Five Questions: Bysshe Coffey on Shelley’s Broken World

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Bysshe Coffey is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Newcastle University. He is an expert on Percy Bysshe Shelley, having published extensively on his philosophy, prosody, and cultural contexts; his current project considers Shelley’s diverse legacies in the period between the death of Mary Shelley and the centenary of his drowning. His first monograph, Shelley’s Broken World: Fractured Materiality and Intermitted Song, which we discuss below, has just been published by Liverpool University Press.

1) How did you come to realise you wanted to write a book on Shelley’s pauses and intermittences?

The book’s germ lay in my awareness of a peculiarity of Shelley’s expressive repertoire first noticed by his Victorian readers and editors: his innovatory use of pauses, which registered as irregularities in ears untuned to his innovations. It developed into a realisation that intermittence is a pervasive quality not only of his prosody, but of the incidents his verse describes. Intermittent states of being, vacancies, suspensions, strange immaterial formulations, tenuous and porous networks lace throughout his poetry. He is interested in the powerful interval between the course one was on and where one has ended up, and in the intervals of action, feeling, and thinking. Pausing shapes his view of living.

With the book, I wanted to show the ways in which Shelley’s verse, with its repertoire of pauses and intermittences, is philosophically and scientifically astute. Beautiful, assuredly, the verse is also intellectually profound, polymathic in its ambition. For instance, Shelley had an abiding interest in the intersection of manifest and non-manifest material phenomena. As Shelley wrote to Thomas Love Peacock: ‘You know I always seek in what I see the manifestation of something beyond the present & tangible object’. By non-manifest phenomena, I mean formulations posited as material entities that cannot be perceived immediately through our senses, such as the sensorium, Newtonian vis inertiae, the atom, and so on. But Shelley did not intend to resolve the divide between the material and immaterial world of the soul in his poetry (a quite impossible task anyway). Rather, he sought to actuate and enact the dynamic between sensuous reality and the gaps and pauses that punctuate it. Shelley’s imagination did not only think in the terms of reductive materialism with its matter in constant motion (all that talk of balls and the soiled baize of billiard tables), but it challenged such a vision frequently, returning repeatedly to ideas of stasis and limit-points. I hope readers will appreciate the staggering breadth, intensity, and inventiveness of Shelley’s poetic thought.

2) Your book opens by modifying F.R. Leavis to contend that ‘Shelley had a firm grasp upon the weakness of the actual’.  What for you are the most important implications of this insight?

I begin by subjecting Leavis to his own dictum: that every judgement is implicitly cast in the form ‘This is so, isn’t it?’ expecting the response ‘Yes, but . . .’. I wanted to see whether it might be productive to think again about his charge of vagueness levelled against Shelley; the poet had a ‘weak grasp upon the actual’.

Most people get Leavis very wrong. They have an idea of him and that is enough. But it is an impoverishment for he was one of our greatest critics. There is so much to gain from disagreement, and I don’t mean just a stomach ulcer. For Shelleyans, the Leavis story tends to go like this: Leavis hated Shelley, but it isn’t true. So far from telling students that Shelley was not worth reading, Leavis directed students away from the canon set up by Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, the short lyrics, and pointed them toward reading a hard-edged Shelley, the Shelley who wrote Mask of Anarchy and Peter Bell the Third. But whoever talks about that? Towards the end of his life—I won’t give the full story here, you’ll have to read the book for that—Leavis showed his preparedness to rethink his notorious Shelley essay. He was willing to subject himself to self-revaluation. We, in turn, now tend to sneer at Leavis where he is remembered at all. 

I, however, begin with gratitude. As a sixth-former questioning whether I would spend my life in medicine or literature, it was Leavis who confirmed my choice. His evaluative criticism was liberating. With the book, I took the opportunity to revisit his Shelley essay, and cannot but be grateful for his phrase about Shelley’s grasp on the actual, for it stimulated a train of thought that in turn encouraged me to examine the interrelations between philosophy, science, and prosody in the work of Shelley. My modification of Leavis, ‘Shelley had a firm grasp upon the weakness of the actual’, for all its impishness, is serious. The most important implication is that Shelley’s prosody grew to articulate his sense that actuality is experienced as ruptured and fractured with gaps and limit-points. His work is suffused with the philosophical and scientific contexts from which he derived his understanding of the brokenness of materiality itself, the weakness of the actual.

3) Your book makes extensive use of the Marlow List, which details the contents of Shelley’s library in 1818. What can careful analysis of this list reveal, and what are its limitations as a window on Shelley’s intellectual makeup?

The ‘Marlow List’ is an extremely important but virtually unknown document in the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle in the New York Public Library (Pforz. Shelleyana 1082). Nora Crook, to whom my book is dedicated, made me aware of its existence; she released to me her full transcription and annotated edition. This builds on work previously done at the Pforzheimer Collection in the New York Public Library. It’s due to be published on Romantic Circles, so that it will be available to all scholars. It is a list of books in Shelley’s possession, still unpublished as I write, that he left behind when vacating his library in Marlow in February 1818. It restores to us something we did not know that we had lost, the astonishing variety of Shelley’s reading.  We all know that Shelley had the appetite of a polymath, but the ‘Marlow List’ moves us away from an overreliance on this or that set of authors or texts. Indeed, it uncovers an array of philosophical, scientific, and aesthetic contexts, and many others besides, which mattered to Shelley. Certain works on the ‘Marlow List’ played a significant role in Shelley’s poetic and intellectual development, and their effect can be clearly traced in Shelley’s verse and its technique. Some corroborate or confirm what have been hitherto merely well-founded conjectures, and many are entirely fresh and new.

Whilst careful analysis can cast light on the incidents his verse describes, his thought, and artistry, one must be judicious. I do not aim to present any hitherto unnoticed book or group of books in Shelley’s Marlow library as unlocking the key to his thought. I do not present Shelley as an adherent to any system of thinking, just as the key to his mind is not to be found in any present fashion whether it be a philosophy, concept, sexuality, or political ideology. Poetry offered Shelley a unique means of thinking in its own terms. Poetry makes thought happen. With the ‘Marlow List’ in mind, Shelley’s Broken World seeks to uncover some of those thoughts which have passed by unnoticed.

4) How did you arrive at the book’s current shape, with two initial chapters on eighteenth-century thought that transition through a consideration of Shelley’s own speculations to three chapters examining AlastorPeter Bell the Third and Epipsychidion?

This book contains six chapters and a coda, each presenting a different aspect of the engagement in Shelley’s poetry and thought with ideas of intermittence, rupture, and breakage. Whilst I consider, or touch on, pretty much the whole of Shelley’s career, including poems from the early Esdaile Notebook, Rosalind and Helen, ‘Julian and Maddalo’, Prometheus UnboundAdonais, and ‘The Triumph of Life’, each of these three later chapters homes in on a single long, major poem belonging to a distinct phase of Shelley’s poetic maturity: Alastor (1816), Peter Bell the Third (1819) and Epipsychidion (1821). Poem talks to poem, though each is sharply different from the other two in form (blank verse, ballad metre, heroic couplets), genre (loco-descriptive psychological narrative, satire, erotic confession) and in content.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I am happily embarked on a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at Newcastle University. For the next three years, I am focused on Shelley’s reception history. As we approach the bicentenary of Shelley’s drowning, his work seems as timely as in the years between the death of his first editor (Mary Shelley) and his first centenary. During this period (1851-1922), Shelley was canonised in the anglophone world, Europe and even the Far East. Streets were named after him. My project examines the phenomenon of ‘High Shelleyanism’, the international cast of Shelleyans, Shelleyites, and Shelleyphobes, and the differing ideologies and methodologies of the poet’s numerous editors, amateur and professional. But it aims beyond textual scholarship and colourful competing personalities. It charts the diffusion of Shelley’s works through cheap reprints, illustration, music and networks of influence. The research will result in a book, provisionally titled Shelleyolatry and Shelleyphobia, and an annotated digital gallery of illustrated editions of Shelley, visual representations of the poet, and musical settings of his verse between the years 1851-1922. The website, which is in its initial stages, will go live later this year.

Among other things, I am working on an experimental book on Shelley’s time at Marlow with a wonderful publisher, and with Anna Mercer and Consulting Editor Nora Crook, we are nearing completion on The Frankenstein Review Shelley Notebook. A Facsimile and Diplomatic Transcription of MS. 13, 290 (Bucknell University Press, in Association with the Library of Congress). With Amanda Blake Davis, Anna Mercer, and Paul Stephens I am co-organising the Shelley Bicentennial conference at Keats House, Hampstead 2022. For more information you can follow us on Twitter: @shelleyconf2022