Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Shelley's Alastor and "On a Future State"

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Shelley's Alastor and "On a Future State"

Article excerpt

In Alastor (1816), Percy Bysshe Shelley not only explores the sonorous and physiological elements of existence, but also the gaps, vacancies, silences and interstices of thought. Based on his own account, and as he is conventionally seen, Shelley exhibits a linear intellectual development, moving, allegedly, from a thoroughgoing materialism in his early years (as an adept of Godwin, a reader of Lucretius and others), to embrace, with varying levels of enthusiasm, a diametrically opposed idealism. As Shelley retrospectively wrote in the short essay "On Life" (1819): "examined point by point, and word by word, the most discriminating intellects have been able to discern no train of thoughts ... which does not conduct inevitably to the conclusion which has been stated [the intellectual system expounded most clearly by Sir William Drummond]," viz., "nothing exists but as it is perceived" (507). Frederick. L. Jones championed this account, arguing that "under the influence of Drummond's ideal philosophy," Shelley "opposed the prevalent materialistic philosophy," and "had found a new and inspiring system" (292). Alastor was, according to Jones, the confused marriage of materialist and idealist philosophy. Yet, in Alastor, Shelley offers a more complex and sophisticated account of materiality than Jones and the various linear narratives (or even Shelley himself) suggest. But one should bear in mind Shelley's, admittedly self-serving, advice to John and Maria Gisborne: "The poet & the man are two different natures: though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other" (L, 2. 310).

Whereas the contemporary turn towards vibrant and vital materialisms is narrowly conceived as a return to objects, things and their thing-ness, the sensuousness of the verse tests the nature of the relations between objects, and the ways in which they come into being. Shelley did not seek to resolve the relation between the material and immaterial world of the soul in Alastor--a quite impossible task anyway--but to actuate and enact the dynamic between sensuous reality and the gaps and pauses that punctuate it. The incidents that his verse describes make this evident, but more importantly, Shelley also enacts this through performance: through the way in which his verse is recited into existence, through--adapting a phrase of Shelley's--the "fainting periods" that the voice describes (L, 2. 20). The need to take into account this vocal, performative element of Shelley's verse belies the notion that he was ever a simple, unreconstructed idealist as many of the linear accounts contest. At this stage, Shelley sought to test, frustrate, and antagonize the divide between material reality and the realm of the soul.

In this way Alastor anticipates the philosophical radicalism of Shelley's later essay, "On a Future State" (1818-19). Whilst the poem has been subjected to compelling skeptical readings, such as Madeline Callaghan's brilliant "Shelley and the Ambivalence of Idealism" (92-104), such analyses do not address the influence of a previously unexamined philosophical debate on Shelley. Both poem and essay reveal that the poet's early materialism was informed by philosophical contexts that mattered to Shelley surrounding subtile matter. He had many chances to encounter this debate in the work of writers such as William Drummond and John Mason Good, among others listed in the "Marlow Inventory." (1)

Shelley's interest in the intersection of manifest and non-manifest material phenomena is not merely an individual quirk. (2) This concern presents us with a significant means of re-conceptualizing the history of materialism itself. Figures such as Henry More, Isaac Newton, and David Hume serve notice of a more dynamic set of historical interactions between vital and empirical approaches than is conventionally understood. When Hume, for example, employs the term "sensorium," he does not use a concept with a simply empirical provenance (as might seem the case), but rather, and as James Chandler has argued, a formulation first found in Latinate medical treatises, later adopted by the Latitudinarian Movement of the 17th century (emerging as it did from the thought of the Cambridge Platonists) which took the sensorium as the vehicle through which the immaterial and "subtile" soul encountered the sensuous world (189-94). …

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