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ELH 70.3 (2003) 813-845
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Sterne, Shelley, and Sensibility's Pleasures of Proximity
There are very few writers who combat both ideological repression and libidinal repression.
In 1828 Percy Shelley's essay "On Love" (1818)—composed in the same year that his wife, Mary Shelley, published Frankenstein—appeared in the popular poetic giftbook of the day, the Keepsake for 1829. These annuals, consumed largely by middle-class women, contained verse and prose intended to illustrate the elegantly engraved plates (often portraits of fashionable, aristocratic women) that served as the main attraction to the volumes. In addition to the illustrations, patrons were wooed by the high quality of paper, bindings, cover, and dedication plates, all of which were designed as ornate and decorative hooks to lure subscribers. On top of these attractions, the giftbooks featured aristocratic editors like Lady Blessington and celebrity authors like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, Thomas Moore, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Letitia Landon. As Peter Manning notes, such collections, especially after the elegant innovations of the Keepsake, clearly functioned first and foremost as status-denoting gifts rather than as books one actually read. 1 Or more accurately, what was read were first and foremost the portraits, subscribers, and contributors; in other words, the signs of status with which those who wished to be in the know needed to be familiar.
In Percy Shelley's case, status was also very much in play for the celebrity contributor himself, since this essay and the poems that appear in the annual are all posthumous pieces (Shelley died in 1822) provided by his widow. Percy and Mary Shelley thus collaborate here, as they do elsewhere, to establish the authorial persona of the (in)famous poet, and, in particular, to revise it as one thoroughly suffused in the refined sentiment manufactured by and for a deeply [End Page 813] feeling (sentimental) female audience of giftbook patrons. While this is in part a clear attempt to rehabilitate the current reputation of the bad boy poet, as well as a necessary economic supplement for Mary Shelley, it does not—in feeding both of these needs—simply play to the current tastes of the market of the 1820s. In fact, Mary Shelley's strategic contextualizing of her late husband's work (regardless of what his own intentions for these pieces might have been) is less a debasement of his genius, as critics of an earlier era argued, than it is consummately true to its spirit. What Percy Shelley's essay makes clear, especially to its contemporary audience, is that his "true heart-faith," as the Athenaeum response calls it, is indebted to his predecessor writers of Sensibility, and particularly to Laurence Sterne. 2
[A]re we not all relations?
The central concern of Percy Shelley's "On Love" is the exploration of the nature of love, executed, as one would expect, quite poetically. Shelley begins by addressing the question—"What is Love?"—as fundamentally unanswerable, beyond the powers of language, and perhaps even of clear conception. "Ask him who lives," he continues, "what is life; ask him who adores what is God." 3 Interestingly, as the essay proceeds we come to see that these are not merely questions analogously difficult or impossible to answer, but analogous in importance as well. Ultimately, Shelley's piece suggests that they may be the same question articulated in three different ways, since the essence of love, and life, and God are essentially the same. Given the way in which he casts this exploration, we can also say that in the end this worldly trinity is synonymous with what eighteenth-century writers called Sensibility, drawn in part from the figure of the "Sensorium" that writers like Sterne invoked by bringing Heaven down to earth, and in the conflation of the two, associating both with the "eternal fountain of our feelings" and the source of the "divinity which stirs within." 4 Drawn from Ephraim Chambers's popular Cyclopaedia, which also feeds the musings of Walter Shandy in Sterne's earlier Life and Opinions of...