The Constitution of Shelley's Poetry: The Argument of Language in Prometheus Unbound

The Constitution of Shelley's Poetry: The Argument of Language in Prometheus Unbound

by Edward T. Duffy


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The Constitution of Shelley's Poetry is a close philosophical reading of Prometheus Unbound from the perspective of the argument or drama of language played out in its pages. At its heart a four-chapter reading of Prometheus Unbound, the book is punctuated with readings of other Shelley works and prefaced with two earlier chapters: one on "Mont Blanc" and "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," the companion poems inaugurating Shelley's poetic maturity; the other on "Ode to the West Wind" originally published with Prometheus Unbound and here represented as "signature" Shelley. The book's one most distinguishing feature, from which several others derive, is its bringing the power and pertinence of Stanley Cavell's thought to Shelley's poetry and to his explicitly articulated philosophical interest in language.

The book urges and practises close reading, but it provides philosophical grounds for this ostensibly old-fashioned approach, and it implicitly proposes an understanding of language very different from those now most generally assumed in literary studies. The book's bringing of Cavell's thought to Shelley's poetry would make two related but distinguishable contributions. There is, first of all, the reading of Shelley's poetry, which is new and persuasive both in many of its local moments and in its overall thrust. Second, there is the practical demonstration of the relevance and yield of Cavell's thought for literary studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781843317821
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 07/01/2009
Series: Anthem Nineteenth-Century Series
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Edward T. Duffy is Associate Professor of English at Marquette University, Wisconsin, USA.

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The Constitution of Shelley's Poetry

The Argument of Language in Prometheus Unbound

By Edward T. Duffy

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Edward T. Duffy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84331-782-1



The matter is to express the intuition that fantasy shadows anything we can understand reality to be. As Wittgenstein more or less puts a related matter: the issue is not to explain how grammar and criteria allow us to relate language to the world but to determine what language relates the world to be. This is not well expressed as the priority of mind over reality or of self over world ... It is better put as the priority of grammar — the thing Kant calls conditions of possibility (of experience and of objects), the thing Wittgenstein calls possibilities of phenomena — over both what we call mind and what we call the world. If we call grammar the Logos, we will more readily sense the shadow of fantasy in this picture.

Although Shelley's "Mont Blanc" is a difficult poem that has elicited widely differing interpretations, its readers have arrived at several generally accepted points of agreement about its significance and place in the Shelley canon. It is, for example, routinely assumed that this poem and "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" are to be taken together, the one "sister" to the other. In her edition of Shelley's lyrics, Judith Chernaik defines at least five other major and interrelated elements of a partial critical consensus still securely in place: 1) the revelation of "Mont Blanc" is the negative one that the "Power" is "not wise and providential but indifferent"; 2) the epiphany of this indifferent power paradoxically redirects human attention from brute physical force to the "importance of freedom and the power of mind"; 3) taken together, the two poems constitute the self-recognition of a writer "who presents himself publicly as a poet and announces his claim to recognition ... [and] formulates for the first time in his own voice the themes that are to dominate his major work"; 4) because "Mont Blanc" gives expression to its author's resolution "to accept no authority for belief other than that of his own mind, his own senses, his own powers of intuition," that author both asserts and enacts how the "mind's imaginings" are what alone we have to go on for disclosing who we are and for arriving at any claims about the "everlasting universe of things"; 5) in both poems Shelley deliberately "questions the traditional formulations of religion and philosophy" as when he converts the triad of faith, hope, and love into love, hope, and self-esteem.

In summary, we have substantial agreement that these two poems, the one as elusive as the other is abstruse, jointly labor toward an authorial self-recognition, its negative the denial of any providential God Our Father in Heaven, its positive the announcement of the "human mind's imaginings" as that into whose keeping we now find left "life, and the world, or whatever we call that which we are and feel" (NS 505). (The only major demurral from this "substantial agreement" are recent readings of "Mont Blanc" by, among others, Aaron Dunckel, Louise Economides, and Christopher Hitt. They argue for a materialist corrective to the long dominant idealist account of "Mont Blanc," exemplified most influentially by Earl Wasserman. Hitt, in particular, mounts a persuasive argument for how, contrary to the idealist account of the poem, thought "is ultimately subject to the power of 'things,' to the 'secret strength' they wield," and he provides a copious bibliography and succinct summary of recent work along these lines. I welcome this as indeed a corrective, bringing us closer to the subtleties of Shelley's position. But the epigraph to this chapter is meant to suggest that Cavell's Wittgensteinian thought, while perhaps laying a greater stress on the Kantian "conditions of possibility (of experience and of objects)" still leaves room for a complementary "materialist" stress on a "secret strength of things" to be received or acknowledged. More pertinently, perhaps, the epigraph is meant to suggest that, without the other, both the "idealist" and the "materialist" perspectives distort things and our mindful reception of them. The epigraph gives expression to Cavell's skepticism about applying to our human way of being in the world the idealist formulation of the, "priority of mind over reality or of self over world," but (to refer to a later formulation of our philosopher) Cavell does, it is clear, accept the linguistically turned "idealist" intuition that, "language comes to be hooked on or emitted into the world." But he also calls for that intuition to be complemented with one going, he insists, in a "reverse direction" in which, "the world calls for words, an intuition that words are, I will say, world-bound, that the world to be experienced, is to be answered, that this is what words are for." (It may help to think of this aspect of Cavell's thought as pithily expressed in Wittgenstein's cry, "Don't think, look."))

A more orthodoxly enthusiastic response to the Alpine scenery of "Mont Blanc" can be found in Coleridge's "Hymn before Sun-Rise in the Vale of Chamouni," the locale, theme, and phrasing of which evince numerous parallels with "Mont Blanc." In a letter, Coleridge associated his hymn with the Hebrew psalms that praise God as forever declaring himself in the work of his hand and the fiat of his voice. In the hymn itself, he makes the entire landscape "utter forth God" and be as it is only on the strength of a continuously effective divine command, establishing the foundations of being and sinking Mont Blanc's "sunless pillars deep in Earth." Coleridge's architectural language frames the world according to the wisdom psalms of the Hebrew Bible. God is a skillful and loving architect, and although the signs of His constructive and custodial care may range from the humble sheepfold to the splendid temple, they always entail an intelligent and providential design. In the culture Coleridge and Shelley shared, this was the privileged worldview which "Mont Blanc" calls into aggressive question. Against any imagining of a personal God always with us and always even unto death benignly superintendent over physical process, Shelley would have his "great mountain" rise up as a stark sign of contradiction "to repeal large codes of fraud and woe." Gavin de Beer has determined that during his 1816 sojourn in the Alps, Shelley repeatedly signed himself into his lodgings as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Building on this, Timothy Webb has cogently argued that this theatrical self-inscription was almost certainly a deliberate counterstatement to Coleridge's published exclamation as to "who would be, who could be an Atheist in this valley of wonders." In the arena of poetry, "Mont Blanc" articulates a more subtle and elaborated counterstatement to a species of poetic and religious effusion so firmly in place that Coleridge's pass through it is less significant as a deliberate plagiarism of Friederica Brun than as an instance of how, as Shelley wrote, "our whole style of expression and thought is infected with the tritest plagiarism" (CW 7.62). "Mont Blanc" sets itself the task of uprooting this blighted "overgrowth of ages" (NS 507).

In its representation of an icy desolation piling itself up into ruinous "dome, pyramid, and pinnacle," the poem's figures of structure and city perform a parodistic "conversion" of the traditional religious formula that would have some Heavenly Architect providing an earthly home for us his children:

      The glaciers creep
    Like snakes that watch their prey, from their far fountains,
    Slow rolling on; there, many a precipice,
    Frost and the Sun in scorn of mortal power
    Have piled: dome, pyramid, and pinnacle,
    A city of death, distinct with many a tower
    And wall impregnable of beaming ice.
    Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin
    Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky
    Rolls its perpetual stream. (98–109)

The power behind these serpentine glaciers will, in time, issue into the waters of life, "one majestic River,/The breath and blood of distant lands." But farther back in its descent down the mountain, this power is very forcefully represented as stripping the ground it traverses into a wilderness hostile to any vital habitation or human settlement:

The dwelling-place
Of insects, beasts, and birds, becomes its spoil;
Their food and their retreat for ever gone,
So much of life and joy is lost. The race
Of man, flies far in dread; his work and dwelling
Vanish, like smoke before the tempest's stream,
And their place is not known. (114–20)

In a footnote to the Norton Shelley, the editors remark that the last quoted line draws on the rhetorical power of Psalm 103: "As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more" (NS 100). But as incised into Shelley's text, this biblical utterance, to praise Jahweh and humble man, sharpens itself into the trenchantly clear dictum that the observable field of physical phenomena, indifferently catastrophic or life-giving, comes down to us neither on retributive orders from the high command nor on a providential mission from the lord our shepherd. Instead, it just necessarily comes, its origin undiscoverable, and its perceivable effects those of an inexorable power grinding its way downward with no regard for human dwelling or human value, and with nothing even remotely about it that would call for such words as "intent" or "motive."

About such annunciations this difficult poem is clear and explicit. Shelley's own emphasis makes this "naked countenance of earth" teach the adverting mind just "this":

All things that move and breathe with toil and sound
Are born and die; revolve, subside and swell.
Power dwells apart in its tranquillity
Remote, serene, and inaccessible. (94–7)

In drawing out and underlining the propositional content inscribed into this mountain attracting and holding his attention, Shelley performs a mental act, precedent for which can be found in the natural theology of William Paley and the loco-descriptive poems of the eighteenth century. But Shelley moralizes his landscape with a difference. He defers it some eighty lines until Mont Blanc can, as Jean Hall has finely observed, "suddenly burst upon the sight ... [making it possible] for the immense arrested panorama to become a stable context, organized around the center of the mountain peak." The mountain peaks into this arresting clarity only when it becomes what Kenneth Burke calls a "God term," a signifier comprehensive enough to gather up the material it superintends into one self-regulating constitution of forces.

The mountain can perform its synthesizing function only in so far as it has become a sign for and to the speaker. Perhaps as early as a year after the summer of "Mont Blanc" and "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty", Shelley was writing that, "we are ourselves the depositories of the evidence of the subject which we consider" (CW 7.63). Four years later, he put it this way:

The most astonishing combinations of poetry, the subtlest deductions of logic and mathematics, are no other than combinations which the intellect makes of sensations according to its own laws. A catalogue of all the thoughts of the mind, and of all their possible modifications, is a cyclopedic history of the Universe. (CW 7.59)

These succinctly expressed convictions represent codifications of the travail of thinking which "Mont Blanc" dramatizes as a burst of insight into what we can and cannot know and, most importantly, into what counts for knowing: "those combinations which the intellect makes of sensations, according to its own laws." (emphasis added) "Mont Blanc" records how, struck by the Ravine of Arve as a signifier, its mental protagonist then brings this signifier to full term by the labor of his own "pre-eminently ... imaginative being" (CW 7.65).

With its frenzied plunge into the torrents of "my own, my human mind," Section 2 of "Mont Blanc" makes the human drive toward thinking and signifying quite self-consciously problematic. In Section 2, this preoccupation can hardly be missed; elsewhere it is, if not so obvious, hardly less central. It motivates the poem's initially enacted tension between a ceaseless torrent of phenomena and a human voice bent on conscripting this torrent into the service of its own sign production:

    The everlasting universe of things
    Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
    Now dark — now glittering — now reflecting gloom —
    Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
    The source of human thought its tribute brings
    Of waters, — with a sound but half its own.
    Such as a feeble brook will oft assume
    In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
    Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
    Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
    Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves. (1–12)

By deleting the grammatically dispensable period at the end of the seventh line, this could all be read as one complete sentence. Beginning and ending with powerful bursts of water, this current of words would then be one powerfully sustained rhetorical period that turns back to its opening (the meaning of peri-odic discourse) on the hinge of a secretly sourced agency called "human thought." Presented as both overpowered and empowered by the universal flux surrounding it, this human thought is, like everything else under the sun, inaccessible at its "secret springs." The nature of this thought, however, manifests itself in the conspicuously executed conceit that forges a feeble brook and a vast river into a metaphor for the human thinking that would sound out the "tribute" of its own waters even as it finds itself subjected to the influxes of a universal stream of becoming.

Apart from the paraphrasable import of this simile, the simple fact that it is so conspicuously a simile is itself significant. Through this picture of a brook and river jamming or harmonizing with one another, the speaker's capacity for metaphor and its synthesizing powers shows itself appropriating the fluxes of this world and making them signify. To paraphrase Seamus Heaney, the "bright-masted thing" of this poetry has "retrieved/A course," and "the currents it had gone with" have now become what it "rides and shows." But Shelley's torrent of discourse quickly rips through this local display of figurative mastery. In the midst of all the flooding, this figurative structure may represent a saving ark of semiotic construction, but that refuge is only the most temporary of shelters. At period's end, this opening current of language has flowed back into the fluidities of its beginnings, back into that vast river which "ceaselessly bursts and raves." From the outset of this run of words, then, we find ourselves confronted by a textually enacted re-currence, which mimes the waters of Ocean snaking round the earth in one unresting, self-sustaining coil. But this stream of discourse mimes Ocean with a leviathan of a difference. It revises the Hellenic containment of the world into the overflowing waters of Biblical and Miltonic chaos. After a brief moment of figurative grasp, the flood of words plunges us back into that welter of frothy confusion against which our drive toward meaning and articulation seeks continually to define itself.

The opening period of "Mont Blanc" would have the Arve River stand squarely for the "everlasting universe of things," flowing through the otherwise arid coulee of the mind. But the river has, as it were, an unruly mind of its own. Acting as a cue and beckoning toward pandemonium, its "dizzy" inundation of the ravine draws the mind of its invoker into its fluid welter and makes of that mind a correspondent "legion of wild thoughts" which "passively now/Renders and receives fast influencings." As a favorite apothegm of Shelley's would have it, the sign of the ravine makes its beholder become what he beholds. It subverts an initially imposed figurative command into a mental abyss as inundated with "wild thoughts" as the Arve is with white water. Endowed with a life and force of its own, the sign of the ravine forces the poem to become, like the dyer's hand, subdued to what it works in: the waters of chaos.


Excerpted from The Constitution of Shelley's Poetry by Edward T. Duffy. Copyright © 2011 Edward T. Duffy. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: A Philosophical Poet (of Ordinary Language); Chapter 1: The Everlasting Universe of Things as Shelley Found It in 1816: “Mont Blanc” and “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”; Chapter 2: Where Shelley Wrote and What He Wrote for: The Signature of “Ode to the West Wind”; Chapter 3: Knowing What We Do (with Words): Act I of Prometheus Unbound; Chapter 4: Recounting Reverses, Recovering the Initiative: Act II of Prometheus Unbound; Chapter 5: The Congregated Powers of Language: Act IV of Prometheus Unbound; Chapter 6: Resounding Celebrations and Constraining Commissions: Act IV of Prometheus Unbound

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