Category Archives: percy shelley

Categorizing Elements

More Nortons. More studying. I realized I am running out of time, so I sped things up a bit. Now I am on the nineteenth century having skimmed two hundred years of literature. I am sure I will go back shortly having realized I forgot something important. In fact, I think I skipped American Literature altogether. So yes, I will go back. For now, I am doing the Shelleys. I figured I could group them together and save some time. I would throw Coleridge and Byron in there too for good measure, maybe some Keats, but that might be a bit too rushed. And I love Keats. So I think he gets his own special place.
For purposes of distinction, Percy shall be called Shelley, and Mary will be Mary. It is far less confusing that way, especially considering which works I will be looking at. Of course with my luck none of this will actually be on the exam. I recently read Mary’s The Last Man, but I think in light of Shelley’s work, Frankenstein would be better suited, particularly because I have been analyzing Prometheus Unbound and Monte Blanc.
All three of these works begin within polar regions, in the midst of ice; glaciers, ice capsules, mountain peaks, and avalanches serve as the backdrop to these works. However, the ideas of fire, light, and knowledge are never distant from the characters involved. Yet, it is important to note the differences along with the similarities of these polarities as they are represented by highly idealistic Shelley in a reconciliatory manner that recycles through nature, and rationally skeptical Mary who refutes the universality of natural elements in light of their improbability. The three works engage in an intrinsic discourse that begins with Shelley’s harmonic conceptions that allow opposing elements to consolidate in a state of universal bliss, and continues with Mary’s realistic reevaluation of such conceptions as she demonstrates the consequences of such combinations in an attempt to draw attention to Shelley’s misconception, who’s uniting efforts seemingly negate reality in lieu of his own idealistic version. The underlying theme throughout these works relies on the idea of human limitations, or from Shelley’s perspective, seeming lack thereof.
Frankenstein’s monster  serves to illustrate the consequences of fusion as he is composed from an amalgamation of parts that by themselves are good, but once fused seem ugly, and malformed. Not only is Frankenstein limited in his ability to create, but having created the monster from human parts it highlights the flaws of humanity as a whole because these parts, sewn together, are grotesque. Are these not the parts which are found in similar combinations in every human? Yes, the flesh hewn together in this manner is unnatural, but the commentary is on the other parts of humanity that the monster clearly possesses, that when combined are so horrific as to be beyond reprove.
Coleridge’s enthusiasm for the reconciliation of “the Free Life and the confining Form” celebrates the intertwining of elements in the idea that they complete each other, forming perfect harmony within the universe while being opposed, or different in kind, whether in nature or in art: external with the internal, intellectual with the emotional, conscious with unconscious, matter with spirit, and by extension, fire and ice. Such a Coleridgean synthesis allows for an examination of a whole while maintaining the perspective of the parts, essentially mediating Shelley’s idea of absolute fusion that obfuscates the constituent parts and Mary’s total separation that does not allow for mutual existence.
In Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound “Love, which is as fire” and survives eons of Jupiter’s implacable hatred, symbolized by the freezing cold of the Caucasian alp to which Prometheus is chained, is the prevailing image throughout the poem. There must necessarily exist a struggle between the elements even as they do coexist. Nevertheless, here the struggle is not within one character, but strategically symbolized by characters in opposition, Prometheus and Jupiter, serving to form a bond between them that would otherwise be impossible. The struggle is physically depicted and materialized, and thus lending life to the comparison as they could not exist without each other; they form each other.
Prometheus and Jupiter exist solely to torment each other. As Jupiter hurls down his curses “like snow on herbless peaks,” mankind maintains the faith and “burns towards heaven with fierce reproach,”  and an “unextinguishable fire” of detestation for tyranny. However, this fire of reproach would have no foundation if not for the absolute cold embodied within Jupiter, making apparent the need that the elements have for each other; as the winter snow melts, the streams it forms allows luscious growth in spring, which may not be as appreciated without the endurance of a harsh winter to begin with.
When at last the “retributive hour” arrives and Jupiter is dethroned, Prometheus’ vital heat dissolves his icy chains and kindles everything, first penetrating Panthea “like vaporous fire,” then irradiating Asia, grasping as far as the frozen moon “with warmth of flame.” The Promethean fire of love is born from cold hate, and once born becomes an unquenchable essence that grasps towards everything, unsatisfied with only its own kind, meaning the other embodiment of love, Asia. This Shelleyean conception of mingling allows a strange form of cohabitation in which the elements do not destroy each other, as common sense would dictate, but rather affirm each other, as can be further seen in Mont Blanc.
Here, unlike Prometheus Unbound, or Frankenstein, the fire is not humanly knowledge, but a more mysterious essence, Power.
This inextinguishable Power animates and pervades all things as it flows even through the mountain world of ice and death. The probability of getting this work on the exam is slim enough, but coupled with the probability of my remembering this exact quote for reference, it is practically nonexistent.
Power in likeness of the Arve comes down
From the ice gulfs that gird his secret throne,
Bursting through this dark mountain like the flame
Of lightening through the tempest.
There is an astonishing amount of energy that this image of the torrent manages to harness. The Power flowing from the glaciers bursts into view as fire and light together through the imagery of water portrayed by the Arve. The light becomes a direct extension of fire, in its deadly form of the lightening bold, heating and illuminating the cold and vaporous clouds from within, much like the Promethean fire that earlier penetrated Panthea. But this fire symbolizes the Power of nature that is strikingly superior to all living things while itself being alive. Here it is not the ice of the North Pole that reminds the reader of human limitations, but a fire that burns brighter than can be conceived by the sparks of the human mind. Yet ice and snow are as much a part of nature as the lightening. They belong together in a continuum that cannot be comprehended by the human mind, but merely appreciated for its awesome properties, much like Shelley’s perpetual concerns for the inclusion of the other can never amount to fully knowing the other, but merely living alongside each other. This is exactly what Shelley does not seem to understand and what Mary attempts to demonstrate. A less explosive image of these opposites that serves to better depict the emphasis on elemental coexistence within the mind, and throughout nature, can be found at the end of the poem, tamed, yet full of unearthly peace as the lightening is no longer a thunderous, ominous flame.
…Its home
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
Keeps innocently, and like vapor broods
Over the snow
The fire can be perceived as gently brooding over the snow like a hen over its unhatched eggs, invoking the image of nurture, birth and rejuvenation, forming yet another relationship. Similarly the human mind broods over the natural phenomenon and nurtures and conceives thought, creating within itself a crude understanding of the inner workings of the greater outside force where the snow and fire fuse together as a reminder of the greatness of nature as opposed to the human body that can only perceive one element at a time, mixing them in the creation of comfortable warmth, different from the lightening upon the snow that allows the two extremes to maintain their respective properties even during their fusion. In this instance, Shelley is the closest to Mary’s understanding of the elements that does not fuse them together, but allows the fire of human aspiration to merely graze the tops of the icy peaks representing human restraints, and then recoil. In the process the ice is not destroyed, the North Pole in Frankenstein remains intact, but the polarities separate, unable to coexist. Through Walton’s understanding of the shortcomings of his human mind he is able to escape the perilous ice by abandoning it and allowing nature to exist apart from him without fully being understood.
Mary’s Frankenstein begins at the North Pole as the frame narrator, Walton, introduces Frankenstein’s use of the vital fire or “spark of being” to animate matter otherwise cold and dead, and in the process attempting to use his earthly knowledge to unlock the secrets of nature’s ability to create. As the frame narration envelopes the story, so does the frame narrator’s ice backdrop encompass Frankenstein’s fire, or knowledge within. Also, as Walton’s ship is perilously trapped between sheets of ice, he dreams of a tropical paradise just beyond the immediate glaciers, again depicting images of heat entrapped within frost. Walton’s heat, similar to Frankenstein’s, is an endeavor to conquer nature, but in a different way. Walton does not overstep his bounds in the natural hierarchy as blatantly as Frankenstein, but he nevertheless undertakes a mission that negates human limitations, and he is harshly reminded of these boundaries by the solidity of the surrounding ice that leaves him physically and mentally helpless. His only escape is within his fantasies of paradise that allow his inner self to burn brilliantly despite the ice. Yet, it is well worth noting that these are mere fantasies, making the distinction of reality all the more apparent. The trouble with fantasy is that once created the harshness of reality is exponentially amplified. Mary questions the reality and the power of reconciliation as both aforementioned images allow only one element to exist at any time. While fire restores what frost destroys, frost is simultaneously banished, and as frost reminds the characters of their human limitations, their sparks of knowledge become dim and nearly extinguished.
Walton does not envision the paradise as part of the icy backdrop, but can only conceive it beyond the ice, meaning that the two are mutually exclusive. He understands where he is, and his fantasies describe where he would like to be, without mistaking or confounding the two locales. Perhaps a better way of perceiving the situation would be along the lines of a division of the mind and the body, placing Walton’s body among the glaciers of nature, and his mind bathing in the sun, perpetuating the dichotomy between human thought and human limitations that inhibit thought. Yet, paradoxically, Walton’s quest for knowledge would cease to exist without the ice of nature’s resistance. Even though he believes he is seeking warmth that will be attained once his quest for a new route will be complete, it is his drive for conquering the cold that allows him to proceed. The entirety of his mission is based on defying nature, and crossing the ice.
The Shelleys essentially explore and conceptualize fire and ice in terms of the human mind, assigning narrow categories to these rather loose concepts. Human knowledge, emotion, and power, usually represented by the elements, are extrapolated from their direct metaphorical sense and further symbolized to reflect specific life perspectives as understood by the authors. Each work serves as an argument, either strategically sustaining the perspective of a synthetic idealism through the fusion of hot and cold, opposites colliding and coexisting, as illustrated by Mont Blanc and PrometheusUnbound, or, as is the case in Frankenstein where only one element may occupy center stage at any time, depicting the consequences of such a notion and essentially refuting it. Thus as ice provides the backdrop for the works, its relationship to fire and its greater meaning remains to be identified. As the elements traipse between meanings they can simultaneously be grouped together through likeness, while also refusing to be strictly categorized or understood. I guess that was the whole point.