From catechisms to Voltaire: Religious tradition and change in eighteenth-century novels

Alicia C. Montoya explores how eighteenth-century readers might have moved from catechisms to Voltaire in her chapter of Les Lumières catholiques et le roman français (edited by Isabelle Tremblay), the latest volume to be published in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

Scholars of the Enlightenment have tended – like intellectual historians generally – to stress the movement’s newness, rather than its continuities with the past. Yet these continuities are many, and none are so little explored, perhaps (pace Carl Becker’s Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers), as religious continuities, with religion conceived not in theological terms, but as an everyday praxis of rituals, prayers, and religious reading.


Les Lumières catholiques et le roman français edited by Isabelle Tremblay is the January 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series

No doubt some of the problem lies in essentialist concepts of ‘religious tradition’. In fact, traditions change over time, in response to specific historical configurations. One of the insights of Philippe Martin’s too-little-noticed Une religion des livres (1640 – 1850) is that popular devotional titles, such as catechisms and prayer books, were continually adapted and rewritten throughout the eighteenth century, both to suit the needs of successive generations and local dioceses.[1] In terms of print runs, these remained the best-selling titles of the period, right until the end of the century. On the eve of the French revolution, from 1777 to 1789, Jacques Coret’s Ange conducteur (1681) enjoyed a print run of 125,400 copies.[2] In the same years, in provincial cities alone, over 27,000 copies were printed of abbé Fleury’s Catéchisme historique (1683).[3] But how did these titles relate to the better-known literary productions of the Enlightenment? Were they read by different groups of readers, or was there some overlap? And if there was overlap, which titles shared shelf space with which other titles? Would a catechism sit comfortably on a nightstand next to Voltaire’s latest polemic? And if not, how did readers actually move from reading a religious catechism to reading a work by Voltaire?

One way to explore this question is to focus on private libraries and their holdings, as we do in a bibliometric project that will run until 2021, MEDIATE (Middlebrow Enlightenment: Disseminating Ideas, Authors, and Texts in Europe, 1665 – 1830). By studying both collocations – which titles are most often found in libraries next to one another – as well as specific title frequencies, this project hopes to shed light on titles that might have served as intellectual bridges between a traditional, religious worldview, and the new ideas associated with the Enlightenment.

But bibliometrics can only take us so far, and to really understand the impact of books on intellectual change, we need to study their contents. So another way to find out how readers might have moved from catechisms to Voltaire is to look more closely at the formal and discursive structures of these works. Catechisms are defined formally, for example, by their question-answer format. Yet religious books were not the only ones to use this structure. The catechism genre is referenced in publications ranging from Fleury’s Catéchisme to Voltaire’s Catéchisme de l’honnête homme (1764), or the revolutionary Catéchisme historique par une bonne citoyenne (c. 1790). A philosophe’s or a revolutionary’s use of the catechism format payed tribute to Christian tradition, even while explicitly distancing itself from it. At what point, then, did the religious reference no longer impact the reception of these texts, or ‘disappear’, to be replaced with ideas clearly aligned with the new?

Among the works that most insistently drew on religious formats were religiously-inspired pedagogical texts. Often female-authored, these titles re-used thematic elements and discursive structures associated with a Catholic worldview, joining them to Enlightenment pedagogical ideals. Texts such as Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s Education complète (1753), for example, used the catechism’s question-answer format to teach its young readers the history of the world, from the biblical Flood to the present day. In her best-selling Magasin des enfants (1756), to inculcate in her readers the elements of history, geography, and the natural sciences, Beaumont used religious number symbolism, structuring her narrative into seven days of dialogue between seven fictional pupils, punctuated by twelve fairy tales underlining specific moral points. In the pupils’ allegorical names, the medieval system of the seven vices and virtues was still recognizable. At the end of the century, Marie-Françoise Loquet adopted the system of vices and virtues in her Voyage de Sophie et d’Eulalie au palais du vrai Bonheur (1781), detailing a succession of encounters between the protagonists and personifications of the vices and virtues, in a quest to reach the abodes of Divine Charity and True Happiness.


Portrait of Madame de Genlis by
Adelaide Labille-Guiard (public domain, courtesy of LA County Museum of Art)

But other pedagogical authors like Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis, while paying lip service to religious beliefs, de facto made little use of them. In her collection of tales Veillées du château (1782), Genlis foregrounded the ‘the order in which I needed to present [my ideas] to gradually enlighten the spirit and elevate the soul’. But the content of her tales was so deeply indebted to the new scientific ideas of her age that their religious dimension disappeared from view. In one of the volume’s tales, ‘Alphonse et Dalinde’, Genlis took the reader on a dizzying tour of the world, describing a series of natural and man-made wonders, ranging from earthquakes, meteorites, automata, Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with electricity, and much more. So amazing are all these wonders that the author forgets, finally, to point out the divine hand at work in them. The tale ends up reading as a eulogy of modern science and rationality, in a world that no longer requires divine intervention.

So what remained in the writings of both religiously-inspired pedagogical authors and philosophes, increasingly, were merely the formal and discursive structures of traditional religious genres, now emptied of their religious content. Bien étonnés de se trouver ensemble, the works of Madame de Genlis and of Voltaire do, in fact, surprisingly often find themselves close neighbours on the shelves of eighteenth-century readers, attesting to the conceptual bridge that pedagogical works such as Genlis’s provided between two worldviews that, at first sight, might appear difficult to reconcile.

– Alicia C. Montoya (Radboud University)


[1] Philippe Martin, Une religion des livres (1640 – 1850) (Paris, 2003).

[2] Simon Burrows, ‘Charmet and the book police: Clandestinity, illegality and popular reading in late Ancien Régime France’, French History and Civilization vol. 6 (2015), p. 34 – 55 (48).

[3] Julia Dominique, ‘Livres de classe et usages pédagogiques’, in Histoire de l’édition française, vol. 2: Le livre triumphant 1660 – 1830, éd. Henri-Jean Martin and Roger Chartier (Paris, 1990), p. 615 – 56 (629).

Les Lumières catholiques et le roman français is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

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Green Wigs? Ecology and the Long Eighteenth Century

Denys Van Renen explores the relationship between nature and “new science” in his latest book, the first to be published under the new partnership between the Voltaire Foundation and Liverpool University Press.

Without a doubt, the Restoration era always exceeds students’ expectations. Students arrive with images in their heads of powdered wigs and royal ceremonies; they leave savoring the frankness, liveliness, and relevance of playwrights Aphra Behn, Susan Centlivre, George Farquhar, and John Dryden (All of Love and Amphitryon especially). Generic expectations circumscribe and limit.  But as Dryden describes, poets capture an idea or image in language and activate the senses their readers, creating a pulsating conduit between them and the objects represented. Dryden insists that his aesthetic forms, in his case heroic drama, initially obtrusive, merge with what he depicts. In the period after the Restoration of Charles II to the English throne, the “care and labour of Rhyme is carry’d from us, or at least drown’d in its own sweetness, as Bees are sometimes bury’d in their Honey.” Literary forms serve as porous borders that foster interaction and vibrancy, melting into the things they represent once this exchange has been activated.

Elizabeth Blackwell, “The Clove, Carophyllus aromaticus.” Plate 338 from volume 2 of Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal, Containing Five Hundred Cuts, of the Most Useful Plants (London, 1739).  Credit: Historic Maps Collection, Dept. of Rare Books & Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

How did literature overcome what had become stale Renaissance constructs and respond to contact and exchange across the Americas, Africa, and Asia? The premise of Nature and the New Science is that natural systems shape poetry, philosophy, geography, and politics. After the era I define, writers increasingly fix nature as something to be sought rather than always and everywhere an ambient condition of human life.  But from 1665-1726, nature operated as the medium through which the British sought the unknown, interpreted contact with others abroad, and allowed them to explore the self and adapt to new political and economic realities.

Because so many aspects that define our contemporary world took root in the period, the study of the long eighteenth century remains paramount to understanding seemingly intractable problems as well as institutions we’ve grown to cherish. A few examples include: Western conceptions of the East, global interdependencies, the lives of servants and women, treatment of indigenous people, and the (still) undervalued contributions of women writers. We often characterize the era as charting the “rise” of large-scale processes—the rise of the nation-state; the rise of the novel; the rise of the modern subject; the rise of democratic republicanism, the rise of capitalist economies—obscuring the originary conditions of these movements. In this book I am concerned with the literature that remains in dialogue with various processes, phenomena, places, and beings.

Various initiatives encourage cross-fertilization across academia, governmental organizations, and industry. My own university is in the process of uniting its Colleges of Arts and Sciences into one unit, giving me the opportunity to create interdisciplinary classes like “The Literature, History, and Science of Spaceflight.”  The period under discussion can serve as the lingua franca, enabling increased dialogue among academic units. It is a commonplace to point out that in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century disciplinary silos were nonexistent, but what remains understudied is how different areas of study remain tethered, how they need one another to define themselves.

I should know. Earning degrees in both Aerospace Engineering and English and working at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at CU-Boulder and, later, at Stanford University on satellites called QuickSCAT and Gravity Probe B, I viewed engineering and English as complementary disciplines. Likewise, the “New Science,” which emerged in the seventeenth century, promised to illuminate natural phenomena through the use of reason and special instruments, encouraging detailed inquiries into physical systems. The methodology resembles the practice of close reading a literary text: life appears when one appreciates the minutia. At the same time, the practitioners of the New Science recognized the object of study was inseparable from the device through which one grasped it, as did those who sought innovation in poetic form.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

While receptivity to their surroundings unites the authors studied here from Margaret Cavendish and Milton to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Daniel Defoe, the book observes a gradual diminishment in the writers’ attunement to natural processes as a means to discernment. They succumb instead to constructs of national identities characterized by borders and attendant socio-economic systems. Behn, for instance, ties technology to its capacity to intertwine people and sites rather than displace them, and for Dryden, the kinship between the English and nature enabled circum-oceanic travel. But by the end of the period I trace, only auditory sensations (the haunting cries of animals) remind Robinson Crusoe of vestigial affiliations among all beings.

In the Anthropocene, we struggle with the effects of how human activity changed the climate and environment. Conceptualizing the world through natural systems will not directly reverse rising oceans and carbon dioxide levels. The literature from the period, however, remains vital in that it reminds us that we cannot compartmentalize environmental degradation. It links human and natural systems, helping to perceive this crisis and to reconcile the separation between the two that led to it.

– Denys Van Renen


Denys Van Renen is Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He is the author of ‘The Other Exchange: Women, Servants, and the Urban Underclass in Early Modern England’ and co-editor of ‘Beyond 1776’. He has a critical edition of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals forthcoming.



[1] Elizabeth Blackwell, “The Clove, Carophyllus aromaticus.” Plate 338 from volume 2 of Blackwell’s A Curious Herbal, Containing Five Hundred Cuts, of the Most Useful Plants (London, 1739).
Credit: Historic Maps Collection, Dept. of Rare Books & Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

[2] Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.


Nature and the new science in England, 1665 – 1726 is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.


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Jack London, evolutionary psychology and existential primitivism. Five minutes with Kenneth K. Brandt

Liverpool University Press and Northcote House Publishers are thrilled to introduce the first Writers and their Work title of the new partnership, Jack London. We caught up with author Kenneth K. Brandt to find out what we can expect from the book…

Can you tell us a bit about Jack London and his work?

Jack London was born in California in 1876 and died at age 40 in 1916, having authored 50 books. London grew up in the working class and managed to become an “oyster pirate” on San Francisco Bay, traverse the Pacific on a sealing voyage, tramp across North America, join the Socialist Labor Party, drop out of college after one semester, prospect for gold in the Klondike, and become a critically acclaimed and financially successful writer—all by age 24. It was a life of adventure, and also one of frenzied excess by conventional standards, with no shortage of drinking, smoking, and carousing. Daring, outspoken, politically radical, amazingly imaginative, and emotionally complicated, London was a vibrant and flawed embodiment of contradictory—and peculiarly American yearnings. Works like The Call of the WildWhite Fang, “To Build a Fire,” “The Apostate,” and The Sea-Wolf capture the harshness of Darwinian struggle and the atrocities of capitalist exploitation that the author encountered throughout his hardscrabble youth and on his varied travels. London was a prolific writer who benefitted from a growing readership during the early 20th century in what has been called the “Golden Age of the Magazine.” He designed his narratives to appeal to a popular audience and serious readers alike. In a 1913 letter, he described his fiction technique: “On the surface is the simple story any child can read—full of action, movement, colour. Under that is the real story, philosophical, complex, full of meaning. One reader gets the interesting story, the other sees my philosophy of life.” While often action-oriented, his writing tends to dramatize a variety of serious ideas from thinkers who defined his era and remain relevant to our own: Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Darwin, Marx, Spencer, as well as Jung and Freud.

Your book incorporates a wide range of theoretical developments in London scholarship. How did you organize the book to assess London’s writings?

The book focuses primarily on London’s major writings, along with a few lesser-appreciated texts, to help readers engage the depth, diversity, and complexity of his thematic interests. I chart the philosophical influences and literary contexts in which London formed his fiction technique and developed themes that focus on reciprocal ethics, Darwinism, alienation, the interplay of agency and determinism, and his development of a pragmatic idealism. I also examine London’s responses to colonialism and race, particularly in his Pacific fiction. Overall, my approach offers a useful introduction for readers less familiar with London, and for more seasoned scholars, it incorporates new perspectives related to evolutionary psychology, existential primitivism, and animal studies.

What have you found in your examination of London’s works? How does he engage with and challenge the social, political, and philosophical revolutions of his era?

For starters, London was one of the first major writers to engage the biological reality that humans are essentially another animal. He vigorously challenged the notion of human exceptionalism in his era and argued that efforts to establish human entitlement were motivated more by hubris than by valid scientific inquiry. In regard to our own species, London was deeply intrigued by the coexistence of individualism and communalism, and much of his writing centres on the tensions between our egotistic instincts for self-preservation and our inborn cooperative tendencies. Though he recognized that interactions between biology and culture were intricately entwined, on a general socio-political level, London thought that capitalism tended to accentuate our selfish, predatory tendencies, while socialism tended to evoke our more prosocial, altruistic behaviours. His dystopian novel The Iron Heel and even his ‘caveman’ novel Before Adam, highlight how an egotism-altruism conflict is at the core of most of our personal, political, and ecological relationships. In the book, I assess London’s nuanced appreciation of evolutionary theory as conceptualized by Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, and others. His response to evolution is considerably more textured than commonly appreciated. The ‘animal’, for instance, is often a positive category of being in his writing, while humanity is burdened by rationality and devitalized by overcivilization. London, though, does not sponsor a simplistic primitivism or a naïve return to nature. Still, in contrast to his Victorian predecessors, he is more interested in recovering certain instinctual drives rather than subduing them.

How do you think this book will pave the way for further research into the works of Jack London?

When it comes to evolution, literary scholars have traditionally focused on the ruthlessness of social Darwinism, ‘animalistic’ savagery, and instinctual selfishness. Of course, these biases are understandable because such antisocial subjects are plainly present in London’s fiction, but brutish instincts alone do not fully encompass his work’s crucial thematic implications. London’s writing consistently represents what is now termed evolved morality—social instincts, altruism, and solidarity. He recognised that our cooperative inclinations are intrinsic to what it means to be human—instinctually and culturally. The lone wolves never survive for long in London’s fiction. My book examines how his work anticipates recent theories on the prosocial aspects of evolved morality as developed by the primatologist Frans de Waal and the anthropologist Christopher Boehm. Foremost, I hope my book will lessen the divide between the humanities the sciences and show that both fields have much to offer one another. I also hope the book will encourage further research in literary studies and other disciplines that will support a more holistic consideration of how the complex interrelationships among human instincts and cultural influences combine to shape a variety of behaviours and social arrangements.


Kenneth K. Brandt is a Professor of English at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He is the Executive Coordinator of the Jack London Society, the editor of The Call: The Magazine of the Jack London Society, and the co-editor of Approaches to Teaching the Works of Jack London.

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Literature, Liverpool Interest

The Liverpool English Dictionary – In conversation with Tony Crowley

Tony Crowley is transforming our understanding of the history of Liverpool, one word at a time. To celebrate the launch of The Liverpool English Dictionary, we quizzed him on the evolution of language in Liverpool and his favourite ‘Scouse’ words. 

Liverpool English Dictionary

Tweet your pictures of Liverpool to @livunipress by 25th October for a chance to win a free copy of The Liverpool English Dictionary and tickets to the launch.  


The Liverpool English Dictionary records the rich vocabulary of Liverpool, what made you focus on the history of language in Liverpool?

First and foremost, I was born and bred in Liverpool so its language is my language – the form I grew up with, am most familiar with, and feel most comfortable with. But given that the language of Liverpool is also one of the most stigmatised forms in Britain, at least nationally if not locally, I wanted to show the rich historical complexity of this form with all of its distinctive lexical sharpness, humour, and edge. I also wanted to shift the focus away from the Liverpool accent – which is what most people associate the place (usually in stereotypical form) – and on to the vocabulary itself.

This book has been over thirty-five years in the making, what were the sources that you used when researching for this book?

Yes, the book has been a very long-term project. I used as wide a range of sources as I possibly could – everything from the latest digital resources of linguistic corpora (enormous data bases of words), through to local newspapers, local history books, basic glossaries of ‘Scouse’, early sociological studies of Liverpool, working-class autobiographies… you name it. Most important though was my discovery of what I call ‘the lost literature’ of Liverpool – primarily the Liverpool novel. There is an astounding history of literary production in Liverpool, ranging from mid nineteenth century critiques of mercantile capitalism, to late nineteenth century Anglo-Welsh novels, Victorian melodrama, early twentieth century feminist novels, the amazing body of James Hanley’s work, mid twentieth century ‘race’ writing, and late twentieth century ‘Scouse’ dialect novels. That range of texts gave me my most valuable material.

How do you think the history and culture of Liverpool has affected the production of the Scouse dialect?

Well, as I showed in Scouse: A Social and Cultural History (LUP 2012), ‘Scouse’ is a very modern term and wasn’t used to refer to the language of Liverpool before 1950 (and not widely till the late 50s and 60s). But given that ‘Scouse’ is now mostly used in that sense, the answer to the question is that it is the very specific history of Liverpool that has produced this form of language and its role in the everyday culture of the city. As is always the case, the language, history and culture are intricately related and the vocabulary of Scouse reflects and refracts Liverpool’s changing fortunes over the past two and a half centuries.

How do you think that this book could transform our understanding of the history of Liverpool?

The book transforms our understanding of the history of the city by demonstrating that it was a multicultural, multilingual place. This is a challenge both to the received history of ‘Scouse’ but also to the rather narrow conception of Liverpool’s history. In both cases, there is a tendency to view language and history in limited, primarily British terms, whereas what I argue in the book is that Liverpool’s role as a major port-city opened it up to a whole variety of languages and cultures. The evidence is there in the vocabulary of the place – many of its words were borrowed from the host of peoples who travelled to and through Liverpool in a sustained way over a considerable period of time: migrants, traders, soldiers and sailors, workers, refugees, entrepreneurs…they brought their languages with them from all over the world and some of some of their words stuck. So I hope that broader perspective will change how we think of both Liverpool’s history, but also British history more broadly.

Did you find any of the words or phrases particularly interesting etymologically?

Masses of them. ‘Scouse’, in the sense of ‘stew’ dates to the early eighteenth century in the phrase ‘lobscouse’ (‘scouse’ is coined towards the end of the century in Liverpool). It might be from the Latvian ‘labs’, ‘good’, ‘kauss’, ‘bowl’, although the Latvian could be from the English. As with all the best etymologies, we don’t know. ‘Bullamacow’ is interesting – it’s Fijian pidgin, and I like ‘jigger’, which is traceable to sixteenth century cant, ‘gygger’, ‘door’, possibly ultimately from the Welsh ‘gwddor’, ‘gate’. One of my favourites is ‘gobshite’, which may be from the Irish English ‘gobshell’, ‘a big spittle direct from the mouth’, from the Gaelic ‘gub’, ‘mouth, beak’ and ‘seile’, ‘spit’, though it might simply be a combination of ‘gob’ and ‘shite’.

Tony Crowley is Professor of English at the University of Leeds. Born and bred in Liverpool, he has taught at Oxford, Southampton and Manchester Universities. He was the Hartley Burr Alexander Chair of the Humanities at Scripps College, California (2005–13), and is a Fellow of the English Association. His previous books include Scouse: A Social and Cultural History (Liverpool University Press, 2012).

Waterstones Liverpool One – Wednesday 25th October


20% off this title when you use discount code CROWLEY at the checkout.

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‘I Find His Letters Startling for Their Immediacy and Power’ – Madeleine Callaghan Discusses the Life and Art of Percy Bysshe Shelley

To celebrate the release of Shelley’s Living Artistry, author Madeleine Callaghan discusses the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley and the shifting relationship between the poet’s art and life. 

Out of all of the Romantic poets, what was it about Shelley in particular that attracted you to writing a book on his life and work?

I chose to write about Shelley because the relationship between his life and his work intrigued me for the complex but compelling relationship between the two. This isn’t to say that other Romantic poets don’t have similar preoccupations, but I find Shelley’s poetry and drama to reveal a serious and self-conscious approach to the question of how the poet and the man co-exist in the work. Throughout Shelley’s career, moral judgements of his worth as a man (often owing to his atheism) had informed the way his work was treated, and continued after his death. When I began working on Shelley, I realised that as much as I wanted to ignore biographical fact in favour of some sort of pursuit of ‘pure’ art, I was doing the poetry a disservice. Shelley was profoundly interested in the ‘I’, the personal self and the poetic self, and this book is an attempt to think about the complexity of how the ‘I’ works in Shelley’s poetry, drama, and letters.

To what extent did the events in Shelley’s life influence his work?

One of the things that became increasingly clear to me was that there was no cause and effect, no simple correlation to be drawn, when considering the poetry and drama. ‘The poet & the man’, Shelley wrote to the Gisbornes in July 1821, ‘are two different natures: though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other, & incapable of deciding upon each other’s powers & effects by any reflex act’ (Letters: PBS II, p. 310). Shelley’s subtlety was such that he did not create any protagonists that would operate only as proxies for the poet, but he never feigned complete distance, forcing his readers to think hard about how to understand the relationship between biographical events and the imaginative work in a more universal than specific way: to think about the Shelleyan ‘I’ opens up avenues for thinking about the operations of the self in poetry. Epipsychidion is one of the best examples of this, where what can seem like personal joy and pain is raised into a far more literary and distanced form of expression by his allusions to Dante. But the personal is absolutely significant to the poetry, and what Shelley’s work shows us is the complexity of how life influences art. His work offers no simple model of how life and art interact that we can extrapolate. Instead, we are forced to think anew about how the poet and the man are connected.

Do you believe poetry needs biographical context to be fully understood?

That’s a difficult question, as every poem, or indeed any literary work is unique. I don’t think I can agree because I don’t believe any work can be ‘fully understood’ (as Shelley’s Defence of Poetry insists). I’m also loath to prescribe a single way of reading poetry that pretends as if it were true for every artist. Shakespeare’s work is not damaged by our scant knowledge of his life, and one of the speakers in Yeats’s  ‘Ego Dominus Tuus’ says of Keats that ‘His art is happy, but who knows his mind?’ Biographical context and its importance vary from poet to poet. This is why I chose to consider Shelley’s life through the lens of his letters. By setting letters side by side with cognate poems, as one weaves backwards and forwards between the two, I try to reveal Shelley’s characteristic ways of ‘writing the self’, and to arrive at a more considered judgement about his achievement in both forms of expression.

Was there anything that you discovered in the letters that was particularly surprising or shocking?

The most striking things were the quality of the letters, the depth of Shelley’s friendships, and the change of how he treated letters from his early to his later years. Shelley’s early letters to Elizabeth Hitchener are wonderfully alive, where his intellect and emotions seem to combine almost to overwhelm a reader. After their connection failed, though, he never seemed to write letters with the same intensity. Keats’s luminous letters are born out of necessity. His surviving brother moved to America; his sister lived too far away to see with any regularity; Fanny Brawne and Keats never lived together. These factors forced Keats to become a letter-writer of such distinction. But Shelley lived with Mary, was in regular communication with stimulating friends, and had long lost contact with his family by the time of his death. His letters do not and cannot reveal the same range simply because they did not need to do so. Yet Shelley’s letters are intimately connected with his poetry, and I find his letters startling for their immediacy and power, and the insights they give into the way he thinks about his art.

As well as the poet’s life influencing their work, do you believe that poetry and art shape the writer?

Absolutely. I have always admired Paul de Man’s insight in ‘Autobiography as Defacement’ that this is the case, and I think the interaction between life and art is deeply enigmatic, for poet as well as critic. Poets are never tied to what is, as art always slips beyond the grasp of any neat critical summary of its power. Auden calls poetry ‘a way of happening, a mouth’, and perhaps that’s the closest we can come to understanding the possibilities of poetry.

What is meant by the poet participating in the ‘eternal, the infinite and the one’?

In an early letter to Elizabeth Hitchener, Shelley wrote: ‘I have considered it in every possible light & reason tells me that death is the boundary of the life of man. Yet I feel, I believe the direct contrary. The senses are the only inlets of knowledge, & there is an inward sense that has persuaded me of this’ (Letters: PBS I. p. 150). Afterlife and eternity were a career-long fascination for Shelley, and he was keen not to be consigned to mortal, ephemeral life, but to write for futurity with an eye to eternity. For Shelley, as for Plato, eternity is defined as far different from the everlastingness of the sempiternal. It is an elsewhere unknowable to mortals, but one that remains vital to humanity, and Shelley, though unable to experience it, would not simply ignore it. This is part of the challenge of Shelley’s poetry, not only to the reader, but also to himself.

How much was Shelley influenced by the society around him?

I’m not sure I’d use the phrase ‘influenced by’. I’d prefer to call it ‘responsive to’. Like everyone, Shelley was a product of the society in which he lived, but what is striking is how far he attempted to behave as more than simply that. Shelley wasn’t content to think only of the present tense in which he lived, but he desperately wanted to improve it in his eyes by trying to inspire people to reject the conditions in which they lived. The Mask of AnarchyQueen Mab, and so many other great poems are clearly attempting to speak to an audience, but they are more than reactive. For Shelley, the poet moved between being a prophet and a legislator, or to rephrase, between having their eyes trained on the world beyond or an improved version of this one and working to change society. The privilege, for anyone reading Shelley, is to see a poet deeply invested in the world even as he aims to get beyond it, because this tension is what creates some of his most magnificent poetry.

For more information on Shelley’s Living Artistry, please visit our website.

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