Academic journal article Style

Her "Whole Soul Was Ear": Novel Sound, Experimental Music, and Artistic Community in Mary Shelley's the Last Man

Academic journal article Style

Her "Whole Soul Was Ear": Novel Sound, Experimental Music, and Artistic Community in Mary Shelley's the Last Man

Article excerpt

Composed shortly after the destruction of her beloved circle of family and friends, Mary Shelley's The Last Man conducts readers through a parallel tale of death and devastation. Though the novel ends in a solitary silence, it is an intensely musical and exceedingly experimental text. The narrator and eponymous survivor, Lionel, oddly rejoices at the novel's end, praising music as "the language of the immortals, disclosed to us as testimony of their existence" (Shelley, The Last Man 420; hereafter cited as LM). It is, he claims, the "'silver key of the fountain of tears,' child of love, soother of grief, inspirer of heroism and radiant thoughts" (LM 420). This essay argues that Shelley incorporates a language of sound and music to amplify the intellectual and emotional resonance of her highly inventive novel. It begins by examining the musical musings in Shelley's journals and letters in the months surrounding The Last Man's inception, suggesting these forays as the origins of ideas and innovations that find ultimate expression in the novel. Next, examinations of LMs musical metaphors and sonically themed intertextual references solidify music as a hermeneutic to the text, as well as a metaphor for artistic community for Shelley inside and outside the world of the novel.

This essay ultimately argues that Shelley constructed the text to incorporate elements of musical scores. Shelley's unique novel unites the language of the narrative with the language of written music. The text deploys formal and thematic features of written music that, while helping to unify its musical thematic in a formal dimension, make LM an extremely experimental novel. Most significantly, Shelley composed LM with two consecutive Chapter IVs in the first Volume, an arrangement often "corrected" since the novel's original 1826 publication--the only edition with which Shelley was at all involved. In the language of written music, few notations occur as regularly and recognizably as the 4/4 time signature. (1) The 4/4 notation even occurs so frequently as to be referred to colloquially as "common time." The text of LM, then, contains a textual time signature, a silent musical allusion that reveals Shelley's knowledge of musical notation and the experimental nature of the novel. This formal feature, while unlocking new readings of LM specifically, ultimately challenges conventional expectations of Shelley's texts in general, and thus demands more rigorous readings of her other works.

Shelley herself acknowledges the novel's experimental nature. In late 1823 she writes to Leigh Hunt in Italy about beginning a new novel: something "more wild & imaginative & I think more in my way" (Bennett 393). She even asserts that her new friend, professional musician "[Vincent] Novello will help it greatly," and goes on to describe some recent musical revelations:

[As] I listen to music (especially instrumental) new ideas rise and develope [sic] themselves, with greater energy & truth that [than] at any other time--thus I am becoming very fond of instrumental music of which before I was more careless--singing confines ones [sic] thoughts to the words--in mere playing they form a song for themselves which if it be not more in harmony with the notes at least is more so with ones [sic] tone of mind. (Bennett 393)

And so as Shelley begins work on the new novel, music figures prominently in her personal life and even plays a part in LM's composition. Shelley herself asserts that music unlocks communicative abilities and powers of communicating truth; it elevates her thoughts and invigorates her writing. And it ultimately becomes the key with which to interpret her novel.

In the most musically minded study of Shelley's work, "Listen While You Read: The Case of Mary Shelley's The Last Man," Lucy Morrison illuminates many of LMs musical moments. Morrison examines how Shelley deploys operatic references as a means of expression to both service her grieving process and to situate her work in a contemporary vocabulary of sonic association. …

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