This week Madeleine Callaghan reflects on her Shelley conference paper: ‘“Sweet visions in solitude”: P. B. Shelley’s Rejected Opening of Laon and Cythna’. Callaghan discusses the centrality of Laon and Cythna’s rejected stanzas in Shelley’s wider oeuvre before highlighting their significance in relation to Shelley’s understanding of poetic responsibility.
Why do you think relatively little critical attention has been paid to the rejected opening of Laon and Cythna, and how might these stanzas shed new light on Shelley?
As Shelley chose not to include the lines in Laon and Cythna, instead rejecting them in favour of an alternative opening, critics have not explored them a great deal. But the rejected opening to Laon and Cythna is highly significant for any discussion of Shelley’s preoccupation with something beyond the human. If Shelley’s work is marked by a ‘desire to reform the world [that] is always crossed by a desire to transcend it’, I see these lines as exploring the limits and possibilities of experiencing and imaging humanity’s relationship with ‘the Power’ it senses.
‘The Poet’s Vision, Canto 1, Laon and Cythna, 1852’ by William Huggins
Much of Shelley’s poetry returns to images and metaphors of clouds— an idea which Kelvin Everest highlighted in his plenary lecture. How does Shelley conceptualise clouds in the first stanza of the rejected opening of Laon and Cythna?
Frail clouds arrayed in sunlight lose the glory
Which they reflect on Earth—they burn & die
Revive & change like genius, & when hoary
They streak the sunless air, then suddenly
If the white moon shine forth, thier shadows lie
Like woven pearl beneath its beams—each tone
Of the many voiced forest’s doth reply
To symphonies diviner than its own
Then falls & fades,—like thought when power is past & gone
(L&C Supplement 1, 1. 1-9)
Though carefully attentive to nature in stanza one, Shelley allows flickers of symbolic meaning into his description, where his similes draw attention to the clouds as ‘like genius’ and ‘like thought’ rather than appreciating them in a purely mimetic fashion. Almost human in these similes, the clouds resemble the incomprehensible but vital Power in ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ and Mont Blanc. The ‘many voiced forest’, which recalls Mont Blanc’s description of the ‘many-voiced vale’ (Mont Blanc II. 13), aspires to the condition of the clouds and their ‘symphonies diviner’, suggesting how that which is mortal aims at but cannot capture that which is eternal. But the clouds themselves are liminal figures, standing between the two spheres, rather than belonging to either one. Shelley’s preoccupation is with the clouds’ vacillating rather than stable presence, and, as in ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’, which Earl Wasserman views as a significant precursor to these lines, the unsustainable quality of the clouds allows the speaker no more power over the scene than to perceive it. Yet the lines do not lament their powerlessness. Imaging rather than imagining the scene, Shelley renders perception, as in On Life, a species of creativity.
In your paper, you showed how Shelley thinks hard about the responsibilities of the poet in Laon and Cythna. How does Shelley’s rejection of the original opening of the poem threaten such responsibility?
A colourless & shapeless mist that hovers
Over the mornings birth—a vale outspread
Beneath the gathering rainbow—gloom that covers
The widely glancing meteor, ere tis sped—
Such is the splendour of the mighty dead
Such—& no more is living man yet One
Seeks ere the doubtful paths of death he tread
If love & truth be not forever gone
To melodize one song to them and [?thee] alone
(L&C Supplement 1, 7. 55-63)
The tremendous duties outlined in stanza seven see Shelley require the poet to operate as part of this world and the eternal realm. The poet is divided between his responsibility to behold intensely the present so as to rearrange the world as it is and his requirement to look into the future and write the ‘infinite’ poetry that goes far beyond the parameters of the present tense. Shelley opens himself to censure in the quasi-messianic quality in the lines, where he suggests that he is that ‘One’ who seeks to hymn ‘love & truth’ above all other considerations. Timothy Webb’s observation that in Shelley’s poetry, the personal is transcended to the point that ‘he becomes a bard, vates, a prophet through whom the spirit may speak and whose personal experience is archetypal or representative for the whole community’, offers a vital perspective on this stanza. Developing a four-line metaphor for the spectral presence of his predecessors, Shelley emphasises the ‘splendour of the mighty dead’, a splendour that does not overpower but propel forward and valorise the younger poet. The seriousness of poetry, its purpose and its power, is brought to the fore, and Shelley creates a speaker capable of wearing the mantle of the bard. Rejecting the original opening lines, then, does not suggest poetic irresponsibility, but a keen sense of how each canto (including canto one) must fit together rather than standing apart from the larger context of Laon and Cythna’s tale. The lines, in their intensity, do not quite match Laon and Cythna’s more optimistic design, but they do reveal Shelley’s larger sense of how the poet must operate with a keen awareness of his duties to the eternal and mortal worlds, especially when the weight of the past enters the poetry. Shelley references the ‘mighty dead’ as he gestures to the scope and scale of the challenge to the young poet.
 The editors of the Johns Hopkins edition provide an interesting rationale for Shelley’s choice to rewrite the opening. See Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Neil Fraistat, Nora Crook Stuart Curran, Michael J. Neth and Michael O’Neill, 3 vols. (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), III. 915.
 See O’Neill and Wasserman for examples of critics who consider these lines. Michael O’Neill, ‘A Double Face of False of True: Poetry and Religion in Shelley’, Literature & Theology 25.1, (2011), 41 (32–46); Earl R. Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading (Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1971), 186.
 Ross Greig Woodman, The Apocalyptic Vision in the Poetry of Shelley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964), 3.
 Timothy Webb, Shelley: A Voice Not Understood (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1977), 38.
 ‘Mind, as far as we have any experience of its properties, and beyond that experience how vain is argument, cannot create, it can only perceive’. Percy Bysshe Shelley, On Life, Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works, ed. Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 636.