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Shelley: Poet and Legislator of the World.

In Shelley: Poet and Legislator of the World Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran have gathered together twenty-three essays which were originally presented as papers at the international conference organized in 1992 by the Keats-Shelley Association of America to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the poet's birth. As the title suggests, the emphasis is primarily upon Shelley as a politically and socially engaged writer but, as the editors state in their brief preface, the aim is also to explore the diverse legacies of Shelley's work and to 'establish a new plateau in our perception of Shelley as a poet and cultural thinker on the world stage'. In addition to an impressive list of contributors from British, Canadian, and American universities, the volume's internationalist perspective is enhanced by chapters written by scholars from Syria, South Africa, Italy, Greece, and the former German Democratic Republic.

As is perhaps to be expected from a bicentenary project, a recurrent concern of many of the essays is the multi-faceted relationship between Shelley and history. A number of essays examine the poet's complex understanding of historical process: Greg Kucich suggestively explores Shelley's engagement with various eighteenth-century constructions of literary and political history; William Keach offers a compelling discussion of the keywords 'constitution', 'law', and 'legislator' in the context of political debate initiated by Burke and Paine; and Gary Kelly persuasively establishes a historical framework for Laon and Cythna and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by placing them within the gender and class dynamics of a 'post-revolutionary avant-garde culture'. Other chapters approach the issue of Shelley's place in history rather differently by focusing upon the posthumous influence of his work. Neil Fraistat reveals some of the earliest cultural and political appropriations of his poetry through an analysis of the 'rhetorics of the early textual editions' and this understanding of the politicized transmission and reproduction of Shelley's work is enhanced by essays on, for example, 'Shelley and the Chartists' (Bouthaina Shaaban), on Shelley's critical reception in the German Democratic Republic (Horst Hohne) and on the ultimately ambiguous use made of the poetry by Gandhi and other Indian nationalists (Meena Alexander). Two further essays demand, in very different ways, that we revise our sense of historical perspective. Steven E. Jones convincingly argues for the necessity of reading 'The Mask of Anarchy' through Bertolt Brecht's imitation of it as Freiheit und Democracy (1947) and Andrew Bennett pursues his hypothesis, explored more fully elsewhere in relation to Keats, that Shelley's poetry is always already quintessentially concerned with its own posthumous reception and thus inevitably prefigures not only the death of the poet but also that of the reader.

An important issue which is raised implicitly or explicitly in a number of the essays is that of Shelley's continued relevance and significance in the present. Whilst Alan Weinberg is able to call upon the poet to clarify his sense of the political instabilities within South Africa during the 'demise of apartheid', many contributors to this volume express a reluctance to claim Shelley as an unproblematic champion in the 1990s. As Marilyn Butler wryly observes, 'To legislate for the world, as Shelley seeks to do, is not, evidently, uncontentious'. Several essays reveal the inevitable limitations of the poet's ideas in relation to, for example, feminism (Annette Wheeler Cafarelli), the Empire (Marilyn Butler), and environmental issues (P.M. S. Dawson). We would therefore be misguided, perhaps, to see Shelley as a 'legislator' for our contemporary world and yet, the range and diversity of the issues addressed by the twenty-three essays in the present volume indicate very powerfully that he remains a writer who (to quote the editors once more) 'speaks in a public capacity to a contemporary audience'.

PHILIP COX Sheffield Hallam University
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Author:Cox, Philip
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1997
Words:617
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Next Article:Spiritual History: A Reading of William Blake's Vala, or The Four Zoas.
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