Kelvin Everest kicks off our latest series of blog posts on the Shelley Conference, which took place in September 2017 at the University of London. Everest reflects on his plenary lecture: “The Heart’s Echoes,” before discussing the continued political and social pertinence of Shelley’s work.
Why do you think the term “echo” is so important in Shelley’s oeuvre?
The onward rush of Shelley’s life is characterised by elements that repeat, echoingly. The notion of repetition indeed is something that knits together the forward narrative of his life, inviting comparison between moments, bringing a paradoxical stillness to the continuous rapid movement. His poetry is itself like that, not least in its most purely formal characteristics. The Triumph of Life, for example, is structurally a series of visions, similar in character and narrative, each one nested within the vision preceding, such that each new phase in the narrative turns out a fresh rehearsal of what has already happened. The terza rima continually reinforces the effect, each tercet a split couplet that takes off from the middle rhyme of the tercet preceding, and itself introducing a new rhyme element to be taken up in the tercet following. The endless echoing variation within repetition of poetic rhyme, is, of course, a peculiar strength in Shelley’s poetry; but his astonishing virtuosity in complex patterns of rhyme is not as fully recognised as it should be.
There is what one might characterise as a multi-stranded thread of continuities which inhabit successive forms in Shelley’s unfolding development as a poet. It is the expressive counterpart of his abiding interest in the notion of a higher reality transmitted through forms which are themselves impermanent.
He is also a poet whose work is unusually saturated in literary echoes: rhetorically functional in a palpably designed way, of course, and very strikingly, in for instance the specifically invoked relationships between his major works and their classical or European analogues and models; but also in the way one’s ear as a reader is constantly aware of echoing phrases and words and other expressive devices in the poetry which create a sort of intensely literary echo-chamber, be it Shakespeare or Spenser or Milton or Herrick, Bion and Moschus, the classical epic poets, the Italian renaissance romancers, Goethe, Calderon — his range of reading is remarkable, but more than that, taken as a whole it seems a pervading dimension of his style.
Late Shelley is teeming with echoes, and the vocabulary of echo and repetition. There were biographical circumstances behind that, in the last months. His past selves were haunting him. Queen Mab was pirated by William Clarke in 1821. All kinds of echoes will have been sounding for him in the spring of 1822, with the imminent arrival of Leigh Hunt, the expected delivery of his library, the conflicted intimacy with Byron, calling back the summer of 1816 and the autumn of 1818. The Williams’s children, a little boy and a baby girl, must have brought bitter memories as they played with the toddler Percy Florence.
Echoes are important for Shelley and that shows in late writings such as “When the lamp is shattered” and the “Unfinished Drama.” But they’re also important for us as Shelley’s readers, because we represent a phase or wave in the recurrent rebirth of Shelley’s power as a poet in the minds of successive generations of readers.
‘Study of Cirrus Clouds’ by John Constable (1824)
Much of Shelley’s poetry returns to images and metaphors of clouds. Why? What is Shelley’s fascination with these ephemeral objects?
Clouds are ubiquitous in Shelley’s poetry, from the earliest to the latest work. He is clearly fascinated by and attracted to their infinitely various shapes and their constant shape-changing. His descriptive-metaphorical language dwells on their relationship with wind, and especially with light, sunlight or moonlight, and also lightning, the way in which bright or suffused light reflects from or shines or glows through the medium of cloud and mist. They are for him particularly suggestive in their property of veiling or diffusing light which is too bright to look at unmediatedly. Characteristically, his representation of cloud types and formations is sharply observant, even quasi-scientific, and has deceived hostile critics in its attentive particularity, for example in the second stanza of the “Ode to the West Wind.” Shelley was well aware that the protean nature of clouds was powered by natural forces driving the water cycle, from seawater evaporation via clouds to precipitation and, as his poem “The Cloud” magnificently dramatises, the immortality of clouds in their perpetual renewal through that cycle is a powerful image of poetry’s own protean capacity to spring back to life in new minds. “The Cloud” is an exhiliratingly self-celebrating self-description, which is also a self-celebrating self-description of the poetry, and its poet.
Jeremy Corbyn at Glastonbury 2017
At the end of your lecture you discussed the continued pertinence of Shelley’s poetry, noting Jeremy Corbyn’s quoting of the Mask of Anarchy in the 2017 general election in the UK. How and why do Shelley’s works resonate with the current political and social climate in the UK and beyond?
My own serious interest in Shelley began in a commitment to the political left, deeply influenced as I was by my doctoral supervisor Geoffrey Matthews, who had been a communist sympathiser as a young man and remained a marxist, albeit of a highly nuanced and somewhat rueful cast, to the end of his life. Another powerful influence for me personally was the radical journalist Paul Foot, whom I met when he gave a lecture at the first Gregynog Conference, which I organised in 1978. We became friends, and I saw him give his electrifying lectures on Shelley’s left-wing views on a number of subsequent occasions (once, memorably, in the company of William Keach, who was visibly moved and shaken). Paul (who was very well-known as an investigative journalist on Private Eye, and also closely involved with the then Socialist Workers Party) was a truly extraordinary public speaker, or more strictly orator, and you were left in no doubt of the potency and importance of Shelley’s views on such matters as human rights, universal suffrage, despotic corruption, women’s rights, and other issues. Shelley’s direct and impassioned championing of these causes was far ahead of its time, and cost him dearly, even though nowadays there is scarcely any one of his “extreme” radical opinions which are not regarded as simply mainstream, not excluding opinions that one finds on the liberal wing of the Anglican Church. Hearing Paul read the closing lines of The Mask of Anarchy was quite an experience; his inflection elided the ironies that can be read as playing though that poem, and rendered the appeal to the oppressed to “rise like lions after slumber” as an irresistible clarion call to awaken an unstoppable political movement. That impassioned directness in exhorting “the many” to rise up against “the few” has an unusual authority when deployed in the service of a radical-left agenda, because of the manifestly sophisticated rhetoric and the seriousness of the artistic achievement. It is a superbly eloquent, educated and sane voice, and as such has become a recurring resource for the political and popular left in Britain for decades, taking forward Shelley’s nineteenth-century significance in movements that prepared the way for the British Labour Party, such as the Chartists and the Fabians. The Labour Leader Neil Kinnock quoted from Queen Mab in his keynote speech at a Party conference in the eighties, and another of Shelley’s political poems, “England in 1819,” also gets cited often (for example by the then Labour Minister for Higher Education Bill Rammel, during a visit to Liverpool University some years ago). Put at its simplest, Shelley’s ideas, as articulated in the poetry, are at the extreme radical end, both for their period and for his subsequent readers, of the spectrum of such views as we find them in the major English poets. The political left in Britain and Europe has known that perfectly well for almost two centuries, and is always ready to deploy his words in the service of their causes. So Jeremy Corbyn not only used the phrase from Mask of Anarchy throughout the recent General election campaign, but also read from the poem in his enormously influential address to the crowd at Glastonbury. Many years before that, however, another Labour leader, Michael Foot (uncle of Paul), used often to quote it at rallies.