It’s been such a deep and amazing journey for me, getting close to John Keats, and also I love Shelley and Byron. I mean, the thing about the Romantic poets is that they’ve got the epitaph of romantic posthumously. They all died really young, and Keats, the youngest of them all. – Jane Campion
Percy Bysshe Shelly (1792-1822) was an English Romantic poet, part of a group of poets that came up with an innovative way of writing poetry that distilled emotion from reflecting how humans lived their lives. It came out of thought, out of a serious contemplation of lived experience poured into poetry to capture meaning.
In Allen (2021) we learn that a poet’s notebook is their workshop. When we look at these notebooks we are tempted to focus on the words, the text – because that’s what makes its way into print and a book of poetry. But in the poet’s workshop, in Shelley’s books we can see the sawdust and cutouts – doodles and sketches and scribbles that surround and intersperse the words that sometimes make their way into print.
These drawings and marks are not childish or simple – they are a way for someone that is thinking hard to keep their hand moving, “keep the ink flowing” as the head works out what it’s trying to say or do or write. The movement helps with the thinking because being still is hard, focusing on just one thing is difficult and maybe it’s easier to focus when you have something else to distract you.
Then again, when it’s hard to see something, to think your way to it, it’s useful to do something else, to have a distraction – to walk, to read or to draw. You do something simple in the foreground while your mind works away in the background and when it’s ready it lets you know what its found.
Sometimes a doodle is just a doodle – it doesn’t mean anything, but it acts as a bridge from one state of thinking to another. But it’s also tempting to pour meaning into it, see an image as suggesting something more than the thing it shows you. Is that picture at the top copied from the Bodelian Shelley Manuscripts a boat and boatman or is it the grim reaper heading towards a fallen soul and does it mean more or less than what you see on the page?
Drawings in notebooks can be surreal – they are not made to be looked at but made in the process of making something else and perhaps they just fill the time between one thing and another. Or they are glimpses into the state of the mind that has created the work, perhaps it shows you the mess in their mind that resulted in the poetry you love.
You can read too much into the marks on a page. The one thing that is certain, however, is that you cannot make your art without making marks. If you’re stuck, then, just keep your pen moving, draw something, anything, until you’re free again.
Allen, G (2021), “Shelley as visual artist: Doodles, sketches, ink blots and the critical reception of the visual”, /Studies in Romanticism”, Vol 60, No 3, pp 277-306