This blog was originally published as part of the ‘Teaching Romanticism’ series on Romantic Textualities:
Teaching Percy Bysshe Shelley, by Anna Mercer (University of York)
I will be teaching undergraduates for the first time in Spring 2015. One anxiety I have is that new readers may come to the works of the ‘big’ Romantic poets with presumptions about their iconic status and therefore their work. Shelley has had perhaps one of the most unsettled critical histories of any Romantic figure: Matthew Arnold infamously branded him an ‘ineffectual angel’ in 1881, and although this misrepresentation has gradually and persistently been disproved in scholarship, the Romantics as a group of aristocratic, white, male, imaginative authors (of course, they all are not always these things, but Shelley is), writing 200 years ago, can sorely influence a new reader’s judgement of them. Surely it is important to establish that Shelley was actually philosophical, radical and political, as well as capable of writing beautiful verse effusions.
One of the critical minds responsible for establishing Shelley’s power was Kenneth Neill Cameron, who in 1942 wrote that ‘the key to the understanding of the poetry, in fact, is to be found in the prose’. More recent Shelley scholarship presents these works side by side, such as in the Norton critical editions. As an undergraduate at the University of Liverpool, I was given A Defence of Poetry to read for a seminar that – and this sounds hyperbolic, but is in reality no exaggeration – I now realise in retrospect changed my life. All of those famous phrases, ‘A Poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness, and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why’, ‘for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness’, and of course, ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World’, struck me. I don’t believe I had any predetermined disposition towards Shelley and his writing; in fact, I knew nothing of Shelley before I picked up Duncan Wu’s excellent anthology for the first time as a nineteen year old, and I had never studied the long eighteenth century before.
Connecting prose with poetry in Romanticism is a critical understanding that is long established, obviously originating from the Romantics themselves. I do not know if the poems are taught in universities in isolation, but this should not be the case: and especially not with Shelley. Comparably, we know that one way of getting readers interested in the style of Lyrical Ballads is to read Wordsworth’s preface, or that to understand aspects of Coleridge’s poetics is to read the Biographia Literaria. Directing students towards Shelley’s prose gives them a wealth of understanding unparalleled by reading the verse alone, even with the abundance of criticism available.
As a research student, whose thesis focuses on both Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, I have contemplated my aspiration to present these two inextricably linked authors in a way that is inspiring, equal, and above all relevant to (both of) their turbulent critical histories. It is appropriate here (and especially as I believe as both Shelleys should be read very closely together) to say that Frankenstein by Mary Shelley can be interpreted in such a vast variety of ways that the text occasionally eclipses its author’s voice: the notorious night of ghost story telling in Geneva in 1816 dominates perceptions of Mary Shelley’s creativity as a writer. The relevant problem here is how then to introduce students to P. B. Shelley, whose reputation precedes him, both as a ‘Romantic’ poet, and as an individual present during that night in Geneva. The biographies of P. B. Shelley, and Mary Shelley, often overshadow the reason why they are established literary figures in the first place.
I do not pretend that the Shelleys’ turbulent lives did not in fact attract my own attention as a new literature student some years ago. Adolescent genius, forbidden love, undeniable intellect, and the combination of scholarship and drama contribute to the Shelleys’ intrigue. Yet Mary Shelley’s insight into her husband’s poetry is necessarily literary, and reminds us why we are interested in him at all: because of his poetic genius. In her 1839 Preface to P. B. Shelley’s Poetical Works, she explains how ‘his poems may be divided into two classes’:
the purely imaginative, and those which sprung from the emotions of his heart. […] The second class is, of course, the more popular, as appealing at once to emotions common to us all.
This is the complexity of the poetry of P. B. Shelley, and what has to be conveyed to new readers. He can, in some verses, portray the beautiful in the everyday misery:
When the lamp is shattered
The light in the dust lies dead—
When the cloud is scattered
The rainbow’s glory is shed.
When the lute is broken,
Sweet tones are remembered not;
When the lips have spoken,
Loved accents are soon forgot. (‘When the Lamp is Shattered’, 1-8)
I remember hearing this poem for the first time in a lecture by Prof. Kelvin Everest; he explained its stunning intricacy as both relatable and idealistic. The poem on first reading has that Romantic simplicity from which the complexity must be extracted. It is therefore at once accessible and challenging. Shelley also has many poems, which are commonly misread as simply personal but in actuality are far more complicated than that. The intense erotica of Epipsychidion, for example, is a unique anarchic poem of its times: ‘We shall become the same, we shall be one / Spirit within two frames’ (573-4). Anarchy leads us last, but not least, to Shelley’s political poetry, which reverberates through the public consciousness to this day. The Mask of Anarchy has become a powerful statement for the proletariat and the city of Manchester. Maxine Peake’s theatrical performance of the poem in 2013 exemplifies this. Examining these variants of P. B. Shelley’s poetry can deliver to a student the intrigue and unique power unrivalled in its particular diversity.
If I teach a seminar exclusively on P. B. Shelley, the premise will be, read his prose, gather the philosophy, and understand how that is projected in verse in a way that is inimitable. The beauty of teaching Shelley is that – I hope – you can take one sonnet, or even a short fragment, and the ‘power’ will be evident. The final lines of ‘Mont Blanc’ present in blank verse a stunning force by which the 23 year-old P. B. Shelley’s epistemology explores the relationship between mind and landscape. Addressing the mountain, he contemplates:
Mont Blanc yet gleams on high: – the power is there,
The still and solemn power of many sights,
And many sounds, and much of life and death.
In the calm darkness of the moonless nights,
In the lone glare of day, the snows descend
Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there,
Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun,
Or the star-beams dart through them: – Winds contend
Silently there, and heap the snow with breath
Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods
Over the snow. The secret strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy? (127-144)