Five Questions: Merrilees Roberts on Shelley’s Poetics of Reticence

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Merrilees Roberts is an Independent Scholar based near London. Her work encompasses Romanticism, philosophy, psychology, poetics and literary theory, with a particular focus on Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was the subject of her doctoral thesis. She has recently published work on Prometheus Unbound in the Keats-Shelley Review, an article on Shelley’s prefaces in Romanticism, and a book chapter on shame, affect and The Cenci in Affect Theory and Literary Critical Practice: A Feel for the Text (Palgrave, 2019). Her first monograph, Shelley’s Poetics of Reticence: Shelley’s Shame, which we discuss below, was published by Routledge in April 2020.

1) How did you come to realise you wanted to write a book on Shelley’s poetics of reticence?

The ideas for this project began in my MA thesis; particularly through an analysis of the ending of Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation, which has its own chapter in this book. It occurred to me that Julian withholds things from the reader in the poem’s closing lines – ‘I urged and questioned still, she told me how/ All happened – but the cold world shall not know’, because he is ashamed. Julian attempts to formulate a psychological “theory” which would explain and soften the “maniac’s” experience of unrequited love, but stalls at the moment he imagines the bathos that may follow. This prompts the question, is Julian ashamed for attempting to too simply explain the Maniac’s life or for failing to adequately explain it? My thinking went on to focus on the more abstract aspects Shelley’s use of reticence to mark such complex moments of self-doubt. My PhD thesis examined how moments of narratological omission and reserve make the reader more aware of his or her interpretative responsibility to engage with or resolve strategic gaps which indirectly figure what Shelley saw as alternative versions of ‘the poet’. Shame was never far away though, as I also argued that Shelley’s poems, by destabilising their own processes, produce dynamic intersubjective experience that work upon the reader’s sense of shame. The viva voce process made me realise that shame needed to take centre stage once more, as it became clear to me that reticence marked moments of complex, philosophical shame, where the Subject was made to confront its own failings. I came back to the idea of connecting Shelley’s desire for self-transcendence to a historicism which attempted to imagine the future, rather than the contemporary, reader who might resolve, even exculpate, the reticence of the past. And it is shame which best describes both Shelley’s self-transcendence and his historicism: shame, because it is so often objectless, is like poetry without a contemporary audience. It is only in being responsible for an unknown future audience, by making one’s present language rich enough, that we can rationalise our failings, our unfinished projects of the self, and our desire to have these exonerated.

2) You argue that shame is a crucial theme in Shelley’s poetry.  What qualities define his conception of what is shameful?

When Shelley uses the word ‘shame’ it indexes forms of psychological self-division used to justify violence or hatred towards others, as well as inert self-denigration. More importantly, what is implicitly present in his oeuvre is an overriding sense that shame is simultaneously merited by and corrective of situations where one remains trapped in one’s own existential and historical immanence. He felt ashamed when he felt he failed to communicate his own enthusiasms in a philosophically productive and democratising way. But it is in the development of a sense of shame that Shelley grounds his optimism for the future, because shame is its own recuperation. The importance of values that one has failed to advance are reaffirmed by the consequent regret the feeling of shame engenders. Hence, shame becomes the affect which accompanies Shelley’s tortuous anxieties that a poetry with high philosophical aspirations might become either not prophetic enough in its bold untimeliness, or, conversely, too involved in diagnosing its immediate historical concerns.

3) How did you select the works the main run of chapters focus on (these include Alastor, The Cenci, Julian and Maddalo, ‘A Defence of Poetry’ with Shelley’s odes and Adonais, the Jane poems and The Triumph of Life)?  Are there further Shelley poems that you’d be interested in extending the book’s lines of analysis to in further work?

My choice of texts aimed to identify moments in Shelley’s work where anxieties about the nature and status of ‘the poet’ are most acute. I wanted to pinpoint moments where feelings of being limited and trapped by historical and ideological modes were used to produce awareness of the inherently divided nature of consciousness: yearning both to consolidate and to expand the self. I wanted to show the richest examples of where reticence acts as an affective marker of and incitement to experiencing the various shames sustained by Shelley, his characters, and, most importantly, his readers. Shame is not overtly present, thematically or affectively, in all of the texts I examine. But my aim has been to show how shame, and sensitivity to shame and shamefulness, allowed Shelley to navigate interpersonal, metaphysical and political situations which blur straightforward antitheses between benevolence and aggression, self-destruction and self-respect. Though not as consistently reticent as some of his texts, I would consider extending this line of analysis to Epipsychidion. Shelleyan shame, as I define it, could be said to model a version of Platonic desire which seeks to inveigle its object (the reader) by presenting them with their own ability to be sensitive to shame; I think such a dynamic is at work in this text.

4) In introducing the book, you contend that ‘Shelley’s poet-figures yearn to transcend their historical moment but also attest to its particularity’.  For you, what aspects of Shelley’s poetry and philosophy travel best from his moment to ours?

I feel that Shelley tries to de-centre the Subject in ways which speak both to the post-structural and the more recent affective and ecological moment. A key part of my argument about Shelley’s shame is that it is activated by moments when thinking and feeling become too defined by essences, and essentialist thinking. I have used an existentialist and Marxist vocabulary to explicate this type of critique, but I think there are other critical vocabularies which use reticence as forms of resistance that could be productively used with Shelley. Connections between Adorno’s thought and Shelley’s have been noted before, and I think this is a helpful dialogue for addressing the ways that Shelley wanted to hold thinking to account whilst not insisting upon self-identicality. This also perhaps explains most clearly Shelley’s desire to value and love historical and personal particularities whilst attempting to cleanse them of ideological corruption. I think Shelley’s insistent linkage of Love and metaphysics has not until recently translated particularly well to our time. But this is changing rapidly due to the scholarly interest in ecocriticism, affect theories, the influence of Lucretius on Romantic metaphysics, and the brilliant work of Richard C. Sha, who has drawn out the close connections of mental and material conceptions of ‘force’ in Romantic literature. There is also a need to quiet or transcend the ego in Shelley’s work which, I think, resonates with the ethical (and for many, spiritual) self-awareness of our time. Shame can accompany such meditations; but this is not a linear experience that proceeds smoothly from deprecation to redemption, but an affective moment of pause and self-accounting.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I am currently working on an essay which reads Shelley’s lyric A Magnetic Lady to Her Patient alongside Sara Ahmed’s theory of affects which “stick” to bodies (The Cultural Politics of Emotion). I use this dialogue to explore the erotic potential of both Shelley’s lyric and Ahmed’s theory and consider how a theory of affective “stickiness” might challenge Roland Barthes’ influential notion that erotic textual pleasure is defined by inference and suggestion, rather than by the representation of “erogenous zones.” This research may develop into a larger project examining Shelley’s and Keats’ erotic poetics and the way erotic experience attempts to bridge the gap between the psyche and the senses.