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  • Epipsychidion as a Posthumous Fragment
  • Suzanne L. Barnett

Percy Bysshe Shelley's early, bawdy pamphlet containing "Fragment: Supposed to be an Epithalamium of Francis Ravaillac and Charlotte Cordé" (1810) prefigures a fascination in his mature work, Epipsychidion (1821),1 with the possibility of lovers' posthumous union.2 Such a solemn trajectory could not have been anticipated by the first audience of "Epithalamium," Shelley's classmates at Oxford, at whom were aimed the sophomoric doubles entendres in the wedding song of two infamous regicides who lived centuries apart. The fact that Epipsychidion is prefigured by a collegiate poem jostling necrophilia and revolution not only reminds us of standard expositions of the interpretation of satiric, elegiac, and prophetic modes in Romanticism but also suggests that the term "posthumous fragment" applies equally well to both poems, even though Shelley uses it explicitly only for the first.3 By attending to the term "posthumous fragment," my analysis expands Romanticists' working taxonomy of fragments and restores something like Shelley's own vocabulary to present-day scholarship on Shelley and the posthuman.

Shelley published "Epithalamium" in a sixteen-page pamphlet (for which his publishers were never paid).4 By the title Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, Shelley fictively attributes the work to a mentally disturbed laundress who in 1786 attacked George III with a [End Page 89] dessert knife, proclaiming herself the rightful monarch (a fellow Oxonian describes Shelley as having been "desperately in love with the memory of Margaret Nicholson" in 1811).5 In an additional fiction, the title announces a counterfactual death for Nicholson, who was then, as Shelley knew, enjoying "green vigour within the walls of Bedlam."6 Shelley's assassin-bride bears the name of Charlotte Corday, who in 1793 stabbed to death the Jacobin journalist Jean-Paul Marat. William Godwin reminded his generation about François Ravaillac's 1610 assassination of France's Henry IV, so the seventeenth-century regicide was near at hand for Shelley to enlist as his bridegroom. As Nora Crook observes, the murders committed by these idealists "unleashed worse violence," and Shelley joins Godwin in attempting a vindication of their motives.7 In "Epithalamium," these assassins from different centuries enjoy a posthumous marriage; indeed, their "friend[]" Satan welcomes them "home" and officiates at their wedding (line 68), where they are feted by a chorus of spirits and reply with a salacious duet.8

My linking "Epithalamium" and Epipsychidion here clarifies the implied conceit that Epipsychidion is also a posthumous fragment. Shelley's several drafts of Epipsychidion's Advertisement differ in some particulars but all share the idea that the poem is posthumously published and that it introduces a longer work, as yet incomplete.9 The Advertisement to Epipsychidion is Shelley's only one besides Posthumous Fragments to present the poem as its author's posthumously published work. Thus Shelley presents Epipsychidion, like "Epithalamium," as a posthumous fragment, rather than as a completed poem.10 As a fragment, [End Page 90] and a posthumous one at that, Epipsychidion challenges Marjorie Levinson's widely-accepted taxonomy of Romantic-period fragment poems as established in The Romantic Fragment Poem (1986): to Levin-son's "true fragment," the "completed fragment," the "deliberate fragment," and the "dependent fragment," we might add Epipsychidion as a "fictional" or "imaginary fragment."11

Both "Epithalamium" and Epipsychidion rely on Dante for imagining posthumous love, yet both posthumous fragments reject Christianity, specifically, the version of Christianity associated in Britain with the pastoral mode. Epipsychidion's experiments with non-human "Titanic" time (line 494) and with "idealized history"12 register Shelley's frustration with love-denying, ordinary human time. "Epithalamium" and Epipsychidion, situated at either end of Shelley's career, suggest that alongside the Shelleyan posthuman, an impulse that crosses boundaries between the living and the dead, exists this Shelleyan pre-human or even antihuman, an acknowledgement that the desire that makes us the most human and alive is actually impossible when we are alive.

Shelley's admiration for Dante is well known; A Defence of Poetry likens his poetry to a "bridge thrown over the stream of time, which unites the modern and antient world" (SPP, p. 526). Dante's authority on erotic love...


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