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Abstract

The Politics of Lyric: A Social History of Shelley’s Forms analyzes, from the standpoint of class politics, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s central role in the Romantic shift in the hierarchy of genres, the development of theories of the lyric genre, and the effects of these developments on twentieth-century critical theory and poetics. Drawing on recent theoretical discussions of lyricization, I argue that Shelley is not simply another historical example of the lyricization of genre, but is rather the historical locus and origin of lyricization, and that the process was a cultural aspect of class struggle during the period designated by E. P. Thompson as that of The Making of the English Working Class. Finally, I argue that Shelley’s late works provide a latent theory of historical poetics, at the dawn of historicism itself, through what I term Shelley’s historical form, or form infused with history. The first chapter, “Queen Mab and the Making of the English Working Class,” tracks the remarkable publishing history of Shelley’s first serious poetic work in what I call an experiment in the social history of the book. The second chapter, “Shelley, Inc.: Cultural Incorporation and Class Politics,” turns from the canonization of Shelley among the English working class to the canonization of Shelley for the bourgeois reading audience. This entailed the formation of what has been known as the Shelley Myth, but which I reconsider through the lens of lyricization and what I call cultural incorporation. The third chapter, “Lyrical Incorporation and Historical Poetics,” analyzes how one aspect of the process of Shelley’s cultural incorporation—literary criticism—had profound effects on the Romantic rearrangement of the traditional hierarchy of poetic genres, elevating lyric poetry as the purest form of poetic production. In the process, I claim that Shelley’s case is not just an example of lyricization, but something closer to the historical origin and locus of lyricization. The fourth chapter, “‘The Mask of Anarchy’ as Historically Real Prophecy,” remains situated around the 1832 Reform Bill, when Leigh Hunt first published the poem, but keeps a dual focus on 1819–20, the culmination of Thompson’s “heroic age of popular radicalism,” in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre, when Shelley composed the poem. I offer a new reading of the poem through Erich Auerbach’s essay on “Figura” to claim that Shelley presents a contemporary, secular version of what was known in the Judeo-Christian hermeneutic tradition as “historically real prophecy.” The fifth chapter, “The Politics of Historical Form: Shelley’s Late Lyrics,” presents an extended reading of Shelley’s most famous lyric poem, the “Ode to the West Wind,” in the context of his late work in general, meant to establish Shelley’s own revolutionary historical poetics, exemplified in the poem by the constellation of poetic forms from different historical eras, brought into productive tension, and by the juxtaposition of two metaphorical models of historical change: the cycle and the event. In a brief coda, “Toward 1848,” I turn outward to consider the future horizons made visible by the work.

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