The Preface to Frankenstein—written by Percy, oddly enough—brings us back to the now legendary moment of inspiration that gave us Mary Shelley’s famous novel: vacationing at Lake Geneva with a circle of friends and fellow writers, the Shelleys are confined indoors due to inclement weather. Reading German horror stories by candlelight, the crew eventually settles on a competition proposed by Lord Byron. The competition is simple: who can write the best horror story? In the months and years ahead, Byron and Percy—the two literary heavyweights of the party—lose interest and take up other projects; Mary, meanwhile, sets to work on what will become Frankenstein, one of the most celebrated English novels of all time.
As American’s go to the polls today in a series of epochal mid-term elections, Shelley’s To the Lord Chancellor seems a more than appropriate choice for our Tuesday Verse selection. As Timothy Webb once noted, politics was perhaps the consuming passion of Shelley’s life. On the 6 November 1819, right around the time he might have been writing this poem, Shelley wrote to his friends the Gisbornes saying, “I have deserted the odorous gardens of literature to journey across the great sandy desert of Politics; not, you may imagine, without the hope of finding some enchanted paradise.” Shelley was what was known as a perfectibilist, someone who believed in the perfectibility of humans. He even developed a sophisticated political and social theory to compliment this belief. This does NOT mean Shelley was a utopian - he emphatically was not. But he did believe in the gradual evolution of the human species toward something like perfection.
Blake’s “Tyger” is a classic of British Romantic poetry, one we couldn’t resist branching out to explore for this week’s Tuesday Verse. Blake’s poem marvels at the tiger, a sublime creature for its ability to excite both awe and terror. However, Blake is equally attracted to the shadowy figure who, hunched over his anvil, forges into being this majestic apex predator, as if from steel and fire. What kind of prime creator, Blake wonders, could have brought to life such a creature, perfect in its killing ability?
In England, the sonnet has often been used to explore themes of transience, death, and immortality. Shelley's "Ye Hasten to the Grave" continues this trend; however, it does so by refocusing attention away from contemplation about death and the afterlife and back toward the pleasures of life in the here-and-now. Shelley partly frames his sonnet as a series of rhetorical questions for the kind of person who seeks to embrace death as part of his or her religious convictions. For such a person, of course, death is not the end of life but rather life's transformation into something new and blissful. In keeping with his atheism, Shelley implies that the belief in such an afterlife is a form of misdirected hope stemming from hubris or conventional thinking (what Shelley calls "the world's livery"). But perhaps worst of all, in seeking out "a refuge in the cavern of grey death," such a person flees not only life's pain but also its pleasure, the "green and pleasant path" that suggests a power and beauty in life's here-and-now.
Even so, it's worth considering that Shelley's poem doesn't actually affirm very much. Even though his position is atheistical, Shelley has given us a poem more interested in asking questions (about life, death, and belief) rather than averring a new doctrine.
In "An Exhortation," Shelley addresses a question that preoccupied his age: what is a poet? In attempting to answer this question, Shelley uses as his primary metaphor the chameleon, the shape-shifting, colour-adjusting reptile. Readers of the Romantics might know that, funny enough, the chameleon was also central to Keats' understanding of the poet. According to Keats, the poet's distinguishing trait was their ability to write convincingly of any life situation, event, or mindset, an (adapt)ability that stemmed from their deep knowledge of human nature.
“Julian and Maddalo” is a conversation poem that centres on the relationship between two figures: the aristocratic Maddalo (who resembles Shelley’s friend and fellow poet Lord Byron) and Julian (an idealist who closely resembles Shelley himself). Throughout the poem, the conversations and experiences of the two compatriots touch on subjects that preoccupied both Shelley and Byron in their life and writing. Julian argues for the mind’s power to change itself and the world around it. The far more skeptical Maddalo calls this “Utopian.” The will is not free, says Maddalo; rather, our lives are shaped by forces beyond our control.
Likely written in the final year or so of his life, “The Flower that Smiles Today” captures Shelley’s increasing preoccupation with the transience of life and its joys. The final years of Shelley’s life were marked by increasing difficulties, both personal and political: between 1816 and 1819, Shelley and Mary had lost three children, which brought growing strain to their marriage; at the early 1820s came with a series of critical setbacks to England’s reform movement that, just a few years prior, seemed on the verge of creating real change in the country. These issues hang over Shelley’s mutability poems like this one, which ponders how it is possible to survive particular joys—friendship, love, beauty—once we know we can never experience them again.
Some of you might also notice connections, both stylistic and thematic, with some of Byron’s poetry, which often ponders similar questions. Both the Byronic hero and the speaker of Shelley’s poem capture the zeitgeist of Britain’s revolutionary period as it gradually drew to a close: that is, both reflect upon the disappointed hopes that come to people (and societies) that once seemed destined to achieve great things.
“Corpses are cold in the tomb;
Stones on the pavement are dumb;
Abortions are dead in the womb,
And their mothers look pale—like the death- white shore
Of Albion, free no more.
Her sons are as stones in the way--
They are masses of senseless clay--
They are trodden, and move not away,--
The abortion with which SHE travaileth
Is Liberty, smitten to death.
Then trample and dance, thou Oppressor!
For thy victim is no redresser;
Thou art sole lord and possessor
Of her corpses, and clods, and abortions—they pave
Thy path to the grave.
Hearest thou the festival din
Of Death, and Destruction, and Sin,
And Wealth crying 'Havoc!' within?
’Tis the bacchanal triumph that makes Truth dumb,
Ay, marry thy ghastly wife!
Let Fear and Disquiet and Strife
Spread thy couch in the chamber of Life!
Marry Ruin, thou Tyrant! and Hell be thy guide
To the bed of the bride!”
Viscount Castlereagh, the British Secretary of State from 1812-22, casts a dark shadow in Shelley’s poetry. This is because Castlereagh lead some of the most pivotal—and controversial—foreign policy moves of Shelley’s era: in addition to breaking Irish independence movements and bringing the Celtic island under the dominion of the United Kingdom, Castlereagh spearheaded the work of restoration in the years following Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. Royal families reassumed positions of power, and with them came a new era in Europe, one committed to crushing the reform movements spurred by the French Revolution two decades earlier.
Shelley’s poem invokes a gristly image that captures this dispiriting moment in European history. Shelley describes “Albion” (that is, “England”) as a failed pregnancy, a symbol that evokes how optimism about a better life ahead can so swiftly transition toward despair about the future. England, a country formerly looked on as Europe’s most progressive country, now lies broken, her son, “Liberty,” dead in the womb.
It’s worth comparing Shelley’s picture of England to William Blake’s “London” (1794), another poem that uses a “blasted” child and ailing mother to reflect on England’s uncertain future. Shelley was likely unfamiliar with Blake’s poem, but the similarities between their poetry is worth noting. Both poems reflect a fear experienced by many in this period: that decades of dearly-bought progress was on the brink of being dissolved by the kinds of backroom dealing that “makes Truth dumb” and spreads “Fear, Discomfort, and Strife.”
“The Mask of Anarchy” begins on an unassuming note: Shelley’s claim that his “visions of Poesy” have come to him in a dream might lead the reader to imagine that what follows is a flight into imaginative wonder and away from reality. But as with “Queen Mab,” Shelley’s dream vision does not take us away from the world but forces us to confront its ugliest features. Alluding to the four horsemen of the apocalypse described in the Book of Revelations, the opening of “The Mask of Anarchy” presents four figures who, according to Shelley, were undertaking their own world-destroying fury: Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, and Anarchy. Unlike in Revelations, however, these are not abstract forces in a spiritual conflict between good and evil. Shelley gives his evil corporeal form and well-recognized names: Viscount Castlereagh; Lord Eldon; Lord Sidmouth; and the royalty, churchmen, and timeservers of Britain’s establishment class. If the apocalypse is coming, in other words, it will be achieved through Britain’s unholy trinity of “God, and King, and Law.”
In 1819, it might very well have felt like the apocalypse was coming: food shortages, economic turmoil, and widespread civil unrest plagued the realm. But Shelley’s poem also registers some hope. If poets are prophetic figures whose deep knowledge of their times creates knowledge and permits change (ideas explored in the essay “Defense of Poetry”), then Shelley’s dream vision might produce “the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time”—a different, brighter future, in other words.
“Poets… are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting: they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers… Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared, were called, in the earlier epochs of the world, legislators, or prophets: a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters. For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time.”
In his great essay “A Defense of Poetry,” Shelley gives us his famous definition of the poet: to be a poet is to represent a spirit of change, both within the world of letters and beyond it. Those who write verse are poets, of course, but poets also create in other ways: musicians, performers, sculptors, and painters all embody the force of poetry—that is to say, a kind of creativity that challenges and thereby inspires change.
Shelley returns to an ancient understanding of the poet as a prophet, one who, like the writer of Job or The Odyssey, was gifted with a rich and mysterious language from the gods. But Shelley’s prophet-poet is not literally given a glimpse into the future from on high, as a Biblical prophet would be. Rather, with his ear to the ground, the poet possesses a deep understanding of the world, and this gives him or her a sense of where their society is going. This, finally, is what makes the poet an ideal “legislator”: the poet’s deep knowledge both of human nature and the social conditions of his/her time means that their best gifts come in the form of social instruction and leadership.
Shelley wrote at a time in which the value of what we now call “the arts” was questioned like never before. Up went the cries: what is the value of reading or writing something like poetry? Shouldn’t a young man like Shelley commit himself to something more socially beneficial and less self-indulgent? Shelley responds by claiming that in order for a society to function at its best, it requires the kind of creative voices that allows it to know itself, to be self-critical, and to change.
"One word is too often profaned
For me to profane it,
One feeling too falsely disdained
For thee to disdain it;
One hope is too like despair
For prudence to smother,
And pity from thee more dear
Than that from another.
I can give not what men call love,
But wilt thou accept not
The worship the heart lifts above
And the Heavens reject not,—
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow?"
“One Word” was written for Jane Williams, a family friend with whom Shelley had become infatuated toward the end of his life. (Fun fact: Shelley’s boating companion on that ill-fated trip across the Gulf of Spezia was Edward Williams, Jane’s husband. He also drowned when their boat foundered in a storm.) The poem captures both the intensity and necessary secrecy of Shelley’s love: “love” is the “one word” Shelley refuses to use in the opening stanza both because it is often used too freely (and thus degraded) and because it might be dangerous: what if Jane “disdains” his avowal of love? What if there is something “profane” about how Shelley loves? We sense the claustrophobia of the poem, as Shelley struggles to give language to his feelings for a woman with whom he, Mary, and her husband Edward shared a home during the final period of his life.
The compromise, voiced in the poem’s second stanza, is platonic: “wilt thou accept,” Shelley asks Jane, “The worship the heart lifts above | And the Heavens reject not”? Jane becomes something like a muse, as Shelley voices his love in spiritual terms: it is now a form of devotion toward “something afar | From the sphere of our sorrow.”
This is part of our Tuesday Verse series. Commentary comes from Jonathan Kerr, who has recently completed his PhD in English at the University of Toronto with specialization in the Romantics.