At the end of the penultimate chapter of Shelley’s Living Artistry Madeleine Callaghan quotes Harold Bloom’s assessment of the use and uselessness of Shelley’s letters for a reading of his poetry. ‘I affirm’, Bloom intones, in the oracular manner that was clearly already his preferred mode at the very beginning of his long career, I affirm the unscholarly heresy that a student of Shelley’s poetry is best off not having read any of the prose but the Defence. The letters sometimes help; more usually they do not, and two years of steady reading in them have not sufficed for me to find too much of permanent literary or human value therein. Someone’s heresy is someone else’s sacred doctrine, and Bloom is clearly rehearsing here what was (in 1959, when Shelley’s Mythmaking was published) New Critical, and soon to be deconstructive, orthodoxy. What matters are the words on the poetical page, and Bloom clearly holds that Shelley’s pamphlets on Irish emancipation, his vegetarian polemics, his speculative philosophical fragments, his Gothic tales, and even his letters are off the page. There are, of course, a number of oddities about Bloom’s pronouncement – as there are about Shelley’s Mythmaking generally, a book that Bloom, in a gesture of authorial self-curation that sits rather uneasily with his latent anti-biographism, renounced some years later. For one thing, for a critic who would later boast that in his prime he read a thousand pages an hour, ‘two years of steady reading’ in Shelley’s reasonably substantial but hardly enormous epistolary corpus seems, let’s say, pretty exhaustive – especially so, when the judgement on the merit of that corpus is less than encouraging. There must have been something in the letters – even if not, in one of those routinely idiomatic phrases turned intriguingly treacherous by their rhetorical context, ‘too much’ – for Bloom to keep returning to them in the time it would usually have taken him to digest the whole of an undergraduate English literature syllabus several hundred times over. For other, earlier, readers of Shelley, the poet’s letters and biography more generally did have a decisive impact. Robert Browning, for example, felt compelled to revise his long-cherished attachment to Shelley when evidence came to light of his marital infidelity. Browning was no naively moralising reader of poetry, and had thought hard about the relation between life and art, both in theory (his ‘Essay on Shelley’, as it happens, is a significant contribution to thinking about just this relation) and in the teasing, morally complex practice of his most accomplished dramatic monologues. New Critical strictures on (in William Empson’s phrase) ‘using biography’ and the material – letters, journals, anecdotes – from which biography is formed are now, perhaps, behind us. The title of Madeleine Callaghan’s comprehensive treatment of Shelley’s writing, which proceeds chronologically from the early Queen Mab and the poems of the Esdaile Notebook through to the late Adonaïs and uncompleted The Triumph of Life, signals the imbrication of life and art that Callaghan argues is central to Shelley’s poetics. Shelley’s Living Artistry, that is, aims to show that Shelley’s poems are subtle, complex, and highly wrought responses to his experiences, relationships, hopes, and disappointments. In particular, Callaghan takes Shelley’s heretofore somewhat under-examined correspondence as the guiding thread by means of which the complex pattern of his art and life might be traced. Callaghan is a confident judge and writer (if occasionally given to adjectival over-abundance – as a fellow sufferer, I sympathise), an able close reader, whose readings are equally adept at handling the discursive tenor of Shelley’s often philosophically involved poetry and the intricacies of his metrical and stanzaic patterning, and a diligent scholar with an impressive command of the secondary literature on Shelley’s work. She is clearly unafraid of overturning critical commonplaces that have become established in Shelley studies and, moreover, she makes a compelling case for taking the early poetry more seriously on artistic terms than it has been so far. At the beginning of Shelley’s Living Artistry, Callaghan shrewdly makes it clear that she is all too aware of the rocks on which biographical criticism of the kind she might be taken to be attempting have previously foundered; likewise, she gives due regard to existing scholarship on the nature of correspondence and epistolarity, especially in the Romantic period. She quotes liberally from the letters and occasionally illuminates the ways in which they do not straightforwardly serve as background to Shelley’s poetry, but rather as a contrasting element in his authorship that often chafes against the most sensitive points in his artistic theory and practice. Thus, for instance, she brings out well the ‘gulf of expression’ between Shelley’s philosophical correspondence with Elizabeth Hitchener and the dawning refusal of the finality of death in Queen Mab; likewise, it is well to be reminded of Shelley’s own ambivalence with regard to poetry, which emerges in another letter to Hitchener where he declares that what may be ‘beautiful in Poetry’ is ‘inadmissible in reasoning’. However, Callaghan’s book might, in fact, have gone much further in addressing the nature of letter-writing and of biographical criticism as such. Perhaps the most intriguingly reflective moments in Shelley’s correspondence – those in which he comes closest, that is, to reflecting on the nature of the activity of writing itself – are left tantalisingly under-scrutinised. For instance, Callaghan quotes more than once from the letter in which Shelley writes to his friend Thomas Love Peacock to express his horror at seeing ‘Tasso’s own hand writing moulding expressions of adulation & entreaty to a deaf & stupid tyrant in an age when the most heroic virtue would have exposed its possessor to hopeless persecution’. But Callaghan does not comment on why Shelley should remark specifically on Tasso’s handwriting, though in the same letter Shelley offers a frankly graphological comparison of that of Tasso (‘large free & flowing … the symbol of an intense & earnest mind exceeding at times its own depth, and admonished to return by the chillness of the waters of oblivion striking upon its adventurous feet’) and the handwriting of Ariosto (‘a small firm & pointed character expressing as I should say a strong & keen but circumscribed energy of mind’). Nor does the contrast between correspondence with a tyrant (one might think of Shelley’s correspondence with his own father here) and correspondence with a friend like Peacock receive the attention it merits. To be sure, Callaghan brings to light a number of important episodes in Shelley’s correspondence – some of them hardly studied before – but much more might have been said about their performance of epistolarity, the role of (hand) writing in them, and the many ways in which Shelley’s correspondence constructs its audience. And lest we doubt the significance of such (here forgone) avenues of enquiry, one need only consult the first letter in Frederick L. Jones’s still standard edition of Shelley’s correspondence, a letter written at the age of nearly 11, and precociously signed off ‘Now I end. I am not Your obedient servant, P. B. Shelley’, as well as the last letter in that edition, written to Jane Williams, which declares: ‘I only write these lines for the pleasure of tracing what will meet your eyes.’ A similar set of qualms might be aired in relation to Callaghan’s handling of biography. Occasionally, the prospect of some sort of extended consideration of the nature of biography and its relation to the enterprises both of writing poetry and writing criticism flares up, but it isn’t given the ventilation it needs for a properly sustained discussion – a quotation late in the book from Paul de Man’s classic essay on autobiography, for instance, only serves to remind the reader that Callaghan might profitably have undertaken a more thorough, involved engagement with reflection on life-writing. A more systematic engagement with the stakes of biography, poetry, and criticism might have equipped the book with a greater alertness to some of the pitfalls – and opportunities – of biographical reading that Callaghan (to her credit) nevertheless does mention near the start of the book. It is perhaps surprising, for example, to read the narrator of the fantastical dream at the heart of The Triumph of Life uncomplicatedly described in the closing chapter as ‘Shelley’ and that figure’s interlocutor (though this is a much more common designation in criticism on this poem) as ‘Rousseau’: ‘Corruption would not now thus much inherit | Of what was once Rousseau’ (my emphasis). Nevertheless, the book opens up a number of significant prospects for further enquiry and especially, despite itself not providing the full examination of Shelley the letter-writer it would seem to promise, it will make study of his correspondence much more central to future accounts of his work. Shelley’s Living Artistry is, then, a notable contribution to contemporary study of Shelley and, in particular, provides a useful reminder of the different genres and modes in which he wrote and the often taut relations between them. © The Author, 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Cambridge Quarterly. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Cambridge Quarterly – Oxford University Press
Published: Jun 1, 2018
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