The Wordsworth Trust is one of my favourite literary museums and when I heard of their latest exhibition, Shelley’s Ghost, I had to make the trip. I read some of Shelley’s poems aloud recently, at Arthur House’s excellent poetry night at Blacks Club in Soho. I had always planned to read from ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ and some of the scathing political poems, but given that the previous night had seen some of the worst rioting seen in London for decades, Shelley’s incendiary verse could not have seemed more powerful and contemporary.
Quite by accident, my trip coincided with a poetry reading by Fiona Sampson and Carola Luther in the Wordsworth Hotel in Grasmere. Luther was reading from her newly published Carcanet collection, Arguing with Malarchy (pronounced malarky, rather than malachi, she explained).
‘This feels like a big gig,’ she said charmingly. Growing up in South Africa, she read Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome as well as Wordsworth, so had a sense of ‘greenness and daffodils inside, despite living somewhere with aloes and dust and repression’. Her work shows a deep awareness of the animal and physical world. One Wordsworthian poem, ‘The Lamb’, was written in the Lake District.
She warned us that ‘Julia’s Party’ was ‘mournful’, a poem about an old lady who collapses at a gathering, ‘folding up / like a deckchair, kicked /right there against the yellow doors’. A summery poem about bees, ‘sunlit busbies stuffed with sleep’, fitted the beautiful weather outside. Her chicken poems go some way to explaining the hideous (at least to me) cover photograph of a cockerel’s eye in close up (it’s her cockerel). Earlier work was more closely linked to her African self, but frequently she seemed puzzled by her own poems, as if not quite sure of their source.
The energy level kicked up when Fiona Sampson took the stage, a crisp, musical poet with great presence. She apologised for her bad cough, but it just made her voice even more husky and expressive. Sampson edits Poetry Review, the journal of the Poetry Society (ructions continue over its future direction). ‘One of the joys of the day job is the hate mail,’ she said wryly, clearly feeling the strain, and went on to read a poem entitled ‘Death Threat’. Other poems told of a miraculously bleeding yew, Crick and DNA (‘The Code’) and she read a lovely piece for her brother, ‘The Corn Sermon’.
The next morning, I turned up for Sampson’s lecture on Shelley at the Wordsworth Trust. She has just compiled an anthology of his verse for Faber. Interestingly, she got the commission before she was even interested in him. ‘I’m no Romanticist,’ she announced. Her observations were all the more thought-provoking for not coming from an avowed fan. I was particularly struck with her notion that as he was not widely published during his lifetime he was essentially ‘talking to himself’. The poems are ‘not quite clear as a bell’, she said ruefully, but she found herself moving far away from her initial feeling that he was ‘windy and wordy’. Living conscienciously was his goal; ‘he was not the victim of destiny,’ she maintained.
She read from ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ and ‘Queen Mab’, also the sonnet ‘England in 1819′, and ‘Ode to the West Wind’, giving thrilling emphasis to the music and virtuosity. Strangely, she rather mucked up the lines about free love from ‘Epipsychidion’ (‘I never was a part of that great sect…’) by reading them in a comedy voice. She claimed they were ‘unintentionally funny’ and wondered why we weren’t laughing. Whether or not you believe, as she does, that the sentiments represent outrageous special pleading, the poetry is spellbinding. Form and content are not so easily separated; it seems a strange point for a poet to miss.
The Trust’s permanent Wordsworth exhibition is gloriously retro, telling the story of the older generation of Romantics via gloomy oil portraits and watercolour landscapes, cases full of manuscripts with long explicatory panels and reams of poetry. No buttons to press, few videos, no actors hamming it up as Dorothy or Coleridge. It’s quite refreshing. Mervyn Peake’s drawings for ‘The Ancient Mariner’ are a particular highlight.
‘Shelley’s Ghost’ is quite a small exhibition, but a wonderful one. For a start, the great portraits of Godwin, Mary Shelley, Shelley and Wollstonecraft from the National Gallery are there, but are hung much lower, so that you can actually look Shelley in the eye. It is not a particularly adept portrait; unlike Byron, whose many likenesses were mostly taken by skilled artists, Shelley sat to an amateurish friend in Rome, Amelia Curran. The mouth is weak, the hand is pudgy, but the eyes are clear and it’s eerie to look into them. Bad painting it may be, but there is a definite family resemblance to the lovely portrait of his sisters Margaret and Hellen, also on display.
The exhibition shows the relics of a literary family, beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft’s heartbreaking note to Godwin, dated 30 August 1797: ‘I have no doubt of seeing the animal today…’ The ‘animal’ was her unborn baby (non-nonsense enlightenment rationality speaking there). Mary demands a diverting novel to while away the hours before labour begins in earnest. Of course, she was to die a few days after the birth of Mary Shelley.
There is a page from the manuscript of Frankenstein, with heavy corrections from Shelley. It has always been disputed how much he contributed to the novel. The notebooks are particularly fascinating, showing just how hard Mary Shelley had to work to complete the posthumous Complete Poems. Ideas, lines and images fly in all directions, and when inspiration failed, Shelley made charming doodles of trees, flowers and boats. I loved the small notebook, still with its original bookshop sticker, bought in Paris after their elopement, in which they scribbled a shared travel journal.
I was sorry not to see Jane Williams’ guitar, bought by Shelley and presented to her with the manuscript of ‘With a Guitar, To Jane’. But there is plenty here for the enthusiast to ponder: a fragile and very rare banner from Peterloo; a sensitive portrait of Edward Williams, who drowned with Shelley; a water-damaged copy of Sophocles which was probably salvaged from the wreck; and Shelley’s last letter to Mary, the last line of which I’ve always found haunting: ‘I have found the translation of the Symposium.’ ‘Our great poet of rapture’, in Sampson’s phrase, was in full intellectual spate when he was silenced forever.