Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) 

 

I wish no living thing to suffer pain.

                                                       --Prometheus Unbound  (I, 305) 1820
        
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) exhibited a fascination with natural phenomena from early childhood. His biographer Richard Holmes begins the story of Shelley's life with family stories about a "Great Tortoise" and "Great Snake" that inhabited the pond and woods at Field Place in Sussex. One of Shelley's teachers at Syon House Academy was Dr. Adam Walker, an itinerant astronomer and inventor who lectured on the possibility of life on other planets and on links between magnetism and electricity. Shelley's cousin Tom Medwin described looking through Walker's telescopes at the rings of Saturn and through his microscope at a fly's wing, cheese mites, and "the vermicular animalculae in vinegar." Shelley was notorious as a school boy for his scientific experiments, many of which resulted in destructive explosions. His sister recalled "being placed hand-in-hand round the nursery table to be electrified." By 1810, when Shelley left Eton for Oxford, he had translated large sections of Pliny's Historia Naturalis ; he had also experimented with electricity and magnetism as well as with gunpowder and numerous chemical reactions. His rooms at University College Oxford contained a wide range of scientific equipment: vials, crucibles, "philosophical instruments," a solar microscope, a galvanic trough, an air pump, a telescope, and an assortment of electrical devices. His friend Hogg noted that Shelley was "passionately attached to the study of what used to be called the occult sciences, conjointly with that of the new wonders, which chemistry and natural philosophy [physical science] have displayed to us." 

Shelley's notes to Queen Mab (1813) contain numerous references to natural historians, ancient and modern: Lucretius, Plutarch, Pliny, Cuvier, d'Holbach. One of Shelley's early fictional characters, in the novel St. Irvyne, possesses characteristics of his undergraduate creator (and also of Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein): "a desire of unveiling the latent mysteries of nature, was the passion by which all the other emotions of my mind were intellectually organized . . . Natural philosophy at last became the peculiar science to which I directed my eager enquiries." A subsequent link between Shelley's moral thinking and the natural philosophy of his time is evident in a passage from his essay "On Love" (1818):

    In the motion of the very leaves of spring in the blue air there is then found a secret correspondence with out heart. There is eloquence in the tongueless wind and a melody in the flowing of brooks and the rustling of the reeds beside them which by their inconceivable relation to something within the soul, awaken the spirits to a dance of breathless rapture, and bring tears of mysterious tenderness to the eyes . . .
Shelley's "Preface" to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein refers to the precise scientific speculations of Erasmus Darwin and "the physiological writers of Germany." His "Mont Blanc" expresses an understanding of geology and the fossil record that will not be expressed so well poetically until Tennyson. Poems as diverse as "To a Skylark," "The Cloud," "The Sensitive Plant," "Ode to the West Wind," and Prometheus Unbound offer images of interdependence between human and nonhuman realms, of the cyclical and unalterable forces that link animate and inanimate nature.  The regenerate world of Prometheus Unbound, for example, presents a picture that we might now call ecological: "Henceforth . . . all plants, / And creeping forms, and insects rainbow-winged, / And birds, and beasts, and fish, and human shapes, / . . . shall take / And interchange sweet nutriment . . . (III, iii). Shelley's work also seeks to connect natural laws to political and social systems. His metaphors regularly draw on physical science and natural history, and his abstract literary sensibilities are often balanced by a rigorous sense of a material and organic unity that pervades all living things. (A.N.)

   Percy Shelley links:

Title page of Mary Shelley's 1847 edition of Shelley's poems

"The Sensitive Plant"

"The Cloud"

Percy Shelley and Frankenstein

Shelley's Poems (Columbia)

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