Mary Shelley's Concealing "To-": (Re)addressing Poems

By Crook, Nora | Wordsworth Circle, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Mary Shelley's Concealing "To-": (Re)addressing Poems


Crook, Nora, Wordsworth Circle


The traditional concealment of the addressee of a poem by a pseudonym. initials, or the tide "To--" sometimes sits uncomfortably with the Romantic investment in truth-telling and sincerity. The public is, as it were, allowed to eavesdrop on a private conversation with a third party, with the implied promise that the blanks or concealing nouns of "To --." "To a Young Friend,"--or "Lines to--" could be filled by the name of an actual person, but won't be. Such was, for example, the addressee of Epipsychidion (1821). Shelley's "Nobtt and Unfortunate Lady Emilia V --." Shelley's "Advertisement' to Epipsychidion faces both ways. He declines to (rive "a matter-of-tact history of the circumstances to which [the poem] relates" while declaring (using a quotation from Dante to help him out) that he could reveal such a history, concealed behind his veil of fiction, if one were demanded of I im, and that. it would be a disgrace if he were unable to do so ("gran vergogna sarebbe a colui, che rimasse cosa sotto veste di figura, o di colore rellorico: e domandato non sapesse denudare le sue parch, da cotal veste. in guisa che avessero verace intendimento"). (1) Over the last two humdred Years, many of these blanks have been filled in, thanks to the rise during the Romantic period of the literary celebrity and the literary biography. the quantity of letters and memoirs that has survived, and the assiduousness 0r scholarly research.

Such discoveries raise the question: outside of what can be inferred from the poem itself', is the identification of an addressee of any importance? That the biographical story behind a poem is the key to its meaning is an of exposed Fallacy. Such revelations distract from the artistry, feeding an appetite for gossip and sleuthing, for example, For a real-life prototype of Wordsworth's Lucy--which even if such a person were to be discovered could not conceivably add to or detract from "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal." That arch-Shelley worshiper. Swinburne, writing in 1875, considered that the personal allusions in Epipsychidion "under the mask and muffler of allegoric rhapsody are not in any sense mysterious; they are simply puzzling; and art should have nothing to do with puzzles" (Essays and Studies 236).

On the other hand. there are cases where revision of previous identifications has altered the way that readers approach a poem. For example, Si id "Thy little footsteps on the sands was previously titled "To William Shelley: but revealed bk G. M. Matthews (1978) to be addressed to Fanny Godwin; it is a mourning poem not for the Shelleys son. but for a daughter of Mar N Wollstonecraft (Matthews 254-60). Another instance concerns Byron's "Stanzas for Music": "There be none of Beauty's Daughters / With a magic like to thee / And like music On the waters is thy sweet voice to me" (pub. 1816). Since 1957, when Leslie Marchand first suggested that Byron was not praising the sweet singing of his mistress of 1816, Claire Clairmont (who was to become Shelley's stepsister-in-law) but the chorister John Edelston with whom Byron had been in love at. Gambridge, the re-addressing of the poem has affected not only one's awareness of the androgynous personae personae cultivated by Byron, but. also, as has been noted by several critics, the actual way one inflects the first line, read aloud or silently. If one thinks that it is written to Claire Clairmont, the emphasis falls on none: "There be none of Beauty's daughters," but if to Edelston, one is drawn to read it as "There be none of Beauty's danghters," because the addressee is one of Beauty's sons. Poems about same-sex love published before, say. the mid-1960s are particularly affected by such re-addressing, since so many were written fin. a dual constituency: an inner circle, to whom the poet's sexual orientation was no secret, and a public which had to be excluded. if the poet was to avoid disapproval or prosecution.

More complex instances appear in The Posthumous Poems of Perry Bysshe Sheller (1824), the collection that Mary Shelley edited after Shelley's drowning in 1822. …

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