Mary Shelley as editor of the poems of Percy Shelley

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Mary Shelley as editor of the poems of Percy Shelley
When Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) died suddenly just short of his thirtieth birthday, his poetic remains comprised some hardly noticed to printed work and a chaos of manuscript. Through her editing work Mary Shelley (1797-1851) turned that awkward mass into something that laid the foundation for Shelley's status as a corner stone of English Romantic poetry. Her work was scholarship in the modern sense in that she took poems, studied their origins, reviewed variants and produced what were in her view accurate and definitive texts; all subsequent editors have had to acknowledge her work and for most of the century after his death they simply built on it. But there is another different dimension to this work which takes discussion beyond academic literary studies, since her establishing of Shelley's reputation came at the beginning of a time when ideas about the place of education and English Literature were changing. The latter part of the nineteenth century saw a major crisis in religious belief and in the connection between religious belief and morality; literature in turn moved from the study to play a much larger role in the life of a nation which was redefining itself as a world power. Tracking Mary Shelley's editing of Shelley's work gives us valuable insights into the sources of this process.
Editing and Authorship
At the beginning of A Defence of Poetry written a year or so before his death but not published until Mary Shelley's edition of the prose of 1840, Shelley sets out his idea of the poet as first of all 'like an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre', the result is an 'ever changing melody'. But more than this, the poet is not simply a servant of these impressions but works on them to produce 'not melody alone, but harmony'. This can be immediately translated into an image of Mary Shelley and her editing work; through her efforts the 'melody' in the mass of Shelley's unpublished work can sing out in 'harmony', 'prolonging in its voice and motions the duration of the effect'. For Shelley 'to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful'1; should we not see Mary Shelley's aim as to catch the truth and beauty of the poet himself?
But her own work should prompt us to think of these matters in a more complicated way catching the full force of the Romantic idea of creation; from this point of view Shelley's 'to apprehend the true and the beautiful' must be seen as an unrealisable desire rather than a matter of fact. Frankenstein (1818), for example, contains a much darker story of creation. Certainly that story tells of individuals like Shelley's poet over whom 'external and internal impressions are driven', but the lesson here is that the poet like the rest of us must apprehend nightmare alongside truth and beauty2. The possibility that the poet can create harmony must be put beside other darker visions of the creator, of a Frankenstein who loses control and ownership of that which he creates and comes even to despise her/his own creation.
Mary Shelley's editing of Percy Shelley’s poetry cannot be understood without reference to her relationship with Percy Shelley the man and again Frankenstein offers useful metaphors in the stormy closeness of Frankenstein and his creature and the tragic fate of Frankenstein and his beloved Elizabeth. In August 1821 Mary Shelley wrote, 'Need I say that the union between my husband and myself has ever been undisturbed' (Shelley (1980-88) I p.207). The now muted echoes of the events of the preceding three years show this was not a claim that could be made easily. In them we hear of a child born during the winter of 1818/19; the baptism record gives Percy and Mary as the parents but it is clear from Mary's letters and journals that she is not the mother. More certainly Percy is the father of the child, perhaps after an affair with their servant girl. But the rumour is also that the mother was Claire Clairmont, the half-sister of Mary who had travelled with Shelley and Mary pretty constantly since their original elopement3. (The child died in June 1820.) Signs of tensions can be seen elsewhere. In July and August of 1820 Shelley works on his poem The Witch of Atlas. Mary copies the poem for him but without much liking for it. Shelley then adds a prefatory poem 'To Mary' describing her 'objecting to [it] ... upon the score of its containing no human interest' (p.274), but he uses the poem to reassert his own opinion, describing her criticism as a hand reaching out to 'crush the silken-wingèd fly' of his poem. In Frankenstein the struggles between Victor and his creature reach a kind of fulfilment; the suddenness of Shelley's death allowed no such conclusion in Mary Shelley's life. Understanding Mary Shelley's achievement as an editor is then not just a matter of understanding choices about words and the language of the poems; it is to do with things that remained from her life with Shelley, questions of authorship and ownership, memories, and finally her obsessive concern for Percy Florence Shelley, the only child who survived from her five pregnancies of her relationship with Shelley4.
Shelley's drowning stunned Mary, but after a period of grief she set to work, copying for Byron and sifting and painstakingly transcribing the often almost illegible manuscripts left by Shelley5. The result - Posthumous Poems of 1824 - could have been a lasting literary memorial to the man who had had no proper grave and no proper funeral (the hygiene laws in Italy required that his body be burnt where it was brought ashore on the beach near Viareggio). At the risk of over interpreting, Mary Shelley's title - Posthumous Poems - is suggestive of the whole process. It certainly contains the idea that the poetry lives on after the poet's death, and in this respect what is important is the poet's work not the editor's. But it also contains the idea that the poems can only live on through the efforts of someone other than the dead poet; now Mary Shelley is very much to the fore, the book attesting to her authority and to the fact that her relationship with Shelley was the central one. Claire Clairmont, in particular, was at last marginalised.
Mary's satisfaction in her achievement was brief, however, because Posthumous Poems immediately brought her into conflict with Shelley's father, Sir Timothy Shelley. The details here are tortuous but they are important because they show first how dependent Mary Shelley was on Sir Timothy after 1822 and how she was prevented from enjoying any of the 'property' that belonged to her after Shelley's death, be it her son, or money, or the poetry that could be a sign of her relationship with Shelley. Shelley came from a well to do landed family. As was still common at the time, the substantial part of the Shelley inheritance - especially the land and the right to the income from it - passed through the male line, from Sir Timothy to Percy and then to Charles Shelley (Percy's son from his first marriage). Percy Shelley did leave Mary everything he could outside that which was tied up in this way, but his will could only be executed after Sir Timothy's death. Sir Timothy Shelley had been hostile to every bit of his son's life and work and Percy's death provided an opportunity to remove a stain from the family's honour. Mary Shelley was to be shut out of the Shelley family. Shelley's writings and his reputation as a poet were to be suppressed. Percy Florence was to be acknowledged as part of the family but entrusted to some respectable clergyman. Mary Shelley rejected this proposal and in the end Sir Timothy agreed that she could keep Percy Florence and receive an allowance for his needs, but he then used that allowance ruthlessly to get his way. When Mary published the Posthumous Poems he immediately threatened to withdraw the allowance, demanding that she withdraw the book. Mary was sanguine; she wrote 'there is no great harm in this, since he is above 70, & from choice I should not think of writing memoirs now' (Shelley (1980-88) I p.444). Sir Timothy was made of stronger stuff and lived until 1844, so for almost twenty years Mary Shelley had to keep the most important part of her self and her achievement private. Two entries from her journal from 1833 indicate the stress this imposed.
14 Nov. Thursday

I know not what to say, or write, - I know not what to think! - I ought to be content; - in peace, my child - well; - I cannot forget here - Yet reason brings many topics of self congratulation - and hoping no more - wherefore fear I? - my whole Future centred in my boy, why is my heart for ever struggling with Memories ...

Nov. 23

... I am copying Shelley's letters. Great God! What a thing is life! In one of them, he says "The curse of this life is that what we have once known, we cannot cease to know" - and thus is Harrow like the shirt of Nessus to Hercules, to my wounded aching thoughts.

I am going to begin the lives of the Italians - God grant I find lessons during that study to teach & tranquillise my disturbed & sorrowing mind. Ah better than all to find the single drop of thirsted for liquid which may bring Lethe to my soul. Why do I ask what is to be - What better than the past? - & that past - it is torture to think upon6 (Shelley (1987) II pp.531-3).
Here intertwined are the four main strands of the story of Mary's life in the time before she began her major work editing Shelley's poems: the story of knowing and yet being silenced (in Shelley's words, 'what we have once known, we cannot cease to know'); the story of the mother's love for her only surviving son7; the story of Mary Shelley's struggle for the intellectual and material property vested in her Shelley; and finally the story of her struggle to earn money through her own writing.
Shelley's reputation and the public interest in his life and work did not diminish and for twenty years Mary Shelley was trapped between the fact that she was forbidden to publish anything on Shelley herself while the value of her property was always at risk from unauthorised publication8. Sir Timothy's final agreement in 1839 to her editing a volume of Shelley's poems (which was specifically not to include a memoir of his life), came from just the threat of an uncontrollable pirate edition. A letter to her publisher shows how Mary went about what she plainly saw as financial as well as emotional assets, insisting on her authority over Shelley's work and her achievement in creating a coherent collection;
It gives me great pleasure to publish Shelley's poems with you ... I am content with your offer of £200 for the edition of 2,000 - but I should be glad to dispose of my entire interest & for that I think I ought to have £500. I feel sure among other things that the copyright of the Posthumous Poems must be entirely mine. The M.S. from which it was printed consisted of fragments of paper which in the hands of an indifferent person would never have been decyphered - the labour of putting it together was immense - the papers were in my possession & in no other person's (for the most part) the volume might be all in my writing (except that I could not write it) in short it stands to reason, & I think that it is law that a posthumous publication must belong entirely to the editor, if the editor had a legal right to make use of the Ms.-

I think that £500 is not too much to ask for the entire copy rights which I will take pains to render as valuable as I can. I hope you will agree to this additional sum in which case we might at once conclude [an agreement] (Shelley (1980-88) II p.300)

Biography and Interpretation
Why after all these years did Mary Shelley propose the sale of her 'entire copyrights' outright? Maybe after the years of being so relentlessly short of money, the promise of £500 was just too tempting? But maybe, in more ways than one, selling the copyright outright did not reduce Mary Shelley's rights? After all, she still retained the actual Shelley's actual papers and the memories that they brought with them. But more importantly through the edition she created and retained a different and more enduring 'copyright' on Shelley. Sir Timothy had stipulated that there be no memoir of his son; Mary complied in form but circumvented his instruction in practice through the extended and largely biographical notes she wrote for the edition. Biography foregrounds the poet - the man who is 'like an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven' - and becomes in turn the reader's principal means of understanding the poems. (The effect is heightened in the original four volume edition where volumes 3 and 4 are arranged in a series of, as it were, chapters - 'Poems written in 1816', 'Poems written in 1817' etc.) But Mary Shelley's involvement in the story alongside Shelley also foregrounds her own self, showing her equally able to produce 'not melody alone, but harmony' (see p.00 above). The poet Shelley has become Mary Shelley's creation.
How might one characterise Mary Shelley's work as an editor of her Shelley? Sometimes she draws on material in her possession, making the text of the poem conform to what she knew directly was Shelley's own intention. But at other times the difficult circumstances of her life meant that she did not have this direct evidence and then she used her best instincts to conjecture a best reading. Overall, she seems to have had a particular concern for punctuation, editing the poems to conform to her view of proper style. Examples drawn from Adonais and from Alastor can illustrate each of these ways of working in turn.
Adonais (the poem Shelley wrote as a memorial for Keats) was written in Italy in 1821 and Shelley himself supervised the production of a printed edition that year in Pisa. He sent this printed version to Charles Ollier hoping the poem would be published in London, but nothing came of this. In the Pisa edition the latter part of stanza 8 reads as follows
The eternal Hunger sits, but pity and awe
Soothe her pale rage, nor dares she to deface
So fair a prey, till darkness, and the law

Of mortal change, shall fill the grave which is her maw.

In the 1839 edition the last line is different: 'Of change, shall o'er his sleep the mortal curtain draw'. The change here is 'authorised' because Mary Shelley had it direct from Shelley during his lifetime and had indeed secretly supplied it to the pirated Poetical Works of Coleridge, Shelley and Keats published by Galignani in Paris in 1829 (see Shelley (1984) p.22; the provenance of the correction is further reinforced by the existence of letters from Shelley to Charles Ollier in 1821 and 1822 to which Mary also had access.)
Alastor provides an illustration of Mary Shelley making the best of the material to hand. As we now accept it, lines 484 to 488 contain the evocative
But undulating woods, and silent well,
And leaping rivulet, and evening gloom
Now deepening the dark shades, for speech assuming,
Held commune with him, as if he and it
Were all that was;
Shelley himself had this poem printed along with a few others in a slim volume in 1816 in the hope of interesting a publisher in his work. When Mary Shelley included it in her immediately posthumous edition of Shelley's work in 1824, 'leaping' in line 485 by accident emerged as 'reaping'. When she came to re-edit the poem for the 1839 Poetical Works of Shelley she plainly saw that 'reaping' was incorrect but amended it not to 'leaping' but to 'rippling'. Perhaps she thought this was returning the poem to what Shelley preferred but it is as likely that she just did not have a copy of the 1816 printing - there had only ever been 250 copies - and simply changed it to something she thought made poetic sense; 'rippling' certainly parallels 'undulating' in the previous line, and with 'rivulet' creates an alliterative effect appropriate to tumbling water (see Shelley (1975) p.337).
Adonais again provides an example of Mary Shelley editing to implement her own preferences for punctuation; something any editor or even compositor of the time would feel they had every right to do. In the prose preface we see her adding commas usually to mark off clauses more rigidly. Where Shelley has 'a heart made callous by many blows, or one, like Keats's composed of more penetrable stuff', Mary Shelley's edition adds a comma after 'Keats's'. Where Shelley has 'almost risked his own life, and sacrificed every prospect to unwearied attendance upon his dying friend', Mary Shelley adds a comma after 'prospect'. The same thing happens in the poem itself where she adds commas particularly it seems to prompt the reader to notice the end of the line. In effect she is telling us how to read. Modern editions usually discard these additional commas but the effect can be seen in the following examples where her added commas are in square brackets.
God dawned on Chaos; in its steam immersed[,]
The lamps of Heaven flash with a softer light


The leprous corpse[,] touched by this spirit tender[,]
Exhales itself in flowers of gentle breath;
Like incarnations of the stars, when splendour
Is changed to fragrance, they illumine death[,]
And mock the merry worm that wakes beneath;
(Stanzas xix & xx, ll.167-8 and 172-6)
Understanding the importance of punctuation in texts of this time is extremely difficult. Some would argue that punctuation in printed books of this time is so haphazard that it is impossible to draw firm conclusions about the author's or the editor's intentions. Punctuation was regularly just left to the compositor. Maybe also Mary Shelley just took them over from the pirated Galignani edition of 1829 where they also occur? To my mind there remain grounds for thinking that the 'comma-ed' text is Mary Shelley's. She had, after all, secretly supplied material for the Galignani edition and this comma-ed style corresponds directly with her own prose style (see for example Shelley (1826) p.103). Moreover the effect - the controlling of the reader - is directly in line with her overall aim in her Shelley edition.
On the face of it the biographical notes that Mary Shelley added to the poems in 1839 embody a different order of work from that involved in establishing correct texts for the poems themselves, but the two different kinds of work can be brought together. Until 1839 most of the poems existed only in private so Mary Shelley's editing brought them into a public existence. Surely too, the notes bring Shelley himself from his private world into the public domain, shaped and authenticated by her own testimony. And as she edited the poems in accord with her poetic sense, so too through her notes she 'edited' Shelley the man into a form that made sense to her. Sometimes she has factual information about Shelley which she can helpfully pass on to the reader. Following the section 'Poems of 1816' in Volume 3 Mary Shelley writes, 'He spent the summer on the shores of the Lake of Geneva. The 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty' was conceived during his voyage round the lake with Lord Byron. He occupied himself during this voyage, by reading La Nouvelle Heloïse for the first time' (Shelley (1839) 3 p.35). Later in the same volume the note to 'poems written in 1818' tells the reader that 'Rosalind and Helen was begun at Marlow, and thrown aside until I found it; and at my request it was completed ...' (p.159). Something more is going on here, however, for now Mary Shelley herself is claiming a sort of stake in the actual production of the poem. Overall, the notes regularly move beyond the supply of facts to - as it were - interpret Shelley himself and in so doing they foreground the interpreter, Mary Shelley herself, as the author of this coherent narrative of his character. The note to Alastor, for example, uses the poem as a springboard for a more general interpretation and defence of the man and work,
This is neither the time nor place to speak of the misfortunes that chequered his life. It will be sufficient to say that, in all he did, he, at the time of doing it, believed himself justified in his own conscience; while the various ills of poverty and loss of friends brought home to him the sad realities of life. Physical suffering had also considerable influence in causing him to turn his eyes inward ...

The poem ought rather to be considered didactic than narrative: it was the outpouring of his own emotions, embodied in the purest form he could conceive, painted in the ideal lines which his brilliant imagination inspired (Shelley (1839) 1 pp.139-40 & 141-2).

In all this Mary Shelley engaged in some delicate balancing. She and the now 20 year old Percy Florence were still dependent on Sir Timothy and all her work was carried out under his ever hostile eye. She can be seen adjusting things so as not to give offence and risk another proscription9. Her note to the poem 'A Summer Evening Churchyard' refers to its being written 'during his [sic] voyage up the Thames, in the autumn of 1815' (Shelley (1893) III p.16). Sufficient in the circumstances, one might say, and understandable that Mary Shelley passes over the fact that Harriet Westbrook, still Percy's wife, was not with him while Mary herself was - along with her sister Claire Clairmont and Thomas Love Peacock. In the note on The Revolt of Islam Mary writes that, 'He was very fond of travelling ... In 1816 he again visited Switzerland, and rented a house on the banks of the Lake of Geneva' (Shelley (1839) I p.375). The note is true - so far as it goes but is also silent about a good deal. Shelley - still married to Harriet Westbrook - was again travelling with Mary, and with them was Claire Clairmont. The three of them met up with Byron and John Polidori at Lake Geneva not least because they needed to talk to Byron about the fact that Claire was expecting his child (Allegra Byron was born the following year). We pass over too the fact that at Lake Geneva the Shelley/Byron group became themselves a spectacle for other tourists10. It was there too, of course, that Mary Shelley herself began Frankenstein. Perhaps these omissions are just a matter of tact, a desire to remain in the background, but such a conclusion hardly squares with the way elsewhere Mary expresses her feelings very directly.
In the 1839 edition longer pieces, in effect those published in Shelley's lifetime and which he himself probably most valued such as Queen Mab, Alastor, The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound, The Cenci etc., come first. As mentioned above the other poems then become a kind of narrative first of Shelley's life but increasingly also of Mary Shelley's own. Towards the end the notes rise to a climax of emotional intensity; in the note on the poems written in 1821, she writes, 'My task becomes inexpressibly painful as the year draws near that which sealed our earthly fate; and each poem and each event it records has a real or mysterious connection with the fatal catastrophe' (Shelley (1839) 4 p.149). After the 1822 poems she wrote,
[I have] a burning desire to impart to the world, in worthy language, the sense I have of the virtues and genius of the Beloved and the Lost ... Recurrence to the past - full of its own deep and unforgotten joys and sorrows, contrasting with the succeeding years of painful and solitary struggle - has shaken my health ... I dislike speaking of myself, but cannot help apologising to the dead, and to the public, for not having executed in the manner I desired the history I engaged to give of Shelley's writings (Shelley (1839) 4 p.226).
A Romantic Framework
Across the years, surely, we can still feel the power of these words. They carry an authority that springs from direct knowledge and direct feeling. They are 'romantic' in testifying to Mary Shelley's love for Shelley in life and in death. They are also Romantic in the overwhelming emphasis on an 'I' who is creator, and who is tortured by creation (just as Frankenstein is tortured by thoughts of his creation, see p.00 above).
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Mary Shelley's Shelley has had a persisting power. The Oxford Standard Authors Shelley edited by Thomas Hutchinson, for example, is still in print and very commonly available in shops and libraries. This dates substantially from 1904 and was in turn substantially based on the edition produced by H Buxton Forman in 1876-77. In some respects Forman's edition is genuinely different from Mary Shelley's 1839 edition; he followed early printed editions whereas she would always return to the manuscript where that was possible: it did not include her notes. But the arrangement of poems, including the year by year grouping of the shorter poems is preserved there and throughout later editions. Indeed when Buxton Forman came to produce a new edition of his text in 1882 he reintroduced Mary Shelley's notes to be picked up in turn by Hutchinson and to remain in most editions to this day.
Within this broad continuity, one set of changes in editions of Shelley particularly throws the nature of Mary Shelley's project into relief. Her edition begins with a section of 'Early Poems' drawing together his work before 1816. Now when she and Shelley met he was twenty two with Oxford, a marriage to Harriet Westbrook, two children, a novel and a body of poetry already behind him. Moreover barely two years after he and Harriet separated - and probably a good deal because of this - she committed suicide. Needless to say the Westbrook family were as hostile to Shelley and Mary as was Shelley's own father. None of this made it easy for Mary Shelley to feel her collection of Shelley's early work was complete; but her acknowledgement of the problem in the notes is interestingly mixed with an assertion of her own competence and authority,
The loss of nearly all letters and papers which refer to his early life, renders the execution more imperfect than it would otherwise have been. I have [however] the liveliest recollection of all that was done and said during the period of my knowing him. Every impression is as clear as if stamped yesterday, and I have no apprehension of any mistake in my statements as far as they go

(Shelley (1893) I p.xvi, see also III p.16)

In fact, Harriet's family had a notebook which Shelley had used up to 181411. Poems from this manuscript began to appear after William Michael Rossetti somehow had access to it, but significantly almost all later editors from Rossetti on have been so plainly awed by Mary Shelley's edition that they have simply accommodated newly discovered poems into her narrative like structure.
The Romantic framework within which the work surely exists should, however, prompt us to look more widely in understanding the importance of Mary Shelley's Shelley. Again A Defence of Poetry gives a prompt. Shot through as it is with a desire to exalt the imagination, so too it is shot through with a sense of a social mission for poets and poetry, culminating in the famous words of the last paragraph,
The most unfailing herald, companion, or follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry ... Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world (see Wu p.969).
Putting this beside the following passage from Mary Shelley's note on The Witch of Atlas suggests how much this kind of idea was in her mind but also how she judged Shelley's actual achievement,
Shelley did not expect sympathy and approbation from the public; but the want of it took away a portion of the ardour that ought to have sustained him while writing ... I believed that all this morbid feeling would vanish if the chord of sympathy between him and his countrymen were touched. But my persuasions were vain, the mind could not be bent from its natural inclination ... he loved to shelter himself rather in the airiest flights of fancy forgetting love and hate, and regret and lost hope, in such imaginations as borrowed their hues from sunrise and sunset (Shelley (1839) IV pp.51 & 53).
With hindsight what is important here is not so much the diagnosis of Shelley's failure as the way of thinking which links poetry seamlessly on the one hand to the imagination and the personality of the poet and on the other to, in effect, the good of the nation - be it conceptualised in the almost Miltonic terms in 'the awakening of a great people' or in 'the chord of sympathy between him and his countrymen'.
In a project aiming to restore women to their proper place in the canon of nineteenth century thinking and writing, it might be tempting to claim Mary Shelley as originating some new way of thinking and feeling, but the parallel between her thinking and that of Shelley himself makes this hazardous. Better to remember that she was responsible for the first publication of A Defence of Poetry in 1840 and as an important agent in the dissemination later in the century particularly of the notion that literature born of emotion and imagination was as valuable in the forming of nation and empire as rational or mechanical thinking or politics.
As much as anything literature was able to have this effect through the education system and it is therefore apt to note how education was a key element in Mary Shelley's life. As a child she lived in a household where her father and her step-mother wrote and published educational books, she herself wrote at least two improving dramas for children and her non-fictional writing had always a strongly didactic and improving tone. Moreover Mary Shelley was for some years an everyday spectator of the English Public School system; straitened resources meant she could only afford for Percy Florence to be a day boy at Harrow and she lived there with him from 1833 to 1836. At this time English Literature had a smaller part to play in formal education than Classical Literature but ideas about this literature too were changing in a way that was very much in step with the thinking about poetry embodied in Mary Shelley's Shelley12. Crudely and in brief, classical education and scholarship changed from something heavily dependent on philology and the private study of details of the text to something much more to do with the moral education which was increasingly central to the British public school system. The shift is neatly demonstrated in the words of a schoolmaster at Eton around 1840; bemoaning the poor work of his pupil he wrote that if he could not himself produce passable imitations of Greek poetry then he would not become a good man; 'if you do not write good longs and shorts, how can you ever be a man of taste? If you are not a man of taste, how can you ever be of use in the world?' (Brink (1985) pp.148-9). The increasing sense of Britain as a colonial power around this time suggests that we should interpret the last phrase here - 'in the world' - quite widely. The schoolmaster was, after all, speaking five years after Thomas Macauley's Minute on Indian Education had put English Literature and education at the heart of British rule there (a shelf of the kind of books taught in English schools, he said, was worth all of Hindu literature)13. If one puts the schoolmaster's comment alongside Mary Shelley's note on The Witch of Atlas (see p.00 above) one can hardly avoid feeling that in the longer term the 'chord of sympathy' of which she speaks is a more valuable and durable quality than his adherence to 'taste'.
But this positive conclusion about the values put forward by Mary Shelley sits alongside a certain contradiction. Her Shelley is a man of feeling, intellect and imagination and as the years passed he moved closer to the centre of the canon of English poetry, and yet we must also see his life as ultimately one of tragic failure. In his 'Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse' of 1855, for example, Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) one of the most important prophets of culture of the time, presents an image of Shelley which perpetuates Mary Shelley's idea of a Shelley who 'loved to shelter in the aeriest flights of fancy' (see p.00 above) - someone whose work lacks any persisting force to change the world or even to relieve those whose hearts are 'restless' at the problems of the day.
What boots it, Shelley! that the breeze
Carried thy lovely wail away,
Musical through Italian trees
Which fringe thy soft blue Spezzian bay?
Inheritors of thy distress
Have restless hearts one throb the less?
Arnold (1986) p.303).
Through the nineteenth century Mary Shelley's tragically ineffective Shelley seems to become more the norm of what it meant to be a poet, but exactly at the same time writers from the past - Shakespeare, Milton, Virgil - came closer to the centre of moral values, their work key to the creation of harmony in a chaotic world and to a greater moral good. To understand this paradox is to understand that what might describe as political ineffectiveness does not diminish the poet. Arnold perpetuated the Romantic notions of the function of the poet and poetry in Culture and Anarchy and elsewhere; when eventually he identified touchstones of value in great literature that gave meaning to life, his examples dwelt on death and loss, on pain, and on the transience of glory and happiness. These are inward turning values, less the emotions of the triumphant imperial nation and much more like the emotions of the widow. If Arnold can stand as an emblem of the moral force that carried forward the British Empire, then Mary Shelley and her Shelley can stand as emblem of the combination of burning desires, purest form and brilliant imagination which gave that moral force its power.
Arnold, M. (1986), Matthew Arnold[: Poetry and Selected Prose], edited Miriam Allott & R H Super, Oxford, OUP

Brink, C. O. (1985), English Classical Scholarship, Cambridge, James Clarke

St. Clair, W. (1990), The Godwins and the Shelleys: the Biography of a Family, London, Faber

Holmes, R. (1994), Shelley: The Pursuit, London, HarperCollins

Shelley, M. W. (1980-88), Letters, edited Betty T Bennett, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 3 vols.

Shelley, M. W. (1987), Journals 1814-1844, edited Paula R Feldman & Diana Scott-Kilvert, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2 vols.

Shelley, M.W. (1818), Frankenstein, edited by James Rieger, Chicago, Chicago UP, 1982

Shelley, M. W. (1826), The Last Man, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1993

Shelley, P. B. (1824) Posthumous Poems, edited by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, London

Shelley, P B. (1829), The Collected Poems of Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats: Complete in One Volume, Paris, A and W Galignani

Shelley, P. B. (1839), Collected Poems, edited and annotated Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, London, Edward Moxon, 4 vols.

Shelley, P. B (1893), The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited with a memoir by George Edward Woodberry, London, Kegan Paul, 4 vols.

Shelley, P. B. (1907), Poems, edited by Thomas Hutchinson, London, OUP

Shelley, P. B. (1975), Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley Vol. II, ed. Neville Rogers, Oxford, Clarendon Press

Shelley, P. B. (1984), Shelley's 'Adonais': A Critical Edition, edited by Anthony D Knerr, New York, Columbia UP

Shelley, P. B. (1989), The Poems of Shelley Vol. 1 1804-1817, ed. Geoffrey Matthews & Kelvin Everest, London, Longman

Trivedi, H. (1993), Colonial Transactions: English Literature and India, Delhi, Papyrus

Wu, D. (1994), Romanticism: An Anthology, Oxford, Blackwell

1 See Wu (1994) pp.956-7.

2 I am thinking here particularly of the episode in Book 2 when the creature is educated by his secretly observing the De Lacey family (Shelley (1818) p.97ff.).

3 Shelley plainly found Claire attractive. We know also that Mary for her part could sometimes scarcely bear to refer to Claire by name in her Journal, and that 'Heigh-ho the Clare, & the Ma Find something to fight about every day -' (Shelley (1980-88) I p.158).

4 Presenting Mary Shelley's career as an editor in isolation, as I do here, risks confining her within this role. It is important to remember the many other books and stories she published after Shelley's death, not least because they were gave her some independent income. After 1824 she was almost relentlessly busy. Her book length works include The Last Man 1826, (Matilda, 1819, but unpublished inher lifetime), Valperga 1823, Perkin Warbeck 1830, Lodore 1835, Faulkner 1837, Lives of the most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain and Portugal Vols. 1-2 1835, Lives of the most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of France Vols. 1-2 1838-9, Rambles in Germany and Italy 1844. In addition she produced many short stories, particularly for The Keepsake annual.

5 'After all I spend a great deal of time in solitude. I have been hitherto fully occupied in preparing Shelley's MSS - it is now complete & the poetry alone will make a large Volume' (Shelley (1980-88) I p.404, Nov 27 1823).

6 The second entry refers to the possibility of the publication of an edition of Shelley's letters. That there was talk of Mary receiving £600 for such an edition is a sign of the extent to which publication of his work could by this time have given her an independent income.

7 This story acquired a new twist when Percy Florence's step brother Charles Shelley died in 1826 leaving him no longer the poor relation but the heir.

8 At least twice after 1824 Mary's allowance was stopped on suspicion of her having colluded with a publisher in a book about Shelley.

9 The poems are also censored but usually in a more public way. In Queen Mab, words that could only refer to Sir Timothy were replaced with an ellipsis mark (...) and a similar tactic was used to conceal Shelley's association with Mary Shelley's dangerously radical father William Godwin.

10 'We passed the house in which lord Byron lives in a sullen and disgraceful seclusion ... Besides his servants, his only companions are two wicked women' wrote one (quoted St. Clair p.405).

11 This manuscript, known as the Esdaile notebook, did not come fully into the public domain until 1962.

12 Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley shared a love for Classical literature - Mary learnt Greek from Percy in the early years of their relationship and throughout their lives turned to Greek and Latin literature for inspiration and consolation.

13 See, here, for example Trivedi (1993) p.73ff.

Shelley (5.3)


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