Shelley and His Readers: Beyond Paranoid Politics

Shelley and His Readers: Beyond Paranoid Politics

Shelley and His Readers: Beyond Paranoid Politics

Shelley and His Readers: Beyond Paranoid Politics


In Shelley and His Readers, the first full-length critical analysis of the dialogue between Shelley's poetry and its contemporary reviewers, Kim Wheatley argues that Shelley's idealism can be recovered through the study of its reception. Incorporating extensive research in major early-nineteenth-century British periodicals, Wheatley integrates a reception-based methodology with careful textual analysis to demonstrate that the contemporary reception of Shelley's work registers the immediate impact of the poet's increasingly idealistic passion for reforming the world.

Wheatley examines Shelley's poetry within the context of Romantic-era "paranoid politics, " a heightened language of defensiveness and persecution incorporating Miltonic and apocalyptic imagery that paints adversaries as Satanic rebels against the orthodoxy. A simultaneously empowering and disabling dynamic, the paranoid style embodies a preoccupation with the efficacy of the printed word, thus singling out radical writers such as Shelley for personal attacks.


“Poetry . . . acts in a divine and unapprehended manner, beyond and above consciousness”

—ADefence of Poetry, 486

This book explores the dialogue between the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley and its immediate public reception, which I claim registers the impact of Shelley's increasingly idealistic “passion for reforming the world.” I see the vituperative rhetoric of the poet's hostile contemporary reviewers as a historically specific version of the “paranoid style, ” a heightened language of defensiveness and persecution. I use the phrase “paranoid style”—taken from Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965)— to characterize not only the violent attacks that Shelley himself inspired, but also the aggressive language of elitist reviewers' attacks on reformist writers in general in early-nineteenth-century England. Defining the paranoid style, Hofstadter describes “a style of mind, not always right-wing in its affiliations, that has a long and varied history”. He points out that he is “not speaking in a clinical sense” but rather “borrowing a clinical term” to suggest “qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”. Crucially, despite the paranoid rhetorician's grandiose vision that entire systems of values are being jeopardized by an imminent crisis, he interprets large-scale events personally, psychologizing historical agency as “the consequences of someone's will” (32). He takes individuals to be capable of manipulating large numbers of people, controlling their actions completely. Paranoid thinking leaves no room for unpredictability or ambiguity. Hofstadter observes however that the enemy is also . . .

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