#Shelley200 Roundtable: The Jane Poems

We are pleased to present the recording of our fourth #Shelley200 event, a ‘Jane Poems’ roundtable chaired by Dr Amanda Blake Davis and featuring Dr Madeleine Callaghan, Professor Kelvin Everest, Professor William Keach, and Dr Merrilees Roberts.

This event was livestreamed on 26th January 2022 and included presentations on selected ‘Jane poems’ and discussions of genre, audience, the history of this series of lyrics, and much more. Along with the recording, we are pleased to include a summary of the event composed by Shelley Conference Postgraduate Helper, Ana Romanelli.

This roundtable’s date, January 26th, marked the beginnings of Shelley’s series of ‘Jane poems’. One of the Shelley Conference advisors, Dr Will Bowers, reminded us that ‘Edward Williams’s entry in his journal for Saturday 26 January 1822 reads: “S sent us some beautiful but too melancholy lines”. This is the poem ‘To — (The serpent is shut out from Paradise)’, considered to be the first of the ‘Jane Poems’. ‘In terms of a date of composition, it is the opinion of the Longman Poems of Shelley editors that it was done only a few days before the 26th’.

The events of Shelley’s bicentenary year started well with a rich discussion of the ‘Jane poems’. Our speakers were asked to focus on one of the eleven known lyrical poems that Shelley dedicated to Jane Williams, which lead to a brilliant analysis of his philosophy, artistry, projection of ideals, and portrayals of gender roles.

Dr Madeleine Callaghan initiated the event with an insightful talk on ‘To Jane. The Invitation’. She described Shelley’s lyric-writing as an intensification of all aspects of the lyrical form, tracing shadows and pushing poetry to revise its norm, giving the author poetical freedom. Shelley’s writing simultaneously shows absence and presence through a troubled, emotionally honest speech. We see him reimagining Jane as his ideal woman as he travels through his lyrics recalling what may or may not be real. ‘The Invitation’ is full of emotional charge, leaving the reader unable to understand the relationship between Shelley and Jane.

Yet while strong emotions seem to guide the poet in ‘The Invitation’, Dr Merrilees Roberts talked about how in ‘To Jane—The Recollection’, Shelley makes an effort to manage these very emotions in order to keep the memory of Jane alive, even if these memories are embellished by the poet. Roberts described the playful element and how Shelley is almost manipulative in his choice of words to describe Jane, as if he were teasing her and gaining pleasure from it. Roberts’s reading of the poem explores her area of expertise, which looks into sensuality in Shelley, something made clear to the reader in the poem studied by Professor Kelvin Everest, ‘With a Guitar. To Jane’. The proximity of the guitar to Jane’s body provides the reader with a sense of touch. This is a poem full of metaphors that invite the audience to meditate on centuries of human experiences. The natural flow of this poem echoes the melodic sounds of the guitar as if Jane draws a tune out of the instrument as she draws a tune out of Shelley. We then see Shelley’s wit returning in the lyric explored by Professor William Keach, ‘Bright wanderer, fair coquette of Heaven’, previously known as ‘Lines written in the Bay of Lerici’, where the fair lady he flattered incessantly is also suggested to trifle with men’s affections. The poem alludes to themes we find in Goethe’s Faust, which were all too familiar to Shelley. There is an unresolved conflict between knowledge and desire, and antagonism of pleasure and peace.

More interesting points were raised by the questions proposed by the chair of the event, Dr Amanda Blake Davis. Shelley’s lyrics were compared to seventeenth-century courtly tradition, embracing intimacy and adoration with a playful and tender wit. The extreme flattery in the poems shows Shelley’s enduring habit of imagining women and using them as a lens to channel something beyond their own being. Callaghan compared Shelley to Wordsworth: Jane is to Shelley what Lucy is to Wordsworth, yet the latter was a creation of the poet to vessel his emotions and imagination, and Jane was a real person onto whom Shelley projected his feelings and desires. When thinking of Jane as the audience of the poems, Keach talked about the act of not only addressing her but delivering the poems to Jane despite the complicated relationship between the poet and the muse. Everest considered the materiality of the manuscripts, imagining the secretive, folded ways the poems may have found their way to Jane. The Jane poems show Shelley’s anticipation and aftermath, but it is up to the reader to wonder about Shelley’s true relationship to Jane. We may never find out what truly happened between them in the Bay of Lerici in 1822, but we cannot avoid allowing ourselves to be carried by Jane’s tunes and Shelley’s poetical imagination.

Useful links:

  • The final volume of the Longman Poems of Shelley, co-edited by Everest (forthcoming April 2022)

– Ana Romanelli, Shelley Conference Postgraduate Helper