27 June 2010

The Problems with Soggy Manuscripts

Many debates in literary scholarship concern issues surrounding the interpretation and history of manuscripts, particularly as they inform understanding of what authors write and why they write.

This a particular problem in establishing version control and thus textual authority for literary works, particularly when different copies of the same works exist in one or multiple hands.

Happily, academics have come to consensus about some of these issues, which are frequently published in the form of established "critical editions" of literary works.

Unfortunately, as a scholar who studies the relations between Romantic-era poetry and music, manuscripts and their interpretation continues to cause problems. Indeed, rumors abound in relation to a poem by Shelley called variously "An Indian Girl's Song" or "An Indian Serenade."

Percy Bysshe Shelley died on 8 July 1822 when his boat capsized off the coast of Livorno in Italy. When his body and boat were found, several of his notebooks were also recovered, including one containing a version of the poem that begins "I arise from dreams of thee." On the back of damaged leaf containing a draft of this poem, Shelley appears to have jotted some words from the Italian aria "Ah perdona" from Mozart's opera La Clemenza di Tito. From this evidence, many biographers and scholars have concluded that Shelley intended his poem to be set to the music of this aria.

Knowing the poet's interest in music and passion for Mozart since early 1817, I find it entirely probable that Shelley did, in fact, intend for this poem to be set to this duetto from Mozart's Tito. The poem fits the music relatively well. I also argue elsewhere that he had similar intentions (though did not yet have the musical setting) for his lyrical drama "Prometheus Unbound."

Nevertheless, as a reader, critic, and music lover, I am highly interested in the assumption that leads one to the conclusion that this poem must go with Mozart's aria because the poet wrote the Italian lyrics on a page close to this draft of this poem in the manuscript. How do we know this?

The poem "I arise from dreams of thee" has a complicated manuscript history. Shelley, who famously left his first wife Harriet to run away with the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, had many semi-erotic relationships with women over the course of his life. It appears that Shelley "spontaneously" wrote several versions of this poem (with different titles) for several different women, including one written in 1819 for a young Englishwoman named Sophia Stacey, which did not include any reference to an aria by Mozart, and one written two years later for Jane Williams, who was perhaps the intended recipient of the soggy version that washed up on the shore with Shelley after his death. Since there are variances between these different versions over the course of more than a year, it has proved troublesome for scholars trying to pinpoint the "original" version of this poem and then, in turn, determine whether or not it was to be set to music.

As renowned scholars Donald Reiman, Michael O'Neill, and others have noted, it seems certain that Shelley originally wrote the poem in 1819 for Sophia Stacey after hearing her sing at a gathering of friends. In addition to the popularity of Tito on the European and British stage from 1810-1825, "Ah perdona" was a popular piece of drawing room music at time, which meant that Shelley likely knew the song well. In this way, it seems possible that he originally wrote the poem for Sophia Stacey with the intention of her singing it to this popular aria by Mozart.

Yet, again, coming to the conclusion that "I arise from dreams of thee" is meant to be set to this particular song is partially conjecture. Educated conjecture based on interpretation of primary sources, both from Shelley's own hand as well as others who knew him. But, conjecture nonetheless.

However, what interests me most about the soggy manuscript is what it may reveal about a writer's impulse to have one of his poems set to music. What did music mean to Shelley in 1819 and then in 1821? Shelley was no musician, though fell in love with music due to various experiences from late 1816 to 1817. Yet, it does not appear that he ever wrote a poem for his wife, Mary, with the intention of having it set to music, even though he wrote several for other, arguably more musically-inclined, women.

These are some of the questions I investigate in the book I'm finishing. I am a literary critic interested in maintaining a historical perspective while closely reading the works themselves. This approach, of course, necessitates interpretation, conjecture, and informed decision making based on a variety of sources, including soggy manuscripts.

And so the job of a researcher goes on....

This is the second post in a regular column appearing about art and my forthcoming book, Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism.

For more on Shelley and opera, see--Jessica Quillin, "'An assiduous frequenter of the Italian opera': Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and the opera buffa," Romantic Circles: Praxis Series.

* Image above is from Fair Copy Manuscripts of Shelley's Poems in European and American Libraries, ed. Donald Reiman and Michael O'Neill, London: Taylor & Francis, 1997.

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