“Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,” begins Robert Browning’s short poem “Memorabilia.” Percy Shelley was a Romantic poet, a close friend of John Keats. Shelley was a generation older than Browning, and died when Browning was 10 years old; plus they moved in different social realms. If Browning ever saw Shelley, it wasn’t very plain or for very long.
When I was a child, I met a man who had known Gandhi – not that that’s very interesting in itself, but that it’s an example of the experience described in the poem. That someone from a history book had basically hung out with the person who was standing in front of me, beaming at my childish ways, was slightly incredible.
The only thing that holds together our “six-degrees” chain links to the past is memory. Those memories die with us, to be sustained (if at all) by a more tenuous set of hearsay memories in the next generation. After a while, what we know of history is a tiny thread of links that ignore the wide range of ephemeral experiences that pass into oblivion.
That’s the connection between the first and second halves of this poem. It’s not so much a metaphor, even, as an association between two experiences: the link to the past with the person who’d talked with Shelley, and the link to the moor in the form of a feather. Sometimes a huge happening in our lives survives only as – well, as a feather, as a ticket stub, as a bottle cap, as a postcard.
Once again, poetry works to capture something we probably didn’t know we needed a name for.