In our previous post, Veronica Goosey asked what place cleverness or scholarly play had in academic writing. As my title indicates, I have decided that play should have a more prominent role in my scholarly endeavors.
This post picks up issues of scholarly practice and continues the blog’s larger discussion of media by examining Percy Shelley’s Julian and Maddalo.
The central philosophic debate and its interruption by the figure of the maniac in Shelley’s poem have been the topics of much scholarly commentary. Raymond D. Havens argues that the argument is indeed forgotten and “although the poem continues for a hundred lines after the madman has ceased to speak,” there is “no word concerning the subject of discussion” (649). Charles Robinson claims that the poem displays the poets’ contrasting views regarding the human condition but does not pick a winner. I want to suggest that a close examination of the physical spaces of the poem alters how we are to adjudicate the central debate. The fatalistic Count Maddalo believes that the madhouse functions as a symbol of humanity’s fate. In order to assist the maniac, Maddalo offers gifts that attempt to recreate his own gentlemanly estate. Maddalo provides the maniac with the trappings of a gentleman in the hopes that he will be able to participate in gentlemanly discourse. Julian, on the other hand, offers the maniac something quite different. The narrative account of the maniac captures the madman’s words, allows them to circulate to a wider audience, and provides a type of textual liberation. I hope to show that the maniac’s interruption in Julian and Maddalo should be read as cautionary tale for poets like Maddalo/Byron.
Maddalo’s description of the madhouse plays a crucial role in understanding the central debate regarding free will and freedom in general. Looking out on the madhouse and its tolling belfry, Maddalo says, “And such . . . is our mortality / And this must be the emblem and the sign / Of what should be eternal and divine” (l. 120-122). As Robinson accurately points out, these lines echo Byron’s famous 1816 poem Prometheus. In Byron’s work, Prometheus the demigod functions as an “emblem.” Byron’s speaker calls Prometheus “a symbol and a sign / To Mortals of their fate and force; / Like thee, Man is in part divine, / A troubled stream from a pure source” (l. 45-48). Here, the concept of a divine and predetermined “fate” is at odds with the “force” that mortals possess. In Byron’s poem, Jupiter punishes Prometheus for taking knowledge to Earth and for refusing to tell him the secret of his downfall. The demigod emerges as a powerful representative of fallen mankind because he clings to his mortal “force,” his will. Byron’s speaker closes by claiming that the will can endure torture and never can be killed. Ultimately, the will becomes “Its own concenter’d recompense, / Triumphant where it dares defy, / And making Death a Victory” (l. 57-59). Despite being chained to a rock and tortured, Prometheus’s unwillingness to concede to the demands of Jupiter makes even “Death a Victory.” In Shelley’s poem, Maddalo projects the description of Prometheus onto the madhouse. It is important to recognize that his description comes before the reader has been introduced to the figure of the maniac. Therefore, there is not yet a representative for the madhouse. Instead, the characteristics of Prometheus are part of a particular space. Like the chains that bind Prometheus to the rock, the madhouse and its walls, for Maddalo, represent the “fate” of those who exert their mortal “force.”
The projection of Promethean features onto the madhouse alters the manner in which we should read Maddalo’s gifts to the maniac. Maddalo believes that a change in environment has the potential to improve the maniac. According to Kelvin Everest, “Maddalo attempts to alleviate the maniac’s suffering by creating the illusion of a gentlemanly normality” (682). By providing the maniac with the accoutrements of a gentleman, Maddalo hopes to foster the maniac’s inner gentility: “I fitted up for him / Those rooms beside the sea, to please his whim, / And sent him busts and books and urns for flowers” (252-254). The “busts,” “books,” and “urns for flowers,” can help the maniac enter into the type of gentlemanly discourse that Maddalo and Julian represent. In actuality, however, the gifts seem to allow the maniac to play the part of a Byronic hero. Julian and Maddalo first encounter the maniac “sitting mournfully / Near a piano” in his room that overlooks the sea (l. 273-274). Further more, when the maniac starts to speak to himself, Julian claims that “his words came each / Unmodulated, cold, expressionless; / But that from one jarred accent you might guess / It was despair that made them so uniform” (l. 291-294). As the wind howls and a “gusty storm / Hissed through the window,” the maniac’s words acquire a type of uniformity thanks to his “despair” (l. 295-296). Despite the kindness of Maddalo’s gifts, nothing that he offers removes the maniac from the “emblem and the sign” of man’s degraded condition. Rather, Maddalo’s gifts help the maniac better play the part of the brooding and isolated Byronic hero.
If Maddalo gives the maniac the furnishings of a gentleman, what then does Julian offer the slighted lover? Julian’s gift to the maniac is a bit more difficult to locate. I want to suggest that Julian offers the poem itself, thus enabling the maniac’s words to circulate and reach new audiences. In other words, while Maddalo offers material objects to alter a problematic space, Julian’s narrative offers a type of figurative liberation. According to Everest, “The maniac has two audiences in the poem; the absent ex-lover that his speech is addressed to, and the unseen Julian and Maddalo who overhear him” (681). Julian and Maddalo the poem, on the other hand, has the potential to reach a much wider audience. Publication of the poem also undoes some of the maniac’s melancholic proclamations. The maniac can no longer speak his soliloquies or “hide” beneath “words like embers” (l. 503-504). Instead, his story circulates beyond the confines of the emblematic madhouse and functions as a type of cautionary tale. But who, then, is the target audience for Shelley’s words of warning? Interestingly, the largest clue comes from Maddalo. It is Maddalo who provides the concluding summation of the encounter with the maniac. After returning home, Maddalo says, “Most wretched men / Are cradled into poetry by wrong, / They learn in suffering what they teach in song” (l. 544-546). Maddalo seems to be describing a poet who, at least in part, resembles Byron. A poet who would compose a work that, like Prometheus, treats fate and the human will as competing forces and imagines confinement as fallen mankind’s inevitable lot. The maniac exhibits traits and inhabits a space that better reflect Maddalo’s situation than that of Julian.
Julian’s pledge to discover himself by studying Maddalo seems to collapse the two figures together and challenge the suggestion that the maniac’s story is a warning to poets like Maddalo/Byron. Everest argues that Julian chooses to “aspire” to “the life of Maddalo” rather than the life of the maniac (683). However, Julian’s final decision is not a simple binary with the maniac and Maddalo providing two different ways of proceeding. Before he makes his pledge to find himself in his friend, Julian imagines himself staying in Venice because “books are there, / Pictures, and casts from all those statues fair” (l. 554-555). It is important to recognize that this list of items is similar to the gentlemanly gifts that Maddalo gives to the maniac. Julian goes on to picture himself sitting alongside Maddalo in his “great palace” (l. 559). Julian does not simply want to emulate Maddalo but rather learn his ways in order to “reclaim him from his dark estate” (my emphasis, l. 574). In other words, Julian wants to remove Maddalo from the type of environment that he currently occupies. He believes that his presence and conversation have the potential bring about some change and “reclaim” Maddalo from his “dark estate.”
Maddalo offers gentlemanly gifts that simply recapitulate his own situation. While the markers of gentlemanly status help spruce up the maniac’s environment, they do not remove him from the confines of the madhouse. Julian, in contrast, creates a poem that allows the maniac’s words to escape the walls of the asylum. The poem transforms the maniac’s soliloquies into poetry and allows his words to circulate to a much wider audience. The absent ex-lover and the hidden Julian and Maddalo are not the only ones who are able to hear his woeful words. Julian sees the maniac’s story not as a warning against his own theories, but an exaggerated endpoint of Maddalo’s fatalism. Ultimately, Julian seeks to liberate both the maniac and Maddalo from the confines of their respective situations.
Everest, Kelvin. “Shelley’s Doubles: An Approach to Julian and Maddalo.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman & Neil Fraistat. New York: Norton, 2002. p. 675-683.
Havens, Raymond D. “Julian and Maddalo.” Studies in Philology 27.4 (Oct. 1930), 648-653.
Lord Byron. Lord Byron: The Major Works. Ed. Jerome McGann. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986.
Robinson, Charles. Shelley and Byron: The Snake and Eagle Wreathed in Fight. Baltimore: The John Hopkins UP, 1976.
Shelley, Percy. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman & Neil Fraistat. New York: Norton, 2002.
R. A. Sessler