Review of Neville Rogers, Shelley at Work.

["Poet at Work." Review of Neville Rogers, Shelley at Work. Queen's Quarterly 64.4 (1957-8): 620-1.]


“The mind,” Shelley noted in a draft Preface for The Cenci, is “a wilderness of intricate paths, wide as the universe, which is here made its symbol.”  Shelley’s notebooks are likewise a wilderness of intricate paths, calculated to intrigue the unwary and baffle all but the most resolute and sensitive inquirer.  By a remarkable act of synthesis and penetration Mr. Rogers threads his way through these documents – poems and drafts of poems, abandoned fragments, memoranda, drafts of letters and translations, drawings, scraps of Greek, Italian, Spanish, Latin – to discover what Shelley’s ideas were and how derived.  His purpose is to show how Shelley interpreted his experience through his ideas, to discern and clarify Shelley’s intention and his thought, and to unravel the symbolism which is the body of thought expressed in his poetry.

Fifty years ago Yeats approached some scholar in search of illumination about the symbolism of Prometheus Unbound, and was told that the poem was merely Godwin versified.  Recent scholarship, having a stronger stomach for “the poetry of ideas” and a sharper eye for sources, has carried us a little farther than that.  But readers of Shelley – even persistent ones and even the early Yeats – have been puzzled by the wealth of promising but poetically unrealised imagery, the similes that never grow into metaphor, the recurrent images that never quite become symbols, the urgent rhetoric that so often seeks to do the work of imagination.  What Mr. Rogers has done is to trace the emergence and history of Shelley’s central thoughts and images, and to show how, detaching themselves from their sources, these deepened and modulated – in his mind, if not in his poetry – into a coherent symbolic structure of increasing strength, scope, and flexibility.  This is a fascinating and firmly documented account, showing how poetic thought clarifies itself through successive refinements and combinations, flowing in and out of life, receiving colour and depth from mundane complexities, disasters, and delights.

The first major transition in Shelley’s thought was the shift of emphasis from Necessity to Love, from Godwin to Plato.  But he extended his Platonism into a conception distinctly Shelleyan, almost Christian, which reached its first great climax in Prometheus Unbound.  The underlying impulse is “libertarian energy”; his persistent character daemonic; the theme, the regenerative power of world-pervading love.  His idea of Intellectual Beauty as the end of the poetic quest is interfused with the notion of love as energetic, liberating, creative.  Good and evil are cyclic processes; only through regeneration of the will can love set in motion the rebirth cycle which brings all things to a just order in the overthrow of tyranny and the restoring of man to his Elysian birthright of freedom and energy.

But a poet’s business is with vision, not with theory or ideas.  And Shelley so constantly moves from the idea to the image that, despite the firmness and legitimacy of his symbolic system, his poetry is more often than not robbed of the very substance which symbolism exists to provide.  Even Shelley himself regarded Adonais as “My least imperfect poem”; for he recognised that his problem was to encompass imagination in language and that right to the end he had not solved it.  For all the “impassioned lyricism”, Shelley was seldom capable of exploiting the true music of poetry.  But in the later work there are signs of steadier accomplishment.  Whether his dying when he was not quite thirty may have arrested a poetic development of the first order, there is no saying.  But now that Mr. Rogers’s book has shown how serious and powerful a symbolic impulse was struggling to birth in Shelley, we are able to read the poems with fresh enlightenment and with a greater respect for his intellectual and imaginative stature.