Category: Percy Shelley’s Poetry (2/12)


Convenient Parallels in Portrayal

We all know that Percy Shelley was Mary Shelley’s alleged drive to finish the Frankenstein novel.  While we are not completely sure of all of his involvement, we can assume that he at least encouraged Mary to complete the novel, and pushed her along.  However, it seems like he has a great deal of influence in the novel, especially the passages regarding Mont Blanc, which he wrote a poem of the same name about as well. Mary repeats some of the ideas that her husband-to-be uses in his poem, as well as some imagery, to perhaps enrich the scene with a more poetic feeling.

On page 74, Mary describes Frankenstein and his surroundings in his journey to Geneva, to “investigate” his brother’s murder.  In Frankenstein’s words, she tells us of the great beauty of the space and mountains, saying “the calm and heavenly scene restored [Frankenstein]” (74), and continues to mention how beautiful it was, as influenced as he was by it being a happier time in his life.  What particularly sticks out when rereading the passage is that in extolling this beautiful landscape, Frankenstein calls out, “Dear mountains! my own beautiful lake! how do you welcome your wanderer?” (74).  While this is not necessarily important on its own, something particular to note of Percy Shelley’s Mont Blanc is that the second section is written in the second person, addressing the “Ravine of Arve.”  In using a similar manner to describe the same nature (while not the exact same body of water), she is clearly invoking some of her husband’s work to help develop this image.

Beyond this, she also does something that not many people likely would think of.  In describing the lake that Frankenstein had just addressed partially, and dark mountains around it, she mentions thunder striking over his head,and “vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire” (75).  In describing water as looking similar to flame, she is effectively creating a contrasting image, which builds the character of the scene and is an interesting thing to imagine.  I would commend her greatly for this, but in fact, Percy did a very similar thing in Mont Blanc, as well.  In the same second section, he describes the motion of the river Arve: “Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame / Of lightning through the tempest” (18-19).  She is effectively calling the same image, with lightning and all, as Percy did to describe the river Arve in his own poetry.

While it is unsurprising how you could see parallels between a couple’s work, it seems like Mary asked Percy for some assistance in describing the beauty of the mountain landscape that they together experienced in Geneva.

From p. 92 “It was nearly noon….joys of life” and Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”

Describing his descent into the valley at the foot of Mont Blanc, Victor relates a profound awe for the elemental majesty before him, which reflects the reverent tone expressed in Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc.” In their reverence, both speakers impart a living energy to the mountain and its surrounding landscape, enhancing the overall awareness of the sublime.  For example, the disjointed syntax and catalogue of prepositional phrases create a rhythmic movement to the opening of the poem, mirroring the movement the speaker prescribes to the “everlasting universe of things.” The constant fluctuation attributed to this “universe of things” as “now dark – now glittering – now reflecting gloom” is unsettling in its unpredictability and enduring mutability, like a “vast river/ Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.” Victor also perceives this movement in the “uneven” surface of the mountain landscape, “rising like the waves of a troubled sea.” Describing the solidness of the mountain with an image of the persistent flow of water is disturbing because such a juxtaposition of images challenges readers conceptions of what is fixed and what is mutable in nature. Further, Victor enhances the reader’s uneasiness by attributing a mysterious and dark quality to the scene before him, which appeared as “troubled sea, descending low, and interspersed by rifts that sink deep.” From this brooding tone, Victor shifts to recount his experience “gazing on this wonderful and stupendous scene” with a religious devotion to Mont Blanc’s “awful majesty.” The “awful majesty” Victor describes derives from the seemingly divine power the speaker of “Mont Blanc”attributes to the Arve which “comes down/ From…his secret throne…like the flame/ Of lightning through the tempest.”

Finally, the powerful sight of Mont Blanc moves Victor to passionately appeal to the “‘Wandering spirits…[to] take me, as your companion, away from the joys of life.’” Victor’s ejaculation echoes the humbled tone in “Mont Blanc,” in which the speaker observes that he is “in a trance sublime and strange,” under the influence of the “ghosts of all things that are” and overcome by the primeval power of the sight he proclaims. These appeals demonstrate the power of the sublime to transcend the worlds of the living and the dead.

Change in a Person

Without a doubt, Percy Shelley’s poetry influenced Mary Shelley’s writing of Frankenstein. Once you read Percy’s poetry, it seems to be everywhere in Frankenstein. It is not unsurprising to me, though, that such a literary couple had influence over one another’s works; they must have often shared ideas or passages for critique, and with Mary’s wish for Percy’s approval of her writing, it follows easily that she might use his work to her advantage. This is particularly evident in a reading of Percy’s “Mutability” in conjunction with Victor’s description of his return to Geneva in the first paragraph on page 74 of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley uses “Mutability” to focus the passage on Victor, rather than on the place and situation he describes.

In the passage, Mary Shelley has taken “Mutability,” assigned it a character (Victor), and converted it to prose. The poem has a very polar tone: one minute excited, the next morose. Quick changing feelings abound in the use of adjectives: forgotten, dissonant, frail, wandering, fond, free. Mary takes these feelings and transplants them onto Victor in the entire novel, but specifically this passage. As he returns to Geneva, “at first [he] wished to hurry on” but soon “slackened [his] progress” because he “could hardly sustain the multitude of feelings” (74). The subject of the paragraph becomes the idea that everything in a place that should be familiar could be drastically changed in the time Victor has been away. One of the more striking lines in the passage is “How altered every thing might be during that time” (74), “that time” being the six years Victor was gone. Reading “Mutability” in this passage, though, begs the reader to ask the question, is it the place that Victor is worried has changed, or is it himself? The poem is all about the changes and contradictions that exist inside people, not places. The last lines of the poem are “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;/ Nought may endure but Mutability.” “Man’s yesterday” the poem reads, not the place he was yesterday, or where he will be tomorrow. His experience of it is different because, in the end, he is different. As I read the poem again, this time as if Mary had written it, I feel myself sneaking in a few words: “Nought may endure [in man] but Mutability.” Mary takes Percy’s extremely accessible poem and converts it to prose; she allows the ideas of changeability and the difference between a changed place and a changed person to sit with the reader, and ultimately, to lead to new questions about Victor’s experience.

Mary and Percy Shelley were a couple so in love that they ran away together, valuing each other over their families and lives in London. They actively encouraged each other’s writing and it was in fact, Percy Shelley who urged Mary to develop Frankenstein beyond the short story it was initially intended to be. Just taking this into account, it isn’t too far a stretch to think that they must have had significant influences on each other’s writing, but on top of this, they each edited and gave input on each other’s works. So it isn’t surprising that Mary Shelley drew on her husband’s poetry in her Frankenstein, to the extent that she basically rewrote bits of the poems in places.

The passages on page 74 beginning “The road ran…” and ending “…destined to endure” are extremely reminiscent of the poem ‘On Mutability’. The poem is about how changeable and ephemeral humans are, in terms of their lifespans as well as the volatile character of their emotions, and this idea is demonstrated in the passage. To begin with, the poem gives a sense of constant movement with words like “speed”. “quiver”, “motion” and “wandering”, while the same sense is rendered in the passage by the phrase “as I drew near home” and the fact that he is traveling the entire time. The last two stanzas of the poem deal with the transitory nature of human emotions, and this can be observed in how Victor’s emotions are jumping from “delight” and “pleasure” to “grief and fear” in a moment. A major concept is also how we never react in the same way to something, when it happens for the second time, which is seen in the lines “Give various response to each varying blast” and “No second motion brings/One mood or modulation like the last”. This is encapsulated in how Victor’s response to his surroundings changes, where first he is rejoicing in the “Dear mountains!”with their “clear” and “bright summit[s]”, that he can see outside, and then later he sees the mountains as “dark” and a “vast and dim scene of evil” which inspires gloom. Additionally this scene that he sees replaces the pleasure he was feeling with despondency, much in that same way that Shelley says “One wandering thought pollutes the day”.

The novel in fact uses an almost exact quote from the poem in the line “Night also closed around”, which should be compared to the poem’s “Night closes round”. The phrasing is a little odd because it gives an a image of Night capturing or enveloping its victim, but this is probably because the personified Night seems to also be a metaphor for death. In the poem the line appears to speak of the fleeting life that humans lead and how death finds them so “soon” and then “they are lost forever”. Victor rewrites this when he talks of the future he sees for himself, where he changes and becomes the “most wretched of human beings”, and so is going to die a certain death, or more specifically his present self is going to be “lost forever”. The idea that everyday humans die a death, as they change, by “One sudden and desolating change” or “a thousand little circumstances that might have by degrees worked other alteration”(Frankenstein, 74), and become someone new each time, is the indistinguishable from the concept in ‘On Mutabililty’ and so, to put this in Percy Shelley’s words, “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow”. This transitory nature of humans, where everyday who they were dies as they become someone new, however small the degree of difference, is probably why the Creature is unable to fathom their actions, and how they can be so kind and gentle sometimes and so harsh and unforgiving others. This is why he gives up on humans, and seeks a companion of his own species, a major driver of the plot.

cropped-mountain1.jpgIn the scene that pages 89-92 cover, Frankenstein is traversing the mountain scape on his way back home. As he returns, a rather disproportionate amount of time is spent describing the sheer grandness and majesty of the mountains. This is a direct reference to Shelley’s poem Mont Blanc, where the sentimental detail of the mountain  makes up the majority of the poem. Frankenstein essentially gives us the novel version of the poem, rewriting the same themes that appear in the poem, such as the audio/ visual contrast and the man versus nature motif. Frankenstein also incorporates the poem “Mutability” into the passage, where he uses its main theme of the insignificance of man to add to his image of the sublime and awe-inspiring mountains.

In describing the mountain in all its magnificence to the reader, Frankenstein basically expands on Shelley’s work. A parallel theme that runs through the poem and that Frankenstein incorporates is the audio/ visual component of the scene. In Mont Blanc, a line that captures this audio component is “A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame”. This is then recast by Frankenstein as a array of formidable noises such as the “thunder sound of the avalanche” or “the fall of some vast fragment”. Additionally, the man versus nature motif ties in with the poem “Mutability” to add to the growing sense of the insignificance of man in the natural world. Frankenstein not only quotes the last two sections of the poem but adds to his sense of helplessness. “Why does man boast of sensibilities those apparent in brute, it only renders them more necessary beings.” The poem “Mutability” focuses on the ever changing world and how nothing can last forever. Change is always bound to destroy any attempt to remain stagnant and permanent. This is something the Frankenstein recognises, as he laments the petty ways of man in the grand scheme of the world. The poem is inserted right after this monologue, a direct support to the statement and the tone of inconsequentiality Frankenstein is aiming for.

These powerful images of huge mountains and booming sounds serves to evoke a sense of insignificance in the audience. The use of Shelley’s poems and the revised paraphrasing of these texts serve to set the sublime scene that Frankenstein is inhabiting. His focus on detail (mirroring that of the poems) really drives home the impressive and terrifying nature of the landscape.

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The passage describing Mont Blanc and its surroundings on pages 89-92 seems to be a near-exact translation of Percy Shelley’s poem, “Mont Blanc,” into prose, particularly on page 90 at the beginning of chapter ten. As Victor describes falling ice and avalanches, he speaks of, “the silent working of immutable laws,” and the ice being, “but a plaything in their hands” (90). This goes hand in hand with Percy Shelley’s lines: “Thou has a voice, great Mountain, to repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe” and “Is this the scene / Where the old Earthquake-demon taught her young / Ruin? Were these their toys?” (lines 80-81, 71-73). Victor conveys the same awe as the speaker in the poem. Similarly, “my slumbers, as it were, waited on an ministered to by the assemblance of grand shapes which I had contemplated during the day” echo’s Percy Shelley’s lines: “Some say that gleams of the remoter world / Visit the soul in sleep–that death is slumber / And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber / Of those who wake and live” (Frankenstein 91, “Mont Blanc” lines 49-53). Victor dreams of Mont Blanc, and, indeed, his dreams and sleep do seem to offer a death-like state, as they “gathered round [him], and bade [him] be at peace,” evoking the image of a funeral (91). However, one guest of the poem doesn’t appear in Victor’s dream: “the wolf [who] tracks her [the eagle] there” (line 69). This, and other predatory hints in the poem like, “The glaciers creep / Like snakes that watch their prey,” seem to be lost on Victor (line 100-101). Since Victor doesn’t allude to these lines, he doesn’t see the danger of his situation. He doesn’t sense a snake watching him or a wolf tracking him. He doesn’t realize the creature hunts him. When Victor sees the creature, it takes him a moment to realize that the figure he sees is, in fact, the creature.

All I have to say is, Victor, why so dense? “Mont Blanc” suggests nature’s superiority over humans, saying, “Frost and Sun in scorn of mortal power / Have piled: dome, pyramid, and pinnacle” (line 103-104). Victor also alludes to nature’s architecture, as well as continually comparing Mont Blanc to a ruler. The creature, however, “bounds over the crevices in the ice, among which [Victor] had walked with care” (92). The creature moves swiftly and without hesitation through this landscape, without a single trace of reverence or care. This indicates the creature is superior even to nature, and thus, humans. Why does Victor not realize that the creature has him outmatched in every possible way? Why does he think that he can fight the creature and win? I think that, despite his over-drowning melancholy, Victor has what we might call a “creator complex.” To Victor, the hierarchy probably looks like: humans at the bottom, then nature, then the creature, then Victor himself. Because Victor created the creature, he thinks he is superior to the creature. He knows he has power and a say in the creature’s life, but he doesn’t realize that the creature also has power and a say in his. He underestimates the creature, and overestimates himself. Because the prose and poetry are so similar, the differences point out that Victor doesn’t realize he created a being superior to himself, and even to nature itself. This adds insight into why the creature cannot be accepted as animal or human, as of nature or of civilization. His appearance and his abilities make him other-worldly to both.

(Image from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vd1966/15166280897/in/photolist-p7c9VF-gH2W7x-prVnHq-dajET8-5Ziqun-kfTE9G-gdAwcu-fXuo6E-pWzNdg-cHbDiA-dajEWv-agdkY1-fAzB6u-bzYhvU-34s8Y-5ZnBsG-mLu14-5i8bQy-cyXTWf-fSFGQu-cyjb1A-6oDYGL-hb5LP9-j4NceT-npScAB-dajEQa-j9tEcP-r5kuis-pnMRDp-dajEAX-ocQac2-q2ycL5-mQH9FS-fjztS2-5J7AWM-qtXUiq-e9oPX2-9VN8PB-prVsd7-gXYhSQ-5HY1Hr-nup4wE-nxxZQ1-pRhix9-2mnBNg-iPyKkt-j8jzR-5SMBXh-o7mwq8-6F16QP)

The meaning of the fifth stanza of Percy Shelley’s Mont Blanc has always been up for debate. There are several parts of that stanza in the poem that makes little sense, including the rhyme scheme. When looking at the different possible ways a form of writing can be arranged there are pieces of insight that are sometimes uncovered. By changing the rhyme scheme into couplets, some interesting parallels can be made between the fifth stanza and a passage on pages 91-92 in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that might even answer the puzzling question at the end of the stanza. The paragraph that will be referenced starts with “The ascent is precipitous…” and concludes with “…may convey to us”.

The question posed at the end of the stanza is if silence and solitude are/were vacancy. The first mention of either silence or solitude in this passage is when Victor Frankenstein narrates, “…one of them is particularly dangerous, as the slightest sound, such as even speaking in a loud voice, produces a concussion of air sufficient to draw destruction upon the head of the speaker” (Shelley 91). In this rearranged stanza, Percy Shelley’s first words about silence are, “..much of life and death silently there, and heap the snow with breath”. These two lines almost seem to intertwine. It is interesting however, that Frankenstein says anything but silence will cause a fatal avalanche and the poem states that life and death are both silently waiting and they heap the snow with breath. Victor Frankenstein seems to be answering the question of  whether silence is a vacancy. If silence is a vacancy, Frankenstein does not want that vacancy to be filled with death and in that sense, equates silence with life. Victor sees this peaceful silence on Mont Blanc as life, thereby filling the vacancy of silence with life.

What then about solitude? Can this rearranged stanza and the detailed scenery give us any information into what fills the vacancy of solitude? In the passage Victor states, “It is a scene terrifically desolate. In a thousand spots the traces of the winter avalanche may be perceived, where trees lie broken and strewed on the ground,” A possible parallel to this in the reorganized stanza says, “In the lone glare of day, the snows descend or the star-beams dart through them. Winds contend rapid and strong, but silently! Its home which governs thought, and to the infinite dome the voiceless lightning in these solitudes keeps innocently, and like vapour broods over the snow”. Although there is no one on the mountain in the poem, there seems to be a lack of complete solitude. The thought of snows, star-beams and winds as plural entities make it seem as if there really is no solitude. This creates an odd issue however. How does Frankenstein fill in the vacancy that is in solitude?

In his narration Frankenstein states, “I looked on the valley beneath; vast mists were rising from the rivers which ran through it, and curling in thick wreaths around the opposite mountains, whose summits were hid in the uniform clouds, while rain poured from the dark sky, and added to the melancholy impression I received from the objects around me”. Much like how Percy Shelley uses objects to fill the solitude that is present on Mont Blanc, so does Victor. He turns the the objects and by “receiving” an impression from the objects, he humanizes them. This is how the vacancy of solitude is filled by Frankenstein, through making the objects around him human, he is no longer in solitude. Victor Frankenstein, on Mont Blanc, fills solitude with the humanization of objects and fills silence with life itself and in this way, Mary Shelley answers her husband’s question of if silence and solitude are vacancy by filling those vacancies.

Husband and Wife: Spousal Influence

All the great couples in media have had some sort of influence on one another. So just like when Beyoncé sings hooks on Jay Z songs, or John Lennon letting Yoko Ono ruin The Beatles, Mary Shelley borrows heavily from, and is greatly influenced by, her husband Percy Shelley. (Hooray for relevant cultural commentary!)

So when we see Victor Frankenstein ‘borrowing’ quite heavily from Percy Shelley’s poems, it’s certainly no surprise. Mary Shelley uses both “Mont Blanc” and “On Mutability” to shape the setting and direction of a few specific passages during Frankensteins’s time in the Alps.

Frankenstein tells of his ascent and experience in the valley Chamounix, beneath Mont Blanc, in almost identical terms to Percy Shelley’s poems. It wouldn’t be a stretch to argue that those few pages are almost a re-writing of Mont Blanc in prose form. Percy Shelley describes the awe-inducing power of nature by offering a grand description of the mountain and its surroundings. Similarly, Frankenstein echoes these sentiments in saying things like, “The sight of the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always the effect on solemnising my mind, and causing me to forget the passing cares of life.” (91) This is quite similar to the last eight lines of the fourth stanza in “Mont Blanc”, where Percy Shelley likens the solemnity of the mountain to the simplicity of human thought, and how in the face of such magnificent nature, the worries of man seem to fade away.

Additionally, similar terms are used in describing the scenery of the valley in both “Mont Blanc” and the passages from 89-92. Words like awful (meaning awe-inspiring), majestic, tranquil, solemn, serene, and other terms that induce feelings of sublimity are found in throughout. Also of note is how both passages make use of describing the sound of the river, and the grand sense of vastness that noise produces.

Finally, at the top of 92, Frankenstein recites the last stanza of Percy Shelley’s “On Mutability”. This is ostensibly done to further emphasize the point both are trying to make about human insignificance in the face of grand nature. Shelley argues, and Frankenstein supports, the view that the only lasting forces that exist are the forces of nature, and we as humans must base our thoughts relative to nature around is. Subsequently, human thought, experience, and emotion are ever changing in reference to our surrounding nature, but nonetheless tied to that experience of nature.

For this Thursday (2/12), students will answer the following question prompt: How does Victor Frankenstein appropriate and rewrite Percy Shelley’s poems, “Mont Blanc” and “On Mutability,” in pages 74-75 and 89-92?  Focus on a specific paragraph and poem for close reading and show exactly how the novel and the poem are interrelated in your specific analysis.

Here’s the online link for “On Mutability”: http://knarf.english.upenn.edu/PShelley/mutabili.html

 

Please categorize under “Percy Shelley’s Poetry” and don’t forget to create specific and relevant tags.