#Shelley200 Roundtable: Shelley for Our Times

We are pleased to present the recording of our sixth and final #Shelley200 event, a special guest roundtable chaired by Professor Omar F. Miranda and featuring Professor Nikki Hessell, Professor Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud, and Professor Kate Singer, editors and contributors to the forthcoming collection with Cambridge University Press, Percy Shelley for Our Times.

This event was livestreamed on 7th June 2022 and included presentations on Shelley’s value to a number of contemporary issues including settler colonialism, nonbinary gender, and a politics of hope. Along with the recording, we are pleased to include a summary of the event composed by Shelley Conference Postgraduate Helper, Ana Romanelli.

Our sixth and final #Shelley200 online roundtable was named after the forthcoming Cambridge University Press collection of essays, Percy Shelley for Our Times. It welcomed the collection’s editors and selected contributors to talk about Shelley and contemporary issues; or, as Professor Omar F. Miranda put it, the ‘woke’ Shelley.

Professor Miranda defined this ‘wokeness’ as the constantly awakened metaphor in Shelley’s poetry as well as his progressive social and political discourse. Professor Miranda noted how Shelley is considered the first celebrity vegan, a feminist, and how his avoidance of sugar was a protest against the manner in which the product was obtained – through slavery.

The first link between Shelley and British Colonialism was raised by Professor Nikki Hessell from Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington. She compared the feeling behind Shelley’s ‘England in 1819’ to that of the Cherokee treaties, particularly Treaty 21 and Treaty 27. While Shelley paints the picture of England as a land of pain and starvation, the treaties in question were an attempt to settle boundaries between the U. S. and Cherokee territory. Like the people in England let down by their tyrant ruler, the Cherokee people, who had joined the Americans in their fight against the English, were betrayed by their initial allies who then turned on indigenous groups. Professor Hessell explained that, like Shelley’s poetry, the indigenous text is largely responsive, and indigenous poets of later generations were inspired by these treaties as well as by Shelley.

Next, Professor Kate Singer discussed Shelley’s resistance to normative models of sexuality and gender and other kinds of binaristic models, including race. She considered ‘The Witch of Atlas’ and the metaphysical aspects of Shelley’s poems as arguments against normative constructs of gender and genre. In relation to the Witch’s hermaphroditic Creature, Professor Singer discussed the figure of the nineteenth-century hermaphrodite, ideas around feminine and masculine features in Shelley’s time, and his interest in nonbinary gender.

The last speaker took Romanticism au pied de la lettre. Professor Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud argued that the ‘hopeless romantic’ is the precursor of ‘woke’, with Shelley’s fanciful speculations and idealism attempting to reach beyond the reality around him and sometimes veering towards hypocrisy. An example given was Shelley’s complex and difficult relationships with real women, while at the same time defending his feminist principles. For instance, Shelley saw himself as a saviour liberating his first wife Harriet from her father’s possession, only to release her into a world that was not accepting of women abandoned by their husbands. Hope allowed Shelley to live beyond his means, Professor Cohen-Vrignaud contended.

To conclude, Professor Miranda led a Q&A session wherein the speakers described how they came upon the topics of their essays. Dr Anna Mercer commented that, even in his last days, Shelley was still a highly sociable poet and person, and asked the speakers to discuss his collaborations and shared influences, not least with Mary Shelley. Finally, Dr Paul Stephens, noting that while so much of Shelley’s work resonates with the progressive ideas of ‘our times’, asked if any of the more ‘regressive’ aspects of Shelley’s life and works help to illuminate the regressive phenomena of our modern moment.

– Ana Romanelli, Shelley Conference Postgraduate Helper