In the early summer of 2017, I received a letter from the daughter of the noted Shelley scholar Roland Duerksen. Susan had read my article “My Father’s Shelley” and it had struck a chord. She wanted to connect me with her father, now 91 years old and living in New Oxford, Ohio. Roland is the author of two noteworthy and important books on Shelley: "Shelleyan Ideas in Victorian Literature" and "Shelley's Poetry of Involvement". His analysis is penetrating and nuanced, the style conversational and accessible. But it is his overall approach which makes him different, it is imbued with a humanity that reflects well both on himself and his subject. This much I knew, but I knew less about the man himself. I was thrilled that Susan had reached out to me, it was a chance to meet one of the great Shelleyans, but I had no idea whatsoever of the magic which lay in wait for me.
Welcome to my inaugural, year end "Shelleyan Top Ten" list. The eligibility criteria for an appearance on this list is pretty straight forward (and subjective!) First the event or occurrence must have contributed to raising the awareness of Percy Bysshe Shelley among the general public. Second, it also needs to have come to my attention - which is not omniscient (this means my list is not necessarily definitive!). Finally, I also have ranked on the basis of whether the moment was unusual or unexpectedly brilliant.
In any event, these sorts of lists are supposed to be fun and are designed to provoke debate and conversation. So let the discussion begin.
2017 was a busy year for Percy Bysshe Shelley and later this week I will publish my Top Ten Shelleyan Moments of 2017 - watch for it!! It was also a busy year for my website and its associated social media platforms. The website experienced 12,000 Unique Visitors 15,000 Visits and over 21,000 Page Views. These are huge numbers for a site dedicated to a poet who has been dead almost 200 years. Shelley was a highly motivated political creature who dedicated his life to changing the world. At some point he realized that he would never manage build sufficient momentum to do this in his lifetime. I think this was profoundly demoralizing. However, he recovered and I believe he started to write for future generations - in otherwords us. If those of us who love him do not join him in this enterprise, then we are letting him (and ourselves) down. So let's not. Join our community and help spread the word.
My point in drawing attention to these two modern poets is to remind us that one of the true fountainheads of radical opposition to tyranny and oppression was Shelley. And whether modern poets knowingly operate in that tradition, as Cottingham appears to, or not, they do function as the voice of the people and in that sense as our representatives; or as Shelley would have said, as our legislators. Eminem has drawn his line in the sand. Shelley has discharged his collected lightening. Arielle Cottingham has unleashed her hurricane. They are all philanthropos tropos: lovers of humanity. Let's join them at the barricades. Let Liberty lead us.
"I am a lover of mankind, a democrat and an atheist."When Shelley wrote these words in the hotel register at Chamonix, he was, as PMS Dawson has suggested deliberately, intentionally and provocatively “nailing his colours to the mast”. He knew full well people would see these words and that they would inflame passions. The words, however may require some context and explanation. Many people have sought to diminish the importance of these words and the circumstances under which they were written. Some modern scholars have even ridiculed him. I think his choice of words was very deliberate and central to how he defined himself and how wanted the world to think of him. They may well have been the words he was most famous (or infamous) for in his lifetime.
Haifaa Al-Mansour’s new movie Mary Shelley premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on 9 September 2017. For those anticipating a nuanced, balanced and careful study of the relationship between two of the world’s authentic literary geniuses, Mary and Percy Shelley, I am sorry, you will be disappointed. For all of its pretensions, this movie seems pitched as a sort of thinking person’s Twilight or maybe Beauty and the Beast: two hot, beautiful young people with perfect skin and hair are thrust together by chance, torn apart by circumstance only to be at last happily reunited. It is riddled with factual errors and the plot involves an almost complete rewrite of history. The real Percy and Mary, as depicted in Mary Shelley are essentially props whose lives may be casually rearranged to allow Al-Mansour and her screenwriter to concoct a myth about the creation of Frankenstein. Were the movie to carry a warning, “based on a true story”, it would not go far enough. Mary and Percy have been done a disservice. The true story of Mary, Percy and Frankenstein deserves to be told – but it will await yet another day.
On Friday and Saturday the 15th and 16th of September, in London, the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at University of York, is presenting a two day conference that celebrates the writings of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. I will be speaking at this conference on the topic of "Romantic Resistance". My presentation will demonstrate how Shelley’s politics, his philosophical skepticism and his theory of the imagination combine to offer some potent solutions for the troubles of the early 21st Century. Given recent events, it is time that we cast a fresh eye on romantic, specifically Shelleyan, theories of resistance.
In May of this year, I visited the places in and around Viareggio on the Italian Coast at the Gulf of La Spezia. This is where Shelley lived out the last few days of his short life. The video which is at the heart of this post was recorded on the beach at Viareggio. Somehow standing on that beach made it possible to strip away the accretion of the mythology and to confront the numbing reality of his death. I found the moment almost overwhelming.I invite you all to join me on this virtual pilgrimage; and to pause for reflection.
When Shelley said poets were the "unacknowledged legislators of the world", he used the term "legislator" in a special sense. Not as someone who "makes laws" but as someone who is a "representative" of the people. In this sense poets, or creators more generally, must be thought of as the voice of the people; as a critical foundation of our society and of our democracy. They offer insights into our world and provide potential solutions - they underpin our future. An attack on creators is therefore an attack on the very essence of humanity.
Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, like almost everyone else on the planet, had pet names for one another. She was "Pecksie" and he was "Elf". PB's use of the name "pecksie" has actually attracted controversy. To find out why, I dug into the circumstances in which these names were used and the fascinating origin of "pecksie". Buckle up!
In the Mask of Anarchy, Shelley presents the tyrannical government of England as very clearly shown as being propped up by bishops and priests. Indeed, Shelley once characterized religion as the "hand maiden of tyranny". He said this because religion is faith-based and encourages people to discard their skepticism and accept things as they are. This is why the recent mania for "stoicism" is so popular in the alt-right movement. It is probably the LAST ancient philosophy we need to revive today. A point that has been eloquently made by Oxford philosopher Sandy Grant. As tyrants threaten to take the stage around the world, we need to keep a close eye on how religion is being used as a tool to control the people. This is why I think my article from last June on some then topical shenanigans of Pope Francis are apropos at this point in time. Enjoy.