Next up from the Shelley Conference, Bysshe Inigo Coffey reflects on his paper: ‘
Verse Under Erasure: Shelley and the Energies of Cancellation’. Coffey explains why we should pay attention to Shelley’s cancellations and silences, before highlighting the possibilities and limitations of rhyming in Shelley’s works.
Last week, Madeleine Callaghan explained how the rejected stanzas of Laon and Cythna demonstrates Shelley’s ‘keen awareness of his [poetic] duties’ (https://k-saa.org/shelley-conference-m-callaghan-on-laon-cythnas-ditched-opening). How should we study and draw attention to Shelley’s manuscript cancellations as well as respect his reworkings and deliberate omissions?
We tend to think of cancellation and deletion in largely negative terms. It would be good to rethink that slightly. Conventionally, the cancelled or deleted is something bracketed, stilled, lopped off, excised—to be forgotten. The backspace of the keyboard seems to emphasise this negativity (with words no longer blotted or struck-out, now they’re just obliterated) with Microsoft Word’s ‘undo’ making the reappearance or re-emergence of something discarded almost magical. But cancellation is not purely negative. The act of cancelling the opening of a poem only to begin again does not result simply in a cancellation and a resultant dead-end; rather, the act accrues a disruptive energy issuing in smaller acts of correction, or cancellation. In this way, cancellation can be said to create and positively shape a work. Of course, I’m not saying that this is always the case, but it is fascinating that many of Shelley’s cancellations continue to issue in subtle assonant or alliterative patterns, re-conceptions, or contradictions. They are often gestures of delicate and not so delicate thinking. The manuscripts let us track these ripples in the pond. When we examine certain cancellations, we begin to hear a different story. Importantly, to turn to the cancellations is not to challenge the supremacy of what Nancy More Goslee wonderfully called the compelling ‘artifice of the finished poem’, but it does take us behind the scenes and brings us closer to what Shelley meant when he wrote to Thomas Medwin that ‘poetry […] requires in its development severe attention’. I’m captivated by this phrase, ‘severe attention’.
I think that certain cancellations and omissions deserve a full critical and philosophical response. Of course, you have to make the case! Most cancellations are dead-ends and you can waste a lot of time on them, but some curiously reappear in strange ways, or froth up again and again into the emerging work. These instances captivate me because you get to see into Shelley’s workshop—see him at work, so to speak, and approach that ‘severe attention’. There are obvious dangers awaiting one …
Also, the various crossings out of notebooks often prompt comparison with sous rature: a technique that facilitates the paradoxical retention of a crossed out word, or phrase in a text. The consonance between a feature of philosophical statement—deployed to approach and strategically articulate extremely resistant concepts—and Shelley’s own, lifelong, concern with interruptive modalities of being that are difficult to philosophically account for is pronounced. In short, what happens when we begin to engage with erasure and cancellation as dynamic occurrences in the composition process? Shelleyans are almost too familiar with accounts of displacement and erosion when it comes to the poetry, but what about when we begin to think of these terms as gestures—as real marks on the page?
Title page from the first edition of Alastor; Or, the Spirit of Solitude (1816)
Your discussion of cancellation suggested that for Shelley, silence contains its own meanings and implications and is frequently preferable to the ‘music’ of poetic expression. Why do you think Shelley values the pauses of poetry?
One way to begin to answer this question is to focus on what Shelley might mean when he thinks about the pauses of poetry. No poet, I think, offers us better pauses. I first attempted to tackle this in relation to Alastor in an article for The Wordsworth Circle. Alastor is a masterpiece of technical innovation—a poem whose self-interrogations and self-consciousness are simply remarkable. Shelley offers us an ‘intermitted song’ (to adapt a phrase from the poem) that celebrates a type of verse that is open to the intermittences of life. It is a poem that re-conceives sensuality in terms of our experience of interruption.
Shelley reflects on the pause as a positive expressive resource. His translation of the Symposium (The Banquet) was one of his most cherished productions, and writing to the Gisbornes in July 1818, Shelley described the nature of his task translating Plato’s Greek: ‘I am employed just now having little better to do, in translating into my fainting & insufficient periods the divine eloquence of Plato’s Symposium’. A period might designate ‘a grammatically complete sentence’, or ‘a sequence’ composed of ‘words, numerals, musical notes, etc.’ Readers are left with two different, but equally accommodating possibilities. If we take ‘periods’ to mean ‘pauses’, Shelley is being both humble and descriptive (his translation will be ‘insufficient’ when compared to Plato’s ‘eloquence’), but he is also very possibly hinting at ‘fainting’ as a positive expressive resource. If ‘periods’ is taken to denote sentences, or musical sequences it is evident that these are still characterised as ‘fainting & insufficient’, and thus characterised as sequential calamities—concatenations and arrangements distinguished by their interruptions, their pauses. However we pause to interpret ‘periods’ here, the idea of Shelley’s expressive intermittence is inescapable.
Shelley’s pauses are often shocking. When we read his poetry, they take us by surprise. He writes a verse that vacillates between unpredictable moments of acceleration and stasis. Pauses have their own power; they dramatically enact death, whilst also suggesting the indeterminate states that interrupt normative consciousness such as sleep, dizziness, fainting, weakness, and exhaustion; there is a proximal relationship between the cardiac syncope and the rhythmic syncopation of verse. The expressive power of the latter might always bring some fear of the former. The pause is dead whilst its reanimation enacts death and interruption. But the sensuality of the pause makes it perfect for a poetry that attempts to actuate and describe the human experience.
The pauses of Shelley’s verse lend themselves to the solitary Poet of Alastor:
Nor, when those hues
Are gone, and those divinest lineaments,
Worn by the senseless wind, shall live alone
In the frail pauses of this simple strain,
Let not high verse, mourning the memory
Of that which is no more, or painting’s woe
Or sculpture, speak in feeble imagery
Their own cold powers. Art and eloquence,
And all the shews o’ the world are frail and vain
To weep a loss that turns their lights to shade.
The Poet ‘lives alone | In the frail pauses of this simple strain’. ‘Alone’ might be read in two ways. Negatively the Poet is ‘alone’ as a ‘solitary’ as in the poem’s subtitle: ‘The Spirit of Solitude’; consequently, he lives on his own and therefore remains a caution and example to ‘actual men’ regarding the dangers of morbid self-seclusion; or, in a more positive sense, it might be said that only in the pause can he be said to live, but there he really does live. Additionally, these states of apparent non-being correspond with the pause as a poetic device. He will not be elegised by ‘painting’ or ‘sculpture’ because their ‘feeble imagery’ is unresponsive, inert, and ‘cold’. These materials are externalised, and not, like the fainting periods of our own voice, intimately physiological. Here ‘high verse’ is like statuary and painting in its insufficiency; Shelley is arguing for a distinct type of poetry that is not ‘high’, but positively weak. That is why pausing and moments of vacancy offer their own kind of power.
‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)
In your paper you showed how rhyme was both a meeting and greeting between words and ideas, as well as a cage in Epipsychidion. How does rhyme both restrict and enable creativity for Shelley?
Epipsychidion offers a succinct history of rhyming. It switches between extremes of advocacy and detraction. Does rhyme constitute a limitation placed on expression, or can it help a poet to think and write better? Many of the rhymes in Epipsychidion are themselves comments on rhyming, evaluating the positives and negatives of the device. The poem is ‘wrecked in that convulsion, | Alternating attraction and repulsion’. For instance, Shelley rhymes ‘again’ with ‘pain’, offering one hyperbolic account of what rhyme is—it is aptly described as a kind of again-ness, a revisitation and repetition: ‘Trembled, for pity of my strife and pain. | When, like a noon-day dawn, there shone again’. ‘[P]ain’ suggests that this kind of recurrence might provide the exact opposite of poetic pleasure, (sickly nostalgia/the returned of the repressed etc.?) but in the same line he can also be seen to offer an alternative account. At this point in the poem, the voice is disillusioned with the false and deceptive love received from the one ‘whose voice was venomed melody’. With this ‘melody’ she ‘masked herself from me’. ‘Melody’ is shown here to envelop the individual and his ability to distinguish between appearance and reality, aiding and abetting deception with ‘melody’ graphically and quite literally swallowing ‘me’. Yet, the pairing of a disyllable (‘again’) and a monosyllable (‘pain’) draws attention to the additional syllable of ‘again’. The final stressed syllable of ‘again’ indicates that it is possible that ‘pain’ provides its own kind of ‘gain’. It is also possible when dwelling on this syllabic contrast, to think of the unstressed ‘a-’ in terms of the prefix’s negative signification, namely, in terms of without or not. Whether there is a gain from the ‘pain’ of rhyming is unclear, with rhyme emerging as a contested device. But elsewhere rhyme is described, widely, as if it ‘creates’ what it ‘contemplates’. The poem is uncertain about rhyme and uses to rhyme to explore this crux.