Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary by Jacqueline Mulhallen

I have been meaning to recommend Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary by Jacqueline Mulhallen to the Shelley Nation for a long, long time. 

I kept putting it off because I wanted to do the book full justice - I think it is THAT important. I can put it off no longer. Connecting modern audiences with Shelley's radical politics and philosophy is actually urgent.  As no less a person than Nicholas Roe (Professor of English Literature at the University of St Andrews) says: Mulhallen's book is "Fresh, clear and compelling, this is the best compact account of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s revolutionary life currently available."

The one thing I find troubling about this book is the selection of the cover image. This child-like, effeminate image is a misrepresentation; it bears no relation to what he must have looked like. It is not a portrait. This plays directly into the stubbornly resistant narrative of the "ineffectual angel" created over a century ago by Matthew Arnold. People are surprisingly influenced by visual images; therefore this is the wrong one to have chosen.

There have been many books on the question of Shelley's radicalism.  Perhaps the most important is Kenneth Neill Cameron's The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical

One of the greatest Shelley scholars of all time, Neil Fraistat, recently told me that it was his favourite book on Shelley and that he was "in awe of it."  It is deserving of that accolade because it manages to put all of Shelley's youthful poetry and prose (often condemned as juvenile and not worth reading) into context and restores it to a place of respect and honour. But The Young Shelley is out of print and almost impossible to get. 

Another is Paul Foot's extraordinary 1980 volume, Red Shelley.

Foot's style is polemical, uncompromising and intoxicating.  But this book too is out of print and hard to find.  As a stopgap, I recently published for the first time the transcript of a speech Paul delivered to the London Marxism Conference in 1981.  The speech, Paul Foot Speaks!! The Revolutionary Percy Bysshe Shelley, was based on the book and is a most read; find it here.

PMS Dawson's book, "The Unacknowledged Legislator", also published in what was a golden year for Shelley, 1980, is another favourite. Unlike Foot, Dawson's style is dry and academic - but also shrewd and perceptive. But unlike a staggering number of academic texts from the post 1980 era, Dawson is immensely readable and approachable. He and Foot are two sides of the same stylistic coin and young members of the academy would do well to pay close attention to the ability of these writers to convey complex intellectual ideas in straightforward english that you do not require a PhD to understand.

Then there is Michael Scrivener book Radical Shelley: the Philosophical Anarchism and Utopian Thought of Percy Bysshe Shelley - also published in 1980. Written in a vein similar to that of Dawson, although perhaps guilty of rather too much academic jargon, Scrivener seeks to place Shelley in the anarchist/utopian tradition; whereas Dawson sought to rather "tone down" Shelley's radicalism and place him within the ambit of Whig reformers. If there is ONE thing I think Shelley is not, it is a utopian. And for this reason Scrivener got under my skin. Much the same way as people do when they attempt to read a pure form of "idealism" into Shelley's thinking.  For me, Shelley was a life long skeptic in the tradition of Drummond, Hume and Cicero. Follow this link to read more.  Folks who think of Shelley as an idealist tend to also think of him as a utopian; that is the last thing he was! For an excellent summary of Red Shelley, The Unacknowledged Legislator and Radical Shelley, look no further than the great Willian Keach's article Rise Like Lions: Shelley and the Revolutionary Left, which may be found here.

It is worth quoting Keach's typical trenchant summary in full:

The task of reclaiming Shelley’s poetry for the revolutionary left, most notably undertaken by Paul Foot in his book Red Shelley, inevitably raises difficulties and complications which I would like to address. I worried about some of these difficulties and complications several years ago in a 1985 review essay that considered Foot’s Red Shelley together with Michael Scrivener’s Radical Shelley and Paul Dawson’s The Unacknowledged Legislator. My judgement then was that, while Foot’s desire to claim Shelley for the real socialist left was deeply important, his book did not address some of the difficult questions of Shelley’s political writing as convincingly as Scrivener’s and Dawson’s had done. My perspective today has shifted substantially from what it was in 1985, when I had just finished an avowedly formalist study of Shelley’s style and was still a member of a social democratic group called the Democratic Socialists of America. I have come to have a much stronger commitment to the political tradition from which Foot’s work on Shelley springs, and I see strengths in Red Shelley that I had not seen or had not been able fully to realise before. However, I still think that the questions posed by Scrivener in his case for an anarchist and utopian Shelley, and by Dawson in his case for a reformist Shelley, need to be confronted.

All three of these incredibly important books are out of print and difficult to obtain.  So what is one to do?!  Obviously, we must turn to Jacqueline Mulhallen. Mulhallen's book is very much in the tradition of Cameron, Foot, Dawson and Scrivener and it has the advantage of being available! Here are just a few of the earned accolades:

A compelling and eye-opening study. Reminds us of Shelley's robust socio-political vision, that remains as relevant and vital for our own volatile times. (Stephen C. Behrendt; George Holmes Distinguished Professor of English, University of Nebraska)
Highly readable, this is an absorbing study of Shelley’s life, thought, and writing. Jacqueline Mulhallen has written a valuable book. (Michael O’Neill, Professor of English, Durham University)
A fresh and impassioned account of the significance of Shelley's radical life and writings. A fine and highly readable achievement. (Michael Rossington, Professor of Romantic Literature, Newcastle University)

And when these professors say it is readable, they mean it is readable by the general public - a rare distinction in the modern era. Mulhallen, for this reason alone, would have earned my "Stamp of a Champ - Must Read" recommendation. But in addition to being readable it is an also an accurate and concise portrayal of the real Shelley: Shelley the revolutionary, the atheist, the skeptic, the leveler.  Mulhallen gives us a clear-eyed modern image of the Shelley the great Victorian Henry Salt described as follows:

"...there can be no mistake whatever about the attitude Shelley took the whole body of his writing toward the established system of society, which, as he avowed in one of his later letters, he wished to see, "overthrown from the foundations with all of its superstructure, maxims and forms." His principles are utterly subversive of all that orthodoxy holds most sacred, whether in ethics or in religion..." (Salt, Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Pioneer, 4)

As I cast my eye back over the chaotic political events of the past year I can see that Shelley's programmes of reform and resistance have enormous relevance.  Take for example two separate events: the election of Donald Trump and the near election of Jeremy Corbyn. In the case of the former, Shelley's brand of revolutionary, non-violent resistance to authoritarianism provides important sign posts as to how best to oppose Trump.  You can find my take on this here: What Should We Do to Resist Trump" by Sandy Grant and here: Percy Bysshe Shelley in Our Time.

In the case of the latter, it is very clear to me that a general election was fought out in Britain in part on territory staked out by Shelley 200 years ago, as evidenced by the Labour Party's slogan: For the Many. Not the Few (a direct, intentional, lift from Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy).  You can read about this here: Jeremy Corbyn is Right: Poetry can Change the World.

Of all Shelley's poems that I think we might turn our attention to at this point, I am increasingly wondering if it should not be Queen Mab. Every single one of the authors I have just written about place Queen Mab at or near to the heart of his radicalism. It is the poem that was most influential on the radical reformists of the 19th century and those people are the ones largely responsible for preserving his radicalism.  Roland Duerksen said of Queen Mab,

" far as overt, discernible effects are concerned, [Queen Mab] appears historically to have had as great effect on society as any of his other works. It touched an inspired the Chartists of the mid-nineteenth century in a kinetic way and to an effect whose importance no amount of aesthetic condemnation of this work has been able to diminish" The source of this effect must lie in the genuineness of feeling and the correlation of the poem's successful artistic devices with the human condition of its nineteenth century readers....they responded enthusiastically to what their experience told them was true an genuine in the poem". (Duerksen, Shelley's Poetry of Involvement, 68)

In other words, ignore the critics and read with your heart.  Kenneth Neill Cameron also offers a valuable comment on the appeal of Queen Mab:

If at times the language, in its revolutionary bluntness, short-circuits finer aesthetic transmutations, its cascading sincerity gives it a rugged intensity of power unique in English poetry. In spite of the higher harmonies and soaring visionariness of Prometheus Unbound, queen mab, dealing with the same theme cannot simple be regarded as a juvenile precursor. It is a great poem in its own right. (Cameron, Young Shelley, 254)

Shelley's themes revolved around the correct response to authoritarians and tyrants, political and religious repression, massive concentration of wealth, and exploitation of the working class and the environment.  Reading Shelley today engenders a very disturbing feeling of deja vu; his concerns appear to be eerily familiar to us.  How much have things changed?  Are they in fact worse? Certainly Paul Foot seemed to think so in 1981 when he gave his famous speech, The Revolutionary Percy Bysshe Shelley. Read it all here. He shrewdly perceived the importance of Shelley to the modern world, saying,

Of all the things about Shelley that really inspired people [in the] a hundred and sixty years since his death, the thing that matters above all is [his] enthusiasm [for the idea] that the world can be changed. It shapes all his poetry. And when you come to read [Ode to the West Wind] where he writes about the “pestilence stricken multitudes” and the leaves being blown by the wind; [then you understand that] he sees the leaves as multitudes of people stricken by a pestilence. You begin to see his ideas, his enthusiasm and his love of life. He believed in life and he really felt that life is what mattered.  That life could and should be better than it is. Could be better and should be better. Could and should be changed. That was the thing he believed in most of all.

I think readers of this blog share Shelley's enthusiasm. Foot believed that our job as activists, as people who care about our world, was to "unlock the enthusiasm, the excitement that exists in every human being." He and I believe that Shelley can provide us with an inspiration and a vocabulary to help us do this. Mulhallen is a kindred spirit:

                                  The Universe,
In nature's silent eloquence, declares
That all fulfil the works of love and joy -
All but the outcast man. He fabricates
The sword which stabs his peace; he cherisheth
The snakes that gnaw his heart; he raiseth up
The tyrant, whose delight is his woe,
Whose sport is his agony.
                             Shelley, Queen Mab, 3. 196-203

Click the button above and order Mulhallen's wonderful book, Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary. You will thank me. You can visit her website here.