PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY: THE MAJOR WORKS INCLUDING POETRY, PROSE AND DRAMA. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Zachary Leader and Michael O'Neill. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. xxviii + 845. ISBN 13 978 0 19 281 374 9. £12.95 (pb).
In many ways, editing Shelley is starting to look like a task of almost Ozymandian presumption. It is not as if the history of the field gives much cause for optimism. To be sure, Mary Shelley herself faced huge problems - emotional, legal and political - in assembling her pioneering edition of the poetry and prose, but at least she managed to finish the job. From Neville Rogers' hugely controversial Oxford edition (axed by Clarendon Press after two volumes in 1975) to Matthews' and Everest's Longman edition (first volume published in 1989 and still no end in sight), the recent history of Shelley textual scholarship is littered with incomplete edifices, shattered visages and deserts stretching as far as the eye can see. Perhaps it is best not to even mention the state of the prose - only one volume of the Murray edition has been published and that some 15 years ago - or the Notebooks. What budding editor would look back on such a history and not remember the warning of the King of Kings? Look on Shelley's collected works, ye mighty, and despair!
It is with some trepidation, then, that the reader opens Zachary Leader's and Michael O'Neill's new edition of Shelley's Major Works but, thankfully, all fears prove groundless. As readers of this journal know very well, Michael O'Neill is arguably our leading Shelley scholar and so it is difficult to imagine anyone better qualified for the task of producing a single-volume edition of the works. To start with, I have to say that the editors' own introduction to the volume is quite simply the best short account of the poet's life and work I have had the pleasure to read. In the space of a dozen pages or so, we are treated to an elegant summation of the poet's life and work that is both immediately accessible to the general reader and steeped in the history of Shelley scholarship: this is certainly the place to start for anyone coming to Shelley for the first time.
Yet what really matters here, of course, is the poems, and this Major Works manages to be incredibly comprehensive for a single-volume paperback edition. For me, this is as close as one can reasonably expect to a …