Shelley’s Not-so-Secret Love of Science

Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound

Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound

                Alongside these technological and social developments were the Evangelical revival, the expansion of the English middle class and the French Revolution.  The growth of the middle class gave the minorly affluent more political power to push Methodist leaning views through Parliament while at the same time fear of revolution spread after the Jacobin’s reign of terror kept many conservative politicians in power. These many new and differing developments demanded new and differing responses.  The Methodists responded to the plight of the poor with faith and aid.  The rich responded to technological advances by taking advantage of mechanism and a vast, desperate working class.  The Romantics responded by looking forward (Brogan).

From the mid 18th century until the mid 19th century we have what Historians like to call the First Industrial Revolution.  Wind and water power were being harnessed for irrigation, mining and textile work and – as it became more developed – the use of steam power changed the size and the face of the globe. With this scientific and technological growth and the continuing capitalization of agriculture, society was turned on its end as displaced farm workers flooded to London and other industrial towns in search of food and shelter for their families and made themselves (as well as their wives and children) available for economic exploitation.  Both prosperity and poverty were being produced in excess with these new developments (Brogan).

As I said in my introduction, Romantic poets did not deny science; they just felt that it did not go far enough. “[Many] Romantics knew a lot about science, that they willingly accepted many contemporary scientific discoveries … and that they enthusiastically supported what they considered to be good science.” (Eichner, et. al.) The Romantic poets did not seek to alter the epistemological model of science by switching object and subject, but to allow the subject to speak instead of just report. They understood that science was the merchandise of imaginative activity and wanted to connect the inner subjective space with the outer objective space.  They believed that subjective experience was just as important as objective experience.  In “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth “Speaks of the mind as half creating and half perceiving; and Coleridge in his Theory of Life, adds to the concept of “outness” that of “inness” but does not attempt to replace the former with the latter.” (Proffitt, et. al.)  These same poets developed an evolutionary outlook on existence: life is change.  One scholar, Walter Jackson Bate, explains that “English Romantic thought … was … naturalistic in its direction rather than frankly subjectivistic; for the institutional empiricism upon which it relied was tempted to concentrate on the particular, and upon the revelation of its essential nature as a particular.  This concentration had .. an almost scientific direction.” (Proffitt, et. al.)

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on the fourth of August 1792 in Field Place near Horhsam, Sussex.  He would drown one month before his thirtieth birthday when his ship sunk during a sudden storm near Viareggio on the eighth of July 1822.  While there is some controversy surrounding his death, most scholars agree that Shelley went before his time.  The eldest legitimate son of a Member of Parliament, Shelley began his education at a young age.  He was only twelve when his father sent hem to Eton College.  To Shelley’s luck, James Lind, one of the foremost scientific minds of that day and Royal Physician as well as a confidant of James Watt (The inventor of the steam engine as we know it), Lived in Eton and worked at the college.  Lind saw something in Shelley and took the curious boy on as a private pupil.  Medically qualified, Lind was also skilled in meteorology and astronomy.  These teachings are quite transparent in several of Shelley’s poems (King-Hele).

In The Cloud, Shelley becomes a cloud, “an aerial sprit, but also a spirit well informed in science and strongly attracted by the natural cycle of water circulation: ocean –> water –> [vapor] –> clouds –> rain –> streams –> rivers –> ocean … The science is never overt, just part of the narrative.” (King-Hele)  In the last verse of the same poem, Shelley writes:

  I am the daughter of Earth and Water,

                And the nursling of the sky;

I pass through the pores of the oceans and shores;

                I change, but I cannot die…

Water vapor forms clouds by condensing on aerial motes of dust or salt, hence “daughter of Earth and Water,” and the phrase “I change” is directly referencing water’s ability to take any of its three forms (liquid, solid and vapor) on the Earth’s surface. There are many reasons Shelley decided to use the word “pores”: a precedent in Darwin’s scientific poetry (“each nice pore of ocean, earth and air”), “because sweat vaporizes from pores, and the ‘sweat’ of the ocean is the chief raw material for clouds,” or simply because the word ‘pores’ gives the line a great vastness in tone (King-Hele).

An example of Shelley’s love for astronomy shines through in his poem Hymn to Apollo in which he correctly labels solar energy as the source of all power on Earth:

Whatever lamps on earth or heaven may shine

Are portions of one power, which is mine.

And in The Witch of Atlas, Shelley connects ancient myth with Asteroids which, at the time, had only been recently discovered:

                                Those mysterious stars

Which hide themselves between the Earth and Mars.

It should be obvious that Shelley used science in his day to day life and while science is often secondary in his poetry, you can almost always find a sliver of scientific knowledge crammed amongst the literary metaphors and subjective insight.

Works Cited

Brogan, Howard O. “The English Romantics: Revolution, Reaction, and the “Generation Gap”” The Journal of                                 General Education Summer 26.2 (1974): 111-24. JSTOR. Web.

Kearns, Michael S., Edward Proffitt, Kenneth A. Bruffee, and Hans Eichner. “Modern Science and the Genesis of                         Romanticism.” PMLA 97.3 (1982): 408-12. JSTOR. Web.

King-Hele, D. G. “Shelley and Science.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society 46.2 (1992): 253-65.                                             Web.  JSTOR.

Severn, Joseph. Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound. Digital image.                                            Public Domain, 2009. Web. <                                      _Posthumous_Portrait_of_Shelley_Writing_Prometheus_Unbound_1845.jpg>.