Reading Shelley, Again
By Chew Yi Wei
Today, I run my fingers along a row of books placed alphabetically, according to author, on the third tier of my bookshelf the poetry tier, where I have, through the years, collected a few precious books featuring poets and poems that matter to me. I pick out a thick volume, Shelley's Poetry and Prose, a Norton Critical Edition, selected and edited by Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers, a copy I acquired from Kinokuniya Bookstore on June 2, 2001.
I have a habit of dating my books on the day I purchase or receive them which will later enable me to relive the moment when literary desire, dream and ambition had first culminated into the purchase of a particular book. More significantly, it allows me to remember the years between, how I came to know about the book, how I and the book have grown and changed, and the different experiences accumulating layers of perspectival richness. It is an evolving relationship one has, between her book and herself sometimes the book becomes an old lover, sometimes a new enemy. In the most ideal of circumstances, the reader speaks to her book as it speaks to her, continuing, from where they have left off, a deepening conversation they started at a certain time and place.
C.S. Lewis says of rereading: "No book is really worth reading at the age of 10 which is not equally and often far more worth reading at the age of 50 and beyond." Rereading can change the way we remember, love or even detest a book, and such an act invariably transforms the trajectory of this very intricate relationship. Anne Fadiman, in the preface to her edited volume, Rereadings, asks most succinctly, "Do we stop loving them (ie. our books)," even as the relationship between the reader and the read evolves beyond recognition? In her very question lies her very answer. I cannot possibly speak for every reader, but I can say without doubt that my own answer lies in the happy negative. Lover or enemy they may become, I have never stopped and will never stop loving these selected, especial books the books that I have chosen, the books that have chosen me.
Back in 1998, my O-level results were released. The agonising wait for the results proved worthwhile; much to my delight, I managed to ace all my subjects, the sciences, mathematics and humanities alike. Under such auspices, I was in a fix as to what I should read in junior college. The choice of college and subjects became both an enterprise of excitement and predicament. Two years in a heavy curricular blitz and scramble, just to prepare for a national exam called the A levels: was it worth making the humanities my choice? ("It is hard to score in subjects that do not equate 1 and 1 with 2! What are you going to do after that anyway? Teach?") Or was I better off taking the more orthodox route of the sciences? ("At least the answers are fixed subjectivity is suicidal, well, for your A levels at least! Getting into university should be your first priority. You wouldn't want to screw around with your grades!")
These were the questions I asked myself as I stared at the form. In the background, voices of authority and apparent common sense blared, further interfering in my decision-making. Amidst the swirl of supposedly wise exhortations, it did not occur to me to make the choice between real education and practical learning (did I even know the difference?); what could potentially chisel a smoother path to the university was undoubtedly of greater concern. Choosing the Commerce Faculty was never a remote consideration because accounting and its conterminous proclivity for long lists of numbers never appealed to me, so that, at the very least, made me a little less spoilt for choice. History was a bad experience due to the rigorous memorisation I had to endure in secondary school. Literature was fun but frivolous and dangerous. Chemistry was fascinating, and I didn't mind mathematics in its non-applied form. With these subjects spread out before me like a buffet, I considered and re-considered my options alongside the familiar and unassailable dictum of why opting for the science stream was more sensible, more realistic and hence more desirable.
"You will have more options," I was repeatedly told. "You can later choose science or arts in the university. If you choose the arts now, you close the door to doing science later." Of course I knew such advice to be well-intentioned and, to a certain degree, true. After all, the Singaporean curriculum was and still is largely inclined towards mathematics and the sciences and for good reason: the economy needs its economists, engineers, doctors and researchers. Perhaps the only useful thing about the arts was that it could arguably prepare one for law. But I did not want to be a lawyer; I never did. Under such pragmatic societal counsel, I almost came to believe that reading the arts was nothing more than an exercise in futility, an automatic trajectory to a "dumping ground" as was the parlance of the 1990s, for those who "could not make it" another proverbial Singaporean truism that is still in active currency today.
So, after much dawdling and dithering, my mind was finally made up on the right thing to do. But just when I was about to write "Science", something moved within me and for some strange, inexplicable reason, I penned instead "Arts". Not that I had any particular preference for the arts at that point in time, since it was science I was more confident in. Not that I even possessed any great desire in choosing literature as a subject. Yes, I had read it for my O levels, but I never truly appreciated or understood its essence; I merely saw it as a subject that my secondary school made compulsory. However, I was now given a choice to read or not to read literature and I thought with a combination of fear and flippancy: "I'll just give it a go."
One could say then that that was one of the most unplanned, hasty last-minute decisions I'd ever made. Truth be told, the journey began fraught with regret and anger, but it soon proved the only journey, transforming my confused wanderings into something fulfilling and sure. I arrived at an epiphanic certainty that I wanted to write, to read and to make literature an integral part of my life. I realised I had been on the search for what Boey Kim Cheng, in his aptly titled poem 'Another Place', calls the "vanished song", awaiting reclamation and revelation in a world filled with other distractions.
Of course, it would be naive to assume that literature alone can feed a famished stomach, and I have often, through the years, doubted disdained even the thought that it could in any remote way save the world or improve the human condition, as many people are wont to proclaim. But when the smog clears, when there is less time and place for cynicism, my memory of knowing Shelley of those halcyon days when my literature lessons help enliven a dull curriculum reminds me why I was drawn to the world of poesy and its larger universe of literature in the first place, and there begins again a much-needed sense of awakening, a fire that reinvigorates a world so beset with boredom and violence. Wallace Stevens, in his poem 'Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself' captures the small but powerful cry of poetry and literature:
I cannot begin to justifiably articulate Wallace's majestic disjuncture between the "scrawny cry" and the "new knowledge of reality" attained by and through the poet and his art. "Life's unquiet dream", its proclivity for pecuniary measures, political might, environmental degradation and technological aspiration notwithstanding, literature is perhaps the only recourse capable of that cosmic leap into the space of human connection, of our renewed conversation with the world as we strive to make sense of it each day.
I came to know about Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1998, after those curricular choices were keyed into the system and cast in stone. Notwithstanding choosing literature as an A-level subject, I was totally unprepared for Shelley. Like a persona non grata, he stormed his way into my very immature mind I was only 16 going on 17. Prior to that, Shelley's name was a complete question mark to me. Our introduction to each other was therefore defined more by a grudging handshake than one born of familiarity.
Despite his unexpected, almost presumptuous emergence into my world, Shelley soon became an indispensable permanent resident, his poetry irreversibly enriching my otherwise parched mental terrain. There are poets whose works I have subsequently fell in love with and who have become impeccable sources of literary influence Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, T.S. Eliot, Tomas Transtrφmer, Boey Kim Cheng, Lee Tzu Pheng, Arthur Yap but no one else can ever replicate Shelley's role in this sublime initiating experience, my literary bar mitzvah.
We were told to purchase our literature texts early in the new semester. Shelley came in the form of a thin volume titled Percy Bysshe Shelley Selected Poems, a Dover Thrift Edition with a floridly pastoral cover, supposedly representing 36 of his signature works. When I made a random and feeble attempt to read just few lines from 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty', all I could utter was a crude profanity, expressing perplexity rather than profundity. Like every typical Singaporean student, I thought I'd simply let the teacher do the explaining and then proceed to memorise what he or she says for the sake of answering the examination questions.
But oh, how wrong I was! For starters, my teacher at St Andrew's Junior College the domineering and highly prepossessing Ms K inducted us into Shelley's oeuvre not through any poem from the collection but by throwing us, in a manner most unsympathetic, Wordsworth's 'Preface to Lyrical Ballads' and Shelley's 'A Defence of Poetry'. "Read it before class on Monday," she boomed, before swiftly walking out of the classroom. That was my first lesson on Shelley.
During the weekend, I tried to get past the first few lines of what was abruptly flung at us, but to my dismay, I remained in a trance. For the very first time since I made my choice to read literature, I lamented about wanting to switch back to science. Over and over again, I tried to sieve through and decode what was written, only to hit a dead end. Wordsworth and Shelley remained in a cryptic double bind, and I imagined the poets mocking me, in all their Romantic loftiness, for being a philistine.
What did Wordsworth mean by good poetry being the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings"? Why was he so caught up with the way language was used? Did it matter? Why was poetry, to Shelley, "the expression of the Imagination"? What did Shelley mean by the "true and beautiful"? Why should the poet be deemed "prophet"? Marianne Moore says most factually that "we / do not admire what / we cannot understand" and I suppose this proved only too true in my initial trawling of Wordsworth and Shelley.
The following Monday, Ms K asked in her signature sardonicism, "Did you all bother to read any of the articles I gave out?" Silence was the reply before someone raised her hand gingerly, much to the relief of the rest of the class. And that was how we started the lesson proper. To my amazement, I found my interest in Shelley and Wordsworth expanding within that short span of an hour. Like an acquired taste, these two poets began to grow on me, as my frustration slowly transformed into admiration and understanding.
As the days passed, Shelley became kismet, while Wordsworth trailed shortly behind. The former's poems I gave to willing memorisation such that I could quote him as and when I wanted, ventriloquising his observations on disappointment, change and, most of all, the Imagination. One of my early favourites was the short little poem titled 'Mutability'. My best friend Kelvin and I would spend hours talking about how right Shelley was in understanding life to be one of constant change. Our fascination for the paradoxical "Naught may endure but Mutability" resonated with the vicissitudes of being 17 and dealing with the issues of growing up in an education system we felt increasingly alienated from but simultaneously bound to. It was almost as though Shelley understood us, our urge to run away into another universe where we could run the Elysium fields without the burden of teenage obligations. Soon enough, he became a kindred spirit we could invoke whenever we felt the rigours of exams, parents and personal angst catching up with us.
We loved his acknowledgement of life's fragility and mutability. I remember scribbling lines and lines of Shelley in my organiser, trying to appreciate the inevitability of death in my still very young life. "The flower that smiles today tomorrow dies," Shelley wrote. What's the point of all this work, the building of an establishment, when all these are but temporal, when we merely "wake to weep" as the day breaks? The delicate but poignant imagery of the flower, its sudden and short-lived beauty so given to passing, stirred me, feeding my increasingly Romantic sensibilities and rooting me to its tragic end.
In those moments, I wondered if I finally came to an understanding of what Shelley meant by "the true and the beautiful", that Art in its poetic form, terse and compact, was all about capturing the fleeting and the fleeing, that the poem alone was structurally capable of emblematising and immortalising the ephemeral. That was true. That was beautiful: the catching of vast ironies, of fraught incongruities in measured meter, in linguistic cadence. In Shelley, I saw the proliferation of the human imagination; the poet-prophet was therefore the bastion of humanism, able to push the limits of the mind and the heart, uplifting humanity to an aesthetic level it never knew it had. Though Shelley's constant allusions to Nature were nothing I could reasonably appreciate for what could a teenager living in a tropical, urbanised city possibly know of the fields, the skylark, the mountains? they still managed to strike a deep chord within me, creating for me a world in which I could escape, a world vibrating with geographies of my imagination. It didn't matter that I had never travelled to Shelley's England and Europe. The mind and its limitless imagination, just as he had prophesised, were sufficient for me, a skylark singing and flying on its own terms, in its own time.
Solitude, a virtue to Shelley, became an indispensable part of my life. After the end of each day, I chose to avoid the crowded bus stop where hoards of school mates would gather and, instead, made a detour towards another bus stop, further away and quieter. The bus ride home from that particular bus stop was ostensibly longer, but at least I could immerse myself in Shelley's Alastor, his Spirit of Solitude where the deep reservoir of the mind was far away from the maddening crowd, where the spirit was able to delve deep into its own "inmost sanctuary" and be in irreplaceable company with the Poet, the "nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds" as I watched the passing monotonous landscape of HDB flats, tiny green spaces, angsana trees, rain trees and cars from the window of Bus 195 as it sped along its daily route in the afternoon heat. Accompanying us was the music of Ani DiFranco emanating from my Discman, her vexed lyrics couched in acoustically folksy tunes the three of us, Shelley, DiFranco and I, railing against institutions and establishments.
While most of Shelley's poems became more accessible to me as time went by, there was however one which I had immense difficulty understanding. 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty', the poem whose lines I had read much earlier on, came back to haunt me. Sometime in the first year of junior college, Ms K decided that we should all stay back after school one afternoon so that she could deliver a special lecture on it. We marched reluctantly to the lecture theatre, knowing that we would most probably stare blankly at her as she went on her expectedly abstruse spiel about the poem. And true enough, after about an hour and a half, all of us walked out in a daze, not understanding an iota of what Ms K had said. I remember trying to take down some notes, but gave up 15 minutes into the lecture.
Later that night, I decided I had to get it right. Shelley had, after all, been able to speak to me in all the poems that I had studied so far. The moment I finished my dinner, I rushed into my room, forsaking my mathematics tutorial and the economics lecture notes I promised myself to read, and flipped immediately to the poem. I pondered on just who this "unseen Power" was and why indeed it was manifested in an "awful shadow". The more I read, the more the poem began to make sense to me, the more its meaning and form started to assume contours of greater lucidity. After about an hour or so of harvesting those questions, I hit upon a subliminal moment of revelation, that the Spirit Shelley spent the entire poem panegyrising was his Muse, his inspiration. I suppose Ms K did mention it during her lecture, but I was too overwhelmed by the weight of the day and the dim lighting in the lecture theatre to fully absorb her in retrospect very commendable lecture.
Soon, I too desired a muse that would guide me away from the "dim vast vale of tears" and into a place where I could "fear" myself and at the same time "love all human kind". Shelley was fixated with meter and language as defining elements of poetry, and this poem was, for me, one of his culminating poetic achievements. I was enraptured by the poem's metrical scheme, the ending of each stanza committed to a tight iambic pentameter; the rhythmic cadence of each syllable rolling off my tongue, sweetly, smoothly, as I read the lines aloud in the privacy of my own company. Indeed, it was akin to a religious exaltation, an invocation and ode to a Muse that could so easily elude the poet and his art, the "ecstasy" of its "shadow" bestowing the poet an intense yearning only he could comprehend.
I went to bed that night satisfied, in spite of the unfinished maths tutorial.
I left junior college at the end of 1999 after taking my A levels. I must admit that I worked hard for all my subjects, but it was only literature that I excelled in not because I studied for it as an examination subject but because I loved it for reasons beyond the extrinsic. If literature were for me merely an examination requirement, my relationship with Shelley would not have existed, much less grown, in the first place. What I was to read in the university was obvious; there was no other way about it. I became a student of literature, theatre studies and history, majoring eventually in the first two, maintaining literature as my unwavering first love.
Reading Shelley again today at the age of 31, almost 14 years after my first meeting with him, I am thankful that I did not miss the woods for the trees. In a country that makes no apology for privileging economics, mathematics and the sciences above the humanities, Shelley is but a stranger, a misfit. But in the cacophony of noisy number crunching, land reclamation and building demolition, there is a scrawny voice reverberating in all its loneliness and solitude, that there is at least somebody who has hearkened to the call to look to another place, a place away from the physical, a place in the woods, amongst trees, where Art is allowed to sit and commiserate with its companions. Real education for me began when I decided to move beyond the confines of the curriculum, into the frontiers of the Imagination. It was then that I truly saw the value of learning a long, enduring path that I have walked to this day.
In the years between then and now, I have intermittently pulled out my Norton edition of Shelley, for no other reason than to read some of his poetry again, to converse with an old friend again; to experience new realisations upon old poems, again. The Dover Thrift Edition that I used as my textbook is now lost; I lent it to an acquaintance who wanted to retake her A levels. That book, with all my notes copiously scribbled in it, never came back. But that's no matter. True education is not about remembering one's classroom notes, though there is undeniably a sense of sentimentality attached.
Shelley's poems, in whatever edition they are published in, remain for me the essence of his work, and my life. Without our unanticipated meeting more than a decade ago, I would have, in all likelihood, forsworn this path and taken another safer, more pragmatic one. As I linger on a little longer at my bookshelf with the page turned to 'Mutability', I am glad that I can once again meet with Shelley in a knowing conversational joust. My love for his poetry, his longstanding impact on me, has unlike his poem's title been unchanging through the years. I close the book, in the hope of seeing him again, in a future when our friendship will be older and riper.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 2 Apr 2013