Swans Commentary » swans.com January 31, 2011  



Shelley The Efflorescent


by Maxwell Clark





(Swans - January 31, 2011)  


I cannot say exactly where it appears in his works, but it is only after reading Shelley that I began to use the term "efflorescent." I therefore assume he used it. I could be wrong. Let us see.

Assuming, rather unfairly, that you have access to the OED's "effloresce" entry, you will find that, outside of one extremely technical and recondite medical usage, the term and its cognates only begin to appear in the English language around Shelley's period of literary activity. It is a rather precise gauge of Shelley's impact on language, that is to say. "Efflorescent" is not the English of Chaucer, nor Milton, nor Shakespeare, but it is that of Shelley, and him first.

Rather than cite Shelley, as I had hoped, the OED, of course, does make mention of Carlyle with regards to our keyword. Carlyle is of course the man who explicitly "worshipped" Shelley as a Hero; something I find all too common among readers even of our day. Such worship is utterly and entirely detestable. I do not tolerate it.

All apotheosis of Shelley in name is sacrilege against Shelley in other words!

But, surely, if Carlyle read and imitated anyone for their literary style, it was Shelley. The trace is blatant.


Given that I cannot, as of the moment I am writing this, seem to find the exact location of Shelley's "efflorescent" or its cognates, I will state the following boldly: it does not matter whether he used the term or not, it remains the keyword to understanding him.


Shelley's historical period and Hegel's coincide, almost exactly. Indeed, let us draw a line and say exactly. It is the Minervan twilight of bourgeois radicalism.

Now Shelley was not less sensitive to his time and place than Hegel. Regarding political economy (that is, politics and economics), as it properly befitted the "advanced" Englishman of the day, he was obviously far more explicit and radical than Hegel.

Poetry is the womb of philosophy, furthermore. Anyone who has read the Pre-Socratics (on into India and China) knows this. Poetry bequeathed philosophy its questions and method of questioning. Shelley works on, if anything, an even more grand scale than Hegel in this way. All this to say he lacks nothing "theoretical" in Hegel's regard.

The poetic term "efflorescent" is pivotal for us specifically as such, with our face towards Hegel's philosophy. It is important to note that the efflorescent must be sharply differentiated from "Mutability" (the title of one of Shelley's more famous pieces). Long, long ago Lao Tze and Heraclitus knew much, if not more, about "Mutability" than Shelley. When, and if, Shelley uses the term "efflorescent," however, he recalls the immortal Preface to Hegel's Phenomenology:

The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant's existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another.

It is the difference between the merely random, chaotic flow of "Mutability" and the sequential, orderly progress or blossoming of "Efflorescence" that is at hand here. My wager is that this essential breakthrough of Hegel's is shared in common with Shelley. They were different windows on the same process. Shelley's keyword is also Hegel's.


From what is I believe Shelley's last composition he is known to have set hand to before death, The Triumph of Life:

And life, where long that flower of Heaven grew not,
Conquered that heart by love, which gold, or pain,
Or age, or sloth, or slavery could subdue not.

The obvious thing to say here is that contemporary biological researches were not alien to Shelley's and Hegel's advances. Nothing was alien to them. It is something more interesting to note the final line of Shelley's Triumph however:

Then, what is life? I cried.

There is also a lesser well-read text of Shelley's entitled, simply On Life. It concerns, among other things, principally an account of Shelley's atheism and materialism. Confessedly, some dubious claims are evinced in this regard (e.g., "Nothing exists but as it is perceived."). What is most concerning however is that there is more than a hint of "vitalism" in both of his On Life and his Triumph of Life, in the end.

I feel this is the proper place for a serious and thorough and historic critique to develop, on the question of Shelleyean "vitalism" that is, although I am ill prepared to undertake it presently. Cooperation on this project is welcome. Our slogan, our cry, as good friends of Shelley however, will simply be the above quoted:

Then, what is life?

What is life? With this singular doubt does Shelley perhaps upend his entire previous disposition. It is too perfect. I can and will write for the rest of my life on this question. I thank you for joining in my wonder.

Please e-mail: maxclark84 AT gmail.com
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About the Author

Maxwell Clark is a writer living in New Haven, Connecticut. He is also a digital musician working under the moniker Smojphace (http://soundcloud.com/smojphace).   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published January 31, 2011