Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Shelley's Cosmopolitan "Discourse": Ancient Greek Manners and Modern Liberty

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Shelley's Cosmopolitan "Discourse": Ancient Greek Manners and Modern Liberty

Article excerpt

When he headed for Italy in the spring, 1818, Percy Shelley left behind at Marlow the life-sized plaster casts of the Belvedere Apollo and the Medici Venus which had presided over his reading of Plato and his writing of Laon and Cythna (MWS Letters 1: 38, 38n and White 1.505). Reading A. W. Von Schlegel's Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature on the way to Italy, a work that describes Greek classical drama as fundamentally analogous to sculpture, he anticipated a less bookish, more direct encounter with the sculpture and architecture of classical civilizations (MWS J 16-21, march 1818). Like his modern Greek protagonists in Laon and Cythna, he sought to regenerate from Mediterranean culture the material ruins of a classical Greek ideal of civic liberty. Halting for the summer in the cool retreat of Bagni di Lucca, however, Shelley continued to analyze Greek culture through its texts--first working on a translation of Plato's Symposium and then, in late July, drafting his second try at an introduction to the dialogue (Weinberg 21; Jones, xiii). This essay, which he titled "Discourse on the Manners of the Antient Greeks," opens a cosmopolitan defense of classical Athenian "manners" in love--that is, of their practice of homoeroticism. Homophobia had blocked modern British readers from accepting Plato's portrayal of love between men as a desire for "ideal beauty & truth" equal to that in Phidias' and Praxiteles' sculpture. In this essay, then, Shelley attempts a sympathetic explanation of that difference in sexual orientation; and he mediates that explanation through an appeal to the beautiful forms of the sculpted human figure. Yet, as he works through drafts of the essay in two different notebooks, his argument becomes a different sort of cosmopolitanism, one that would in his view be more inclusive and egalitarian. For Greek homoeroticism, he argues, mars the otherwise perfect society of ancient Greece because it excludes a heterosexuality based upon the intellectual and civic liberty of women. (1)

The mediating, persuasive form of his argument is the "loveliness"--the desirable beauty--of the human form. Shelley begins drafting this preface in a small notebook (Bod. MS. Shelley adds. e. 11) just after the fragment "On Love." In that essay, which Donald Reiman and Steven Jones suggest was his first try at writing an introduction to the Symposium translation (Jones xiv, xx n. 8; Reiman, SC VI, 638-47), he analyzes the idea of the "epipsyche" or mental projection of an ideal version of the self as an object of desire. Having explored the consequences of pursuing such an ambiguous ideal in Alasto, his reading of the Phaedrus on August 4-5 would have grounded this concept more firmly in Athenian culture (MWS Journal 217-18; Halperin, "Diotima" 269, citing Phaedrus 255c-e). Following "On Love" in the notebook, the "Discourse" also associates "loveliness" with an idealizing image-making by the lover.

Though the pages of these drafts include scarcely any of his characteristic visual sketches, his verbal text immediately evokes this visuality, first, with the graphically expressive title, written with a flourish, and then with the content. Shelley opens his "Discourse" by asking, "What was the combination of moral & political circumstances which produced so [unc] unparallelled a progress ... in literature & the arts" and why it "so soon recieved a check" are "problems left to ... posterity" to wonder over, as "the ruins of a fine statue obscurely suggest to us the grandeur & perfection of the whole" (17-18). This powerful simile of sculpture as bridging time even in its ruined state leads into a consideration of the original and interdependent grandeur of all the arts practiced in classical Greece. Though little evidence of their painting remains except for verbal description, "Their sculptures are such as we in our presumption assume to be the models of ideal truth & beauty & ^to which with all no artist of modern times can produce anything com forms in any degree comparable" (18). …

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