The Material Shelley: Who Gets the Finger in Queen Mab?

By Fraistat, Neil | Wordsworth Circle, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Material Shelley: Who Gets the Finger in Queen Mab?


Fraistat, Neil, Wordsworth Circle


I want to document a few instances in which Shelley appears to intervene directly and minutely in the typesetting and distribution of his work. His career as a hands-on author had much to do with legal restrictions on the printing of seditious material, and new evidence suggests that he may even have set type for some of his most radical early work. However, I will ultimately concentrate on one of the most baffling material signs in any of his printed works: the eight indicator hands placed in the right-hand margins of the text in several of the long notes Shelley wrote to accompany Queen Mab.

While doing the research for Volume I of The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Don Reiman and I came across an interesting letter from Barclay Phillips reminiscing about his aunt, Philadelphia Phillips, daughter of one of the two Phillips brothers who ran the print shop at Worthing, Sussex, where Shelley's Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire and The Necessity of Atheism were typeset. Phillips writes that his aunt, who had come to live with him, frequently talked of Shelley: "She said he took great interest in the art of printing, and would often come in and spend hours in the printing office learning to set up the types ..." (1) This reminiscence suggests explanations of two interesting anomalies in the printed texts of Shelley's early poetry. (2)

The first is what we believe to be a faked typo in "Epithalamium," the most salacious poem in Shelley's second volume of poems, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson (1810). The souls of Francois Ravaillac and Charlotte Corday, two idealistic political assassins, of France's Henry IV and Marat, respectively, sing this epithalamium. Shelley writes much of the poem in his most overheated sexual registers, including the notorious lines, "Soft, my dearest angel stay,/Oh! you suck my soul away,/Suck on, suck on I glow, I glow" (82-84). Such lines explain why the Margaret Nicholson volume caused such a sensation among Oxford undergraduates and why Shelley had the entire "Epithalamium" removed from the copy of the volume sent to his mother.

So far, so good--or so bad. But at the very point when the poem attempts to get political, we noticed a strange apparent typo:

Bu t wa t is sweeter to revenge's ea r
Than the fell tyrant's last expiring yell?
                                               (109-10)

The spacing of the "t" in "But" and the omission of the "h" in "what" created a crude visual pun, which--in conjunction with slipped type at the end of the line--suggest that Shelley may have used his time at the print shop to reset the line himself. This schoolboyish prank would have been characteristic for Shelley, who along with his friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, shared an interest in various slang terms for female genitalia. Shelley himself remarked to his friend Edward Fergus Graham that the calculated "indelicacy" of the "Epithalamium" would make the volume "sell like wildfire." (3) Also characteristically, Shelley denied authorship of the most salacious parts of "Epithalamium," attributing them instead to a friend's mistress, an evasive strategy to which I'll return shortly.

Shelley may have used his knowledge of typesetting better in his political satire, "The Devil's Walk," a broadside ballad. The only known copy, currently at the Public Record Office in London, was found on the person of Shelley's servant Dan Healey when he was arrested in Devonshire after being "observed distributing and posting" Shelley's "Declaration of Rights." Healey was charged with "Publishing and dispersing Printed Papers without the printer's name being on them" as mandated by British Law (PRO, H.O: 42/127). We know from the testimony of others in Devon at the time that Shelley had several things printed at the shop of a Mr. Syle, presumably including the "Letter to Lord Ellenborough" and "The Devil's Walk." We also know that Shelley frequently oversaw production at the press and that Mary Blackmore, the daughter of Shelley's landlady, helped the Shelleys cut the printer's name off one of his works, much as Shelley was shortly to do with Queen Mab.

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