Percy Bysshe Shelley

"I wish no living thing to suffer pain." --Prometheus Unbound (I, 305) 1820

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). The quote in the picture caption–at left: “I wish no living thing to suffer pain”–suggests precisely the shift embodied in the idea of Romantic natural history. The poet exhibited a fascination with natural phenomena from his 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.” He almost blew up those same rooms in college with one of his experiments.

Shelley, who can load every rift of his imagery with ore derived from the natural science of his age, often in ways that precisely link human and nonhuman “feelings.” In one of the best known examples of this tendency – taken from “Ode to the West Wind” – Shelley imagines plants beneath the sea in sympathy with plants on land: “The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear / The sapless foliage of the ocean, know / Thy voice [the wind’s], and suddenly grow gray with fear, / And tremble and despoil themselves” (ll. 39-42). Shelley adds a footnote to these lines that sounds as though it could have come directly from Erasmus Darwin: “the phenomenon alluded to . . . is well known to naturalists. The vegetation at the bottom of the sea, of rivers, and of lakes, sympathizes with that of the land in the change of seasons” (577). Shelley’s science here may be wrong, but his imaginative insight links with the emerging science of his own time to produce an idea that is surely correct: organic activity beneath the waves has important – Shelley says “sympathetic”; we might now say “ecological” – connections to events on the land.

Similarly, Shelley’s sky-lark sings with “shrill delight” (l. 20) while his sensitive plant (mimosa) is described as having once “trembled and panted with bliss” (l. 9). Shelley’s sensitive plant derives directly from Erasmus Darwin’s reflections on the mimosa as a strange bridge between the plant and animal kingdoms. Yet Shelley goes beyond the mere ascription of sensation to the plant, suggesting a direct connection between this plant and certain sorts of human emotion (of course, his real subject in the poem is clearly a “sensitive” poet like himself). The affinity of plants for other plants, and the image of plants as analogous to forms of attraction throughout the material universe, reaches an apotheosis in lines from Shelley’s botanical poem. These flowersShone smiling to Heaven, and every oneShared joy in the light of the gentle sun;

For each one was interpenetrated
With the light and the odour its neighbor shed
Like young lovers whom youth and love make dear
Wrapped and filled by their mutual atmosphere. (ll. 64-69)

Of course, the suggestion that aspects of the entirety of nature might be analogous to human nature is as old as poetry itself. What is new in a poet like Shelley is the sense of how an emotion like pleasure can organically link humans with the nonhuman world. In a rarely discussed poem entitled “The Birth of Pleasure,” Shelley is explicit about the central role of pleasure, even at the dawn of creation: “At the creation of the Earth / Pleasure, that divinest birth, / From the soil of heaven did rise, / Wrapped in sweet wild melodies” (584).

Consider, from this perspective, Shelley’s cloud, whose nourishing water offers sustenance to “thirsting flowers” and provides shade for delicate leaves in their “noonday dreams” (ll. 1,4). In this proto-ecological vision of the hydrological cycle (“I pass through the pores of the oceans and shores; / I change, but I cannot die” [ll. 74-75]), Shelley elaborates electrical attractions between ground and clouds – only recently described by Benjamin Franklin and by Shelley’s own science teacher Adam Walker (from Syon House Academy and Eton) – as a kind of “love” between earth and sky. He also says that the “moist Earth” is “laughing below” (l. 72) as the cloud brings various forms of pleasure to each part of this natural cycle. Even a satiric and imaginative flight of fancy like “The Witch of Atlas” is shot through with precise details drawn from the natural science of Shelley’s time, and linked to powerful “sympathy” between the natural and the human realms: “Vipers kill, though dead” (l. 2), “a young kitten” may “leap and play as grown cats do, / Till its claws come” (ll. 6-7) and Mary Shelley’s gentle hand would not “crush the silken wingèd fly” (l. 9). The may-fly dies almost before it is born, and even the swan’s song in the sun evokes a smile as serene as Mary’s (stanza ii).

Title page to 1847 edition of Shelley's poems

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 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”: A YouTube reading of Shelley’s “The Cloud” by Frances Jeater; many of Shelley’s poems–and those by numerous other poets–now appear online in this visual and verbal format.

Percy Shelley and Frankenstein

Shelley’s Poems (Columbia)

Shelley, Horace Smith, and “Oxymandias“: an interesting site recommended by students at the Green Mountain School (special thanks to Megan P. and Erica!)

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