- The Oxford Handbook of Percy Bysshe Shelley ed. by Michael O’Neill and Anthony Howe
To cite Percy Bysshe Shelley as ‘an intellectually and artistically multifaceted figure’ and to claim that ‘various Shelleys can be discerned at present’ – as Michael O’Neill does in his introduction to the Oxford Handbook – may seem a somewhat empty gesture. Which important poet is not multi-faceted? Yet, this is the Shelley who begged in incantation that the wind should ‘scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth / Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind’. How can one recollect these words? There is indeed a particularly Shelleyan multiplicity, mutability and mobility that runs through his oeuvre. His voice, as O’Neill’s later essay on the slipperiness of pronouns argues, is not tied to a dominant poetical ‘I’, but speaks from a set of texts far larger and arguably more diverse than, say, Keats. We are used to narratives of apostasy from commitment to disengagement centred on Shelley’s forbears, but Shelley could somehow be both radically political and radically apolitical at the same time (Arnold’s Shelley versus Chartist Shelley, for instance). And, as the tropes of ash and spark suggest, Shelley’s words are frequently at least threefold: rooted in their historical present, often in an ethically intense and politically critical present, but also echoing with the ghosts of the past (particularly the classical past) and hurtling towards a horizon of future potentiality. With more and more Shelley material finally becoming accessible (see, for instance, Alan Weinberg and Timothy Webb’s 2009 Unfamiliar Shelley collection), the task of encompassing Shelley and pouring him into a single mould is, if anything, increasingly difficult.
Written using a larger complement of critics than the (broadly) rival Cambridge Companion series, O’Neill and Anthony Howe have an enviable range of contributors to achieve the dual task of presenting the reader with some coherent overview of Shelley and yet also respecting the multiplicity which may inhere in even his smallest units (a lyric, a line, a word). Such a task begins with a series of incisive biographical chapters, including one by Nora Crook engaging with the difficult matter of Shelley’s relationships with women, and Stephen Behrendt’s valuably concrete account of Shelley, his publishers and print culture. Part II turns to prose (and through prose, ideas and philosophies) and the best of these essays lay out convincing précis whilst also complicating basic narratives. Thus, for example, Michael Scrivener acknowledges the centrality of anarchism to Shelley’s political thought whilst also attesting to currents of civic republicanism and Whiggism. Similarly, Anthony Howe discusses the oft-evoked shift from materialism to scepticism, but argues ultimately that a more accurate interpretation is of a transition from systematicity to a more poetically and linguistically engaged philosophy. One of the most impressive pieces in this section is Paul Hamilton’s theorisation of ‘restricted’ and ‘unrestricted’ poetry (terms taken, of course, from The Defence of Poetry) whereby poetry in the latter sense must break its own bounds, move beyond itself, and become something else. Nuanced and persuasive, it continues a strand of thinking that Hamilton has pursued in books like Metaromanticism (2003) and Coleridge and German Philosophy (2007).
The poetry is then tackled in twelve essays that move from the draft notebooks to the late poems, using a combined chronological and generic approach. Although this organisation is similar to other volumes in the series, there is definitely a formalist impulse running through this central section, which headings like ‘lyrical drama’ and ‘sonnets and odes’ reinforce. Intertextual and linguistic concerns are repeatedly foregrounded, albeit a language often strange and uncertain, marked by a capacity to dissolve itself and languages around it. From Jerrold [End Page 202] Hogle’s reading of the visionary as the unfixing of sources, traditions and modes to Anthony Howe’s reading of familiar modes (popular, epistolary and dialogic styles) always uncannily out of synchronisation with themselves, this imprint is carried through much of this...