"The Child of a Fierce Hour": Shelley and Napoleon Bonaparte

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IN SHELLEY: THE PURSUIT, RICHARD HOLMES DISCUSSES A "DIFFICULT" August 1815 letter from Percy Shelley to his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg. (1) Holmes finds this letter "difficult" because Shelley's remarks on the "final denouement of the Napoleonic struggle in Europe" appear to him to be "distanced to the point of indifference" (290). Shelley's letter refers to newspaper reports describing the "continuance" of Allied "enormities" in post-Restoration France, and then goes on to say that:

   In considering the political events of the day I endeavour to divest
   my mind of temporary sensations, to consider them as already
   historical. This is difficult. Spite of ourselves the human beings
   which surround us infect us with their opinions; so much as to
   forbid us to be dispassionate observers of the questions arising out
   of the events of the age. (2)

Holmes's seminal challenge to the Arnoldian and New Critical view of Shelley evidently influences his reading of this passage. Even so, it is not immediately obvious why it should be "difficult to believe that these were the words of a political radical aged 23" (290). Rather, Shelley's concern to remain a "dispassionate observer" of "political events," and attendant anxiety about intellectually "infectious" public opinion, is entirely consistent with the Godwinian mainstream of his political thought. (3)

What really is "extraordinary" about this letter, however, is the fact that it marks one of only two ad hominem engagements with Napoleon Bonaparte in Shelley's extant correspondence, the other being a December 1812 letter to Hogg (Letters 1: 345-54; Holmes 292). This is not, of course, to suggest that Napoleon does not feature in Shelley's work. Conversely, he clearly plays an important role in The Triumph of Life (1822), and is the subject of three shorter poems: "To the Emperors of Russia and Austria ..." (1810), "Feelings of a Republican on the Fall of Bonaparte" (1815), and "Lines written on hearing the News of the Death of Napoleon" (1821). (4) He also appears in passing in Shelley's "Ode to Liberty" (1820), and Philosophical View of Reform (1819), and is at least implicitly present in the "Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills" (1818). However, very little scholarly attention has been paid to Shelley's engagement with Napoleon and there is, I think, a critical perception that he didn't have a great deal to say on the subject, at least not when compared to contemporaries like Wordsworth, Southey, Hazlitt, and Byron. Tellingly, the only full-length study of Romanticism's relationship with Napoleon--Simon Bainbridge's Napoleon and English Romanticism (1995)--makes virtually no mention of Shelley.

Seeking to redress this lack of critical attention, the present piece identifies an engagement with Napoleon Bonaparte as a sustained and important feature of Shelley's work. Intensely concerned with understanding the disastrous course of the French Revolution--"the master theme of the epoch in which we live"--Shelley's political thought needed, necessarily, to take account of Bonaparte (Letters 1: 504). In Napoleon and English Romanticism, Simon Bainbridge traces a broad pattern of disillusionment and concern in Britain as the erstwhile defender of the French Revolution against foreign aggression becomes an Imperial aggressor himself. Napoleon, as Bainbridge demonstrates, provided early nineteenth-century British culture with an obvious and potent focus for libertarian disenchantment, conservative reaction, and cross-party national(ist) anxiety. Writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge, Bainbridge suggests, drawing on now-familiar arguments about Romanticism's relationship with history, sought to define their own poetic role in opposition to Napoleon's increasingly expansionist politics. Conversely, writers on the other side of the political divide--Byron and Hazlitt in particular--continued not only to valorize Napoleon in order to attack the increasingly conservative establishment, but also to point up their own opposition to the literary organs of that establishment by describing themselves in Napoleonic terms. …

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