By Charles Matthews

Monday, August 16, 2010

11. Being Shelley, by Ann Wroe, pp. 295-313

Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself (Vintage)Part IV: Fire, 1. Daring
Shelley was drawn to fire both as symbol and as substance. He meditated on candle flames and glowing coals, and would sometimes sleep so close to the hearth that his "friends, wondering how he could bear it, moved him away and put a blanket on him, but he rolled back, throwing it aside.... He claimed to have the temperament of a salamander, a creature generated and nourished by flame." Naturally, the image of the moth drawn to the flame suited him, too. "In Epipsychidion he imagined his own moth's flight, unsteadily, towards apotheosis in the evening star."

As a boy he literally played with fire, including electricity, doing experiments and playing pranks. "Hogg claimed that analysis of fire especially intrigued his friend. Shelley wished to investigate all its properties, testing whether clay or stones or even water could be made to burn too.... His fascination with chemistry long outlasted Oxford.... He continued to read Humphry Davy (Elements of Chemical Philosophy, Elements of Agricultural Chemistry) and to take notes on him. In consequence his visions kept the shocks and smoke of chemical and physical experiment: electrical charges, green-glowing Leyden jars, gases and combustion." When he was at Eton, "Chemistry books were banned as private reading, so he read them. Experiments were forbidden in the boys' rooms, so he performed them."

Later, he would perceive a connection between fire (and electricity) and life, inspired by his reading of Lucan's Pharsalia, in which a witch reanimates a corpse, and accounts of experiments in galvanism in London where audiences saw cadavers made to twitch and grin by electrical current. "He too beguiled the summer of 1816 by wondering how creatures might be put together and heated into life. But he left such things to Mary, and to Frankenstein." He knew of Newton's theory of "the mediating aether that surrounded the world. Electricity, magnetism, heat and light all surged through aether, as did Love."
Newton had discovered through the luminous aether God's presence in everything, life-giving and expanding. Shelley, at the peak of his materialism, grappled less piously with what aether was. "Is the electrical fluid material?" he asked an elderly physician with whom he was in earnest correspondence about these things.
But what he was really interested in was the Promethean Poet:
The best of writers -- Milton, Bacon, Bryon -- gathered up lightning in their wings and dispensed it as blinding, liberating light. They were eagles, fire-birds who could soar into the sun, or the light of Truth beyond the sun, and gaze on it until the scales of mere mortal dullness fell away from their eyes. It was impossible, Shelley wrote in A Defence of Poetry in 1821, "to read the most celebrated writers of the present day without being startled by the electric life which burns within their words." The more revolutionary the truth, the more extreme the lightning: chasms, ravines, rivers of it, splitting the whole sky.
He was fascinated by scientific investigations into the nature of the sun, but was more absorbed by "the sun of myth and prophecy" and by the figure of Apollo, god of both the sun and poetry. "Shelley often saw himself as a mirror or a shield on which truth glanced and blazed, as it did from the sun." The poem by Keats that he most admired was "Hyperion, the story of Apollo's election as the new young god of the sun.... Keats had never finished Hyperion. His life had been extinguished first, his consumption apparently aggravated by the reviewers' bile. Shelley thought himself stronger and bolder, his shield-mirror dazzling, his arrows primed against the Critic." Poets were prophets, not in the fortune-telling sense, but as vehicles through which the god spoke, "often astonishing themselves as well as others.... The dictum of the Oracle at Delphi was a simple two-word command, the motto of Shelley's life: Know thyself. Through the sun-principle in himself, that truth-reflecting power, he intended to. But his ambitions, and his desire, could not end there."

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