Note from Anna Mercer, BARS Blog Editor:
The Shelley Conference 2017 was a two-day event sponsored by BARS. As the organiser I am very grateful to BARS for the support, and then also to Ana Stevenson for compiling the following detailed report. You can see the full programme including all the parallel sessions here, and I am hoping to work on a published collection of essays, or a special journal issue, of some of the wonderful papers I heard at the conference. The keynote speakers’ talks will be available online very soon. Without further comment from me, please enjoy Ana’s account of this gathering of Shelleyans:
The Shelley Conference 2017. 15-16 September. Institute for English Studies, London.
By Ana Stevenson
It took almost the length of Shelley’s lifetime for another event celebrating his life and work to be organised – the last one took place on the bicentennial of his birth, in 1992. For this and other reasons, Anna Mercer was determined to organise this exceptional two-days conference. After realising that most of PBS’s contemporaries enjoy various symposiums, Mercer took it upon herself to side with Harrie Neal and organised The Shelley Conference 2017, celebrating both Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Under the guidance of Kelvin Everest and Michael Rossington, Mercer and Neal welcomed Michael O’Neill, Nora Crook, and many scholars from around the world to present a variety of papers exploring the many aspects of PBS and MWS’s lives, work, and collaboration with one another.
The Senate House, London, opened its doors for The Shelley Conference 2017 for the first time on the 15th of September. With a plethora of fascinating panels, it was a hard task to decide which ones to attend. Luckily Graham Henderson has recorded a few, which will soon be available online for those who wish to watch it [see Graham’s website on PBS here]. The Conference started with a short introduction by the organisers, who briefly talked about the programme and thanked those who made the event possible. They expressed the Shelleys’ importance in Literature and Culture, as well as other aspects that inspired them to design this conference. Mercer closed the introduction speech and started the conference with a beautiful reading of ‘Mutability’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley – a poem that perfectly suited the occasion.
The first plenary, Mary Shelley’s Editing of Percy Bysshe Shelley, was delivered by Professor Nora Crook from Anglia Ruskin University. Crook discussed the misconceptions that the public has of Mary Shelley’s intentions when she edited her husband’s work. From his contemporaries to modern day scholars, many believe that MWS did not do justice to her late husband when editing his posthumous pieces. Some are certain that she aimed to change Shelley’s reputation by omitting ‘shocking’ content against his wishes, when in fact, Shelley himself had discussed this matter with his publisher, hoping that his accessible pieces would help him to regain a degree of attention with readers that would then also appreciate his political work. Mrs Shelley was not the only person responsible for the selection of poems to be published; the publisher decided not to include specific pieces in order to avoid being prosecuted. Although MWS meant well by holding Shelley’s radical pieces back, it is uncertain if this was the right attitude. Delaying PBS’s political material also delayed the readers’ understanding and the progress that its content could trigger. Professor Crook discussed the evidence that MWS was heavily involved in her husband’s work until the day of his death. It is not uncommon to find annotations by her as well as blank spaces left by PBS so that his wife could add her input. It must be taken into consideration that MWS was under pressure while editing the volumes of her late husband’s work, which lead to a few mistakes. However, Crook says that their collaboration did not end with Shelley’s death – in life the Shelleys helped to inspire and edit each other’s poems, after Percy’s death, Mary seeks his memory in order to make decisions.
Amongst the first parallel panels was a section concerning Revisions and Editing. It began with Madeline Callaghan from the University of Sheffield presenting her paper ‘“Sweet visions in solitude”: P. B. Shelley’s Rejected Opening of Laon and Cythna’ which discussed Percy Bysshe Shelley’s preoccupation with eternity through the rejected opening of Laon and Cythna. It explores the limits and possibilities of experiencing, and imaging humanity’s relationship with eternity. Callaghan presented the poem as the ultimate way to express Nature and its powers, and Imagination as a complement to beauty, with Shelley thinking carefully about the responsibilities of the poet, amidst words that can encapsulate dreams, the splendour of the mighty dead, and death without glory. Bysshe Inigo Coffey from the University of Exeter followed Callaghan with a paper focused on PBS’s writing style. ‘Verse Under Erasure: Shelley and the Energies of Cancellation’ was a splendid complement to Crook’s lecture as it explored the difficulty of editing the poet’s manuscripts, which were often filled with doodles, scribbles, cancellations, and other abstract imagery, causing the editing of his work to be a hard task. While some say that rhymes kill the meaning of poetry, Coffey argues that its efforts enhance the English language and doesn’t take the poet away from the poem; it takes him beyond. Shelley can cancel our understanding of the Spencerian stanza and doesn’t allow form to limit his creations. Amanda Blake Davis from the University of Sheffield presented the final paper on this panel. Davis discussed MWS’s editing and framing of Prometheus Unbound, adding to Crook’s plenary as she defended that MWS’s editing did not deprive the reader of the poet’s ideas. She argues that Mary prolongs Shelley’s life as a source of happiness to the reader as her framing of P B Shelley’s works assure that his words will be available to readers and Shelley lovers for years to come.
Before the second parallel panels, attendees were invited to a discussion between Michael Rossington and Nora Crook on Current Editions of PBS’s poetry. Prof Rossington is editing poems for, and coordinating, the fifth and final volume of the Longman Annotated English Poets edition of The Poems of Shelley (Routledge). Shelley is the only English poet who did not have a complete academic edition of his work. Rossington explained that the fifth volume, which contains poems and plays from 1821, is scheduled to appear in 2019. Prof Crook gave a brief presentation about the John Hopkins University Press edition of The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Rossington discussed the Longman Annotated English Poets edition (The Poems of Shelley). When asked about having two different collections of the poet’s work being released simultaneously, they affirmed that the many editions of Shelley’s work guarantee him a world of fame.
Percy and Mary Together was one of the options for the second parallel panels section where the speakers concentrated on breaking the myth that PBS and MWS were no longer collaborating towards the end of his life. Anna Mercer from the University of York and organiser of the event started the panel by presenting evidence of the collaboration between the Shelleys in Italy from 1818 until P B Shelley’s death. While some scholars suggest that Mary was no more than Shelley’s copyist, Mercer explores manuscripts and letters that prove otherwise. Annotations show that Mary contributed with suggestions while editing her husband’s work, and pieces written simultaneously by each author show the inspiration that one drew from the other. Joanna Harker Shaw, who is working on a novel about the Shelleys, used her research to defend the position of the Shelleys as advisors. Shaw claims that the lack of evidence that we have of the couple’s collaboration is due to their physical proximity: when most information was recorded through letters, it is not surprising that sources are limited when it comes to people who lived together. However, that is not to say that such evidence does not exist, as it is clear through Shelley’s letters to MWS’s father, William Godwin, that their collaboration and influence on one another was heavily discussed. Elizabeth Denlinger from New York Public Library closed this panel by defending the importance of manuscripts. The modern public is attracted to the visual aspect of an exhibition, which is why Denlinger finds it essential to make manuscripts available. A piece of history creates a stronger connection to the material shown, resulting in a more significant interest from the spectator, who is more likely to have their attention drawn through an artefact than through a piece of text. A potential reader is more likely to become interested in Shelley’s work by seeing the original document than from being presented with a printed version of that piece in question. These manuscripts are more than the text itself; they reflect the person who has written it, their personality, relationships, and life.
Kelvin Everest delivered the second plenary. In his superb ‘The Heart’s Echoes’, Everest explores the reverberation of Queen Mab through Shelley’s career, the formal complexity and various movements of ‘The Cloud’, and how Shelley’s life echoes itself on his final years. Everest’s plenary granted the perfect conclusion for the first day of this excellent event. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that ‘The Heat’s Echoes’ conveyed Shelley’s true essence, and remained with those who had the privilege of enjoying this outstanding talk.
The second day of the Shelley Conference 2017 started with its third section of panels. Rethinking Shelley for Later Generations commenced with Mark Summers’s ‘Reclaiming the Radical Republicanism of P. B. Shelley’ which portrayed the humanist and socialist perception of PBS, who perceived individual freedom as a non-dominant aspect which is not limited to economic conditions and is inclusive of all citizens. Shelley, as a radical and Republican, was against violence and, although inspired by the French Revolution, reproved the lack of control from the reign of terror. Summers was followed by Tom Mole from the University of Edinburgh who has recently published his book What the Victorians Made of Romanticism. In his paper ‘Shelley’s Long Poems in Victorian Anthologies’, Mole explained that anthologies became popular with the working classes (for leisure as well as culture) and made Romantic poems conform to Victorian morals. Editors and publishers had to be careful when publishing Queen Mab due to its radical content; only eleven books show it, and Canto IV is the most printed section of that work. These anthologies were not interested in the entirety of the poems and their structure; they published excerpts of lyrics and natural descriptions extracted from dramatical context. Mole claims that by removing parts of the poem, it diminishes its value. However, shattering a text also inspires those who read it to seek its source, and those who are already familiar with it, to frame the extracted part of the poem. The final speaker, Graham Henderson, explored the meaning of Shelley’s visit to the Alps. When Shelley visited Mont Blanc, he was seeing the mountain for the first time – unlike today, their visual descriptions were limited to word accounts, sketches, and paintings. Due to the Napoleonic wars, that area became almost inaccessible to foreign visitors; therefore Shelley was unlikely to have a personal relation accounting this experience. When S T Coleridge visited Mont Blanc, he expressed that no one could see its sublimity and question the existence of a god, but Shelley’s registration in the hotel proves otherwise. He wrote ‘eimi philanthropos, demokratikos, atheos te’ (I am a lover of mankind, democrat and atheist) – Greek was perceived as an intellectual language, therefore by writing in Greek, Shelley was declaring that his view did not come from ignorance. ‘Philantropos tropos’ was used be Aeschylus to describe Prometheus as a ‘Lover of Humanity’, which Shelley was undoubtedly aware of. In 1816 he became more famous for his declarations on this registration book than for his poetry, but this is not the only entry Shelley left in a registration book. In that year, at the Hotel de Londres Shelley has written ‘lover of humanity, democrat, atheist’, at the Hotel d’Anglaterre the entry says ‘Democrat, great lover of mankind, Atheist’, at Montenvers Shelley writes ‘one and all atheists’, and at Sallanches the poet simply wrote ‘atheist’. Henderson expresses that when Shelley says that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, he means the delegators of humanity.
Texts Composed in 1816 was one of the last parallel panels. Deborah Stiles from the Dalhousie University brought a variety of booklets from places visited by the Shelleys in order to support her paper ‘Geneva Summer, Dundee Winter: MWS, Seasonality, and Settings in Frankenstein’. During her early teenage years, Mary Shelley was sent to Scotland to live in Dundee with the Baxters. They often visited the port where whaling ships were found, which is later portrayed in Frankenstein. While in Geneva, the cold weather experienced in the year without a summer reminded Mary of the winter she spent in Dundee, which may have awakened her early ideas of the themes found in her first novel. Stiles explains that Mary’s book is very weather-based, having its story set through various seasons which may be perceived as a reflection of various moments when Mary had thoughts that lead to Frankenstein. Carl McKeating from the University of Leeds followed with ‘A City of Death: The Shelleys and “Mont Blanc”’, showing Mont Blanc is a pace of confrontation; it represents glory, but it also has the fame of being a ‘cursed mountain’. Percy Bysshe Shelley describes it as snowy and serene, but also as a city of death, and for Mary, the mountain symbolises hope, but it is also the conveyor of death. The Shelleys’ excursion to Mont Blanc was a safe one led by guides. However, they were aware of the dangers of such place – perhaps they saw an avalanche or received accounts of it. The dangers of Mont Blanc are seen in a metaphysical way in Frankenstein, with humanity as the ultimate prey of the snow. Miriam Sette from the University ‘G. d’Annuzio’ Pescara expresses Mont Blanc’s echoes of text influences from Plato to Blake in her ‘Poetry as Vision: “Mont Blanc” by Shelley’. Percy Bysshe Shelley was a natural organism of Romanticism; ‘a passionate advocate of the platonic world and mutability’. Mont Blanc was not only appreciated for the sublimity of its beauty, but also for what it represented. It is powerful, remote, and unaffected; the top of the mountain remains unaffected no matter what happens in the world below. The speakers debated the humane aspects of the Shelleys’ works, which have been inspired by their personal experience of Mont Blanc, which is often underestimated.
The Shelley Conference 2017 concluded with a third plenary by Michael O’Neill from Durham University. In ‘“Pictures” and “Signs”: Creative Thinking in P. B. Shelley’s Prose’, O’Neill expressed Shelley’s commitment to writing poetry as a poet. While ancient as well as contemporary poets inspired him, Shelley’s language is common, not individual. Shelley does not deny his inspiration; ‘Our words are dead, our thoughts are cold and borrowed’. Yet he is not limited to the form – ‘On Life’ is a prose poem with great Philosophical weight, and ‘A Defence of Poetry’ shows a decline from image to sign. It is how Shelley perceives poetry that sets him apart, and his prose is a great proof that soul and imagination are very much relevant in politics. Michael O’Neill presented examples such as ‘An Address to the People on the Death of Princess Charlotte’ where Shelley manipulates the audience through language, and instead of grieving the dead princess, he laments the death of Liberty. ‘Shelley tells us that language is both a veil and a pointer to what lies beyond the veil’. [n.b.: O’Neill’s talk was based on an essay to be published in a forthcoming book by Oxford University Press: Thinking through Style ed. Michael D. Hurley and Marcus Waithe].
So with this extraordinary plenary, The Shelley Conference 2017 came to an end. Two days worth of excellent panels and speakers passed by hastily, however, the success of the conference shows the relevancy of the Shelleys and the demand for such events. This will hopefully mark the start of a new era of conferences and seminars dedicated to explore and discuss the Shelleys and their work. Until another event is confirmed, the public can expect great material from many of the speakers, such as the Longman Annotated English Poets edition of The Poems of Shelley, the John Hopkins University Press edition of The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Tom Mole’s What the Victorians Made of Romanticism, and Joanna Harker Shaw’s novel.
– Ana Stevenson
Images are the organisers’ own.
Conference website here.
Conference twitter here.