The Revolt of Islam: Vegetarian Shelley and the Narrative of Mental Pathology

By Burwick, Frederick | Wordsworth Circle, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Revolt of Islam: Vegetarian Shelley and the Narrative of Mental Pathology


Burwick, Frederick, Wordsworth Circle


In his Preface to Prometheus Unbound (1820) Percy Bysshe Shelley declares that his imagery has "been drawn from the operations of the human mind." Similarly in The Revolt of Islam (1818) Shelley attempts to translate the imagery of the "labouring brain," inherently incommunicable, into a language of sense (e.g., Canto I, stanzas 40-50). The narrative strategy in both works is to re-enact verbally the processes of perception and cognition, with particular attention to the physical pathology that causes aberration. While other poets of the period relish the natural world and seek to demonstrate a seemingly spontaneous and unencumbered access through the senses, Shelley exhibits the experiencing mind as subject to the influence of shock, diet, and other external circumstances. Shelley's narratives of revolution in Prometheus Unbound and The Revolt of Islam, not unlike those of William Blake in Jerusalem, trace an interaction and interdependence of internal and external events. Only rarely, however, did Blake conjure ghosts as instruments or agents. His psychological narrative is dominated by the Four Zoas, their Emanations and progeny. Shelley, by contrast, refers repeatedly to the obstinate trespasses of ghosts. In Shelley's vocabulary, "ghosts" refer most often to the thoughts, fantasies, memories that haunt the mind, rather than to spirits of the dead; and for Shelley the terrors of the mind have physical causes.

When asked whether he believed in ghosts, Coleridge replied that he had "seen far too many to believe in them." Shelley might well have answered in the same terms. Ghosts flit through his best known poems. At the Castle Diodati on Lake Geneva, in June, 1816, occurred that well known episode in which Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori, Claire Claremont, and Mary Godwin Shelley amused themselves with ghost stories, giving rise to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and Polidori's The Vampyre (1819). As a child Shelley delighted in telling ghost stories to his sisters, and the habit persisted when he grew up. Two gothie tales, Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne were among his earliest publications (both in 1810). With his macabre fantasies he deliberately played on the credulity of Harriet Westbrook Shelley. On some occasions, Richard Holmes says, Shelley became so enraptured with his own ghost stories, that "the fantasies came near to hallucinations." (1) Certainly the two are intermixed in the crisis at Tanenyenrallt on January 19, 1812.

On January 26, 1812, one week after the attack, Harriet Westbrook Shelley wrote to Elizabeth Hitchener to assure her that all was "quiet and tranquil." (2) Enclosed within her husband's own letter to Elizabeth, Harriet's note was written at the request of Shelley, who "has made me fill up this large-sheet." She must express her regret for sending an earlier account on the morning immediately following the event: "I have sent you a letter which I am afraid will add to your melancholy, yet it is true what I have said, and now I am quite angry that I sent it yet I was afraid you might hear the circumstance much more dreadful than it was." The reason for Harriet's apology, as this letter makes evident, was not to provide a less terrifying version of the assault, but rather to declare that Shelley's mental condition was not undermined. In this note Harriet made no mention of the physical attack by intruders on Shelley's person. Her reassurances were concerned rather with the severity of the "nervous attack" on his mental stability. In a postscript to Harriet's note, Shelley insisted on his recovery: "I am as Harriet can tell you quite recovered from the little nervous attack." But Harriet had not pronounced him "quite recovered." Instead, she declared that "He is much better than he has been for some time, and I hope as he gets stronger he will outgrow his nervous complaints." (3)

How unstable was Shelley's psychological state? On January 16, 1812, just a few days before Shelley raised the alarm of a physical attack, he confessed to Elizabeth Hitchener that he had "been obliged by an accession of nervous attack to take a quantity of opium which I did very unwillingly or reluctantly. …

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