The prophetic strain: Shelley on erotic failure and world legislation.
Till old experience do attain To something like Prophetic strain.
MICHAEL FERBER STATES THE ORTHODOX VIEW WHEN HE SAYS THAT IT IS with the completion of Alastor that "Shelley becomes Shelley," that "he arrives at the modes, themes, and style distinctive of his 'mature' poetry." (2) In Greek, "Alastor" names an "avenging demon," and there is a certain irony, if not nihilism, in the notion of coming into one's own under the aegis of vengeance. Indeed, in his preface to the poem Shelley appears to portray the world as an intrinsically vengeful place, suggesting that it rewards those who recognize its true nature by killing them off quickly rather than subjecting them, like those who fail to do so, to "slow and poisonous decay": "that Power which strikes the luminaries of the world with sudden darkness and extinction, by awakening them to too exquisite a perception of its influence, dooms to a slow and poisonous decay those meaner spirits that dare to abjure its dominion." (3) Harold Bloom writes in his gloss of this passage:
That Power is the Imagination, in its Wordsworthian formulation, and it brings with it a choice between two kinds of destruction: ... The first becomes a quest for a finite and measured object of desire which shall yet encompass in itself the beauty and truth of the infinite and unmeasured conceptions of the Poet. This quest is necessarily in vain, and leads to the untimely death of the quester. Such a theme would not have been acceptable to Wordsworth or Coleridge, and yet is the legitimate offspring of their own art and imaginative theory.... [T]o put it as a contrary of Wordsworth's language, Nature always will and must betray the human heart that loves her, for Nature ... is not adequate to meet the demands made upon her by the human imagination. (4)
This conception of a kind of Manichean antagonism between Imagination and Nature, between man and the world in which he's fated to pass his life, certainly is in keeping with the idea that Shelley's poem, and through it what we have come to recognize as "the mature Shelley," are born under the sign of a vengeful demon. Bloom suggests that "Shelley becomes Shelley" by asserting his incommensurability not only with Nature, but also with his own poetic progenitors, Wordsworth and Coleridge, who, by denying their incompatibility with Nature, are figured as representing not the nurturing soil of Shelleyan poetics but the "slow and poisonous decay" which that poetics springs to life by repudiating.
But this is in a sense to read Alastor's title with insufficient attention to what Bloom instructively identifies as Shelley's distinctively "urbane irony" (283). The preface does not only, as Bloom claims, contrast "two kinds of destruction: the Poet's solitude and the unimaginative man's lonely gregariousness" (285), but also, crucially, contrasts the "intercourse with an intelligence similar to himself" which the Poet actually "thirsts for," and the "single image," the "prototype of his conception," with which he vainly tries to quench that thirst. The Defense argues that "[t]he great secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own," and that "[t]he great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause" (517). In this light, Alastor's Poet can be seen to confuse cause and effect, devoting his love wholly to a certain "image," forgetting that the point of the imagination itself is the "requisitions" it makes "on the sympathy of corresponding powers in other human beings." In Alastor's preface, Shelley hardly holds the quest for sympathy to be vain; rather, it is precisely in contrast to that worthy end that the Poet's "vacancy of spirit makes itself felt":
The intellectual faculties, the imagination, the functions of sense, have their respective requisitions on the sympathy of corresponding powers in other human beings. The Poet is represented as uniting these requisitions, and attaching them to a single image. He seeks in vain for a prototype of his conception. Blasted by his disappointment, he descends to an untimely grave. (73)
Put most simply, the problem is not the Poet's quest for human sympathy but where he looks for it; and this characterization implies that there is a right place to look for it. As we've already begun to see, I think Shelley's conception of this right place has to do with a notion of the poetic imagination as integrally dependent on human sympathy as its underlying purpose, without, however, being able to definitively capture or fulfill that purpose in any of its determinate products: the inherently 'excessive' character of that purpose, its being always "too exquisite" for any determinate poetic product to capture, is the condition of sustaining poetic production generally. This means that Shelleyan imagination doesn't presuppose repudiation of nature, and that Shelley becoming Shelley doesn't presuppose repudiating Wordsworth and Coleridge. This is not to say that Shelley did not consider his precursors' triumphant reconciliationism as a significant failure; it's to say that he saw that failure, like that of Alastor's Poet, as a matter, not of failing to assert imaginative independence from nature, but of failing to meet the imagination's own "requisitions of sympathy." If, as the purpose of the poetic imagination, sympathy may sustain such imagination only to the extent that it defies definitive embodiment, if it is inherently excessive, then there is an important sense in which for Shelley such imagination necessarily fails. Which, again, hardly makes it vain: on the contrary, the argument of the following will be that it is precisely as an attempt to reconstruct Wordsworth's, Coleridge's, the Poet's, and finally his own, failures as constitutive (or "legislative") moments in the collective project of human sympathy ("the world," or what Shelley, also in the Defense, calls the "one great poem" to which all poetic efforts belong) that Shelley offers his distinctive contribution to that project, that "Shelley becomes Shelley."
Thus "Alastor," the vengeful demon, is precisely what the poem's subtitle calls it: "The Spirit of Solitude," the spirit which, in the words of the preface, simultaneously animates and dooms the "attempt to exist without human sympathy" (73). The prevailing theme of the poem is the way in which the quest to achieve unity with nature--to achieve, in Wordsworth's terms, coherence in oneself through the "piety" of "nature" itself--derails when the idea, the "conceptual prototype," of such unity is given precedence over its practical execution. It is just such a distinction--between the actual practical accomplishment of love and obsession with the abstract idea of loving--that the epigraph from Augustine registers: "Nondum amabam, et amare amabam, quaerebam quid amarem, amans amare." Augustine's less poetical contextualization makes the point most clearly:
As yet I had never been in love and I longed to love; and from a subconscious poverty of mind I hated the thought of being less inwardly destitute. I sought an object for my love; I was in love with love.... My hunger was internal, deprived of inward food, that is of you yourself, my God. But that was not the kind of hunger I felt. I was without any desire for incorruptible nourishment, not because I was replete with it, but the emptier I was, the more unappetizing such food became. (5)
Interestingly, although Augustine is talking about carnal desire, he faults himself not for incontinence itself so much as for the conceptual obfuscation that underwrites it by assimilating actual love to love of the mere idea of loving. In turn, although Alastor's Poet's failing is in a sense the opposite one of neglecting carnal love in favor of a spiritualized version, his fundamental problem is the same (which in light of the epigraph is unsurprising): if desire presupposes lack, then love of loving indicates precisely the absence of what it's after; as a love-object, the idea of loving represents a shrinking from the true practice of loving, an inversion of the "spirit of sweet human love" into a baleful "spirit of solitude:" "The spirit of sweet human love has sent / a vision to the sleep of him who spurned / Her choicest gifts" (203-5).
Like Shelley, Augustine distinguishes between the true object of his yearning and the false idea of that object. Moreover, Augustine, again like Alastor, characterizes this idea not only as false but also as part of a compulsive, strategic (albeit "subconscious") resistance to the truth: the false object does not merely misdirect the desire, but transforms it into a positive, systematic aversion to its actual aim, so that "the emptier I was, the more unappetizing [that aim] became," while "inward destitution," by contrast, became cherished for its own sake. So, as the love of loving gets established as an end in itself, its pursuit progressively exacerbates the same lack it is supposed to fulfill. It is a classic Freudian neurosis insofar as an actual, but troubling desire gives way to a very untroubling, because tightly regulated, pursuit that not only neglects the real desire but positively stigmatizes it, makes it an object of "hatred." On the other hand, what is satisfying for the neurosis is actually detrimental; one feeds off one's own hunger. In respect to its ostensible end, the love of loving is not merely vain, but positively destructive.
If the Poet's "spurning the gifts" of the beneficent spirit of love makes that spirit devolve to a baleful "spirit of solitude" that generates only a "vision," or negation, of such love, then Shelley is most concerned to show how the Poet, like Augustine, practically enacts this negation in the very moment of conceiving it. Thus, in the immediately ensuing sentence:
He eagerly pursues Beyond the realms of dream that fleeting shade; He overleaps the bounds. Alas! Alas! Were limbs, and breath, and being intertwined Thus treacherously? Lost, lost, for ever lost, In the wide pathless desart of dim sleep, That beautiful shape! Does the dark gate of death Conduct to thy mysterious paradise, O Sleep? ... This doubt with sudden tide flowed on his heart, The insatiate hope which it awakened, stung His brain even like despair.
The "vision" is so seductively "treacherous" that merely to bear witness to it is already to "overlap the bounds." To spurn the gifts of actual love in life is to subject oneself to "doubts [i.e. intimations]" of such gifts beyond life; yet this is not in itself to transcend living, but, on the contrary, to commit oneself to an "insatiate hope" for such transcendence, to live according to an insatiable desire for death. As such, this hope "stings like despair" for it is precisely a sense of the futility of life that sustains it; like Augustine's, the Poet's desire is fed by his own hunger. Shelley expands on the metaphor of the sting in the next stanza where he likens the Poet's condition to the "Frantic ... dizzying anguish" and "blind flight" of an eagle that is "grasped / In folds of the green serpent" and that "feels her breast / Burn with the poison" (227-29). As in Augustine's account of compulsively self-destructive love of love, the Poet's vision of love is an inversion not only of real love, but of reality generally; it is a systematic upheaval of the order of the world: as hope becomes the sign of despair, so the Poet himself is described as at once "fleeing" (237) and being "driven by" (232) the "bright shadow" (233) of the dream that is at once "lovely" (233) and "distempered" (225). Eventually this upheaval becomes something that the Poet is not merely subject to, but that he himself mordantly, indeed demonically, asserts and embodies. The Poet addresses a passing swan he admires:
"And what am I that I should linger here, With voice far sweeter than thy dying notes, Spirit more vast than thine, frame more attuned To beauty, wasting these surpassing powers In the deaf air, to the blind earth, and heaven That echoes not my thoughts?" A gloomy smile Of desperate hope convulsed his curling lips. For sleep, he knew, kept most relentlessly Its precious charge, and silent death exposed, Faithless perhaps as sleep, a shadowy lure, With doubtful smile mocking its own strange charms.
If the temporal world now "echoes not [his] thoughts," then the perverse, "strange charms" of death solicit the Poet with a smile that, although "doubtful" and "mocking" rather than "gloomy" and "desperate," mirrors the Poet's own smile perfectly insofar as both represent a wholly negative kind of self-relation, the "lure" of the perverse, death as the aim of life.
A crucial lesson of Freud's account of the death drive is its constitutive elusiveness: what it means to call death the aim of life is to say that life's ostensible aims are subordinate to a radically countervailing, disruptive impulse. Yet this is, in a sense, precisely the opposite of saying that this impulse may be understood as an alternative version of those aims; rather, it is the radical undoing of purposiveness generally. This is a lesson that Freud, in his very exposition of the death drive, as a drive, may be seen to resist. Instead of entertaining the possibility clearly posed by his own ruminations that some mental activity may fail to obey any principle, Freud advances the hypothesis that such failure is itself evidence of a deeper principle. For Freud, the repetitions of traumatic neurosis are finally not abortive attempts to install the pleasure principle by retrospectively "binding" and "disposing of" the traumatic stimulus, as Freud himself suggests they could be, (6) but expressions of a positive compulsion to repeat. The traumatized mind hasn't failed to integrate the traumatic event into the purposive economy of the pleasure principle; it has been reduced to obeying a purpose prior to that economy, that of a drive aimed ultimately at returning to the inorganic state of being that preceded life: "the aim of all life is death" (46). Imputing an implicit purposiveness to the repetition compulsion that dissolves all purpose, Freud exhibits a strategic resistance analogous to Augustine's, assimilating the disruptive ambiguities of practical life to overriding conceptual dictates.
Correspondingly, by this stage of the poem, it is no longer the dream or "death" per se that beckons the Poet, but the radical negativity, the sheerly formal elusiveness, which he has come to recognize as their defining feature. But if such elusiveness may be found only by failing to find it, then the Poet's quest, like Augustine's, comes to feed off its own failure. Thus the Poet no longer fights for his life against the serpent, but feels himself allied with the serpent in the common project of his own destruction; the enemy now is only the vulture who would certify that there is nothing left to destroy:
The waves arose. Higher and higher still Their fierce necks writhed beneath the tempest's scourge Like serpents struggling in a vulture's grasp. Calm and rejoicing in the fearful war Of wave ruining on wave, and blast on blast Descending, and black flood on whirlpool driven With dark obliterating course, he sate.
Once again moving from a passive to an active characterization of the Poet's role in his own destruction, Shelley goes on to describe "the Poet's path" (429) as integrally involved in death's ever "accumulating" "implications" (425; 431). Shelley equivocates whether the Poet is beckoned "By love, or dream, or god, or mightier Death" (428), yet finally makes clear that, in any case, it is by the Poet's own "thought":
... undulating woods, and silent well, And leaping rivulet, and evening gloom Now deepening the dark shades, for speech assuming Held commune with him, as if he and it Were all that was, --only ... when his regard Was raised by intense pensiveness ... two eyes, Two starry eyes, hung in the gloom of thought, And seemed with their serene and azure smiles To beckon him.
The eyes beckoning the Poet themselves emanate from his own thought, and the sheer, formal self-destructiveness animating this beckoning becomes apparent as Shelley shows how the Poet persists in separating the end of his pursuit from the means, even as that end is recognized as his own thought:
Obedient to the light That shone within his soul, he went, pursuing The windings of the dell ... ... ...--"O Stream! Whose source is inaccessibly profound, Whither do thy mysterious waters tend? Thou imagest my life ... ... ... and the wide sky, And measureless ocean may declare as soon What oozy cavern or what wandering cloud Contains thy waters, as the universe Tell where these living thoughts reside, when stretched Upon thy flowers my bloodless limbs shall waste I' the passing wind!"
The Poet comes to recognize Death as "king of this frail world" and possessed of "devastating omnipotence," and yet as fundamentally indifferent to the concerns of the living, a "sightless" "storm," "irresistible" yet blind, arbitrary with respect to human meanings and values (609-14). In the passage above, however, we can see the Poet perpetuating the formal negativity of the death drive even after accepting the meaninglessness of his own death. He imagines how his "bloodless limbs shall waste / I' the passing wind," thereby ceding his life, so to speak, to the "vulchers"; yet the Poet nonetheless manages to perpetuate the serpents' negative, poisoning activity even after there is nothing left of him to poison, insofar as he persists in abstracting from his own processes of thought an aim, origin, or home "where these living thoughts reside." Just as the act of love gave way to its negation to become love of loving, and just as the purpose of life was revealed to be Death, now, having seen through even the latter, the Poet proceeds to negate the purposiveness of the act of 'seeing through' itself, of thought per se; "[c]onsequently," William Ulmer writes, "the poem's deferrals leave meaning, for the Poet's perspective, firmly centered on an origin left intact by the inability to represent or incarnate it. The allegory of Alastor trades temporal freedom and flux for an obsessional Sameness." (7) The Poet is a true embodiment of the death drive, not because he definitively reveals or achieves "death as the aim of life," but because he practically exemplifies death as an inexhaustibly negative, or disruptive, impulse within life, an impulse to replace any aim life may propose, including that of death itself, with compulsive repetition, "obsessional Sameness."
One pressing difficulty faced by this reading, however, is posed by the poem's narrative frame. As I noted in passing, the poem begins by invoking a natural unity implicitly continuous with poetic activity (under the aegis of Wordsworthian "natural piety"). Yet this invocation issues from the narrator's own perspective of radically isolated individuality (or "Spirit of Softtude") that knows only exchange ("recompense"), possession (what is "dear to me") and infraction ("injury," "boast"): the narrator is a free radical that is yet to be integrated into the unity of nature and that therefore can appeal only for "forgiveness" as the means of such integration:
Earth, ocean, air, beloved brotherhood! If our great Mother has imbued my soul With aught of natural piety to feel Your love, and recompense the boon with mine ... If spring's voluptuous paintings when she breathes Her first sweet kisses, have been dear to me; If no bright bird, insect, or gentle beast I consciously have injured, but still loved And cherished these my kindred; then forgive this boast, beloved brethren, and withdraw No portion of your wonted favour now!
The Poet's dilemma is no less that of the narrator: for the lone individual the "mystery" of natural continuity can ultimately only mean the mystery of death: to the free radical it can only ever constitute its negation. (8) Thus it's from death itself that this individual would win "trophies," not of integration, but that merely defer, repress, or "still" inherently disruptive, "obstinate questionings":
Mother of this unfathomable world! Favour my solemn song, for I have loved Thee ever, and thee only ... ... I have made my bed In charnels and on coffins, where black death Keeps record of the trophies won from thee, Hoping to still these obstinate questionings Of thee and thine, by forcing some lone ghost, Thy messenger, to render up the tale Of what we are.
In this pursuit of such trophies, the narrator himself exemplifies the same self-undermining negative activity that he attributes to the Poet and for which Augustine supplies the epigraph: just as in Augustine the idea of love serves as a means of resisting its actuality, so for the Poet and the narrator (no less than Freud himself), the idea of Death serves as a means of resisting its actuality.
At the same time, however, the narrator's quotation of Wordsworth's "obstinate questionings" suggests that what he is doing is not only resisting, but also reflecting upon, or at least rehearsing or performing, resistance in a way that cannot be reduced entirely to sheer resistance. This would open the possibility that the lesson we've been drawing from the poem--that, in Ulmer's words, "death is the last refuge of a linguistic idealism that insists on meaning as the closure of tenor and vehicle, soul and body" (43)--is not only a judgment rendered upon the poem but also by the poem upon itself. This distinction becomes more pronounced in the final stanza of the narrator's prologue. Here the narrator initially makes a hollow, unilateral claim to precisely the "stillness"--the "moveless" "serenity"--of which the preceding two stanzas, and his continued appeal to nature, show him to be acutely lacking:
... though ne'er yet Thou hast unveil'd thy inmost sanctuary, Enough from incommunicable dream, And twilight phantasms, and deep noonday thought, Has shown within me, that serenely now And moveless, as a long-forgotten lyre Suspended in the solitary dome Of some mysterious and deserted fane, I wait thy breath, Great Parent ...
Quite to the contrary of serenity and stillness, what is striking about this passage is the way in which it shows the narrator resituating himself, and his narrative and poetic activity, with respect to the natural mystery he would have that activity uncover. No longer a possessive individual that addresses nature from without, that could "injure" nature but that pledges to "recompense" what of nature is "dear to me," now the narrator (anticipating a principal figure of the Defense) likens himself to a lyre and his narrative and poetic production to the sound which nature's own winds produce as they flow through it. This is hardly to resolve the fundamentally self-undermining way in which the narrator has defined his, like the Poet's, quest. Indeed, the abrupt, blithe claim the narrator makes to having achieved the same stillness which the prior stanza had figured as absolutely elusive testifies to how remote such a resolution still is. Yet I'd like to suggest that it does at least signal how such a resolution may be achieved. For, even as the narrator makes cheap claims to success that only testify to how remote success actually is, by construing the activity itself of such claim making, along with that of his poetics and narration generally, as an activity of nature itself, he makes his readers alive to the possibility that the kind of failure the narrator and Poet alike exhibit need not preclude reunification with nature but may constitute a, indeed perhaps the, means of such reunification.
This possibility is most precisely registered by the dual senses of "strain" that are in play in the following lines; if the "strain" or compulsion undermining the quest of the Poet and narrator alike is the poem's unmistakably dominant topos, then, Shelley seems to want to suggest, such compulsion may itself provide the material for a reconciliation with nature, a "strain" of a harmony that is genuinely new:
I wait thy breath, Great Parent, that my strain May modulate with murmurs of the air, And motions of the forests and the sea, And voice of living beings, and woven hymns Of night and day, and the deep heart of man.
If, as Shelley argues in the Defense, the "great instrument" of sympathy is the poetic imagination, then this instrument may be properly played only independently, or in defiance, of determinate "purposes" and "aims." For the latter are merely sympathy's "effects" not its "cause," and "poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause"; but this it does precisely by creating a "void," or lack of aim, and in this sense, although irreducible to it, poetry nonetheless presupposes, rather than vanquishes, compulsive feeding off one's own hunger:
Those in whom the poetical faculty, though great, is less intense ... have frequently affected a moral aim, and the effect of their poetry is diminished in exact proportion to the degree in which they compel us to advert to this purpose.... Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new internals and interstices whose void for ever craves fresh food. (517 f.)
If Shelley's account looks forward to Freud's account of death, it simultaneously looks back to Plato's account of love. Indeed, aside from Shelley's well-known deep interest in the Symposium, the central role played by the problem of compulsive repetition in Plato's account of love makes it, along with Wordsworth's "Intimations Ode," an unavoidable referent of Alastor. In the dialogue, Socrates casts his eulogy to Eros as an absolute repudiation of those of his forerunners, and can in this respect be compared to Bloom's casting of Shelley as repudiating his early romantic forebears, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Socrates chastises his companions for taking the goal of their competition to be that one "should be thought to eulogize Eros, and not just eulogize him," and consequently for "attribut[ing] to the matter at hand ... the greatest and fairest things possible regardless of whether this was so or not." (9) Like the ritual of Agathon's "victory sacrifice," they take eulogy to involve a ritual of homage and thanksgiving, invoking what is greatest and fairest in praise and thanks for gifts whose particular character they do not pretend to understand. This characterization of his competitors doesn't appear altogether fair; but in any event it makes Socrates' intention for his eulogy clear: it will not be a mere obeisance which maintains an absolute separation between divine and mortal, but (to frontload the key term of Plato's account) an ascent toward the divine, an approach towards truth which narrows that separation.
The comparison of Shelley's Mont Blanc with Coleridge's Hymn before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni, shows Shelley analogously setting out to correct a misguided concept of "paying tribute" or "praise": the practice that Coleridge's Hymn ostensibly embodies, and that Shelley figures in the first section of Mont Blanc. Both poems may be seen as responding to the question posed in the middle of the Hymn:
And you, ye five wild torrents fiercely glad! Who called you forth from night and utter death ... Who gave you your invulnerable life, Your strength, your speed, your fury, and your joy, Unceasing thunder and eternal foam? And who commanded (and the silence came), Here let the billows stiffen, and have rest?
For Coleridge and Shelley alike, the origin is sublime, inherently ineffable, and thus merely negatively indexed as, variously, the invisible, the silent, the secret. The spectacle of the mountain opens the poet's mind to the prospect of something beyond all spatial and temporal bounds: the finite, empirical object provides access to a sense of the infinite, unconditioned order of being. On this point the two characterizations overlap remarkably. Coleridge writes: "O dread and silent Mount! I gazed upon thee, / Till thou, still present to the bodily sense, / Didst vanish from my thought: entranced in prayer / I worshipped the Invisible alone" (13-6); Shelley's version attempts to evoke more fully this paradoxical vision of invisibility, sound of silence:
... the snows descend Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there, Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun, Or the star-beams dart through them;--Winds contend Silently there, and heap the snow with breath Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home The voiceless lightning in these solitudes Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods Over the snow. The secret strength of things Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
In Coleridge and Shelley alike there is a tension between two conceptions of this sublime origin: first as a kind of ontological absolute, a condition of the possibility of the world as we know it, and of which certain, particularly striking features of the world (such as the mountain) serve to remind us; secondly, not merely as a precondition of reality, of which we may be ignorant or cognizant, but in neither case do we thereby change reality; on the contrary, as a means of actually bringing ourselves and the origin into closer proximity, of positively reconstituting (or, for Shelley, "legislating" anew) our mutual relation. This distinction parallels that which Socrates draws between his colleagues' indeterminate praise, which affirms an absolute separation between the object of praise and the subject uttering it, and Socrates' own which pretends to participate in, or "ascend" towards, Eros by means of praising it. Arguably, it is precisely the tension between these two conceptions that the Hymn's conclusion, despite its emphatic identification of "praising" God with "uttering forth God," is designed to suppress. After appealing to the "flowers," "goats," "eagles," "lightnings" and other "wonders of the element" to "Utter forth God, and fill the hills with praise!" Coleridge appeals to the mountain as well:
Thou too again, stupendous Mountain! Thou That as I raise my head, awhile bowed low In adoration, upward from thy base Slow traveling with dim eyes suffused with tears, Solemnly seemest, like a vapoury cloud, To rise before me--Rise, O ever rise, Rise like a cloud of incense, from the Earth! Thou kingly Spirit throned among the hills, Thou dread ambassador from Earth to Heaven, Great hierarch! Tell thou the silent sky, And tell the stars, and tell yon rising sun, Earth, with her thousand voices, praises God.
The capacity to "utter forth God" by the very act of praising him, which Coleridge expressly affirms in all of life's multifarious forms (Earth's "thousand voices") and likens to the perpetual "rise" of the mountain, making the latter an "ambassador from Earth to Heaven," he also simultaneously implicitly denies insofar as all of those voices are assimilated to that of the "Great hierarch." Like Socrates' competitors, Coleridge allows only one form of praise, and, by this practical restriction, implicitly preempts the expressive specificity which the act of praise is supposed to promise: rather than giving voice to what is specific about the experience of seeing the invisible, hearing the silent, unlocking the secret of an unconditioned order of being, Coleridge, like Socrates' colleagues, compels praise to assume the form of conventional, ritualistic exercise, a perfunctory bow to the "Great hierarch" whose primacy among "the Earth's thousand voices" is to be accepted on faith. Ultimately the Hymn does not promote expression but hegemony, and thus does not overcome the tension between praising and "uttering forth God" so much as it reinforces it. (11)
It will help illuminate Shelley's response to this hegemonic maneuver of Coleridge's to consider Socrates' response to that of his competitors. Socrates intends his eulogy to demystify and secularize Eros, emphasizing that it is "about this very word" 099d). Thus Socrates begins by pointing out its peculiar logical structure: Eros requires a genitive object; it is always of a particular object. The implication of this logical structure is that "the desirous thing desires what it is in need of, and does not desire unless it is in need" (200b) and, consequently, that "Eros is in need of and does not have beauty ... is neither beautiful ... nor good" (201). Eros represents the negative aspect of human desire, the fact that we want what we do not have, that we want to make ours only what is not ours. The fact that Eros functions in this negative way opens up an intermediary space between complete knowing and ignorance, beauty and ugliness: a middle ground of practical ambiguity which Socrates' competitors' hegemonic appeal to conventional religious authority, like Coleridge's, tends to suppress. In turn, as a practical consequence unto himself of the logical principle he represents, Eros is not in fact a god at all but a demon, intermediating between the human and the divine. Indeed, the practical consequence of Eros' logical negativity, his constitutive dependence upon what he lacks, is to make his fundamental function that of mediation: "'Interpreting and ferrying to gods things from human beings and to human beings things from gods'" (202e). By recognizing rather than suppressing the irreducible element of ambiguity in practical life, this doctrine of Eros can, ironically, be seen as attesting more faithfully to the strictly functional disruptiveness of death than Freud's doctrine of the death drive. By the same token, however, whereas Socrates claimed his account would be distinguished from his companions' by determining Eros' specific truth, he does so only to reveal that Eros' defining function is to inject a generalized indeterminacy or ambiguity into human practical life, and thereby to preclude such conclusive determination.
Thus there is a profound and characteristically Socratic irony to this account; an irony which tends to push the account from the exclusively theoretical onto the practical plane, such that we come to see Socrates' claim to state a singular truth also, and perhaps more importantly, as an exemplary instance unto itself of the ubiquitous "interpreting and ferrying" that truth entails. This irony is I think the key to understanding Diotima's famous and odd formulation, "eros is not of the beautiful," but of "bringing to birth in the beautiful" (206b). Diotima claims that the activity of "ferrying and interpreting.... shares" in immortality without actually being "the immortal," which itself does not share in this activity but "has a different way" (208b). As Diotima characterizes it, "the pregnant draws near to beauty ... becomes glad and in its rejoicing dissolves and then gives birth and produces offspring" (206d). This reproductive activity manages to share in the divine, Diotima suggests, not by virtue of successfully seducing or capturing it and "ferrying" it home, nor of arriving at an interpretation so correct that it goes beyond interpretation and becomes simple truth; on the contrary, it comes to participate in the divine precisely by virtue of its own, eminently temporal and concrete self-propagation. Hence the ultimate object of desire is always the regenerative activity itself to which desiring gives rise: eros is "of engendering," Diotima says, "because engendering is born forever and is immortal as far as that can happen to a mortal being" (207a). The activity of bringing to birth is itself "born forever": birthing gives birth to birthing in perpetuity. Consequently, we approach the beautiful object of our desire only to discover that it ultimately devolves to, or, in Diotima's term, "dissolves" into the activity itself of our approaching. This is just what Shelley is getting at when he writes in the Defense that "[m]an in society, with all his passions and his pleasures ... becomes the object of the passions and pleasure of man; an additional class of emotions produces an augmented treasure of expressions; and language, gesture and the imitative arts, become at once the representation and the medium, the pencil and the picture, the chisel and the statue, the chord and the harmony" (511). It is evident, however, that Shelley's and Diotima's characterizations of erotic practice bring us perilously close to Augustine's "love of loving," and thus require us to return to the problem of repetition.
Socrates' famous last words in the dialogue, according to Aristodemus' hazy memory, are to the effect that "the same man should know how to make comedy and tragedy; and that he who is by art a tragic poet is also a comic poet" (223d). The problem with Alcibiades' love for Socrates can be characterized along these lines: he only knows how to love tragically, which leads him hubristically to, in Shelley's term, "overleap" beyond his erotic means, and, falling far short of his aim, to confuse compulsive suffering, which he likens to a viper's "burning poison," with meaningful tragedy (218a). Hence Socrates' advice to Alcibiades is to "consider better: without your being aware of it--I may be nothing. Thought, you know, begins to have keen eyesight when the sight of the eyes starts to decline from its peak; and you are still far from that" (219a); how far is measured according to Diotima's account of erotic ascent:
From one to two, and from two to all beautiful bodies; and from beautiful bodies to beautiful pursuits; and from pursuits to beautiful lessons; and from lessons to end at the lesson, which is the lesson of nothing else than the beautiful itself; and at last to know what is beauty itself.... [O]nly here, in seeing in the way the beautiful is seeable, will [a human being] get to engender not phantom images of virtue ... but true.... [O]nce he has given birth to and cherished true virtue, it lies within him to become dear to god, and, if it is possible for any human being, to become immortal as well. (211c--212a)
Sustaining the "pregnancy" of desire is not a matter of disavowing the "phantom images" in which beauty may appear to us; on the contrary, the example of Alcibiades demonstrates the "deflating" or "evacuating" effect of such overweening pretense. Alcibiades needs to acknowledge that he sees too well, Socrates says, to bear witness to the higher order beauty of thought he claims to love in Socrates. Alcibiades thinks higher order beauty may be captured in the tangible physical forms of lower order beauty; in effect, he makes a fetish of Socrates' body, attributing to it qualities that it is not in the nature of a body to have. In doing so he emblematizes what Nietzsche criticized as philosophical Bedurftigkeit (indigence or neediness),12 and Diotima as a "calculating" and "enslaving.... contentment with the beauty in one" (210d): Alcibiades needs to know he's possessing the object of his desire in the same compulsive way a child needs to know he's got his favorite toy in his hands, or an adolescent needs to know his love is reciprocated.
To be sure, in the cases of the child and the adolescent such neediness is not necessarily inappropriate: for them the "tragedy" that results when the love-object resists that neediness can be productive, it can meaningfully inform the lover about herself and the world by bringing into better relief the subtle limits upon what she may realistically demand of the world. The child and adolescent may grow, or advance their character development, as a result of such tragic disappointment, becoming new persons in the sense that they would no longer be prone to repeat precisely the same tragedy. But it is a regressive--and as Coleridge and Socrates' colleagues exemplify, also oppressive, hegemonic--fantasy to believe that the love of wisdom is propelled by the same need for discrete love-objects.
In Plato's account, it is an indication of growth or "ascent" that what was formally exclusively tragic comes to assume a comic aspect as well: part of tragic anagnorisis, of genuinely learning something from my tragic fate, is to become incapable of repeating the same disappointment in precisely the same terms. The effect of such learning is to "bring to birth" a new person, for whom the prospect of repeating the same disappointment in the same terms would involve a comic misrecognition on my part, both of my self and my world. Shelley, in the Defense, likewise would have us understand the defining moment of sympathy in terms of the imaginative "distention" it requires: "The imagination is enlarged by a sympathy with pains and passions so mighty that they distend in their conception the capacity of that by which they are conceived"; thus sympathy inspiring poetry "multiplies all that it reflects, and endows it with the power of propagating its like wherever it may fall" (520). This is also the way to understand that view of Shelley's with which we began, according to which the power of truth "strikes the luminaries with extinction by awakening them to too exquisite a perception of its influence": to penetrate to truth is by definition to fall out of the practical "interpreting and ferrying" devoted to pursuing it; falling short of such penetration does not undermine this pursuit but sustains it; this is its inherently double-edged or "vengeful" nature. Ulmer writes that "Shelleyan desire continually reinstates the forces threatening it through its structural dependence on them" (28).13
If the meaningfulness of our practical projects depends in some sense on their failure, then Plato suggests that tragedy and comedy are simply the forms in which the significance of our practical failures crystallizes for us. To be sure, there is no denying that in her account of the ascent, Diotima appears to hold out the possibility of achieving immortality despite her claim that the immortal itself "has a different way" than, is not implicated in, erotic ascending. Socrates' impassive response to Alcibiades erotic advances clearly lends itself to the inference that Socrates is supposed to represent the actualization of this possibility. Socrates may thus be seen as a version of Coleridge's "Great hierarch," hegemonically assimilating all diffuse erotic striving to one, bluntly hypostatized ideal. What is remarkable about the dialogue's ending, however, is the emphatic way in which Plato nonetheless insists on Socrates' abiding implication in the inexorable corporeal repetitions of temporal existence: Plato's provocative concluding sentence evokes precisely the inertia of Socrates' sleeping body, its intransigent, mechanical "order." Socrates' evidently extreme bodily discipline only accentuates the fact that the compulsion to sleep is no less involuntarily imposed upon him than Aristophanes' hiccups: in a sense, we may see Socrates' sleep as merely the final iteration in the series of corporeal compulsions that proceeded through hiccups, sneezing and laughing. If we chose to see Socrates as pregnant with immortality, Plato insists that we understand that he is only pregnant with it, that he is pressing up against the limits of earthly existence, perhaps, but not pushing beyond them. Thus Plato suggests that even the final stage of Diotima's ascent is inexorably tragic insofar as immortality or beauty itself may be temporally "realized" only at the cost of reducing it to an "image." The comic aspect of this scenario, then, is the flip side of the tragedy: Socrates' "loss" of immortality simultaneously "brings birth to" new possibilities not for immortality itself, but for temporally "interpreting and ferrying" immortality. If the tragedy is the way in which his seeming actualization of immortality was revealed as only an actualization of seeming immortality, then the fruit of this tragedy is a new perspective that is capable of retrospectively reconstruing it as a comedy of misrecognition, and that, consequently, may no longer be tragically enchanted by quite the same image of the one true immortality. This is not to say that it cannot subsequently be tragically enchanted by another such image; but, having watched the prior tragic enchantment "dissolve" into a comedy of misrecognition, this perspective has "ascended" in the sense that it no longer sees quite so much distance between the object of desire and the activity of desiring, the immortal itself and the mortal activity that merely "shares" in it. By the same token, it no longer sees quite so much distance between tragedy and comedy.
It is precisely such a retrospective rewriting that Shelley gives to Coleridge's Hymn, transforming the relation to the "Great hierarch," which, as determined by the Hymn, is bound to lead only to inanely tragic repetition of formulaic submission before an inaccessible authority, into a case of essentially comic misrecognition by articulating a more refined conception of what "paying tribute" means, and thereby rendering obsolete, no longer properly inhabitable, the simple relation of religious supplication. Shelley concludes Mont Blanc by asking, of the same "thousand voices" of the Earth that Coleridge had bowing before the "Great hierarch": "And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea, / If to the human mind's imaginings / Silence and solitude were vacancy?" (143-45). Coleridge's vision of "the Invisible" is made to testify, no longer to an inscrutable, higher power, but to the power immanent in the poetic imagination that defines it as such to begin with. In the same terms, the opening section of the poem figures the reconciliation of the contending senses of praise--that of merely paying tribute to God and that of actually contributing thereby to God's constitution ("uttering forth God")--whereas the Hymn, as we saw, hegemonically assimilated the latter for the former:
The everlasting universe of things Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves, Now dark--now glittering--now reflecting gloom-- Now lending splendour, where from secret springs The source of human thought its tribute brings Of waters,--with a sound but half its own, Such as a feeble brook will oft assume In the wild woods, among the mountains lone, Where waterfalls around it leap for ever, Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.
The universe flows through the mind yet is nurtured [from a "[feeble brook" to a "vast river" by the mind's own "tributes" to it: the [falls, contending winds and woods--the universe is ultimately nothing other than the sum of those tributes so that in the sublime spectacle of its "raving" and "bursting" the mind finds precisely itself reflected. Shelley takes advantage of the dual senses of "tribute"--as the source itself (the tributary), and the expression of debt to the source (14)--not to surreptitiously assimilate one to the other, but to evoke an overriding "unity of the flow": off mind and its object (the universe), of source and derivative, of sound and echo, and of the object and its sublimation. Thus Mont Blanc undertakes two projects simultaneously: i) to show the unity of imagination and nature in the eternal process of imaginative "interpreting and [ferrying"; and ii) to "bring to birth" the pregnant promise implicit to, albeit suppressed by, Coleridge's Hymn. (15) While the first project may, no less than the Hymn's claim to articulate a definitive unity of imagination and nature, be destined to end in tragedy, the second has the effect of rehabilitating the Hymn's tragedy as a case of essentially comic misrecognition, and, thereby, of mitigating the tragedy of the first project by practically exemplifying a moment within the same eternal process it cannot but fail to definitively articulate.
Socrates' account of Eros reveals the discursive poverty it repudiates and would overcome, the beautiful ideal it would seduce in order to achieve this overcoming (determinate truth), and, finally, the tragic upshot that the seduction succeeds only to disclose that it could not and can never succeed, and hence has been a case of comic misrecognition all along. But the offspring of Socrates' [failed seduction is not his speech itself (this is the attempt at seduction), but what his auditors, and finally us, Plato's readers, make of his speech. That the speech bears some kind of fruit is indicated by the fact that, in its wake, we cannot return to Socrates' competitors' speeches and read them as we had before; we are called upon to recognize the possibility for a less impoverished, more resourceful discourse than we had before: to learn from rather than repeat this tragedy, to grow or bring birth to something new. This is an eminently "pregnant" result, one could say, yet it is left to us to bring this pregnancy to birth. Only the concrete attempt to actualize this promise will determine the precise measure and quality of the fruit the speech bears.
It is precisely in the term of a pregnancy that has yet to be delivered that the enigmatic conclusion of Alastor should be understood, and, in turn, that the narrator's initially apparently vain quest, his compulsive "strain," to reconcile himself to nature, promises, precisely by not producing, the harmonious "strain" of just such reconciliation. Just as Plato closes the Symposium with Socrates' inert body, the poem ends with the narrator addressing the Poet's corpse directly; the lesson the narrator draws from this death, like that which I am suggesting we draw from the Symposium, is the tragic ineliminability of compulsive repetition (or, for Freud, "death") in life generally. Yet this is a tragedy, the narrator insists, that makes itself felt in practice, not theoretical insight: it is not by elegizing the Poet, pretending to contain death in expressions of grief, but precisely by renouncing such containment, that we will properly recognize the implications of this tragedy:
... Art and eloquence, And all the shews o' the world are frail and vain To weep a loss that turns their lights to shade. It is a woe too "deep for tears," when all Is reft at once, when some surpassing Spirit, Whose light adorned the world around it, leaves Those who remain behind, not sobs or groans, The passionate tumult of a clinging hope; But pale despair and cold tranquility, Nature's vast form, the web of human things, Birth and the grave, that are not as they were.
If all is no longer as it was, from nature to the human experience that, as represented by the Poet and narrator, stood in perpetual opposition to nature, then this is emphatically not a matter of a loss that we should grieve, since grieving is in its own way still a "clinging hope" that what's lost may be retrieved; as such, this hope necessarily remains implicated in the same antithesis of individual and nature, and compulsive struggle to overcome that antithesis, that precipitated the loss to begin with. Grieving death, whether affectively or artistically, whether by way of "tears" or "thoughts," actually propogates death insofar as it perpetuates the repetition compulsion that brought it about. To show this, however, is not to point out the inherent vanity of erotic striving, but to precipitate the opening of new possibilities for undertaking it, to "bring to birth" a new self incapable of experiencing precisely the same tragedy)6
Such a revolutionary promise clearly figures in the resolution of the "Intimations Ode" Shelley cites:
The Clouds that gather round the setting sun Do take a sober colouring from an eye That hath kept watch o'er man's mortality; Another race hath been, and other palms are won. Thanks to the human heart by which we live, Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, To me the meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
If, for Wordsworth, to "grieve not" means to "find / Strength in what remains behind," then the conclusion of the "Intimations Ode" goes so far as to show how such "grieving" does not merely "clingingly hope" for the return of the lost object, but constitutes that object by the very act of mourning its loss: the "tear" originates conjointly with the "thought" that negates it. In section IO the "thought" provoked by birdsong, which in section 3 had thrown the poet into a tailspin of self-doubt, is now embraced precisely for its negating effects; hence "We will grieve not, rather find / Strength in what remains behind.... In the soothing thoughts that spring / Out of human suffering; / In the faith that looks through death" (180-86). Thus at the "Ode's conclusion the poet acknowledges that nature does "take a sober colouring from an eye" that looks out from the experience of keeping "watch o'er man's mortality." In contrast to Coleridge's Hymn, the "Intimations Ode" here acknowledges that "colouring" nature with the same "mortality" that cuts man off from it offers the sole means of exercising a "faith that looks through death." What Wordsworth evokes here is the experience not of the fragmenting negativity of thought as opposed to the positive unity of nature, but of such negativity by means of that unity. If the "might" of nature remains uncompromised, it is only so that it may thereby register the "sober colouring" with which that negativity infuses it. Instead of trying to see negativity or "mortality" or "death" itself reflected in what it negates, thought attempts to capture a "faith that looks through death," that recognizes living nature not only as the antithesis of such negation, but also, and, indeed, consequently, as practically inextricable from it: as united in an overarching practical unity or what Wordsworth's 1802 Preface terms a "habit of mind" (Selected Poems 435). By recognizing the sunset as "taking" its very coloring from the poet's own negativity, and that negativity, in turn, as infusing
the natural spectacle of the sunset itself, the poet dissolves the rift between negative thought and positive nature, integrating both in the unified act of poetic "interpreting and ferrying" itself.
According to Geoffrey Hartman, Wordsworth's "credo is that integration-or reintegration will triumph.... The poems written between 1797 and 1807 reflect [that] triumph.... [O]ften they are that triumph itself." (18) Thus the mind's disruptive negativity is finally tamed within a memorial poetics of what Hartman calls "elation," drawing on Hegel's concept of reconciliation or "sublation." It is only the "first part" of this poetics that registers the inextricability of whole and fragment, of natural unity and disruptive imagination:
the burden of the second part of Wordsworth's Er-innerung [is] tranquil recollection [which] preserves the experience of yesterday ... so inwardly that it seems to be forgotten; not a part of us but of a substance in which we participate.... The form of dealing with death is now drawn as if directly from language rather than from the epitaph tradition. There is a new immediacy.... Since the subject is a death, we can also talk of purification; though as a spiritual and verbal, not a ritual process. Through purified words we glimpse the nature of all words. Words ... are the elated monument. (189)
Hartman's contrast of a progressive, "spiritual and verbal purification," on the one hand, with rather inert and repetitious "ritual" and "epitaph," on the other, is in keeping with the Platonic contrast between pregnant and non-pregnant desire. In Hartman's reading, the "Intimations Ode" offers a determinately embodied "immediacy," "tranquility," "purity," "substantiality" and "monumentality," and hence transitions from "intimations of immortality" to achieved immortality itself. But it is just such reconciliation that Alastor's conclusion resists by revealing the Poet's pretense to immortality to conceal a void that defies grieving: a radically inert body analogous to the one Plato revealed beneath the "phantom image" of Socrates' immortality. That the reader's attempts to unite with nature need not succumb to self-destructive compulsion in just the same way as the Poet's and narrator's, that erotic striving per se need not be vain, is not "triumphantly" attested by a poetic "monument" which the reader is given to revere in the manner of Coleridge's "Great hierarch," but held out as a promise which is left to the reader to realize. It is only as a result of such realization that the "strain" of erotic negativity, which exhausts Alastor's actual content, may, retrospectively, be made one with the "strain" of a poetic harmonization achieved in the wake of, or inspired by, that negativity. Thus Shelley's characterization of the way in which Alastor's narrator's premature claim to a conciliatory "serenity" belies the actual remoteness of reconciliation finally applies to all claims to achieved "tranquility." In keeping with Socrates' account of Eros' integral negativity, Alastor, contra Hartman's Wordsworth, suggests that continuity with nature is sustained only by its absence, as a promise yet to be realized, a "phantom image of beauty" that, precisely as a mere phantom rather than achieved "monument," inspires erotic striving rather than putting it to rest.
Paralleling the account I'm offering, in The Fateful Question of Culture Hartman offers an account of Wordsworth's pivotal historical importance in terms of the struggle between Eros and Death. The kind of repetition compulsion, or death, that we have been considering throughout--"loving loving" as opposed to doing it--Hartman suggestively explores in terms of what he calls the distinctively modern "abstract life." To this he opposes the singular capacity of culture--and by culture he "mean[s] the ring and function of the word, its emotional and conceptual resonance"--to "keep hope in embodiment alive" in the modern context; (19) "to redeem imagination from abstraction, to achieve, with or without the state, a more embodied and less alienated way of life" (180). Pushing us to accept a concretely practical, creative responsibility for the constitution of the world we inhabit is, according to Hartman, the signal contribution of Wordsworth's poetics to the idea of culture in the modern context. Wordsworth does so by shifting experience from the realm of the "found" to that of the "made," thereby implicating us inexorably in what Hartman calls an "imaginaire" of which our own active, creative contribution is the very condition of possibility. What a poem like the "Intimations Ode" transmits is simply the occasion or "potentiality" for such an imaginaire which it is up to its readers to actualize: "the imaginaire created is not so much a heightened picture of forces within a specific historical moment as the transmission of a potentiality whose realism and idealism can no longer be distinguished and that we reclaim, whether it actually existed or not" (16, n. 13). If the "faith that sees through death" is itself a product of "interpreting and ferrying," then to become possessed of this faith is necessarily already to be implicated in the same creative activity to which it bears witness. A hard lesson of Shelley's rewriting of the "Ode" in Alastor, however, is that such a creative onus is finally incommensurable both with the "tranquilly.... triumphant" poetics of memorial elation, and, in turn, with the determinate political implications which Hartman would draw from such poetics:
Wordsworth's poetry does not reflect in any simple way an existing situation; it surrounds it, rather, with an imaginative aura ... that helped to create the sense of a particularly English culture. I speculate that this saved English politics from the virulence of a nostalgic political ideal centering on rural virtue, which led to serious ravages on the continent. (7)
The "potentiality" that Wordsworth's poetry "transmits" is, according to Hartman, that of shedding subjection to the "given," whether this be conceived in terms of natural immediacy, cultural or ethnic positivism, metaphysics of tradition, or even democratic procedures. But, by linking Wordsworthian imagination to certain determinate realities, to a supposed "beneficial political influence" (16, n. 13), to "a sense of particularly English culture," and even to the "specific gravity of his words" (Unremarkable 190), Hartman runs the risk of undermining such "potentiality," and of bestowing upon political realities a distractingly if not balefully imaginary sanction. Indeed, as if to renounce such linkages, Hartman goes on to say:
Today there are those who see the "general culture" as hegemonic. If we acknowledge, however, the antinomy between "a culture" and "culture," then the right conclusion would be that it is "a culture" that tends toward hegemony, while "culture," understood as the development of a public sphere, a "republic of letters" in which ideas can be freely exchanged, is what is fragile. (Fateful 41)
Hartman construes "general culture" as a universally available alternative or remedy for nostalgic cultural politics--which one can either take or leave, and "English culture" has had the good fortune to, in some degree, have taken. What Alastor, by contrast, promises is not merely one option among others for inhabiting the world, but rather the potential of an utterly changed world, a world "legislated" anew. In this comparison, Hartman's construal appears to veer from an actually embodied practice to an abstracted practice of such practice analogous to Augustine's love of loving. As Shelley shows, the "potentiality" Hartman would propagate is too exacting for "serene," "moveless" embodiment; the imagination is "distended" by what it lacks, not by what it has, whether this be embodied in "English culture," "general culture," or even the "Great Ode."
In this respect Hartman can be seen insufficiently to heed his own apt observation that "[f]or a critical perspective on culture to establish itself creatively--that is, in a way that is involved with art, even becoming art--might mean ... an exilic perspective, a language disturbance that goes back to cultural displacement" (Fateful 227). But Hartman's suggestion that genuinely embodied cultural practice might necessarily be marginal, "exiled" from "general culture," points up a sense in which, at least in the case of Shelley's reception of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and also Plato, such practice is not in fact properly characterizable as culture to begin with, for what it embodies is not a collectivity so much as an idiosyncratic tradition of "interpreting and ferrying" so exacting in its practical demands as to effectively defy objective conceptualization as a "tradition": it's an "exiled" practice which one either propagates or not but which defies adequate, general-purpose characterization from without. Putting it in these terms makes Shelley sound like a kind of proto-Pynchon; and in fact, the kind of apocalyptic aesthetic and praxis that gives Shelley's romanticism a post-modern edge is precisely what Robert Kaufman's compelling reading of the Defense most emphasizes: "Working from materials at hand, poetry must reinvent itself and society; a new poetic must do to capitalism what Milton's poetic did to feudalism: namely, supersede it, through the immanent, imaginative projection of something new and previously inconceivable." (20) Shelley would mobilize the practical opportunities contingently availed by the present to reconstruct the past in ways that open an unforeseeable future "potentiality"; what Kaufman calls a "post-everything world."
What Shelley in fact embodies, then, and retrospectively shows Wordsworth, Coleridge and Plato respectively to embody, is not "general culture" or "a culture" or even a "monument" to their absence, but (to introduce a third usage of the term) a strain, a lineage of emphatically singular instances of irreducible erotic striving, or, as Shelley puts it in the Defense, "episodes to that great poem, which all poets ... have built up since the beginning of the world" (522): a series of tragic and comic poetic efforts so intimately linked that each is inconceivable without all the rest; each is in a sense nothing other than a rewriting or "bringing to birth" of all the rest, in the sense in which Diotima says that the ultimate erotic object--the image of immortality and beauty that inspires erotic striving, what Shelley here calls the "one great poem"--is not in fact an object at all but the irreducible practice of erotic striving itself, pregnant "interpreting and ferrying," or for Wordsworth the immanently purposive yet "blind" "mechanisms of thought." The abstracting, hegemonic function prevails for Coleridge, as for Augustine, the Poet of Alastor and Alcibiades, because they, as Shelley says of the Poet, "overleap," making a fetish out of the sublime object itself rather than recognizing it as merely the "phantom image of beauty" which our erotic tragedies and comedies presuppose. So Coleridge may be seen to implicate himself in the same self-undermining "death spiral" that ensnares the poet of Alastor.
But Shelley's response to Coleridge is not, as Bloom suggests, exhausted by this critique. Rather, I've tried to show how Shelley retrospectively "impregnates" the Hymn, assimilating it in Shelley's own "strain," by construing his own effort as one of memorial rehabilitation, thereby remaking his self through the act of remaking history. Shelley doesn't replace the "Spirit of Solitude" with a cultural hegemony, but with a tradition of human-sized erotic striving, an historical strain of exiled lives devoted to "making both comedy and tragedy" out of their own existence, and generating thereby "one great" poetic testament to the "immortal" beauty of erotic striving itself. According to Jerome McGann, "Shelley's futurism is not a model for human life, it is an example of a human life. In its perfect articulation lies a critical challenge." (21) In turn, Milton writes, "old experience ... attain[s] ... the Prophetic strain" not through anything we would recognize as positive "culture," but quite the opposite: exile and melancholy:
And may at last my weary age Find out the peaceful hermitage, The Hairy Gown and Mossy Cell, Where I may sit and rightly spell Of every Star that Heaven doth shew, And every Herb that sips the dew; Till old experience do attain To something like Prophetic strain. These pleasures, Melancholy, give, And I with thee will choose to live.
(Il Penseroso 167-76)
University of Chicago
(1.) Il Penseroso (New York: Heritage, 1954), lines 173-74.
(2.) Critical Studies: The Poetry of Shelley (New York: Penguin, 1993) 23.
(3.) Shelley's Poetry and Prose, 2nd edition, ed. Donald Reiman and Neil Fraistat (New York: Norton, 2002) 73. All quotations from Shelley are from this edition; poetry cited by lines, prose by page.
SiR, 44 (Winter 2005)
(4.) The Visionary Company (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1971) 285 ff.
(5.) Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford UP, 1991) 3: 1.
(6.) Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. J. Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961) 33 f.
(7.) Shelleyan Eros (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990) 41.
(8.) William Keach writes that Alastor "is centrally about the failure of both protagonist and narrator to sustain through 'natural piety' a condition of 'beloved brotherhood' with 'Earth, ocean, air'" ("Obstinate Questionings: The 'Immortality Ode' and Alastor," The Wordsworth Circle 12 : 37).
(9.) The Symposium, trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997) 198e.
(10.) S. T. Coleridge, The Major Works, ed. H. J. Jackson (New York: Oxford UP, 2000).
(11.) David Lloyd and Paul Thomas critique Coleridge in terms of such a hegemonic function: "The oppositional relation between culture and society can only be maintained ideally; in practice, the very formulation of the space of culture demands ... its actualization in pedagogical institutions whose function is to transform the individual of civil society into the subject of the state.... And it is not that Coleridge programmatically influences these struggles ... but that he grasps and articulates the very process through which the new citizen-subjects must come into being, be "educed," and the corresponding institutional forms that their education requires" (Culture and the State [New York: Routledge, 1998] 67 ft.).
(12.) "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense," in Philosophy and Truth, ed. and trans. Daniel Breazeale (Amherst: Humanities P, 1999) 90.
(13.) It is just this double-edged character of erotic practice that, I've suggested, Coleridge's homogenization of erotic striving, under the aegis of the "Great hierarch," functions to suppress. Yet such suppression is also integral to David Towsey's deconstructive reading of Platonic Eros, insofar as this equally supposes that such striving is sustained by successful sublimation of erotic excess, rather than, as we have seen in the Symposium and Alastor's preface alike, by precisely the failure of such sublimation: "The 'excess' of the exchange between art and nature 'breeds' and 'engenders' its own version of the sublime, which is also its entry into the 'divine' at the moment of its alienation from itself.... Inescapably antinomic [procreation] locates immortality, reason and the transcendental within mortality, sexual merging and exchange .... An excess of relationship, self entwined with other to the extent that self is other, is a destructive violence, the most intense and affirmative form of love" ("Platonic Eros and Desconstructive Love," SiR 40.4 : 521 f.).
(14.) Analogously, in Prometheus Unbound reference is made to "Indus and its tribute rivers" (III.iii). With respect to water-flows, the OED defines "tributary" as a "stream contributing its flow to a larger stream or lake; an affluent, feeder."
(15.) Whereas Earl Wasserman argues that in Mont Blanc, "in an effort to make coherent sense of mortal existence [Shelley] envisions a transcendent constant behind these apparent cessations and vacancies" (Shelley: A Critical Reading [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1971] 6; cr. 223 ft.), I am suggesting that Shelley pursues such sense not in a "transcendental constant," hut, on the one hand, in reconstituting Coleridge's postulation of such a constant as a pregnant "interpreting and ferrying," which inspired his own production of Mont Blanc, and, on the other hand, in a vision of and endless chain of such transmission, which may inspire, in turn, further poetic production.
(16.) Thus Alastor can be seen to prefigure the kind of "cleansing of the ontological situation" that, according to D. J. Hughes, characterizes Prometheus Unbound in particular and Shelley's poetic method generally ("Potentiality in Prometheus Unbound," SiR 2.3 : (107.) "[Prometheus] contains two ... large dramatic operations, I. the events leading to the unchaining of Prometheus, and 2. the building of another process by which Prometheus, in his symbolic role, can find a fresh hypostasis, not in the actuality which Shelley is anxious to spiritualize in the poem, but in the Potentiality where the poem finally leaves us. Paul Valery speaks of the poet as cleansing the verbal situation. Shelley, in his most ambitious poem, can be seen as cleansing the ontological situation, restoring our sense of the potential, turning, through a series of verbal strategies, the actual back upon itself. The world at the end of the poem is a virtual one, with the seeds of decline checked, themselves remaining in potency" (108).
(17.) William Wordsworth, Selected Poems, ed. John O. Hayden (New York, Penguin, 1994).
(18.) The Unremarkable Wordsworth (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987) 6 f.
(19.) The Fateful Question of Culture (New York: Columbia UP, 1997) 265.
(20.) "Legislators of the Post-Everything World: Shelley's Defense of Adorno" ELH 63 (r996): 718.
(21.) The Romantic Ideology (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983) 123.
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|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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