|Roberts As Editor: Shelley's Adonais and Alaster
In 1902 a young Canadian writer published an edition of a major British poet with an American publisher. Considering the history of English-language publishing since that time, Roberts' Shelley's Adonais and Alastor (New York: Silver, Burdett) was to prove something of an anomaly. Certainly the book's unhappy fate did not encourage many other such ventures; the text was obsolete even before it was off the press (for reasons we shall explore later), and it has never been reprinted. There are only a few copies in Canadian libraries; this rarity contributes to the book's obscurity.1 Roberts' 1888 essay "Pastoral Elegies," which constitutes the major portion of the introduction to Shelley's Adonais and Alastor, has received a little more attention.2 Roberts himself considered it one of his best pieces of prose writing, perhaps feeling especially proud since it was published so early in his academic career.3 He made extensive but minor revisions for its republication in the Shelley edition, the most substantial being the excision of lengthy quotations, especially those from "Adonais" itself. And despite a general lack of interest in Roberts' edition of Shelley, this essay has circulated widely because W.J. Keith includes it in his edition of Roberts' Selected Poetry and Critical Prose (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974). Keith titles the piece "Shelley's Adonais," in recognition of Roberts' decision to use it as an introduction to that poem. This decision is understandable every busy writer wishes to capitalize on work already available rather than write something new for each occasion. Nonetheless, Roberts really should have made some changes to the piece to adapt it to its new setting, particularly as his preface recommends Shelley's Adonais and Alastor as a school text. Because it gives equal weight to several poems by other authors than Shelley, the introduction can only confuse the student who turns to it for help in interpreting "Adonais." It is true that Roberts considers that "Shelley's poem occupies the pinnacle of achievement for this species of verse."4 It is equally true that it is salutary for students to consider the genre of a poem in order to understand its structure and meaning. Nonetheless, Roberts, preoccupied with the relationship of "Adonais" to the elegiac tradition, barely addresses the actual subject of "Adonais" the death of John Keats or what Shelley has to say about this particular death. Nor does Roberts place "Adonais" within the larger context of Shelley's oeuvre, even in relationship to "Alastor" (which follows "Adonais," achronologically, in the text). And if Roberts' introduction is too general to be really helpful to the student of "Adonais," it becomes actually misleading to anyone who tries to apply what he has to say about pastoral elegies to "Alastor," which does not belong to the genre. Comments specific to "Alas tor" occupy only half a page, and are mostly florid generalizations about the "mastery" of its blank verse, its "subtle lyric phrasings" and "tranquillity of assured power," concluding with the grand but unhelpful statement that
The mood of this poem is one of rapt intensity, and there is always present that uplift and expansion of the spirit which comes of unbounded horizons.5 Roberts excuses his superficial treatment of "Alastor" by suggesting that "the scope and purpose of the poem are outlined in Shelley's introductory note."6 And he does, in fact, provide a range of critical comment from people like Mary Shelley, Stopford Brooke and Edward Dowden in the notes which follow the poem. Nonetheless it seems odd that he would make so little attempt to provide guidance for the novice student of Shelley in the introduction to the poems. Ultimately the introduction remains, as it originally proclaimed itself, an essay on "Pastoral Elegies" not on Shelley's "Adonais" and "Alastor." As such, it is still a very engaging piece of work: enthusiastic, graceful, and confident. Roberts surveys the development of the genre in general terms which are not only convincing, but which also provide useful insights into his ambitions for his own work. Most suggestive is his argument that the development of the genre from "nature lament" in Bion to the more personal lamentation of Moschus set the pattern for all such works to follow:
The advance is toward more definite purpose in the use of reiteration, a more orderly evolution, a wider vision, a more vivid and human interest, and a substitution of the particular for the general. Here, instead of undistinguished springs and rivers, we find the 'Dorian water,' the fountain Arethusa, and Meles, 'most melodious of streams.'7 Roberts also suggests that "here is the first appearance of the autobiographic tendency which in later poems of the class becomes a prominent feature."8 One is not at all surprised to find the writer of this essay setting his own elegiac meditations in a vividly detailed landscape, nor to find him rejecting generalizations about mortality for more subjective broodings on his own predicament. In short, we are not surprised that someone with Roberts' critical orientation should write "The Tantramar Revisited." The drawback to Roberts' essay is typically Victorian. He considers only classical and English poetry, as though somehow the literary history of Europe could be limited to Greece and Great Britain. Even more parochially, not only does Roberts ignore Virgil and all the Italian and French elegists, he neglects to mention Sidney (whose lament for Basilius in The Arcadia introduced the term "pastoral elegy" into English and whose "November Eclogue" in The Shepheardes Calendar provides a model for transcendental consolation) and Spenser (whose "Astrophel," mourning Sidney, profoundly influenced both Milton and Shelley). One would expect him to be familiar with at least the most prominent examples of the genre from the English canon. That he is not, undercuts the authority of his evaluation of those works he does consider. One cannot help suspecting that, rather than immersing himself in a study of the genre, Roberts has simply expanded upon his notes from George Parkin's classroom, or from the margins of his undergraduate Greek texts, to write his first scholarly essay. Still, it is clear why "Pastoral Elegies" should have been so important to Roberts himself, and, equally, why it should interest Roberts' critics today. The essay gives evidence of his most sustained critical thinking about the relationship of tradition to personal voice, and about the importance of grounding the universal in the particular ideas central to his own aesthetics. But why should his publisher have allowed him to use the piece as an introduction to a new edition of Shelley at a time when Shelley studies were booming? What evidence did Silver Burdett have that Roberts was competent to edit Shelley at all? Perhaps when Roberts' letters are published these questions will be answered conclusively. For now, we must rely on the detective work of critics like Maia Bhojwani, and some educated guesses. Bhojwani has noted that Roberts' annotated edition of Adonais was reported as complete in The Week of July 26, 1888.9 This confirms what is suggested by the preponderence of notes explaining analogies and allusions in Adonais to Bion, Moschus, and Milton: that Roberts was annotating the text while writing "Pastoral Elegies."
However, it seems unlikely that Roberts would have also been editing the text of "Alastor" during the busiest period of his life, when there was no prospect of reimbursement for such labour. From 1885 to 1888 he was not only teaching full-time at King's College, Windsor, and writing his own poetry, but also trying to earn extra money by paid literary jobs such as writing a weekly column on "The World of Books" for Progress, editing Poems of Wild Life (London: Walter Scott, 1888), and travelling around the United States and Canada lecturing.10
But certainly Roberts knew "Alastor" very well, if not then, a few years later when he wrote "Ave: An Ode for the Centenary of the Birth of Percy Bysshe Shelley" (1892). The influence of "Alastor" on "Ave" is particularly obvious in the first half of the poem, tracing Shelley's childhood and literary development, just as the influence of "Adonais" becomes more powerful in the second half, describing his death, burial and resurrection. Given the circumstances of Shelley's death by drowning at the height of his career the story told in "Alastor" of a poet dying young, and the prominence in the poem of a boat journey, made it seem prophetic. Although Roberts never explains his reasons for coupling "Adonais" and "Alastor" in his Shelley edition, the way the two poems serve as counterpoints in "Ave" makes it clear that he felt them to be an irresistible pair.
Roberts' relationship with Frank Bellamy, the publisher of Shelley's Adonais and Alastor, began early in his career. In 1886 Bellamy accepted the poem "A Camp-Fire Story" for the March 8th The Youth's Companion; the first of many stories by Roberts, "Indian Devils," appeared on June 30, 1887.11 And Bellamy continued to support Roberts wherever he went, inviting him to New York in 1897 to become assistant editor of The Illustrated American, and then publishing By the Marshes of Minas and The Heart of the Ancient Wood (both 1900) and a 222-page collected Poems (1901) once he started running Silver, Burdett and Company.12 So I think that Bellamy, knowing how passionately fond Roberts was of Shelley, and perhaps being aware of all the material Roberts had gathered over the years, and having decided to branch out into educational publishing, assigned Roberts the plum job of editing the Shelley volume for the "Silver Series of Classics." I would also hazard a guess that it was at this time that Roberts undertook to edit the text of "Alastor," though he may have made some annotations earlier, while writing "Ave." Ironically, the title page of the Silver, Burdett edition identifies Roberts only as a writer of fiction and history, not as a poet or literary critic. Presumably Bellamy was trying to capitalize on Roberts' growing popularity as a novelist, but nonetheless this must have been galling to the author of "Ave."
Or perhaps Bellamy was simply acknowledging that Roberts had not been hired as an editor because of his bibliographical skills, but simply because of expediency. For even by late nineteenth-century standards, Roberts' Shelley's Adonais and Alastor is a disappointing production. Shelley had always been a notoriously difficult poet to edit yet Roberts himself doesn't acknowledge any problem dealing with the texts.13 Neither does he acknowledge the relative reliability of the original Pisan edition of "Adonais."14 On the contrary, he "corrects" punctuation and spelling throughout the poem without even notifying the reader that he is doing so, except when he differs from the edition he has adopted as copy-text, William Michael Rossetti's three-volume Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: Reeves and Turner, 1878).
His choice of copy-text betrays extraordinary ignorance for someone aspiring to be seen as a serious Shelley scholar. Many of Shelley's early editors played fast-and-loose with his text, perhaps considering such revisions to be justified by their author's negligence (and perhaps also by Shelley's belief, immortalized in the image of the "fading coal" in "A Defense of Poetry," that "when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline," and that therefore all poetic texts are innately flawed).15 But Rossetti went much farther than any of the earlier editors, all of whom made what they thought were corrections of errors not improvements.16 For this reason, his two-volume Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: E. Moxon, 1870), was greeted with outrage by the literary and academic community.
Swinburne, for example, even while applauding Rossetti for discovering so many lost fragments, said that he was
Following the same line of argument, Harry Buxton Forman came out with a conservative four-volume edition of Shelley a year later. He acknowledges ruefully that "the attempt to undo what has been done by an able predecessor must always be an ungrateful undertaking."18
Rossetti's response to Forman's challenge was to publish a revised version of his own text in 1878, insisting that although his editorial method in 1869 had actually been conservative, he had become even more so, and was restoring many of Shelley's original readings. In 1886, Thomas James Wise published a facsimile of the original Pisan edition of Adonais for the Shelley Society; perhaps influenced by this, in 1891 Rossetti edited, and thoroughly annotated, Adonais, for the "Clarendon Press series" at Oxford. Rossetti's final reading of the poem restored the Pisan text almost entirely. And yet Roberts, somehow, was unaware of this centenary edition, for although he tells us in his preface to Shelley's Adonais and Alastor that his text "in the main, is that adopted finally by Mr. W.M. Rossetti," his copy-text is unequivocally not Rossetti's "final" version but that of 1878.19
Of course, the 1878 text is a big improvement on Rossetti's 1870 version, but it is still somewhat inconsistent. Shelley's original punctuation may be eccentric, but his editor's is no less so. For example, in lines 278-279 of "Adonais," Shelley describes his double amongst the mourners as being pursued "Actaeon-like" by his own thoughts. One might expect the poetic rhythm here to be rapid, even frenzied, but the Pisan edition reads
lines which, far from "raging," hobble along across a terrain littered with obtrusive commas. So Rossetti removes the commas. But at line 366, where Shelley's flowing cadence runs
Rossetti gives us
a line more Augustan than Romantic, and absurd in its grandiosity. Roberts follows Rossetti in both these instances, without informing his readers that he has made any changes to Shelley's original poem.
Because "Adonais" is the least corrupt of Shelly's texts, I take my examples from it. Rossetti's and hence Roberts' editing of "Alastor" is no less unpredictable, but to examine that text closely would take us into too many bibliographical controversies. For my purposes, it is only necessary to demonstrate that Roberts was misguided in following Rossetti's 1878 edition in the first place. For the most part Roberts is a timid editor, sticking to the readings of the copy-text he has chosen. Only occasionally does he restore Pisan readings, as though realizing that Rossetti has gone too far: at stanza one, 1. 4; stanza 5,1. 38; stanza 14,1. 119; stanza 31, 1. 275; and stanza 48, 1. 426. And only once, at stanza 25, 1. 222, does he add commas on his own authority. The most significant bit of independent editing, however, is stanza 13. A comparison of the original with Rossetti's and Roberts' readings shows that Roberts had some good instincts, but didn't develop them systematically. (Here, as elsewhere in "Adonais," Rossetti was to reject his own emendations for the 1891 Oxford edition; Roberts anticipates him in this stanza, but doesn't go as far as Rossetti himself was to go in restoring the original reading.)
This is how the stanza, comprising lines 109-117 of "Adonais," is printed in the Pisan edition overseen by Shelley.
Rossetti's 1878 version reads:
He repunctuates the first seven lines, altering the poetic rhythm considerably. Shelley's original stanza is one long sentence; Rossetti breaks it into two after the first three words. Shelley has only two semi-colons otherwise his pointing is very light and swift but Rossetti changes the final commas to semi-colons in lines 1, 2 4, and 5. Rossetti also adds an internal comma in line 2, and a final dash in line 7.
Roberts demurs from several of Rossetti's changes but notes only that "Mr. Rossetti puts a period after 'came.' I have preferred the reading of the first edition in this case" as though this were his sole departure from copy-text. In fact, he himself adds a full stop at the end of the fourth line. Moreover, what he substitutes for Rossetti's period is not "the reading of the first edition," which is an ellipsis, but Mary Shelley's comma-dash combination. This is how Roberts' edits the stanza:
We can see that Roberts goes some of the way towards restoring the integrity of Shelley's lines, although he too insists on dividing what is meant to be one continuous sentence into two and he does so even more emphatically than Rossetti, by adding a full stop at the end of the fourth line. But in 1891 Rossetti dropped all his repunctuation, retaining of his emendations only the personification of "Hopes and Fears" rather than "Incarnations," and the substitution of Mary Shelley's comma-dash for Shelley's ellipsis. Once the very authority Roberts relied on rejected his own practice, there could be no use for Roberts' edition. Roberts' casual attitude to scholarship proved unfortunate when he tried to stake a claim as a textual editor rather than an anthologist.
Unfortunately, Roberts is as impressionistic a biographer as he is an editor. The introductory notes to Shelley's Adonais and Alastor give a highly subjective version of the poet's life, white-washing every aspect of his relationship with Harriet Westbrook to a degree unsurpassed even by Dowden, Raabe, and Sharp, the doting biographers Roberts cites as authorities. These three all acknowledge controversies surrounding both the abandonment and the subsequent death of the poet's first wife, and identify the sources of particular pieces of gossip or interpretation.20 But Roberts asserts as facts without providing evidence that Shelley never loved Harriet and "had made her his wife from chivalrous motives purely," and that as time went on he realized "the undoubted deficiencies in her character" which included "a lack of maternal feeling" for their daughter Ianthe; that "as Shelley's exasperation grew, so grew Harriet's contemptuous indifference;" that he believed her unfaithful to him before he took up with Mary Godwin; that she "formed another connection" after Shelley left her, and drowned herself only because this affair turned out unhappily. And it is not just in relation to Harriet that Roberts' Shelley is an innocent; once he meets Mary Godwin he falls in love "for the first and last time in his life." No mention is made of Shelley's later passions for Emilia Viviani or Jane Williams.21
Of course it was not until Leslie Hotson published Shelley's Lost Letters to Harriet (London: Faber and Faber, 1930) that special pleading for Shelley went out of fashion. Nonetheless, Roberts stands out as unusually mischievous in this regard, because what he purports to offer is academic impartiality. His outline of Shelley's life seems designed to give the students for whom his text is intended the impression that what they are reading is gospel, not speculation.22 The fact that this is a school edition does not justify his presentation, for, rather than leaving out the potentially shocking events in Shelley's life, it emphasizes them. All Roberts does is lay blame for the tragedy entirely on Shelley's wife rather than acknowedging the young couple's mutual responsibility.
Curiously, Roberts' own biographers have embraced the same strategy, defending Roberts' abandonment of his wife by demeaning Mrs. Roberts! Thus in Sir Charles God Damn, by John Coldwell Adams we read:
No authority is given anywhere for this characterization of Mrs. Roberts as a "petulant" vain and silly woman. Moreover, the highly symbolic story of her rejection of the Shelley volume comes from a May 15, 1936 letter which Elsie Pomeroy, Roberts' most adoring acolyte, wrote to Lorne Pierce.24 Now, this alleged incident would have taken place in the late 1870s, nearly 60 years before the date of the letter. And Roberts, the sole authority for its occurrence, had abandoned his wife in 1897, nearly 40 years earlier. Despite such flimsy evidence that it even happened, Adams deplores the fact that "incidents such as that" (this being the sole such incident he cites) could not dissuade young Roberts from his "infatuation."
The parallel is instructive, I think. Roberts' biographers feel compelled to belittle Mrs. Roberts to sustain their image of him, just as Roberts had to belittle Harriet to defend Shelley. Clearly identifying too strongly with one's subject can undermine the authority of any biographer's pretense of impartiality!
To return to Shelley's Adonais and Alastor, we must conclude that here again, biographically, it is of more importance for what it can teach us about Charles G.D. Roberts than for anything new we may learn about Percy Bysshe Shelley. The book is fascinating in this regard, and should be better known by Roberts' scholars. Although Roberts' notes were second only to those of Rossetti's 1891 edition, they have long since been surpassed. And, as we have seen, his textual editing does not meet the standards of modern bibliography. Nonetheless his passion for Shelley is clear enough, and explains, if it does not entirely excuse, his meddling with the punctuation of the poet's text and with the particulars of the poet's life. Roberts surely felt that he was making Shelley more accessible to other people by emending the "irregularities" that might disturb them. He could never have anticipated that those emendations would recommend the book to us today for what they suggest about the life and work of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts.
See Ware as above, and L.R. Early, "Roberts as Critic," also in The Sir Charles G.D. Roberts Symposium, pp. 173-89; D.M.R. Bentley compares the original essay with its revised form in "Charles G.D. Roberts on Pastoral Elegies," Canadian Notes and Queries, 21 (July 1978), pp. 11-12. [back]
Elsie Pomeroy reports Roberts' opinion in Sir Charles G.D. Roberts: A Biography (Toronto: Ryerson, 1943), p. 105. "Pastoral Elegies" was published in The New Princeton Review, 5 (May 1888), pp. 360-70. [back]
See "Shelley's Adonais," in Keith's edition of Roberts' Selected Poetry and Critical Prose, p. 295. All further quotations from the essay will refer to this edition. [back]
"Introduction" to Shelley's Adonais and Alastor, pp. 37-8. [back]
"Introduction" to Shelley's Adonais and Alastor, p. 37. [back]
"Shelley's Adonais," p. 284. It is interesting how closely this analysis of historical progress in the elegiac genre corresponds to L.R. Early's description of the movement within Roberts' own first book, Orion, "from antiquity to the present, from Europe to maritime Canada, from mythology to personal circumstances, and from transcendent vision to a naturalistic view." See "An Old-World Radiance: Roberts' Orion and Other Poems," Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews, 8 (Spring-Summer 1981), p. 29. [back]
"Shelley's Adonais," p. 286. [back]
See her unpublished dissertation, "Pan's Green Flower, the Earth" (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1980), p. 71. Thanks to William Keith for this reference. For the original citation see T.G. Marquis on "Professor Charles G.D. Roberts," (number 21 in a series of sketches of "Prominent Canadians") in The Week, July 26, 1888, pp. 558-59. [back]
See Pomeroy, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, pp. 59-119, for details of this period. [back]
For the full extent of Roberts' publications in The Youth's Companion see "A Preliminary Bibliography" prepared by John Coldwell Adams in The Sir Charles G.D. Roberts Symposium, pp. 221-49. [back]
See John Coldwell Adams, Sir Charles God Damn: The Life of Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986), p. 91. [back]
Shelley himself admitted in a letter to Stockdale November 14, 1810, that he was "by no means a good hand at correction" and that he looked to his publisher to correct "any error of flagrant incoherency." Such admissions encouraged editors to meddle with his text to a degree they would have scorned with most other writers. See Roger Ingpen, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley 2 vols. (London: Sir Issac Pitman, 1909), I, pp. 13-14. [back]
Shelley's July 1821 letter to his publisher Ollier says: "The poem is beautifully printed, & what is of more consequence, correctly: indeed it was to obtain this last point that I sent it to the press at Pisa." Quoted by Anthony D. Knerr in Shelley's "Adonais": A Critical Edition (NY: Columbia University Press, 1984), p. 21. [back]
Percy Bysshe Shelley, "A Defense of Poetry," in Shelley's Critical Prose, ed. Bruce R. McElderry, Jr. (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1967), p. 30. [back]
See Charles H. Taylor, Jr. The Early Collected Editions of Shelley's Poems: A Study in the History and Transmission of the Printed Text (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958), and Knerr, Shelley's "Adonais". [back]
"Notes on the Text of Shelley," in The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, eds. Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise (London: William Heinemann, 1926), XV, 385. [back]
Forman, "Preface" to The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, (London: Reeves and Turner, 1876-77), I, xxxvii. [back]
See the "Preface" to Shelley's Adonais and Alastor, pp. 5-6. [back]
See Edward Dowden, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, 1886); Felix Raabe, Shelley: The Man and the Poet (London: Ward and Downey, 1888); and William Sharp, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: Walter Scott, 1887). Of course, Matthew Arnold points out that Dowden refuses to consider the very facts he has unearthed because he is so set on presenting Shelley as blameless in Harriet's death. See Arnold's review of Dowden, first published as "Shelley" in The Nineteenth Century (Jan. 1888), and then reprinted posthumously in Essays in Criticism: Second Series (London: Macmillan, 1888), pp. 205-52. [back]
See Roberts' introduction to Shelley's Adonais and Alastor, pp. 14-15. [back]
On page 6 of the "Preface" to Shelley's Adonais and Alastor, Roberts tells us ingenuously: "In the sketch of Shelley's career I have aimed at the utmost brevity consistent with clearness. In regard to certain vexed questions I have given conclusions only, without going into that comparison of authorities with which none but the most advanced students need concern themselves."[back]
Sir Charles God Damn, p. 20. In this regard, it is rather ironic that Roberts wrote the article on "Personal Responsibility" for an anthology he edited called Our Home, or, Influences Emanating from the Hearthstone (Springfield, Mass.: King Richardson, 1899), pp. 403-610. [back]
This information is provided by Adams, p. 215, n. 10. Pomeroy herself glosses over the irregularities in Roberts' married life, noting placidly that "New York was Roberts' professional centre, though Fredericton continued to be his legal domicile" (Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, p. 162). [back]