Byron and Shelley: The Blindness of Reason
Byron and Shelley: The Blindness of Reason
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses blindness that can be found in the works of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, and looks at the most significant example of the blind in Byron's work: ‘the blind Old Man’. It also considers the role of the old man in the Coliseum in the Childe Harold IV, and looks at how simile was used to convey the human incapacity to directly see the truth, even identifying two types of blindness.
Byron, Milton and the Two Reasons
The most significant example of the blind to be found in Byron is that of Milton, ‘the blind Old Man’. To contemplate the meaning of this figure for Byron is to understand something essential to him, something which lays bare the complexity of the links between the aesthetic and the political in his work. The most illuminating point of entry to this question is by way of the collocation of Milton, Dryden and Pope in Don Juan. In this context, they function as repositories of classical value, opposed to the poetics of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey. But Milton sits oddly with the other two, both politically and aesthetically. However, before addressing this issue, it will be useful to consider yet again the question of Byron's classicism. In particular, the conception of classical reason is revealing of a fertile contradiction in his work.
There are, roughly speaking, two reasons in Byron. Both have political implications; both are conceived as possessing classical sanction. Put this simply the formula might sound misleading, as if it were offering as much as a similar distinction might offer in a discussion of, say, Coleridge: something about Ralph Cudworth as opposed to Joseph Priestley, perhaps. Whereas I intend my distinction to refer only to what I shall call respectively Augustan Reason and Enlightenment Reason — referring, by the former, to the age of Dryden and Pope, and not to that of Maecenas and Horace. This is a distinction which some would find quite weak, turning as it does on different political inferences drawn from very similar conceptions of Reason. But these have substance.
About Augustan Reason: Swift's Gulliver's Travels, with its distortions of perspective, suggests the ways in which human beings, including monarchs, may err, irrationally, from a rationally apprehensible norm of behaviour, especially when they do not recognise the fallibility of human understanding and behaviour. But it does not suggest that monarchy is (p.173) itself an irrational institution. There is not, perhaps, a stark contrast between Gulliver and other eighteenth-century travellers. But if one considers Montesquieu's Lettres persanes (1721), one finds that European institutions are suspect, not as incidentally deviating from the rational norm, but as themselves possibly constituting the deviation. What I call Enlightenment Reason wishes to be thoroughgoing in its reduction of the sphere of knowledge, and of religious behaviour, to one universal valid principle: Reason sloughs off the absurdity and the diversity of religious rituals, and suggests the equal absurdity — and viciousness — of certain political institutions. From the possibility thus glimpsed of purifying European society of its irrational accretions, some of the political optimism of later eighteenth-century radicalism emerges. It is an optimism at odds with the scepticism of the Augustans about the pretensions of human nature. But like Augustanism, it looks for its models to the classical world. As Marx said in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), ‘the Revolution of 1789–1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire […] in the classically austere traditions of the Roman republic [bourgeois society’s] gladiators found [their] ideals and [their] art forms’.1 The republican type of draping (and Byron has more sympathy with this than that of the Empire) consists of a whole range of more or less politically charged references, many of them also indicating aesthetic preferences: the use of the term ‘Senate’, or, in France, ‘Consul’; the austere neoclassicism of the Capitol in Washington; the very style, as well as the subject matter of David; the preference for the Doric and Ionian orders over the Corinthian; and for Homer and Pindar over Virgil, Horace or Juvenal. In this area of the picture, neoclassicism joins with primitivism, and it is possible to compare Homer with Ossian.
Now one of the many uncertainties in Byron's poems is that which leaves it unclear whether he is appealing to Augustan or Enlightenment Reason. The Siege of Ismail provides a crucial instance of this indecision. Little is left undone by the conquering army:
- All that the mind would shrink from of excesses;
- All that the body perpetrates of bad;
- All that we read, hear, dream of man's distresses,
- All that the Devil would do if run stark mad;
- All that defies the worst which pen expresses;
- All by which Hell is peopled, or as sad
- As Hell — mere mortals who their power abuse –
- Was here (as heretofore and since) let loose.
Byron asks whom we should blame for the barbarity which attends battle and the aftermath of conquest: ‘And whom for this at last must (p.174) we condemn? / Their natures? Or their sovereigns, who employ / All arts to teach their subjects to destroy?’ (VIII: 92). Significantly, he does not immediately reply to his own question. But he had already supplied part of an answer earlier in the canto: ‘Not so Leonidas and Washington, / Whose every battle-field is holy ground, / Which breathes of nations saved, not worlds undone’ (VIII: 5). The classical comparison is natural in this context. But Byron's contention that wars of liberation are pure and purifying is complicated by some of his other reflections on war and tyrants. In Canto IX (20), he commits himself to a proposition about human nature:
- Some people have accused me of Misanthropy,
- And yet I know no more than the mahogany
- That forms this desk, of what they mean; — Lykanthropy
- I comprehend, for without transformation
- Men become wolves on any slight occasion.
What he does know — the cruel fallibility of human nature — might also be understood by his desk, a reference to what motivates his writing. In a similar vein, he has already asserted that the ‘sad truth which hovers o’er [his] desk / Turns what was once romantic to burlesque’ (IV: 3). One of the things that undercuts and satirises sublime notions about human nature is the knowledge of Lycanthropy. This truth is the basis of his political stance, outlined in the famous passage (IX: 25) where he distances himself both from mobs and kings:
- It is not that I adulate the people.
- Without me there are Demagogues enough
- I wish men to be free
- As much from mobs as kings — from you as me.
Although this suggests the liberal (but not radical) Whig aristocrat, its lycanthropic rationale is consistent also with a conservative, Augustan view: human nature is such that virtue is vulnerable outside the custom and ceremony of secure and established institutions, in which the leadership of the wise and the good is promoted and protected. Hence the word ‘mobs’: that is, leaderless routs. Note the way in which the stanza on the people elides the distinction between people and mob.
The contradiction between an optimistic and a sceptical, indeed cynical, view of human nature is an important element in the tone of Don Juan, and a factor contributing to the irony of that work. In broad terms, it can be related to the old distinction between the classical and Romantic Byrons. But Byron's discourse about this matter does not always apprehend a contradiction: especially when castigating the (p.175) Lakers, it apprehends an appeal to classical and neoclassical precept. If we mistrust the pretensions of humanity, do we not have Dryden and Swift and Pope, and behind them Horace and Juvenal, showing the reasons for that mistrust and evincing the satirical bent that would chastise those pretensions? But if we would think of the wrongs of tyrants, do we not have Washington, and behind him Cincinattus, exemplars of austere classical virtue? Neither perspective is presented by Byron as cancelling out the other, and thus it is not plausible to claim that Don Juan is an epic of ‘negation’ if by that it is implied that Byron did not really believe in the virtue of a Cincinattus or a Washington. For Byron simply leaves his contradiction apparently resolved by the appeal to the classics. The classics point to austere republican virtue and heroism. But they also point to the fallibility that may drown a republican revolution in blood. Proposing a Cincinattus, they qualify him with a Catiline. The classics allow a kind of smoothing over of the contradiction in Byron's political feelings, and, where politics are not mentioned, the classical can simply appear as the location of clarity, tolerance, good sense, and lack of hypocrisy. This is why, taught from unexpurgated editions (unlike those which Juan is given) the classics provide such a good education. Juan's education may remind one of another association of the classical: lack of hypocrisy about sexual desire and tolerance of what we now call homosexuality. If Juan had been taught from unexpurgated editions, he would have learnt from an unabashed attitude to ‘Sappho's ode’ or ‘Formosum pastor Corydon’. With such an education one should be able to see through the obscurities of Wordsworth and Coleridge, which are somehow inseparable from reactionary politics, and see through their humourless narrowness. And all the while one can forget that Dryden and Pope were actually royalist Catholics. Milton does not fit.
In order fully to understand Milton's role in such a formulation, alongside Dryden and Pope, one also needs to ask what, if anything, he might be claimed to share with them, even if only implicitly. Apart from the anger and honesty to which we have referred, this is substantially a matter of the aesthetic: Milton is also classical. Of course, as Byron points out, the word ‘Miltonic’ has become synonymous with ‘sublime’. But we should not be misled by the importance of Burke in this period into overlooking the fact that the sublime was a recognised category in classical aesthetics. Byron himself refers, with some levity, to Longinus; but Milton he does not regard with levity. Milton is the epic poet who, unlike Spenser, made a serious attempt to imitate in English the sonority, voluminousness, metrical subtlety and suggestive word-order of Virgil, whose sublimity he added to that of the Old Testament. From this (p.176) point of view, then, Milton is a continuer of the classical tradition, unlike the namby-pamby and medievalising balladeers.
Still, Byron's indebtedness to Milton reveals something at odds with the classical. Notoriously, Byron had for long, as McGann points out, been involved with Milton via a ‘tradition of Gothic hero-villains which sprang from Milton's Satan’.3 Perhaps the point is sufficiently well accepted, but it seems worth emphasising just how strong the reference specifically to Milton's Satan, as opposed to other representations of the demonic, can be. Lara provides a convincing example, and moreover one which conveniently provides a basis for a discussion of McGann's powerfully conceived argument about Milton's influence on Byron:
- There was in him a vital scorn of all:
- As if the worst had fall’n which could befall
- He stood a stranger in this breathing world,
- An erring spirit from another hurled;
- A thing of dark imaginings, that shaped
- By choice the perils he by chance escaped […]
McGann notes that, alongside the influence of Milton's Satan, there is also an echo of Samson Agonistes, an echo which suggests an identification not only with Samson but with Milton, ‘the blind Old Man’, himself. When it is said that Lara ‘wasted powers for better purpose lent’, this is only one of a number of reminders that he is to blame, and one recalls the lines in which Samson observes of his evils that ‘I myself have brought them on / Sole author I, sole cause’ (ll. 375–6). The parallel is clearer, as McGann points out, in relation to some other passages in Byron, notably those lines in the ‘Epistle to Augusta’ where he observes that ‘The fault was mine’ and that ‘I have been cunning in mine overthrow / The careful pilot of my proper woe’ (ll. 21–4). Byron's own ‘fall from society’ can be seen in terms of other falls, and of the first one.5 Here, of course, is a moral parallel with the characteristic attitudes of the Augustans, who constantly remind their readers of humanity's fallenness; thus, this is another point in terms of which there is an appropriateness about Milton's consorting with the Augustans. McGann, however, seeks to maintain the coherence of Byron's liberalism in the face of such pessimistic suggestions. His theory of the ‘two falls’ asserts that, according to Byron, we must never forget the consequences of the first fall, which is the foundation of humanity as we know it. The ‘second fall’ (Childe Harold, IV: 97), however, occurs when we exacerbate the afflictions of the first by becoming ‘cunning in [our] overthrow’ in a particular way, namely by the corruption of good intentions; and this very much includes political (p.177) exacerbations, as when the French Revolution ends up with the Restoration.6 A succinct figuring of the process is provided by Cain: ‘Cain's murder of his brother is a second fall because Cain does not mean to commit evil but to resolve the whole problem of evil in the world […]’.7 What we then lose is not ‘a state of perfection’ (that disappeared with the first fall) but ‘an achievable condition of social values’.8 But the whole tendency of this chapter has been to point out that the consequences of the first fall mean that a second is often unavoidable. It is not just that a revolution will be vulnerable to the actions of men who ‘become wolves on any slight occasion’ (Don Juan, IX: 20): it is that they become so when, as in battles like the Siege of Ismail, order, and thus discipline, is removed. It is partly for this reason that Byron follows the Lycanthropy passage with his political statement: ‘I wish men to be free / As much from mobs as kings’ (DJ, IX: 25). This is not a plausible revolutionary prospectus. To accept this fact may mean accepting that there is a contradiction in Byron's political stance; but in some ways it renders his work as a whole more coherent. It certainly makes the transgressive power of the various ‘Byronic heroes’ more intelligible, for McGann's thesis verges on reducing them, in some of their moods at least, into allegories of political error. It seems more compelling to recognise the unstable power of these figures (admittedly they are various) as Philip Cox does in his discussion of Kristeva's Powers of Horror in relation to Manfred.9 Defining the concept of ‘abjection’, Kristeva asserts that
It is […] not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite. The traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the shameless rapist, the killer who claims he is a saviour.10
Kristeva concedes in the same passage that there are many examples of immorality and criminality that are not ‘abject’: ‘there can be grandeur in criminality’. Manfred's incestuous relationship with his sister might seem to make him abject; but as Cox points out, throughout the play Manfred attempts to depict himself in terms of the ‘grandeur’ of transgression. Perhaps an aspect of the ‘in-betweenness’ of Byron is its unstable location on the boundaries of abjection.
The point of entry into the general question of Milton's significance to Byron should be by way of the reference to him as the ‘blind Old Man’ in the Dedication to Don Juan. This gives the clue to his identification with an historical moment of failed revolutionary hopes, and thus a clue to his relevance to Byron's own historical situation. Behind this lies the idea of the destructive energies released by the strong man surrounded by (p.178) his enemies: the blinded Samson. Again, this has personal relevance to Byron. Alongside these associations lies blindness to the forces which will always lose a paradise on earth, and behind that the way in which the variety of the human cannot be accounted for in any scheme of thought. This is the point at which the unpredictable and even that which has echoes of the demonic is also evoked by the figure of Milton. And Byron was probably even reading Milton with a view to a gender politics not often thought Miltonic. In this connection, it is interesting to note that Jane Stabler, thinking about the role of ‘feminine Caprice’ in Byron's work, has recently, in discussing Don Juan, pointed out that ‘Milton's Eve and Byron's Adeline generate the digressions which are both the matter and the dynamic of their respective poems’.11 Byron's treatments of the classical provide representations of the abstract position of the liberal Whig aristocrat of his time: drawn towards the classical as revolutionary, but anxious that Augustan classicism may always have known the truth about the mob. And this perspective is genuinely illuminating. But when we introduce Milton, we discover how Byron found in the older poet a way of representing what is sometimes missed by schematic political readings: the unstable dynamism of his age, including its permission to discover new, and possibly illicit, ways of being. Furthermore, in suspecting that the rational hopes of the Enlightenment were ill-founded, he finds the suggestion of Milton's figurative blindness to be true: it is, specifically, a blindness to the power of his own Satan and to the power of that chaos which Byron figures as ‘Darkness’.
Percy Shelley and the Apprehension of the Deep Truth
McGann notes that Childe Harold IV, which introduces the phrase about the ‘second fall’, is also an important site of reflections on what this means. The stanzas about Rome offer some dark thoughts on the fate of reason; and they are darker than any political allegory about political misjudgement, a fact which occasioned Shelley's disapprobation. It is true that Byron thinks the light of reason will generally prevail. (In a Roman context, this must be a species of classical reason.) Although ‘the faculty divine’ may be ‘bred in darkness’, in the end ‘The beam pours in, for time and skill will couch the blind’ (l. 127). That is, remove the cataract, which is the meaning of the word ‘couch’. But what the light of reason shows us in the ‘Coliseum’ is ‘Rome and her Ruin past Redemption's skill, / The World, the same wide den — of thieves, or what ye will’ (IV: 145).
As Charles E. Robinson points out, Childe Harold IV, (p.179) especially Byron's Promethean curse within the Coliseum, so angered Shelley that he began in November 1818 a narrative entitled ‘The Coliseum’ in which he could offer a different interpretation of what Byron had called the ‘long-explored but still exhaustless mine / Of Contemplation’.12
This apparently unfinished fragmentary sketch, begun on the Shelleys’ first visit to Rome in November 1818, centres on an old blind man accompanied by his daughter, although they encounter a strange figure whose form, ‘though emaciated, displayed the elementary outlines of exquisite grace’.13 His beauty, the fact that his eyes are ‘deep like two wells of crystalline water which reflect the all-beholding heavens’, and the ‘womanish tenderness’ of his expression — which nevertheless is free of ‘effeminate sullenness’ (224) — present us with another Shelley surrogate. His role is to learn, however, from the dialogue of the blind man and his daughter which comprises most of the events (if that is the right word) of this strange fragment. Despite not being able to see the Coliseum, the blind man expresses a voluble and euphoric response to his surroundings of a kind which Shelley does not trouble to give to the other two characters. The old man imagines a similitude of the Coliseum with the sublime phenomena of nature: when his daughter mentions the ‘tufts of dewy clovergrass that run into the interstices of the shattered arches’, he suggests a simile: ‘Like the lawny dells of soft short grass which wind among the pine forests and precipices in the Alps of Savoy?’ (226). She replies, ‘Indeed, father, your eye has a vision more serene than mine’. The old man has a facility for apt simile, and this is one mark of his affinity with Shelleyan poetry. That ‘Power’ (which the old man goes on to apostrophise) is ‘imageless’ to us, in the language of Prometheus Unbound. But we may, as in ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ or ‘To a Skylark’, render it into simile. Mere physical vision, on the other hand, may be useless to convey the ‘deep truth’ which is ‘imageless’, as the imagination of the blind man implies. The rendering of the ‘deep truth’ into simile may elsewhere be paralleled in terms derived from Newton's Optics. Thus, it is said in Adonais that ‘Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, / Stains the white radiance of Eternity’ (ll. 462–3), and since we must ‘Die’ to have any apprehension of the white radiance, in life we may only contemplate the coloured glass which ‘transfuse[s]’ that ‘glory’. This means that the dome of coloured glass is a troping of the poetic array of similes. It is certainly not merely a reference to physical perception. Rather, it refers to an encounter between visual phenomena and an imagination which perceives a similitude with other phenomena which tells of a deep structure in the universe. This is why it may be said of the poet in the Fourth Spirit's song from Prometheus Unbound Act I, that
As Angela Leighton says, in Shelley and the Sublime, one consequence of the emotional intensity that could be invested in the sublime in the eighteenth century was that emphasis came to reside in that intensity, rather than in the act of seeing, so that ‘sight comes to be something which is almost its own opposite’ and possesses ‘the intensity, at times, of blindness’.15
- (p.180) He will watch from dawn to gloom
- The lake-reflected sun illume
- The yellow bees i’ the ivy-bloom,
- Nor heed nor see what things they be;
- But from these create he can
- Forms more real than living man,
- Nurslings of Immortality! —14
In ‘The Coliseum’, the blind man's similes are drawn from nature, and are intended to convey the fundamental link between the products of human creativity and nature, both taking their origins in, and having a structure which hints at, the ‘Power’. In particular, ruins, like the sublime phenomena of nature (‘the ocean, the glacier, the cataract, the tempest, the volcano’) hint at ‘destinies of something beyond ourselves’. Of course, when the old man surmises that the column on which he sits was the site of a ‘spectacle’ or ‘sacrifice’ on ‘sacred days’, he does not realise how appalling such events might be in the colosseum (l. 226). Shelley is determined to make his figurative blindness in this regard into a provocation of the reader. In a lengthy footnote he concedes the fact of the bloody events which once took place in the arena, but insists on the value of contemplating the ruins in the light of the ‘purple shadow’ which time has thrown ‘athwart this scene’, so that ‘no more is visible than the broad and everlasting character of human strength and genius, that pledge of all that is to be admirable and lovely in ages yet to come’. To be precise, the colosseum is a pledge that there is a progress in those cycles of time in which both Byron and Shelley were interested, not mere repetition of ‘The World, the same wide den — of thieves’. Both in the kind of poetry suggested by a blind man's similes, and in the meditations of the blind man on human creativity, ‘The Coliseum’ offers a succinct epitome of Shelley's most hopeful mode. It is highly significant for Mary Shelley's response to that mode that she should choose to make it the subject of a memorably bleak allusion in The Last Man.
What used to happen in the colosseum reminds one of the most depraved effects of political corruption. The blind man who feels hope despite these facts embodies a rebuke to those, like Byron, who would see in Milton's later life, compound of blindness and political despair, an apt metaphor for the radical poet's plight in the aftermath of the French (p.181) Revolution. In general, Shelley wishes to respond to Milton by agreeing with the discursive expression of his hopes, but revising and improving upon his way with poetic figures. The melancholy nightingale of Milton, the darkling and solitary bird, which in retrospect appears to be involved not only in his literal but also his figurative blindness, is transformed by Shelley into the skylark of his best-known bird poem. This might seem like a tendentious claim, but Catherine Maxwell gathers the accumulation of evidence which, in its totality, is convincing. The ‘well-known succession of images’ — Poet (36), high-born maiden (41), glow-worm (46) and rose (51) — things which are obscured from sight but visible or sensible in their effects — underscore the theme of Miltonic seclusion and embowerment’.16 The solitary singer is equated with the bird. The ‘unpremeditated art’ of the skylark recalls Book 9 of Paradise Lost, where Urania is said to inspire ‘unpremeditated verse’. And Milton's soaring flight (PL, 7: 3–4) is evoked by Shelley's bird.
The skylark's explicit identification with the poet is echoed by the identification of poet and nightingale in Shelley's A Defence of Poetry: ‘A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds’ (Shelley 2002: 516). A Defence goes on to emphasise the unpremeditated character of the song, both in its being antithetical to the exertions of the will, and by virtue of what is produced. The essay offers a partial critique of Milton (as of Dante) in relation to the unpremeditated: ‘The distorted notions of invisible things which Dante and his rival Milton have idealized, are merely the mark and the mantle in which these great poets walk through eternity enveloped and disguised’ (my emphasis) (526). While each was (perhaps unconsciously) at odds with the system he purported to build upon, each was also capable of constructing something which could be construed as orthodox. Neither had sufficient faith in poetry: pure poetry, that unpremeditated art which would by its very nature have permitted that probably unconscious affiliation more effective expression. Not only does Shelley claim to avoid this pitfall: he formulates a poetic manner which is meant to embody the unpremeditated encounter with the deep truth.
We saw how simile was the mode which most aptly conveyed the human incapacity to see that truth directly, let alone encapsulate it in a system. The train of similes is a rhetorical device for saying, ‘It is like this, and it is also like that, but I cannot sum it up in one image’. Significantly, in ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ the similes for Beauty, rarefied enough in any case, also move progressively away from the concrete, so that we begin with ‘Like moonbeams that behind some piny mountain shower’ (l. 5), and end with the general ineffability of (p.182) ‘Like aught that for its grace may be / Dear, and yet dearer for its mystery’ (Shelley 1989: 525–8). ‘Intellectual Beauty’ (a beauty beyond the senses, in the semantics of the time) can only be appropriately hinted at by such rarefaction. In ‘To a Skylark’, the bird, implicitly identified with the poet in communion with truth, is also represented by the train of similes: ‘Like a poet hidden […] Like a high-born maiden […] Like a glow-worm golden […] Like a rose embowered’ (Shelley 2002: 304–7). Significantly, it is earlier introduced by an abstract simile which is strongly reminiscent of ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’: the bird is ‘Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun’ (l. 15). This is another apprehension of the ‘intellectual’, but, as in the earlier poem, one may seek to grasp the similitude between the similes and intuit the deep structure of the deep truth, which in part consists in the unpremeditated overflowingness which unites the figures. Shelley chooses the figure of synaesthesia to emphasise the suprasensual status of this structure: the song of the lark overflows like the light of the glow-worm, or like the scent of the rose. Whatever else it may do, synaesthesia is capable of suggesting what one sense may have in common with another, and thus of indicating a principle prior to both. But this effect is ambiguous, for in its very nature it implies a certain difficulty of apprehension. The combination of rarefied simile with synaesthesia offers an implied rebuke to the definiteness of conception to be found in Milton's representation of the infinite. Nor should the question be conveyed merely in terms of a contrast between the more and the less definite, for Shelley's imagery, as William Keach has shown, enacts an uncertain ‘melting’ which is referred to in the vocabulary of the poem. The lines ‘The pale purple even / Melts around thy flight’ may imply either that the lark's energetic flight and song are so powerful that they cause the evening sky to melt, or that the sky and the lark melt into each other.17 But both are true, and thus understood, the idea suggests, so to speak, ungraspable heavens, even as, ambiguously, it offers hints for grasping them.
The poet should not be forgotten in this. It is not only the deep truth which is distantly apprehended here, but also the truth of the poet's attempt to convey that truth. For this very reason, as Keach puts it, the lark melts ‘synaesthetically into its own song’.18 Shelley was fond of recalling that nothing is but as it is perceived; and without the poetic faculty, truth would not be intuited, though the organ and mode of perception are as uncategorisable as the intuitions they attempt to grasp. Indeed, the implied praise for the power of the poet's intellectual and visionary reach is itself bound up with the way Shelley achieved the rarefied method which would best convey it. In the Preface to Prometheus (p.183) Unbound, Shelley claims that ‘The imagery which I have employed will be found, in many instances, to have been drawn from the operations of the human mind, or from those external actions by which they are expressed.’ The conformity here suggested between inner and outer suggests a mode of perception which can see the deep, recurring patterns of existence, which are sadly invisible to many, even to some of the finest spirits of humanity.
The image of blindness is also central to a poem which some think entirely antithetical to the hopeful mode, namely The Triumph of Life.19 As so often in the Romantic period, we are dealing here with two types of blindness: one that is blind to any trace of beauty and order; and one that, not reprehensibly, is aware that it cannot see the deep truth, even though it is conscious of traces which might adumbrate the nature of that truth. The question for many readers has been: how far does the poem go in suggesting that the second, less reprehensible form of blindness, has really nothing to go on; that it is deluded and destined to disillusion?
The first form of blindness is memorably epitomised in the form of the charioteer at the head of the procession. His four faces have ‘their eyes banded’ (l. 100): these recall not only the four faces of Janus Quadrifons but also those of the Living Creatures or Cherubim in Ezekiel 1 and 10, who travel on wheels.20 There is a suggestion here of the inversion of something at the heart of the sacred: a composite negation of the best in the joint inheritance of the classical and the Hebraic, later epitomised (l. 134) as ‘Athens and Jerusalem’. The head of the ‘Shape’ within the chariot has over it ‘a cloud like crape’ (l. 91). Shelley's memorably tart comment is a judgement on many of the follies of life: ‘little profit brings // Speed in the van and blindness in the rear’ (ll. 100–1). But these lines are far less surprising than those in which he attributes blindness to Rousseau: ‘the holes [his hair] vainly sought to hide // Were or had been eyes’ (ll. 187–8). The error of the Enlightenment is convicted in the extinction of its leading metaphor of understanding. The theme of this error is continued when we find that the deluded crew include not only the more obvious candidates — Napoleon, Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great and Leopold II — but also Voltaire and Kant. Although Shelley later deals with an earlier historical period, the initial emphasis on the Enlightenment is strategic: he wants to underline the potential corruption of the best impulses, partly by treating the enlightened despot in an entirely unflattering manner. Here, ‘best’ refers to what Shelley has already called the ‘thirst of knowledge’, which Rousseau identifies as his motivation (l. 194). This thirst is shown to produce only ‘Figures (p.184) ever new’ on the world's ‘bubble’, and these are identified with the ‘shadows’ cast by human interpretation (ll. 248–51). What is proposed as truth is the world-view of an epoch: what is delusive in it derives from its status as the shadow of the interpreter. This partiality and subjectivity has already been impugned, by implication, because it is formed in lack of self-knowledge. This essential component of their blindness meant they could not ‘repress the mutiny within’. Thus, their will to truth was vitiated by a desire for domination (‘power and will in opposition’), of which Napoleon provides only the most obvious example, as well as being, so to speak, the ultimate, physical-force result of Enlightenment thought. In this connection, part of the piquancy of Shelley's analysis of the Enlightenment is that it parodies radical polemics against ‘Priest and King’ such as one finds in Paine, or in Shelley's own ‘Ode to Liberty’. Now we have philosophes and enlightened despots yoked together in the same way, and tarred with the same brush.
Only after having mischievously made this manoeuvre does Shelley move back to an earlier period, and then it is to the classical, to Plato and to Aristotle, and Aristotle's pupil, Alexander, another supposedly enlightened despot. The classical appears as the ancestor of the Enlightenment, just as the Enlightenment itself pretended in its own revised form of neoclassicism. Like Byron, then, he is trying to assess the inheritance of classical reason. He involves the ancestor in the crime, absolving only Socrates. Philosophy itself is a flawed and dangerous mode compared with poetry. Shelley had made the situation clear in A Defence of Poetry, but again it was particularly modern philosophy he chose to criticise. He admits that the ‘exertions of Locke, Hume, Gibbon, Voltaire, Rousseau’ have spread enlightenment; but without the existence of the poets of all ages, the condition of humanity would have been unimaginably worse. The vital sentence follows:
Clearly this is to put the cart before the horse. And Shelley proceeds to conclude that ‘our calculations have outrun conception’, and that this state of affairs has led to ‘the abuse of all invention for abridging and combining labour, to the exasperation of the inequality of mankind’. One needs to be clear that this sorry state of affairs can be traced back to modes of thought which, we are told, originate with Locke, Hume and the others.
The human mind could never, except by the intervention of these excitements, have been awakened to the invention of the grosser sciences, and that application of analytical reasoning to the aberrations of society, which it is now attempted to exalt over the direct expression of the inventive and creative faculty itself.21
(p.185) This raises an obvious question about Shelley's The Triumph of Life. We take the point about the philosophers. But are the conceptions of poets also identified with transient figures on the bubble? After all, A Defence of Poetry and many other passages in Shelley would align them rather with a dim perception of eternity. In The Triumph, there is a candidate for a figure representing this perception in our world, namely the ‘shape all light’ (l. 352). The idea of light implies both the radiance of something akin to the beautiful and true, and the perception of it by a mind, its susceptibility of being intellectually ‘seen’. The shape is not, as some have thought, malign: the reason why this might be so is that, when his lips touch her cup, Rousseau's brain becomes as sand and he follows the dreadful chariot. It is a powerful potion. Rousseau is like some figure from romance: like one who is not worthy to drink from the Grail cup, or to pluck the sword from the stone, or to sit in the Siege Perilous, which destroys any unworthy knight. This is the answer to Rousseau's question regarding ‘whence I came, and where I am, and why’ (l. 398). Shelley's poem has already established that Rousseau's will is flawed. It is from this flaw that his enslavement to the car derives, not vice versa. The flaw is a mental flaw, and this is emphasised by the way in which his vision superimposes upon the first, as if he were entering a different dimension. The fair shape does not disappear when the vision of the chariot appears, but ‘wane[s] in the coming light’ (l. 412). This is an echo of the way in which the scene of vision is superimposed upon the actual scene for the speaker at the beginning of the poem.
Such a reading does not concur with the idea that Shelley has reduced the poet's most sublime figurings to shapes on the ‘bubble’. On the contrary, although the poem may (not untypically) raise this question, there is nothing to demonstrate that he is not showing what he describes in A Defence of Poetry, namely the malign triumph of a combination of ‘analytical reasoning’ and the lust for dominion. Of course, the sheer numbers of those who are deluded do support a pessimistic thought: how easy is it to avoid this combination? Rousseau and Plato and the others are among the luminaries of humanity; and ‘analytical reasoning’ is a natural aptitude. It is from some such thought that Shelley has indeed imparted to the ‘shape all light’ something of the immemorial ambivalence of the fairy enchantress. How are we to regard the way in which her feet seem ‘to blot / The thoughts of him who gazed on them’ (ll. 383–4)? We are not supposed to have this tonal ambivalence smoothed over until we have assessed the whole poem — which we do not have. So although Michael O’Neill is right to remember ‘the contradictions and uncertainties that constitute experience’, there is (p.186) nothing to show that Shelley would not, as so often, have asserted his commitment to the cause of ultimate hope.22 We have, if we respect the context of Shelley's thoughts, ample evidence of the allegorical thinking behind the poem. The blindness in The Triumph of Life is indeed the blindness of those who do not know themselves, which is as much as to say the most damaging blindness of humanity. The blindness of the old man in the Coliseum, by contrast, is an ironic way of underlining the mental nature of the perception of harmony in things. Shelley fears a compound malaise of the ethical and the scientific, but remains, despite discouragement and a proper sense of difficulty, loyal to the hope that imagination can intuit the emanations of the deep truth. The blindness of reason in Shelley is blindness to what should guide reason, both ethically and scientifically. Byron's development of the idea of Milton's blindness reveals, by contrast, that life will always have more to discover than any scheme can comprehend. A good portion of Mary Shelley's disturbing power lies in her combination of a wide-ranging scepticism reminiscent of Byron with an instructed concentration on doubts about the well-foundedness of those scientific and ethical systems in which she shared an interest with her husband. Yet again, the figure of the blind man provides a means of bringing together the central topics.
(1.) Baxandall and Morawski (1974), p. 97.
(4.) Byron (1980–93), Volume 3 (1981), p. 225.
(p.187) (17.) Keach (1984), pp. 123–4.
(22.) Neill (1989), p. 201.