#Shelley200 Roundtable: Shelleyan Fragments

We are pleased to present the recording of our third #Shelley200 event, a ‘Shelleyan Fragments’ roundtable chaired by Paul Stephens and featuring Dr Carlene Adamson, Professor Nora Crook, Dr Mathelinda Nabugodi, and Professor Alan Weinberg.

This event was livestreamed on 29th November 2021 and included questions upon Shelley’s poetic and prose fragments, translations, and the Romantic fragment more broadly. Along with the recording, we are pleased to include a summary of the event composed by Shelley Conference Postgraduate Helper, Laura Blunsden.

Paul Stephens opened the discussion by asking the speakers whether there is a quintessential form that could be termed a ‘Shelleyan’ fragment, to which Alan Weinberg and Mathelinda Nabugodi agreed that there are too many varieties of fragments in Shelley’s works, and a necessary distinction to be made between accidentally and deliberately unfinished works, to consider any one example as ‘quintessential’. Nora Crook pointed to the rough and fair copies of The Triumph of Life and questioned how their different breaking-off points influence our understanding of Shelley’s compositional process.

Following these initial thoughts about the nature and definition of the ‘fragment’, the panel turned to evidence in verse fragments which shows that Shelley deliberately left works incomplete. Nabugodi discussed how repeated imagery of cloud formation gestures to a greater image, whilst Carlene Adamson showed that Shelley recycles new material so that a stray line reappears in a later work with a new meaning and a new destiny. Weinberg observed instances of Shelley actually describing his own poem as a ‘fragment’. Reflecting on a topic he addresses in his co-edited collection with Tim Webb, The Unfamiliar Shelley, Weinberg explained that Shelley’s later poems interact with the Italian environment and emphasise his understanding of how physical surroundings shape the mind. Crook suggested a thoughtful reading of ‘A Vision of the Sea’ which could illuminate the biographical contexts of Shelley’s later works. Considering how we should approach the relationship between draft fragments and published ones, Adamson provided a detailed explanation of Shelley’s process of reassembly and reformulation of draft fragments, based on her expertise editing Hellas. Nabugodi’s specialist knowledge of Shelley’s translations shaped her view of translated fragments as part of his poetic development; she considers them as belonging to a process of craftsmanship. His early attempt at translating Goethe’s Faust produced a curiously exact yet nonsensical version, exposing what Stephens called Shelley’s ‘fragmentary understanding’ of German.

An interesting discussion was stimulated by Shelley’s remarkable notion that just one word can constitute a poetical whole by sparking an ‘inextinguishable thought’ in his Defence of Poetry. Nabugodi agreed with Neil Fraistat’s comment that Mary Shelley’s editorial decisions reflect her belief that fragments are deserving of the reader’s serious attention. She concluded the formal discussion by thinking about how poetic structure can shape our understanding of verse fragments in a way we cannot expect as we approach prose fragments.

When the discussion was expanded to include the audience’s questions, Ana Stevenson asked how our understanding of Shelley’s compositional process and biographical events in his life can assist scholars as they order his works. Paul Whickman was interested in how fragments are treated as a thematic concern in Shelley’s poetry, and Crook indicated his recurrent metaphor for glimpses of reality as being ‘fragmented’. Kelvin Everest observed that fragmented poetry provides the reader with more of a sense of the work’s material existence than a published version can; he and Crook examined the type of paper on which Shelley wrote his poems to Jane Williams and drew inferences about the nature of their relationship from these details. They questioned the significance of the different kinds of paper used in the composition of The Triumph of Life, from Benedetto Parodi sheets to little (fragmentary) scraps. To end the discussion, Oliver Ramirez asked which fragment each panellist found most interesting to transcribe and the panellists agreed that all of the fragments provide a unique and fascinating insight into the living moment of composition.

– Laura Blunsden, Shelley Conference Postgraduate Helper