By Mathelinda Nabugodi
I’ve been to the Morgan Library once. To consult a manuscript that the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley had with him in the boat when he drowned. As some of you may know, Shelley died in a shipwreck in the Bay of Spezia, off Italy’s Western coast on 8 July 1822. According to his biographer Richard Holmes, back in England the news of his death was greeted with the announcement ‘Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry has been drowned; now he knows whether there is a God or no.’ I have not been able to verify this quote but I cite it for what it says about Shelley’s reputation at the time of his passing. He was not an unknown poet, but he was a poet most often mentioned in attacks on his morals – atheist, proto-feminist, proto-socialist, who once claimed that – and this is a verified quote – the ‘invidious distinction of human kind […] into two sexes, is a remnant of savage barbarism’.
But to the point: Shelley’s dramatic death dominates posterity’s image of the poet. Some two weeks after the shipwreck, his corpse was washed up on the shore. It was so disfigured that he was only identifiable by his clothing and the books in his pockets. Said to be a volume of Keats. Or Sophocles. Or Aeschylus. Be that as it may, I don’t think that there were that many English poets washing up on the Italian shores in the late summer of 1822 for there to be much doubt about his identity. Due to quarantine laws, his body could not be removed to a cemetery and in the end was cremated right there on the beach, a scene attended by his friends Lord Byron – the most famous poet of the day – and Leigh Hunt – less famous now but a well-known poet and journalist at the time. The cremation spawned its own iconography – as for instance in Louis Éduard Fourier’s painting The Death of Shelley (1889). The poet is represented not quill in hand – as might be expected – but rather as corpse in the process of being cremated.
I’ve been to the Morgan Library once. To consult a manuscript that was bought by Belle da Costa Greene, though I did not know who she was at the time. Today the Morgan Library has an online exhibition that marks the 200th anniversary of poet John Keats’s death, who had died in Rome in February 1821. Keats and Shelley were friends, though they did not meet in Italy. The exhibition, entitled Almost a Remembrance: Belle Greene’s Keats, focuses on Greene’s collecting of Keats manuscripts. Here you can read that in 1909, Belle Greene had orchestrated an important purchase from the bookseller Frank T. Sabin that included a sketch of Keats on his deathbed by Joseph Severn, a lock of Keats’s hair as well as – and here I cite the Morgan’s webpage – ‘significant Percy Bysshe Shelley manuscripts (including a poem found in his pocket after he drowned in 1822)’. A poem in his pocket? On his disfigured corpse, more than two weeks in the water? I can imagine that this is what Belle would have been told by the seller – and clearly it has been recorded somehow for the writer of the online caption to have found it (I checked the catalogue record, it is not there) – but would Belle have believed that she bought a manuscript taken off Shelley’s corpse?
If the iconography of Shelley’s death – not least various conflicting accounts of books found in his pockets – would have tempted her to believe, she would not have done so after taking a proper look at the manuscript itself. This is because, in fact, its provenance is spelled out on the final page. The remains of the boat – named Don Juan – in which Shelley drowned were located and salvaged on 15 September 1822, so that’s just over two months after the shipwreck. Found aboard were assorted belongings: two trunks containing clothes, notebooks and, apparently, this leaf. Captain Daniel Roberts – who had overseen first the building of the boat and then also the salvaging of its wreck – wrote the following words on it:
Lines written by P. B. Shelley
and found by me in the Don Juan
after being under water in 13. [torn]
of Viareggio from the [?8] of July to [torn]
15 of Septr. 1822
Not from the corpse’s pocket, then. Nonetheless, many records indicate that Belle shared my penchant for dead white men. People ask me: why do you (unsaid: as a woman of colour) work on Shelley (unsaid: a super-canonical dead white poet)? But I work on Shelley, in part, as a provocation. Because people expect me to work on someone who looks like myself. Say Toni Morrison or Alice Walker or Zadie Smith. All amazing authors. But instead, I have settled on the deadest and whitest man in the canon.
Deadest and whitest? For sure. Only think of the Shelley Memorial at his former college in Oxford. A sculpture, it shows Shelley dead, washed up on the seashore. You can hardly see it on a photo, but he’s decorated by seaweeds. You can hardly see the seaweeds because the marble is so dazzlingly white. So dazzling it’s hard to capture on paper or pixel. Is that not the deadest and whitest poet you’ve ever seen?
And so Belle is a revelation. Another woman of colour among the dead white men of British Romanticism. And so glamorous to boot. Could I find a better role model? But she ‘passed’. According to her biographer, Heidi Ardizzone, her father – who was involved in Black civil rights politics – was ostracised when it became known that his wife and family in New York were passing as white. Traitors to their race. But that implies that passing is deceit. One fools white people that one belongs to them. One betrays black people by disowning them. But it need not be so black and white. Regardless of their own colour, any person who engages with European art and culture, intimately and imaginatively, will perforce enter into its worldview with its white privileges and anti-black biases: treasures paid by war, theft, enslavement and oppression. This is not to say that enjoying European art makes you racist. Partaking of the European worldview does not mean accepting it wholesale and we may, of course, occupy multiple worldviews at once. For me, this is one of the main motivations for engaging with art: it opens up new worlds for us. Yet the fact remains that many of these worlds are built on racialised oppression. Here I am thinking of Walter Benjamin’s oft-cited remark: ‘There is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism’ – in this case, the barbarism of Western racism. So as black scholars of European cultural heritage, we are passing all the time. Just by speaking in academic English – we’re passing – but this does not make us any less black.
I’ve been to the Morgan Library once. To consult a poem that has many names. According to one memoir, Shelley wrote the poem in late 1821 on the request of a tenor named John Sinclair, a Scotsman, who worked at the Pisa Opera House (Shelley lived in Pisa at the time). It was intended for an Indian melody that musical members of Shelley’s circle refer to as ‘Allah Malla punca’ or ‘Tazee be tazee no be no’. Shelley drafted the poem in a notebook that is today in the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford and then transcribed it on a separate sheet of paper, on which he also wrote the title ‘The Indian Girls Song’.
I arise from dreams of thee
In the first sleep of night ——
The winds are breathing low
And the stars are burning bright.
I arise from dreams of thee ——
And a spirit in my feet
Has borne me —— Who knows how?
To thy chamber window, sweet!——
The wandering airs they faint
On the dark silent stream ——
The champak odours fail
Like sweet thoughts in a dream;
The nightingale’s complaint ——
It dies upon her heart ——
As I must die on thine,
O beloved as thou art!
O lift me from the grass!
I die, I faint, I fail!
Let thy love in kisses rain
On my lips and eyelids pale.
My cheek is cold and white, alas!
My heart beats loud and fast;
O press it close to thine again
Where it will break at last.
Cheek cold and white, alas! – What did I say about Shelley being the deadest and whitest poet? The holograph manuscript carrying the poem was sold in 1962 and then went under the radar until it was discovered that it was bought by Martin Bodmer – a Swiss counterpart to Pierpont Morgan – and is now in the Bodmer Library in Geneva, Switzerland.
The manuscript bought by Belle Greene as taken from the pocket of Shelley’s corpse also carries a transcription of this poem. It was previously believed to have been written by Shelley as well. But a closer look at the Bodmer and Morgan manuscripts reveals some significant differences. One is that whereas the Bodmer manuscript is entitled ‘The Indian Girls Song’, the Morgan manuscript bears the title ‘The Indian Serenade’. That is also the title given to another copy of this poem that Mary Shelley transcribed into a large copying book that is now in the Houghton Library at Harvard. Comparing the handwriting in these various transcriptions, suggests that the Morgan copy is in Mary Shelley’s handwriting. She would later publish it with the title ‘Lines to an Indian Air’.
After Shelley’s death, Mary Shelley stayed in Italy for roughly a year before returning to England. On her way home, she passed through Paris where she records the following event:
– there was music at Kenny’s – and all at once I heard chords on the harp – the commencement of the Indian air you have often heard me mention […] One is so afraid of appearing affected, but I was obliged to entreat them to cease – & then smothered my tears & pain, for it darted like a spasm through me.
But we do not know what she heard. We only have the words. A poem with many names: ‘The Indian Girls Song.’ ‘The Indian Serenade.’ ‘Lines to an Indian Air.’ Also, a poem in many places: the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Bibliotheca Bodmeriana in Geneva, the Houghton Library at Harvard and in the Morgan, too, of course. This amazes me about manuscripts – their afterlife on the international collector’s market. How papers that were once clearly on a desk together – as a poem was copied from one leaf onto another – are now spread out across the world. And so it touches me to read that Belle was interested in bringing them together again. For example: Shelley sent a copy of Adonais, his elegy for Keats, to Joseph Severn, the friend who had sketched Keats on his death bed. This was accompanied by a letter. Over time, these had been separated, but Belle took pleasure in being able to reunite the two. After purchasing the book, she wrote:
I was glad to be able to buy, a few months ago, the copy of Adonais which Shelley sent to Severn, as we already possessed Shelley’s autograph letter which accompanied it.
I’ve been to the Morgan Library once. It is the only place where the invigilator stood next to me and watched me wash my hands before letting me into the reading room. And that’s pre-Covid, you know. Can manuscripts carry traces of someone’s touch? I find there is always something magical in thinking that the brittle piece of paper in front of you is the same that the poet once held in his hand – as if he just put it down and walked away. But the truth is that in the two hundred years separating us from the romantics, their manuscripts have been handled by generations of relatives and friends, at first, and then connoisseurs and scholars, later. In the case of the Morgan manuscript, ‘The Indian Serenade’, any trace of Shelley has surely been washed away by two months underwater, but does it carry something of Belle?
How easy I fall into calling her Belle. When I first met Carolyn to talk about her lecture and my response, I was struck by her use of Greene’s first name: Belle. It seemed so contrary to the critical distance we are supposed to uphold to the objects of our study. Archival records show that when Belle started working for Pierpont Morgan it was so incomprehensible for many of his art and manuscript dealer associates that Morgan would have put a woman in charge of his library that they addressed her as ‘My dear Sir’ and ‘Dear Mr. Greene’ in their letters. She signed ‘Belle Greene, Librarian.’ Later: ‘Director.’ The anecdote reminds me of how at one point I thought that the best thing about getting a PhD is that people will call me Dr, allowing me to escape the dispiriting choice between Miss/Mrs/Ms at the head of any form. But all too often people – especially outside of academia – assume that Dr Nabugodi is my husband. So maybe we’ve not come so far after all.
Mr. Belle. Belle of course means pretty in French for which I have an immediate affinity: my first name, Mathelinda – in my childhood Linda for short – carries the Spanish equivalent of French belle: linda. Que belle. Que linda. How beautifully it all aligns.
I’ve been to the Morgan Library once. And they told me that when I’m done in the reading room, I can visit the museum for free. I go with a friend. He arrives bemused – is this where you do research? he asks as we drink overpriced coffee among the tourists on their cultural trail through Manhattan. He tells me that when Bertolt Brecht heard the name Pierpont Morgan he found it so perfect for a capitalist villain that when he wrote his next didactic play, Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe (Saint Joan of the Stockyards), he named the evil industrialist Pierpont Mauler.
Later, we – my friend and I – end up in a hotel bar next to Grand Central. Built in a grand style but now slightly shabby and half deserted. We’re waiting for our respective trains. We’re missing our respective trains. One after the other. I have perhaps never been so like to Belle as at that moment: drink in hand, old-school glamour, fresh from the library.
I’ve been to the Morgan Library once. And I’m very grateful to Stacie and Carolyn for giving me this opportunity to revisit it. In words and memory. Like this. Thank you.