Shelley in the 21st century

by Graham Henderson
Most writing on Shelley seems frustratingly designed for scholarly audiences and much of it is almost unreadable by anyone outside a university setting. Most of the books and articles written between 1980 and around 2005 are written in a scholarly style that limits readership to a handful of people: esoteric, jargon-filled, arcane and at times pompous.
This is a pity because many of these books contain extremely important insights that would help the lay reader to better understand Shelley’s intent in writing a poem like Prometheus Unbound. For my part, I hope to write about Shelley in a manner that is straightforward and accessible.
Evidence of the extent of the problem abounds today. When the Guardian published a recently discovered, highly charged, political poem by Shelley, the reactions in the comments section were telling.
Poetical essay
The Guardian readership is literate and engaged, yet the vast majority of the hundreds of comments which were posted suggested that even a literate audience had a very poor understanding of who Shelley was and what his philosophical and political preoccupations were. Here is a representative sampling of how readers reacted to the poem:

Maybe Corbyn ought to quote this Shelley stuff at [ Parliamentary Questions].

If Jeremy Corbyn needed a script, he need not look any more.

Kind of like Tsipras and Corbyn, but with balls.

Corbyn during next [Parliamentary Questions]: “I’ve had a poem sent to me by Shelley which I would like to read to the house”

Young, keen and well afire – good for him. Every era, every minute, every place needs such a cutting flame.

Anti-war, Anti-colonialism, Anti-slavery, Anti-state-oppression. I’ve just read it, and it’s brilliant. I wonder why it disappeared?

Revolutionary socialist with the guts to stand outside his privileged class, expose its oppressive nature & champion workers.

Had no idea he was so…RESPECT!

Interesting to read his critique of contemporary British imperialism within the poem. I’ve tended to largely miss Percy Shelley’s work before, will have to have a proper look at it.

At a recent seminar I attended at the University of Pennsylvania, Professor Patricia Matthew commented that many of her students were surprised to learn that there was a Shelley other than Mary, his wife and author of Frankenstein. A nephew of mine in fourth year at a distinguished Canadian university thought I was talking about Mary when it was mentioned that I was engaged in research on Shelley.
And when Shelley IS taught in university, it is usually his more anodyne, less political poetry that is offered to students. As recently as 1973, Kathleen Raine in Penguin’s “Poet to Poet” series omitted important poems such as Laon and Cythna as well as most of his overtly political output – and she does so with gusto and states explicitly, “without regret”. In the most widely available edition of his poetry, the editor, Isabel Quigley, cheerfully notes, “No poet better repays cutting; no great poet was ever less worth reading in his entirety” and goes on to suggest wrongly that Shelley was a more than anything else a platonist. With friends like this, who needs enemies! The current Norton Anthology includes this extraordinarily unrepresentative sampling of Shelley’s poetry:

from A Defense of Poetry; from Preface to Prometheus Unbound; A Dirge; Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude; Worlds on Worlds; The World’s Great Age; O World, O Life, O Time; Song of Apollo; To Jane. The Invitation; The Triumph of Life; Stanzas Written in Dejection; To Jane. The Invitation; To — [Music, when soft voices die].

Editors often consign sophisticated political tracts such as Queen Mab to the category of “juvenilia” with the predictable result. This is all nothing short of criminal.
Shelley, to the extent he enters a casual, non-academic conversation at all, enters shorn of almost everything for which he stood. The reasons for this are varied and complex but what Michael Gamer refers to as the “Shelley Myth” and what Paul Foot in his thrilling book, Red Shelley, more tartly refers to as the “castration of Shelley” is a fact that anyone who cares about Shelley must accept. I think of it as the “hallmarkification” of his reputation. Most people encounter snippets of Shelley on greeting cards one of the most common being: “There is a harmony in Autumn, and a lustre in its sky”
Autumn pic
That this has happened represents a great loss to modern culture and society because if ever there was a poet speaking to our time, it is Shelley. Shelley was first and foremost a skeptic, a skeptic who was also an atheist, republican, revolutionary, philosophical anarchist, leveler, feminist and vegetarian (he also happened to write some rather fine poetry and essays!). The issues which preoccupied him, for example vast disparities in wealth, have if anything become exacerbated with the passage of time. Wealth today is concentrating in fewer hands than at almost any time in history. Far from the influence of religion receding, its icy grip has been strengthened, and where it grows in power so too do tyrannical and oppressive regimes. The man who, translating Lucretius avowed that: “I tell of great matters, and I shall go on to free men’s minds from the crippling bonds of superstition” would be absolutely appalled at this development. Shelley believed that “…the delusions of Christianity are fatal to genius and originality; they omit thought.”

Paul Foot, one of the 20th century’s great socialists had this to say in summing up Shelley’s life:

Shelley was not dull. His poems reverberate with energy and excitement. He decked the grand ideas which inspired him in language which enriches them and sharpen communication with the people who can put them into effect. That is why he was loved and treasured by the chartists workers, the socialist propagandists of the 1890s, the suffragists and feminists of the first 20 years of the 20th century and that is why socialists, radicals and feminists of every hue should read Shelley today – read him, learn him by heart and teach him to their children. If Shelley’s great revolutionary poetry – all those glaciers, and winds and volcanoes – can get to work on the imagination of the hundreds of thousands of people who have had enough of our rotten society and of the racialism and corruption off which it feeds; if that poetry can inspire them to write and talk with a new energy, a new confidence and a new splendour, then there is no telling what will happen. Certainly the police will have to be sent for.”

Engles, commenting on the importance of Shelley’s thought to the 19th century wrote that “Shelley, the genius, the prophet, finds most of [his] readers in the proletariat; the bourgeoisie own the castrated editions, the family editions cut down in accordance with the hypocritical morality of today.” And Marx himself offered this idea:

“The real difference between Byron and Shelley is this: those who understand and love them rejoice that Byron died at 36, because if he had lived he would have become a reactionary bourgeois; they grieve that Shelley died at 29, because he was essentially a revolutionist and he would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism.”

My goal is to try to restore this man to at least a few modern readers. Shelley has the power to enthrall, thrill and inspire – to change our world. Our institutions need to teach him in a radically different way. The reactions of the lay readers of the Guardian demonstrate the power of his ideas. Perhaps this individual said it best:

Maybe a copy of this poem ought to be nailed to the door of the Palace of Westminster in the same way Luther nailed his ’95 theses’ to the door of a church in Wittenberg…….our political class needs a Reformation just as much as the Catholic Church did……”

It is time to bring him back – we need him; tyrannies, be they of the mind or the world are implacable foes.

This post originally appeared on Graham’s Shelley blog
Graham Henderson is President of Music Canada, an association that promotes the interests of the Canadian music community. He is Chair of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and in 2013 he was inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame and received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. He is a lifelong student of Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as of Canadian, Russian and Ancient history – Cicero is a favourite. Graham graduated from the University of Guelph with a double major in English Literature and Fine Art History. He completed his Masters at the University of Toronto, writing on ‘Prometheus Unbound and the Problem of Opposite’. Graham Henderson