Monday, September 13, 2010

More Shelley (for fuck's sake)

Paula Jane and I had a conversation earlier today regarding Matthew Arnold's comment about Shelley. She was concerned that I was too glib in my criticism of him, and in my implicit assessment, perhaps taking too much for granted in my estimation of what the commonly held opinion of him—and perhaps of Shelley—might be.

I am not a particular fan of Arnold's, but neither am I a particular detractor. I find his poetry boring, in the main, and am unlikely to challenge Harold Bloom's assessment that it is derivative. Of his career as critic, I am familiar with him by reputation—first, as one who is credited by some with being the first "modern" critic; second, his ideas about "morality" (or his morality, as is inevitably the case with those who blather on about it), and the responsibilities of poetry (it would've been good if he thought originality to be among those); and last, his offensive opinion about Shelley's effectuality, derived I believe from his judgement of Shelley's character.

People generally do not realize that Shelley has not always been Shelley! for everyone. His work was suppressed for many years, and demeaned by pompous, conservative, empire-minded types who dominated 19th century British discourse, motivated by his perceived godlessness, his aggressively democratic ideals, and his flouting of conventional morality. Indeed, his death was celebrated by some in London, and for generations Shelley was remembered mainly by other poets, other radicals, and by university students, each generation of the latter drawn to him by his unique, quintessential vitality. It was in the twentieth century that he ascended to the first rank canonically, thanks to the New Critics.

Arnold is as handy a villain as anyone regarding this cynical undervaluation of the Shelley canon, especially since he considered himself to be so very, very important as critic. Perhaps I was unjust ascribing him a tin ear, though I'm damned if I can remember any music in his poetry. I was, of course, playing upon this idea of him being some kind of bridge to the modernists, who themselves were bridge to an era in which tin ears were the rage (belonging especially to those who raged, often against things musical).

The idea that Arnold, or anyone would try and question the intellectual seriousness of the author of Queen Mab, Prometheus Unbound, and The Masque of Anarchy—the latter of which influenced Thoreau and Gandhi rather profoundly, and through them, millions of others—is a little perverse. But even beyond that, without even taking these works into consideration, because, obviously, Arnold couldn't have known about their influence over future events and generations (or approved of it, probably, if he did), the idea of Shelley as being "ineffectual" makes me want to slap somebody. No, he's not some middle-class toad huckstering Victorian morality, which smugly ignored millions who were ground beneath the heel of empire. He has, in contrast, quickened the blood of people who love poetry for nearly 200 years. He represents idealism and passion, and the irrepressible power of music. And he's Shelley, for fuck's sake—he's Shelley.

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