Literature, Poetry

The Shelleys and the Brownings

New to our English Association Monographs series, The Shelleys and the Brownings by Rieko Suzuki is the first book to focus solely on the intertextual relationships between the Shelleys and the Brownings. In this blog post, Suzuki considers the legacies of these four writers.

As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s death this year, we are reminded of a Romantic poet whose legacy is still strongly felt today. Shelley was a complex man and his poetry duly reflects this. He was passionately political, as his principal poems demonstrate, yet also aesthetic and moral, two qualities which in Shelley’s mind could not be separated. He was highly idealistic, as Prometheus Unbound exemplifies, but could just as easily depict the painful reality of ‘The Triumph of Life’. As we might expect of such a poet, he influenced a wide range of people beyond his immediate literary successors: Marx, Gandhi, and Tagore all of whose political engagement also marked their careers; as well as those who aspired to aesthetic and spiritual regeneration, as in the case of some American renaissance writers and W. B. Yeats. The fact that the previous Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, quoted from Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ is an indication that his poetry still speaks to us today.

I have come to see Mary Shelley, Robert Browning, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning as heirs of Shelley’s legacy: Mary Shelley, Shelley’s partner and collaborator in literary production, Robert Browning, a poet who was virtually a self-elected disciple of Shelley, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who carried on the political side of Shelley’s poetic career most prominently. This is the starting point of my book The Shelleys and the Brownings: Textual Re-Imaginings and the Question of Influence (2022). Although the notion of ‘influence’ has fallen out of favour in recent decades, I feel strongly that it still has something to say to us. Leaving behind the Freudian model of ‘influence’ most forcefully and persuasively advanced by Harold Bloom, I explore the idea of ‘influence’ in relation to historicism and argue that ‘influence’ not only involves the killing off of the predecessor, but also the empowerment of the latecomer.

The oeuvre of these three writers presents an impressive array of concerns and problematizations that still seem relevant today. As we enter the third year of the pandemic, we recall that it was Mary Shelley who dramatized it for the first time in The Last Man (1824). She presents an eerie picture of England ravaged by the plague as political incompetence shatters the governing system of a nation. It was certainly an uncomfortable book to read during the first year of the pandemic as similar situations unraveled around the world. Not only does the book expose human nature at its weakest as well as its strongest, just as we have seen in our own time, but it also questions the validity of democracy itself and serves as an uncanny reminder of its dangers and pitfalls.

Robert Browning, for all his devotion to and idolization of Shelley, could not have turned out more differently from Shelley. His psychological probing into the minds of psychopaths and egoists remains as shocking as any psychoanalytic examination of a disturbed mind might be today. It shakes readers out of their comfort zone and makes them think again about the subject-matter. If Elizabeth Barrett Browning articulated the contemporary issues of her day—child labor, prostitution, female autonomy that readily extends to national independence, and art in an industrialized age—Browning was subtler in his political expression. This is perhaps the topic of another book, but his politics were certainly not naïve and he recognized the difficulty of realizing an ideal world through the actions of human beings, whom he saw as essentially flawed. Of course, he believed in a liberal society, but fundamentally, he was a private and a religious poet.

When we reflect on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s political engagements in an age of borderless global community where events taking place in one part of the world have a rippling effect on the rest of the world, we realize that all the issues she was concerned with are still very much with us. The most prominent example of this today is perhaps the environment: there is no national border that works to stop and contain its effects. Likewise the pandemic-ridden world, where people’s movements and the viruses that they carry cannot be contained within nation-states.

What my book seeks to do is to examine texts by the Shelleys and the Brownings by identifying a dynamic array of networks in operation and associations detectable that contribute to their creation. They are not confined to real communities and coteries but extend to imaginary ones that include a re-engagement with the dead. This focus on the non-individual seems topical today as we find ourselves, for better or for worse, part of various social networks. Of course, there was no internet or smartphone in the nineteenth century, but this did not stop people from interacting with others and engaging in collaborative activities. Indeed, compared to the short messages that have become the norm today, the length of letters exchanged among writers suggests that perhaps there was more!

What better time than now to revisit these four writers? I have long thought that the Shelley-Browning constellation had not been fully explored, and the two couplings make the case stronger. The biographical fascination which the Shelleys and the Brownings attract will probably never be exhausted. This is good news, but I would also like to see a flowering of critical works on the texts written by these four writers—individually, of course, but in relation to each other as well.

The Shelleys and the Brownings is available to order on our website.


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