Reconfiguring Romanticism (10): Michael Palmer on Shelley

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 11:38 PM
from Some Notes on Shelley, Poetics and the Present (two excerpts)

(presented to the Keats-Shelley Society at the meeting of the Modern Language Association, San Francisco, 28 dec 91, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s birth)

But I beg you to take into consideration the conditions under which I am writing, the time and place.
Heine, The Romantic School

I would like to take this opportunity to look informally at Shelley in relation to contemporary poetics and to look in a sense for the “necessity of Shelley.” I hope I will be able to gather up these fragments or notations of several months without pretending to mask their fragmentary character, since the Romantics themselves have taught our century the epistemological weight of the fragment, whether the sundered Orphic body and scattered limbs of Osiris or, less exaltedly, the quick thought on a scrap of paper.

As I was first beginning to reread Shelley, a quotation I had copied out from Susan Buck-Morss’s The Dialectics of Seeing (on Walter Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk or “Arcades Project”) came repeatedly to mind. Buck-Morss draws the quotation from Benjamin’s Theses on History. (See also Gershom Scholem’s “Walter Benjamin and his Angel” in On Walter Benjamin, ed. Gary Smith.) It reads:

"There is a picture by Klee called “Angelus Novus.” An angel is presented in it who looks as if he were about to move away from something at which he is staring. His eyes are wide open, mouth agape, wings spread. The angel of history must look like that. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears to us, he sees one single catastrophe which relentlessly piles wreckage upon wreckage, and hurls them before his feet. [...] The storm [from Paradise] drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. That which we call progress is this storm." (p.95)

Certainly a key passage for the understanding of Benjamin’s own romantic progressivism and the various contradictory threads which are responsible for the complex and compelling fabric of his social and aesthetic thought. Yet the visual meaning of this image of the Angelus Novus is anything but stable (see Scholem), as I am sure Benjamin would have acknowledged. We may just as easily interpret this figure as gazing “into the future,” or at some event in the world of the present, or into some entirely non-specific space. The expression could be one of astonishment, or incomprehension, or horror, or perhaps all three. The arms might be raised in surprise or benediction. “He” (we lack the angelic pronoun) seems suspended in a kind of cosmic dust, caught between this and some other world in weather he has never experienced. The gaze, then, is multiple and the figure, like so many crucial verbal figures in Shelley, is polysemous following Dante’s sense of that word. We might even refigure him as the Angel of Poetry, whose many faces are like the multiple Shelleys which, since his death, have been imagined or posited and projected toward our time. In any case, in its uncertainty or ambiguity, its backward-forwardness, it seems an appropriate figure to preside over this talk which must look forward and back, as well as at what “now” is now, and finally into the temporal modes poetry itself envisages, such as the future-present and the future-past, to name but two.

There is no question that the future has recently undergone some major alterations. In fact, it is possible to say that The Future as once conceived by utopians and revolutionaries of various stripes has (at least for now) entered into the historical past without ever having been realized, dissipated by its own repressive and totalizing social economy (which imposed the dictatorship of an endlessly deferred future on the texture of everyday life) as well, no doubt, as by the relentlessly ambitious and adaptive force of international capital, which has been busy with the business of creating its own narratives and its own set of possible futures for immediate consumption.

It is in the light of the collapse of various melioristic futures, their implosion into an unstable present, a “now” of uncertain boundaries both cultural and political, that we are asked to reread and in some sense rediscover Shelley for contemporary poetics. Certainly such a reading will be further qualified by the fact that Shelley (as Jerome McGann has noted) is a poet of futurist vision and address. Initially of course he is a poet of his present moment who invokes alternative social orders through an evocation of the specific injustices of the present and a highly abstract vision of future redress. He speaks to contemporary injustice at times with an almost agit-prop directness, at others with the layered symbolic language of allegory and myth. Regarding the latter, even his most “displaced” and idealized poetry has a proto-dialectical character to it (to borrow a term from Richard Terdiman); it is part of an argument that moves beyond the self and beyond aesthesis to engage with contradiction and paradox. Everywhere shadowing that future is the specter of another future from the recent past, Shelley’s almost immediate past, that of the French Revolution. The self-devouring of the Revolution and the age of reaction which follow serve both to problematize and to deepen Shelley’s own progressivism. A Spinozistic sense of community and desire will become more and more integral with the vision of radical renewal as Shelley seeks alternatives to anarchic violence and revolutionary chaos. Desire itself will be seen as signifier of resistance and subversion, as well as (quoting Epipsychidion) “An image of some bright eternity.” Epipsychidion is an act of defiant poetic excess, an act of resistance to the hypocritical puritanism of the time, but also to the idea of a poetry of limits. Like so much of Shelley’s work, it is impossible; its suppression is preordained. The poem, in its graphic sensuality, defies the decorum of the acceptable verse of its time. There is another and more threatening insistence which conjoins in poetically coded language the personal with the social vision. An escape from is always an escape toward:

This isle and house are mine, and I have vowed
Thee to be lady of the solitude. --
And I have fitted up some chambers there
Looking toward the golden Eastern air,
And level with the living winds which flow
Like waves above the living waves below. --
I have sent books and music there, and all
Those instruments with which high spirits call
The future from its cradle, and the past
Out of its grave, and make the present last
In thoughts and joys which sleep, but cannot die,
Folded within their own eternity.
(Epipsychidion, ll. 513-24)

A passage that, like so much of the poem, operates at many symbolic levels (along with Dante, are there echoes of Shakespeare’s Prospero here as well?). The poet-alchemist asserts the power of the poetic voice to command historical time, to resurrect the past for the present, invoke the birth of the future, and in so doing eternalize an ideal present (a present of living ideas). After the dystopic and utopian hours (I meant to type “horrors”) of our age, the status of such a claim must of course be at the very least thoroughly interrogated. What, if anything, do we believe of the poetic function now? What claims can be made for the poem in the world? In what margins and at what borders, barely visible it often seems, does it continue to be heard?

. . . . . . .

For the poets of my generation, Shelley was a poet under several erasures. There was the initial prohibition of the modernists who went, or at least claimed to go, “in fear of abstraction.” Shelley’s difficult and audacious juxtaposing of (at his best) precise physical detail with philosophical rumination ran counter to the entire economy of modernism. His often baroque syntax seemed to lead a reader toward the “dim grey lands of peace” deplored by Pound. Then too there was the inherited Palgravian Shelley, the Shelley of a lyricism which quickly became the debased currency of entire generations of pseudo-romantic pompiers. To recover such a music was roughly equivalent to recovering Debussy after being inundated by five decades of Hollywood sound scores. Perhaps equally a problem was the sympathetic but one-dimensional, vatic Shelley beloved by the Beats and embraced by the counter-culture. One had the spontaneity and speed, the enthusiasmos, of Shelley, but his brain had been removed. This is no less sentimentalized a portrait than Palgrave’s, or that of Maurois. Then too, there is the wild variation in the quality of work from a man who still, near the end of his brief life, was attempting to rhyme “twinkling” and “tinkling” with a straight face (“To Jane”). Shelley, it must be added, was a poet for whom formal perfection, the perfection of static form, was often secondary, however much certain critics of a generation ago strained to discover occulted symmetries throughout his work, as if thereby to justify it.

Let me quote from the well-known and revealing section on Shelley in Eliot’s “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism”:

"Shelley both had views about poetry and made use of poetry for expressing views. With Shelley we are struck from the beginning by the number of things poetry is expected to do: from a poet who tells us, in a note on vegetarianism, that ‘the orang-outang perfectly expresses man both in the order and the number of his teeth’, we shall not know what to expect. The notes to Queen Mab express, it is true, only the views of an intelligent and enthusiastic schoolboy, but a schoolboy who knows how to write; and throughout his work, which is of no small bulk for a short life, he does not, I think, let us forget that he took his ideas seriously. The ideas of Shelley seem to me always to be the ideas of adolescence - as there is every reason they should be. And an enthusiasm for Shelley seems to me also to be an affair of adolescence: for most of us, Shelley has marked an intense period before maturity, but for how many does Shelley remain the companion of age?...I find his ideas repellent; and the difficulty of separating Shelley from his ideas and beliefs is still greater than with Wordsworth. And the biographical interest which Shelley has always excited makes it difficult to read the poetry without remembering the man: and the man was humourless, pedantic, self-centered, and sometimes almost a blackguard." (Selected Prose, p.85)

It is a passage quite astonishing for a number of reasons, not the least its patronizing smugness and condescension. Why, one wonders, does Eliot fear a poet from whom “we shall not know what to expect”? And why must a poet be separable from his ideas? To free him for pure, ahistorical readerly delectation? To isolate him definitively and securely in aesthetic space? Dante and Milton cleansed of ideas? One wonders whether Eliot had equivalent difficulty in separating his friend Pound’s poetry from his friend Pound’s ideas? And are we obliged to separate Eliot’s poetry from its anti-semitism, High Church elitism and its Podsnappery? Would we then be left with Eliotic poésie pure? The passage is replete with unintended ironies. Eliot has generated so much recent, lurid biographical interest, that we too now must be forgiven for finding it difficult to read the work apart from the life. And of course the final description of Shelley as a self-centered, humourless pedant matches many accounts of Eliot at certain stages of his life. What is most striking, of course, is the rage against Shelley’s ideas. Which, one cannot but wonder, seemed to Eliot the worst: Shelley’s feminism, his progressive egalitarianism, his ecotopic perspective, his idealism joined with an active interventionism, his atheism, his defiance of conventional amatory codes? Perhaps all of the above. Yet a good deal might be forgiven if the work would allow itself to be separated from its ideas, that is to say, acculturated and pacified. Eliot’s (unconscious?) echo of pseudo-Mallarméan ideology speaks to a still insufficiently examined inheritance from late Symbolism, an inheritance which saturates the atmosphere of much of Eliot’s work.

In the flux of our present, with poetry everywhere acknowledged as marginalized, what we least need is a poetry of accomodation, whether that be the self-absorbed and anti-intellectual neo-romanticism of the workshop, or the exhausted so-called “middle voice” of so much infinitely replaceable and infinitely consoling magazine verse. Nor, in full retreat, will it do to revive a bogus traditionalism. Shelley, perhaps more clearly than any of the other English Romantics, represents a radical alterity, an alternative to the habitual discourses of power and mystification by which we are daily surrounded and with which we are bombarded. He represents a poetry of critique and renewal, rather than of passive re-presentation, a poetry which risks speaking to the central human and social occasions of its time, yet speaks from a decentered and largely invisible place. It exploits the margins to speak as it will, out of difference, rather than as it is always importuned and rewarded, out of sameness. This “other voice of poetry,” as Octavio Paz has noted, speaks to the present from a unique (or at least singularly focussed) relation to past and future derived from the exigencies of the art. It speaks to the present, whether a present-now or a present-to-come (or indeed one never to be) much as do poets as apparently diverse as Dickinson and Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Holan.

. . . . . . .

[For Palmer’s complete essay, see his newly published gathering of essays & talks, Active Boundaries (New Directions). The work was originally published in Sulfur 33 (1993), Clayton Eshleman’s late-great magazine, and that same year in Keats-Shelley Journal 42. More on Shelley, including citations from Palmer, appeared in this blog on June 24.]

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