8 July 2010 is the 188th anniversary of the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley.
While most people hopefully may encounter at least one of his poems (perhaps "Ozymandias") over the course of their lives, it remains a question for many adults as to why they should continue to pay attention to the work of a writer like Shelley and literature in general once they get out of school.
To this end, why should anyone in 2010 care about the death of a poet who died almost 200 years ago?
Many stories surround Shelley's death, largely due to the dramatic and exaggerated account of the poet's body being found with his brains oozing out his ears with a copy of Keats' works in his pocket in Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron by Edward James Trelawney (a figure who is nearly as interesting as the poets themselves).
To add dimension to Shelley's story, as any undergraduate level course or book on Romanticism may tell you, he authored at least two poems ["Alastor; or the Spirit of Solitude" (1815) and "The Triumph of Life" (1822)] centered around a poet who ultimately meets his death in a boat.
While reading biography into literature is the downfall--and indeed great fear--of many critics, Shelley's works and his life nevertheless have an odd (and often deliberate) parallelism. Some of this biographicalness, if you will, is self-styled authorial fame-seeking (of the famous Byron portrait in Turkish garb I'm-an-exotic-artist-adventurer-way). But, some of this biography-in-literature, of course, reflects the strange irony by which life frequently imitates art.
For my own interest as a researcher, Shelley's works represent a relatively rare example of self-taught interdisciplinarity in writing. That is, he is a writer who finds unique ways to adapt ideas from other disciplines, in this case, music, into literature with no practical training but sustained exposure as a listener and reader.
To address the question I posed at the beginning, people should care and occasionally try to read a work or two by a dead writer (yes, even a dead British poet like Shelley) due to the odd, enlightening, and frankly fascinating things you can learn, even about writers (like Shakespeare) about whom you've read a million times. So, in short, read out of simple curiosity.
For instance, in March 2010, The Guardian reported that a researcher had unearthened a lost memoir by Claire Clairmont (Shelley's half sister and mother of Byron's illegitimate daughter, Allegra) that directly contradicted everything else that she had ever written about Shelley and Byron. This newly discovered memoir, written when Claire was an older lady, called Shelley a "monster," partially for his treatment of women. This "revelation" sent many scholars into a tizzy, defending Shelley and all of Claire's previous support of the poet.
For my part, I was fascinated by the continued interest in the Shelley circle and by the fact that it remains possible to read something new about them. That said, I was far from shocked by Claire's accusations, both because she was old when she wrote the document and because it is hardly surprising to learn of an act of misogyny in the 19th century.
In an age where knowledge and language have descended with purpose into ephemerality, multiplicity, and truncation, there suddenly seems room, almost inexhaustibly, for people to rediscover literature, history, philosophy, and good writing. Even while it seems as if the very fabric of language and books themselves is being unravelled. After all, aren't writers the main source of #quotes on Twitter?
The advent of electronic media obviously has created a revolution of substance in terms of archiving and preserving history and literature as well as educating people through the plethora of information now at one's fingertips.
Yet, as I'm sure others have observed, I think that we see a quieter revolution slipping in with the concept of knowledge as direct marketing. In a sense, when we Tweet, post a link, or write in a blog, we're directing people to ideas or something in a targeted fashion because we find it relevant, important, or interesting. This adds purpose to the acts of navigation and reading, among a chaos of information now available in an instant.
In this way, I find blogs, Twitter, and other information resources comforting as I observe old ideas becoming new ideas to someone as he or she reads them again or for the first time. Thus, Shelley's death has the potential to become a significant event for anyone who may not have ever had the chance to read "To a Skylark" or "Ode to the West Wind."
What do you think? Even if you've been exposed to the poetry of this era, how do you think literature remains relevant in an age of social media? Can social media actually improve learning and student learning outcomes in this way?
This is the third in a column appearing regularly about literature and my forthcoming book, Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism.