'I Find His Letters Startling for Their Immediacy and Power' - Madeleine Callaghan Discusses the Life and Art of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Posted on June 06, 2017 by Heather Gallagher

To celebrate the release of Shelley's Living Artistry, author Madeleine Callaghan discusses the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley and the shifting relationship between the poet's art and life. 



Out of all of the Romantic poets, what was it about Shelley in particular that attracted you to writing a book on his life and work?

I chose to write about Shelley because the relationship between his life and his work intrigued me for the complex but compelling relationship between the two. This isn’t to say that other Romantic poets don’t have similar preoccupations, but I find Shelley’s poetry and drama to reveal a serious and self-conscious approach to the question of how the poet and the man co-exist in the work. Throughout Shelley’s career, moral judgements of his worth as a man (often owing to his atheism) had informed the way his work was treated, and continued after his death. When I began working on Shelley, I realised that as much as I wanted to ignore biographical fact in favour of some sort of pursuit of ‘pure’ art, I was doing the poetry a disservice. Shelley was profoundly interested in the ‘I’, the personal self and the poetic self, and this book is an attempt to think about the complexity of how the ‘I’ works in Shelley’s poetry, drama, and letters.


To what extent did the events in Shelley’s life influence his work?

One of the things that became increasingly clear to me was that there was no cause and effect, no simple correlation to be drawn, when considering the poetry and drama. ‘The poet & the man’, Shelley wrote to the Gisbornes in July 1821, ‘are two different natures: though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other, & incapable of deciding upon each other’s powers & effects by any reflex act’ (Letters: PBS II, p. 310). Shelley’s subtlety was such that he did not create any protagonists that would operate only as proxies for the poet, but he never feigned complete distance, forcing his readers to think hard about how to understand the relationship between biographical events and the imaginative work in a more universal than specific way: to think about the Shelleyan ‘I’ opens up avenues for thinking about the operations of the self in poetry. Epipsychidion is one of the best examples of this, where what can seem like personal joy and pain is raised into a far more literary and distanced form of expression by his allusions to Dante. But the personal is absolutely significant to the poetry, and what Shelley’s work shows us is the complexity of how life influences art. His work offers no simple model of how life and art interact that we can extrapolate. Instead, we are forced to think anew about how the poet and the man are connected.


Do you believe poetry needs biographical context to be fully understood?

That’s a difficult question, as every poem, or indeed any literary work is unique. I don’t think I can agree because I don’t believe any work can be ‘fully understood’ (as Shelley’s Defence of Poetry insists). I’m also loath to prescribe a single way of reading poetry that pretends as if it were true for every artist. Shakespeare’s work is not damaged by our scant knowledge of his life, and one of the speakers in Yeats’s  ‘Ego Dominus Tuus’ says of Keats that ‘His art is happy, but who knows his mind?’ Biographical context and its importance vary from poet to poet. This is why I chose to consider Shelley’s life through the lens of his letters. By setting letters side by side with cognate poems, as one weaves backwards and forwards between the two, I try to reveal Shelley's characteristic ways of ‘writing the self’, and to arrive at a more considered judgement about his achievement in both forms of expression.


Was there anything that you discovered in the letters that was particularly surprising or shocking?

The most striking things were the quality of the letters, the depth of Shelley’s friendships, and the change of how he treated letters from his early to his later years. Shelley’s early letters to Elizabeth Hitchener are wonderfully alive, where his intellect and emotions seem to combine almost to overwhelm a reader. After their connection failed, though, he never seemed to write letters with the same intensity. Keats’s luminous letters are born out of necessity. His surviving brother moved to America; his sister lived too far away to see with any regularity; Fanny Brawne and Keats never lived together. These factors forced Keats to become a letter-writer of such distinction. But Shelley lived with Mary, was in regular communication with stimulating friends, and had long lost contact with his family by the time of his death. His letters do not and cannot reveal the same range simply because they did not need to do so. Yet Shelley’s letters are intimately connected with his poetry, and I find his letters startling for their immediacy and power, and the insights they give into the way he thinks about his art.


As well as the poet’s life influencing their work, do you believe that poetry and art shape the writer?

Absolutely. I have always admired Paul de Man’s insight in ‘Autobiography as Defacement’ that this is the case, and I think the interaction between life and art is deeply enigmatic, for poet as well as critic. Poets are never tied to what is, as art always slips beyond the grasp of any neat critical summary of its power. Auden calls poetry ‘a way of happening, a mouth’, and perhaps that’s the closest we can come to understanding the possibilities of poetry.  


What is meant by the poet participating in the ‘eternal, the infinite and the one’?

In an early letter to Elizabeth Hitchener, Shelley wrote: ‘I have considered it in every possible light & reason tells me that death is the boundary of the life of man. Yet I feel, I believe the direct contrary. The senses are the only inlets of knowledge, & there is an inward sense that has persuaded me of this’ (Letters: PBS I. p. 150). Afterlife and eternity were a career-long fascination for Shelley, and he was keen not to be consigned to mortal, ephemeral life, but to write for futurity with an eye to eternity. For Shelley, as for Plato, eternity is defined as far different from the everlastingness of the sempiternal. It is an elsewhere unknowable to mortals, but one that remains vital to humanity, and Shelley, though unable to experience it, would not simply ignore it. This is part of the challenge of Shelley’s poetry, not only to the reader, but also to himself.


How much was Shelley influenced by the society around him?

I’m not sure I’d use the phrase ‘influenced by’. I’d prefer to call it ‘responsive to’. Like everyone, Shelley was a product of the society in which he lived, but what is striking is how far he attempted to behave as more than simply that. Shelley wasn’t content to think only of the present tense in which he lived, but he desperately wanted to improve it in his eyes by trying to inspire people to reject the conditions in which they lived. The Mask of Anarchy, Queen Mab, and so many other great poems are clearly attempting to speak to an audience, but they are more than reactive. For Shelley, the poet moved between being a prophet and a legislator, or to rephrase, between having their eyes trained on the world beyond or an improved version of this one and working to change society. The privilege, for anyone reading Shelley, is to see a poet deeply invested in the world even as he aims to get beyond it, because this tension is what creates some of his most magnificent poetry.


For more information on Shelley's Living Artistry, please visit our website.

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'They are, first and foremost, just great stories' - John Higgins on comics, characters and what to look for at his exhibition.

Posted on April 06, 2017 by Heather Gallagher
Watchmen, Judge Dredd, Razorjack: John Higgins has been instrumental in the creation of some of the most revered characters in comic book history. We quizzed him about the comic book world, the exhibition of his art in the Victoria Gallery & Museum and, of course, his explosive new book, Beyond Watchmen and Judge Dredd: The Art of John Higgins. 



Beyond Watchmen and Judge Dredd: The Art of John Higgins


Can you tell us how you entered the world of comic book art?

There was a door marked “This way”!

The first step was to work on alternative press magazines, no money but great grounding for getting professional paying work.

What inspired you to write this book and how did you go about it?

I am a conceited megalomaniac and think the world needs more of me.

Or, the exhibition gave me the opportunity to tell how I became a freelance comic artist and how you can too, from getting work and transferring your ideas into a script and then on to the finished printed page, with step by step guides, from traditional art to digital.

What do you think it is about Watchmen and Judge Dredd that comic book fans became so enthralled with?

Comics are all (usually) collaborations, these comic books and characters are a realisation of many peoples input. They are, first and foremost, just great stories, created by talented creators, believable, realised alternative worlds with characters that have something to say in the great tradition of thought provoking SF literature.  I am proud to be associated with them.

Were there any major changes during the developing and illustrating of the characters, or did you always have a clear idea of what they should be like?

Any character starts off on a blank piece of paper, and they develop as you get to know them. Once they start to talk back, you know they have arrived.

Your work is currently being exhibited at the Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool. Are there any pieces that really stand out for you?

The curator Leonie Sedman, has presented my work with a perception and eye for themes that I didn't see, so it all looks new and fresh to me. But my character, Razorjack, her head is on display, she is worth checking out. Just don’t look her in the eye; she will shrivel your soul.

Are there any stories behind any of the pieces which you think visitors would be interested to know?

Some of the comic page art have what are called 'easter eggs' dotted amongst the elements of the story. I put these in as personal details to amuse my self during the blood, sweat and tears process of telling stories in comic strip form. See if you can spot any, they are worked into the strangest places, such as amongst the mutant cannibal gang standing in the Cursed Earth or with Judge Dredd in Mega City 1.


For more information on John's book, Beyond Watchmen and Judge Dredd please visit our website. 

The exhibition, Beyond Watchmen and Judge Dredd: The Art of John Higgins, is open from 10 March 2017- October 2017 at the Victoria Gallery & Museum, Liverpool. Find out more here.


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Romantic Reconfigurations – Three key titles lined up to launch the series

Posted on March 23, 2017 by Heather Gallagher

Here at Liverpool University Press, we are excited to announce three forthcoming books in our brand new series:

 Romantic Reconfigurations: Studies in Literature and Culture 1780‒1850. 

Presenting ground-breaking approaches to the period in which Romantic writing was produced and consumed, the series will launch this autumn with Women’s Literary Networks and Romanticism: "A Tribe of Authoresses", edited by Andrew O. Winckles & Angela Rehbein.



Following in Spring 2018 will be Deirdre Coleman’s Henry Smeathman, Flycatcher: Natural History, Slavery and Empire in the late Eighteenth Century and Seth Reno’s Amorous Aesthetics: Intellectual Love in Romantic Poetry and Poetics, 1788–1853.


Tim Fulford and Alan Vardy, Series Editors, are delighted that the series gets under way with three fascinating books, each of them a reconfiguration of Romanticism: Winckles and Rehbein demonstrate the pervasive influence of women’s literary networks and rethink the notion of authorship in the period; Coleman recovers the story of one of the many marginal knowledge-producers whose writings shaped the Romantic encounter with colonialism; Reno, presenting new research into eighteenth-century psychological theory, offers a new genealogy of one of Romanticism’s central, and most vexed, concepts.


For more information, please visit the series page on our website.
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The Relevance of Biopunk Science Fiction by Lars Schmeink

Posted on February 27, 2017 by Heather Gallagher

Author of Biopunk Dystopias, Lars Schmeink, discusses the importance of biopunk in the context of modern literature and society. 



When Margaret Atwood wrote Oryx and Crake, the first novel n her MaddAddam trilogy, some thirteen years ago, she noticed certain trends in scientific research and—as a writer of speculative fiction—started thinking about the consequences, if specific lines of inquiry would be brought to their (somewhat logical) conclusion. This extrapolation of research, especially within the field of genetics, led her to write a book (and later two more) about the end of the world-as-we-know-it due to genetic engineering—a problem (for the most part) not of malign intent but incalculable risks and uncontrollable effects. In interviews, Atwood commented upon this devil-may-care attitude and prophesied: "We've just opened the great big gene-splicing toy box and people are going to be playing with that for years" (cit. in Halliwell 260).

In her book, stem cell research is used to create genetic hybrids (so-called chimeras) of animals from the DNA of two or more different species, chief among which is the Pigoon, a pig spliced with human cells for medical purposes. Pigoons, in Atwood’s future world, are used to grow body parts for transplantation into humans; the pigs become biological storage of spare parts for failing organs. One side effect of the research, as it progresses, is the enhancement of the pigs’ brains, making them smarter and allowing them to develop a non-human animal society that later comes into conflict with human society. What is scary about this prospect is not so much the need for humans to communicate and cooperate with intelligent Pigoons, but the fact that real life research is speedily catching up to the dystopian vision of Oryx and Crake.

In a recent issue of Cell, an academic journal of experimental biology, researchers announced a first and “significant step toward the development of animal embryos with functioning human organs” (Kaplan, n.pag.)—just as the novels suggested. Most frighteningly, Atwood anticipated that human cells could be used to give pigs an enhanced cognitive ability, allowing them to become self-aware—a development reflected in the results of the experiment, which produced a variety of cells in the chimeras: “A few developed into the precursors of neurons, a fear of bioethicists who worry about creating an animal with human or even humanlike consciousness” (Kaplan). Of course, researchers are quick to point out that the experiment was trying to establish the basic premises of a viability of any form of human-animal chimera, that strict protocols are in place, and that a real self-aware new hybrid species is years in the future, but the implications of such research are very real and even have been reported on—in fiction, by authors such as Atwood.

Indeed, the MaddAddam trilogy can be argued to be part of a larger cultural formation—meaning not merely a literary genre, but a general tendency in many aspects of contemporary culture to negotiate a specific discourse—regarding the impact of biological sciences, especially genetics. Discussions of topics and themes such as cloning, genetic engineering, virology, tissue-culture research, nano-technology and many more have been on the rise not just in literature, but in film, television, video gaming, and art, as well as other fields of social and cultural interaction: journalistic reporting, activism, advertising, and general cultural practices. Since the Human Genome Project (HGP) embarked on that "monumental effort […] to map the human genome and spell out for the world the entire message hidden in its chemical code" (Jaroff), the idea of biology as a revolutionary scientific force challenging and changing what it means to be human has been on the mind of many (creative) people all over the globe.

Biopunk, as that cultural formation is most widely known, started out in the 1980s as “a subgenre of science fiction which explores the societal effects of biotechnology and genetic engineering” (Prucher 16), but has since evolved far beyond the scope of a literary genre, instead becoming an integral part of how we converse about the posthuman. As Rosi Braidotti has so aptly pointed out, "there is a posthuman agreement that contemporary science and biotechnologies affect the very fibre and structure of the living and have altered dramatically our understanding of what counts as the basic frame of reference for the human today" (40). Biopunk refers to the cultural practices that negotiate this posthuman agreement – from literary fictions about ecological disaster due to GMOs, such as Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) to mainstream depictions of humans as lab rats for powerful companies in the hypercapitalist dystopia of the Resident Evil film series (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2002-16), from artistic work on transgenic species such as Eduard Kac’s glow-in-the-dark bunny Alba to the Do-it-Yourself-biology proclaimed by Meredith Patterson’s “Biopunk Manifesto”.

Biopunk has no unified concept, as Annalee Newitz points out regarding the activist movement: “the biopunk revolution has yet to be codified or legitimized” and is “as ill-defined as the genome itself.” Looking specifically towards the products, the novels, films and games that become part of mainstream culture, biopunk seems to take much of its signification from its precursor cyberpunk. Acknowledging this generic debt, its political and poetic traditions, biopunk often declares itself anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, and/or anti-government, drawing on revolutionary sentiments and dire dystopian warnings about the consequences of scientific developments. In this, it proves relevant to our current situation, as it addresses the changes wrought by ruthless capitalist intervention into the biological and geological processes of this world.

Biopunk addresses a critical posthuman subjectivity. Bringing into sharp relief a crisis in humanism that challenges the conception of “human exceptionalism and bounded individualism,” as Donna Haraway argues, biopunk claims a voice for a connection of all life on earth, in fiction exploring that “rich wallow in multispecies muddles” (1). Turning away from the transhumanist notions of disembodied humanist grandeur, biopunk for example embraces life in its subnatural form, in viral contagion, in bacterial infection, in kinship with earth, machine, and other animals (cf. Braidotti 66). In biopunk, humans are “co-evolving, sharing ecosystems, life processes, genetic material, with animals and other life forms” (Nayar 8), and subjectivity is understood as complex, evolving and interrelated to all life (zoe) on earth.

And because of this interconnected zoe-centric view, biopunk texts emphasize the human as a global force, pointing towards the earth’s entry into a new geological era, sometimes called the anthropocene. Geologists argue that considering the effect human activity has had on the planet—from climate change to fresh water collection to the spread of domestic animals—“humankind, our own species, has become so large and active that it now rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system” (Steffen et al. 843). Biopunk enters critically into this discourse of human interaction with our planet, projecting culture and technology as global, turning it against itself, extrapolating the environmental and social costs and consequences of such a global society.

In Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, human activity causes cataclysmic changes of the earth’s environment—draughts, rising sea levels, mass extinctions—forcing human life to adapt and change, becoming posthuman. In combination with the creation of new life forms, such as pigs with human brain tissue, Atwood’s biopunk stories thus unfold how variable definitions of what constitutes distinct ontological categories have become—how they might not have been stable in the first place. Biopunk, then, is a stark reminder that we need to find new ways of thinking, being, feeling what we are, and a call to action to redefine our relations with everything else that we share this life with. 


Works Cited

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. London: Polity, 2013. Print.


Halliwell, Martin. "Awaiting the Perfect Storm." Waltzing Again: New and Selected Conversations with Margaret Atwood. Ed. Earl G. Ingersoll. Princeton: Ontario Review, 2006. 253-64. Print.


Haraway, Donna. “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene.” e-flux journal 75 (2016): 1-17. Web. Feb 16, 2017. <http://www.e-flux.com/journal/75/67125/tentacular-thinking-anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene/>.


Jaroff, Leon. "The Gene Hunt." Time. Mar 20, 1989. Web. Oct 10, 2013. <http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,957263,00.html>.


Kaplan, Sarah. “Scientists create a part-human, part-pig embryo — raising the possibility of interspecies organ transplants.” Washington Post. 26 Jan. 2017. Web. 07 Feb. 2017. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/01/26/scientists-create-a-part-human-part-pig-embryo-raising-the-possibility-of-interspecies-organ-transplants/>.


Nayar, Pramod K. Posthumanism. Cambridge: Polity, 2014.


Newitz, Annalee. “Genome Liberation.” Salon.com. 26 Jan 2002. Web. 15 Jan 2010. <http://www.salon.com/2002/02/26/biopunk/>.


Patterson, Meredith. “A Biopunk Manifesto.” 30 Jan 2010. Web. 08 Feb 2012. <http://maradydd.livejournal.com/496085.html>.


Prucher, Jeff, ed. Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.


Steffen, Will, et al. “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives.” Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 369.1938 (2011): 842-67. Print.



You can find Biopunk Dystopias and other texts in our Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies series on our website

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David Looseley named joint winner of the 2015 Franco-British Society Literary Prize

Posted on May 05, 2016 by Katherine Pulman

We are thrilled to congratulate David Looseley on being named joint winner of the 2015 Franco-British Society Literary Prize for Édith Piaf

The world-famous French singer Édith Piaf (1915-63) was never just a singer. Dozens of biographies of her, of variable quality, have seldom got beyond the well known and usually contested ‘facts’ of her life. This book suggests new ways of understanding her. A ‘cultural history’ of Piaf means exploring her cultural, social and political significance as a national and international icon, looking at her shifting meanings over time, at home and abroad. How did she become a star and a myth? What did she come to mean in life and in death? The book proposes the notion of an imagined Piaf. 

Édith Piaf is available in both hardback and e-book formats. Please click here for more information.

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