A Newton among Poets: Shelley's Use of Science in Prometheus Unbound

A Newton among Poets: Shelley's Use of Science in Prometheus Unbound

A Newton among Poets: Shelley's Use of Science in Prometheus Unbound

A Newton among Poets: Shelley's Use of Science in Prometheus Unbound

Excerpt

The material of this book was planned as a part of the notes to an edition of Prometheus Unbound now in preparation. The scientific citations proved, however, to be so extensive and the need for sketching Shelley's scientific background so evident, that its independent publication was decided upon. It was also felt that facts unusual in kind, and, to many readers of Shelley, even startling, should be separately considered and weighed; for once their full significance is grasped Shelley must thereafter be thought of in a new light. Our conception of him as poet and thinker is, by reason of these findings, greatly altered.

There is no need to review here the history of Shelley's reputation as a poet nor the slow perception of his greatness, greatness which is now generally acknowledged but usually thought to lie in his emotional and lyrical powers. That Shelley was an excellent scholar, a man well read in many fields, and that he was fundamentally intellectual rather than emotional, is not widely realized. Mary Shelley's modest contention that Shelley was as notable a philosopher as poet has been smilingly put aside as the exaggeration born of a wifely devotion. One gathers, indeed, from many commentators that Shelley was a kind of inspired idiot, producing beautiful poetry without clearly knowing what he was about. It is unlikely that beautiful poetry was ever so produced.

Mr. Whitehead, whose challenge to literary critics faces the first chapter of this book, is justified in his strictures. Criticism has ignored Shelley's interest in science or belittled it. And as a consequence large sections of Prometheus Unbound have remained undeciphered to this day. There has been much talk of Shelley's exquisite lyricism and very little of Shelley's hard intellectual meaning. It has, indeed, not gen-

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