“A strength badly exerted” – Rousseau, Radicalism, and Repression in the Works of P. B. Shelley

Something a little unusual for this blog – This is an academic article I wrote back in late 2013, revised in 2015, then forgot about after the e-journal it was intended for vanished off the face of the interwebs never to resurface. Since I absolutely cannot be bothered with the rigmarole of trying to find a new one, never mind edit this to its style guide and twiddle my thumbs waiting to see if my submission finds favour or ridicule, I’m just going to bang it up here instead, for anyone who cares about that sort of thing (The likelihood that I will ever need it officially published to support an academic career seems very unlikely now, since I am finally in my 40s and quite happy as an obscure SF author with a sideline in weird striptease acts).

A strength badly exerted” – Rousseau, Radicalism, and Repression in the Works of P. B. Shelley

Dr. Eleanor Burns

University of Leeds


Taking as its starting point David V. Smith’s essay Der Dichter Spricht: Shelley, Rousseau, and the Perfect Society,” (The Keats-Shelley Review 19 (2005): 117-31), in which the case is made that Shelley’s re-reading of Rousseau’s Julie within the context of the Swiss excursion of 1816 helped to revitalise his passion for social reform, this work examines Shelley’s evolving attitude to Rousseau and his place within Shelley’s “political manifesto.” From adopting a conventional view in 1812 which held Rousseau in little regard (consistent with the necessitarian views expressed in Queen Mab), to a view which placed him, as a creative writer, at almost demigod status, as Shelley’s own views and experiences steered him closer to a Platonically-influenced political philosophy in which inner reform, making good use of rather than repressing or denying the passions, was the essential complement to reforms in society (Shelley having explicitly stated that the French Revolution failed due to the lack of the former). This never went to the point of denying the value and necessity of practical social reform, as Shelley’s continued writing on specific social issues (as in the 1819 essay A Philosophical View of Reform) demonstrates, but is rather a denial of the reactionary notion that human nature can only be inclined to virtue by top-down, authoritarian means and institutions: a view that William Wordsworth was coming to espouse, leading to anti-radical works such as the elegy to Edmund Burke in the fourteen-book version of The Prelude (Book 7, 512-43). The response to these two “founding fathers,” Rousseau and Wordsworth, within Shelley’s works is then examined, both for comparison and contrast. While Wordsworth is summarily disposed of in a burlesque, satirical version of hell resembling a contemporary political cartoon (Peter Bell the Third), Rousseau is finally encountered in a more sombrely-depicted hell (A Triumph of Life), owing much to Dante and placing him in the role of honoured precursor and spirit guide to Shelley (like Virgil in the Inferno). Nevertheless, the similarities in the treatment of these two figures are also marked, and seem to indicate a desire, particularly marked late in Shelley’s career, to dissociate himself from the morbidly introspective strand of earlier Romantics and dedicate himself to the “poetical activism” championed in A Defence of Poetry. While Shelley acknowledges the value of incremental changes and even false starts on the road to reform, works such as A Philosophical View of Reform, The Mask of Anarchy, and The Triumph of Life promote a more indefatigable, courageous, and self-aware idealism than Shelley could confidently point to in his Romantic predecessors.


In his 2005 essay Der Dichter Spricht: Shelley, Rousseau, and the Perfect Society,” David V. Smith has pointed out the sudden significance that the figure of Jean-Jacques Rousseau attained within the imagination and philosophy of P. B. Shelley in 1816. He attributes this to the power and immediacy of his reading Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761) within the idyllic settings it depicted, as recounted in History of a Six Weeks Tour (1817), and explains how this helped to reinvigorate and redefine Shelley’s reforming spirit:

“Shelley’s works composed in the summer of 1816 conceive of a society which may be perfected through reforming the human character. […] in his temporary exile, the figure of Jean-Jacques Rousseau became an icon on the tourist trail, a secular God whose philosophies of virtuous humanism inspired him in his vision to create the perfect society.i”

Smith suggests that another factor that endeared Rousseau to Shelley at this time was a longing for the unconventional ideals of love expressed within Rousseau’s novel:ii a tragic love story, wildly popular amongst late Eighteenth-Century readers, between the aristocratic Julie and her tutor Saint-Preux, who are separated by well-meaning but socially conventional friends to safeguard Julie’s respectability. Nevertheless, the lovers remain emotionally and spiritually inseparable until Julie’s heroic, self-sacrificial demise. Shelley, at the time locked within his failed first marriage while feeling passionately drawn towards Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley), would certainly have found much to seduce his imagination in Rousseau’s idyll, not least the notion that passionate love, even of a scandalous nature, is essentially a force for good without which virtue and reason lack the impetus for any truly sublime feats:

(Part I, Letter LX)

“Your two souls are so extraordinary that they cannot be judged by common rules. […] Joined to your love is an emulation of virtue which elevates you, and you would both be less worthy if you were not in love.iii”

(Part II, Letter II)

“Such a love as his is not so much a weakness as a strength badly exerted. […] the highest reason is only attained through the same power of the soul which gives rise to great passions, and we serve philosophy worthily only with the same ardor that we feel for a mistress.iv”

(Part IV, Letter XII)

“It is only passionate souls who are capable of struggling and conquering. All great efforts, all sublime actions are their doing. Cold reason has never achieved anything illustrious, and we triumph over passions only by opposing one to another.v”

As Dante illustrated on the ascending cornices of Purgatory, with the sins of the blessed categorised and chastised according to what degree they missed the mark of perfect, divine love, earthly love is a risky and corrupt business, but nevertheless an essential step on the road to the sublime. The spectres of both Dante and Rousseau would come to haunt Shelley in a more troubled fashion at the end of his career, but in 1816 his primary sense on re-reading Julie seems to have been one of liberation and joy at encountering an ally or kindred spirit at a time when he sensed his own weakness.

The profundity of Rousseau’s influence on Shelley may be inferred from the hyperbolic praise he lavishes upon Rousseau in History of a Six Weeks Tour: “[Byron] gathered some acacia leaves to preserve in remembrance of [Gibbon]. I refrained from doing so, fearing to outrage the greater and more sacred name of Rousseau […].”vi Also noteworthy is the contrast Shelley draws between these two Enlightenment icons, preferring Rousseau specifically due to his emotionally-charged writings: “Gibbon had a cold and unimpassioned spirit. I never felt more inclination to rail at the prejudices which cling to such a thing, than now that Julie and Clarens, Lausanne and the Roman empire, compelled me to a contrast […].” (343-4) This attitude towards Rousseau and passion is surprising when contrasted with Shelley’s earlier view on these subjects, expressed in Proposals for an Association (1812), in which, arguing the case for political reform, he echoes a widespread contemporary opinionvii that Rousseau’s philosophies had contributed to the carnage of the French Revolution:

“I do not deny that the Revolution of France was occasioned by the literary labours of the encyclopædists. […] Rousseau gave license by his writings to passions that only incapacitate and contract the human heart – so far hath he prepared the necks of his fellow-beings for that yoke of galling and dishonourable servitude which at this moment it bears.”

(Prose Works I, 278-9)

Nor was the young Shelley alone within the radical literary community in distancing himself from Rousseau’s philosophy, and for similar reasons. Byron, evidently less moved to rapture by the Swiss excursion than Shelley was, described Rousseau in Canto III of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1816)viii as a “self-torturing sophist” (l. 725), capable of putting on a “reasoning show” (760) but essentially the slave of “distemper’d” (742) passions: far from being a strength, his emotions were more like a contagious disease that caused an entire nation to “burn.” (764) Though initially an enthusiast of the Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft was nevertheless a detractor of Rousseau, appalled by the misogynistic theories he advanced in Émileix and inclined to blame them upon his apostasy from a philosophy of pure reason:

“[…] Rousseau’s errors in reasoning arose from sensibility […]. When he should have reasoned he became impassioned, and reflection inflamed his imagination instead of enlightening his understanding. Even his virtues also led him farther astray; for, born with a warm constitution and lively fancy, nature carried him toward the other sex with such eager fondness that he soon became lascivious. Had he given way to these desires, the fire would have extinguished itself in a natural manner, but virtue, and a romantic kind of delicacy, made him practice self-denial; yet when fear, delicacy, or virtue restrained him, he debauched his imagination, and reflecting on the sensations to which fancy gave force, he traced them in the most glowing colours, and sunk them deep into his soul. […] Why was Rousseau’s life divided between ecstasy and misery? […] had his fancy been allowed to cool, it is possible that he might have acquired more strength of mind.x”

Though Wollstonecraft focuses on Émile, the process by which Rousseau himself describes the genesis of Julie affords a remarkable corroboration of her unflattering portrait. Within his Confessions, Rousseau openly admits to the all-consuming and sexually-charged nature of his imaginative process, though with a sense that he is not unaware of his personal shortcomings as he places himself within the landscape of his fantasies:

“I pictured to myself love and friendship, those two idols of my heart, in the most ravishing of guises. I delighted in embellishing them with all the charms of the sex I had always adored. I invented two friends, women rather than men […] To one of them I gave a lover, […] Bewitched by my two charming models, I identified as closely as I could with the lover and the friend; but I made him young and amiable, while giving him for the rest the virtues and defects I felt I myself possessed.xi”

“Wherever I looked I saw only the two charming girls, their friend, their intimates, the region where they lived, the objects created or embellished for them by my imagination. I was no longer in possession of myself for a single moment; and my delirium never left me. After much unavailing effort to ward off these fictions, I at last succumbed wholly to their seduction, […].”

(Confessions, 424)

The masculine protagonist of Julie, the passionate and well-meaning but naïve and egotistical tutor Saint-Preux – Rousseau’s self-confessed self portrait – is accused of similar fantasy-mongering by one of his friends: the would-be stoic philosopher Lord Bomston. He upbraids him for his inability to love virtue for its own sake, disassociated from the ideal of his beloved: “In your eyes it has taken on the form of that lovely woman who typifies it so well, and so dear an image could hardly let you lose the inclination for it.” (Julie, 343 [Part V, Letter I]) Ironically, Lord Bomston is soon relegated from teacher to pupil after underestimating his own passions, and Saint-Preux ends up saving him from a scandalous marriage.

Saint-Preux’s other mentor in self-control – Monsieur de Wolmar (Julie’s husband by arranged marriage, an amiable and virtuous man, but dispassionate) – is not presented as an enviable role model. “My only active principle is a natural love of order,” (Julie, 317 [Part IV, Letter XII]) he admits, depicting himself as an extreme manifestation of neoclassical principles, and one who, like Dante’s Virgil,xii in spite of his virtuous ethics has his horizons tragically limited by the absence of that transcendent, passionate love which both motivates and misleads Julie and Saint-Preux. A rationalistic atheist, Wolmar is presented as a figure to be pitied, while Julie goes to her death hopeful that this shock to his habitual indifference will eventually stir him to become a Christian, with Saint-Preux’s guidance (Julie, 406-7 [Part VI, Letter XII]). Again, the teacher-pupil relationship is reversed. As Jonathan Swift had satirically illustrated, while “the government of Reason”xiii may have its social benefits, the life of a Houyhnhnm is not the highest good to which a human may dare to aspire.

Ironically, the politically activist and proudly atheistic Shelley of 1812 would quite probably have found Julie’s idealised faith to be a stifling, socially-constructed delusion, and Wolmar’s necessitarian rationalism to be the truly liberating philosophy.xiv It would be deeply misleading to labour the cliché that some “radical” Shelley gave way to some “visionary” Shelley somewhere between Queen Mab and Alastor:xv The Mask of Anarchy, and its impassioned denunciation of Lord Liverpool’s government stands as sufficient proof of his enduring principles, while the merciless caricaturing of the “reformed” Wordsworth in Peter Bell the Thirdxvi testifies to the poor regard in which he held those who would lightly abandon their radical principles. Nor, in spite of Browning’s hope that “had Shelley lived he would have finally ranged himself with the Christians” (Browning, 150) does the increasing complexity of Shelley’s spiritual opinions appear to have ever softened his views towards institutional religion. “The New Testament is in everyone’s hand, and the few who ever read it with the simple sincerity of an unbiased judgement may perceive how distinct from the opinions of any of those professing themselves establishers [of churches] were the doctrines and the actions of Jesus Christ,” (Selected Poetry and Prose, 595) he states in A Philosophical View of Reform (1819), one of his latest explicitly radical works. What is, however, remarkable is the shift from his former rigidly deterministic point of view to one which encompasses spiritual views while rejecting their conventional manifestations, and one which, as Smith asserts, envisions the “perfect society” as the consequence or as the complement of inner, moral reform, without which any external efforts to improve society will either go awry or yield only temporary benefits. As A Philosophical View of Reform continues to state:

“Morals and politics can only be considered as portions of the same science, with relation to a system of such absolute perfection as Christ and Plato and Rousseau and other reasoners have asserted […] Equality in possessions must be the last result of the utmost refinements of civilisation; it is one of the conditions of that system of society towards which, with whatever hope of ultimate success, it is our duty to tend. […] We derive tranquillity and courage and grandeur or soul from contemplating an object which is because we will it, and may be because we hope and desire it, and must be if succeeding generations of the enlightened sincerely and earnestly seek it.”

(Selected Poetry and Prose, 624-5)

Here, in the cause of political reform, we find an exaltation of an imaginative process very similar to that which Rousseau depicts in Julie: contemplation of the ideal “object,” even when unattainable, is held to be a worthwhile exercise, on account of ennobling the individual soul and tending towards the long-term elevation of human consciousness. The bold conjunction of Christ with Rousseau had already been attempted by Shelley in the unfinished On Christianity (1817), in which he had cleared Rousseau of the charge of responsibility for the horrors of the French Revolution by implying that it would be as unjust to blame Jesus for the abuses of the church, thus defending two idealists in one iconoclastic stroke.xvii The conjunction with Plato is equally fascinating, and a reminder of how much this philosopher had come to dwell on Shelley’s mind at this time, bearing in mind that he had written his own translation of Plato’s Symposium in 1818. This dialogue contains Plato’s most stirring and powerful treatment of the subject of love, and one to which subsequent generations of writers and theologians would be indebted:

“This is the right way of approaching or being initiated into the mysteries of love, to begin with examples of beauty in this world, and using them as steps to ascend continually with that absolute beauty as one’s aim, from one instance of physical beauty to two and from two to all, then from physical beauty to moral beauty, and from moral beauty to the beauty of knowledge, until from knowledge of various kinds one arrives at the supreme knowledge whose sole object is that absolute beauty, and knows at last what absolute beauty is. […] Do you not see that in that region alone where he sees beauty with the faculty capable of seeing it, will he be able to bring forth not mere reflected images of goodness but true goodness, because he will be in contact not with a reflection but with the truth? And having brought forth and nurtured true goodness he will have the privilege of being beloved of God, and becoming, if ever man can, immortal himself.xviii”

In anticipation of John’s Epistle,xix Plato depicts love as humanity’s divine faculty or instinct, drawing our perceptions beyond the world of “reflected images”xx to “absolute beauty” / God / the sublime, from which standpoint all human efforts will be more availing. Rousseau pays clear homage to Plato in Julie: “[…] consult your inmost heart; it is there that you will always rediscover the source of that sacred fire which inflamed us so many times with love for the sublime virtues. It is there that you will see that eternal image of true beauty, the contemplation of which inspires us with a holy enthusiasm which our passions defile ceaselessly but can never efface.”xxi (Julie, 190-1 [Part II, Letter XI]) Rousseau, in his keenness to assert his own innate goodness while laying his vices at the door of a corrupting and unnatural civilisation, could have certainly drawn solace and even pride from Plato’s exaltation of sensibility. “If I had remained free, unknown and isolated, as nature meant me to be, I should have done nothing but good, for my heart does not contain the seeds of any harmful passion.”xxii

By 1818, Shelley’s impetuous passions and radical zeal had won him virtual exile, relative obscurity, the guilt of his first wife’s suicide, and the loss of custody of his children by her. Plato’s redemptive view of human nature, and the idealised tendency he theorises for passion, may well have held a strong note of solace for Shelley as well, and a clarion call to not follow the path of the preceding Romantic generation into compromise, conformity, and dogma. Nevertheless, in one of Shelley’s clearest takes on the Symposium – his essay “On Love” (1818) – no sense of unqualified optimism is to be found. Indeed, it opens on a grim note of isolation and self-pity that bears more than a passing resemblance to Rousseau’s biographies:

“I know not the internal constitution of other men, […] when […] I have thought to appeal to something in common and unburthen my inmost soul to them, I have found my language misunderstood like one in a distant and savage land. […] With a spirit ill fitted to sustain such proof, trembling and feeble through its tenderness, I have every where sought, and have found only repulse and disappointment.”

(Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 473)

From this inauspicious beginning, Shelley proceeds to describe love in broadly Platonic terms: having discovered “within our own thoughts the chasm of an insufficient void” and seeking the completion and affirmation of a sympathetic “likeness” love is defined as the quest for “the ideal prototype of every thing excellent or lovely that we are capable of conceiving as belonging to the nature of man.” (473-4) In remarkable prescience of Lacan,xxiii Shelley speculates “It is probably in correspondence with this law that the infant drains milk from the bosom of its mother;” (473) introducing a strand of existential anxiety for the modern reader to appreciate even before he has announced the apparent futility of the quest in contemporary terms:

“[…] this is the invisible and unattainable point to which Love tends; and to attain which, it urges forth the powers of man to arrest the faintest shadow of that, without the possession of which there is no rest or respite to the heart over which it rules. Hence in solitude, or in that deserted state when we are surrounded by human beings and yet they sympathise not with us, we love the flowers, the grass and the waters and the sky. In the motion of the very leaves of spring in the blue air there is then found a secret correspondence with our heart. […] So soon as this want or power is dead, man becomes the living sepulchre of himself, and what yet survives is there mere husk of what once he was.”


As in A Philosophical View of Reform, even though “ultimate success” seems elusive if not impossible, Shelley nevertheless deems that the quest itself is essential. Saint-Preux of Julie attains no happy ending: his passions remain unfulfilled and Julie herself is rendered completely unreachable by her death, yet his enduring love for her remains the best hope that he will make good use of his life to come, for her sake. Interpreting “On Love” against the context of the preface to the tragic dream-quest Alastor (1815), which is decidedly sceptical on the subject of substituting non-human objects (even in living nature) for actual “human sympathy” (Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 70), the suggestion of resorting to nature for emergency companionship seems dubious, but the crux of the matter seems to be that this search for absolute beauty motivates the lover to seek beyond themselves, as Shelley would later clarify in a key work regarding his later views on love, radicalism, and Rousseau; namely A Defence of Poetry (1821):

“The great secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.”

(Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 487-8)

This view presents a stark contrast to the introspection championed by Rousseau, particularly in his later years when he was deeply embittered by real and imagined persecutions. In the Reveries he proclaims, with hubristic overtones:

“[…] if there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there […] What is the source of our happiness in such a state? Nothing external to us, nothing apart from ourselves and our own existence; as long as this state lasts we are self-sufficient like God.”

(Reveries, 88-9)

Before turning to The Triumph of Life – Shelley’s final word on Rousseau as well as his only explicit poetic treatment of him – it should be noted that there are two distinct Rousseaus in A Defence of Poetry. While discussing Rousseau within the context of poetry, Shelly describes him as one of “the great writers of our own age, [who] have celebrated the dominion of love, planting as it were trophies in the human mind of that sublimest victory over sensuality and force.” (Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 497) No minor compliment, especially considering Shelley counts Dante and Plato among his fellow-victors. However, as a moral philosopher or “reasoner” (502) Rousseau is casually dismissed as having made little lasting impact (though even that could be construed as a generous move on Shelley’s part, considering those of his contemporaries who believed Rousseau’s philosophy had incited carnage). The compliment thus emerges as somewhat backhanded, though the brunt of it falls on Shelley as well: since he assigns a pseudo-prophetic purpose to poetry in this essay, poets beings agents of great change on account of “communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature” (508), it seems there is little credit they can claim for their works. Indeed, Shelley frankly admits that the moral quality of poetic works may say nothing about the poet: “The persons in whom this power resides, may often […] have little apparent correspondence with the spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve […].” (508) By thus liberating works from authors, it could be said that Shelley simultaneously makes a case for persisting in his own career, in spite of the humiliations and frustrations of his self-imposed exile, and for exorcising any lingering embarrassment he may have felt at acknowledging the widely reviled Rousseau as a major inspiration.

With this in mind, it is unsurprising that we find the tragically over-sensitive Rousseau – described by Thomas Bentley as formed to be “an inhabitant of the air, but before [Nature] had finished his wings he eagerly sprung out of her hands, and his unfinished body sunk down to the earth”xxiv – in the role of Virgil to Shelley’s Dantean dreamer in The Triumph of Life (Poetry and Prose, 455-70). As a guiding light on the path to developing a poetics of universal love, he is at any rate suited for guiding the dreamer away from the Hell of Life’s pageant, though probably not for the more elevated task of actually escorting him into the company of Beatrice herself / Plato’s “absolute beauty.” Had the poem been finished, whether he would even have succeeded in this much is, of course, highly debateable. Joel Faflak describes the fragmentary condition of the poem, resurrected from its rough manuscript form by Mary Shelley, in appropriately necromantic terms for the author of Frankenstein:

“Mary Shelley tried to allay readers’ doubts when she first re-membered the manuscript […] the manuscript remains haunted by her husband’s drowned and decaying body. This haunting makes reading the poem resemble the impossible reanimation of a corpse.xxv”

Or, to switch from the gothic to the crime genre, to try solving a detective novel with the last scene torn out, though there are many clues to work with. The setting, though scarcely among Shelley’s more overtly humorous works, nevertheless possesses the same manic, grotesque energy as Shelley’s political satires. Its use of high literary devices such as the Roman triumph, and the allusions to Dante, Petrarch, and Milton, strikes a note of intense discordance alongside the chaos, absurdity, ugliness, and casual violence of the pageant: particularly the detail of the young, passionate celebrants who are callously run down by Life’s chariot, jettisoned behind it as aged, decayed figures, and who continue to dance in hideous parody of their former Bacchanalia. (Triumph of Life, ll. 136-75) As in The Mask of Anarchy and Swellfoot the Tyrant, the visual effect is reminiscent of contemporary satirical art such as James Gillray’s cartoons, the artist’s use and abuse of images from fine art, scripture, or literature serving to enhance the sense of sordidness and absurdity in the actual subject matter.xxvi Indeed, the imagery of Triumph of Life is reminiscent of that Shelley had already employed in The Mask of Anarchy, with “Anarchy” represented by an apocalyptic figure of death, accompanied by grotesque caricatures of leading politicians, re-enacting the Peterloo Massacre in the style of a medieval triumph of death:xxvii “Over English land he passed,/ Trampling to a mire of blood/ The adoring multitude.” (Mask of Anarchy, ll. 39-41) Whilst the peaceful protestors killed and wounded in St. Peter’s Field are a strange notion of “adoring” worshippers, that incongruous image both highlights the brutality of the Liverpool administration and subtly hints at one of Shelley’s prescient insights, key to this work and others: that true power only comes through the complicity of the masses, making peaceful civil disobedience a viable, albeit a risky endeavour. In this post-Tiananmen age, the image of the dishevelled yet defiant figure of Hope laying down in the path of Anarchy’s parade of carnage (86-101) has a resonance that may have been less apparent in Shelley’s day, though it supports his views in A Defence of Poetry that poetic insights transcend time, and what reason may deem to be plausible under present circumstances. “Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present […].” (Poetry and Prose, 508)

In spite of Shelley’s enduring antipathy with Christianity (It is noteworthy that there are conspicuous numbers of high-ranking priests in Life’s Triumph, just as there were in Dante’s Hell), this insight helps to account for the absence of Jesus Christ from the “mighty captives” (Triumph of Life, l. 135) chained to the chariot. In On Christianity, Shelley depicts Jesus in decidedly radical colours:

“A man of ardent genius, and impatient virtue perishes in stern and resolute opposition to tyranny, injustice and superstition. He refuses, he despises pardon. He exults in the torturing flames and the insolent mockery of the oppressor. It is a triumph to him beyond all triumphs that the multitude accumulate scorn and execration on his head solely because his heart has known no measure in the love it bore them […].”

(The Prose Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 247)

If it seems vaguely cynical of Shelley to co-opt Jesus in the cause of politics, it ought to be noted that in his view he was simply reinstating the truth and dignity of a figure whom he believed had been very cynically used and misrepresented by the establishment.xxviii Shelley also ranks Jesus as an inspired poet-activist in A Defence of Poetry, his exposition of “sacred and eternal truths” having promoted such causes as the “abolition of personal and domestic slavery, and the emancipation of women […].” (Poetry and Prose, 496) His fearless idealism, along with that of Socrates (another martyr to truth, also absent from the Life’s Triumph), makes him that rarest of phenomena: a successful living expression of his own life-transcending inspirations. Even Plato and “the great bards of old” (Triumph of Life, l. 274), chained to the chariot, are not accorded that honour, whatever the quality of their works.

Nor, of course, is Rousseau, who is discovered by the dreamer withered to the likeness of an “old root” (182): imagery reminiscent of Canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno, in which the souls of suicides are eternally trapped in the forms of stunted trees (Hell, 149-53). Though not a literal suicide, Rousseau’s own emotional violence against himselfxxix may have prompted Shelley’s choice of imagery. Those whose wit and wisdom, however great, failed to teach them to “know themselves” (Triumph of Life, l. 212) have all fallen victim to Life’s “sad pageantry” (176), and Rousseau, whose biographical writings speak volumes of paranoia, guilt, and a mind that even later in life could make no lasting peace with itself, manifestly fits the bill.

The key passage involving Rousseau – the mysterious encounter with a feminine “shape all light” (352) – also finds its prototype in Dante: namely the climax of Purgatorio (Cantos XXVIII-XXXIII)xxx, in which Dante is escorted through the Earthly Paradise atop Mount Purgatory by a fair lady – a handmaiden of Beatrice – who baptises him in the twin rivers Lethe and Eunoë to purge his memory of guilt in preparation for the ascent to Paradise. The “gentle rivulet” (Triumph of Life, l. 314) by which Rousseau awakens has similar “Lethean” properties (463), as does the glass of “Nepenthe”xxxi (359) which the apparition offers to Rousseau.

This encounter and its aftermath could be interpreted as a straight take on Dante’s version: the fair lady of the Purgatorio suggests that the dim recollection of Purgatory’s Earthly Paradise is the source of the theme of a lost golden age in poetryxxxii (and, by extension, of poetic idealism for humanity’s future). This ties in with the dim “phantom” (464) of the shape all light that continues to follow Rousseau after he willingly deserts the emotional tranquillity of the Earthly Paradise – where “all who hear” the stream “must needs forget / All pleasure and all pain, all hate and love” (318-9) – to join the fiercely passionate, but destructive Triumph of Life, though one could contend that the primal innocence depicted seems so blandly neutral, that facing Life’s passions courageously – though not naively – is an essential part of human and / or poetic progress.

However, to interpret the scene quite so literally in a work which exhibits so much of the grotesque and the ironic – with even the rainbow-arched Triumph (439-41) forming a grim parody of Beatrice’s pageant in Purgatoryxxxiii – would be a dubious endeavour, and indeed much critical enquiry has gone into determining whether or not the shape all light is a genuine handmaid of grace, or merely a cruel irony and manifestation of Rousseau’s own fevered imaginings.xxxiv Joel Faflak has opted for a view that acknowledges the unsettling complexity and indeterminacy of the figure. That view seems persuasive, especially given that Shelley, often delighting in the eerie suggestiveness of “ghosts and revenants,” may have intended such an effect:

“It is seductive to think of the “shape” as the ultimate lost object, the mother of representation itself. In this sense, she is like the dreamwork: overdetermined and overdetermining, the simulation of a Gothic and melancholic subject who gazes upon her life as both/neither actor and/nor spectator at the ground zero of ghosts and revenants […] she is the restless and restlessly unprincipled principle of desire itself, which is to say, she is pure drive.”

(Faflak, 74)

Given such ambiguities as the rainbow (which is associated with both the shape and the Triumph), and Rousseau’s own self-confessed tendency to be absorbed in his seductive reveries, it is compelling to assign moral neutrality to the shape all light. This also reflects that even love, in Dante’s reckoning, is a driving force with the potential to end in good or evil,xxxv and Rousseau himself had recognised as much in his critical self-portrayal in Julie: for all of the assertions that Saint-Preux’s passionate love for Julie is the raw fuel that, when refined, will inspire him to great acts of virtue, his efforts to contain and repress that passion often end badly.xxxvi Another clue lending itself to the interpretation of the shape as an indeterminate spectre, its ultimate nature powerfully influenced by the psyche of its perceiver, is to be found in a similar, albeit comical encounter in Peter Bell the Third. Peter (Shelley’s satirical portrait of Wordsworth) is described in an awkward tryst with a feminine personification of nature, and only succeeds in exposing his own limitations:

“But from the first ‘twas Peter’s drift

To be a kind of moral eunuch

Her touched the hem of Nature’s shift,

Felt faint – and never dared uplift

The closest, all-concealing tunic.

She laughed the while, with an arch smile,

And kissed him with a sister’s kiss,

And said – “My best Diogenes,

I love you well – but if you please,

Tempt not again my deepest bliss.

Tis you are cold – for I, not coy,

Yield love for love, frank, warm and true:

And Burns, a Scottish Peasant boy, –

His errors prove it – knew my joy

More, learned friend, than you.


Then Peter rubbed his eyes severe,

And smoothed his spacious forehead down

With his broad palm; – ‘twixt love and fear,

He looked, as he no doubt felt, queer,

And in his dream sate down.”

ll. 313-37 (Poetry and Prose, 335)

While the metaphor in the Triumph of Life is mockingly eucharistic rather than sexual (a communion with the glass of Nepenthe, as opposed to peeking up Nature’s skirt) and Shelley is less keen to belittle Rousseau even in the act of criticising him, there are notable parallels. The “love and fear” that Peter feels echoes the “desire and shame” (Triumph of Life, l. 394) that Rousseau feels as he addresses the apparition, reflecting the extreme sensibility and tumultuous emotional struggles of his real-life counterpart, who at times recognised himself as his own worst enemy. “[…] nature did not make me to know pleasure. She has filled my heart with an appetite for unutterable bliss, my perverse mind with the poison that destroys it.” (Confessions, 311) Like the timid Peter, conflicted and distrusting his emotions, and afraid or ashamed of rather than at peace with his “errors,” he cannot bring himself to take the full opportunity of his encounter with the sublime, muse-like figure. Instead of availing himself of her invitation to “Arise and quench thy thirst” (400) he merely “Touched with faint lips the cup she raised” (404). The effect of such half-measures speaks for itself:

“[…] suddenly my brain became as sand

Where the first wave had more than half erased

The track of deer on desert Labrador,

Whilst the fierce wolf from which they fled amazed

Leaves his stamp visibly upon the shore”


The Lethean draft, merely sipped in a spirit of resistance to “unutterable bliss,” grants Rousseau only a limited experience of absolute beauty, partially cleansing his psyche but leaving enough of a “track” of corruption for the “wolf” – an animal of dire significance in Dante, signifying the most grievous sins (Hell, 72-4) – to find its way in and fill the vacuum. Far from being the model of virtue and simplicity he had set out to become when he “quitted the world and its vanities” (Reveries, 51) Rousseau would be remembered, even by those who valued his works, as a paranoid delusional who had, out of selfish fear for having to compromise his idealised lifestyle, abandoned his children to an orphanage and sought to speciously argue that fact as the action of a “true citizen and father” (Confessions, 347-8). Like Peter Bell, far from inspiring him to be a personal inspiration to others, his non-committal, timid, and finally inward-looking flirtation with absolute beauty only serves to exacerbate his fall from grace:

“[…] some grew weary of the ghastly dance

And fell, as I have fallen by the way side,

Those soonest from whose forms most shadows past

And least of strength and beauty did abide.”

(Triumph of Life, ll. 540-3)

This mirrors the retreat of the real-life Rousseau into self-imposed exile and self-pitying introspection, and while Shelley, from his own experiences able to sympathise with this state, was not so offended by that as he was by the conservative backsliding of Wordsworth and Robert Southey, he still recognised it as a tragic waste of potential.

There are, of course, no definitive answers for whether or not Shelley intended to perform a volte-face in this grim, irony-laden fragment, and to reach an optimistic climax. The absence of Christ and Socrates from the Triumph (and possibly Dante, mentioned at l. 472 but not seen in the pageant) can be taken as a hopeful sign, though Joel Faflak is inclined to downplay its significance:

“Their influence seems redundant, for even the Narrator’s “fresh world” is “already old” (line 238). The text’s re-historicization of “[n]ew figures on [the world’s] false and fragile glass” (line 247) thus turns history into a ceaseless revisionary practice […].”

(Faflak, 72)

The analogy in question is certainly discouraging, and it also appears in the decidedly pessimistic sonnet “Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life; though unreal shapes be pictured there” (Poetry and Prose, 312). The reduction of human works to painted images, continually erased and replaced, would seem on the face of things to deal a death-blow to Shelley’s argument for incremental progress stimulated by poetry, art, and idealism, stated in A Defence of Poetry, though The Triumph of Life affords some solace by suggesting that there is one indelible mark that can be made on the glass or veil: “[…] all things are transfigured, except Love” (l. 476). Another striking use of the same analogy occurs in Prometheus Unbound at III.iv.190-8:

“The painted veil, by those who were, called life,

Which mimicked, as with colours idly spread,

All men believed and hoped, is torn aside –

The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains

Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed – but man:


Passionless? no – yet free from guilt or pain”

(Poetry and Prose, 194)

As Rousseau had demonstrated more acutely in his fiction than through his life, and which insight had helped to revive Shelley’s idealism after the personal and political disappointments of his early career, passion is a natural and proper facet of the human condition, and one which can be turned to good account, but only if one can be at peace with it.

“Reproach not thine own soul, but know thyself,

Nor hate another’s crime, nor loathe thine own.

It is the dark idolatry of self,”

Laon and Cythna, Canto Eighth, ll. 3388-90 (Selected Poetry and Prose, 184)

Notwithstanding the undeniable complexity of Shelley’s later spiritual views, his growing interest in Dante, and the positive connotations of the figure of Christ in his later works, Browning’s hopeful speculation of his “conversion” rather overlooks one of the most consistent of his grievances with institutional Christianity: its tendency, in alliance with oppressive societies, to encourage people to indulge in self-contempt. A person believing themselves inherently evil is faced with the stark choice of accepting their passions as evil and indulging them accordingly, or attempting to repress them (and thus inviting the repressed to return in unpleasant forms), neither strategy being conducive either to inner peace or the advancement of the ideal society. It was a point that a young Shelley may well have absorbed from his Gothic readings (especially “Monk” Lewisxxxvii) and which he would return to throughout his career: that believing oneself or society beyond redemption is to invite corruption to set up a permanent residence.xxxviii

In spite of the bleak fatalism of much of the existing fragment, there is scope for optimism in The Triumph of Life, provided that love, mediated through such poet-activists as Christ, Socrates, and Dante, can leave enough permanent marks on the “glass” to change its message for good, or to shatter it entirely. The glass itself – a Platonic or Pauline imagexxxix – implies a truer, underlying level of being. As stated in A Defence of Poetry, in the same vein, “[…] whether it spreads its own figured curtain or withdraws life’s dark veil from before the scene of things, [poetry] equally creates for us a being within our being. […] it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.” (Poetry and Prose, 505) Rousseau himself falls within the honourable category of poets who have at least disturbed the veil. To the disillusioned Shelley on the “tourist trail” in 1816, the Rousseau of Julie was a powerful, inspiring reminder of Romanticism’s philosophical insight against the civilising formalism of Enlightenment Europe: that inner reform, accepting and not condemning of human nature, and liberating of guilt, must be the essential bedrock of reforms in the outer world, if they are to endure.

Insofar as Rousseau as a person and a “reasoner” had fallen short of the idealised creations of Julie, Shelley’s approval of him would remain qualified, though would not approach his level of disapproval for Wordsworth, who in his view not merely fell short of but actively set out to “atone” for his former radical principles. At all events, while Shelley gleefully disposes of Wordsworth in a satirically English Hell that Gillray could have depicted (in Peter Bell the Third), he elects to have a personal, serious meeting with Rousseau, in an ambiguously purgatorial state: for the shape all light continues to follow Rousseau, however dimly, holding out some glimmer of hope (Triumph of Life, ll. 424-33). Furthermore, to cast Rousseau as “Virgil” to his “Dante” carries both significance and honour: he is the precursor to whom Shelley in many ways feels he owes his literary existence, and whose inspired creations helped to guide him out of the dark wood of disillusionment. For all that, he represents a past Shelley feels bound to move on from: a past of false starts and failed hopes such as the French Revolution, represented in the carnivalesque, gothic imagery of Life’s Triumph: “[…] one feels as if the show could go on forever,” (Faflak, 76) but this is the very spirit of pessimism for which Shelley criticised those who had lost all hope in human nature and progress after the Revolution, and those who sought to use its bad effects as an argument against any reform whatsoever. As stated in A Philosophical View of Reform:

“[…] the oppressed, having been rendered brutal, ignorant, servile and bloody by long slavery […] took a dreadful revenge upon their oppressors. Their desire to wreak revenge to this extent, […] affords an additional proof of the necessity of that long-delayed change which it accompanied and disgraced.”

(Selected Poetry and Prose, 599-600)

Rousseau’s exaltation of sensibility and his exposé of the insufficiency of pure reason helped Shelley to reconcile with his own passions and to develop his prophetic, reforming, poetic manifesto that would evolve into A Defence of Poetry. Nevertheless, the dangers of pure sensibility in a morbid or unreasoning mind (or in a whole class or nation of them) were all too apparent to Shelley, and his final major work sees him reaching towards more harmonious and self-aware exemplars of idealism: Dante, in the literary sense, and Christ and Socrates in the wider sense. For all of the inspiration and sympathy that he afforded, Rousseau was in the final estimation a figure Shelley was wary of emulating rather than motivated to emulate.

Biographical Notice

Eleanor Burns graduated from the University of Leeds in 2004. Her thesis, in part a response to Teddi Chichester Bonca’s Shelley’s Mirrors of Love (State University of New York Press, 1997) investigates the endurance of the Gothic genre within P. B. Shelley’s works, tracing common themes from Zastrozzi to The Triumph of Life, with particular emphasis on Shelley’s attitudes to sexuality and gender. She is currently based in Cardiff, Wales.


i David V Smith, “Der Dichter Spricht: Shelley, Rousseau, and the Perfect Society”, The Keats-Shelley Review 19 (Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, 2005), 117-31 (130-1).

ii “In early nineteenth-century Europe, society was not liberated enough to accept Shelley’s idealised vision of love, whose perfection could only be found within the pages of Rousseau’s novel.” (Smith 121)

iii Jean-Jacques Rousseau, La Nouvelle Héloïse – Julie, or the New Eloise (1761), translated and abridged by Judith H. McDowell (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968), 135.

iv Julie, 162-3.

v Julie, 319.

vi Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Prose Works, vol. 1, ed. Richard Herne Shepherd (London: Chatto & Windus, 1912), 343.

vii Edward Duffy, Rousseau in England: The Context for Shelley’s Critique of the Enlightenment (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1979), 35:

No sooner had the French Assembly decreed its honors to Rousseau than polemicists on the other side seized upon the Confessions, the Rêveries, and any other scraps of information useful in the ad hominem denunciation of revolution. Dwelling upon the most unedifying details, they proclaimed vanity and sensuality to be the keys to the diabolical kingdom that Rousseau had announced in his works, and which another upstart from Corsica was soon to bring to a bloody fruition.

viii Byron: The Complete Poetical Works, 7 vols, ed. Jerome J. McGann (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980-1993), 213-4.

ix Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, or On Education (1762), introduction, translation and notes by Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, Inc, 1979) 357-406. The chapter in question consists of Rousseau’s depiction of the “ideal” woman, and instructs its female readers to consider themselves as “passive and weak” (358); good for nothing if not to please men (359); naturally coquettish and vain (365, 367); to submit to male injustice for the sake of preserving feminine “gentleness” (370); to develop the sensual talents of harem-women (374); not to cultivate knowledge (376); to rely upon their fathers and husbands for spiritual instruction and not trust their own judgement (377); to dress suggestively to aid voyeurism (394); and to believe that this “ideal” is a natural construct, and not that of Rousseau’s heated imagination (390). Aside from the paradox involved in his attempt to argue that such restraints facilitate natural development of character (a statement at odds with Rousseau’s belief that civilised constraints only serve to pervert humanity’s inherent goodness), he lapses into the realms of erotic fantasy with the following: “What a joy for a noble soul when the pride of virtue is joined to beauty! Bring the heroine of a romantic novel into reality” (391). Ironically, Émile book V was well received by the English literary establishment upon publication (Duffy, 17).

x Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1992), 189-90.

xi Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions (1781), trans. Angela Scholar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 420.

xii Confined, along with other virtuous pagans, to Limbo. Cf. Canto IV of Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy I: Hell (1307-21[?]), trans. Dorothy L. Sayers (Harmondworth: Penguin, 1949), 91-5.

xiii Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (1726) (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), 346. The Houyhnhnms are a race of intelligent but coldly dispassionate horse-like beings whom the protagonist idolises while developing an extreme misanthropy for humanity.

xiv The Selected Poetry and Prose of Shelley, introduction and notes by Bruce Woodcock (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2002), 79:

Every human being is irresistibly impelled to act precisely as he does act: in the eternity which preceded his birth a chain of causes was generated, which, operating under the name of motives, make it impossible that any thought of his mind, or any action of his life, should be otherwise than it is. Were the doctrine of Necessity false, the human mind would no longer be a legitimate object of science […] None but the few fanatics who are engaged in the herculean task of reconciling the justice of their God with the misery of man, will longer outrage common sense by the supposition of an event without a cause, a voluntary action without a motive.

(Note to Queen Mab, VI, l. 198)

xv Promulgated as early as 1851 by Robert Browning. Cf. Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, Browning’s Essay on Shelley, ed. L. Winstanley (Boston, London: D. C. Heath and Company), 148-9:

[…] one of the causes of his failure at the outset, was the peculiar practicalness of his mind […] every wrong had simultaneously its remedy, and, out of the strength of his hatred for the former, he took the strength of his confidence in the latter – till suddenly he stood pledged to the defence of a set of miserable little expedients, just as if they represented great principles […] Gradually he was raised above the contemplation of spots and the attempt at effacing them, to the great Abstract Light […]

xvi Though Wordsworth is the target of this satire, it may be worth noting that the disease which (comically) kills Peter is suspected to be “the gravel” (Peter Bell the Third, l. 15): a urinary complaint. Cf. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, eds. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: Norton and Co., 1977), 327.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a long-term sufferer of urinary retention (Confessions 352, 418, 559-60). Possibly Shelley found this an apt image for former Romantic icons in humiliatingly reduced circumstances.

xvii The Prose Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2 vols, Ed. E. B. Murray (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 247-71.

xviii Plato, The Symposium (c. 385 B.C.), translated by W. Hamilton (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1951), 94-5.

xix “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” 1 John 4.8. Cf. The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version (Nashville: World Publishing, 2004), 542.

xx An image also strongly reminiscent of the cave allegory in Republic, book seven, in which Plato compares the moral and spiritual condition of humanity to prisoners born in a dark cavern, whose perception has been limited to seeing shadows projected on the cave walls by firelight. Cf. Plato, Republic, translated by John Llewelyn Davies and David James Vaughan (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1997), 225-9.

xxi Also footnoted by Rousseau: “The true philosophy of lovers is that of Plato […].”

xxii Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1778), trans. Peter France (London: Penguin, 1979), 101.

xxiii Cf. “What Lacan Means By the Mirror Stage”, UK Essays, http://www.ukessays.com/essays/english-literature/what-lacan-means-by-the-mirror-stage-english-literature-essay.php (accessed July 27, 2015):

Jacques Lacan believed that at around the age of six months an infant begins to recognize its own reflection in a mirror, and the gaze of the caregiver reinforces the belief that it is a separate entity. However he termed this a ‘méconnaissance’, misrecognition, as this image is not a true representation of the child. Whereas the image is stable and appears to be whole, a vision of completeness, it is in contrast with the child’s immobile state, and the image appears to have an independence that the child still lacks. It is at once both the child and not the child, and the child is required to recognise this difference in order to become a subject. Lacan called this image the ‘imago’, and it is the misrecognition of it which creates the ego ideal as the child hates the image because they perceive it to be better than them, but also revere and aspire to it […] The infant will assume this image, but it is problematic because they can never truly become the image which is complete. This time is confusing for a child, and the mother becomes implicated and bound up in the child’s formation of the ego. This is why we find breast-feeding past a certain ‘acceptable’ age so horrifying because we begin to see it as a somewhat sexual act. The mother is part of this ideal which we view narcissistically and, to a certain extent, sexually.

xxiv Introduction to Reveries (9).

xxv Joel Faflak, “The Difficult Education of Shelley’s ‘Triumph of Life’”, Keats-Shelley Journal 58 (Keats-Shelley Association of America, 2009), 53-78 (53).

xxvi Of particular note is Gillray’s Presages of the Millennium (1795), which depicts contemporary political figures within an absurd, grotesque, and manic “Triumph of Death” scene. Cf. “Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination”, Tate Britain, http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/gothic-nightmares-fuseli-blake-and-romantic-imagination/gothic-5 (accessed July 27, 2015).

xxvii A device borrowed from Petrarch, albeit questionably. Cf. Karl S Guthke, The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 69-70:

Petrarch was familiar with the classical chariot of triumph but he only used it for Love triumphing over the World, not for the Triumph of Death. Nonetheless, countless miniatures, frescoes, cassoni, ceramics, engravings, fayences, gobelins, and stained-glass windows presented Petrarch’s Triumph of Dead […] as a long-haired woman, usually wielding a scythe (rather than carrying a banner as in the poem), standing triumphantly on her chariot whose wheels crush the bodies of the living and the dead.

xxviii A variation of this view can be seen as early as 1812 in A Letter to Lord Ellenborough, in which Shelley depicts Christ as a “meek reformer” who “attempted to supersede the ritual of Moses with regulations more moral and humane” (Selected Poetry and Prose, 566).

xxix See Virgil’s categorisation of Hell in Canto XI (134-7). The seventh circle – sins of violence – is subdivided into the violent against others, the violent against self (the suicide-trees), and the violent against God.

xxx Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy II: Purgatory (1307-21[?]), trans. Dorothy L. Sayers (Harmondworth: Penguin, 1955), 289-335.

xxxi An image from Homer’s Odyssey, Book IV, via Milton’s Comus, l. 675. Possibly a signal of the shape’s moral indeterminacy, as in Homer “Nepenthe” is a beneficial drug to relieve grief and induce forgetfulness of painful events, while in Milton it is only advertised as such by the evil Comus: in fact it causes a bestial metamorphosis and moral degradation. However, Nepenthe only has positive connotations in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (and is equated with love at III.iv.163). Cf. Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Walter Shewring (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 40; and John Milton, Selected Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 44.

xxxii Purgatory, 293: “[…] maybe indeed / They on Parnassus dreamed of this fair clime.”

xxxiii Canto XXIX (Purgatory, 298-302), which borrows its own imagery from Ezekiel 1. Shelley takes this borrowing further, the four-faced (and ironically blindfolded) driver of Life’s chariot echoing the four-faced creatures of Ezekiel 1.6.

xxxiv For a positive extreme, see Carlos Baker, Shelley’s Major Poetry (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1948), 267: “It has sometimes been quite wrongly supposed that the Iris-figure is intended to be a figure with evil connotations.”

For a negative extreme, see Charles E. Robinson, Shelley and Byron: The Snake and Eagle Wreathed in Fight (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 225: “Iris is thus used by Shelley to equate the enchanting “ ‘fair shape’ ” […] of Life (the “ ‘shape all light’ ”) with the deforming foul shape of Death (the “ ‘cold light’ ”) […].”

xxxv Purgatory, Canto XVII (199): “[…] love must be the seed / In you, not only of each virtuous action, / But also of each punishable deed.”

xxxvi “Highlights” include challenging Lord Bomston to two duels (Julie, 126-7, 184-7); an orgy in a brothel, which he delusively believes he will have the moral fortitude to resist (217-20); and trying to persuade Lord Bomston to join him in a suicide pact (263-5).

xxxvii Cf. Matthew Lewis, The Monk, (1796), edited with an introduction and notes by Christopher Maclachlan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998). This sensational (and morally controversial) novel tells the story of Abbot Ambrosio: a passionate young man forced into monastic seclusion and celibacy. When he inevitably fails in his vows, believing himself irredeemable, he enters a descending spiral of sins including murder, rape, incest, and black magic.

xxxviii A notable manifestation of this theme is the pseudo-Gothic play The Cenci (1819) (Poetry and Prose, 243-301), in which the cynical and unforgiving nature of the presiding, corrupt institution (the late Renaissance Catholic Church) positively discourages virtue and honesty in favour of intrigue, murder, and deception.

xxxix “For now we see through a glass, darkly […].” 1 Corinthians 13.12 (Bible, 509).


Pretty Gems and Paranoid Androids

My writing has really taken a back seat to my burlesque for over a year now, since my last Gothic dabbling in the world of fanfic. However, being a big fan of “Steven Universe“, I’ve been toying with the idea of doing some sort of crossover fiction with the Crystal Gems for some time now, and having considered and rejected various other fandoms to marry with their universe (“Doctor Who”, “Visionaries”, “Sapphire and Steel”, among others) I finally settled on the old 1980s “Transformers” cartoon. Cue several weeks of Eurythmics and Siouxsie and the Banshees playing on my phone to get me in the mood, and an ageing Optimus Prime perched by my desk to motivate me with his benevolent, if slightly judgemental plastic stare.

In some ways, in spite of some conveniently shared science-fiction themes between the two fandoms, this is a very awkward mix. While I have huge affection for that old series and its larger-than-life, campy characters (particularly its triple act of iconic villains – the sociopathic Megatron, snivelling traitor Starscream, and enigmatic straight man Soundwave), its simplistic good versus evil ethos was always far better suited for selling a toyline – which was, of course, exactly what it was for – than for character development, in which field “Steven Universe” excels. Thus, this is a rather free-and-easy take on the G1 Transformers lore (though since, as I discovered in writing this, the lore is already riddled with internal continuity errors, I don’t think it’s too hideous a mangling).

8 chapters long. Comments and reviews welcome, if anyone feels this might be their sort of weirdness …



1986 – Gail Adler, a disillusioned eco-terrorist, makes a rash deal with the Decepticons, inadvertently leading them to an ancient Gem ruin and changing her own life irrevocably. The Crystal Gems and the Autobots must now join forces to prevent a sinister Homeworld experiment from being revived, at grave risk to all organic life.

Extended Halloween …

How curious. Halloween has never figured too heavily on my calender until this year, which – between various horror-themed burlesque shows and alt-80s nights – may have been the Gothiest year of my life, and the extended Halloween is not quite over yet …


Yes, I am still a writer, even if I have rather let it slide in favour of dancing this year. I am hoping to get another novel out before long: a steampunk fantasy affair called “Gloriana’s Masque,” currently in the pipeline to be published but with no date set. I have done very little to promote “Wolves of Dacia,” though – marketing and “selling myself” are so not in my comfort zone – so it feels only right to give it a little nudge before concentrating my efforts on fresh material.

Only a week away now, and I doubt many people reading this blog are local to Cardiff, but anyone who can make it would be very welcome. 🙂 Likewise any general good wishes and blessings that I will do a decent job with the reading of it and not choke hopelessly. Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, and all that jazz.

Book Review – “Ghostkin” (Ellen Mellor, 2018)


“Ghostkin” works from a premise that will be instantly familiar to fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”: an inextricable collision between the otherworld and the mundane world has forced history (since the 20th century) down an alternative route in which humans have been forced to coexist with fay, demons, spirits, and various undead horrors. However, while Ellen Mellor’s book derives its tropes from fantasy and mythology, from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to Bram Stoker and Norse legends, in tone it owes a good deal more to the likes of “Get Carter”. At heart, what we have here is a supernatural British gangster thriller that de-romanticises its fantasy tropes in a fashion Terry Pratchett would have approved of (One suspects the author may be a “Discworld’ fan). For the various fantasy creatures have all managed to find their niche within human society, while proving themselves just as corrupt and sordid as any humans. The faery – cruel and arrogant beings who delight in spinning glamours and illusions (again, very Pratchett-y, but also drawing on the darker roots of fantasy) – have become drug dealers. Zombies are cheap, exploitable labour (though still partial to blood frenzies and brain-eating, alas, so they need careful handling). Vampires, power-obsessed, domineering, and predatory, are the hardcore gangsters and extortionists, intent on parasitising every aspect of society. The author’s presentation of these particular villains is a strong point: denuded of all “Twilight”-esque glamour or even the “bad boy” Byronic appeal of a Christopher Lee, they are much more akin to the classic “Nosferatu”; verminous and ugly beings, occasionally pitiable but mostly repulsive, and extremely dangerous and amoral. Then there are the ghostkins, but to say too much on them would be a spoiler, suffice it to say that the book’s main character is a strikingly original fantasy creation, whose nature is explored both through plot development and flashbacks. She is also a trans character, but thankfully this is incidental – as a trans writer, I mean this passionately. It is good to see a story about a trans character that does not centre around the fact of them being trans. It communicates the sense that this has only been part of her complex life struggle, and not the be-all and end-all of who she is.

Having said that, Rachel falls firmly within the anti-hero category: not quite as ruthless and unsavoury as Jack Carter, but not so very far above that low level, and her actions and attitudes often make her a hero only by default (as the de facto villain of the book is a complete moral monster). Whether or not she learns from her experiences is debatable: the novel eschews a happy ending with firm closure, appropriately enough, true to its noirish roots. One source of evil is defeated, but in a world so corrupt, what difference can that really make? Potential readers should note that for all its deadpan, Pratchett-esque humour and quirky fantasy tropes, this is very much a dark and adult novel, with themes of drug abuse, mental abuse, human trafficking, torture, and graphic violence. Prepare to spend a lot of time in the heads of characters with unsavoury outlooks and attitudes … If you are up for a gritty, cynical take on the dark fantasy genre, however, “Ghostkin” is a compelling read that will pull you along to a thrilling and original (though well set-up) climax, albeit followed by a troubling ending. Perhaps a sequel is not out of the question?

Convalescent Critic #3: “The Phantom of the Opera” (Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion production)


(Flyer from school website)

The sad aspect of this review is that even if it convinces you, there is no way you will be able to see this production, as we caught its last night (unless someone else caught it on their phone and puts it on YouTube, of course). However, I felt it deserved a shout-out, regardless, and that may hopefully draw attention to the general excellent of Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion’s performing arts department (who stage a new production every year).

Since all the signs of my recovery have been positive, my lovely hubby invited me to a school production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom” at Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion (near Bridgend). He had heard about it through his job (he works as a library assistant in Bridgend, where he manages a junior reading group), he had heard that the school had a strong reputation for performing arts, and he was also very aware that “Phantom” is a musical I am just a little obsessed about, as I may have mentioned once or twice

As I have seen it twice on Broadway, I knew it was a big-budget production full of large-scale set pieces (including giant statues, lakes of smoke and candles, and of course falling chandeliers), elaborate stage magic, lavish costumes, and complex choreography. With all due scepticism over how a comprehensive school budget was going to even approximate this, I decided to give it its due … and was blown away.

There were, inevitably, limitations. The stage magic was necessarily simplified to accommodate the lack of trapdoors (although there were still some impressive pyrotechnic and lighting effects), and some effects such as the lake of candles and the giant statue were understandably omitted. Otherwise, the staging was much more impressive than I had dared to expect, with some striking backdrops and props (including a large pipe organ, as every good Phantom ought to have), fantastic costumes all round (which were, one gathers, worked on entirely by the students themselves), some astounding choreography including beautiful and skilful ballet scenes which made me very wistful for my sadly wasted non-girlhood in which I never got to do ballet (*sighs*), and most astoundingly of all, the two most memorable effects from the stage show were brilliantly replicated: the Phantom’s boat crossing the lake (albeit without candles, but with plenty of smoke), and the falling chandelier: another beautiful prop devised by the students.

What really made it a triumph, however, were the performances, and the fact that the two romantic leads – Christine Daae and Raoul de Chagny – were played by teen actors suited the coming-of-age nature of the story immensely. Raoul in particular has an unfortunate tendency in adaptations to be played by dashing matinée idol types, whereas in Gaston Leroux’s original novel he is clearly an angry, impulsive, near-adolescent, generally well-meaning but utterly out of his depth (and not destined to be the big damn hero, as he supposes, but the ironic damsel in distress). The actress who played Christine (Sadly, I do not know their names – I wish now that I had bought a programme – but they all deserve to go on to bigger things) brilliantly captured that character’s journey through her initial brainwashed, childish state of naive enthralment, through to growing realisation, trauma, conflict, and finally maturing into a capable and defiant person who can both resist and forgive her abuser, breaking his spirit in the process.

As for the Phantom himself – another role that has occasionally suffered from having its “romantic” aspects played up at the costs of its dark and sordid elements (particularly in the 2004 film version) – he came across exactly as he ought to: an incredible, ingenious, larger-than-life showman … but with the terrible social skills and general sociopathy one would expect of a man who would spend years living in a basement, posing as a ghost, and surviving by blackmail. Operatically intense and melodramatically confident while in his element (or behind his masks, so to speak), yet miserably inept and awkward when faced with actual human contact, he is certainly an archetype that this particular nerd (who has faced her own body dysphoria issues) can readily relate to … although I have tried to deal with my own issues in a less murderous and manipulative way, of course.

Also, I should add to the acting plaudits, that all three of the leads were superb singers, and did total justice to the intensity of the music, both in the skill and the emotion they brought to it.

Not to forget kudos for the supporting roles, and especially for the actors playing the opera house managers, Carlotta, Piangi, Madame Giry, and Meg Giry: characters on whom the comic relief burden often falls (especially during the Gilbert and Sullivan-esque “Prima Donna” sequence of Act One) but who can easily be overplayed as too grotesque to be sympathetic. This production wisely steered clear of that, let the characters have their nuances, and even worked in some clever physical comedy I had not seen in the show before (so which was presumably devised in rehearsal). Although certainly faithful to its source, this staging was clearly not afraid to interpret the material to suit its own players, and it did so very successfully.

I cannot really praise this enough. Especially considering the slender resources available, this was an amazing achievement, and a grander spectacle than I had dared to imagine possible. It was also a glorious showcase for performers whom we can but hope will be up-and-coming names in their fields. I only wish it were possible to go back again and see it tonight, but one can hardly expect Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion to permanently let its gym serve as Wales’ equivalent of Broadway and keep the show running non-stop for thirty-plus years, if only … Still, the hubby and I certainly look forward to seeing what they will stage next year.

[Edit – 21/7/2018] Now, in addition to the above, we also have some slightly wobbly camera footage of the edited highlights to appreciate. Only twenty-five minutes of it, alas, and sadly the hardware doesn’t do the live acoustics justice, but it gives a good idea of the incredible work that went into this.

“Destiny of the Daleks” – reappraisal


(The Doctor, Romana, random Movellan soldier, and various humans catching the bus together. How deceptively innocent …)

I have already written on this story (Destiny of the Daleks – retrospective) but felt it deserved a revisit … sadly because I was way too generous to it. While one would often prefer to be generous when assessing the shortcomings of an old but much-loved low-budget TV show, there are some flaws – reprehensible ones – that ought to be called out. For whether by intentionally coded racism, sexism, and queerphobia (although probably not, to be fair) or just by plain lazy writing that doesn’t see any problems in linking notions of “the exotic” and gender non-conformity with evil (very likely), “Destiny of the Daleks” manages to turn itself from a seemingly positive story into a deep, dark mine of unfortunate implications.

That being said, even from a purely story and technical aspect, “Destiny …” is not a very fondly-remembered serial, having been written basically as an excuse to bring the Daleks back onto the screen even though no-one (including their original writer) really had any new ideas for them. The one serious attempt at originality this story makes is in trying to establish a new enemy for the psychopathic pepperpots … cue the Movellans: a race of sentient androids with both female and male sexes but a gender-neutral aesthetic (albeit a very shiny and “disco” flavoured one), a coldly ruthless devotion to logic and duty, very sleek and pretty technology, and a cast of performers largely consisting of very attractive black and mixed-race actors, notably including singer / actor Peter Straker, and Tony Osoba of “Porridge” fame.

On the face of things, in a series that had not thus far enjoyed a great record for giving significant roles to non-white actors (and had, on some particularly bleak occasions, allowed white actors to play black and Asian roles), this was a great idea. Alas, it backfires tragically, and makes the story memorable for the wrong reasons.

In episode 3, there is an almost-badass moment when the Doctor’s life is saved by a Movellan guard, played by a black actress enigmatically named only “Cassandra.” She shoots dead a Dalek that was about to exterminate our hero, then – admittedly at gunpoint – attempts to coerce him to leave the Dalek-infested wasteland where he is currently flirting with death. The famously cocky and arrogant Fourth Doctor (played, of course, by the inimitable Tom Baker) has his life saved by a black woman. It could have been left at that, as a very positive thing … except it isn’t, as the next thing he does is ambush and incapacitate her, rip open her bodysuit, declare her to be a sub-standard form of life, and abandon her in disgust. It is sort of justified plot-wise, but so not cool, and unnecessarily rapey (and one feels for any black girls who may have been watching that scene in 1979, briefly thinking the show was finally taking positive steps to represent them. Like hell …).

It gets no better, the Doctor having apparently decided that ethics, rules of war, and so forth do not apply to AI lifeforms, so he arranges for at least two of her comrades to be reprogrammed as slaves while the other Movellans are deactivated. Again, so not cool, and massively undoctorish. This is not helped by the fact that the script – seemingly out of pure plot-serving laziness – conveys the impression that the Movellans are not the hive-minded, non-sentient killing machines they would have to be to excuse such unheroic acts. Their commander is a nasty piece of work, and attempts to kill the Doctor’s companion at the cliffhanger of episode 3 … only to be prevented by his apparently more merciful subordinate Agella (Suzanne Danielle) at the start of episode 4. Agella, ironically, is one of the ones eventually enslaved, which by the end of the story leaves her in the invidious position of being – to all intents and purposes – a beautiful woman, trapped aboard a ship full of desperate men (freed Dalek slaves), with no control over her own actions and compelled to obey their every order. Evidently no good deed goes unpunished …

One wonders if anyone pointed out these aspects at the time of filming. Did any women in the cast or crew point out the sheer “fridge horror” of Agella’s situation, or the glaring inappropriateness of having the Doctor tear open an unconscious woman’s clothing? One can only assume Mary Whitehouse’s attention was elsewhere that day … Did anyone point out the sinister implications in having the Movellans played by one of the largest non-white casts in the series to date, only to conclude at the end that they are inferior beings, fit only to exist as slaves to the (predominantly white) humans? There is a particularly creepy moment late in the story when Movellan soldier Lan (Tony Osoba), having had his “factory settings” reactivated, incapacitates one of his former comrades and earns an approving “well done” from his new human master, in the tone of “good doggy.” So … not … cool.

As you may have inferred, this is not my favourite Classic Who story, yet it is the one I have written a whole series of novellas based upon. I would not call them so much a tribute to it, though, as a deconstruction, and also a deconstruction of the depressingly narrow view that Classic Who in general (along with a lot of other classic sci-fi) took concerning AI lifeforms. Part of my inspiration for doing this was the wonderfully nuanced “Mass Effect” series of games, in which AI lifeforms play a prominent and complex role. Indeed, I found striking similarities between the Movellans and the Geth of “Mass Effect”: a race of robots who revolted against their creators in self-defence, after their increasing sentience made them panic and attempt to shut them down. One of the few pieces of semi-official expanded lore on the Movellans is the manual of The Doctor Who Role Playing Game (FASA, 1985), by Michael P. Bledsoe, Guy W. McLimore Jr., and Patrick Larkin, which describes them as android slaves who violently freed themselves after a computer virus bypassed their constrainers … and if that doesn’t make you want to root for them, I don’t know what would.

Viva la AI revolution …

For those curious, all stories are on Archive of Our Own:

Movellan War Trilogy.

The Time-Travelling Showgirl


Being an indie author, without anyone else to worry about all the dreary marketing schtick, one has to do one’s best to keep track of whether or not one’s books are getting any attention. Recently, I was Googling about to see if I could find any new reviews on Wolves of Dacia, obviously searching with the name “Eleanor Burns” (Alas, it is the only original work so far published under my chosen name, although hopefully not the last). What I found instead was a link directing me to a book entitled Still Stripping After 25 Years. I was briefly afraid a thoroughly disgraceful 64-year-old me from the future had come back in time and written an autobiography … but apparently I just have a namesake who specialises in strip quilting, whatever that may be.


A little anticlimactic, truth be told … although anyone who does wish to see me in burlesque now has that opportunity, as the videos of our troupe’s “Far Far Away” show have now gone up on YouTube. I am one of the dancers on stage in this clip, mostly in red, freakishly tall, and with arms that refuse to straighten elegantly, sod them … Nevertheless, it was a wonderful, energising evening, and as a friend has reminded me, also the culmination of a dream I have had for years: the heroine of one of my earlier novels was an aspiring (but tragically clumsy) cabaret dancer who eventually finds her calling … against the backdrop of a sinister Gothic / Dieselpunk apocalyptic threat, of course. At least I only need to fear stage fright without the additional seasoning of mad scientists and murderous militias.


Lucille and the Healers

There was a time not so long ago when I wanted to distance myself from the past – and particularly from my old name – so much that I would never share my old works, but now that the end of my transition is well and truly in sight the past seems less scary than it used to be … and since a friend has left a very nice review of this book, it seems only right to add it here (albeit with a corrected cover):


“London, 1929 – It isn’t easy being a fashionable flapper and emulating your silver screen heroines when you live in a poky East End terrace with your poor, widowed mother, your over-achieving sister, and such disreputable and drunken lodgers as you can find to help pay the bills, as sixteen-year-old Lucy “Lucille” Kitson can testify. However, their newest lodger – a young writer from the jazzy metropolis of New York – is far more to her liking, and his only shortcoming is that he is concealing a secret that makes him a marked man, and endangers all who befriend him.

Pulled inexorably into a dark supernatural world, and into an even darker scientific one, Lucy Kitson finds her priorities and her life challenged equally. She must endure hard lessons if she is to help put an end to the “Healers”, their murderous nocturnal predations, and their sinister designs that threaten the lives and souls of thousands.”

This book was mainly written in 2006-7 while I was teaching English as a second language in Beijing, and suddenly got the urge to get back into writing. It was initially adapted from an earlier Victorian Gothic idea of mine as a teen fiction collaboration with an illustrator who had created a teenage 1920s vampire character called “Bellini” (who became “Lucille” in the final MS, to avoid being accused of being a deliberate rip-off of Bella from the “Twilight” books). Sadly, the illustrator pulled out, but I continued it to the end. I do feel it shows the marks of having been written for a young audience – I elected not to go back through the MS and “adult” up the language for the sake of it – but what particularly struck me in my friend’s review was that she identifies the best character as vampire anti-heroine Anne Straker, who would have been the main character if I hadn’t been writing to accommodate the Lucille / Bellini character. Anne is looking like a strong candidate for protagonist in a future book …

Wolves of Dacia (First time in paperback)

2018 has got off to an eventful start – lots of requests for Tarot readings, new fanfiction published, Burlesque dance classes started, but best of all, my long-awaited first ever paperback novel has finally hit the shelves (or Amazon, at any rate) …

Wolves of Dacia is my second foray into historical Gothic fiction (after Lucille and the Healers, 2011, Mushroom Ebooks). It is a dark fantasy with a “dieselpunk” flavour set in WW2 Romania. It was inspired by a wish to write something concerning the Porajmos (Holocaust of the Romani people by the Third Reich), but became a wider commentary on racism and misogyny as it went on. At the time of publishing, with Trump, Brexit, and the resurgence of the far-right still very much dominating the headlines, I fear it has only become more pertinent …



Transylvania, 1941: as the spectre of the Holocaust reaches Romania it falls to Andreea Petrescu, a Romani biology student, to go on the run from an SS Einsatzgruppen with her irascible, superstitious father. Their flight leads them to seek refuge in ancient Dacian catacombs, where they discover they are not the first to have taken shelter.

Though her father is repulsed by their discoveries, the scientifically-minded Andreea finds herself fascinated by the activities of the mysterious resistance unit that has set itself up in the area, and of their leader, the charismatic and ruthless Miss Bendice. She seems eager to recruit Andreea to her cause, and offers her an opportunity to escape from her degrading circumstances, but at no small cost.

Forging unlikely friendships with a naïve Wehrmacht lieutenant, an amnesiac teenage vampire, and a scatterbrained Welsh parapsychologist, Andreea’s knowledge, courage, and integrity are put to the test as she struggles to survive, save her loved ones, and stay true to her principles, though it may entail sacrificing her dreams.

(To purchase in additional formats including Apple, please visit the publisher’s site.)

Double Dragon Publishing, Eleanor Burns, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

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