Prometheus Unbound, ‘have been drawn from the operations of the human mind, or from those external actions by which they are expressed’. Defining reflexive images as those ‘in which an object or action is compared, implicitly or explicitly, to an aspect of itself, or is said to act upon or under the conditions of an aspect of itself, Keach remarks that such images ‘call unusual attention to the act of mind they presuppose in the writer and provoke in the reader, an act of mind in which something is perceived as both one thing and more than one thing’, as both itself and something other than itself. I’d prefer to say that a thing is seen, by a reflexive act of mind, not as a unitary object but as a tissue of aspects, none of them in principle privileged. But in any case Keach’s account of reflexive imagery in ‘Alastor’, ‘The Triumph of Life’ and Prometheus Unbound is fine criticism. Perhaps he could have made even more of ‘Alastor’, and of the passage in the Preface to it where Shelley says of his hero:

So long as it is possible for his desires to point towards objects thus infinite and unmeasured, he is joyous, and tranquil, and self-possessed. But the period arrives when these objects cease to suffice. His mind is at length suddenly awakened and thirsts for intercourse with an intelligence similar to itself. He images to himself the Being whom he loves.

Much of Shelley’s poetry asks to be construed as searching among objects and situations for an intelligence similar to his own. If one is found, it is invoked only or chiefly in that capacity: its being otherwise a rose or a boat isn’t allowed to matter much. When nothing answerable is found, a virtual object is posited, as Shelley projected Intellectual Beauty and hymned it. The act needn’t be self-indulgent or tautological, because the imagination can choose to project difficult rather than easy forms of itself – as G. Wilson Knight says in The Starlit Dome that in ‘The Witch of Atlas’ we watch Shelley’s myth-making faculty at work, ‘that queer business of using one’s imaginative experience to create something surprising to oneself’. Self-objectification ‘may prove uncanny and revelatory’: not necessarily cannily obscurantist.

When such critics as Leavis, Empson and Davie find Shelley’s poetry scandalous or vain, it is usually because – in Davie’s version – ‘the sensuousness is of his peculiar sort which makes the familiar remote.’ But Shelley’s only interest in an object is to involve it in further relations to his imagination: in that ghostly setting, its familiarity constitutes a menace. So he compares the physical to the spiritual, or in any event to some quality less accessible than its familiarity. In ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples’ he writes:

I see the waves upon the shore,
Like light dissolved in star-showers, thrown:

and the removing simile doesn’t intend making the waves more fully known but giving them a further imaginative relation to the speaker. More than most poets, Shelley knew that it is possible to propose relations which have, as Wordsworth said in the ‘Essay upon Epitaphs’, ‘another and a finer connection than that of contrast’; or even that of plausible similarity. Keach says of the lines from ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection’ that they ‘offer the synaesthetic image of light dissolved in water, but also of light dissolved into a shower of light, as in a shower of meteors ... the effect is of a transient, momentary display of light on the verge of extinction ... The image of “light dissolved in star-showers’’ grows out of the opening impression of the sun shining brilliantly in “The purple noon’s transparent might”, and yet spins away from that impression as it anticipates the speaker’s desire to “weep away the life of care”.’ But the image also depends upon our being willing to read ‘see’ as ‘imagine’, a concession we readily make since we’ve already made it for

I see the Deep’s untrampled floor
With green and purple seaweeds strown.

In any positivist sense Shelley can’t see the floor, but we know he can imagine it. So the question to ask about the light dissolved in star-showers is not, in what respect is it like the waves on the shore? but rather: can I imagine myself ‘seeing’ the waves, as Shelley does, in that relation?

It follows that Shelley’s common style is a kind of euphemism, since the direction is always from the physical object or manifestation to some spiritual aspect in which the intelligence seeks intimations of itself. The apparent stability of the object is what the intelligence least wants to recognise. Indeed, ‘the volatility of perception and intuition’, as Keach refers to it, is at once the sign of its value and the mark of its mortality. The image always takes a route of evanescence. No wonder Shelley is especially tender toward sentiments which, as Arthur Symons wrote of a dance, ‘last only long enough to have been there’. An idealising stance has every virtue except that of persisting. Thinking is swift, indeed the type and paradigm of speed, in Shelley’s poetry – as Keach observes – but the fate of thinking is that it makes its image disappear.

Sometimes the force of Shelley’s images is in what they leave behind them, the afterimages to which the reader’s sense aspires. As in the description of the contents of the bower in ‘The Witch of Atlas’:

Carved lamps and chalices, and vials which shone
In their own golden beams – each like a flower,
Out of whose depth a firefly shakes his light
Under a cypress in a starless night.

He emphasises, not the stability of the lamps, chalices and vials, but the dream-transience they share with flowers, fireflies and light. Their impression of stability merely provokes Shelley to spiritualise them, giving them a character closer to that of perception.

‘The mind’s evanescent access to power or beauty’ is Keach’s theme in the later chapters, which concentrate on images of physical transformation: freezing, melting, dissolving, evaporation, condensation. It is a fairly standard theme now, but he develops it well. I thought at one moment he would compare Shelley with Rilke in this respect, on the authority of the Duino Elegies and Rilke’s letter of 13 November 1925 to his translator Witold von Hulewicz. The whole letter is a post-Shelleyan defence of poetry, though I am persuaded by Paul de Man’s Allegories of Reading that there is a deconstructive motive in Rilke, too.

The only point I would think of adding to Keach’s description is that the crisis for Shelley’s style always comes when desire has to be embodied. Bloom has remarked that Shelley’s poems ‘generally begin in relationship, are defeated, and end as artifice’. The reality which concerns Shelley can be divined only while it remains unspecified. Any attempt to embody desire, as in an allegorical object, is doomed: the object can’t be better than a paltry substitute for the desire it is supposed to appease. That is why Shelley’s favourite image, as Yeats was I think the first to note, is the elusive Morning Star, which lends itself to desire in general rather than to any particular form of it. It also explains why the Hermaphrodite, in ‘The Witch of Atlas’, is merely, as Bloom says, a robot, an object for the Witch to experience. The Hermaphrodite has incited the kind of argument which used to be provoked by Swift’s houyhnhnms as type of perfection, but the houyhnhnms are better suited to Swift’s purpose because their perfection is mainly negative: it is what life would be like if it were to be rid of the passions which afflict and yet, we know, sustain us. The Hermaphrodite is a thing entirely alien to pathos, an artifice of eternity. Shelley’s style can resort only to such a thing, if to any device of an embodying intention. It is satisfactory only in process and transformation, like desire itself dying at last of its own too much.

Keach’s book arises, in a general sense, from the recuperation of Romantic poetry which has been proceeding, mainly against Eliot’s authority, for the past fifty years. More specifically, it takes part in the current assumption that the image of Shelley as beautiful ineffectual angel is specious, a libel upon the poet who is such a force in the poetries of Browning, Tennyson, Swinburne, Yeats, Hardy, Frost and Stevens. The image of Shelley as angel, by the way, is Arnold’s, but André Maurois’s version of it – ‘Shelley angelic, too angelic’ – in his Ariel (1923) sent it aloft again and has done much to keep it there. Many readers have derived from it their definitive image not only of Shelley but of the life of a poet: this, or something like it, is how a poet should live and die. Ariel was the first Penguin ever published: on 30 July 1935, in a batch of ten, price 6d. To celebrate the 50th anniversary, Penguin Books are issuing it again, with the first dust-jacket. I have always assumed that the first line of Stevens’s ‘The Planet on the Table’ – ‘Ariel was glad he had written his poems’ – came more directly from Maurois’s book than from The Tempest or the name of Shelley’s boat.

There is no merit in claiming that Shelley is a poet for all seasons. There are moods in which it is repellent that he thought the Poet too good for this world. But there are other moods in which his ambition seems wonderfully noble. I think of Valéry, who said that ‘the self flees all created things: indeed, one might apply the word “universe” to that in which the self refuses to recognise itself.’ No English poet speaks more eloquently than Shelley to that sentiment.