On the long-term poetry of snails

One of my most prized possessions is this decade-old clipping from the NZ Listener of a news item about a scientific study on memory. It's entitled "Lest we remember" and goes like this:

"Will it be possible for people to have their unwanted memories erased, or at least weakened? Who knows, but scientists at UCLA have reported in the Journal of  Neuroscience that they have been able to erase the long-term memories of marine snails..."

"The long-term memories of marine snails"!

I was -- still am -- irremediably fascinated by the idea.

Take the conch. The conch, according to the marine biologist featured in Stanford University's "microdoc" video on conch, spends its life "cruising around" (changed to "wander" for the written version) in the deep waters near the reef, eating seagrass. What could a conch's long-term memories be?

So here I am, years later, reading about Shelley in Italy, the long afternoons under a shady pergola, reading poetry aloud with Byron or Leigh Hunt, and I come across the intriguing fact that Shelley's favourite poem was a work by Walter Savage Landor called Gebir, and that when he read it aloud, everyone, and he most of all, particularly admired the passage with the sea-nymph.

So I went and looked it up, and there it is. The conch's long-term memory.

Within, and they that lustre have imbibed
In the sun's palace porch, where when unyoked
His chariot-wheel stands midway in the wave;
Shake one and it awakens, then apply
Its polisht lips to your attentive ear,
And it remembers its august abodes,
And murmurs as the ocean there.

Walter Savage Landor is pretty much forgotten nowadays, but once he was known as "The Poet's Poet". He actually was in Italy in the same period as Shelley, but refused to meet him, a harsh judgement on Shelley's behaviour towards his first wife whom he had abandoned -- sad to have to say it -- heartlessly. Landor later regretted it, after Shelley died young. He outlived not just Shelley but all the Romantics, quarreled with everyone else, including his family, effectively exiled himself from England forever through scandal and feud, kept publishing poetry up until he was 87, died at 88 in Florence, where the kind Brownings had found him a house, and was buried there in the beautiful English Cemetery which is now a traffic island, its tall cypresses poking up out of a 24 hour a day carousel of cars, busses, vespas, motorini. Yet when you go through the gate, the cacophony miraculously ceases. You probably could hear a conch murmuring to you if you only had one.

The books

Young romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and other tangled lives by Daisy Hay (highly recommended, an enjoyable read whether you know a little, a lot, or nothing at all on the topic)

Shelley's ghost: reshaping the image of a literary family by Stephen Hebron and Elizabeth C. Denlinger (a narrower focus, but worth having a look at for the photos of Shelley documents and relics with which the book is replete, as it was published to accompany an exhibition at the Bodleian Library, Dove Cottage, Grasmere and the New York Public Library).

Shelley's poetry and prose: authoritative texts, criticism selected and edited by Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat.

Poems by Walter Savage Landor

Author: Karen Craig, Reading Engagement Specialist