Romanticism and the Heritage of Rousseau

By Thomas McFarland | Go to book overview
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4
Beckoning from the Abode

THE two preceding textures of Romanticism have touched the two most important English founders, Wordsworth and Coleridge. The present touching will descry a texture from the so-called second generation. It was Shelley's admiration of Rousseau that originally heralded this volume's shift to the texture of origins; and it seems fitting, therefore, Rousseau and his effect having provided such important patternings up to now, that Shelley, Rousseau's celebrator and disciple, provide the texture to be descried in another part of the fabric called Romanticism. The present patterning, however, will have relatively little to do with previous studies (there are at least three treatments in recent years, one in English and two in French, on the relation of Shelley and Rousseau) that seek to assess the intellectual field of force existing between the two figures. 1

It has been difficult to disentangle our contemporary response to Shelley from the damaging animadversions of Leavis and T. S. Eliot, and before that, of Arnold and even Hazlitt. The present tactile endeavour will attempt to further that disentanglement while not distorting what Shelley was -- to concede against him what must be conceded, but at the same time to direct attention to his extraordinary intelligence and his supreme achievements: the poems, Adonais and ' Mont Blanc', and the essay, A Defence of Poetry.

Shelley's admirable intelligence is what has tended to get lost in the protracted moral debate about his actions, and the critical debate about the abstractness of his poetic voice. If one reads a biography, say that of Richard Holmes, one constantly sees a Shelley who quite properly appears eccentric, immature, and even foolish. But such a view seems, in significant degree, to be an effect of external description; if one approaches Shelley from within, through his letters, an entirely different picture emerges. Though he was beleaguered and confused, in his letters we hear a voice of moderation, courtesy, modesty, and perspicacity. We hear, above all, a voice pervasively characterized by coruscating intelligence.

That intelligence, one must repeat, should be our prime awareness about Shelley. Mary Shelley speaks with great justness and accuracy when

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1
See esp. Edward Duffy, Rousseau in England: The Context for Shelley's Critique of the Enlightenment ( Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

-140-

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