This is Paul Foot’s speech to the London Marxism Conference of 1981. His objective is to reconnect the left with Shelley. He does so in a surprising and original manner which is altogether convincing. Foot ably and competently traces the evolution of the modern left and demonstrates how it became disconnected from “the masses,” from real people with real-world concerns and issues. He longs for the “enthusiasm” that Shelley brought to the table. If ever there was a convincing “call to arms” that involves educating one’s self in the philosophy of a poet dead for 200 years, this is it.
Shelley is a poet and thinker whose ideas have uncanny application to the modern era. His atheism, humanism, socialism, feminism, vegetarianism all resonate today. His critiques of the tyranny and religious oppression of the early 19th century seem eerily applicable to the early 21st century. He is the man who first conceived the concept of massive, non-violent protest as the most appropriate and effective response to authoritarian oppression. I have written about this in Shelley in our Time and What Should We Do to Resist Trump? But it may come as a surprise to many to learn Shelley also turned his mind to issues such as economics and the English national debt.
Today, the British government frames the argument around national debt by referring to the need for ‘us’ to make sacrifices or the fact that ‘we’ have been living beyond ‘our’ means and need austerity to survive economically. Despite evidence to the contrary, this ideology resonates with many people who think that in some way, we are all responsible for the financial crisis. We live within this widespread, false ideology, and some of us fight against it. However, a look back to the nineteenth century reveals that this fight was already taking place, and that capitalism was employing many of the tricks it still uses today. Jacqueline Mulhallen looks at the political life of the radical romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in her new biography and reveals that there was much more to him than first meets the eye.
John Keats’s ode To Autumn is one of the best-loved poems in the English language. Composed during a walk to St Giles’s Hill, Winchester, on September 19 1819, it depicts an apparently idyllic scene of harvest home, where drowsy, contented reapers “spare the next swath” beneath the “maturing sun”. The atmosphere of calm finality and mellow ease has comforted generations of readers, and To Autumn is often anthologised as a poem of acceptance of death. But, until now, we may have been missing one of its most pressing themes: surveillance.
The Shelley Conference takes place in London at Institute for English Studies on the 15th and 16th of September. The keynote speakers are Prof. Nora Crook, Prof Kelvin Everest and Prof. Michael O’Neill. The conference is open to everyone - which is just how Shelley would have liked it. He would have also liked the fact that he and his wife are treated as co-equals and creative collaborators. I myself am honoured to be part of the conference and will be speaking on what I call "Romantic Resistance" - Shelley's strategies for opposing political and religious tyrannies. They are surprisingly applicable to our times! Here is co-organizer Anna Mercer on how this amazing conference came
Professor Sharon Ruston of Lancaster University is offering a free online course through Future Learn called "Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp". These types of course are fun and informative. If you are interested in Shelley you will want to learn more about Davy because Shelley studied him closely. Shelley was one of the last great polymaths - he was well versed with a range of subjects that dwarfs most of his famous contemporaries. Science was one of them. To understand Shelley fully, you need to understand his interest in science - this course can help you to do this.
I was very excited to hear that Shelley's poem Ozymandias features prominently in the new movie in the Alien franchise: Alien: Covenant. The poem's theme is woven carefully into the plot of the movie, with David (played again by Michael Fassbender) quoting the famous line, "Look on my works ye mighty and despair." What immediately drew me to Zac Fanni's excellent article was his discussion of the Ozymandias scene. However, what I found amounted to so much more. We are offered a kaleidoscopic array of classic romantic allusions including some which are more obvious, for example Frankenstein and Rime of the Ancient Mariner; and some that are decidedly less so: Shelley's Alastor makes an unexpected appearance!
Last fall Mark Summers did something absolutely fantastic: HE ACTUALLY TOOK SHELLEY'S POETRY TO A STREET PROTEST. Read his moving account of his experience. There are lessons for all of us in his experience. I think Mark's article is one of the most important I have published - and every student or teacher of Shelley needs to pay close attention to what Mark did. The revolutionary Shelley would be ecstatic!
What I love about Mark Summers' writing is his ability to put Shelley in the context of his time, and then make what happened then feel relevant now. Both Mark and I sense the importance of recovering the past to making sense out of what is happening today. With madcap governments in England and the United States leading their respective countries toward the brink of authoritarianism, Shelley's revolutionary prescriptions are enjoying something of a renaissance; and so they should, we need Percy Bysshe Shelley right now!
One of the great things about studying Shelley is where it can take you if you are intrepid. In the course of his short life he traveled to Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Devon, France, Switzerland and Italy - and some of the places he visited are among the most sublime and picturesque in Europe. Join Anna Mercer for a trip to Shelley's Mont Blanc!
The real Shelley was a political animal for whom politics were the dominating concern of his intellectual life. His political insights and prescriptions have resonance for our world as tyrants start to take center stage and theocracies dominate entire civilizations. Dismayingly, the problems we face are starkly and similar to those of his time, 200 years ago. For example: the concentration of wealth and power and the blurring of the lines between church and state. Some of you will have read my review of Michael Demson's history of Shelley's Mask of Anarchy. Guest contributor Mark Summers comment on the Mask says it all: "Disgustingly the only thing we need to update from Mask is the cast of villains, the substance is unchanged!." For Castlereagh read Rex Tillerson; for Eldon read Michael Flynn, for Sidmouth read Stephen Bannon and for Anarchy itself, we have, of course Trump:
The Frankenstein exhibition at the Fondation Martin Bodmer in Geneva provides a journey, in which you first encounter the Shelleys’ works, and then the connections within those works to Geneva itself. We are presented with contemporary scenes of Geneva (in order to understand the Swiss town as Mary would have seen it), and the more unchanging forms of the French Alps.
P B Shelley’s ‘Mutability’ can, in this way, promote discussion of the Shelleys’ creative collaboration. What we know of the Shelleys’ history provides evidence for their repeated intellectual interactions, as Mary Shelley’s journal shows an almost daily occurrence of shared reading, copying, writing and discussion. The Shelleys’ shared notebooks (not just the ones containing Frankenstein) also indicate that they would use the same paper to draft, redraft, correct and fair-copy their works.
On the evening of 12 February 1812, Shelley arrived in Ireland after a long and difficult crossing, accompanied by his young wife, Harriet, and her sister, Eliza. Taking first-floor lodgings at 7 Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) in the centre of Dublin, Shelley turned his considerable energies to the task of finding a printer prepared to facilitate the publication of his recently-completed pamphlet, An Address to the Irish People. [You can find the text here] This was no small task considering the tract contained sentiments which could very well be viewed as seditious by the British authorities. Nonetheless, find a printer he did and by the end of his first week, Shelley had in his possession 1,500 copies of his address.
In her poem The Choice Mary Shelley talks of the “strange Star” that had been “ascendant at [her] birth”, in a reference to the comet that had then been seen in the skies. Whatever “influence on earth” that particular celestial phenomenon might have exercised, I doubt any novel was ever conceived under a stranger star than her own “hideous progeny”, Frankenstein. And how familiar the tale of this tale now is.