This is my last comment, for a while at least, on Paul Foot. It deals with his venture in literary criticism, Red Shelley - a subject that I touched on only briefly in my general post assessing Foot's work. I give it a separate post, for the book needs to be considered in context in order to appreciate how misconceived it is.
For a number of commentators on Foot's writings, Red Shelley represents a bravely heterodox work. Here, again, is Nick Cohen:
Red Shelley, published in 1980, remains one of the finest interventions in literary criticism of our time. Shelley, another revolutionary who came from the establishment, was a comrade. Foot rescued his reputation from the critics and syllabus setters who sought to portray him as a love poet and showed him to be what he was, a poet of rebellion.
This is certainly what Foot liked to believe. Appropriating Shelley as a precursor for the socialist tradition, he claimed that the poet had been subjected to 'a hundred castrated editions' that threw out the politics. And he saw his task as:
... restor[ing] to Shelley the political ideas without which his poetry loses its magic, its music and its meaning. I want to pass on Shelley's political enthusiasms to today's socialists, radicals and feminists.
The trouble is that Foot's picture of Shelley criticism isn't even a caricature so much as a fallacy. The political issues that concerned Shelley have lost their salience, but critics do acknowledge the centrality of his political ideas. Foot is not even a pioneer in claiming Shelley for his own form of politics. There is a cottage industry in claiming Shelley for diverse radical political traditions: I have on my shelves one particularly ambitious attempt called Shelley and Non-Violence, written by a radical pacifist of the Students for a Democratic Society a generation ago. ("In the nonviolent philosophies of Shelley and Gandhi, Truth is God and Love is God." This may be meaningless mush, but the author, one Art Young, at least gives a more faithful account than Foot of Shelley's ideas on political violence.)
But Shelley's political ideas debilitate many of the larger-scale works. Foot is so busy hurling imprecations at those he considers reactionaries, that it doesn't occur to him that editors of Shelley may be engaged in something other than censorship of radical politics. He declaims that 'the castration of Shelley at British places of learning has not been confined to rowing oafs' - but fails to draw the inference that there may in that case be some problem with his own understanding of the critics.
The case against Shelley has never been better put than by his contemporary, William Hazlitt. Foot cites Hazlitt's radical judgements on politics approvingly, but apparently (for they are nowhere mentioned in the book) he is unfamiliar with Hazlitt's observations on Shelley. In his review of Shelley's volume of Posthumous Poems, in the Edinburgh journal in 1824, Hazlitt noted:
[Shelley] has single thoughts of great depth and force, single images of rare beauty, detached passages of extreme tenderness; and in his smaller pieces, where he has attempted little, he has done most.... but give him a larger subject, and time to reflect, and he was sure to get entangled in a system.... The success of his writings is therefore in general in inverse ratio to the extent of his undertakings; inasmuch as his desire to teach, his ambition to excel, as soon as it was brought into play, encroached upon and outstripped his powers of execution.... he was crushed beneath the weight of thought which he aspired to bear, and was withered in the lightning-glare of a ruthless philosophy.
Ever since Hazlitt, critics have maintained that Shelley's poetry is undermined by its lack of metaphors adequate to expounding a complex philosophical scheme. So far from 'castrating' Shelley by ignoring or denouncing his political ideas, this criticism treats the political ideas as central. That indeed is the problem with the large-scale poetry (though not the smaller-scale works, as Hazlitt notes). Characteristically, Foot can't believe there is a genuine issue of literary criticism here. He says of the critic F.R. Leavis:
His objection to Shelley was not, as he pretended, purely literary. It was political. And because his criticism refuses, in the name of literary objectivity, to engage Shelley in the real argument which Leavis had with him, it is criticism by subterfuge.
This is a nice illustration of what makes Red Shelley such a bad book. Failing to grasp the literary objections to Shelley's more ambitious work, Foot imagines a political sub-text where none exists, even accusing those he disagrees with of 'subterfuge' in conveying their opinions. The irony is that Foot himself 'refuses to engage Shelley' in textual exegesis. In my main post on Foot's work I alluded to what I believe to be his serious misreading of Shelley's most celebrated achievement, Prometheus Unbound. To Foot, the poem has a central and, to him, congenial purpose:
Reform, the poem concludes, is impossible without revolution.
He bases this judgement on an allegorical interpretation of the role of Jupiter's vanquisher, Demogorgon, whom Foot identifies as the masses:
Who was Demogorgon? One answer, a very obvious one which is often overlooked, is that he was who his name said he was. Shelley was always making up names from Greek words. Demos in Greek means the people; gorgon, the monster. Demorgon is the 'people-monster'.
In case it isn't obvious enough, Foot also cites (following, but not crediting, E.P.Thompson) a radical paper started in 1818 called Gorgon. The trouble is that this idea is nothing like as obvious as Foot makes out. Prometheus is generally held to be a symbol of the poet or intellectual; in his prose works written at the same time, Shelley depicts the masses as having exactly the opposite effect on the reforming zeal of the poets, 'the unacknowledged legislators of mankind'. As he wrote to the novelist Thomas Love Peacock in August 1819, political reform should be driven by those in the higher orders, lest it lead to anarchy and thence despotism. Foot has no real evidence for his thesis (which is not to say that it must therefore be wrong), but that isn't the main objection to the way he treats the poem: rather, by fitting the poem to his own political scheme, he attributes to it a dramatic quality that it doesn't possess, and overlooks the significance of Prometheus's curse and recantation.
My objection to Red Shelley is not primarily to its interpretations, few of which are as forced as this one. Rather it is the idle accusation of censorship levelled at those who take Shelley a lot more seriously as a poet than Foot himself does. Poetry is a medium, not an instrument, of ideas. If your interest in poetry is the cogency of the ideas, then you might as well be reading prose.