- The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Volume III ed. by Donald H. Reiman, Neil Fraistat, and Nora Crook
The contents of volume three of The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley ‘mark an era’, in the words of the Editorial Overview, that runs roughly from 1814 (when Shelley left Harriet Westbrook Shelley) to March 1818 (when Shelley left England), and its focus on the pivotal period where Shelley came into his poetic maturity makes it compelling reading. The sustained power and invention of the poetry is charted throughout this meticulously edited volume, as the editors carefully reveal the processes that created the poetry, from the most celebrated poems to often neglected works, such as the Scrope Davies Notebook’s ‘To Laughter’. Containing the poems featured in the Alastor volume, the poetry appearing in the Scrope Davies Notebook and the Smaller Silsbee Account Book, his longest poem, Laon and Cythna, and three sonnets [End Page 199] (including ‘Ozymandias’ and a translation of Cavalcanti’s sonnet to Dante), this volume is a massive undertaking that scrupulously traces the genesis, transmission and reception of the poems. The editors have also included the recently discovered and hitherto unpublished only known draft of Canto III of Laon and Cythna, and appendices include the revisions of that poem which transformed it into The Revolt of Islam.
The editorial principles are clearly expressed, and remain in keeping with the previous two volumes, with a careful explanation appended of authorities considered to be primary for the purposes of the volume. The new volume welcomes a new General Editor, Nora Crook, who joins Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. The Associate Editors are distinguished Shelley and Romanticism scholars, Stuart Curran, Michael J. Neth and Michael O’Neill; with David Brook-shire as Assistant Editor (the acknowledgements specify which editor is responsible for each component of the project). (The present reviewer should declare an interest, having acted as a research assistant on the project for a period.) The commentaries fulfil their primary purpose of providing information, but, in the process, they also suggest the agile sensitivity of Shelley’s poetry to a variety of interpretative possibilities. The depth with which the editors discuss various textual points of interest, variants, interpretations, and sources offers a wealth of opportunities to the reader. The overview to Canto V of Laon and Cythna offers a useful example of the kind of critical judgement displayed by the editors: ‘[f]or these reasons, Canto V is the sine qua non of L&C, a monument to PBS’s combined talents as a lyric poet, complex thinker, and radical reformer’. This confident summary of Shelley’s achievement in this canto invites the reader to assess the claim as they read the canto even as it provides a clear critical judgement of the poetry. Michael Neth, who edited Laon and Cythna and its Supplements, provides astute and full critical commentary throughout the 4,818-line epic.
The fullness of the commentaries distinguishes the volume from competing volumes; for example, stanza 24 from Canto V receives some two full pages of explanation which clarifies the debate surrounding difficult, though important, lines. By maintaining such sharp and detailed focus on the language of Shelley’s poetry, the intellectual underpinnings of the poetry, and tracing the critical heritage surrounding his work, the editors reveal the poetry’s nuance and complexity. The intensity of Shelley’s imaginative engagement with language charges his poetry, and lines from Laon and Cythna suggest his attempt to create a language capable of sustaining its own inner reality:
‘And on the sand would I make signs to rangeThese woofs, as they were woven, of my thought;Clear, elemental shapes, whose smallest changeA subtler language within language wrought:The key of truths which once were dimly taughtIn old Crotona; – and sweet melodiesOf love, in that lorn solitude I caughtFrom mine own...