Thursday, 6 August 2015

'Rising Universe': The Controversy of the Shelley Fountain

It was P. B. Shelley’s birthday a couple of days ago, and so my Twitter and Facebook feeds were filled with snippets of his poetry, various articles, and several pictures of the birthday boy himself (including one of Shelley surrounded by celebratory confetti and streamers – I’m looking at you, @1815now). There were, of course, numerous images of the University College sculpture and the famous Amelia Curran portrait, so I was interested to see that the Keats-Shelley House in Rome had taken a different angle and shared an image of the ‘Rising Universe’ fountain in Horsham, West Sussex.

Otherwise known as the Shelley Fountain (or, among some locals, the Cornish Pasty), this sculpture by Angela Conner was installed in 1996 to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of Shelley, who was from Horsham. The fountain is made up of a large globe mounted on a pillar; the globe slowly rises and falls, releasing a torrent of water at intervals. Or at least it’s meant to: the fountain was switched off for some time in order to save water, and then shortly after it was switched back on, it broke. The fountain’s water feature has not functioned properly since 2013. Horsham District Council has been discussing the future of the 'Rising Universe' over the past 12 months, and has looked into the cost of scrapping it, but no decisions appear to have been made yet.

The fountain attracted a lot of controversy when it was first installed, and it continues to do so. A quick google reveals the strong feelings that locals have about the sculpture, with various residents of Horsham describing it as ‘ugly’, ‘obtrusive’, and a ‘waste of money’. Indeed, in 2011 the landmark was named ‘the ugliest fountain in the world’ by Google. Some feel that a work of art commemorating Shelley just isn’t relevant any more, with one local describing the poet as ‘rarely read today’ before concluding that ‘It’s the 21st century and a contemporary theme should be found’.

As someone who grew up in Horsham, I would argue that this sculpture has an important function and should be kept. Far from being irrelevant, it serves to introduce each new generation to Shelley’s work. I was 12 years old when the fountain was installed, and I remember being fascinated by the extract from ‘Mont Blanc’ that appears on a plaque on the sculpture:

The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark – now glittering – now reflecting gloom –
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters, – with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume
In the wild wood, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.

I hadn’t come across Shelley’s poetry before, and I can’t say that I felt I completely understood these lines, but I could nevertheless see their power and energy reflected in Conner's sculpture. I went away and looked up Shelley in the copy of the New Dragon Book of Verse that I used to borrow from the library and found ‘Ozymandias’; again, I wasn’t quite sure what it all meant, but it stayed with me. I should imagine that I haven't been the only person over the years to be inspired to find out more about Shelley by the fountain, and think it would be a great shame if we lost this public acknowledgement of his life and work.

Horsham Museum
In many ways, I don’t think that Horsham does enough to celebrate its links with one of the greatest Romantic poets – I don’t remember ever being told about him in school, for example. An exception to this is the wonderful Shelley Gallery at the local museum, which offers a really interesting collection of artefacts (including a rare bronze bust of Shelley), manuscripts, and first editions. The museum has a very dedicated curator in Jeremy Knight, who over the past 25 years has done a tremendous job in building up one of the largest collections on Shelley in the country. People won't seek out this collection, though, if they don't know who Shelley is, which is why we need a public monument such as the 'Rising Universe'.

So I’m with Keats-Shelley House on this one, and agree that the Shelley Fountain is a fascinating and important work that deserves to stay. I reckon that Shelley would have really liked it, too; he certainly would have enjoyed all the controversy he'd caused!

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