In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Lyres, Levers, Boats, and Steam: Shelley’s Dream of a Correspondent Machine
  • Michele Speitz (bio)

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...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 231-264
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.