Here at the K-SAA we are thrilled to present a special Q&A with Dr Bysshe Inigo Coffey, author of the acclaimed Shelley’s Broken World: Fractured Materiality and Intermitted Song.
Published by Liverpool University Press, Coffey’s monograph is described as a ‘provocative and profound reassessment of Shelley’s poetic art and thought’, and excitingly uses previously unstudied and unpublished Shelleyan materials, including the ‘Marlow List’, to reveal more about Shelley and his works.
Lauded by critics as ‘a major contribution to the rich field of current Shelley studies’ and ‘a work of scholarly elegance as well as depth’, Coffey’s work not only offers innovative study of Shelley’s own reading, but offers a new and exciting exploration into the works of Percy Shelley.
What initially sparked your interest in Shelley, and how did the idea for your book come about?
Shelley was a great surprise. I read a lot as a child in both Kernewek (Cornish) and English. I’ve been collecting languages ever since. Shelley inspired that too. My mother would take me from Cornish bookshop to bookshop, and when I was eleven I happened on the updated Hutchinson Shelley with a sunned and rusty cover. It was all bent and fretted with cobwebs; I still have it and on my desk it will remain. In the dark corner of the bookshop I read the dedication to Laon and Cythna. That was my first Shelley. It spoke to me unignorably because I hated my school too, despite its handful of incredible teachers. I skipped pretty much the whole of years 7-9, and quite a bit of 10, and educated myself in Plymouth Public Library. I loved it. School turned a blind eye because my grades were good when the exams came around, and because I played county football, lending my services to the crappy school team. And there it was, a voice from elsewhere confirming my choices and calling from a dark corner … Shelley’s vision of unhappy school days, ‘the near school-room’ with its sad ‘voices’, and his decision on the glittering grass of a schoolfield to educate himself and follow his own radical curriculum hit me between the eyes. I wanted to go ‘Heap knowledge from forbidden mines of lore, | Yet nothing that my tyrants knew or taught | I cared to learn’. The idea of intense reading spoke to my own appetite. From then on, I have read with (to borrow a phrase from Shelley) ‘severe attention’. Shelley shows one what is possible.
When I was reading for my Mphil at Cambridge, the idea for the book first began to grow. I realised that one of the most conspicuous yet little discussed features of Shelley’s art was the pause. No one pauses quite like Shelley, and I wanted to understand why. Add to that the growing desire to know how and what Shelley read, and bang that’s the true beginning of the book…
What is the ‘Marlow List’, why is it important, and how did you use it as part of your study?
The ‘Marlow List’ is an extremely important but virtually unknown document in the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle in the New York Public Library (Pforz. Shelleyana 1082). It is a list of books in Shelley’s possession, still unpublished, that he left behind when vacating his library in Marlow in February 1818. It overlaps to an extent with a few surviving lists of requests to booksellers and with the record of Mary Shelley’s journals, but contains several items that appear nowhere else. It reveals a great deal about the specificity of Shelley’s reading prior to his final departure for Italy in 1818.
In the book, I argue that certain works on the ‘Marlow List’ played a significant role in Shelley’s poetic and intellectual development, and their effect can be clearly traced in Shelley’s verse and its technique. Some corroborate or confirm what have been hitherto merely well-founded conjectures, for example the argument that Shelley’s knowledge of and interest in medicine, geophysics, and life sciences extended well beyond existing records. Whilst I do not suggest that any single book unlocks the key to his thought, the ‘Marlow List’ changes permenantly the intellectual contexts in which we place Shelley. He was a polymath.
Your book has been described as ‘an exciting new beginning for the study of a major Romantic poet’. How do you show Shelley in a new and innovative light as we approach the bicentenary of his death?
The germ of the book lay in my awareness of a peculiarity of Shelley’s expressive repertoire first noticed by his Victorian readers and editors: his innovatory use of pauses, which registered as irregularities in ears untuned to his innovations. It developed into a realisation that intermittence is a pervasive quality not only of his prosody, but of the incidents his verse describes. Intermittent states of being, vacancies, suspensions, strange immaterial formulations, tenuous and porous networks lace throughout his poetry. He is interested in the powerful interval between the course one was on and where one has ended up, and in the intervals of action, feeling, and thinking. To borrow from Lucretius, one of Shelley’s favourites, he lives in the clinamen. His poetry leaps out of the arresting pause between moments of shock and surprise. No one pauses quite like Shelley. His distinctive prosody grew to articulate his sense that actuality is experienced as ruptured and fractured with gaps and limit-points. His work is suffused with the philosophical and scientific contexts from which he derived his understanding of the brokenness of materiality itself, the weakness of the actual. As we approach the bicentenary of his death, I suggest that it is time rethink the intensity and astonishing breadth of Shelley’s reading and how it fed his brilliant thought. For Shelley, poetry makes thought happen, and happen in ways unique to verse and which should not be ignored. He offers a vision of a beautifully broken world which is an antidote to our variously hurried, harried, and unhappy time.
Study of Shelley tends to focus on what the poet has said or written. In your book you focus on Shelley’s ‘spaces, interstices, and silences’. Why did you decide to do so, and what does this tell us about Shelley as a poet?
Pauses are not absences in Shelley’s poetry, but expressive presences. They are less often harmonious than jarring and shocking, following extended periods of acceleration. Pauses are not passive or vacant, but ‘thrilling’ as in Laon and Cythna, and ‘eloquent’ as in 1813’s Queen Mab. Like Shelley, I think that sounds are a significant part of how poetry thinks. As to what it tells us about Shelley the poet, he was not only a genius who wrote beautiful poetry, but the creator of a distinctive prosody, what he calls in Alastor ‘intermitted song’, informed by astonishing and unexpected intellectual contexts, a kind poetry which offers us a new approach to life.
Can you sum up your monograph in 10 words?
Shelley’s intermitted song gives us a new history of materialism.
Why should we read it?
I would like to know what you think and enjoy cheerful disagreement.
Interview by Amy Wilcockson, K-SAA Communications Fellow 2020-21. Thank you to Dr Bysshe Inigo Coffey for taking the time to provide such detailed answers!
Dr Bysshe Inigo Coffey is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Newcastle University, UK. His current project seeks to examine the phenomenon of ‘High Shelleyanism’, the international cast of Shelleyans, Shelleyites, and Shelleyphobes, and the differing ideologies and methodologies of the poet’s numerous editors, amateur and professional. As part of this, Coffey’s annotated digital gallery of illustrated Shelley editions will go live in 2021. Additionally, he is currently assisting Nora Crook with volume 8 of The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Johns Hopkins University Press). With Nora Crook and Anna Mercer, he is also preparing an edition of the Shelley notebook at the Library of Congress (MSS. 13, 290). Coffey is a 2021 Carl H. Pforzheimer Jr., Research Grant recipient from the Keats-Shelley Association of America. For more on Dr Coffey’s research see here, and to follow him on Twitter click here.