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ELH 72.3 (2005) 577-603
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Shelley's Uncertain Heaven
Christopher R. Miller
In 1812, Percy Shelley, recently sent down from Oxford for publishing his pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism, circulated an unlicensed broadsheet, the Declaration of Rights. Among its thirty-one articles, Number 26 stated the author's position on Heaven: "Those who believe that Heaven is, what earth has been, a monopoly in the hands of a favored few, would do well to reconsider their opinion: if they find that it came from their priest or their grandmother, they could not do better than reject it."1 In a sonnet he wrote about the occasion, Shelley describes sending some copies of the Declaration aloft in fire balloons, which he described as "twinkling amid the dark blue Depths of Heaven."2 There can be no confusion about the two senses of "Heaven" in these passages: in the prose statement, Shelley means an afterlife or divine abode, and in the poetic image, he means an atmosphere of clouds and stars. In his later poetry, however, he would mediate between metaphysical and physical inflections of the word; and it is this interplay that I will explore in this essay. "Heaven" was one of Shelley's favorite words, typically capitalized, and the poet used it with a frequency and range of meaning unequaled by his contemporaries or immediate predecessors.3
In the eighteenth century, as Shaun Irlam has shown, the language of religious enthusiasm was frequently translated into the aesthetic realm of poetry, on the wings of what he calls a "rhetoric of heaven."4 By this phrase, Irlam refers to statements that defended poetry as divinely inspired utterance rather than ornamental diversion: James Thomson called it "the peculiar Language of Heaven" in his preface to The Seasons, and Isaac Watts exalted it as "an art inspired in heaven" in his preface to Horae Lyricae.5 Such claims were, in effect, the inverse of the commonplace that Samuel Johnson famously cites in his Dictionary, that words are the daughters of earth and things the sons of heaven.6 Whether it denoted the celestial firmament or a divine realm, "Heaven" was a keyword of the sublime, and some form of religious awe frequently attended it. Coleridge's worshipful address to Mont Blanc in the "Hymn Before Sun-Rise, in the Vale of Chamouni" (1802) is a case in point: "Thou dread ambassador from [End Page 577] Earth to Heaven, / Great Hierarch! tell thou the silent sky, / And tell the stars, and tell yon rising sun, / Earth, with her thousand voices, praises God."7 If, as Thomson claimed, poetic language descends from heaven, it returns, in Coleridge's conceit of celestial diplomacy, to its source. When Shelley pays his own respects to the mountain in "Mont Blanc" (1816), however, he studiously avoids Coleridge's metaphor of worship, and remaps heaven: "The secret strength of things / Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome / Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!" (139–41). Here, heaven is only a limitless sky subordinated to an invisible Power, not to God; and the language of social regulation ("governs," "law") slyly mocks Coleridge's terms of bureaucracy ("ambassador," "Hierarch") in the relation between Heaven and Earth. This revisionary move is typical of Shelley's poetics: to retain "heaven" as a signifier of the sublime while purging it of associations with hierarchy or orthodox piety.
As the vehement attack in the Declaration suggests, there was a strongly political cast to Shelley's concern with heaven. Conceived as a kingdom, heaven merely replicated earthly notions of monarchy, empire, and class privilege; conceived as a divine reward, it enabled a cynical deferral of earthly justice, an illusory coda to life's struggles. Such a critique is made with pithy force in Blake's "Chimney Sweeper" poem in the Songs of Experience, when the young speaker of the title protests that God's priest and king "make up a heaven of our misery."8 The phrase "make up" subtly implies two acts of creation, one ideological, the other material: the imaginative projection of a heavenly reward...