For February’s What Are You Reading?, we spoke to Merrilees Roberts, 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, 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, was published by Routledge in April 2020. This work explores the affective, rhetorical and phenomenological links between shame and reticence, and sheds new light on the psychology of Shelley’s anguished poet-Subject.
What new studies of Romantic literature are you reading right now?
I am slowing exploring The Testimony of Sense: Empiricism and the Essay from Hume to Hazlitt (OUP, 2019) by Tim Milnes, Romantic Vacancy: The Poetics of Gender, Affect, and Radical Speculation (SUNY, 2019) by Kate Singer and Imagination and Science in Romanticism by Richard C. Sha (JHUP, 2018).
How is this writing informing your current research?
I wish I could have had access to Kate Singer’s book whilst I was writing mine. I think her concept of vacancy as a weaving and re-weaving of senses and thoughts compliments my own argument that Shelley’s work produces rhetorical and phenomenological manoeuvres that privilege reticence and reserve in order to marshal intersubjective affect into self-reflective activity. I would be interested to see how Milnes’ argument (and other recent work on Romantic essayism) that trust came to underpin both subjectivity and communicative rationality might interact with other types of critical writing which valorise the ‘virtuality’ of identity and expression (including Marxist, post-structural and affect theory). I am interested in how Milnes’s exploration of the virtualising of intersubjective experience in this period might be read alongside seminal readings of Romantic works along similar lines.
One such critical reading would be Marjorie Levinson’s analysis of Keats’ engagement with simulated social identities (Keats’ Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style). I am enjoying reading Sha’s extraordinarily lucid book alongside an older work by Elizabeth Wingrove, Rousseau’s Republican Romance. Both works explore original and perceptive notions of ‘force’ in Romantic writing. Wingrove argues that will and force become synonymous when representations come to sustain their own meanings and adapt the unruly nature of amatory passions to societal norms. Sha also claims that, particularly perhaps for Shelley, love and power unexpectedly belong together. But for Sha this pairing evades ideology by exploring a transcendental experience that connects the internal and the external.
What’s the critical book that figured most significantly in your monograph, Shelley’s Poetics of Reticence: Shelley’s Shame?
It was Paul Hamilton’s Metaromanticism which first opened up the possibility for me that supposedly negative affect could be transvalued into a communicative logic that captures the dynamic nature of consciousness. In Shelley’s Poetics of Reticence: Shelley’s Shame I wanted to bring out the double-edged nature of a peculiarly Romantic bad faith that Hamilton hints at; a bad faith which, in attempting a transcendence of historical immersion, opens out the unfinished nature of poetry and philosophy to self-deprecating, yet insistently playful critiques. Implicit in Hamilton’s work is the notion that philosophical discontent can register new modes of thinking and feeling, rather than function simply as an expression of trauma. What I wanted to suggest is that a metaromantic self-awareness that connects historical dissatisfaction with a proliferation of democratising discourse does, in Shelley’s case, mark the site of a peculiar trauma he felt the poet best fitted to express. This trauma is, as he saw it, the shame of being by hounded one’s own creative self-impersonations, whether or not they seem forced upon us.
What books are in your ‘to read next’ pile right now?
Zoë Brigley’s ‘Aubade after a French Movie’, a pamphlet of poetry featuring new translations of Gwerful Mechain’s erotic poetry, and Eugenie Brinkema’s The Forms of the Affects. I would also be interested to read Anahid Neressian’s Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse, which promises to interweave the personal, the critical and the speculative. I have long been promising a friend that I shall read something by Olga Tokarczuk, who she claims channels Walter Benjamin’s ‘baroque’ allegorising. This continually lies in wait for a messianic moment. Permanently, I think, redacted from my ‘to read next’ pile is Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work. Some things are just too real.
What books are on your night table?
Having a lockdown toddler to contend with leads to precious little time for reading, but having Shakespeare’s sonnets on my night table offers both intense compression of ideas and feelings and scope for curious interlacing of huge themes like mortality, writing, love, loss, beauty, visibility and responsibility. The dazzling dialectical tensions of Either/Or by Kierkegaard, like much other aesthetic writing of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, offer rigorous bursts of speculation on the muddy waters between abstraction and concreteness. Edging out its modern equivalents with obdurate voluminousness is Emile by Rousseau; always troubling, prescient and nostalgic.
Have there been any mainstream articles or publications on the Romantics you’d like to draw our attention to?
Ann Wroe’s Being Shelley: The Poet’s Search for Himself remains extraordinary in its daring and creative approach to biography, charting the phenomenological experience of Shelley’s ‘daemon’ poetic self.
Find out more about Merrilees Roberts’ Shelley’s Poetics of Reticence: Shelley’s Shame here.