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  • Lyres, Levers, Boats, and Steam: Shelley’s Dream of a Correspondent Machine

Nature’s vast frame, the web of human things,Birth and the grave, that are not as they were.

Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude, lines 719–29

Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,  I arise, and unbuild it again.

—“The Cloud,” lines 83–84

Percy shelley correlates birth and death with models of technological making and undoing in the above lines from Alastor and “The Cloud.” Yet at the same time, and as readers might expect from a Romantic poet, here he also yokes birth and death to models of natural growth and decline. The lines from Alastor doubly circumscribe humanity: first within “Nature’s vast frame,” and then again within an organically-styled technics spanning the “web of human things.” Vast spaces of nature exist in league with sprawling networks of fabricated objects, each underpinning the boundaries of human life (“Birth and the grave”) and change (rendering nothing “as they were”). Humanity is not simply subject to overwhelming forces of nature but also subject to unpredictable dynamics of human culture, to myriad “human things” inclusive of our fabricated objects and artistic creations. Operating in similar spirit, the second set of lines from “The Cloud” naturalizes humankind’s simultaneous technological and natural entanglements: the cloud as would-be child of nature and the cloud as would-be ghost of culture together become the cloud as future unbuilder. While each poem gestures toward the genesis, terminus, and continuance of human life, these cycles are haunted by irrevocable change and loss attributed to humanity’s technological contingency, with Shelley’s “ghost from the tomb” resonant with “human things . . . that are not as they were.” For Shelley, cultural artifacts like the tomb exist within a wide arena of made objects, where even the most powerful invention commemorates [End Page 231] our limitedness and limitations (our undoings).1 Shelleyan technologies, then, connote rousing creative agencies as well as dispiriting, delimiting, or even dangerous ones. In essence, the poet’s figurations of technology echo sublime aestheticizations of the natural world, where thrilling yet daunting accounts of Nature challenge the autonomy of human agency. Of note is how Shelley recalibrates the notoriously fraught aesthetic category of the sublime. Channeling the ambivalent logic that has long been home to sublime ecological aesthetics, Shelleyan renditions of technological agency position poetry within a continuum of auspicious inventions all shaded by uncertain change and unintended consequences.2

The vexed discourse of the sublime becomes a resource for Shelley, allowing him to showcase the transformative promise and peril he attributes alike to machinery and poetry. Moreover, sublime ecology and technology intermingle in Shelley, each heralding what we may never fully understand but what indeed demarcates the conditions of everyday life and verbal art, and perhaps most significantly for Shelley, what might enable or render impossible degrees of human communication, communion, and control. By putting into dialogue Shelley’s oft-remarked lyres from The Defence of Poetry (1821) and Ode to the West Wind (1819) with various technologies chronicled in his letters and verse epistle Letter to Maria Gisborne (1820), it becomes clear that Shelley ascribes sublimity to inventions deemed especially generative, destructive, or inescapably ubiquitous. Poetry, dread [End Page 232] engines, even tea cups become sublime. Shelley’s sublime figurations of musical instruments, marvelous machinery, and domestic objects at once foreground great transformative potential as well as acutely diminished agency.3 Shelley ascribes sublimity to a range of cultural artifacts as if in an attempt to negotiate unavoidable ecological and technological circumscriptions. Technological contingency, like a necessary ecological contingency, both extends and curtails human agency, a point that Shelley’s writing often grants if not laments. In following, Shelley places poetry and technology within a dynamic and complex social ecology, pointing the way not to naïve utopia but to sublime paradox, to an ironically fragile yet powerfully intimate socioecological field of sublime technological entanglement.4

We find evidence of such inexorable entanglements in the fifth and final stanza of Ode to the West Wind, particularly where Shelley likens the poet to a lyre, to a responsive instrument made vocal by environmental force and ecological contingency. Lines of pleading verse beg autumnal blasts to “Drive [the poet’s] dead thoughts over the universe / Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth . . . Be through [the poet’s] lips to unawakened Earth / the trumpet of a prophecy!”5 While Shelley is renowned for evoking the lyre “in various contexts as a figure for his persuasion that inspiration originates in a power independent of the mind,” critics have yet to acknowledge the assortment of sublime inventions and devices he enlists to represent poesis.6 Shelley’s mobilizing tools, mechanical objects, and built environments accrue great tropological power as creations that could become [End Page 233] creators. In this capacity, Shelley’s sublime technologies mirror the sublime poetry of the ancient Longinian tradition, wherein literary works were celebrated and deemed sublime for their inspirational charge and the degree to which they were deemed capable of moving contemporary readers or future audiences.7 In like fashion, Shelley’s more aspirational writing showcases engines of sublime genesis figured analogously to a Promethean poetry capable of stunning if not lasting change. This is especially true for instruments and technological systems seemingly capable of generating renewed community or alternate models of sociality.8 Resonating with the English radical tradition of the 1790s wherein the likes of Thomas Paine transformed the lever into a galvanizing symbol of political potential, and the British abolition movement that dubbed anti-slavery crusader Thomas Clarkson the “moral steam-engine,” Shelleyan lyres, levers, and larger technologies of conveyance such as sailboats and steamships become agents of change in their own right. Pregnant with rejuvenating energies not unlike the wind, they too might quicken Shelley’s thoughts to “new birth.” Machines as well as nature can move the poet. Yet just as crucially, sublime machines and sublime nature betray the limits of human license, poetic liberty, and technological agency such that they become topoi wherein Shelley confronts his own fragility. For Shelley, regenerative technological and ecological forces pivot around the politics of loss.

Plagued as he was by the loss of children and a lack of readers, it should come as no surprise that Shelley would champion reanimating impulses, or entertain fantasies of a people or a poetry reborn. “Hope,” the poet writes, [End Page 234] “is a solemn duty which we owe alike to ourselves & to the world—a worship to the spirit of good within, which requires before it sends that inspiration forth, which impresses its likeness upon all that it creates, devoted & disinterested homage.”9 Daring to hope in the aftermath of the 1819 Peterloo massacre that mowed down his fellow Englishmen assembled in peaceful protest, and after the death of his daughter Clara (September 1818) and son William (June 1819), Shelley writes in exile, in Pisa and other Italian locales, often casting technologies as sublime and otherworldly arbiters of poetic life and death. Such is the case for the acclaimed Ode to the West Wind which enlists the bittersweet promise of an externally-activated lyre, where a lone instrument responds to autumn’s somber yet cyclical winds mirroring an isolated poet driven by death-in-life, animated by the many faces of death that Shelley attempts to work through, that of his children, distant countrymen, and unread verse.10 As we shall see, a painful mixture of loss, failure, and estrangement presses Shelley to imagine community beyond human terms.

The Ode’s lyre qua poet prefigures another Shelleyan wind-harp turned human, one described in greater detail within the pages of his poetic manifesto A Defence of Poetry. Shelley’s authoritative discussion of poetics aestheticizes human beings in not-quite-mechanist terms but nearly so, coloring humanity and perhaps other sentient beings with shades of necessity tempered with spirituality.11 Attuned to external and internal impressions, each of us, as the equivalent of some incarnate instrument, cannot help but produce polyphonic sound. In the following lines, our inherent making eclipses that of melody, necessarily moving into sublime harmony:

Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Æolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and [End Page 235] produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them.12

While one might safely assume that Shelley would wed poetic expression to the creation of sound, these words in fact mount a much larger claim. By this logic, to make is to sound. For Shelley all human making necessarily entails multiplicitous sounding. In this broad account of sound’s integral place within our movements and our makings, it is not simply sound nor even one lone song that the many soundings of our makings produce. Here sounds and songs seem continuously to breed companions, are thus never actually alone, are never in exile from one another. Shelleyan sounds move and mark off together as if to resemble the collaboration of a chorus as sounding community. In the Defence, Shelley’s emblem for the poet as maker (homo faber) is first instrumental, mechanical, monophonically melodic. Then Shelley begins to pick and choose what elements belong more exclusively to the organic sentient being which “produces not melody alone.” Shelley builds collectivity into the sentient being by way of song and sound. Harbingers of numerous “sounds or motions,” we adjust internally, respond excitedly, and in kind—multiply, harmoniously together. Even singly, in Shelley’s view it seems impossible to sing a melody alone. And perhaps surprisingly, Shelley’s prose next produces a child: “as the lyre trembles and sounds after the wind has died away, so the child seeks, by prolonging in its voice and motions the duration of the effect, to prolong also a consciousness of the cause. In relation to the objects which delight a child, these expressions are, what Poetry is to higher objects.”13 The inspiring wind trembles the lyre into attenuating sound, the child prolongs its voice, its motions, hoping to stay the company of expression that engendered delight for as long as humanly possible. Shelley’s child, like the lyre, is ostensibly alone, but ever-poised to produce a heavenly, nearly god-like harmony that announces our higher, potential condition: that of being in sublime accompaniment, with others and the external world. Sublime being, for Shelley, entails not being alone, but being necessarily together, necessarily entangled. Markedly, Shelley’s model of sublime entanglement cuts against overblown, grandiose narratives of sublime individuation famously marked by Keats as the “egotistical sublime” wherein a poet seemingly “stands alone.”14 [End Page 236]

While the Aeolian harp’s receptive and responsive posture emphasizes a more or less ubiquitous collaboration and contingency, Archimedes’s lever assumes the sublime charge of transformative lightening. Shelley appended the ancient Greek mathematician’s aphoristic saying, “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the earth,” to some of his most notorious works. Serving as paratext for Queen Mab; A Philosophical Poem; With Notes (1813) and Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City (1817), the epigraph first foregrounds the long poem that helped to establish Shelley’s infamy and utopic leanings, and then frames an even longer poem that would cement the poet’s scandalous reputation and signature radical optimism. The emboldened wager at the heart of “ Give me somewhere to stand, and I will move the earth” has everything to do with the transformative potential of the lever, but gives no mention of that tool, grants no explicit credit to the sublime power of the lever itself. The latent presence of Archimedes’s lever in Shelley tacitly confirms conventional wisdom surrounding Romantic-era renderings, or better, erasures, of the requisite technological artifact: human subjectivity and the natural world loom large, the pivotal instrument recedes. In this sense, Archimedes’s syntax models a structuring logic and wider cultural grammar, the word lever never appears, yet this unvoiced mechanism is just as crucial as earth or humanity in effecting even a modicum of change. The absent presence of the lever recalls the lyre that is left behind as Shelley turns to the figure of the child to discuss poets and poetics and whatever external impressions might drive the child to delight. The lever, like the lyre, becomes the shadow figure that makes possible Archimedes’s resulting figurations of human being and earthly movement, of revolution and change. With lyre and lever, so goes the fate of humanity.

Paradoxically, to ignore the presence of the lyre or lever is to distance humanity from the environment. We lose a fundamental bridge that binds external world to sentient subject. This is the function of the Romantic instrument and Romantic machine: it ushers forth aesthetic communion, which in turn makes room for making sound and sense for the making of poetry. Admittedly, the very phrase “Romantic machine” might ring oxymoronic if not blasphemous. This reaction stems in part from the primacy placed on Romanticism’s pre-Marxist critiques of industry and commerce that understand technology more or less monolithically as an alienating force estranging humankind from the natural world. The phrase is also haunted by the pervading idea that Romantic organicism (often betokened by a fungible, mutable, and sensitive plant) replaced enlightenment models of a mechanistically-determinist, teleologically-bound universe (epitomized by Newton’s world machine or the clockwork cosmos). As a result, strict Marxist or organicist readings of Romantic literature risk overlooking key roles played by devices in the very narratives they seek to embrace and disseminate. [End Page 237] Case in point, by adopting Archimedes’s words early on Shelley already harnesses the storied scientist’s “enthusiasm for the power of the lever, a trope frequently used by radicals . . . to link mechanical forces with revolutionary actions.”15 As Shelley’s twice-deployed epigraph suggests, Romantic technologies underwrite related revolutionary potencies of earthly and human being.

Operating in similar spirit to the techné that is poetry, machines and everyday technologies, whether here receding to the background or elsewhere appearing at the fore, underpin Shelleyan notions of collective, codetermining action, even radical change. Technological indebtedness exists at the core of anthropogenic making. As James Chandler notes, Shelley “invokes the sense of instrumentality implicit in the Romantic topos of the Aeolian harp . . . [to manifest a] representation of mutual making.”16 Furthermore, for Shelley the radical potential of such mutual making comes at a cost, a cost that accrues regardless of whether or not we lionize the lyre or disavow the lever upon which our making depends. Shelley renders this cost legible by aestheticizing technological and poetical agency within an especially intimate rendition of sublime discourse, one that pushes back against “the way in which sublime Nature, objectified as wilderness, is set up to loom around, beyond and behind human activity like a distant mountain range.”17 As Timothy Morton suggests, traditionally “reified sublimity passes too quickly over the distressing intimacy . . . of human and nonhuman interaction;” in contrast Shelley foregrounds humanity’s close interaction with, and at times, resemblance to the technological milieu, countervailing clichéd and reductive iterations of sublime, objectified nature that risk divorcing humanity from technology.18 Poets become wind-driven lyres that morph into singing children. Sublime revolutions entail earth and levers, not humanity alone.

Shelley’s longstanding penchant for making boats out of leaves of paper emblematizes how the poet links sublime figurations of tools, machines, and built environments to poetic process. As close acquaintances knew, Shelley made a habit of building paper boats, alighting them upon whatever body of water was close at hand. Shelley records this very tick in the teasing verse epistle Letter to Maria Gisborne. “[F]or,” the poet explains, “I / Yield to the impulse of an infancy / Outlasting manhood—I have made to [End Page 238] float / A rude idealism of a paper boat: / A hollow screw with cogs—Henry will know / The thing I mean and laugh at me—if so / He fears not I should do more mischief.”19 The poem’s layered metaphoricity conjoins motile metal parts with the symbolic potency of sublime poetry borne aloft by and as sea craft. Folds of paper metonymically manifest turns of verse in the same spirit as the turn of the screw, cog, or wheel might. Here and elsewhere, Shelley’s boats double for poetic mechanisms of conveyance, cradling thought and propelling it onward, outward aloft on currents of air or cresting waves.20 Strikingly in this case, the boat’s visionary agency playfully encompasses the more ordinary promise of a hollow screw and cogs. Humble mechanical parts and impromptu paper boats join poetic lines in being vehicles of sublime imagination.

While Shelley’s preoccupation with boats and sailing is much remarked, his fervor for the modern steamboat is less so, and to date has not been studied in relation to Shelleyan poetics or aesthetics. Yet during the latter part of what Stuart Curran taught us to understand as Shelley’s annus mirabilis of 1819 and throughout much of 1820 (the year that would yield his celebrated Prometheus Unbound volume), the steamboat appears again and again in Shelley’s writings.21 The steamer, combined with the process of its making, becomes a controlling metaphor for Shelley. The ambivalent figure of the ship accrues a representational value capacious enough to account for any recuperative or disruptive impulses alike that might inform the making of life and poetry, home and community, dialogue and descant. In 1819 Shelley financially backed the production of a steamboat to the tune of £250–£350.22 The ship was to be built by Henry Reveley, an aspiring nautical engineer and son of Maria Gisborne, one of Shelley’s dear friends. The poet met Maria Gisborne and her second husband John the [End Page 239] previous year, with Shelley becoming especially fond of Maria Gisborne, partly because of her links to Mary Shelley’s past and partly out of admiration for her special cast of mind.23 Indicative of such bonhomie, in exchange for contributing funds to Henry’s project, Maria Gisborne offered Shelley Spanish lessons, and in letters between the two Shelley compares the task of reading and thinking in Spanish without her to undertaking perilous and lonesome seafaring expeditions:

Madonna
I have been lately voyaging in a sea without my pilot, & although my sail has often been torn, my boat become leaky, & the log lost, I have yet sailed in a kind of way from island to island, some of craggy & mountainous magnificence, some clothed with moss & flowers . . . some barren desarts.

I have been reading Calderon without you.24

In Shelley, skiff and pinnace typically mark the intellectual spirit of poetry, the imaginative power of language, visionary thought, in addition to representing the poet himself. But here the Shelleyan sailboat is acutely alone, pilotless, “torn,” “leaky,” “lost,” and yet the poet asserts that he nonetheless “sailed in a kind of way,” suggesting that he and his imagination rudder on, albeit wrongly, dispiritedly, without the guiding hand of close intellectual support or any pervading sense of sublime accompaniment.25 Indeed, it is precisely this sense of sublime accompaniment that the steamer promises.

Reveley’s incipient steamboat brought much-needed levity and artistic inspiration to an anxious and alienated Shelley. The modern vessel features in Shelley’s pages as a figure for poesis understood broadly, with metalwork and castings by turns representing the materialization of the earth, the inception of sentient beings, in addition to mercurial outpourings of the written word. Serving as a technological counterpart to Romantic lyric’s multivalent nightingale, Shelley’s steamer at times represents poetry, the poet, the modern invention itself, or all at once. For example, in one of Shelley’s epistolary exchanges with Reveley, it first becomes the product of a sublime, god-like process of poesis, only later to become an ethereal [End Page 240] voyager or ersatz poet traversing high seas resembling sublime heavens. First Reveley informs Shelley of the casting process that molded two key parts of the ship: steam cylinder and air pump. Knowingly or not, the engineer’s letter leans heavily upon the genre conventions of the celestial and sublime creation story. A momentous occasion, a harnessing of swift Promethean fires coupled with “the perfection of the furnace” bring metal “into its proper form”:

The event is now past—both the steam cylinder and air-pump were cast at three this afternoon. . . . The fire was lighted in the furnace at nine, and in three hours the metal was fused. At three o’clock it was ready to cast, the fusion being remarkably rapid, owing to the perfection of the furnace. The metal was also heated to an extreme degree, boiling with fury, and seeming to dance with the pleasure of running into its proper form. The plug was struck, and a massy stream of a bluish dazzling whiteness filled the moulds in the twinkling of a shooting star. . . . I expect them to be perfect.26

Stringing together a sequence of events occurring in passive voice (fire was lighted, metal was fused, the plug was struck), the letter all but writes out the role of the engineer as human laborer. Either the casting process assumes an air of quasi-divine predestination or it is as if metal itself desired to bend to Reveley’s will, acting somehow as an agent in its own right. Only after chronicling a creation event now past, does Reveley include the self-referential pronoun “I,” recalling divine fiat. The engineer’s late use of the subjective pronoun suggests divinely-inspired powers of utterance and underwrites the quasi-divine judgment of Reveley’s works and words, which here redundantly pronounces perfection upon a sublime creation formed by a faultless creator. Far from narrating a fragile or intimate story of technological entanglement and sublime contingency, Reveley instead fashions himself as a solitary and sublime creator, and so reactivates the individuating logic of the egotistical sublime.

Shelley takes the engineer’s creationist rhetoric and runs with it, styling him a divine maker bringing the world swiftly into being as if by fiat. The poet’s prose transforms Reveley into a smiling creator god pleased and made proud by the works he’s forged. Shelley writes:

Your volcanic description of the birth of the Cylinder is very characteristic of you & of it. One might imagine God when he made the earth, & saw the granite mountains & flinty promountories flow into their craggy forms, & the splendor of their fusion filling millions of [End Page 241] miles of the void space, like the tail of a comet, so looking, & so delighting in his work. God sees his machine spinning round the sun & delights in its success, … Your boat will be to the Ocean of Water what the earth is to the Ocean of Æther—a prosperous & swift voyager.—

When shall we see you all? You not I suppose until your boat is ready to sail, & then, if not before I must of course come to Livorno.—Our plans for the winter are yet scarcely defined—they tend towards our spending February & March at Pisa where our communication will not be so distant, or so epistolary—Charles [Clairmont] left us a week ago, not without many lamentations as all true lovers pay on such occasions. He is to write me an account of the Trieste Steam Boat which I will transmit to you—…

Most affectionately yours
P B S27

Each letter’s rendering of man and metal exposes a tension at play within the genres of monotheistic and classical creation stories. Such genesis narratives turn upon a central dyad consisting of a divine maker and the divinely made, leaving Reveley and Shelley little room for the figure of the common inventor understood as mortal being and necessary collaborator. Equivocating between collapsing humankind into a creator god or swapping the future of humanity for the trajectory of a ship, the epistle either suggests that the engineer assumes the seat of a godhead or the human hand disappears altogether. Playfully drawing on familiar religious tropes and classical associations, Shelley conjures images of a lone creator God newly delighting in the company of his spinning machine, with its retinue of freshly molded earth and stars. In this sense, Reveley recalls the lyre that would become a child, both of whom respond to a delightful accompaniment they find in an external material world that is otherwise unpeopled. But instead of making sonic harmonies on earth, Shelley envisages something all the more sublime for Reveley: the godly engineer fashions earth itself, populates vast celestial spaces with the harmonious spheres of the cosmos.28 The yet-unformed steamboat assumes the place of humankind, or [End Page 242] better, displaces humanity given that it is the boat, not any sailor or thinker, which will take shape as “a prosperous & swift voyager.” If Archimedes’s old adage only ever implies a lever, in these letters Shelley’s technological aesthetics pitch humankind offstage—out of reach; only after Shelley concludes his fanciful response to Reveley’s description of the “birth of the Cylinder” does the poet return to the pressing absence of distant friends. The overblown dualisms and reductive dyads of egotistical sublime aesthetics can disavow but cannot dissolve the larger and more fragile communities of interlocked actors from which they emerge.

Reveley’s status as sublime creator is echoed first in the steamship’s personified role as sole voyager and then again in Shelley’s account of himself as an isolated poet desperate for comradery.29 Henry as lone creator, steamship as sole voyager, Shelley as sequestered thinker, each figure differs in type but not kind, amounting to a variation on the theme of solitary being and the extent to which invented words or things exacerbate or ameliorate loneliness. On the heels of a singular engineer comes an isolated planet, next a secluded boat: all vessels seem afloat in an abyss, orbiting and transiting alone, metonymically standing in for a poet estranged and writing in exile. And so, the letter shifts from envisioning a “boat [that] will be to the Ocean of Water what the earth is to the Ocean of Æther” to a poignant disclosure of the poet’s pronounced aching for community. Plying between subjects old and new, Shelley’s dispatch propels headlong from the topic of remote seafaring to that of shared longing and back again. Amounting to a call-and-response dialogue turned monologue, each pang of lonesomeness is answered by a pivot to the ship, to a swift voyager able to collapse agonizing distance: “When shall we see you all? You not I suppose until your boat is ready to sail, & then, if not before I must of course come to Livorno.—Our plans for the winter are yet scarcely defined.” Shelley desires to be proximate, accessible, to be where “communication will not be so distant, or so epistolary.” And after noting the elegiac lament “all true lovers pay” upon parting, the epistle returns again to the question concerning technology, bookending an appeal to the fleeting togetherness of kindred beings by swerving back to the figure of the steamer that by this point serves as more than a source of common interest shared between friends, now bearing as it does the promise of more intimate community and proximate communication.30 Shelley’s letter deploys intersecting models [End Page 243] of sublime technological aesthetics, oscillating between narratives of spectacularly individuated agency and astonishingly vulnerable contingency. The requisite ambivalence of Shelleyan technology tethers fantasies of sublime solitude to daunting realities of lived material and social relations.

Poetry and machinery might embolden and empower, but cannot erase what are in essence the more sublime limits of language and life. Whereas Shelley’s steamboat brings with it new communities of life, foregrounding conversations, reunions, and places to come, it yet cannot be divorced from loss and privation. On the one hand, Shelley’s optimistic view of the steamer anticipates Victorian-era enthusiasm for the steamship, wherein “ [s]team … facilitat[ed] a vision of how the future might differ from the disappointing present.”31 Mary Shelley confirms that her husband linked Henry’s project to visions of a better tomorrow, noting his “fervent interest in the undertaking, for its own sake” distinct from any motive of economic reward.32 In this spirit Shelley evokes the steamboat in “vital[ly] metaphorical” ways, grafting it to generative agencies of word and myth—to language and narratives that might likewise bring new futures to life.33 Then, on the other hand, the ship reappears in another letter to the Gisbornes, and just as before, the mythopoetic steamboat arrives in the wake of a “disappointing present” and a discussion of distant intimates, reinforcing not simply that “Shelley’s longing for community suffuses many of his letters,” but also how Shelley yokes technology to cycles of loss and communion.34 Directing his missive back home to London (where the Gisbornes had traveled to sell their English holdings before returning to their residence in Livorno), Shelley composes a de facto letter of introduction meant to connect old and new friends, friends whose proximity the poet himself cannot enjoy, and here, by way of playful association, Reveley’s still incipient steamer becomes yet another prized but all too remote character:

We go to Bagni [di San Giuliano] next month—but still direct to Pisa as safest … I am undergoing a course of the Pisa baths, on which [End Page 244] I lay no singular stress,—but {they} soothe. I ought to have peace of mind—leisure tranquility; this I expect soon—Our anxiety about Godwin is very great, & any information that you can give a day or two earlier than he might, respecting any decisive event in his lawsuit would be a great relief. Your impressions about Godwin (I speak especially to Madonna mia, [Maria Gisborne] who had known him before) will especially interest me—You know, that although I believe he is the only sincere enemy I have in the world, that added years only add to my admiration of his intellectual powers, & even the moral resources of his character.—Of my other friends I say nothing—To see Hunt, is to like him—and there is one other recommendation which he has to you, he is my friend—. To know Hogg, (if anyone can know him) is to know something very unlike & inexpressibly superior {to} the great mass of men.—

Will Henry write me an adamantine letter, flowing not like the words of Sophocles with honey, but molten brass & iron, & bristling with wheels & teeth? I saw his steamboat asleep under the walls. I was afraid to waken it & ask it whether it was dreaming of him for the same reason that I wd. have refrained from waking Ariadne after Theseus had left her—unless I had been Bacchus.—

Affectionately & anxiously yours,
P. B. S.35

Here is Shelley’s dream of a correspondent machine. Leave it to the author of The Sensitive-Plant to envision a sensitive machine, which likewise blurs boundaries of common or easy classification.36 It would seem that if Shelley could not be with his kindred few, he may as well enlist the alchemy of language to invent some for him. But even Shelley’s modern machine is at risk of being left behind, compared as it is here to an abandoned Ariadne. Although Shelley distances Reveley’s would-be “adamantine letter” from naturalized modes of aesthetic creation (belonging to the ephemeral bee and the mortal, honey-tongued tragedian, Sophocles), these lines nonetheless style page and pen as elements of an organic machine.37 After likening the origin of written words to a once mercurial state of “molten” metal, [End Page 245] words and thoughts coalesce into durable form, embodied mechanomorphically “with wheels” and zoomorphically with “teeth.” Pivoting slightly from this almost alchemical representation of language and print as ambivalent organic machines, the poet flirts with a representation of the steamboat that nearly humanizes it (or animalizes it) as a sleeping being, as a fellow sentient companion. Dreaming organisms metaphorize into dormant machines. Then the next sentence places Shelley’s dreaming steamboat squarely within the anthropomorphic provenance of the divine, within a mythological albeit humanoid pantheon that would make gods of both Reveley and his invention. New words are born of brass and iron; steamships take on the dream-life, mental theatre, and amorous politics of ancient gods. This account of poetic invention intermingles tropes of anthropomorphism, mechanomorphism, and zoomorphism, suggesting interpenetrating levels of dependence and interinvolvement, not least because each metaphorical reference builds and turns upon the other. This is not simply a fanciful story of manifesting the written word. In this case meaning itself is made possible because of a ramifying interplay between images animal, mechanical, and human.

The less-noted steamships of Shelley’s letters reposition his more familiar Aeolian lyre, the child it becomes, and the entangled harmonies and cacophonies they make. If, as M. H. Abrams suggests in his classic study of Romantic poetry, The Correspondent Breeze, the “wind is not only a property of the landscape, but also a vehicle for radical changes in the poet’s mind … [often associated] with a complex subjective process: the return to a sense of community after isolation, the renewal of life … after apathy and a deathlike torpor, and an outburst of creative power following a period of imaginative sterility,” the same could be said of Shelley’s instruments and machines (26).38 Abrams’s analysis of the trope of the wind in Romantic poetry similarly applies to Shelley’s figurations of Romantic technologies, and not simply those featured in his prose letters. An example that establishes a link between the Aeolian lyre of Romantic lyric poetry and the steamships of Shelley’s everyday letters arrives in the verse epistle Letter to Maria Gisborne. Shelley’s epistolary poem echoes his everyday prose letters: here again readers encounter a correspondent machine that becomes a figure for subjective process and a notably qualified collective creative promise. While a close poetic precedent exists in Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden (1791), with its mythologized inventors, marvelous inventions, and cantos made of couplets, Shelley’s poem assumes a different [End Page 246] tone and form, trading Darwin’s ambitious didacticism and philosophical notes for dark humor and epistolary intimacy.39 Aimed at like-minds, Shelley’s letter in verse correlates rousing elements of nature and sublime technologies, both being capable of generating communion and loss, or, more accurately, an entanglement of the two.40

One of only two verse letters known to be composed by Shelley, this work marks a rare foray into the genre of the house poem, with its signature rhyming couplets, conversational style, and place-based genre conventions.41 The house poem or estate poem, a mainstay of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature, traditionally studies poesis and wider processes of making by way of depicting landscape, labor, and leisure as they occur in the everyday space of the home.42 Any portrait of those personal, private spaces of the house, its interiors, its attendant human labors always doubles as a self-reflexive examination of poetic verse and its scribbler. These dual levels of signification are reinforced by its verse form. The couplet [End Page 247] form accentuates the genre’s ability to intertwine spaces, poetic and domestic, such that each is intimately, inextricably fused to the other and such that poetry’s most sublime imaginings ultimately remain anchored to domestic ecologies.

Knitting together spatial technologies of place and page, particularly as they relate to subjective experience, practices of inscription, and the production of art, Shelley opens with a lighthearted study of contrasting modes of habitation lived out by the lonely spider and the lowly worm. Shelley presents two technological imaginaries attributed to insect and arachnid realms which bring with them seemingly opposing ways of knowing and being in and with the world, and yet each being seems to live alone in Shelley’s lines and each leads a life circumscribed jointly by technology and ecology. Weaving and winding organisms afford Shelley a whimsical opportunity to examine inextricable technologies and fundamental practices of making as they might exist in the natural world, wherein building and dwelling are inevitably bound to making, writing, and thinking:

The spider spreads her webs, whether she beIn poet’s tower, cellar or barn, or tree;The silkworm in the dark green mulberry leavesHis winding sheet and cradle ever weaves;So I, a thing whom moralists call worm,Sit spinning still round this decaying form,From the fine threads of verse and subtle thought—No net of words in garish colours wroughtTo catch the idle buzzers of the day—But a soft cell, where when that fades away,Memory may clothe in wings my living nameAnd feed it with the asphodels of fame,Which in those hearts which most remember meGrow, making love an immortality.43

The spider’s ubiquitous webbing and the worm’s perpetual weaving find their counterparts in Shelley’s unending technological contingency. Thanks to the poem’s amphibious syntax, Shelley is both continuously “spinning” his words and portrayed as being always affixed to them, being fixed in place and being still even while “spinning.” Like the spider and especially the worm, all that he produces surrounds him, suggesting not fantasies of forward progress through poiesis, but rather a delicate feedback loop of writerly practice and existence. A circling of “threads of verse and subtle thought” enswathe his undeniably “decaying form.” In casting himself [End Page 248] as maker, Shelley eschews biblical or classical genesis narratives that would transform him into an all-powerful god manifesting his spinning machine out of the void. He is instead a vulnerable being spinning alongside fellow makers, all earthly inhabitants at best able to author a gossamer web or a “soft cell,” transitory homes and impermanent connections. Significantly, wherever Shelley’s weaving arachnid and cocooned larvae alter the given naturescape they bind themselves to it. But their parallel lives end there. Resembling the harsh literary critic or cloying writer, the spider’s technics of predation and opportunism seem all too prevalent, adaptable, and ubiquitous. In contrast, the worm, with whom Shelley explicitly identifies, seems too rare—grafting itself sparingly to trees, only as necessary for a pivotal conversion into something more, something undeniably intimate yet sublimely alien—into something not merely self-sustaining but other-creating.44

While spiders and worms commonly figure the vanity of writerly wishes in satiric works by Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, other key Shelleyan influences such as Erasmus Darwin championed insects as Shelley does here, as kindred agents of sublime transformation and technological change. Darwin writes of humankind’s “kindred forms, / Thy brother Emmets, and thy sister Worms,” suggesting that the “excellence of the sense of touch in many insects seems to have given them wonderful ingenuity so as to equal or even excel mankind in some of their arts and discoveries; many of which may have been acquired in situations previous to their present ones, as the great globe itself, and all that it inhabit, appear to be in a perpetual state of mutation and improvement.”45 This understanding of an especially Darwinian writerly worm recalls Shelley’s Platonic inheritances, particularly from The Phaedrus where Plato’s transformed soul finally becomes “perfect and fully winged.”46 If the poet is the worm, then the winged insect it becomes is not unlike the Keatsian “viewless wings of Poesy,” which for Shelley makes “immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world; [Poetry] arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interlunations of life and, veiling them, or in language or in form sends them forth among mankind, bearing sweet news of kindred joy to those with whom their sisters abide—abide, because there is no portal of expression [End Page 249] from the caverns of the spirit which they inhabit into the universe of things.”47 Shelley’s call for a “living name,” then, seems torn. On the one hand, he toys with a vain, self-centered transformation aimed at winging toward fame; on the other, he marks a continuous process of reaching out for those “kindred joy[s]” that were previously sought by the poet-turned-lyre-turned-child. Either way, when the worm uses its threads to shape its cocoon, it is preparing not for stasis but change: a preparing that does not allow it to be what it once was. Paradoxically, the most temporary yet endless work belongs not to the spider and her predatory, tortuous “net” but to the worm’s transformative process of becoming. His is not a cycle of endless worldly consumption but an ongoing sublime program of intimate estrangement and uncertain outcomes.

Shelley’s house poem continues in this vein, questioning spatial relations to question thinking and writing as well as the technologically- and ecologically-bounded nature of being. Here “Shelley becomes, in a possibly therapeutic poem, for once a poet of common things,” namely those particular things surrounding him in Livorno rather than his friends.48 His verse next moves to the study where he writes, a room not of his own and wherein the poet is encircled by unfamiliar tools and devices. Shelley’s house poem strives to be at home with creating poetry out of a place of intimate estrangement and a sense of uncertain futurity. This endeavor becomes especially legible when Shelley notes how apt and absurd it is that he writes from the workshop of Maria Gisborne’s son Henry Reveley, the nautical engineer who was elsewhere contriving a steamboat as Shelley was crafting his poetic lines:

Whoever should behold me now, I wist,Would think I were a mighty mechanist,Bent with sublime Archimedean artTo breathe a soul into the iron heartOf some machine portentous, or strange gin,Which, by the force of figured spells might winIts way over the sea, and sport therein;For round the walls are hung dread engines, suchAs Vulcan never wrought for Jove to clutchIxion or the Titans:49

The trope of poet as sublime alchemist gains renewed charge here as Shelley reveals that he works in a room populated by strange mechanical inventions. [End Page 250] And between couplets figuring an Archimedean Shelley and those writing him as being walled in by “dread engines,” exists the dream of a steamer incarnate. Formal variance arrives in tow with the alien invention or “strange gin.” Shelley forgoes his requisite couplets, installing instead an excess of three rhymed lines all working to house the pervasive, expansive, and potentially untamable nature of Shelley’s Romantic machine. Paralleling Shelley’s account of poetry in the Defence, where “Poetry is a sword of lightning ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it,” this “machine portentous” is not easily contained by its erst-while handlers; its creative energies are sublime.50 But then again, like always- mediated forms of poetry, it is of course limited by degree, requiring the surface tension of the sublime seas for support and for its necessary field of play, for its animation, for its sport.

On one level, the poet’s thinking anticipates ideas held by science-minded Whigs living in early nineteenth-century Britain.51 A “steam intellect” mentality of 1830s British liberalism imagined steam power as emblematic of progress, in turn promoting widespread “optimism about the transformative material and moral power of steamships.”52 What was once water, now is suddenly steam. Bringing together forces mechanical and elemental, steam engines emblematized the god-like, sublime transformative power of Promethean fire and fomented renewed interest in a mysterious alchemy the machine. At home in England and elsewhere, ideological investments in profound and seemingly unknowable powers of technological change grounded sublime portraits of steam engines and other modern technologies heralded for their transformative promise. Across the channel in France “[d]uring the early nineteenth century … images of self-moving machines were newly associated with the physics of ethers, conversions, steam and electricity, as well as animal magnetism; they also frequently had magical and religious associations.”53

But at the same time, Shelley’s empowering engines of transformation do not shore up inevitable degrees of disempowerment, limitation, or interdependence. Shelley’s poem makes possible a simultaneous contemplation of the fraught spaces of poetry and modern technology through allusions to a technics of entrapment, first seen in the writerly webs, nets, and soft cells of the natural-technological world. For Shelley these beings seemingly write themselves as they house themselves; built environments double as preconditioning literary devices and vice versa. Of the few scholars who [End Page 251] have worked with this poem in detail, most suggest that Shelley contrasts “mechanical and scientific knowledge with the magical powers of the imagination.”54 On the contrary, Shelley’s poem considers intellectual and embodied mechanisms of poetry in tandem with marvels of modern technology like the steamship.55 Indeed, the poet scripts a sublime tragicomedy of the home, wryly comparing poetry to the various technologies modern subjects find almost impossible to escape, avoid, and live without. In this sense, Shelley’s Letter to Maria Gisborne establishes an aesthetic rubric of sublime entanglement and adjacency, foregrounding a counter-narrative of material sublimity not based upon comfortable aesthetic distance but discomfiting aesthetic proximity.56 Shelley’s opening images of encircling webs, nets, inventions, and lines of verse are reprised early on with troubling depictions of modern technology: self-fashioned technics of entrapment arrive via “sublime Archimedean” magic fostering a portentous machine or “strange gin” (gin being a Shakespearean term for “traps and snares”).57 The Shakespearean reference rekindles longstanding associations between invention and entrapment, devices and entanglement. Further emphasizing celebrated poetic accounts of sublime genesis and making that bespeak such technological ensnarement, Shelley next recalls the chains and ties that Hephaestus forged to “clutch” Prometheus and which bound Ixion to an ever-turning wheel in Hades.

Complicating simple accounts of humanity’s relationship to technology, Shelley characteristically employs a poetics of negation, which ultimately undermines the logic of the kind of technological sublime that mythopoetically displaces the work of human hands in his prose letters, whereby Reveley becomes a god and his steamer seems to voyage with no one at the helm. In contrast, in Shelley’s verse epistle Reveley’s “dread engines” are “such / As Vulcan never wrought.”58 As Shelley continues an inventory of the engineer’s workshop, he remarks upon various stupefying technologies [End Page 252] that the gods never made. “[O]ther strange and dread / Magical forms” spread about the room that even “Proteus transformed to metal did not make.”59 “[S]hapes of unintelligible brass,” “tin or iron not to be understood” and “forms of unimaginable wood” could “puzzle” even “Tubal Cain and all his brood.”60 Given Tubal Cain was the first metalsmith to appear in the biblical myth of Genesis (4:22), by this point the poem has roundly rejected reductionist understandings of technology that might leverage Christian or Greek mythological systems to cede humanity’s technological responsibility. Shelley questions narratives that fabricate divine origins for technology, repeating, that for good or ill, these technologies the gods did not make. Shelley reminds us, that like the lines of poetry he writes, if we use technologies to trap and torture on any extraordinary or more domesticated basis, it is an undivine hand that forges its own prison and frames its own hell.

Shelley’s verse epistle insists upon coeval humanity and technology, stressing that we must live with the technology we create and cannot forget the degree to which technologies in turn recreate us. This technological imaginary suggests technology is neither divine nor godly and therefore can neither save nor destroy us as techno-utopic or techno-apocalyptic narratives might have it. Instead, we salvage or dismantle with the earth and technology, in the earth and technology. Indeed, Shelley’s lines take full advantage of the metaphoricity and malleability of narrative space as well as the couplet form’s ideological implications to provide a scaled down study of humanity’s simultaneous coupling with the earth and technology. While, as Dipesh Chakrabarty famously contends in “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” history may be at an impasse when reckoning with the complex realities of climate change—because we cannot experience species being or climate change’s macrocosmic, large-scale global effects—literature, ironically perhaps, provides a mechanism for imagining such daunting realities and complexities of scale.61 After zooming in, as it were, documenting the room’s various “screws and cones, and wheels and grooved blocks,” its “knacks and quips,” Shelley turns to “a pretty bowl of wood” that later doubles for the cradle of the globe.62 By transposing geological space onto domestic space, the poem allows the reader to conceive a more intimate relationship with land and sea, with both surface and depths of terraqueous earth. Shelley inventively recounts how Henry’s “pretty bowl of wood” is “not full of wine, / But quicksilver, that dew [End Page 253] which the gnomes drink / When at their subterranean toil they swink, … call[ing] out to the cities o’er their head—/ Roofs, towers, and shrines, the dying and the dead, / [all] Crash through the chinks of earth.”63 Shelley does not sugarcoat the cost of modernity’s intermingling with earthly and technological being. Nor does he fantastically imagine away the reality that every space of human life and death depends upon the earth. The poet continues, next framing the mercurial waters beside him as the sea in miniature, by extension making the rest of the room into a technologically-populated terra firma. Deploying “a distinctive feature of [late Shelleyan] style,” the poet “holds in balance opposing perspectives on the grand scale,” this time juxtaposing domestic microcosm with earthly macrocosm to gesture toward what it might mean to be at home with being with technology, not domesticating technology nor any of its sublime strangeness, but rather acknowledging the sublimely ubiquitous, intimate nature of our technological contingency.64 Formally documenting myriad technological and ecological interinvolvements that defy separation, frustrate compartmentalization, and effectively refuse consideration in isolation, line after poetic line binds together sprawling associative sentences. And when these sentences finally syntactically “conclude,” Shelley draws his readers to the next adjacent object or contingent idea by frequently deploying dashes and opening with terms such as “And,” “Then,” “next,” or “Near” that indicate conjunction, sequence, and proximity. The poet writes:

And in this bowl of quicksilver—for IYield to the impulse of an infancyOutlasting manhood—I have made to floatA rude idealism of a paper boat:A hollow screw with cogs—Henry will knowThe thing I mean and laugh at me,—if soHe fears not I should do more mischief—nextLie bills and calculations much perplexed,With steamboats, frigates and machinery quaintTraced over them in blue and yellow paint.Then comes a range of mathematicalInstruments, for plans nautical and statical;A heap of rosin, a queer broken glassWith ink in it, a china cup that wasWhat it will never be again, I think,A thing from which sweet lips were wont to drinkThe liquor doctors rail at—and which I [End Page 254] Will quaff in spite of them—and when we dieWe’ll toss up who died first of drinking tea,And cry out heads or tails, where’er we be.Near that a dusty paint box, some odd hooks,A half-burnt match, an ivory block, three booksWhere conic sections, spherics, logarithms,To great Laplace, from Saunderson and Sims,Lie heaped in their harmonious disarrayOf figures—disentangle them who may—65

Shelley’s miniaturized sea is destined to reside amidst a thoroughly relational world and an almost wholly technologized milieu. The poet here plays the part of engineer, with Shelley’s longstanding emblem for the politics of aesthetics, the “paper boat,” now appearing as a “hollow screw with cogs,” and now approximated as a mechanical yet still magical set of conjoined parts floating upon not water, nor even air, but a sea of liquid metal. The poem’s couplets and content intersect to reinforce the link between questions of technicity and relationality, granting Shelley access to an additional formal register within which to suggest that humankind needs to come to terms with being materially entangled and technologically contingent. In these ways the verse epistle tacitly theorizes the modern technological condition as one circumscribed by technological proximity, its suggestive nearness, its simultaneously extensive and immersive natures. The poem’s swimming inventory of intimate yet unknowable things, devices, inventions, papers, gadgets, and calculations underscore that we are awash in technology “where[v]er we be.”

In the poem ordinary life spills over into things technological—spanning not just the presence of the poetic line on the page but also the entwined existence of hooks and books, a steamboat and a china cup, a “half burnt match,” a paper boat, spaces of thought, readers and writers, even spaces of death. Shelley’s coupling of lives poetic and technic anticipates the logic recently brought forth by Langdon Winner. Winner theorizes technologies as forms of life inhabiting earthly space right along with us. “As they become woven into the texture of everyday existence,” Winner argues, “the devices, techniques, and systems we adopt shed their tool-like qualities to become part of our very humanity. In an important sense we become the beings who work on assembly lines, who talk on telephones, who do our figuring on pocket calculators, who eat processed foods, who clean our homes with powerful chemicals.”66 Shelley’s modern technological imaginary humbles us in light of our relationship with and in technology, almost [End Page 255] as if it were a form of life as Winner suggests. And in this light, Shelley’s laughing letter laughs at all of us: for forgetting the entangled nature of our humanity and technology; for fantasizing that either we’re a godlike power, or sublime technology is.

What instead reigns supreme in Shelley’s verse is situational adjacency and transformational community. Borne aloft by quicksilver, Shelley’s impromptu boat sails next to preliminary sketches of steamships. His emergent poetic verse lies with bills and “plans nautical and statical.” Visionary poetry transits alongside projected steamers. But in place of realizing utopian plans, Shelley’s skiff and ship meet with a “heap” and a “queer broken glass”: physical reminders of the costs that come of transformation and change. Shelley both weaves together and leaves behind figures he routinely associates with collective progress and poetic engagement to consider a futurity that pivots upon a humble cup, a relic left behind, one emblematic of an especially intimate and fleeting communion and exchange made possible by the simple ceremony of drinking tea together. Regardless of the animating powers of poetry or modern machinery, it is the cup that finally ushers in the future tense, a future wherein it is “[w]hat it will never be again … A thing from which sweet lips were wont to drink.” The poem later makes light of the dangers of laudanum and even death as Shelley’s technological imaginary becomes a stepping stone toward a future made full by imagined community and the creating that communal exchange enables. The prose letters formulate a pattern that remerges here: Shelley engages a technological object, aestheticizes it, mythologizes it, which then prompts longing and solitude, calls for communion, a drive to bridge the distance. Or the inverse occurs, where discussions of technology serve as point of departure, offering an alternate outlet for possibilities of making and mythologizing, but also offering a point of shared communion. Importantly, like the common cup, it is one thing to make the instrument, object, or machine but all the more crucial to make upon it. Shelley’s Romantic machines allow for both, for different points of departure into mythology, literature, and poetry while also providing a node of connection between and among people and across the earth and things.

The poem’s following section links processes of artificial and natural creation through the power of sound and word, recalling the insect technics as well as poetics of organic machinery that figure questions of isolation and reunion in Shelley’s poetry and letters. Again, an otherwise sequestered poet seeks comfort in accompaniment. “And here like some weird Archimage sit I,” the poet writes; “[p]lotting dark spells and devilish enginery, / [and here] The self-impelling steam-wheels of the mind” drive the poet’s thoughts to new birth, “[w]hich pump up oaths from clergymen, and grind / The gentle spirit of our meek reviews / Into a powdery foam [End Page 256] of salt abuse.”67 While William Keach observes that in “Letter to Maria Gisborne Shelley anticipates having the Witch of Atlas’s cave ‘stored with scrolls of strange device, / The works of some Saturnian Archimage’ ” by composing “a self-portrait in which he puckishly casts himself as Spenser’s arch-magician,” Shelley’s conjurer is notably limited in his powers and especially sensitive to sound.68 Here the poetic subject bears a mind bidden by steam and a still sitting body respondent to external winds and internal pumps, manifesting words:

Ruffling the ocean of their [the critics’] self-content—I sit, and smile or sigh as is my bent,But not for them—Libeccio rushes roundWith an inconstant and an idle sound,I heed him more than them …The murmur of the awaking sea doth fillThe empty pauses of the blast—  … in sullen strainThe interrupted thunder howls; aboveOne chasm of heaven smiles, like the eye of LoveO’er the unquiet world—69

In dialogue with an “unquiet world,” the poet joins an inconstant, if not idle chorus of elegiac voices, “blast[s],” “howls,” “sullen strain[s].” Like Shelley’s lyre or his child, the poet here hopes to stay the company of expression that engendered delight for as long as humanly possible. In these lines the poet seems at last to become the lyre thanks to a transformative figuration of steam, but this is not enough.

The heavenly “eye of Love” floats “above / One chasm” and appears just as Shelley will return to questions of friendship and directly address his coterie readers, readers necessarily hovering above the lines that carry Shelley’s sullen strains and darkly comic couplets:

The interrupted thunder howls: aboveOne chasm of heaven smiles, like the eye of LoveO’er the unquiet world—while such things are,How could one worth your friendship heed the warOf worms? the shriek of the world’s carrion jays,Their censure, or their wonder, or their praise?

You are not here … the quaint witch Memory seesIn vacant chairs your absent images, [End Page 257] And points where once you sat, and now should beBut are not—I demand if ever weShall meet as then we met—and she replies,Veiling in awe her second-sighted eyes;‘I know the past alone—but summon homeMy sister Hope,—she speaks of all to come.’But I, an old diviner, who know wellEvery false verse of that sweet oracle,Turned to the sad enchantress [Memory] once again,And sought a respite from my gentle pain,In citing every passage o’er and o’erOf our communion—70

Registering the harmonious disarray of Shelley’s unquiet world, when Shelley’s couplets announce the reader’s distance (“You are not here”) and make Memory read absence into a room of vacant chairs, the rhyme scheme is interrupted, faltering intermittently as if to resemble disrupted communication and communion. Taking recourse to the closing and brief sight rhyme in “sees” and “images,” poetic lines repeatedly sound out the “jarring and inexplicable frame / Of this wrong world” by at times resisting the perfect closure of quick and simple rhyme, by at times foreclosing the easy auditory kinship proffered by the couplet form. A sporadic intrusion of half and imperfect rhymes appears at precisely that moment when Shelley demands a togetherness that he alone cannot create. “[C]ome” follows “home.” The bittersweetness of the “oracle” Hope is a taste the poet knows too “well” to bind together “oracle” and “well” in perfect rhyme qua perfect, chiming fulfillment. Although Shelley comes strikingly close to a Wordsworthian investment in memory, memory is not palliative enough for Shelley. A “sad enchantress,” a “quaint witch,” Memory, the counterpart of “Hope,” brings only “a respite” from pain, leaving the poet wistfully to collapse time and distance by “citing every passage o’er and o’er / Of our communion,” by reading already created words, making them live and return again by recreating them in sound.

Less akin to Wordsworth, Shelley’s words chime most with Plato’s Socrates. In the Phaedrus, Socrates casts human embodiment in terms of a relational entombment or dynamic enshrinement. Like words and ships, bodies are conveyed and carried; however, the self seems ensnared, trapped, confined, somehow isolated within bodily form. Socrates states:

and then we beheld the beatific vision and were initiated into a mystery which may be truly called most blessed, celebrated by us in our [End Page 258] state of innocence, before we had any experience of evils to come, when we were admitted to the sight of apparitions innocent and simple and calm and happy, which we beheld shining in pure light, pure ourselves and not yet enshrined in that living tomb which we carry about, now that we are imprisoned in the body, like an oyster in his shell. Let me linger over the memory of scenes which have passed away.71

Socrates, espousing a view of incarnate earthly experience negatively defined by boundedness and containment, grants himself permission to “linger over the memory of scenes which have passed away.”

At once borrowing from Plato while also leaving him behind, Shelley does not consign himself to memory alone. In drawing out poetry’s technological and natural affinities he locates not just wider communities of earthly sound evocative of the harmonious spheres of the cosmos. He also carves out a guardedly hopeful vision of meaningful human sociality carried out by the simple act of conversing together, all of which hinges on foundations both planetary and technological:

If living winds the rapid clouds pursue,If hawks chase doves through the etherial way,Huntsmen the innocent deer, and beasts their prey,Why should not we rouse with the spirit’s blastOut of the forest of the pathless pastThese recollected pleasures?

    You are nowIn London, that great sea, whose ebb and flowAt once is deaf and loud, and on the shoreVomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more.Yet in its depth what treasures! You will seeThat which was Godwin,  …You will see Coleridge—  …You will see Hunt—one of those happy soulsWho are the salt of the earth, and without whomThis world would smell like what it is—a tomb;  …You will see Hogg—and I cannot expressHis virtues, though I know that they are great,Because he locks, then barricades the gate [End Page 259] Within which they inhabit;—of his witAnd wisdom, you’ll cry out when you are bit.He is a pearl within an oyster shell,One of the richest of the deep. And72

The unrhymed and thus unassimilable question of rousing “[t]hese recollected pleasures” literally hangs upon the page, above a break in Shelley’s verse, calling attention to an unsuturable communal rupture that even the technology of poetry cannot bridge. While one may be entangled ecologically to technologies large and small, or bound to the earth both proximately and globally, these bonds cannot adequately stand in for those attributed to Shelley’s lost community. Nor do they erase a loss of understanding, the limits of written language that cannot replicate spoken dialogue, the ultimate unknowability of the things we make. After generating hundreds of lines of verse that document a sublime tragicomedy of everyday domestic life, a solitary poet sometimes weaves couplets into being, even as he acknowledges limitedness and all the while hearing harmony in the disarray that is. To close his verse epistle, Shelley rewrites the uncertain ending of Ode to the West Wind: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”73 Asking Maria Gisborne and his other readers to read the stars with him, wherever they be, then imploring them to think of meeting again, soon, in the spring. Envisioning this possible future, Shelley imagines trading distant epistolary being for convivial repartee, suggesting that “To thaw the six weeks’ winter in our blood … we’ll talk—what shall we talk about? / Oh! there are themes enough for many a bout / Of thought-entangled descant;—”74

Shelley’s wind-driven and waterborne vessels scaffold a broader technics of poetic inception, an understanding of poetry that is as indebted to the poet’s aesthetic treatments of a great range of artificial creations and human relations as it is to the animating forces of water, wind, and mind. Evoking lyric poetry’s ancient lyres as well as modern inventions chronicled in commonplace letters and occasional verse, Shelley’s broad account of poesis uses technology as a metaphor for the ecological contingency of humanity. Contravening shallow thinking about a simple opposition between nature and technological progress, this view of entangled natural, poetic, social, and technological process pushes back against a shallow ecology; so too, it challenges quixotic notions of a solitary Romantic poet. Shelley’s poetry and prose offer a model for thinking human finitude in conjunction with an account of ecological contingency that is complicated by technological [End Page 260] contingency, where humankind is not of technology (as reductionist mythological or genesis narratives might suggest) but with technology (as contemporary environmental theory maintains in its models of social ecology). This is not to say that the poet is not seduced by sublimely mythopoetic visions of lone, godlike creators, or other imaginings which threaten to reinforce exceptional renditions of human autonomy—quite the contrary. It is only when the poet acknowledges how creation, invention, and transformation always arrive lockstep with death, separation, and loss, that Shelley finally espouses an understanding of technological sublimity that would dispel the myth and misplaced glamour of being and creating alone.

Michele Speitz
Furman University
Michele Speitz

Michele Speitz is Associate Professor of English Literature at Furman University and Editor of Romantic Circles Scholarly Editions. Her current book project examines sublime representations of technology in Romantic literature and culture.

Bibliography

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———. “Nature and Culture.” In Cambridge Companion to Shelley, edited by Timothy Morton, 185–207. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
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———. The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Webb, Timothy. “ ‘Cutting Figures:’ Rhetorical Strategies in Keats’s Letters.” In Keats: Bicentenary Readings, edited by Michael O’Neill, 144–69. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.
———. “Scratching at the Door of Absence: Writing and Reading ‘Letter to Maria Gisborne.’ ” In The Unfamiliar Shelley, edited by Alan M. Weinberg and Timothy Webb, 119–36. Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2009.
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Footnotes

1. This ambivalent account of technology marks a departure from more techno-utopian renderings exhibited in early works such as Queen Mab. Discussing Shelley’s youthful optimism toward quite-literally engineering change, Alan Bewell notes that while “An anti-imperialist on one level, Shelley nevertheless shares with the promoters of empire the ‘techno-utopian’ belief that European science should contribute to the transformation of global environments” (213). Bewell also detects what I argue comprise the seeds of a poetics of ecological and technological entanglement that anticipates contemporary thought suggesting a fundamental link between social and ecological justice: “Shelley shared with many nineteenth-century imperialists the idea that the world’s geographies were epiphenomena that could be radically transformed through education, technology, and political change. Unlike them, however, he also recognized that such changes would be ineffectual if they increased, rather than decreased, social inequalities” (241). See Bewell, “Percy Bysshe Shelley and Revolutionary Climatology,” in Romanticism and Colonial Disease (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 205–41.

2. Sianne Ngai likewise acknowledges how “the sublime is still western philosophy’s most prestigious example of an aesthetic category that derives its specificity from mixed or conflicting feelings.” Distinct from performative acts of judgment built into the aesthetic of the merely interesting, as Ngai calls it, where “[j]udging something interesting is often a first step in actually making it so,” the “reverse” is true “for [the] material sublime.” In the case of the material sublime “we don’t make it sublime via judgment but the judgment reflects sublime being.” See Adam Jasper and Sianne Ngai, “Our Aesthetic Categories: An Interview with Sianne Ngai,” Cabinet, Issue 43: Forensics (Fall 2011), 44–51. DOI: http://cabinetmagazine.org/issues/43/jasper_ngai.php.

3. My analysis diverges from Timothy Morton’s largely damning assessment of Shelley’s intertwined ecological and technological aesthetics, particularly insofar as Morton suggests that “Shelley is forever thinking of planetary and solar disaster. He favors the global over the local in a way that would scandalize the typical Romantic ecocritic. For this very reason his writing seems apt for an era of global wanning. The poetry performs aesthetically what ecological damage and global positioning technology perform in the real, swallowing horizons and worlds” (para. 12). Alternatively, my reading of Shelley’s technological aesthetics charts how Shelley marshals the discourse of the sublime to figure technologies as emblematic of our larger, celestial, even cosmic aims, while simultaneously also evoking proximate loss and the inevitable costs bound up with local and contingent being. See Morton, “Romantic Disaster Ecology: Blake, Shelley, Wordsworth,” Romantic Circles Praxis Volume: Romanticism and Disaster, eds. Jacques Khalip and David Collings (2012): 1–32.

4. Here I refer to Karen Barad’s account of entanglement, where she contends that “To be entangled is not simply to be intertwined with another, as in the joining of separate entities, but to lack an independent, self-contained existence. Existence is not an individual affair . . . individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating” (ix). See Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

7. See Longinus, “On the Sublime,” in Classical Literary Criticism, trans. T. S. Dorsch (London: Penguin, 1984). See also Timothy Morton’s recent assessment of the long history of sublime objects and artifacts, where he reminds us how, at its core, the “Longinian sublime is about the physical intrusion of an alien presence . . . it’s a matter of contact with an alien presence” (220–21). In this sense the Longinian sublime is profoundly ecological in its thinking because it assumes an essential spatial relationality and contingency between humanity and nonhuman others and because it foregrounds human encounters with various agentive alterities that humanity can neither master nor assimilate. Morton, “Sublime Objects,” Speculations II (2011): 207–27.

8. It is important to bear in mind that, as Barbara T. Allen points out, “romantic responses to industrialization were by no means universally hostile. William Godwin, for example, always suspicious of the uneducated masses, looked to machine labor to free the working classes from the drudgery which prevented their reading and meditation. In Enquiry Concerning Political Justice he wrote that the inventions of mills, weaving machines, and steam engines may ‘alarm the laboring part of the community’ and produce ‘temporary distress,’ but such inventions will ultimately benefit ‘the most important interests of the multitude’ . . . Robert Owen, renowned for his creation of model industrial communities, also believed that if properly managed, machines could facilitate the emergence of a utopian society’” (53). See Allen, “Poetry and Machinery in Shelley’s ‘Letter to Maria Gisborne,’” Nineteenth Century Studies 2 (1988): 53–61.

9. Shelley to Maria Gisborne, 13 or 14 October 1819, in The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2:125.

10. In a letter to Thomas Love Peacock written 12 July 1820, Shelley addresses his scant readership and negative reviews: “I am told that the magazines, etc., blaspheme me at a great rate. I wonder why I write verses, for nobody reads them. It is a kind of disorder, for which the regular practitioners prescribe what is called a torrent of abuse” (213). In The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2:213.

11. Morton goes so far as to suggest that the “harp image evokes the idea that human beings in some sense are their environment,” and notes how Shelley’s lyre “revises a strong and varied tradition of imagining people as fleshly instruments both in Pythagorean and Neoplatonic philosophy and in Christian liturgy and poetry, which accounts for the image’s spiritual resonance” (187, 186). Morton, “Nature and culture,” in Cambridge Companion to Shelley, ed. Timothy Morton. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 185–207.

13. Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, 511, emphasis added.

15. Radical enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Paine popularized rhetorical links between the work of mechanical forces and the work of revolutionary politics. See Fraistat and Reiman, Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 2nd. ed. (New York: Norton & Co., 2002), 16n3.

20. D. J. Hughes notes that in Shelley the “boat is the vehicle or container of the individual mind or consciousness,” with the “boat [being] imitative of thought . . . and the boat [working] as a technical device to stir the poem to movement, [which can] combine to inaugurate . . . great visions” (607). See Hughes, “Potentiality in Prometheus Unbound” in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, eds. Fraistat and Reiman, 1st ed., 603–20. More recently, Michael Demson traces how in Shelley the “boat . . . becomes a ‘bearer of knowledge’ . . . ‘a vehicle for conveyance of the disembodied spirit’ . . . [as well as] ‘a vehicle of Shelleyan love’” (282). See Demson, “Percy Shelley’s Radical Agrarian Politics,” Romanticism 16, no. 3 (2010): 279–92; See also Neville Rogers, Shelley at Work: A Critical Inquiry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), 91–105; and Mandy Swann, “Shelley’s Utopian Seascapes,” SiR 52, no. 3 (Fall 2013): 389–414.

22. Headnote to Letter to Maria Gisborne, in The Poems of Shelley, 430.

23. Maria Gisborne cared for Mary Shelley when her birthmother, Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin, died in childbirth. Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, once Percy Shelley’s prime political inspiration, proposed to Maria Gisborne but she demurred, wedding instead John Gisborne, an English merchant.

24. Shelley to Maria Gisborne, 16 November 1819, in The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2:154, original emphasis.

25. On the trope of poets being piloted by likewise able minds, see Michael O’Neill’s discussion of Adonais which recalls Dante being “piloted first by Virgil (in the Inferno and the Purgatorio) and then by Beatrice, reversing roles and serving as the fit reader’s guide” (129). O’Neill, “‘The Mind Which Feeds This Verse’: Shelley,” in Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

26. Henry Reveley to Shelley, 17 November 1819, in The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2:157–58n3.

27. Shelley to Henry Reveley, 17 November 1819, in The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2:157–58n3.

28. As Yasmin Solonionescu suggests, for Shelley harmonies and acoustic rhythms “‘echo … the eternal music,’ [where t]he latter phrase alludes to the half-mystical, half-mathematical cosmology of the pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras, who held that the heavenly bodies moved according to the same mathematical ratios that created musical concordances and in so moving produced a heavenly music, or what his followers called harmonia mundi, the universal harmony” (1107). See Solomonescu, “Percy Shelley’s Revolutionary Periods,” ELH 83, no. 4 (2016): 1105–1133.

29. For an influential assessment of how dominant renditions of the Romantic sublime informed thinking about the concept of the individual or disparate unit, see Francis Ferguson, Solitude and the Sublime: The Romantic Aesthetics of Individuation (London and New York: Routledge, 1992).

30. Students of the British abolition movement would find progressive or utopian figurations of the steamship unsurprising. Thomas Clarkson was popularly dubbed the “Moral Steam-Engine” for authoring An essay on the impolicy of the African slave trade in 1788. See Tim May, “Coleridge’s Slave Trade Lecture: Southey’s Contribution and the Debt to Thomas Cooper,” Notes and Queries (2008): 425–29.

33. Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, 278.

35. Shelley to John and Maria Gisborne, 26 May 1820, in The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2:202–3.

37. John Tresh recognizes how during the Romantic era “there was a shift in the image of the machine from an idea of balanced, inhuman clockwork to a ‘romantic machine’ exemplified by the steam engine and other technologies of conversion and transmutation. Concepts of mechanism and organicism merged in several ways.” See Tresh, The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 5.

39. Ann Thompson’s careful consideration of the letter’s most immediate audience accounts for the fact that “Maria Gisborne was an intimate friend from whom Shelley did not usually attempt to conceal his problems, either domestic ones or those relating to his literary career. The very fact of this intimacy allows Shelley to be brief and even playful when alluding to serious matters” (149). See Thompson, “Shelley’s ‘Letter to Maria Gisborne’: Tact and Clutter,” in Essays on Shelley, ed. Miriam Allott (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1982), 144–59.

40. See Jeffrey N. Cox, Poetry and Polities in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and Their Circle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) and William Keach, Shelley’s Style (New York: Methuen, 1984). Although full-length examinations of the poem remain rare, Letter to Maria Gisborne has long been acknowledged as an important coterie poem. Cox cites the poem as one that self-consciously “celebrated the bonds of friendship that gave rise to [it]” (80). Keach remarks how Shelley’s comedic play in Letter to Maria Gisborne was in part cultivated by the “congenial stimulus of what would become his ‘Pisan Circle’” (185). Frequently writing for dear friends during the summer of 1820 and the year following, certain strands of Shelleyan poetry became “broadly and conspicuously open to possibilities of wit and humor” (185). Composing his missive from the Gisborne home in Pisa and directing it to their temporary residence in London, Shelley adopted a posture of frank comedic openness. The honesty so often resident within comedy is here emboldened by the intimate security offered by coterie poetry, revealing key insights into the ways that technology and proximity inform late Shelleyan sublimity.

41. The Longman edition of The Poems of Shelley offers a helpful consideration of Letter to Maria Gisborne’s generic influences, noting that “[a]part from the epistolary doggerel of S[helley]’s 1811 letters in verse to Edward Fergus Graham … this is S[helley]’s only verse-letter” (432).

43. Shelley, Letter to Maria Gisborne, lines 1–14.

44. O’Neill recalls how the “spider is an emblem used by Swift in The Battle of the Books for the modern writer who arrogantly ‘spins and spits wholly from himself, and scorns to own any obligation or assistance from without’ … [but b]oth insects serve as emblems of the poet” (137). See O’Neill, “‘The Mind Which Feeds This Verse’: Shelley,” 119–54.

47. Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, 532.

49. Shelley, Letter to Maria Gisborne, lines 15–24.

50. Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, 520.

55. Webb observes that “the mechanist (who will soon represent the unimaginative and routinely calculating tendency in contemporary society in ‘A Defence of Poetry’) is here identified with the poet himself and given a favorable shading by Shelley’s use of Spenser’s preferred adjective ‘mighty’” (134).

56. Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) famously establishes aesthetic distance as a defining feature of sublime experience, which Immanuel Kant’s Critique later confirms. See section 7, “Of the Sublime.”

58. Shelley, Letter to Maria Gisborne, line 23, emphasis added.

59. Shelley, Letter to Maria Gisborne, lines 43–44, 44–45, emphasis added.

60. Shelley, Letter to Maria Gisborne, lines 47, 49, 50, 51.

62. Shelley, Letter to Maria Gisborne, lines 52, 55, 57.

63. Shelley, Letter to Maria Gisborne, lines 57–59; 62–64.

64. Alan Weinberg, “Freedom from the Stranglehold of Time: Shelley’s Visionary Conception in Queen Mab,” Romanticism 22, no. 1 (2016): 90–106, 92.

65. Shelley, Letter to Maria Gisborne, lines 72–96.

67. Shelley, Letter to Maria Gisborne, lines 106, 107–8, 109–11.

69. Shelley, Letter to Maria Gisborne, lines 112–16, 122–23, 125–28.

70. Shelley, Letter to Maria Gisborne, lines 126–45.

72. Shelley, Letter to Maria Gisborne, lines 187–97, 202, 209–11, 226–32.

73. Shelley, Ode to the West Wind, line 70.

74. Shelley, Letter to Maria Gisborne, lines 307, 308–10.

Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
231-264
Launched on MUSE
2020-01-02
Open Access
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