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The Philosophical Anarchism and Utopian Thought of Percy Bysshe Shelley
By Michael Henry Scrivener
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1982 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Visionary Radicalism and Radical Culture
* * *
The pattern of development typically established for the English romantic poets is the transition from naive political radicalism to literary romanticism, informed by a faith in imagination and sober conservative skepticism. Although there is a limited truth to this oversimplification, it distorts the actual process the poets experienced. Distortion becomes myth when the Enlightenment (rationalist, mechanistic, revolutionary) is contrasted with Romanticism (imagination and feeling, organicism, conservatism). This is especially misleading in dealing with a poet like Shelley, whose work reflects a growing pessimism even though he never ceased being a political radical. The central conflict from the 1790s to 1832 is not between styles of thinking, more or less "romantic," but between "Old Corruption" — that is, the institutions of the English ruling class — and an ever growing number of people who opposed it. Unless one examines the English radical culture Shelley was a part of, that native tradition of radicalism he modified, then it will be impossible to make sense of Shelley's complex development.
When Shelley was expelled from Oxford in 1811, there already existed a rich radical tradition which he was making his own. In 1809, Sir Francis Burdett revived the 1790s' radicalism by introducing his proposal for parliamentary reform in the House of Commons. The decade of the 1790s, however, was a different era, whose radicalism was crushed and driven underground by repression. But what Burdett started grew into a movement of nearly revolutionary proportions after 1815, and even though it, too, was defeated, its configuration was not the same, nor was the defeat as thorough.
One can begin a study of 1790s' radicalism by tracing the origins of a small group of reform Whigs, such as Fox, Grey, Sheridan, Erskine, and the Duke of Norfolk (the latter was the patron of Percy Shelley's father, Timothy, M.P. and later baronet). Although there was agitation for political change before the American war of independence (the Wilkes affair in the 1760s, Wyvill's association of freeholders, and Major Cartwright's call for universal manhood suffrage in 1776), the most serious attempt to launch a reform movement came with formation of the Society for Constitutional Information in 1780. The SCI had three basic demands: (1) political rights for Dissenters by repealing the Test and Corporation Acts; (2) annual parliaments; (3) better representation for the middle class. The SCI acted as a pressure group on parliament, urging their Whig allies to press for reform. Although reform proposals were easily defeated in parliament, the reformers did not take the revolutionary step of appealing to the lower classes for assistance — a step the French reformers took in 1789. The early successes of the French Revolution inspired the English reformers to take a more militant stand on reform, but the ruling class was more intransigent than ever. Edmund Burke's defection from the progressive Whigs signaled the impossibility of reform as long as France was revolutionary. Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France exerted a powerful influence against not only the French Revolution but English reform as well. To grant a parliamentary reform, however moderate, during the Revolution, was to concede legitimacy to the logic of democracy at a time when the ruling order had to be defended.
Although the revolution in France moved the ruling class rightwards, it had a strong "left" influence on the reform movement, which acquired in 1792 a plebian organization, the London Corresponding Society. The tradesmen, artisans, and laborers of the LCS introduced a new democratic element into English reform politics, which had previously been dominated by the prosperous strata of the middle class. However united by an opposition to Old Corruption, the radical culture possessed a wide range of different perspectives. Although there is continuity in the radical culture from the Foxite Whigs to the artisans of the LCS, distinctions have to be made. The most significant dividing line is between those who would be completely satisfied with moderate reform and those who would not. At one pole there was the republican artisan, a follower of Thomas Paine, while at the other pole was the aristocratic Whig, like the Duke of Norfolk, who wanted a constitutional monarchy (with a House of Lords), slightly modified to allow some middleclass participation. In the 1790s, these opposing views sometimes clashed. For example, the Duke of Norfolk was a landlord hated by the Sheffield area democrats because of the Duke's policies of enclosure and rent-gouging. The Duke who was publicly admonished by the King for his "radical" declamation concerning the "sovereignty of the people" is the same one who, without a qualm, drove poor laborers from their land in order to increase his profits. But these diverse elements did not always meet head-on. A 1790s' radical pamphlet, which seems typical, blurs class distinctions. Equal weight is given to lower-class issues (impressment, indirect taxation, Poor Law administration, game laws, union rights, enclosures, education for the poor, provision for the aged) and middleclass issues (religious tolerance, poor rates, land taxes, abolition of monopolies, debtors prison, legal reform, better provision for curates). The differences, which were real and would become more apparent after 1815, were somewhat softened in the 1790s when conservative opinion was so much stronger than radical culture.
To the left of the Foxite Whigs, but to the right of the revolutionaries in the LCS, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft articulated a visionary radicalism which Percy Shelley, a decade later, was to adopt and revise. Two features of this radicalism are distinctive and clarify its uniqueness within the broader radical culture: its gradualism (and rejection of revolution and direct action); and its emphasis on literary and cultural radicalism (as opposed to political or economic radicalism).
Thomas Paine, in The Rights of Man, and John Thelwall, at LCS meetings, proposed to go beyond gradualism by staging mass demonstrations and even an extra-parliamentary "Convention." Imitating the French example, they appealed directly to the lower classes for support in challenging the power of Old Corruption. Coleridge, however, like Godwin, was fearful that this approach would lead to the revolutionary "excesses" of a sans-culotte democracy. In Conciones ad Populum (1795), Coleridge recommends that educated reformers plead for the oppressed, but not to them. It is dangerous to appeal to the self-interest of the lower classes before the "purifying alchemy of Education" has had a chance to "transmute the fierceness" of ignorance into "virtuous energy."
The question of gradualism or militant action was the occasion for a split in the LCS in 1795, with the majority faction going with Thelwall, and the rest adhering to Godwinian ideas. The LCS, under ThelwalPs leadership, could mobilize a crowd of 100,000 in London to protest against the government. When the government contemplated more repressive legislation, Godwin wrote an interesting pamphlet which criticized Thelwall and the LCS for what he called demagoguery. Godwin goes so far as to recognize the right of government to restrain the activities of the LCS. "The collecting of immense multitudes of men into one assembly, particularly when there have been no persons of eminence, distinction, and importance in the country, that have mixed with them, and been ready to temper their efforts, is always sufficiently alarming." Although Godwin recognizes the repressive nature of the legislation contained in Pitt's and Grenville's Bills concerning treason, sedition, and unlawful assembly, as we would expect him to, his primary motive is to plead for moderation in the reform movement. John P. Clark summarizes the issues thus: "Godwin sought in the pamphlet to convince radicals to become more moderate in their methods of seeking reform, to convince the public that repressive legislation is undesirable, and to convince the government that repression is unnecessary." By 1795, however, the left was in no position to influence state policy, no matter what it did. Considering the weakness of the left, Godwin's moderate position was both prudent and realistic, despite the elitist nature of his argument.
Thelwall and others in the LCS, however, believed that only by appealing directly to the poor, as Paine had done, as the French had done, could they develop a movement capable of changing society. The implications of the Paine-Thelwall strategy are revolutionary, while the Coleridge-Godwin method is reformist. The key factor is the status of the laborer who, for Godwin, lacked the leisure necessary for cultivation of reason; therefore, the reformer had to address the educated classes first. When the reformer directed attention to the laborers, he would speak to them as individuals, not as a class. Paine and Thelwall were not much more egalitarian, however, because they believed they truly represented the interests of the lower classes, from whom they sought active support. It had become a radical tactic since the Wilkes agitation for a politician to use the so-called "mob" to frighten parliament into activity. The two different positions, then, are much closer than is apparent at first glance because both assume that the poor themselves are incapable of rational activity unless it is directed by educated radicals.
Rejecting the "coercion" of politics, Godwin promulgated a cultural politics instead, elevating culture and education far above economic and political action. One reason for Godwin's optimism concerning culture was the expanding literacy at the time. The reading public was growing to such an extent that Wordsworth, in the Lyrical Ballads Preface, and Coleridge, in 1816, could complain of the debauched taste of popular culture, the evil effects of "the circulating libraries and the periodical press." Sidney Pollard writes that "between about 1815 and 1835, ... at least two-thirds even of the factory proletariat could read." The swelling wave of literacy seemed to be ushering in a new era. Middle-class men and women had witnessed the emergence and growth of their own culture in the eighteenth century, and now the lower classes were "improving" their intellect with literary culture. Godwin and Wollstonecraft envisioned a middle-class cultural revolution, spreading in both directions, converting and transforming both rich and poor to the supposedly universal truths of nature, reason, and feeling. Defenders of the old order, however, were alarmed by the increasing literacy. Confirming conservative fears was the popularity of Thomas Paine's answer to Burke, The Rights of Man. At a time when the sale of 40,000 to 80,000 copies meant a spectacular circulation for a pamphlet, the 200,000 or so copies sold of Paine's essay represented a quantum leap. By 1809, an estimated 1.5 million copies of Part Two alone were in the United Kingdom. In fact, Part Two disturbed authorities the most because in Paine's simple prose style he criticized English political institutions and proposed to advance reform by convening an extra-parliamentary convention.
If Godwin and Wollstonecraft had little faith in, and much fear of, the laboring poor to whom Paine appealed, they had an almost religious reverence for the power of intellectual culture to humanize whomever it contacted. To comprehend their view of culture, one must turn to the eighteenth-century novel, where so much middleclass culture came to be articulated. Because it was a form less cluttered with rules and standards, the novel attracted numerous middle-class "amateurs," especially women, in the last three or four decades of the eighteenth century. The new novelists wanted to make some money as well as express in literary terms their own unique concerns. One can speak of a thriving middle-class culture from Richardson's Clarissa to Ann Radcliffe's gothic romances. The sentimentality, sensationalism, and "vulgarity" of the novel and romance were assertions of middle-class cultural identity. "The repression of feeling," J.M.S. Tompkins writes, "though it was a mask of breeding in high life, was not yet a universally accepted standard of behaviour," certainly not by the readers of The Man of Feeling and other tear-jerkers. In the 1790s, however, with the emergence of the so-called "Jacobin" novelists like Bage, Inchbald, Holcroft, Godwin, and Wollstonecraft, the political implications and direction of middle-class culture became controversial. As the battle raged between Jacobins and anti-Jacobins, the problematic word was reason; to anti-Jacobins, it signified a demonic force that threatened the family, patriotism, religion, property, and virtue itself. The controversy was not between styles of thinking more or less "rational," but was instead a political and cultural conflict, with Holcroft and others arguing for certain radical values that were subversive of what the Jacobins called custom, superstition, and prejudice. There is no deficiency of feeling in the Jacobin novels, but there are also a number of attacks on male superiority, the power of the land-owning class, and even class hierarchy itself. This is what upset the conservatives, not the presence or absence of "feeling."
A VISIONARY RADICALISM
However much one modifies the statement, it remains true: Godwin, more than any other radical, influenced Shelley's political philosophy. Cameron has written of the important influence of Paine and the reform movement. McNiece has shown the way Shelley's ideas and poetry were affected by the literature of the French Revolution. Godwin, however, remains the central figure; only by an in-depth exploration of his thought can one see how important an influence he had on Shelley. He was more than just an influence, because as a visionary radical Godwin encountered many of the same contradictions and dilemmas Shelley too would encounter. Of Godwin's — and Mary Wollstonecraft's — works, Shelley read more, and more often, than any other radical author; moreover, he incorporated more of their ideas than those of any other author. Shelley, then, was attracted to their visionary radicalism at the expense of Whig liberalism, moderate reform, and Painite or utilitarian republicanism. In three important areas their visionary radicalism was to the left of even Paine's republicanism. First, Feminism. Neither middle-class nor working-class radicalism was much concerned with the rights of women, especially the equality Wollstonecraft argued for. Although Bentham favored female suffrage, his utilitarianism was inconsistent with a more radical feminism, which tied the liberation of women to an attack on economic inequality and the destructive effects of the "commercial spirit." Second, Property. Paine was content with slightly modified laissez-faire capitalism, as was Wordsworth in 1793. Indeed, at the time, this was a progressive, antiaristocratic position. The LCS and SCI concentrated on political questions, not economic or social issues. Despite what their opponents said about Jacobin levelers, the 1790s' radicals were not opposed to capitalism or inequality; at the most, they favored certain kinds of welfare legislation and different taxation policies, while Godwin argued for a kind of socialism. Third, Perfectibility. As one traverses the political spectrum, one sees radicals stopping at various points where they declare "liberty" has been realized. The moderates want to retain a King and House of Lords, while the republicans want to preserve aristocratic as well as bourgeois property; indeed, one of the "rights" of man declared by the French Revolution was the right of bourgeois property. Influenced by Condorcet and Fawcett, Wollstonecraft and Godwin believed in perfectibility, the infinite possiblities of progressive change. Their vision of what society might become generated their critique of the established order. Rejecting revolution, they put their hope in evolutionary change directed by educational and cultural activity. By changing consciousness they hoped to alter institutions, which would pave the way for further improvement.
Excerpted from Radical Shelley by Michael Henry Scrivener. Copyright © 1982 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- FrontMatter, pg. i
- Contents, pg. vii
- Acknowledgments, pg. ix
- Introduction, pg. xi
- ONE. Visionary Radicalism and Radical Culture, pg. 1
- TWO. The Making of a Philosophical Anarchist (1809-1813), pg. 35
- THREE. Romanticism and Religion (1814-1817), pg. 77
- FOUR. The Hermit of Marlow (1817), pg. 108
- FIVE. Prometheus Unbound in Context (1818-1820), pg. 140
- SIX. Defending the Imagination (1820-1821), pg. 247
- SEVEN. An Ethical Idealism (1821-1822), pg. 282
- Notes, pg. 318
- Index, pg. 347