Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Shelley and Rousseau: The Mirror and the Lake

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Shelley and Rousseau: The Mirror and the Lake

Article excerpt

Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley began an eight-day sailing trip around Lake Geneva on June 23, 1816, but Shelley's more influential companion on that pivotal journey was Jean Jacques Rousseau, or, more accurately, St. Preux and Julie, the principal characters in Rousseau's only novel, the best-selling Julie or the New Heloise: Letters of Two Lovers Who Live in a Small Town at the Foot of the Alps (1761), which Shelley read obsessively during his pilgrimage to the habitations and haunts of its fictional characters. Richard Holmes writes that "while Byron slept late, Shelley got up soon after dawn and explored the places of romance between St. Preux and Julie" (335). Shelley's writing during the actual sailing voyage included parts of a long letter to Thomas Love Peacock, a will in which he divided his estate evenly between Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont, a sketchbook full of rough drawings of the lake, and the autobiographical opening of "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," which he may have completed after returning to Montalegre, but which Michael Erkehlenz, editor of The Geneva Notebook of Percy Bysshe Shelley, supposes was drafted during the actual boat voyage--a credible explanation of the chronology of composition, since many pages of the notebook have been lost and no first draft of the poem survives.

The summer of 1816 marked a major shift in Shelley's philosophical and poetical approach, away from an idealistically flavoured materialism towards a sceptically inflected idealism in his later writings. An event of signal importance, Shelley's reading of Julie (1) inspired his first major ode, and it precipitated a change in his stated opinions about Rousseau and a transformation in poetic consciousness (Cian Duffy 93). Harold Bloom is not alone in considering "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" and "Mont Blanc" the "first embodiment of the mature myth later to be developed in Shelley's poetry" (21). James Notopoulos and Neville Rogers would chart Shelley's 1816 movement as one toward Neo-Platonism, whereas Gerald McNiece and Judith Chernaik (Lyrics) have interpreted the "Hymn" in terms of its "romantic irony" (a re-phrasing for McNiece of "skeptical idealism," 312). As Shelley criticism has moved, in general, away from mythmaking and theophany, through deManian scepticism and into cultural studies and the political, the status of "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" in the Shelley canon has diminished. In Shelley's writing, irony and idealism are thoroughly interwoven the one with the other, but the emphasis does shift after the summer of 1816, and this analysis is about the presence in "Hymn" of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a writer for whom idealism and irony were similarly Janus faces on the one head. Shelley's lines, "Sudden, thy shadow fell on me; / I shrieked, and clasped my hands in extacy!" (59-60), are un-ironic, and the poem may not be overtly political, though political thought is manifest, whether covertly or directly, in all Shelley's writing; nonetheless, Forest Pyle has made a creditable foray into the poem's political substrata. Still, the ecstatic language of the lyric reinforces what Raj an deems "the neotheological" and also "sentimental tendency of hymn" (85).

In a note to the poems of 1816, Mary Shelley writes that Shelley was reading Julie when he conceived "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" (Complete Poetry 3.1069), and Shelley's letter to Peacock referring to his reading of the novel lends support to the assertion (Letters 1.485). Yet critical discussions of the "Hymn" have focussed on other intertextual connections with Plato (Notopoulos), the Gospel of John, Godwin (Pollin), and especially Wordsworth (Blank, Schluter, and Nitchie); ever since Frederick L. Jones in 1947, Shelley's "Hymn" has been astutely read as a reply to "Ode: Intimations of Immortality." Also, studies of the Rousseau-Shelley connection have explored Rousseau's influence on various poems: Alastor (Maddox, Lee, Roche), Julian and Maddalo (Lee), and The Triumph of Life (Edward Duffy), but Cian Duffy comes closest to interpreting "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" in the context of Rousseau's major influence on it, and R. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.