Lectures on Byron & Shelley: a study


The lecture on the life and poetry of Lord Byron, still a risqué subject one hundred year after his death, as the lecture makes clear, was delivered at University College, Nottingham, during the dark days of 1918. A titanic struggle was taking place in northern France, involving Q’s son Bevil, news of whose death he must have expected daily. In parliament, Lloyd George was Prime Minister of a coalition government, from which many of Q’s Liberal friends had been excluded. The lists of students at Britain’s universities had shrunk, while the list of potential students dying at the front lengthened. Yet there were those doing well out of the war, on one side the manufacturers and the profiteers, and on the other the Marxist agitators who looked with envy at the developing revolution in Russia. But what probably irked Q most was the way the political-media establishment was using the war to silence dissent and independent voices, forcing people such as himself to seek covert ways of expressing opinions, such as the use of historical precedents to expose present iniquities.

We find all this in the lecture on Lord Byron, although more explicitly in the lectures on Shelley, delivered in Cambridge following the ‘khaki’ election of December 1918, which reinstated the coalition government and effectively destroyed the Liberal Party of which Q was a member. The lectures on Byron and Shelley were printed by Cambridge University Press in 1922, with the coalition collapsing and Lloyd George’s time in power coming to an end. There is a single Byron lecture, divided into eight sections, and three lectures on Shelley.

The Byron Lecture

The Byron lecture begins cautiously, as becomes the controversial nature of the subject, praising the university and the stature of the subject. The name of Lord Byron is quickly linked to that of William Wordsworth, poet of Church and State, and the celebrator of the beauty of the Lake District. However, using a quotation from Matthew Arnold, one-time professor of poetry at Oxford, Q subtly replaces Wordsworth with Shelley. Swinburne, an admirer and then a critic of Byron, is introduced at the close of Section I.

In the second section Q appears to take up Swinburne’s baton of criticism, both of Byron and of the society which bred him. Q claims that when the first two cantos of Childe Harold appeared in 1812, shallow and immature work at best, and with Napoleon knocking on the doors of Moscow, it opened for the poet three years of adulation from a wealthy, ruling class, whose purpose was the defeat of the French for its own political and financial gain. Any possible unease at such an assertion from the university audience is quickly deflected by a quotation from the Whig historian T.B. Macaulay.

Section III starts with a plea for a dispassionate assessment of Byron, looking at his upbringing, his character, including vanity and sincerity, and his achievement. Q questions the assertion of M. Scherer: ‘This beautiful and blighted being is at bottom a coxcomb. He posed all his life long.’ While acknowledging Byron’s moral failings, Q identifies them as the failings of the age; one of immorality, profiteering and political repression, cloaked by the godliness of established religion. Then in 1816 the society which had spawned Byron turned against him – seeing in him what it detested in itself, leaving the poet bewildered, humiliated and angry.

Any in the Nottingham audience who had read Q’s novel The Mayor of Troy (1906) would have perceived the parallels between, Major Solomon Hymen, Mayor of Troy, and Lord Byron, the darling of Regency society. In the novel and in the lecture there is reference to Aristotle’s concept of tragedy as the fall of a great man through one fault. When Regency society turned on Byron in 1816, forcing him into exile, and when Solomon Hymen is repatriated from a French prison in 1814, both achieve self-knowledge and a knowledge of society as ‘Vanity Fair’. As a consequence they are not destroyed by rejection.

In Section VI of the lecture, Q identifies April 25, 1816, the day Byron sailed from England, as the one in which he ceased to be a false and began to be a true poet. Suddenly, after the flaws of the first two cantos of Childe Harold, a real poem is born, full of passion and insight and guided by a genuinely moral vision.

‘What am I? Nothing: but not as art thou,
Soul of my thought! with whom I traverse earth,
Invisible but gazing, as I glow
Mixed with thy spirit, blended with thy birth,
And feeling still with thee in my crushed feelings’ dearth.’

At this point in the lecture, the conclusion of Section VI, Q puts his hand back to the controversial reference in Section II so as to draw forward the theme of war. This leads the listener into Section VII which is a weave of historical, political and literary threads. Byron’s personal humiliation at the behest of Regency society is merged into his anger at political oppression and his horror of war, he condemns the monarchy, Castlereagh, Brougham and Wellington for waging a war against Napoleon for the benefit of the governing class. But more: he condemns them as God’s ministers on earth, doing His will, which is probably how they saw themselves. Byron is Lucifer rising to the Almighty in a direct challenge to His supposed goodness and justice, attributes assigned to Him by established religion.

‘………………………. They have but
One answer to all questions. “’Twas his will,
And he is good.” How know I that? Because
He is all powerful, must all-good, too, follow?’

Byron is neither an atheist nor an agnostic. Unlike certain contemporary neuroscientists he does not dismiss the idea of souls and spirit in favour of hard-wired materialism. The dramatic tension of these lines demands a real God and a real Byron. An answer is demanded if ‘all-powerful’ is to be equated with ‘good’. Otherwise, Byron is good and God Lucifer. This brings Byron’s thought close to that of Gnosticism. The audacity of these lines was not lost on Q. He was also aware, probably through Bevil, that this was the question being asked by the troops at the front, with no very satisfactory response coming from the chaplains except that it is ‘his will’.

Q now refers to an earlier allusion regarding a parallel between Byron’s time and his own. He compares the Napoleonic War with the one being fought, seeing both as wars on human freedom. Most of his audience would have interpreted this as directed at Napoleon and the Kaiser, as it certainly was; but the parallel with Castlereagh, Brougham and Wellington can only be with Lloyd George, Bonar Law and Douglas Haig. Q continues with an exposé of the poets who betrayed the cause of freedom – Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey – by siding with the establishment – Frere, Castlereagh and Lockhart – and setting them against the poets who were driven to exile and death for upholding it – Shelley, Keats, Landor and Byron. Q is drawing another parallel with his own time, where a generation of visionary poets is being destroyed in the trenches of northern France, with the triumph of the placeman, the bureaucrat and the technologist.

Q is pointing the finger of accusation at the leaders in Germany and Britain, yet as a man of profound conscience he knows the finger is pointing back at him. In the autumn of 1914 he had raised a regiment in Cornwall, few of whom would still have been alive twelve months later. Bereaved families stretched from the Tamar to Land’s End. And these men had been killed, as had those who attacked the French fort of Ticonderoga, in the novel Fort Amity (1904), in frontal attacks upon entrenched positions, with the generals far in the rear. Q was so disturbed by his own doubts and uncertainties in 1915, that he wrote Nicky-Nan Reservist to work through his confusion. This it failed to do, and he looked upon the novel as one of his failures. For the commentator, however, it gives an insight into his anxieties at the time.

The lecture ends with Section VIII which centres on the cantos of Don Juan written after Byron’s departure from England and which Q rates as second only to Milton’s Paradise Lost as great epic poetry. The section recapitulates Byron’s aversion to hypocrisy in conventional politics and religion, along with controlling technology; his being a Lucifer damned yet aware; and the corruption of his innocence through nefarious experience.

Q then gives his audience a lengthy quotation from Don Juan, where Lambro, the pirate, returns to Odysseus to his home. Although Lambro was a pirate rather than a smuggler and privateer, it is difficult to read the passage without thinking of Q’s great-great grandfather John Quiller of Polperro, born in 1741 and drowned at sea in 1804; although his great grandfather suffered a similar fate.

‘You’re wrong. – He was the mildest mannered man
   That ever scuttled ship or cut a throat;
With such true breeding of a gentleman,
   You never could divine his real thought;’

But above all both John and his son Richard, who followed the same trade, ‘loved adventurous life’s variety,’. Whether they ever sailed as far as Greece is unknown, but Leghorn, with its association with Shelley, was a port dealing regularly in Cornish pilchards. In The Ship of Stars, Honoria Callastair sports a Leghorn hat, the gift of a smuggler.

The last quotation from Don Juan brings us closer to Dr. Jonathan Couch, son-in-law of Richard Quiller and Q’s grandfather. He was a scientist who observed facts but refused to spin theories, who supported the Reform Bill of 1832 to break the political power of local oligarchies, who led the Wesleyans out of Anglicanism in 1814 and then the independent Methodists out of an increasingly clerical Wesleyanism in 1835, and who practised practical not theoretical medicine.

‘And I will war, at least in words (and – should
   My chance so happen – deeds), with all who war
With thought; - and of thought’s foes by far most rude
   Tyrants and sycophants have been and are.’

Q sees this as great epic poetry because it came close to his own heart. Whether his audience in Nottingham would have seen it in the same light is more questionable. Yet maybe now is a good time to dust down the lecture and see it in relation to our own day.


The Shelley Lectures

Brittain informs us in his biography (1947) that Q delivered his inaugural lecture at the newly constructed theatre of the Arts School on January 29, 1913. He took the podium in correct morning dress, as he was to do every other Wednesday at noon, in term time, until his death in 1944. A nervous starter, a spell was invariably cast upon the audience, not just from the delivery but from the moral authority of the speaker. Although intended for members of the university, Q permitted all to attend, with a result that the theatre was frequently crowded, with both male and female listeners. In addition to the lectures, he held classes weekly and was available for individual tuition.

Q’s popularity with the student body helped to sustain him as he saw academia move away from his own liberal and non-ideological educational vision which he promoted as a lecturer and as a member of the Cornwall Education Authority. The growing influence of the pseudo-sciences – Freudianism, Marxism and an interpretation of Darwinism as struggle for life competition – the infiltration of science into the arts, the increasing dominance of theory over direct analysis of text, and the coarseness in much current literature, as he bemoaned in the preface of The White Wolf, left him feeling an isolated figure.

One example of the younger generation of academics was his acolyte and later biographer Dr. A.L. Rowse. Rowse set out his academic creed in two works, On History (1927) and The Use of History (1946). In Section three of the former, ‘Sketch of a Theory of History’, Rowse argued that reality can only be understood at the level of ‘naturalism’ and ‘materialism’, with ‘economics’ as the central tool. By combining the theories of Marx, Engels and Darwin it is possible to see how changing modes of ‘production’ determined ‘social relations’, thus conforming history to the ‘biological view of evolution’. Rowse dismissed Liberalism as an outworn creed and the Romantic poets as naïve idealists whose disillusionment was an inevitable part of the historical process. In a sentence which cuts to the heart of Q’s lectures on the Romantic poets, Rowse says in Chapter one of The Use of History: ‘…they were poets, they were not historians and they were young. (Older people should have known better what to expect from human beings)’ (1946, p. 25). Rowse saw the arts as best interpreted in terms of the inductive sciences, believing induction to be the standard method of science.

In various lectures and prefaces Q, who came from a family of distinguished scientists, makes it clear that he refused to see the study of literature as a science, where observations are organised into systems, where hypotheses are proposed and theories tested, and where bodies of literary dogma are agreed upon. This question Q tackles directly in the lecture ‘‘Classical’ and ‘Romantic’’, taking a passage from Dr. Georges Brandes as an example of what he deplored most.

‘The strongest tendency even in works like Byron’s Don Juan and Shelley’s Cenci is in reality Naturalism. In other words, Naturalism is so powerful in England that it permeates Coleridge’s Romantic supernaturalism, Wordsworth’s Anglican orthodoxy, Shelley’s atheistic spiritualism, Byron’s revolutionary liberalism…’ 

Firstly, as so often with Q’s criticism, he looks at the expression and challenges the reader to identify works ‘like’ Byron’s Don Juan and ‘like’ Shelley’s Cenci. Then he notes the hermetically-sealed divisions: Naturalism, supernaturalism, Anglican-ism, Spiritualism, liberalism etc: all of which turns literature into a philosophical system.

Moving from Section IV to V of the lecture we find Q arguing that the literary critic cannot copy the methods of science or philosophy. Coming from a scientific family he was aware of what science can and cannot tell us. Standing outside of it he was aware of the assumptions upon which science is based but which scientists often appear oblivious to or fearful of confronting. In the lectures ‘On the Lineage of English Literature’ and ‘English Literature in Our Universities’, he presents a contrasting view. Literature is seen as vital and alive, with its roots in the riches of the past, and its branches breaking free from all categories and systems. Its dynamic is visionary genius, with Byron and Shelley as examples. Maybe, such a perspective has never been so needed or so neglected as in our present time when what Q saw with disapprobation is bringing us ever closer to the edge of ecological catastrophe or nuclear destruction.

The Shelley lectures of autumn 1921 appear to have caused something of a sensation at the university, even to the point of being satirised in The Old Cambridge undergraduate journal. According to the satire, which seems to have been the product of an eye-witness, undergraduates crowded into the Arts Theatre well in advance of the stipulated time so as to procure a seat. After the conclusion of the lectures Q considered abandoning future lectures, ostensibly because he feared they had become a ‘fetish’ with the student body, but more probably because there were those in the university hierarchy who suspected him of overstepping the line between literature and politics, with possible repercussions for the establishment. It was fear of Q’s radical views which made his original appointment problematic. For the political establishment the autumn of 1921 was a particularly difficult time and was quickly leading to the disintegration of the coalition government.

The Shelley lectures appear to have commenced in October 1921 and to have concluded six weeks later, having almost certainly been drafted at Fowey during the summer recess. At the time the Irish Treaty, which was to alter the composition of the House of Commons more significantly than anything since the Reform Bill of 1832, was in danger of destroying the Lloyd George coalition government. At home unemployment was rising and output declining. Abroad, the Cannes Conference was being wrecked by a German threat of default in repatriation payments, with Europe in a state of general unrest. The whole continent from the Black Sea to the Atlantic echoed to the cries of the widow and the orphan. Yet for many, the profiteer, the banker and the landowner, the entitled and the ennobled, life had never been better. The central problem for the Lloyd George administration, with its selling of honours, sexual permissiveness, and political manipulation, was its atmosphere of sleaze and moral ambiguity. Twelve months later, in November 1922, Lloyd George, with whom Q had shared platforms as long ago as 1900, was to lose the premiership and was never again to hold office, although only 59years old. Nor would the Liberal Party for which Q had fought all his life rise from the ashes of division and defeat.

In the printed form the lectures are structured as follows:

  • Lecture I, five sections, seventeen pages
  • Lecture II, five sections, eighteen pages
  • Lecture III, nine sections, nineteen pages

Brittain informs us that Q wrote his lectures in long-hand and read then out. He did not speak from notes or memory. Nor did he orate but used his normal speaking voice. However, Q’s reading must have been sufficiently fluent for it to appear purely spoken. Lloyd George also wrote out his speeches, but included much more detail about pauses and hand movements, and they were more dramatically delivered. Only possibly in the Shelley lecture did Q approach the emotional intensity of Lloyd George.

Q concluded his Nottingham lecture on Byron with the poet’s death at Missolonghi, in Greece, on April 19, 1824. Q opens his lecture on Shelley with the death of the poet in the Gulf of Spezzia on July 18, 1822. Shelley had sailed in the yacht Ariel from Casa Magni on June 19, 1822. Between June 19 and July 18 he was staying with Leigh Hunt at the nearby port of Leghorn. On the return journey, shortly after putting out, the Ariel foundered in a squall, with the body of Shelley being washed ashore ten days later. On the beach at Via Reggio Lord Byron, Edward Trelawney and Leigh Hunt burned the body, with the ashes taken to Rome. The section is brief but full of interest for the student of Q as it links in with other writings.

In Q’s novel of 1899, The Ship of Stars, dedicated to the Right Hon. Leonard Courtney, M.P. for Liskeard, the wife of Squire Moyle of Tredinnis was a Trevanion from Roseland, with Honoria Callastair as their granddaughter. The families of Trevanion and Byron were intermarried, as A.L. Rowse explains in The Byrons and the Trevanions (1978). In good Byronic fashion, Susannah Moyle, the squire’s daughter, had run away with an officer of the Indian Army. On their deaths Honoria is returned to Cornwall to be reared by the squire. She is the proud possessor of a Leghorn hat, the gift of a smuggler, thus indicating Moyle’s involvement in the trade. Such hats were popular in Cornwall.

In The Smugglers’ Banker. The Story of Zephaniah Job of Polperro (1997), Jeremy Rowett Johns informs us that from 1782 Polperro and Italian ports such as Leghorn were in regular trading contact. Zephaniah Job, a character who appears under his own or an assumed name in a number of Q’s stories, acted for the seine fishers of Polperro in their contracts with the Leghorn merchants. At one point the Italians set up two fish processing factories in Polperro (Johns, 1997, p. 94). In 1793, Sir Harry Trelawney of Trelawne caught a brig from Leghorn to Polperro as a quick way home. Leghorn seems to have been an important trading port for Cornish skippers. In 1788, the smuggler and privateer Captain Harry Carter, who appears in Q’s short story ‘King O’Prussia’, stayed a month in Leghorn, before travelling to Barcelona and New York. It is impossible to appreciate Q’s stories and lectures without an understanding of the maritime perspective which informs them. This makes him almost unique among writers and even more among Cambridge lecturers

Lecture I

In his lecture, Q gives a brief description of the discovery of Shelley’s body. In the printed version this is accompanied by a lengthy footnote discussing Edward Trelawney’s account of the foundering of the Ariel. It is difficult to believe that at the back of Q’s mind is not the loss of John Quiller, his great-great grandfather, who perished aboard the Three Brothers in 1804. The boat had set out from Roscoff at the beginning of November and foundered after rounding the Lands End, with Quiller’s body later washed ashore along the coast. In fact, most of the male Quillers were lost at sea. Zephaniah Job had John Quiller’s body brought to Polperro and laid out on the table in the front room.

Q’s reference to Edward Trelawney is particularly significant. As so often with Q he knew far more than he lets on. It is not impossible for Jonathan Couch to have met him. The head of the Trelawney family was the Revd Sir Harry Trelawney of Trelawne, in the parish of Pelynt. Sometime after 1800 Sir Harry became aware of a bright boy in Polperro with scientific interests by the name of Jonathan Couch. He had him instructed in Latin and apprenticed to Mr. John Rice of East Looe, a medical practitioner. In 1808, he arranged for Jonathan to enrol at the united Guy’s and St. Thomas’ under London’s two leading surgeons, Sir William Knighton and Sir Astley Cooper. On returning to Polperro in 1810, Dr. Jonathan Couch became medical advisor to the Trelawney family. On one occasion at least, Edward Trelawney visited Trelawne. Sir Harry was later to make his home in Italy, where he died as the Roman Catholic bishop of Laveno on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy in 1834, aged 78.

In Sections II and III, Q argues that England lacked visionary poets following the deaths of Byron, Keats and Shelley because she had silenced or killed them. Wordsworth’s creative period ended at the conclusion of the Napoleonic War, after which he wrote nothing of value. In compromising with the establishment, or so it can be surmised, he destroyed his gift, just as Byron did not find his gift until he left England. The message Q is endeavouring to convey is clear: compromise with conventional thinking and with the ideas of the age breeds creative death. Politically, Q identifies Sidmouth, Castlereagh and Eldon as imposing the will of a class upon society, preventing democratic aspirations and social ideals. Byron, Keats and Shelley possessed the genius to break through the conventions and threaten the establishment. In Section III Q takes the rapier, stating unambiguously that by 1825 England’s visionary poets had been hounded to the grave, leaving mediocrity to triumph. Yet below the surface their influence persisted.

Q supports this with reference to a certain Luke Daniel. According to Section III of the lecture Luke Daniel and Thomas Quiller Couch, Q’s father, were youthful friends. Luke Daniel was a poet, inspired by Shelley, just as Thomas was a watercolourist (F.R.S.A.). Luke Daniel travelled to London from a rural area, established himself as a carpenter and became a friend of Ebenezer Elliott (1781-1849), the ‘Corn-Law Rhymer’. Daniel continued writing verse in London. Q includes a sonnet following a performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Haymarket. Thomas Quiller travelled from Polperro for training at Guy’s Hospital in 1849, departing again for Polperro and then Bodmin in 1852 or 1853. Who was Luke Daniel?

Thomas Quiller Couch was born in Polperro on May 28, 1826, and was baptised at the Wesleyan chapel where his father, Dr. Jonathan Couch, was a member, local preacher and class leader. Also members were William and Margaret Daniel of Langreet farm, a short distance to the west of Polperro. The published baptismal records of the chapel from 1818 to 1837 show the children being baptised at the chapel, the last, John Hitchens Daniel, in 1834. There can be little doubt that Jonathan Couch and William Daniel were friends, with Dr. Couch almost certainly bringing the infants into the world.

The census for 1841 gives William and Margaret Daniel as 40 years of age, with the oldest child, also called William, aged 15, and the next, Margaret, aged 13. Of the six children in the list, the youngest is Luke Daniel, who was born in 1840. Interestingly, whilst John Daniel, born 1834, was baptised in the Wesleyan chapel, Mark Daniel, born in 1837, the last year of the published record, was not. This clearly suggests that in the schism of 1835, led by Jonathan Couch, the Daniel family followed Jonathan out of Wesleyanism and into the Wesleyan Association. The Wesleyan Association saw itself as preserving the truly democratic character of early Wesleyanism, as against the growing clericalisation of 1830s Wesleyanism. Luke Daniel learned to read in a literate Wesleyanism and had his early training in a democratic Wesleyan Association.

In the census of 1851, Margaret is given as a widow, farming 23 acres, an unviable acreage. William must have rented land or worked part time in the fisheries, possibly with his wife attending the processing cellars. Life must have been a struggle. The census gives the oldest son, William, as a butcher. The other sons, Henry, John and Mark, have left home, even though Mark is only 14. This was probably out of necessity. Luke Daniel is eleven, a farm worker. However, the 1851 Census for London also gives a Luke Daniel. He is described as being eleven years old, the son of a farmer and hailing from Lansallos (the parish of Langreet). The same Luke Daniel appears on both the Cornwall and the London census return. This suggests that Luke moved from Polperro to London at the time the census was being taken. As Ebenezer Elliott died in 1849, it is difficult to see how Luke Daniel could have known him personally.

Q’s father was at Guy’s Hospital until 1851 and possibly 1852, at which time Luke Daniel would have been a carpenter of 14. Curiously, Luke Daniel fails to appear on the 1861 census for London or Lansallos. Q was in London from 1887 to 1892, when Luke Daniel would have been 47 to 52 years old. If still alive, he would have been in his early eighties when Q delivered the Shelley lecture at Cambridge.

Q uses Luke Daniel as an example of a working man inspired by Shelley fifty years after the poet’s death and apparent failure. He argues from this that Shelley had not failed, his vision living on and in the post-1918 world needing to be rediscovered. One suspects, however, that Luke Daniel learned as much from Jonathan Couch and the Wesleyan Association schism as from Shelley, even if the poet sustained him as a city carpenter. Q had a negative view of Wesleyanism, seeing it as essentially a conflict-driven creed which could wound but never replace Anglicanism. It is difficult drawing conclusions from the life and writings of Luke Daniel as we know so little about him.

In Sections IV and V Q continues his pitiless analysis. Yet it is taken to another level. He quotes from James Thomson’s poem Shelley, a prophetic work with a particular resonance for his post-war audience.

‘A voice austerely said – ‘At last, at last
   The measure of the world’s iniquity
Brims God’s great urn; at last it all must be
   Poured out upon the earth in blood and tears
And raging fire, for years and years and years.’

For someone who had come under such moral condemnation as Shelley, the scriptural imagery is audacious; especially when Sidmouth, Castlereagh and Canning are likened to the lords of this world who can command the law, the justice, the magistrate and the army to silence the poet and the prophet.

Q saw Victorian society as built upon antagonistic social division, with the wounds hidden and the commonality of persons endeavouring to have one foot in this world and some insurance for the next – conventional religion. Yet, Q continues, the Victorians possessed more freedom of speech than the post-war generation. Q draws a clear line from the suppression of Shelley and the prophetic poets during the Regency, the antagonistic divisions which followed, conflict-driven theories such as the Darwinian hypothesis interpreted as a struggle-for-life competition and the World War of 1914.

Lecture I is brought to a conclusion with a lengthy quotation from Shelley, presented as the antidote.

‘Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom, and Endurance,
These are the seals of that most firm assurance
   Which bars the pit over Destruction’s strength;’

Lecture II

Lecture II is a discussion of Shelley’s genius as a writer. Q sees Shelley as a prophet in a tradition dating back to Isaiah, whose prophetic voice challenges the established order and conventional opinion. He argues that at particular times, voices such as those of Isaiah and Shelley recover their true meaning, appearing as fresh and vital as in their own time. This idea is used to parallel the period of the Regency with that of the post-war years, looking particularly at finance, profiteering, political instability and hunger. A quotation from Isaiah adds a particular resonance, one which an audience of the time would still have picked up. In The Jerome Biblical Commentary F.L. Moriarty, S.J. states: Isaiah was a prophet of Judah when the kingdom’s ‘prosperity and national glory had come to an end…greed, hypocrisy and injustice…were sapping the spiritual integrity…the loss of nerve…with Assyria and her gods…undermining the very foundation of Judah’s existence…’ (1968, p. 265). One has to ask whether the prophet of Lecture II is Isaiah, Shelley or the lecturer.

Q argues that the prophetic power of Shelley’s poetry is not simply the sublimity of his thought, but his sublime language and the sublime control he exhibits over rhythm and meter. In Lecture II he sees this as the union of something without and something within, which in his lecture on the Metaphysicals is identified as the union of an outer with an inner harmony to produce something divine. Q was aware that in a materialistic age such talk is dismissed. Yet while an experiment in science, an argument in philosophy or a piece of writing by a second-rate writer can be reproduced, the works of writers such as Shelley, Byron and Keats cannot be reproduced. His challenge to the materialist is to show how it can be done and to do it. If there is no soul or spirit, if the mind is simply the result of cause and effect, if the computer is a suitable analogy, then reproducing the great works of art should be feasible. Q, however, goes further than this. He sees the conventional mind – the scientist and his theory, the philosopher and his system, the cleric and his platitude, the politician and his ideology – as threatened by the genius whose experience transcends the norm and the prophet who draws from a richer source. In every generation the Shelly, the Byron and the Keats have to be silenced or destroyed.

Lecture III

The third lecture opens with a direct attack upon the Napoleonic War, although it is quickly transmuted into every war, with the implication that the 1914-1918 is very much included. Q looks at the financing and organisation of the war, determined by immediate considerations, which inevitably leads to the ruin of society, even for the victors. This denunciation is supported by a lengthy quotation from a prose pamphlet Shelley would have published had he lived. In it Shelley exposes the ‘new aristocracy’ who had ‘turned their country’s necessity to glorious gain’. As they are steeped in materialism and ‘mediocrity’, they ‘poison the literature of the age in which they live by requiring either the antitype of their own mediocrity in books, or such stupid and distorted and inharmonious idealisms as alone have the power to stir their torpid imaginations.’

Q then quotes from the description of the countryside around St. Albans written by William Cobbett in 1816. The work of the hay-harvesters is described, with an exposé of those who reap the profits of their labour: ‘but the tax-eaters get, after all, the far greater part of the sweat…’

Q was fully aware of the reality behind the protests of Shelley. In 1816 the Commons dispensed with income tax, paid mainly by the wealthy, in favour of extending general taxation, paid by everyone. This was followed by a Corn Law, resulting in poverty and distress in the industrial areas. 1817 saw the suspension of Habeas Corpus and the passing of the notorious Six Acts so as to suppress opposition. At the same time calls for a reform of the House of Commons and an extension of the franchise fell on deaf ears. The peace was used as a reason for refusal just as the war had been. In England in the Age of Improvement, Asa Briggs quotes from a certain ‘Molesworth’ following the Reform Bill of 1832: It was ‘the fault of those who had delayed Reform so long that it was necessary to do in one bill and at one time what ought to have been done long before in twenty bills, spread over more than a century’ (1999, pp. 235-6). This was almost certainly the Rt. Hon. Sir William Molesworth, F.R.S., M.P. for East Cornwall 1832-37. He was elected in conjunction with William L.S. Trelawney, second son of the Rev. Sir Harry Trelawney. There can be little question that Jonathan Couch voted for both. Briggs informs us that following the passing of the Reform Bill there was jubilation in Liskeard; where a few months later the radical Charles Buller, who in 1831 had been deposed from his seat in West Looe through the influence of the Buller family, was returned.

In Section III of the lecture, Q returns to classical scholarship to explain the power of poetry over that of prose, even great prose. Firstly, he quotes from Longinus: ‘sublimity is the echo of a great soul’. Then he turns to Aristotle for insight that the poet reveals the Universal through the particular. There is no greater danger than in studying the particular for its own sake, as with Economics, without reference to the whole, which for working people is experienced in work, home and worship.

In the last three sections of the lecture Q reflects upon the unintelligibility of the world in which we live, the conflict between social duty and the purity of the soul, and of the danger of surrendering to conventional and official thought or of retreating to the ‘Alps of Romantic egoism’. Although Q realised the moral failings of Romantics such as Shelley, he believed that at the core of their vision, a belief in love and harmony, they had grasped a truth – or possibly the truth.


Bibliography: Byron and Shelley

Fort Amity.

Quiller-Couch, A.
Fort Amity.
John Murray.

Nicky Nan Reservist.

Quiller-Couch, A.
Nicky Nan Reservist.
London and Edinburgh:
William Blackwood & Sons.

On History.

Rowse, A.L.
On History.
Kegan Paul.