Shelley’s poetry has challenged some of the finest critics, and even Hazlitt, who stands opposed to Shelley’s most notable detractors, such as Eliot and Hazlitt, is chary in his praise. It’s thought now that the matter is behind us, but that is only because the matter of critical argument over taste isn’t much done, but taste remains a standing challenge to powers of articulation and not only a topic worthy sociological study.
Taste is as present in life as our bodies are, and accounting for taste is in some way providing an account of a bodily existence; active reading is at one with an active life, where active reading means attuning oneself to taste.
Taste itself, depending on many qualities of a given poem, cannot be reduced to a single dimension of poetry, any more than poetry itself can be reduced to a single dimension of life or language, or any more than the experience of a body can be reduced to a single realm of activity, pleasure, or pain. But among the dimensions of poetry (and literature) to which taste responds, one is perhaps, like taste, directly and etymologically corporeal in its significance; and so it might have distinct and special bearing on taste, and on the capacity to justify, articulate, and even sharpen taste. That dimension is: tact.
Like taste, tact has gathered around itself the residue of manners, mannerism, distinction, and pretense to civilization, and for good reason. But tact, like taste, points to the body, albeit to the sense of touch. Whereas sometimes the root sense of taste is recalled by critics, the root sense of tact is not yet much, but it is not fundamentally about not saying the right thing at the right time, so much as it is a matter of having a feel for any given situation. That in itself is not necessarily bodily, but when authors have tact or no tact, it suggests fundamentally a feel that the body is present in all situations, however it be located, impinged on, or called upon.
Shelley’s strength and peculiarity as a poet, and the quality of his poetry that provokes admiration, bafflement, and disparagement, usually uneasy, is, I think, concerned not with Shelley’s taste (as Donald Davie, in his Purity of Diction) would suggest, but with tact for the corporeal. I do not think the whole mystery of Shelley, the peaks and the valleys of his work, can be explained by an appeal to tact alone, but I think it can refocus the conversation, and make it possible to reflect on the strange experience of reading his poetry.
Donald Davie’s criticism of Shelley, marred though it is by a sentimental yearning for a “classical” civilization and shared standard of decorum, and by a vocabulary of prudish sexual scorn (the “chastity” of verse), nonetheless takes hold of something that is true and present in the poetry, and nowhere more so than when he admits to his own uncertainty:
But this is what makes criticism of Shelley so difficult; he evades so many standards. In this he is peculiar even among the poets of the sublime. His sublimity is peculiarly indefinite and impalpable. From one point of view his poetry is certainly sensuous; but the sensuousness is not of a sort to bring into poetry the reek and grit of common experience. For Shelley goes as far as poetry can go, while it uses intelligible language, in cutting the hawsers which tie his fancies to the ground. His metaphors are tied so tenuously to any common ground in experience that it is peculiarly hard to arrive at their mooring in common logic or association.
I think Davie here provides one of the crucial insights into Shelley’s quality, and the word “sublimity” is made to do its original chemical labor, transforming what is solid directly into a gaseous state, making it impalpable, something that Davie, author of the classic and tactful “The Language of Science and the Language of Literature,” would have known. Shelley’s sublimity effects a change in the physical state of world, and of body in that world, working beyond the poem, to challenge the bodily orientation of a reader, whose “common ground in experience” is a ground in a common bodily experience, which Shelley defies. The risk in defying that experience, Davie might agree, is that Shelley would sometimes deny it; to deny it is might produce those lapses in tact that seem instead lapses in taste; lapses, that is, in a feel for what a body can feel, even in a transformed or sublimed state.
Sensuous but without the “reek and grit of common experience,” Shelley’s poetry would emulate Dante, but not the Dante of Inferno, or even the Dante of Puragatorio, but instead the Dante of the most elusively sublime Paradiso, who writes, in Canto XX,
Cosi da quella imagine divina,
per farmi chiara la mia corta vista,
data mi fu soave medicina.
E come a buon cantor buon citarista
fa seguitar lo guizzo della corda,
in che piu du piacer lo canto acquista,
si, mentre che parlo, si mi ricorda
ch’io vidi le due luci benedette,
pur come batter d’occhi si concorda,
com le parole mover le fiammette.
[Thus by that divine image was given sweet medicine to clear the shortness of my sight. And as a good lutanist makes the trembling string accompany a good singer, by which the song gains more sweetness, so, while it spoke, I remember to have seen the two blessed lights, just as winking eyes keep time together, move with the words their little flames.]
My experience of Dante’s Paradiso puts it almost out of reach, with its geometries of innocence (without flesh on the bone), its appeals to light and sound above all of the senses; it is incessantly sensuous but hardly grounded in any common experience of the body, because so much has been reduced, abstracted, or sublimated. But Shelley, we know, responded intensely to this, thinking it only surpassed by Shakespeare–and we can think of those moments in Shakespeare when the reek and grit of experience is strangely transcended, as in The Tempest or at the end of Lear when, in a feat of Lear’s strength but also divine transfiguration of his daughter’s body, the king carries Cordelia onto stage (think why he cannot drag her).
Shelley’s response to Dante was a response to the latter’s tact, his sense of a body and what it can experience; the body remains an object for any poet and author to work upon, to work from and return to, and the doctrinal differences would matter less with the essential feel for feeling that Shelley could admire across the historical-cultural divide, and which inspired Shelley to an art that is as bodily, as sensuous as Keats’, albeit appealing to a different imagination of the body’s experience in the world.
In demonstrating his distinct tact, Shelley does not surpass “Ode to the West Wind.” The consensus on the poem is secure, but thought of tact provides a way of appreciating what Shelley accomplishes, which is a coalescing and dissolving of bodies, in the world and of the world, so that the poet’s own sense of his physical form is unstable but exact at any one time. Christopher Ricks alerts us to a moment in the poem when a divergent note is sounded. For Ricks, it is a false note. In my ear, it is an unfortunately discordant note, not because it refuses harmony and unity (the poem never settles easily into either), but because it returns us too sharply to Shelley’s sense of his own body as a settled, defined thing, an allegorical object against a concrete landscape that the poem elsewhere refuses:
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O, Uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
For Ricks, when Shelley utters “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed,” Shelley becomes too centered on himself, on his own special experience; to me, Shelley at that moment becomes too corporeal, too fixed in his form. The opening of the poem might echo Dante’s Inferno, but the experience in it belongs to another realm: it is not Paradise, or Purgatory, but it is of the earth itself, and the poet with it, in the process of being sublimated to something higher and less palpable and static. Not the sublimed, but the sublimating: Shelley’s poetry often presents the transformation itself, the dizzying prospect of elevation to a state in which the body is not lost but is otherwise harmonized with itself and the world. His tact lies in retaining, as the body threatens to refine itself away, a hold on its sensuous reality, anchored to an anchor that has sufficient form and weight. So exquisite a tact might quickly exhaust itself.