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The state of Shelley publishing has been one of the literary scandals of the last 200-odd years.

Mary Shelley, Shelleys widow and first editor, did her work under threat. Shelleys father Sir Timothy Shelley wanted his sons memory forgotten. Since Sir Timothy was paying a pension of 150 pounds a year to his sons widow and child, he was able to blackmail Mary Shelley out of writing a biography or issuing a complete works, by threatening to cut off her income. The readiness to starve his own grandson to strike at his dead son is villainy of the sort youd expect to find in a Victorian novel, not in life. But there it was; the poets father was a Bad Man, and no doubt part of the model for the occasional Bad Fathers (the Cenci, Jupiter etc) in Shelleys work.

So Mary Shelleys work, while Sir Timothy was still alive, publishing the most important poems with notes that collectively add up to a kind of biography, was an act of loyalty to her husband, and not without courage.

Her successors deserve less praise. Though occasionally ingenious in correcting details of text and recovering poems from notebook fragments, they betrayed Shelley. Some poems they deliberately omitted for their radicalism: the 1820 ballad, Young Parson Williams, was one example. Other poems they left in a bowlerised state, in particular _Laon and Cythna_, published with its religious, sexual and political radicalism blunted as _The Revolt of Islam_. Still other poems were distorted, by carelessness (eg the missing stanza of _On the Head of the Medusa_, the missing lines in _Mont Blanc_) or by sentimentality.

A glaring example of sentimental distortion is the breaking off of the _Triumph of Life_ fragment at the line: Then what is life, I cried. Shelleys draft continues for four lines, showing that the dark vision of the procession of life, that has dominated the poem till this point, is to roll on and out of the poem. One section of the poem had ended and another was about to start. The whole poem, if it had been finished, probably involved a movement from despair into light in the manner of _Prometheus Unbound_. But the absence of those lines led many commentators to believe that the poem was intended to be only a statement of despair.

Also, Shelley wrote I said, not I cried. The Victorian editors substituted cried because crying gives us a properly romantic Shelley, less like the real, controlled artist. And cried furnished a spurious rhyme with wayside and abide in the lines above - though at the same time distorting Shelleys terza rima.

And stopping the poem at that dramatic point gave us another Victorian myth: the young poet, defeated by the Great Question and failing to find an answer in verse, plunges beneath the waves in search of final truth. A romantic suicide instead of a pointless accidental drowning (or quite possibly murder by an Italian fishing smack, intending piracy). Without digressing into the many reasons why the suicide story is nonsense, it can be observed in this context that distortion of Shelleys poetry inevitably leads to distortions of biography as well as of interpretation.

And we get the political passion and the outrageous parodies of the _Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson_. To get an idea of the sheer outrageousness of the _Posthumous Fragments_, imagine a contemporary poet publishing scurrilous satires and angry political poems as if they were written by John Hinckley (the guy who tried to assassinate Reagan), and smuggled out of his cell. Then imagine that one of the poems included an exchange between Che Guevera and Pattie Hearst, in which they sing, in short panting lines, of oral sex. That gets you some idea of the naughtiness, in 1810 terms, of the _Epithalamium for Francis Revaillac and Charlotte Corday_.

This is an excellent edition, and its certainly a relief that Shelley is finally being presented complete and unaltered, and with an entourage of thousands of helpful notes.

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