Papers of the English Romantic poets. New volumes of the `Shelley and his circle' Pforzheimer collection

Shelley and his Circle: 1773-1822, Vols. VII-VIII, edited by Donald H. Reiman, associate editor, Doucet Devin Fischer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 1,228 pp. $90. The New York Public Library recently acquired the part of the Carl H. Pforzheimer Library - about 8000 manuscripts and 13,000 printed volumes - that documents the creative and personal lives of the English Romantic poets. Known as ``the Shelley and his circle collection,'' it has hitherto been made available to the reading public in six volumes. The seventh and eighth have now been published by Harvard University Press.

Shelley's ``circle'' is something of a misnomer, suggesting as it does a congenial group of friends with shared interests and aspirations. Indeed, as Donald Reiman remarks in his introduction to these latest volumes of ``Shelley and his Circle,'' Shelley became an increasingly isolated figure during the years of his Italian exile (1818-22), the same years during which another member of the ``circle,'' Lord Byron, found a set of congenial friends among the Italian liberal aristocrats who shared his rebellious views as well as his disdain for the middle classes.

As represented in this series, Shelley's circle includes his wife Mary, author of ``Frankenstein''; Mary's mother, the brilliant Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote ``A Vindication of the Rights of Woman'' but died shortly after giving birth to Mary; Mary's father, the rationalist philosopher, William Godwin; Shelley's friends the satirist and poet Thomas Peacock and the radical journalist Leigh Hunt; Shelley's great, but then underrated, contemporary Keats; the all-too-widely celebrated Byron; Byron's mistress, the Countess Guiccioli; and Edward Trelawney, who left a colorful, if factually hazy account of his famous friends in ``Records of Shelley, Byron and the Author'' (1858).

Colorful and unreliable are the last words one would apply to ``Shelley and his Circle.'' As its careful editor reminds us: ``An egregious explicator or general critic can mislead only a few people for a short time; a careless or idiosyncratic editor (unless challenged and corrected by his colleagues) can mislead generations of scholars, critics, and readers.'' Textual scholarship is the foundation on which the more developed forms of history, biography, and literary criticism are ultimately based.

The publication of the Carl H. Pforzheimer collection of manuscripts from Shelley and his circle has been proceeding for decades. It is expected to go on to 12 volumes. The project began under the editorial aegis of the late Kenneth Neill Cameron and for years now has been directed by Donald Reiman, who also did pioneering work in giving us a definitive edition of Shelley's last major poem, ``The Triumph of Life.'' The first two volumes of ``Shelley and his Circle'' appeared in 1961; the second two in 1970; and volumes V-VI in 1973. The long hiatus between V-VI and the current pair gives some idea of the expanding purviews of the project. For, even as the editors prepare new volumes for the press, the Pforzheimer Library continues acquiring new material. Thus, in later volumes we find ``retrospective'' material from years already covered (or, as it turns out, not quite covered) in previous volumes.

The effect is not exactly what you'd call ``user-friendly.'' Whether you're a venturesome reader hoping to gain a close-up view of Shelley, Byron, et al., or a scholar trying to pin down a specific detail, it's easy to lose your bearings. Paging through these bulky, cumbersome tomes (each weighs over four pounds), the reader has the opportunity to experience the excitement, frustration, tedium, and fascination of working in a research library. For indeed, this is a library in the form of an annotated catalog. And, since manuscripts not in the Pforzheimer Library are not included here, the mosaic one pieces together from these volumes is still far from complete.

In this pair of volumes we find, amid much else, Trelawney's food expenditures, drafts of poems by Shelley and Byron, Countess Guiccio's love letters to Byron, and some very unromantic letters from Shelley to a firm of upholsterers back in Bath who were dunning him for money. Were it not for the excellent and insightful commentary by Reiman and his colleagues, the reader would probably decide to leave this reference work to those whose work it is to look up references. But the discussions are wide-ranging and memorable, deftly linking specific textual points to larger issues. Examining a draft of Shelley's fragmentary poem ``Athanase,'' Reiman not only explains his reasons for supposing it was written in 1819 in Italy, not in 1817 in England, but also treats us to a disquisition on terza rima and to an argument against the standard view of the self-dramatizing exile, showing us the actual circumstances that led Shelley - against his wishes - to leave England and become, quite unwittingly, a paradigm for later, more self-consciously expatriate artists.

Reiman uses the terms ``prosopography'' and ``ethopea,'' the first to define his attempt at portraying a group of persons in their outward appearance from their writings, the second to suggest that the portrait will also reveal ``internal'' qualities, such as mind and character. An admirable goal. But for a true sense of such qualities, we must still turn to the poems themselves. And we must first read them not in the distracting contexts of the thousand natural shocks the poet's life was heir to, but as utterances worth attending in and of themselves. Valuable as the background may be, if the poem does not speak to us in the first place, there is little to be gained from knowing exactly what, where, and how it was written. Shelley's triumph is to have written poems that distill precisely those aspects of life and consciousness that elude the gleanings of biographers and scholars. An example of terza rima: Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams The blue Mediterranean, where he lay, Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams, Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay, And saw in sleep old palaces and towers Quivering within the wave's intenser day, All overgrown with azure moss and flowers So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou For whose path the Atlantic's level powers Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear The sapless foliage of the ocean, know Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear, And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!

St. III, ``Ode to the West Wind''

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