Review of Neville Rogers, Shelley at Work.

["Image and Idea." Review of Neville Rogers, Shelley at Work. New Statesman 1343 (8 Dec 1956): 763-4.]


“What Shelley’s poetry requires above everything else is to be understood and judged by the ideas by which it is animated.”  By a remarkable act of penetration and synthesis, Mr. Rogers has threaded his way through the “wilderness of intricate paths” presented by Shelley’s thought and writing – especially the wild and intriguing confusion of the notebooks – to show not only what Shelley’s ideas were and where they came from, but how they grew into a symbolic structure of increasing scope, coherence and flexibility.  We see the poetic mind in its magpie alertness and cheerful opportunism seizing upon what it needs and digesting it to its own colour.  An image may spring with hallucinatory vividness from life or from dream; be clarified by reading, thought, accident; melt into some other image or idea under the impact of delight or disenchantment or some radical change of outlook; be reinforced by Plato (it may be), toughened by contact with Calderón or Goethe; outgrow its own history to become pure Shelley and then be confirmed in this by a scrap of Dante or Cavalcanti.  And in Shelley this kaleidoscopic process is driven impetuously forward by his struggle with “the monsters of his thought,” the desperate effort to reconcile mundane love with his ideal, his wrestlings with a brain that “boils and throws off images and words faster than I can skim them off,” the “libertarian energy” that (if we may be for a moment of little Shelleyan) thirsts to blow the trumpet of a prophecy in the teeth of the world.

This book is in two sections.  First, a detailed tracing of emergent ideas and symbols.  The inquiry is deftly managed to disclose in mounting order of subtlety and intricacy the growth of a symbolic system with its ambiguities, obsessive reiterations, multiple relations, interfusions, shiftings of emphasis.  In the second part Mr. Rogers traces the genesis of several single poems and interprets them as a series of stages in the maturing of Shelley’s vision.  Already in Queen Mab a crucial turn was being taken from the Æschylean doctrine of Necessity to a Platonic view of love, a view which, in turn, broadens into a doctrine of world-regenerating love almost Christian in characters.  Prometheus Unbound, for all its dramatic shortcomings, shows the triumph of love over the self-imposed tyranny of sophistication and the corrupt will, and man restored to his birthright of Elysian freedom and dæmonic energy by the power which love commands over all the mechanical processes of the universe.  Epipsychidion marks the climax of Shelley’s quest for a mortal Ariadne who, by beauty and love, would unravel his pure being from the coil of mortal existence and bring him to the perpetual vision of The One.  The poem is wildly inadequate; the Emilia Viviani episode ends in bitter disillusion.  But the symbolic structure holds firm, the thought deepens.  In Adonais Shelley takes the opportunity of Keats’s death to celebrate the triumph of Poetry and the Human Spirit over ignorance, blindness and death.  And at the end, with Hellas written and The Triumph of Life not yet firmly set towards its dénouement, Shelley writes:

            Our business is with the unbending realities of actual life . . . it becomes us with patience and resolution to apply ourselves to accommodating our theories to practice.

Mr. Rogers’s purpose is to delineate Shelley’s informing ideas and to trace the expression of them in his symbolism.  He does this gently, compellingly, without the cerebral taint of case-making, with touches of humour, in rich detail.  He refrains – deliberately, it seems – from discussing the actual achievement of the poetry itself; and probably this was well for the sake of clarity.  Shelley, with disarming modesty, regarded Adonais as “My least imperfect poem.”  Too often his instinct is to move in a counter-poetical direction, from the idea to the image, and so to rob his poetry of the very body that symbolism exists to secure.  Mr. Rogers, I suspect, would not deny that Shelley was unduly hospitable to the mellifluous and grandiloquent; that his larger poems are marred by slack rhythms, and blurred by clusters of approximate and obliterant similes; that, in spite of his loathing for the didactic, Shelley frequently resorts to rhetoric, “the will trying to do the work of imagination.”  Yet it is clear from this book, as it has never been so clear before, that Shelley’s symbolic system was a genuine and coherent product of fine insight and poetic imagination.  In some of the latest poetry, as at times in the political verse, there are traces of a muscular colloquial rhythm, a less hieratic diction.  In the end a more fastidious critical discipline might have matched his verse to the force of his vision.  Thinking of Yeats, one laments the more that Shelley should have died just short of his thirtieth birthday.  For now that Mr. Rogers has shown clearly what sort of thing was struggling to birth in that strenuous and seething mind, our estimate of Shelley’s intellectual and imaginative stature is permanently enlarged.