Shelley's Broken World

BookShelley's Broken World

Shelley's Broken World

Fractured Materiality and Intermitted Song

Liverpool English Texts and Studies, 89


June 15th, 2021

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Shelley’s Broken World is a provocative and profound reassessment of Shelley’s poetic art and thought. Bysshe Inigo Coffey returns to a peculiarity of Shelley’s expressive repertoire first noticed by his Victorian readers and editors: his innovatory use of pauses, which registered as irregularities in ears untuned to his innovations. But his pauses are more than a quirk; various intermittences are at the centre of Shelley’s artistry and his thought.

This book aims to transform the philosophical, scientific, and aesthetic contexts in which Shelley is positioned. It offers a ground-breaking analysis of his reading, and is the first study to refer to and include images of the unpublished ‘Marlow List’, a record of the books Shelley left behind him on his departure for Italy in 1818. Shelley’s prosody grew to articulate his sense that actuality is experienced as ruptured and fractured with gaps and limit-points. He shows us the weakness of the actual. As we approach the bicentenary of the poet’s death, Shelley’s Broken World provides an exciting new beginning for the study of a major Romantic poet, the history of materialism, and prosody.

'Shelley’s Broken World is a considerable achievement: intellectually adventurous, with many unexpected twists and turns in the argument and in the material. Coffey writes with distinctive eloquence. The range of reading is very impressive, but I especially like the confidence with which Coffey draws on the whole of Shelley's output, from the grandest central things to all manner of usually unconsidered texts. The close reading, tremendously insightful on pauses and rhymes, is a constant pleasure.'

Kelvin Everest, University of Liverpool

'A major contribution to the rich field of current Shelley studies, Shelley's Broken World offers a strongly original reading of the poet’s work and thought as embracing "intermittence" in varied ways. Through illuminating readings of less discussed poems (including "Rosalind and Helen" and "Ginevra") as well as more familiar ones (Alastor, Peter Bell the Third, Epipsychidion), Bysshe Coffey unearths a Shelley whose poetry inhabits gaps, interruptions and pauses. This thoughtful, ambitious monograph, the first critical study to engage with the recently discovered "Marlow list" (a record of his books the poet left behind on departing for Italy in 1818), establishes its voice persuasively, striking out its own path with assurance while engaging generously with criticism since Shelley's death and taking on, impressively, the complex history of his text.'

Michael Rossington, Newcastle University

'Shelley’s Broken World brilliantly rips up what we thought we knew about the poet, so as to start thinking anew. With wit, erudition and conviction, Coffey probes a series of generative "limit-points" to Shelley’s expression: manifest yet non-palpable sensuous phenomena that resist reductive materialisms; the revisions and deletion of his compositional process; the gaps and omissions in the poet’s personal library. Bringing together the otherwise cloistered fields of prosody, history of the book and manuscript studies, Coffey restores to us to the freshness, vitality and elusiveness that define Shelley’s achievement.'

Ewan James Jones, University of Cambridge

'Once begun, few readers will wish to pause their reading of Bysshe Inigo Coffey’s dazzling account of the "pauses of matter and life" in Shelley’s poetry. Displaying its subtlety, intelligence, and generosity from the outset, Shelley’s Broken World seeks to do justice to F.R. Leavis’s notorious strictures on Shelley – which, Coffey shows, Leavis in fact revised toward the end of his life – by arguing that "Shelley had a firm grasp upon the weakness of the actual". The book does a superlative job of bearing out this claim. Along the way, it illuminates pretty much the whole of Shelley’s life and work, as well as a host of other figures from Heraclitus to Harold Bloom. I struggle to think of another book on Shelley that combines such breadth of scholarship, subtlety of appreciation, and critical sophistication as are so abundantly in evidence here.'

Ross Wilson, University of Cambridge

'This richly-documented and engagingly-written – indeed, elegant – book is a highly valuable, even innovative, contribution to the interpretation of Percy Bysshe Shelley's writings, English Romantic poetry in general, and the influence on both of philosophical, scientific, and earlier literary works sometimes overlooked, many of which have never been connected to Shelley or Romanticism as convincingly as they are here. It is, in addition, distinctive in Shelley scholarship in focusing on his openings of spaces, interstices, and silences in his work and their intimations of a fractured world where there are gaps between parts of it, yet where those parts are still turning out towards emerging connections, like words on a page. Coffey shows powerfully how these openings suggest states of between-ness and in-distinction that really lie at the heart of human awareness and its experiences of the material world, even though those levels are usually repressed in everyday consciousness. Such "concealed life in pauses and breaks" (Coffey’s phrase) is here brought forward, first, in older philosophies of both materiality and prosody that now emerge as influential on Shelley in ways we have too long ignored and, second, in his brilliant uses of the performative aspects of poems to call attention to moments of suspended animation caught between the dissolution and the renewal of thought, matter, and their relationships with each other. This process leads throughout to perceptive close readings of selected Shelley poems that are among the most revealing we now have, ones that general readers, students, and their teachers can apply to other works by him – and by some contemporaries and successors – not directly studied in this account. It is a pleasure to recommend an academic study that is at once a stylish "good read" and a provocative challenge for us all to examine Shelley the poet more carefully while, at the same time, learning how he expanded the possibilities of poetry in ways we have not understood until now.'

Jerrold E. Hogle, University of Arizona

'Shelley’s Broken World is an exhilarating, original contribution to the study of Shelley’s poetry and poetics. It reads a series of passages from such seemingly disparate poems as Alastor, Epipsychidion, and the Triumph of Life with remarkable assurance and deft sensitivity to how the poetry is performed by and in the reader. Its goal is not so much to provide a reading of a particular poem as a whole, as to demonstrate how "various intermittences" – "poetic, cognitive, spiritual, bodily" – are a hallmark of Shelley’s poetic practice, and constitute a subject deeply in need of further understanding. These intermittences appear in both Shelley’s prosody itself and the thematics involving sleep, trance, madness, and death that the verse embodies and explores. Along the way, there are some eye-opening close readings. The splendid discussion of the title and opening two lines of Epipsychidion is in itself a revelation.'

Neil Fraistat, University of Maryland

'A fine study of Shelley’s airy arts of breath and pause, as diverting as it is scholarly. Bysshe Inigo Coffey has many new things to say about the poet’s extensive reading and the way it helped shape many of his greatest writings, and he traces the rich philosophical, religious, and scientific resonances of the poetry with great critical grace. Sympathetic and sharp-eyed, in Shelley’s Broken World Coffey offers a deeply informed and stylishly written account of the many ways that Shelley’s complex genius sought, in his own words "something beyond the present & tangible object".'

Seamus Perry, University of Oxford

'Percy Bysshe Shelley has long been known by poetry cognoscenti as the Marmite of poets. Carlyle (whom I hate) called him "Weak in genius, weak in character (for these two always go together); a poor thin, spasmodic, hectic, shrill and pallid being" and Charles Kingsley, a founder of Muscular Christianity, compared "the increase of Shelley-reading in Britain in the 1850s to another growing female addiction, the secret sipping of eau-de-cologne". Bysshe Inigo Coffey is without doubt an admirer, who sees Shelley’s poetic intelligence and sensuous experience in harmony like no other with an especially endearing "grasp upon the weakness of the actual".  Through new research in the "Marlow List" Coffey meticulously places Shelley in his philosophical and scientific milieux, tracing Shelley’s reading in Kant and Rousseau as well as in medicine, geophysics, astronomy, anatomy and the life sciences.  This is a work of scholarly elegance as well as depth on matters of pointing and crux, of "great, last fragments", through the full range of Shelley’s poetry but especially Alastor, Peter Bell the Third, and Epipsychidion.' 

Regenia Gagnier, University of Exeter

'This book explores inter alia how the dissolution of the boundary between mind and matter is expressed by Shelley in his dissolution of the boundary between philosophy and poetry. In this he resembles Lucretius, one of numerous poetic, scientific, and philosophical influences on Shelley presented by Coffey with rigorous scholarship. The eloquent passion of his book leaves us with the sense that Shelley was grappling with fundamental problems, and their solutions through poetic imagination, that - even if they no longer concern us - certainly should do.'

Richard Seaford, University of Exeter

'Shelley’s Broken World is a piercingly insightful and gracefully written book that both widens and sharpens our understanding of the poet’s intellectual and poetic engagement with the world. Bysshe Coffey has that rare talent: an ability to combine rigorous historical research with a sensitive, finely tuned ear for poetry. In this sophisticated study, Coffey shows how the pauses, fractures, absences, and breaks in Shelley’s canon are momentous. These textual spaces reflect and express the poet's thinking about politics, society, and human life in general. This book sets new standards in Shelley studies and indeed, Romantic studies.'

Corinna Wagner, University of Exeter

'Shelley was a polymath, and in Shelley’s Broken World Coffey provides one of the best attempts to comprehend the range, sophistication, and meaning of the poet’s mind. Coffey’s mastery of Shelley’s poetry and its contexts is remarkable, and, more importantly, he provides brilliant readings of how the two interact. The European literature and thought that inform poems such as Alastor and Epipsychidion are thoroughly explored, but Coffey is also adept at close readings which tease out Shelley’s sense of absence and vacancy enacted by form and metre. It is refreshing that Coffey manages to take the philosophical implications for any study of materiality seriously without succumbing to jargon or theoretical wandering. Furthermore, his book is part of a tradition, and he engages on every page with Shelley’s best critics and editors, while maintaining a confident and unique critical voice.'

Will Bowers, Queen Mary University of London

'This study should transform our understanding of Shelley’s work. Coffey writes like an angel, and he has an ear for the detailed nuances of metre and rhythm that is rare indeed; better still, he combines this gift with a painstaking archival scholarship and a deeply learned appreciation of the intellectual milieu in which Shelley worked.'

Tim Kendall, University of Exeter

'Not only is [this] a work of remarkable scholarship, demonstrating meticulous research and close reading and containing numerous archival revelations that will transform our understanding of Shelley, it is also an intense labour of love that realises the continuing vitality of Shelley’s poetry and philosophy for the activity of thinking and living. [...] It is an excellent conclusion to an excellent book. Characterized by an intensity and clarity of argument, a sensitivity for both the historical and the poetical, and perhaps above all a principled defence of the simultaneous weakness and power of thought, Shelley’s Broken World brings to life anew ‘the frail pauses of this simple strain’ (Shelley, Alastor).Robert Scott, The Review of English Studies

'Bysshe Coffey’s Shelley’s Broken World is a broad-ranging study: one part old-fashioned history of ideas; one part monograph on Shelley’s heretofore underappreciated practice of bringing much of his verse to life within the pauses and “limit-points” of sensory perception, cognition, and prosody. [...] Coffey’s book will influence and enrich our understanding of Shelley’s achievement for a long time.'Michael J. Neth, Romantic Circles

Author Information

Bysshe Inigo Coffey is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Balliol College, University of Oxford.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Note on Texts20
1. Matter in the Margins49
2. Dynamics and Statics75
3. Their Own Eternity93
4. Intermitted Song: Alastor119
5. Kant, Purity, and the Devil: Peter Bell the Third143
6. Weak Verse: Epipsychidion171
Coda: The Broken World203