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Shelley among Others: The Play of the Intertext and the Idea of Language
Stuart Peterfreund
Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
$52.00, 406 pages, ISBN 0-8018-6751-7 (hardback).

Florence Cabaret
Université de Rouen

In the wake of recent developments in literary and psychoanalytic theory, Stuart Peterfreund (who is a Professor of English at Northeastern University) submits Shelley's work to a thorough reading which envisages the multifaceted figure of Shelley as poet, linguistic thinker and "legislator of the world". The entanglement of the three postures is such that commentators have always extensively referred to both his poetical work and his more theoretical writings, not to mention the numerous letters he wrote to his friends and publishers. This essay complies to the rule of the genre and confronts some of Shelley's most famous long and short poems (as well as less discussed pieces) with his prose writing, focusing more particularly on the question of metaphor and of its fundamental position in his conception of poetry as originary language, but also as a linguistic master text which plays an undeniable role in our artistic, intellectual and social construction of the world.

If his approach to language and poetry borrows from such ancient tradition as Plato's discourse of rhetoric and from seventeenth-century New Philology (as later embodied by such thinkers as W. Warburton, G. Vico, J.G. Herder and J.J. Rousseau whom S. Peterfreund confronts with the poet), it appears Shelley also responds to a more contemporaneous tendency which is the decline of poetry and the emergence of other discourses that seek to supplant poetry in its access to truth—so that Peacok's Four Ages of Poetry prompted him to write A Defense of Poetry. Bearing in mind the historical moment in which he is situated, Shelley accounts for the decline of poetry by pointing to "the abuse of a metaphorical expression to a literal purpose" (A Treatise on Morals) which results in the degradation of the metaphor which is thus reified and turned into a metonymy by being made the cause that produces the effect of ulterior meaning. But the shift from a transferential state essentially characterized by metaphor to a substitutive state characterized by metonymy has consequences which are not, of course, circumscribed to the linguistic and poetical realm. Shelley asserts that it produces political and religious tyranny by expelling men from a state of "reverie" in which "they feel as if their nature were dissolved into the surrounding universe, or as if the surrounding universe were absorbed into their being" and therefore confining them to mechanical and habitual agency in which "their feelings and reasonings are the combined result of a multitude of entangled thoughts of a series of what are commonly called impressions, planted by reiteration." (On Life) S. Peterfreund then recalls that, in spite of Shelley's sombre analysis of how poetry can support a repressive regime, his cyclical view of history led him to hope for the return of a former golden age, all the more so as his eventful political age severely challenged the eighteenth-century hegemony of language (i.e. the dichotomy between, on the one hand, refined language, intellectual ideas, worthy sentiments as the literati's domain and, on the other hand, vulgar language, sensations, passions as characteristics of the vulgar class). If Parliament still refused to admit certain petitions on account of the language in which they were written, Shelley remained undeterred in his wish for reform and in his quest for a common language which the people could use to voice their needs (Postscript to An Address to the Irish People). S. Peterfreund does not fail to refer to the internal tensions which arose because of Shelley's aspirations and his social and intellectual origins, but it is only to underline the poet's desire to be able "to translate [his] thoughts into another language" (Postscript to An Address to the Irish People) or to be simultaneously isoglossic and heteroglossic.

Starting with the dyadic dynamic which prevails throughout A Defense of Poetry and ends up contrasting the dead language of prose and logic and the "vitally metaphorical" language of poetry, Chapter 1 comes back to Shelley's unnamed attack on metonymy which the poet implicitly equates with the past as well as repressed desires, reification and will to power, while metaphor is a means of the future as well as love expressed, projects and apprehension of truth and beauty. In a time which turns its back on the imaginative and favours the rational, Shelley shows how the relational logic of metaphor gives way to the part-for-whole substitutive logic of metonymy and leads to the hegemony of error. Taking up an argument which appears in On Life, The Revolt of Islam stages how our ignorance drives us to anthropomorphize an unknowable first cause and to reify that anthropomorphism as the proper object of worship. In a passage which is quite illustrative of the close reading and intratextual approach adopted in this essay, S. Peterfreund shows how a similar denunciation underlies Asia's speech in Prometheus Unbound, but also how the substitution of "Law" by "Lord" operates in The Mask of Anarchy and how we witness the return of the free play of language in the "maniac maid"'s speech as she is both called Hope and Despair and refuses to speak the metonymic language of Murder, Fraud and Anarchy. With the last example, S. Peterfreund stresses his will not to caricature Shelley as a narcissistic poet who would only be preoccupied with self-referentiality in his work, and to relocate this yet undeniable concern within a poetical and political frame.

Thus Chapter 2 focuses on the analysis of two poems, "Ozymandias" and Alastor, and identifies them as cautionary tales, the former aiming at the political field and the latter dealing with the moral imperative of the poet. Indeed Ramses' self-characterization as God appears to be another instance of "the abuse of metaphor to a literal purpose" and the ironic interpretation of the inscription on the pedestal may be read as an indirect warning to George III. As to Alastor, which is traditionally described as a representation of the evolution of the Wordsworthian poet, it is then interpreted as the killing off of the younger Wordsworth by the older Wordsworth who is willing to get rid of metaphor and chooses instead metonymic fixity, i.e. a single, supposedly transcendent sign. The conversion originates in the poet's renunciation of his imaginative powers and has often been connected, as S. Peterfreund recalls, with Wordsworth's betrayal of his republican and revolutionary ideals. Chapter 3 offers to read both "Mont Blanc" and "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" as the continuation of Shelley's conversation with Wordsworth (and includes a few exchanges with Coleridge). The twin poems are presented as striking a debate with the doctrine of poetic originality as stated in the Preface to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads. The study of "Mont Blanc" in particular demonstrates how phonetic repetitions participate in the undermining of meaning and points to the conclusion that "Power" cannot be grasped by language, i.e. transfixed into dogmatic truth. Still the poet-as-"hyerophant" may undertake the penetration of the mystery, knowing that he will only reach the probable, "the skeptic epoche, or suspension of judgement". Arguing that with "Mont Blanc", Shelley opts for the "imperative to renounce wilful pursuit and will naming-to-totalize", Chapter 4 returns to The Revolt of Islam and shows how it departs from the eighteenth-century view of language as "the dress of thought" as well as from Wordsworth's incarnational apprehension of it. Thus to Shelley, language may name or be informed by transcendence but it cannot act transcendence, or else it runs the risk of misusing the metaphorical expression to a literal purpose so that we mistake the effect for the cause because of a deforming anthropomorphic projection. This is quite in keeping with the Tyrant's and the Priest's plans in The Revolt of Islam: they are depicted as the knitters of "life's dark veil", i.e. a totalising, reified fabric of metonymy or master narrative whose only purpose is to replace heteroglossy with their silencing monolithic language. At this stage, the solutions provided in the poem reveal the extent of the tyranny of metonymy—either one chooses to remain mute as the mutes or one "prefers" to die rather than submit to "the stripping of speech from voice".

In Chapter 5, S. Peterfreund clearly synthesizes the two conditions of language which he has come to identify so far: the metaphoric is "the linguistic form taken by that ineffable first principle or Power responsible for all articulate, deployed form" while the metonymic is "the perversion of that form by those who would wield temporal power in the name of that ineffable first principle or Power anthropomorphized and thereby reduced and misunderstood." This enables him to comment on the dead end Shelley appears to have reached with The Revolt of Islam, trapped as he was between these two extreme—and in the end, monologic—views of language which prevented him from facing "the sad reality" which is "figured by the mutually constrained and constraining opposition of the metaphoric and the metonymic". Shelley's move towards the use of the eclogue is thus interpreted as the "killing off of the monologist" and the first step towards "dialogical engagement" since the genre combines both dialogue and lyrics and therefore appears to be propitious to the advent of a common language which could bring about social change. Rosalind and Helen and Julian and Maddalo stand as transitory stages in Shelley's attempt at self-translation and self-dubbing. However, Julian and Maddalo constitutes a better achievement of generic hybridisation than Rosalind and Helen, especially with the intervention of the third man (who legitimates all dialogue) in the person of the Maniac who introduces "cacophony, interference and noise" (M. Serres) and drives the dialogue on the verge of apory.

Chapter 6 moves to the study of even more elaborate poetical forms, but tends to characterize them as partaking of one or the other dyadic conception of language. Prometheus Unbound is described as a conscious emancipation from the Aeschylean version of Prometheus' reconciliation with Jupiter, which is a way to refuse to adopt the reified, permanent and despotic values of the god and to choose to speak the transferential language of love (cf. the liver is replaced by the heart). Prometheus' true heroism is fulfilled in his choice of the loving empathy and the unsaying of his own high language, which is also a way to restore the world's proper order. On the contrary, The Cenci embodies the temptation of the metonymic language if we consider the symbolic interpretation of Beatrice's seduction by her father as her adoption of the metonymic language of reification spoken by a patriarchal / petriarchal society. Even when she kills her father, Beatrice proves even more dependent on such a patriarchal discourse as she turns into a perfect vengeful patriarchist. Only when she eventually accepts her oncoming death (as well as her mother's) does she enter the world of maternal presence where ceaseless evanescence and transference prevails. But her final decision does not change the world in the least.

The last chapter takes a more reflexive stance and tackles the question of Shelley's reaction to his own reification and transformation into the metonym "Shelley" (as in "I have read all of Shelley") as he gradually realized he was becoming literary history. His "romance of dematerialization" appears to come to an end as he contemplates the unavoidable materiality of his own work "written on stone". As the pun on "lyre" / "liar" in "Ode to the West Wind" illustrates, the poet is constantly confronted to such internal tensions; and when, in Epipsychidion, the speaker expresses his love for Emily (the mediator towards the realm of the ideal), he is compelled to resort to language, i.e. to the materiality of language. This may also account for Shelley's temptation of silence, "a hard fate, but preferable to the ignominy of being remembered with contempt as a failed poet of one's own age and unable to speak meaningfully to succeeding ages." Commenting upon the emphasis laid on Keats's corpse in Adonais, S. Peterfreund explains how Shelley displaces the romance of dematerialization onto Keats and exemplifies his literary corpus as the agent of his transfiguration and life on a higher plane.

Undeniably less radical than some of the latest New Historicist reappraisal of romantic poets, this essay offers a coherent view of Shelley's evolution as an enthusiastic poet-reformer who grows more and more overwhelmed by the question of "whether his metaphysics has 'gotten it right'."


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