Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Attraction and Combination: The Science of Metamorphosis in Shelley's the Revolt of Islam

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Attraction and Combination: The Science of Metamorphosis in Shelley's the Revolt of Islam

Article excerpt

CRITICAL COMMENTARY ON SHELLEY'S DEBT TO SCIENCE, WHILE FOCUSING on Prometheus Unbound and other major work, neglects Shelley's Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century, a poem written in 1817, and published as The Revolt of Islam in 1818, after Shelley made changes insisted upon by his publisher. (1) Furthermore, Lloyd Abbey maintains that critics "have ignored its relation to Shelley's other poems and to Romantic poetry generally" and suggests that "the refinement, revision, and redefinition of this poem in Shelley's mature masterpieces is the backbone of his artistic achievement." (2) My focus will be on Shelley's indebtedness to the chemical theories of Sir Humphry Davy and Adam Walker, to a lesser extent, as a means of rereading this important formative work. By acknowledging Shelley's debt to chemical philosophy, I hope to present The Revolt of Islam as a more coherent whole, a fusion of elements "kindled" into an inspired transformation on the physical, spiritual, and socio-political planes. The fusion or mingling of components is the catalyst for what can be seen as both the transformation and transfiguration of Laon and Cythna. In his "Preface" to the work, Shelley explains his intention to show transformation on two levels: (1) the individual level--"the growth and progress of individual mind aspiring after excellence, and devoted to the love of mankind" and (2) the socio-political level--" the awakening of an immense nation from their slavery and degradation to a true sense of moral dignity and freedom" wrought by "the transient nature of ignorance and error," with the "inevitable fall" of tyranny (32). (3) These transformations on the personal and socio-political level are "inextricably blended" (1.9.201) with the elements of the earth, providing Shelley a vast canvas on which to paint his optimism about all of mankind achieving transfiguration through spiritual change and the annihilation of despotism and slavery.

Shelley's almost mythic interest in science and chemistry has been for some scholars a factor in understanding the man himself and his work. Most biographers point to Adam Walker as Shelley's earliest science teacher. According to Newman Ivey White, Walker's lectures began at Syon House in 1803, during Shelley's second year there, when Shelley may have purchased Walker's pamphlet, Analysis of a Course of Lectures in Natural and Experimental Philosophy, along with "an eight-page syllabus, listing the lectures, each of which was two hours' duration." White notes that these lectures "covered every branch of science in which Shelley later showed any interest." (4) This pamphlet is a basic primer, providing elementary concepts, experiments, and definitions, such as cohesion, attraction, composition, decomposition, and electricity as well as the significance of chemistry. For example, in "Lecture III. Principles of Chemistry," Walker discusses the elements of basic chemistry:

   Bodies are also considered as simple or compound.--Simple bodies
   are such as cannot be resolved into any thing more simple, such as
   pure earth, pure water, &c. Compound bodies consist of two or more
   of the primary elements, such as an animal body; for earthly
   particles and various fluids form its composition. That branch of
   philosophy which
   examines the properties of these bodies, by compounding or
   decompounding them, is called CHEMISTRY,--a branch so extensive and
   important, that the sustenance of life--the arts and
   sciences--various manufactories,--nay, even trade and commerce,
   depend upon a continual composition and decomposition of natural
   bodies. (5)

Shelley may have purchased this pamphlet as well as Walker's longer volume, A System of Familiar Philosophy in Twelve Lectures (first published in 1799 and approximately 550 pages). Although Walker covers many of the same areas as he did in the pamphlet, in this volume he articulates more complex ideologies and experimentation as well as his philosophy of the indestructibility of matter, the basis of Cythna's speech in Canto 9 and the underlying precept in the work itself:

   I leave water in a vessel exposed to the air: in time it all
   disappears. … 
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