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Reviewed by:
  • Laon and Cythna ed. by Anahid Nersessian
  • Madeleine Callaghan
Laon and Cythna. Edited by Anahid Nersessian. Peterborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2016. Pp. 304. Paper, $24.95; Ebook, $15.95.

Anahid Nersessian dedicates this fine edition to her students. This, in a nutshell, encapsulates the importance of the project. Nersessian's scholarly yet accessible edition finally makes Laon and Cythna affordable for students to purchase, for instructors to assign, and for fans of Shelley outside academia to buy and enjoy. But this is to understate what Nersessian has achieved. Her lucid and intelligent introduction offers information on the poet, Laon and Cythna, and its contexts (contexts ranging from history to poetic form); a useful timeline of events in Shelley's life; and a fulsome set of appendices (Appendix A: Shelley's Political and Philosophical Prose; Appendix B: Correspondence about Laon and Cythna; Appendix C: Contemporary Reviews of The Revolt of Islam; Appendix D: Revising the Romance; Appendix E: The Rights of Women; Appendix F: Romantic Orientalism; Appendix G: Mary Shelley's 'Note on The Revolt of Islam'), before Works Cited and a select bibliography.

In "A Note on the Text," Nersessian recognizes that the difference between Laon and Cythna and The Revolt of Islam is slight. Though claiming to prefer the latter, she chooses to use the text of the former because it was Shelley's initial choice and because it will be "especially useful to students of Romanticism" (p. 37). She includes the textual variants in The Revolt of Islam in footnotes. Noting the importance of The Poems of Shelley: Volume Two (2000) and The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Volume III (2012) to her own edition, along with the relevant Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts, Nersessian tacitly acknowledges the very different emphasis of her edition from her predecessors. The Johns Hopkins edition, The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Volume III, published most recently of her listed sources, stands at 1084 pages, and includes the recently discovered and hitherto unpublished only known draft of Canto III of Laon and Cythna; its lengthy commentary (by Michael Neth) is unparalleled in its detail. Nersessian's edition does not compete with Neth's; she is doing something different. Nersessian includes so much rich material that all readers will be impressed by her achievement.

The edition has some flaws. Nersessian's personal enjoyment of Laon and Cythna can lead her to misrepresent its significance. It seems at least a little odd to see the poem referred to in the first sentence of the introduction, without any caveats, as "one of the three great epic poems of the Romantic period" (p. 9). Admiration for the poem is one thing, and a thing to be hoped for in an editor, but to represent Laon and Cythna to its readership as a poem that is just as accomplished and venerated as The Prelude and Don Juan is hyperbole, and unnecessary hyperbole at that. Within the same paragraph, Nersessian admits that the poem [End Page 186] "is hardly read except by scholars," which rather seems to undermine her own opening gambit (p. 9). More broadly, the introduction's interesting brief section on "Reviving the Romance" would have benefited from a little more attention to formal questions, especially in view of the editor's strength in this area. Another serious omission is the deleted opening of Laon and Cythna, lines otherwise known as "Frail clouds arrayed in sunlight lose the glory." Though often overlooked by critics, these lines, as Earl R. Wasserman and Michael O'Neill have shown elsewhere, are deeply significant in terms of Shelley's assumption of poetic authority and his engagement with religion.

Nonetheless, this edition of Laon and Cythna is of vital significance for the study of Romantic literature in the longer rather than the shorter term. Thanks to the edition's price, it may be taught in full to undergraduates and graduate students. This new exposure may inspire a future generation of Shelley scholars to re-evaluate the poem and afford it greater prominence in the Shelley and the wider Romantic canon. Nersessian's enthusiasm for the poem, communicated in her lively introduction and judiciously chosen appendices, has done...


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