Shelleyan Eros: The Rhetoric of Romantic Love

Shelleyan Eros: The Rhetoric of Romantic Love

by William A. Ulmer


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Shelleyan Eros: The Rhetoric of Romantic Love by William A. Ulmer

In this work William Ulmer boldly advances our understanding of Shelley's concept of love by exploring eros as a figure for the poet's political and artistic aspirations. Applying a combination of deconstructive, historicist, and psychoanalytic approaches to six major poems, Ulmer follows the logic of the writing's rhetoric of love by tracing links between such elements as imagination, eros, metaphor, allegory, mirroring, repetition, death, and narcissism. Ulmer takes the mutual desire of self and antitype as a paradigm for rhetorical and social relations throughout Shelley and, in a significant departure from critical consensus, argues that his poetics were predominantly idealist.Ulmer demonstrates how the idealism of Shelleyan eros centers on a symbiosis of contraries organized as a dialectical variation of metaphor. In so doing, he contends that this idealism is both a rhetorical construct and revolutionary agency, and traces the failure of Shelley's visionary humanism to the gradual emergence of contradictions latent in his idealism. What emerges are new readings of individual texts and a reconsideration of the poet's imaginative development.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691600376
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
Pages: 202
Product dimensions: 9.90(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.60(d)

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Shelleyan Eros

The Rhetoric of Romantic Love

By William A. Ulmer


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06829-9



This spiritual Love acts not nor can exist Without Imagination.

—Wordsworth, The Prelude

If angels have reason to blush, as did Milton's "rosy red" Raphael (Paradise Lost 8.619), angelic poets surely must as well. And if caricatures of Shelley as an "ineffectual angel" have been thoroughly discredited, it should prove that much easier to appreciate the materialist investments of his idealism—its strong grasp of the physical sciences, its political conversancies, and its commitment to bodily passion. Shelleyan love can hardly be reduced to eros. Yet the poet himself declared sexual intercourse "the link and type of the highest emotions of our nature," and commonly represented the range of human relationships "by categories which are patently derived from erotic attraction and sexual union." For Shelley the psychology of desire cannot be dissociated from even the most sublime adoration, nor can it be dissociated from imaginative issues. Shelley's poetics correlates love and imagination as variant forms of each other: the "great secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature.... A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively." If Yeats himself deemed Shelley's poetry "the poetry of desire," he did so not just because the poems are about desire but because, in their distinctly Shelleyan imaginativeness, they appear to be linguistic con figurations of desire. Yeats's respect for Shelley is verbal, a respect compelled by continual rediscovery in sacred books such as Prometheus Unbound of "words that have gathered up the heart's desire of the world."

These words make up a rhetoric of Romantic love. They subject eros, as Shelley's virtuosity grows, to figurations of extraordinary complexity and beauty. Nowhere more clearly than in Shelley does one find warrant for Paul de Man's equation of "the rhetorical, figural potentiality of language with literature itself." Of course, Shelley thoroughly appreciated the conceptual problems raised by poetic tropes. He inherited a philosophical tradition stressing the referential arbitrariness of the sign, studied contemporary linguistic theorists such as Monboddo and Horne Tooke, had Asia proclaim the priority of speech to thought (Prometheus Unbound 2.4.72), and acknowledged verbal inadequacies in poem after poem. Instructively, one of the most frank of such acknowledgments, "These words are inefficient and metaphorical—Most words so—No help," appears in a note to his fragment "On Love" (474). In this essay Shelley's association of love and language ends by implicating philosophy in rhetoric and by demanding that a poem's moral or political analysis of love be gauged against the performance of its language as a mode of love. "On Love" locates desire in the self's thirst for an antitypical complement, a beautiful other pursued for its promise of wholeness. By adding this erotic model to its confession of metaphorical inefficiency, "On Love" grounds Shelley's poetics in contradiction. Shelley's career was largely an exploration of the artistic possibilities of this contradiction.

The Erotic Supplement

The importance of the problem of language for Shelley's treatment of desire can be inferred from the relationship of "On Love" to its Platonic model. Shelley wrote "On Love" in late July 1818, shortly after finishing his elegant translation of The Symposium and shortly before beginning his Discourse on the Manners of the Antient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love, an essay seemingly intended as an introduction to the translation. Clearly, "On Love" emerged from a period of sustained immersion in Platonic philosophy and "should be read as Shelley's response to Plato's Symposium." The human race, Aristophanes claims in one of the best-known passages of The Symposium, consisted originally of anatomically doubled androgynous beings whom Jupiter prudently cut in half. "Immediately after this division," says Aristophanes,

as each desired to possess the other half of himself, these divided people threw their arms around and embraced each other, seeking to grow together.... From this period, mutual Love has naturally existed in human beings; that reconciler and bond of union of their original nature, which seeks to make two, one, and to heal the divided nature of man. ... Whenever, therefore, any such as I have described are impetuously struck, through the sentiment of their former union, with love and desire and the want of community, they are ever unwilling to be divided even for a moment. These are they who devote their whole lives to each other, with a vain and inexpressible longing to obtain from each other something they know not what; for it is not merely the sensual delights of their intercourse for the sake of which they dedicate themselves to each other with such serious affection; but the soul of each manifestly thirsts for, from the other, something which there are no words to describe, and divines that which it seeks, and traces obscurely the footsteps of its obscure desire.... The desire and pursuit of integrity and union is that which we all love.

Here in turn are the analogous passages from "On Love":

[Love] is that powerful attraction towards all that we conceive or fear or hope beyond ourselves when we find within our own thoughts the chasm of an insufficient void and seek to awaken in all things that are, a community with what we experience within ourselves.... We are born into the world and there is something within us which from the instant that we live and move thirsts after its likeness.... We dimly see within our intellectual nature a miniature as it were of our entire self, yet deprived of all that we condemn or despise, the ideal prototype of every thing excellent or lovely that we are capable of conceiving as belonging to the nature of man. Not only the portrait of our external being, but an assemblage of the minutest particulars of which our nature is composed: a mirror whose surface reflects only the forms of purity and brightness: a soul within our soul that describes a circle around its proper Paradise which pain and sorrow and evil dare not overleap. To this we eagerly refer all sensations, thirsting that they should resemble or correspond with it. (473–74)

"On Love" and the androgynous myth of The Symposium concur in viewing desire as an impulse to reunify sundered psychic complements. Yet the Aristophanic and Shelleyan accounts of love (themselves each other's antitype) also differ significantly. Their differences can be summed up by observing that the words "likeness," "portrait," "mirror," "resemble," and "correspond"—so crucial to Shelley's sense of the relationship of self and antitype—are entirely missing from the relevant passages of The Symposium as he translated it. The role accorded similitude in "On Love" is hardly original in Shelley, needless to say. But his repeated insistence on the likeness of lovers, especially in so short an essay, testifies to his deeply felt commitment to the idea. Shelley's poetry affords similar testimony. As the "veiled maid" of Alastor has a voice "like the voice of [the Poet's] own soul / ... Herself a poet" (11. 153, 161), so Laon declares of Cythna, "As mine own shadow was this child to me, / A second self" (The Revolt of Islam, PW, 11. 874–75); as Asia and Prometheus describe themselves as the shadows of each other's souls, so the speaker of Epipsychidion addresses Emily as a "soul out of my soul" (1. 238). Arising as a pursuit of integral likeness, Shelleyan eros is metaphorically constituted and structured. For Shelley, Jerrold E. Hogle remarks, "love is the action of metaphor inhabiting our deepest emotional drives."

Shelley's idealization of love requires an idealization of metaphor as the vehicle for emotional closure and union. When the speaker of Epipsychidion declares "I am not thine: I am a part of thee" (1. 52), he affirms metaphor's power to organize difference into identity. Because such identity reharmonizes separated counterparts, Shelley's sense of metaphor invests it with synecdochical and symbolic powers. Since imagination signifies "the principle of synthesis" and poetic language must be "vitally metaphorical," tropes of similitude assume the obligations of unity (Defence of Poetry, 480, 482). Metaphor reconciles tenor and vehicle "As a lover or a chameleon / Grows like what it looks upon" (Prometheus Unbound 4.483–84), acting as the trope of a symbolism that (as Coleridge wrote) "always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is the representative." In the Defence of Poetry, similarly, imagination employs an incarnating poetics that "reproduces all that it represents" so as to "unveil the permanent analogy of things by images which participate in the life of truth" (487, 485). Returned to their contexts in Shelley's essay, these phrases assume positions in an eclectic argument more complex and empirical than I indicate here. Yet that empiricism neither nullifies nor fully controls the residual idealism of Shelley's faith in the reconciliatory power of poetry. By no means does the skepticism of the Defence of Poetry absolve Shelleyan figuration of the "inseparability of the nature of metaphor from the metaphysical chain."

What results, ironically, is a unitive poetics divided against itself. The divisions and contradictions are legacies of a metaphorical idealism. By nominating metaphor as the imagination's harmonizing mechanism, Shelley inscribes metaphor with the larger contradictions of his antithetical vision. He slights metaphor's presupposition of absence and difference; he tries to make metaphor do too much. The problem refers ultimately to the discrepant roles accorded antitypes in Shelley's appropriation of The Symposium. Indebted to Plato yet dedicated to resemblance, "On Love" pursues an impossible negotiation of completion and similitude. In Shelley, antitypes "must be inadequate because they are not what they should duplicate and because what they should match is itself dependent on them for self-completion." The antitype's inadequacy betrays the reliance of Shelleyan eros on what Derrida calls the "logic of the supplement":

The concept of the supplement ... harbors within itself two significations whose cohabitation is as strange as it is necessary. The supplement adds itself, it is a surplus, a plenitude enriching another plenitude, the fullest measure of presence.... But the supplement supplements. It adds only to replace. It intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it is as if one fills a void. If it represents and makes an image, it is by the anterior default of a presence.

The Shelleyan antitype supplements the self by filling an interior insufficiency, functioning as an interlocking opposite completing the self. Yet the antitype also corresponds to the self, acting as its essential "likeness." So the antitype resembles and completes the self, but can complete the self only by differing from it, by possessing what the self lacks.

This impasse illustrates the paradoxes of mirroring, since the erotic supplement is the self's specular avatar. Shelley employs specular models to figure the relation of self and other in "On Love"—where the antitype acts as "a mirror whose surface reflects only the forms of purity and brightness" (474)—but returns to them throughout his love poetry as well. In all of these poems, specularity prevents desire from transcending the otherness of the antitype because mirroring transposes the symmetrical axes of representation. Shelleyan eros arises through a specular encounter reversing the self into its mirror image. In this mirror stage the role of the (at first) necessarily unrecognizable other ensures the ineluctable otherness of desire. Desire alienates the subject by inscribing it with the difference and insufficiency that produces it: the reflected other "is that which introduces 'lack' and 'gap' into the operations of the subject and which, in doing so, incapacitates the subject for selfhood, or inwardness, or apperception, or plenitude; it guarantees the indestructibility of desire by keeping the goals of desire in perpetual flight." It makes love go on until it is stopped, and prevents it from stopping. From this perspective, all images of closure and fusion, including the unity of Shelleyan lovers, are backward configurations of an inaugural harmony that cannot be reattained because it never existed.

As a result, Shelley's affirmations of correspondence and concord do violence to the truth, or expose the violence of truth. His amatory ideal memorializes a metaphorical imperialism founded on the repression of difference. Shelleyan desire doubles itself through attempted appropriations of otherness. Although envisioned as the male self's feminine complement, the Shelleyan antitype—supplement and specular image—is a variant of the double as well. For Shelley, "writing is a kind of doubling in which the author's self is reconstituted within the realm of language as the Other, a narcissistic mirroring of the self." Doubles are always the progeny of repression, projections outside the self of inadmissible impulses and secret guilt. Obligated to the dynamics of doubling, Shelleyan eros corroborates Otto Rank's claim that "the double is the rival of his prototype in anything and everything, but primarily in the love for woman," and shows that even supernal love arises in the wake of power, created by economies of force and resistance, banishment and return. Desire modeled on doubling disseminates violence, remaking the double as an "uncanny harbinger of death." Erotic realization in Shelley frequently occurs as an apotheosis of violence in death. The association of eros and death is of course traditional in Western culture, but Shelley's representations of desire insistently ask readers,

Heardst thou not, that those who die
Awake in a world of extacy?
That love, when limbs are interwoven,
And sleep, when the night of life is cloven,
And thought, to the world's dim boundaries clinging,
And music, when one beloved is singing,
Is death?

(Rosalind and Helen, CW, ll. 1123–29)

This violence invests song as well as sexuality. It is partly rhetorical, latent in metaphor as the trope of doubling. In Shelley's poetry the repetition crucial to metaphor, which replicates tenor in vehicle and figure in referent, often activates the compulsive repetitions of Thanatos. In its nostalgia for identities prior to differentiation, Shelley's metaphorical idealism will finally accept death as the negative form (specular image) of erotic transcendence.

But this climactic gesture remains a last resort. It is an option selected when visionary maidens prove irrecoverable and revolutions doomed. Shelley an eros begins by embracing earthly mediations. This embrace includes difference, freely granting that comparison takes its rationale from dissimilarity. Following that admission, Shelley's rhetoric can present itself as a "dialectics of likeness and difference within which it is crucially necessary to register dissimilitude." Yet within this dialectic difference remains an epiphenomenon, marking a necessary but surpassed stage in metaphor's progress toward unity and identity. Shelley accords unlikeness a place in love's metaphorical circuitry in an effort to co-opt the enemy and circumscribe its disruptive force. Shelleyan dialectic operates as a temporalized mode of metaphor—as metaphor-become-story, resemblance given a beginning, middle, and end. This progression presupposes the identity of origin and end, thereby confessing its enmity to time and difference. Confronted by the problems of metaphorical idealism, Shelley recreates that idealism in an occluded form that resituates its contradictions without resolving them. This dialectical variation of metaphor organizes his poetry's rhetorical energies and philosophical themes.

Metaphorical Idealism

No position in Shelley studies enjoys greater esteem than the claim that a skeptical outlook prevails in his poetry. Underlying this claim are reconstructions of Shelley's thinking that merit considerable respect. There can be little doubt about the poet's debts to Hume's skepticism and Drummond's "intellectual philosophy." Yet also underlying the case for Shelleyan skepticism, unavoidably, are certain assumptions about the relationship of antitheses in Shelley: since no one denies Shelley's profound debts to the idealist tradition, defenders of his skepticism must insist that the interaction of ideal and skeptical elements in Shelley is itself ultimately skeptical. And so most of them do, deriving Shelley's idealism from his skepticism. C. E. Pulos argues that skepticism gave Shelley a principle by which he "reconciled ideas generally associated with antagonistic traditions" so that he could write as "a consistent Platonist in the sceptical tradition." But is a skepticism that "reconciles" not deeply implicated in idealism when reconciliation, mediation, and unity are idealizing prerogatives? Have our criteria for gauging the bankruptcy of idealisms been too uncritical? When the aestheticizing of historical conflict leaves Prometheus Unbound as vulnerable as Hegel to the materialist critique of Marx's German Ideology, how conclusive was Shelley's rejection of idealism? When critics deem that rejection complete, and grant Shelley a secular outlook, the poet's moral passion can too readily be reduced, following Eliot on Arnold's religious humanism, to "counsel to get all the emotional kick out of [idealism] one can without the bother of believing it."


Excerpted from Shelleyan Eros by William A. Ulmer. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. vii
  • PREFACE, pg. ix
  • Chapter 1. SHELLEY'S POETICS OF LOVE, pg. 3
  • Chapter 2. THE VANISHED BODY, pg. 25
  • Chapter 3. EROS AND REVOLUTION, pg. 50
  • Chapter 4. THE UNBINDING OF METAPHOR, pg. 78
  • Chapter 5. THE POLITICS OF RECEPTION, pg. 109
  • Chapter 6. ITALIAN PLATONICS, pg. 131
  • Chapter 7. SHELLEY'S DEATH MASQUE, pg. 156
  • INDEX, pg. 183

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