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  • Shelley's Poetics of Evanition
  • Jack Rooney (bio)

Romantic poetics is suddenly awash in temporalities. Time, so long a problem of either history or prosody, has migrated to the middle ground of poetics itself. Some of these temporalities have descended on Romanticism from great generic heights, like Jonathan Culler's influential notion of a "lyric present," or the "event" of the lyric, which is meant to convey an "iterable now."1 Other times are rumored to grow from Romanticism's own roots. Of these, one now encounters irreconcilable myriads, including, in only the past five years, Romantic temporalities of decline,2 of suspension,3 and even of "future anteriority."4 These proliferating temporalities might signify a temporal turn, but they also leave one with the bewildering sense of a temporal tourbillion.

Hidden in this seeming variety, however, is a curious uniformity privileging the present, albeit an iterated, declining, or suspended present. Moreover, though these species of the lyric present may serve well enough in treating any number of Keatsian urns, nightingales, or Homers—which these studies often take as their exemplary objects—the poetic time of Percy Bysshe Shelley's work eludes such temporalities. [End Page 168] Although this lapse of explanatory power might be taken to imply that Shelley's poetic practice renounces lyric immediacy in favor of more ambivalent encounters with history, the distinction is deeper still.

Shelley in fact gives a lucid account of his own sense of poetic temporality in a much-anthologized but oft-misread lyric: "Music, when soft voices die, / Vibrates in the memory."5 This evanescing, though not yet vanished, sense impression recurs with startling, though unremarked, regularity throughout Shelley's corpus. The lyric's perceptions living "within the sense they quicken" (line 4), for instance, recall the unaccomplished disappearances, or what may be termed evanition, of elemental spirits throughout Prometheus Unbound (1820), of which Panthea characteristically observes, "Only a sense / Remains of them" (I, lines 801–2). Even one of the formative Shelleyan metaphors for poetic inspiration in A Defence of Poetry, the "fading coal," participates in this evanishing temporality (SPP, 531). If Keatsian slow time has become naturalized as a remote lyric present, then acknowledging evanition, the Shelleyan poetic temporality of the near-past, troubles an unexamined paradigm at the heart of the new temporal turn.

Jack Rooney

Jack Rooney is a doctoral candidate in English at The Ohio State University whose research focuses on nineteenth-century poetry and poetics, Gothic literature, and subjectivity.


1. Jonathan Culler, Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 14–15, 35–36, 283–95; emphasis in original.

2. See Jonathan Sachs, The Poetics of Decline in British Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

3. See Anne C. McCarthy, Awful Parenthesis: Suspension and the Sublime in Romantic and Victorian Poetry (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018).

4. See Emily Rohrbach, Modernity's Mist: British Romanticism and the Poetics of Anticipation (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 1–2, 6.

5. Percy Bysshe Shelley, "To——" ["Memory"], in Shelley's Poetry and Prose, 2nd ed., ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), lines 1–2. All Shelley texts are quoted from this edition (hereafter, SPP).



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