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.