22/06/2021 by socialistfight
Review by Ella Downing
This book begins with an earnest introduction by acknowledged expert on P. B. Shelley, Paul Foot, but goes beyond Red Shelley in its appreciation of the biographical details which influence this great poet, more precisely how his visit to Ireland in his formative years shaped his understanding of liberation struggle.
O’Brien looks in detail at Shelley’s first Ireland trip, and analyses his encounters, giving his own literary look at the people his party met there. We are given a strong sense that a young Shelley is almost overwhelmed by his first encounter of Irish hardship, having come almost directly from his expulsion from Oxford University for publishing and refusing to apologise for The Necessity of Atheism.
We are given a brief, albeit comprehensive, exposition of the nuovo reich Shelley household, their recent assent into the higher echelons of the British ruling class circles in, and the young Shelley’s disgust with his father’s lickspittle relationship to the establishment.
This book is well researched, and the author challenges Paul Foot for expertise, out stripping him from time to time. Occasionally, however, the reader detects a fault in political reasoning, the first major being toward the end of chapter five. Here O’Brien agrees with one Lord Cornwallis about the suitability of the union to save Ireland. Questionable to say the least. Moreover we find some non-materialist reasoning at times, with the section entitled The Fane of Liberty arguing that, in Shelley, the ‘words and the structure flow from the ideas’. Whilst seemingly fine, the fault lies in the conception that ideas could pre-exist the ability to utter them, that the language that sets out the idea were not the embodiment of the idea itself.
No matter, as moving rapidly on we find in chapter six, entitled (with a nod to Italian Marxist Gramsci) Optimism of the Will, a new historical figure presented to us. Catherine Nugent was a working class Dublin woman, participant in Emmet’s 1803 rebellion and a leader of the United Irish Women.
Although presented as sometime activist, sometime literary agent for Shelly, it becomes apparent she sympathised more so with Harriet, Shelley’s mistreated first wife. Nugent never forgave Shelley and is later recorded as having said ‘she could scarcely bare to think, much less speak of him’. She demonstrates admirable feminist solidarity, in keeping with her historical leadership role.
It isn’t until chapter eight that true literary analysis takes over from historical and biographical context. Despite O’Brien’s obvious range of knowledge and appreciation of his subject matter, one cannot help but diverge when it comes to his near-glorification of Sean O’Casey, especially his appreciate of The Shadow of a Gunman¸ a play questionable in both content and literary structure. Apart from this discrepancy however there is plentiful satisfying literary discussion, touching on Yeats, Joyce and Heaney, among others.
More satisfying still is the appendix of this effort, and as the author forewarns us in his introduction, the first of Shelley’s address’ to the Irish people is patronising, exceedingly so in places. His second, however, made some years later, has a clean, sharp and enthusiastically pointed quality.
Here Shelley is at his most arresting, capturing the reader in his zest for liberation through prose.
His Proposal for an Association of Philanthropists is concise and clear as is its rhetoric, and this text is worth buying, if not only for O’Brien’s literary and historical insight, his tact in introducing and expounding on Dublin of 1811, then additionally for this passage of Shelleyan writing, so inconveniently omitted from the majority of compilations of his writings. ▲