Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Undergraduate poem comes to light

In 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet promoting atheism. This wasn’t his first offence. A few months earlier, a seditious poem of his had been published anonymously with the title On the Existing State of Things. For two centuries, all copies were thought to have been destroyed. Now one has been acquired by the Bodleian Library.

A newly discovered poem by Shelley is literary news. A few commentators have also been excited by the way its radicalism resonates in our own times. A reference to a victim of imperial expansion, who

… in the blushing face of day
His wife, his child, sees sternly torn away; 
Yet dares not to revenge, while war’s dread roar
Floats, in long echoing, on the blood-stain’ed shore 

spoke to some of Syrian refugees and, specifically, of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach. Such images haunt us, and it doesn’t take much to bring them to mind. 

When it comes to human suffering, there’s no question that 18-year-old Shelley’s heart was in the right place. He was in favour of 'peace, love, and concord' and opposed to tyranny. None of this is surprising. More interesting are the ways in which the poem fails.

Written in heroic couplets, it harks back to the style that dominated English poetry in the 18th century. The more brilliant exponents of the form shaped it into a perfect vehicle for satirical argument. Alexander Pope’s couplets are crafted so that every word counts and the music of metre and rhyme seem effortless. In his Essay on Man he describes humankind as 

Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled;
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

What in Pope’s hands seem easy, other notable writers failed to achieve. Samuel Johnson, celebrated for his prose more than for his verse, began his poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes (based on Juvenal’s Tenth Satire) like this: 

Let Observation with extensive view
Survey Mankind from China to Peru.

Coleridge would later expose the emptiness of this couplet, by rewriting it: 'Let observation with extensive observation observe mankind extensively.'

With his friend Wordsworth, Coleridge was engaged in revolutionising poetry, writing about the lives of ordinary people in accessible language and using verse forms drawn from oral tradition. It’s puzzling, then, to see Shelley, a young radical of the next generation, reaching back to a form fashionable in the previous century to make his radical statement, and importing with it a lofty tone and a weakness for abstraction.

Nothing here suggests that its author would go on to produce a poem such as Ozymandias, which says more in 14 lines about the destruction of tyranny than On the Existing State of Things manages in 172. And it does nothing to stave off a time when Percy Bysshe might be referred to as 'husband of the visionary novelist, Mary Shelley'.

No comments:

Post a Comment