Contextual Enhancement of Shelley’s Julian and Maddalo
by Brandy Anderson
Percy Bysshe Shelley is a uniquely personal poet, he inserts autobiographical information into many of his poems, perhaps most obviously in Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation. Although many other poets sometimes employ personal details into their work, none seem to do it as often as Shelley, which makes it exceedingly useful to possess a context of Shelley’s life and a historical knowledge of the era in which he lived. Julian and Maddalo is an exemplar of how gaining contextual understanding can greatly assist in gathering a more holistic understanding because this poem is so deeply rooted in the poet’s personal philosophy, ideologies, and his hopes, and fears, for the future of humanity.
In a letter to his good friend Leigh Hunt, Shelley describes Julian and Maddalo as a ‘conversation’ between “two characters you will recognize” with Maddalo standing in as Lord Byron and Julian as himself. 1 Although the reader can have a surface understanding of the poem without an intimate understanding of Byron’s and Shelley’s background, the reading is most certainly enhanced by the reader possessing prior knowledge of both poets’ lives, most particularly Shelley’s. Written in a manner Shelley calls “a certain familiar style of language to express the actual way in which people talk with each other, whom education and a certain refinement of sentiment have placed above the use of idioms”; he goes on to clarify his use of ‘vulgarity, claiming, “the vulgarity of rank and fashion is as gross in its way as that of poverty, and its cant terms equally expressive of base conceptions, and, therefore, equally unfit for poetry”. 2
This conversational approach greatly adds to the intimacy of this narrative poem. When read aloud, it does indeed sound as if it is an actual conversation between these two intellectual friends. Employing this contextual format of a poetical conversation completely changes the look and sound of the poem. It transforms what would otherwise be a standard verse into an enthusiastic outpouring of information and ideas between two educated philosophical thinkers, giving the reader open access to this religious and existential debate. By writing Julian and Maddalo in this way, Shelley offers the reader a more interactive engagement with his words.
In addiction to the dialectal technique, Shelley employs an abundance of caesurae and enjambment in Julian and Maddalo which adds to the tense and fragmented subject, while also adding a more realistic feel to the conversation between the two friends. The ebb and flow of the poem mirrors both the subject and dialogue itself and Shelley masterfully switches from a slow, churning stride in the beginning before he quickens the pace to its utmost fervor during Julian’s and Maddalo’s meeting with the Maniac. Shelley uses both phonological and grammatical inconicity throughout the poem to evoke particular emotions from the reader, emotions to match the various moods of introspection, proposition, and the evocative lament as mourned by the Maniac.
However, more than phonological and grammatical inconicity, Shelley employs grammetrical iconicity most of all. His liberal use of enjambment adds to the double syntax throughout the narrative. An example of this is when the Maniac moans:
Dazzling my eyes with scalding tears; my sight
Is dim to see that charactered in vain
On this unfeeling leaf, which burns the brain
And eats into it, blotting all things fair
And wise and good which time had written there. 3
The double syntax causes the reader to not only reassess his or her initial interpretation of the lines, but it also adds unease to the disjointed and confused ramblings wailed by the heart broken Maniac. This format heightens the frantic mood of the Maniac’s stanzas but it also works to evoke the languid, calmer atmosphere during Julian’s and Maddalo’s conversation in the opening of the poem:
I rode one evening with Count Maddalo
Upon the bank of land which breaks the flow
Of Adria towards Venice. A bare strand
Of hillocks, heaped from ever-shifting sand,
Matted with thistles and amphibious weeds,
Such as from earth’s embrace the salt ooze breeds,
Is this; an uninhabited sea-side 4
Shelley states in his preface of the poem that “Count Maddalo is a Venetian nobleman of ancient family and of great fortune, who, without mixing much in the society of his countrymen, resides chiefly at his magnificent palace in the city” and that “he is a person of the most consummate genius, and capable, if he would direct his energies to such an end, of becoming the redeemer of his degraded country”. 5 This, of course, is Shelley’s somewhat idealized view of Lord Byron, the sixth baron in his aristocratic family, who left his native country of England amid societal scandal, making him one of England’s most infamous ex-patriots to live in “Thou Paradise of exiles, Italy!” . 6 7
Shelley goes on to describe Maddalo, ie Byron, as being a genius who “derives, from a comparison of his own extraordinary mind with the dwarfish intellects that surround him, an intense apprehension of the nothingness of human life”. 8 This characterization is crucial to the story because Maddalo’s cynicism regarding the power of humanity to better itself is a direct foil against Julian’s optimistic hope that humanity can indeed elevate itself into becoming a better and more peaceful society. Having the historical context of who the two protagonists are based on is key to deriving a greater understanding of the poem. This claim is supported by Shelley’s description of Julian and Maddalo in the preface of the poem; this clearly indicates the importance of the character backgrounds of the principle personalities.
Byron’s often bitter disregard for human triumph over religious and political oppression is seen in Maddalo’s goading of Julian’s passionate desire to reform the world into a happier place. Maddalo and Julian talk of:
The devils held within the dales of Hell,
Concerning God, freewill and destiny;
Of all that earth has been, or yet may be,
All that vain men imagine or believe,
Or hope can paint, or suffering may achieve. 9
Byron and Shelley often met and conversed in this manner, each always adopting the same stout outlook and argument. 10 Much like Byron, Maddalo’s “weakness is to be proud”, or so the preface claims, and Julian says:
We descanted; and I (for ever still
Is it not wise to make the best of ill?)
Argued against despondency, but pride
Made my companion take the darker side.
The sense that he was greater than his kind
Had struck, methinks, his eagle spirit blind
Having this surface knowledge of Byron’s historical and biographical background adds to the reader’s understanding of the dynamic between Julian and Maddalo.
Even more important than Maddalo’s/Byron’s background is Shelley’s own back story and politics, particularly since some critics and scholars, such as Richard E. Brown, argue that Shelley himself can be seen in all three of the principle characters: Julian, Maddalo, and the Maniac. Brown observes “modern critics have generally accepted both Julian and the maniac overheard in the middle of the poem as Shelleyan self-portraits; even Maddalo, ostensibly modeled on Byron, shares important features with Julian and the maniac, and may also be viewed as relevant to Shelley’s conception of himself”. 13 Although this suggestion bears a certain degree of merit, it is important to remember that Shelley himself claims Maddalo to be based on Byron rather than himself.
Notably, Shelley turns Byron, as Maddalo, into a Venetian while leaving Julian as an ex-patriot Englishman. Arguably, Shelley felt just as disconnected from his native land as Byron, yet in this text his alter ego remains English. Perhaps this signifies Shelley’s perpetual feeling as an outsider, as one who never quite fit in anywhere, including Shelley’s self-perceived isolation in many intellectual matters as well. Shelley says he often finds his “language misunderstood, like one in a distant and save land”. 14 He goes on to describe Julian as being:
Passionately attached to those philosophical notions which assert the power of man over his own mind, and the immense improvements of which, by the extinction of certain moral superstitions, human society may be yet susceptible. Without concealing the evil in the world he is forever speculating how good may be made superior. 15
Shelley’s philanthropy is famous and his life and writing are full of countless examples of his passion and thirst to reform, most tangibly seen in his failed Dublin experiment when he attempted to whip the Irishmen and women into a peaceful revolution against their English oppressors. The Paris Monthly Review remarked, after the poet’s death, “His pen, even when it was directed against his revilers, seemed to be guided by the hand of Love, and acrimonious expressions rarely fell from his lips” 16 In ‘Lines to a Critic’, Shelley continues to show his philosophy of love overcoming evil: “Honey from silkworms who can gather,/ Or silk from the yellow bee?/ The grass may grow in winter weather/ As soon as hate in me”; he continues to say, “I hate thy want of truth and love – / How should I then hate thee?”. 17 Julian shares this same Shelleyan empathy, a character trait that is important to understand when interpreting Julian’s reaction to the Maniac.
Religious skepticism is the other key trait Shelley assigns to his counter-part. He goes on to describe Julian as being “a complete infidel and a scoffer at all things reputed holy; and Maddalo takes a wicked pleasure in drawing out his taunts against his religion”. 18 Being familiar with Shelley’s critical essay entitled The Necessity of Atheism certainly will assist the reader in his or her contextual understanding of Julian’s and Maddalo’s debate. In this short essay, Shelley boldly asserts, “THERE IS NO GOD. This negation must be understood solely to affect a creative Deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal to the universe remains unshaken”. 19 This ideology is shared by the fictional Julian. True to the forewarning of the preface, Maddalo taunts Julian, calling him “a wolf for the meek lambs”, and he censures him for holding this view and for thinking that humanity can overcome organized religion in order to raise itself into being a more peaceful and loving society. 20
When Maddalo quips that Julian talks “of Utopia” it is easy to hear this conversation between Byron and Shelley themselves, all the more so when Julian goes on to say:
. . . We know
That we have power over ourselves to do
And suffer – what, we know not till we try;
But something nobler than to live and die.
So taught those kings of old philosophy,
Who reigned before religion made men blind. 21
This is when the narrative moves from playful and philosophical conversations between Julian and Maddalo to a darker and more somber meeting with the Maniac, another Shelleyan prototype. Maddalo warns Julian, “I knew one like you . . . With whom I argued in this sort, and he/ Is now gone mad”. 22 In order to understand the Maniac and to conjure a supportable interpretation of his character, the reader is most particularly assisted in having a Shelleyan background. This contextual knowledge is even more helpful in making sense of the mysterious Maniac than it is in interpreting Julian and Maddalo.
Of the Maniac, Shelley says he “is also in some degree a painting from nature, but, with respect to time and place, ideal”. 23 In the preface, Shelley further states:
Of the Maniac I can give no information. He seems, by his own account, to have been disappointed in love. He was evidently a very cultivated and amiable person when in his right senses. His story, told at length, might be like many other stories of the same kind. The unconnected exclamations of his agony will perhaps be found a sufficient comment for the text of every heart. 24
Most critics agree that the Maniac represents Shelley himself and, to a smaller extent, Byron. This claim is easily supported by Maddalo’s dire warning to Julian that he could end up inheriting the same sad fate as the Maniac’s if Julian does not tame his optimism and thirst to improve the world. Critic John E. Brown observes:
The chief difference between the maniac’s resolution and Julian’s, of course, lies in the difference between the maniac’s role as actor and sufferer, and Julian’s role as philosophical observer. This contrast between the acting and the observing self in the second and third sections of the poem creates a new and more productive dynamic, replacing the frustrating tension of optimistic and pessimistic selves in the first section. 25
This claim suggests that all three principle characters are various hues of Shelleyan self-portraits that can be separated into three distinct sections. While there are a few different thoughts regarding the representations of Julian, Maddalo, and the Maniac, there seems to be unanimous agreement that the love mourned by the Maniac is indeed a woman. It could be suggested that the lost love mourned by the Maniac is not literally a woman and this can be supported by a broad knowledge of Shelley’s works.
In Shelley’s poem Epipsychidion, the protagonist is searching for idealized love in physical form. Shelley elaborates on this theme in a letter he wrote to his friend Gisborne: “I think one is always in love with something or other; the error, and I confess it is not easy for spirits cased in flesh and blood to avoid it, consists in seeking in a mortal image the likeness of what is, perhaps, eternal”. 26 Shelley goes on to say, “The Epipsychidion is a mystery; as to real flesh and blood, you know that I do not deal in those articles; you might as well go to a gin-shop for a leg of mutton, as expect anything human or earthly from me” 27 In applying Shelley’s own words about his tendency to transform his idealization of the ideal eternal love into the feminine human form, an argument can be made that the Maniac of Julian and Maddalo is mourning the metaphorical loss of idealized love, the loss of hope for humanity rather than mourning the lost love of a physical woman.
This particular and thought provoking interpretation can only be made when the reader contains a working knowledge of various Shelleyan contexts, of both his diverse body of work and his historical and biographical information. In keeping with this interpretation of the Maniac’s love being a metaphor for the ideal love of humanity, it also makes more sense in making the connection with the Maniac as being a bleak self-portrait of who Shelley could become. This interpretation is additionally supported by Maddalo’s warning to Julian that he could in fact end up sharing the same unhinged fate as the Maniac if he continues on the same enthusiastic path to passionate reform against all oppressors.
While a close reading may certainly be conducted without possessing prior knowledge beyond the actual text, possessing contextual understanding of Shelley, his societal circle, and his historical and philosophical background greatly adds to the depth of understanding a reader can gain by undertaking a thorough examination this poem.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Julian and Maddalo, The Poetical Works of Shelley, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974
Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Letter to Gisborne, The Poetical Works of Shelley, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974
Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Letter to Leigh Hunt, The Poetical Works of Shelley, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974
Shelley, Percy Bysshe, The Necessity of Atheism, New York: Prometheus Books, 1993
Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “On Love”, The Percy Bysshe Shelley Resource Page, UMD.EDU
Brown, Richard E, Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, 29, No. 1 (Spring, 1975), p. 39-47
The Paris Monthly Review, as qtd in The Poetical Works of Shelley, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.
1. Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Letter to Leigh Hunt. The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 151
2. Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Letter to Leigh Hunt. The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 151
3. Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Julian and Maddalo.. The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 158
4. Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Julian and Maddalo. The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 152
5. Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Julian and Maddalo. The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 152
6. Biography.com, (A&E Television Networks LCC, 2013) <http://www.biography.com/people/lord-byron-21124525> [accessed 28 January 2014]
7. Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Julian and Maddalo. The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 153
8. Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Julian and Maddalo. The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 151
9. Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Julian and Maddalo. The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 153
10 . Shelley, Mary, The Journals of Mary Shelley, (London: John Hopkins University Press, 1987), p. 107
11 . Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Julian and Maddalo. The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 152
12 . Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Julian and Maddalo. The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 153
13 . Brown, Richard E, Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, 29, No. 1 (Spring, 1975), p. 39
14 . Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “On Love”, The Percy Bysshe Shelley Resource Page, (UMD.EDU) <http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~djb/shelley/1880onlove.html> [accessed 29 January 2014]
15 . Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Julian and Maddalo. The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 152
16 . The Paris Monthly Review, as qtd in The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. xix
17 . Shelley, Percy Bysshe, ‘Lines to a Critic’, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 366
18 . Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Julian and Maddalo. The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 152
19 . Shelley, Percy Bysshe, The Necessity of Atheism, (New York: Prometheus Books, 1993), p. 31
20 . Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Julian and Maddalo. The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 154
21 . Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Julian and Maddalo. The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 154
22 . Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Julian and Maddalo. The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 155
23 . Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Letter to Leigh Hunt, The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 151
24 . Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Julian and Maddalo. The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 152
25 . Brown, Richard E, Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, 29, No. 1 (Spring, 1975), p. 46
26 . Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Letter to Gisborne, The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 298
27 . Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Letter to Gisborne,. The Poetical Works of Shelley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 298