Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Shelley's Utopian Seascapes

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Shelley's Utopian Seascapes

Article excerpt

   These are the spells by which to re-assume    An empire o'er the disentangled Doom.     To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;    To forgive wrongs darker than Death or Night;       To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;    To love, and bear; to hope, till Hope creates    From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;       Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent:    This, like thy glory, Titan! is to be    Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;    This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory. (1) 

IN THE UTOPIAN MONODRAMA PROMETHEUS UNBOUND DEMOGORGON'S final speech is famously contradictory. Percy Shelley's figure for the essential principle of the universe invokes the enduring power of gradualist progress but also the lasting threat of oppressive violence, and therefore the potentially endless need for revolutionary defiance. At the same time, Demogorgon declares the ultimate success of a blend of defiance ("To defy Power, which seems omnipotent"), and endurance ("To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite"). How can society achieve a state of long-lasting peace filled with endless hope, love, and freedom if society is also always capable of reverting to states of war, despair, hate, and tyranny? How can society defy oppression and also endure it? Shelley explores answers to these questions in his depictions of paradisiacal sea-isles. The imagery of the island paradise is crucial to Shelley's descriptions of universal utopia, and depictions of sea paradises in Queen Mab and "Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills" in particular reveal contradictions similar to those evident in Demogorgon's final speech. "A Vision of the Sea" addresses and solves these contradictions, demonstrating a cyclical view of human history that ultimately undermines Shelley's utopian visions.

Drawings of island idylls with lush trees, calm seas, and a sailboat in the shallows perfuse Shelley's notebooks, and poetic images of flowering islands amid oceans of love define his utopias. His fantasies of perfection focus on material achievements: intellectual, socio-political liberty and progress for mortal humans. People still die in Shelley's utopias. His utopian sea-isles also demonstrate the workings of a material principle, Necessity. In their emphasis on material perfection, Shelley's utopian seascapes revise traditional conceptions of utopia. They confirm his enduring faith in the human potential for perfection. Nevertheless, they also evince his increasingly cyclical view of human history and his recognition of the impossibility of the utopias he describes. In this essay, I discuss Shelley's representation of the sea in the utopias that appear in Queen Mab (1813), "Lines Written among the Euganean Hills" (1818), and Prometheus Unbound (1820). I also touch briefly on the non-universal utopian sea-isle in Epipsychidion (1821) and conclude with an analysis of the poem fragment "A Vision of the Sea" (1820).

The repeated presence of the sea-isle paradise, marked out by almost identical features in sketches, poem fragments, and more completed poems, makes its symbolism and ideological underpinnings fundamental to an assessment of Shelley's utopian thinking and underscores the important role played by the sea in Shelley's constructs of utopia. The sketch shown here (see Fig. 1) visually corresponds to Shelley's poetic depictions of utopia. It comes from the front pastedown of "one of Shelley's notoriously difficult rough-draft notebooks," (2) now known as Bodleian MS. Shelley e. 4. (3) Interpreting Shelley's various sketches is a complex task. Nancy Moore Goslee notes that they could be anything from what she calls "kinetic rituals to keep the ink and thoughts flowing" to "direct or symbolic illustrations of thoughts or lines written" on the page or following elsewhere in that notebook or others. (4) Since their features--the boat floating on a glassy sea and the island abundant with trees and shrubs--are repeated in Shelley's visions of utopia, the recurrent sea-isle sketches best fit Goslee's latter classification. …

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