This week’s Q+A is with Daniel Westwood, who speaks to us about his paper from the Shelley Conference: ‘“A maze of light and life”: Artistry and Ideology in Rosalind and Helen and Julian and Maddalo’ . Westwood reflects upon the important relationship that Rosalind and Helen shares with Julian and Maddalo, before expanding upon the centrality of debate and conversation in Shelley’s poetic thought.
1819 Title page of Rosalind and Helen, a Modern Eclogue.
How does a consideration of Rosalind and Helen shed light upon our understanding of Julian and Maddalo?
Reading Rosalind and Helen and Julian and Maddalo together allows us to trace the development of two things that are vital to Shelley’s poetic thought and technique: his approach to dialogue, including how his poetry explores the interplay between contrasting values and perspectives, and his stance on didacticism. The poems were composed broadly contemporaneously—Rosalind and Helen was transcribed by Mary Shelley in mid-August 1818 and Shelley began Julian and Maddalo around September or October of the same year—which contributes to my understanding of Julian and Maddalo as a poem that refines the experiments within Shelley’s earlier work.
When reading the poems in tandem, I was struck by how they are most dissimilar when their methods seem most familiar. Both poems foreground the act of conversation, but where Rosalind and Helen uses dialogue as a site in which sympathetic exchange can operate, with its two narratives sharing a common emphasis on female suffering, Julian and Maddalo uses dialogue to spotlight the friction between contrapuntal worldviews. Both poems also show Shelley making use of a third, inset voice beyond that of the two main conversationalists. In Rosalind and Helen, the mood and tenor of Lionel’s inset ottava rima stanzas closely anticipate the lines spoken by the Maniac in Julian and Maddalo. Yet where Lionel is the chief spokesperson for the ideological outlook underpinning Rosalind and Helen (I’m thinking here of his “Fear not the tyrants shall rule for ever” speech at line 894 onwards), Julian and Maddalo uses the inset voice of the Maniac to point up the fallacy of adopting any systematic or unqualified view of human experience. If one of the things that makes Julian and Maddalo so powerful is its refusal to use the Maniac as a kind of “argumentative exhibit” (this is Michael O’Neill’s phrase), or as a case that might prove or disprove any given system of beliefs, I see that achievement as stemming from Shelley’s subtle refinement of ideas that originate in Rosalind and Helen.
In your paper, you argue that Shelley’s imagination never closes opinion or shuts down debate. How do you think this relates to Shelley’s experimentations with form and genre?
I’m often drawn to Shelley’s insistence that anything worth believing in must be tested, challenged, and scrutinised, and I’m fascinated by the way that the formal and generic workings of Shelley’s poetry spotlight this process. In terms of Shelley’s opposition to didacticism and his willingness to open up debate, an obvious example to start with is the distinction between the subtitle of Rosalind and Helen, “A Modern Eclogue”, and that of Julian and Maddalo, “A Conversation.” Both poems centre on acts of dialogue, but subtitling Julian and Maddalo “A Conversation” seems a conscious effort to frame the poem’s dialogue differently to that of Rosalind and Helen, perhaps indicating a shift from Virgilian eclogue (and its association with political comment) to something closer to the Coleridgean conversation poem. Yet Julian and Maddalo’s epigraph is taken from Virgil’s tenth Eclogue, which bespeaks Shelley’s refusal to allow any of his poems to sit comfortably inside – or outside – of any predetermined generic box. If Julian and Maddalo is a poem of dialogue between different worldviews and ultimately of open-endedness, the poem’s ambiguous generic status seems itself the product of a dialogue between multiple generic models. (I’m reminded here of Charles J. Rzepka’s suggestion that Shelley seeks to critique what he perceived as the apostrophic, one-sided tendency of the Wordsworthian or Coleridgean conversation poem.) More generally, I think Byron’s Manfred is an important influence on Shelley, particularly given that work’s own shifts between dialogue and monologue, as well as the teasingly ambiguous quality of its own subtitle (a “Dramatic Poem,” as opposed to the “Lyrical Drama” of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound). I think what unites each of my examples is my sense that, for Shelley, genre is something to be adapted and redefined rather than passively inhabited – lest genre become its own kind of closed, prescriptive system.
The same is true for Shelley’s approach to form. Julian and Maddalo, for example, benefits from Shelley’s sensitivity to the way that the couplet, as a form that spotlights the interplay between two similar sounds, is a way of exploring ideas of harmony and disharmony, consensus and disagreement, and connection and disconnection (Shelley magnifies these ideas in Epipsychidion). This makes the couplet perfect for mediating the poem’s philosophical debate, and for preventing either character’s perspective from winning out.
1819 draft of Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
Rosalind and Helen is often omitted from major editions of Shelley’s selected works. Why do you think this poem deserves a more central position within Shelley’s oeuvre?
I see Rosalind and Helen as an intriguing and important work for two connected reasons. The first is the poem’s overtly feminist outlook; as Nora Crook writes in her chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Percy Bysshe Shelley, this is Shelley’s “‘most explicit treatment of matriarchy and sorority,” which makes Rosalind and Helen a crucial poem in these ongoing discussions. My second point grows out of the first, and is to do with how Shelley uses the poem as a vehicle for social critique. Kenneth Neill Cameron argued that Rosalind and Helen represented little more than “a peg used by Shelley to support a passionate exposition of his social beliefs”, and this view is indicative of much critical response to the poem. Contemporary reviewers often wrote along similar lines, suggesting that the poem moves inelegantly between its more imaginative sections, praised by the likes of John Gibson Lockhart for their beauty, and its polemical postures. I’m intrigued by these moments in Rosalind and Helen where aesthetics and polemic seem to collide or create friction with one another, or those moments where Shelley seems to be striving (and not necessarily succeeding) to accommodate ideology within the poetry’s aesthetic frame. I think Rosalind and Helen is an important poem because it offers us an example of Shelley attempting to unpick a tension that is at the heart of much of his finest work: how does a poet articulate their opposition to injustice while avoiding “the presumptuous attitude of an instructor” (Dedication to The Cenci)?