In My Memory: Percy Shelley's Nod to Friendships, Poetry, and Eternity

Letter to Maria Gisborne

In 1820, Percy Shelley wrote to a friend of Mary and himself whom resided in London at the time. Although perhaps the relationship is controversial, the friendship between Maria Gisborne and the Shelley’s was worthy of poetry, at least to Percy. In “Letter to Maria Gisborne,” Percy is commenting on multiple facets of his life; the pursuit of nearly preserving the thoughts of his mind is evident in the positively chaotic writing style of the poem. Perhaps described as beautiful, the poem speaks to an egocentric identification of Shelley; this is not to belie the poem, but rather shine importance to the content itself: friendships, memory, poetry, and preservation.

 Percy Bysshe Shelley,  Portrait of Shelley  by Alfred Clint, 1829.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint, 1829.

Friendly Poets

In the edition of Percy Shelley’s poems edited by Mary Shelley, the names of their friends and fellow poets were omitted from the poem “Letter to Mary Gisborne.” These omissions were perhaps to preserve face of specific individuals, but is interesting enough nonetheless to incite the question of the inclusion of these names originally. The individuals mentioned include Coleridge, Hunt, Hogg, and Peacock:

You will see C—; he who sits obscure
In the exceeding lustre, and the pure
Intense irradiation of a mind,
Which, with its own internal lightning blind,
Flags wearily through darkness and despair—
A cloud-encircled meteor of the air,
A hooded eagle among blinking owls.—
You will see H—t; one of those happy souls
Which are the salt of the earth, and without whom
This world would smell like what it is — a tomb;
Who is, what others seem; — his room no doubt
Is still adorned by many a cast from Shout,
With graceful flowers tastefully placed about;
And coronals of bay from ribbons hung,
And brighter wreaths in neat disorder flung;
The gifts of the most learn'd among some dozens
Of female friends, sisters-in-law and cousins.
And there is he with his eternal puns,
Which beat the dullest brain for smiles, like duns
Thundering for money at a poet's door;
Alas! it is no use to say, "I'm poor!"
Or oft in graver mood, when he will look
Things wiser than were ever read in book,
Except in Shakespear's wisest tenderness.
You will see H—, and I cannot express
His virtues, — though I know that they are great,
Because he locks, then barricades the gate
Within which they inhabit; — of his wit
And wisdom, you'll cry out when you are bit.
He is a pearl within an oyster shell,
One of the richest of the deep. And there
Is English P— with his mountain Fair
Turned into a Flamingo, — that shy bird
That gleams i' the Indian air. Have you not heard
When a man marries, dies, or turns Hindoo,
His best friends hear no more of him? but you
Will see him, and will like him too, I hope,
With the milk-white Snowdonian Antelope
Matched with the cameleopard; his fine wit
Makes such a wound, the knife is lost in it;
A strain too learned for a shallow age,
Too wise for selfish bigots; — let his page
Which charms the chosen spirits of the time,
Fold itself up for the serener clime
Of years to come, and find its recompense
In that just expectation. Wit and sense,
Virtue and human knowledge, all that might
Make this dull world a business of delight,
Are all combined in H. S. — And these,
With some exceptions, which I need not teaze
Your patience by descanting on, are all
You and I know in London.

All but Hunt were noticeably Spenserian poets, following in that suit of writing; however, according to Bernard Groom in Diction of English Poetry (1955), Shelley could arguably be the least Spenserian of “five chief romantic poets,” and “in this respect he stands alone.”

Arguably, Shelley is writing in such a manner not to only draw attention to the poetic forms of his colleagues and friends in comparison to himself, but also to preserve his rambling thoughts for those same colleagues and friends in his death. In his repetitive mention to the you, Maria Gisborne, directly throughout the poem, he is calling the reader back to the audience of this female friend residing in London instead of the symbolic and descriptive language of the poem itself. It seems to recenter the poem in terms of how it works for Shelley, not only as a form of creative expression but also to ground his observances and ideas in relationship to the importance of poetry and works within their poetic circle - the difference between them and him.

Is he condemning the fruits of his colleagues in terms of being Spenserian replicas? The poem is melancholy and speaks to one particular friendship - Maria Gisborne - over all else, and may be read as a call to a similar mind to this own. Rather than attempt to write for “a hooded eagle among blinking owls” or the man who “locks, then barricades the gate / Within which [his virtues] inhabit,” he is writing for the Gisborne whom shares a similar understanding of these descriptions given in the following lines:

[…] Wit and sense,

Virtue and human knowledge, all that might

Make this dull world a business of delight,

Are all combined in H.S. - and these,

With some exceptions, which I need not teaze

Your patience by descanting on, are all

You and I know in London.

Shelley is separating Gisborne and himself from the rest of their colleagues for the purpose of that similar mind and friendship. Although he is not shading his colleague’s works, he is commenting on the mechanisms for their poetic form in terms of being a mock off Shakespearean and Spencerian form.

Using Mythology as Romantics Do

Within the poem, Shelley refers to many mythological figures to maintain his point and paint a symbolic notion of his poetic voice - a use Romantic poets are keen to draw upon: Vulcan, the god of fire, Ixion, king of the Lapthis, etc.. The story of Ixion is mentioned briefly; though perhaps quickly skimmed by, his story deserves further focus for the importance it draws upon Shelley’s egocentricity.

To summarize the culmination of Ixion’s downfall, we may also turn to the story of Prometheus, a figure Shelley has previously written concerning, and the eternal damnation of his fate. Ixion, too, experiences a similar fate minus the stone and liver eating eagle. Ixion murdered his father-in-law, and was thus estranged and hated; however, Zeus took pity on him and allowed his stay at Olympus. Ixion grew lustful for Hera, Zeus’s wife, while under their care, and Zeus took notice of this attraction. Thus, he created a cloud-shaped Hera to lure Ixion and confirm his suspicions of his lust. Ixion copulated with the cloud Hera, giving birth to a son whom eventually fathered the species Centaur. Upon this insult, Zeus fixed Ixion to a winged, fiery wheel that would turn eternally as his fate.

The eternal fixation of Ixion on a spinning wheel on fire greatly anticipates the culmination of Shelley’s own spite to avoid being regarded as a copy-cat poet. Perhaps the wheel spinning is Shelley’s life, and only in death may he be immortal and forever regarded in the memory of his friends; the culmination of imagery of fire, forgery, magic, and alchemy throughout the poem renders a sort of mysticism forging immortality. However, the reference may argue the opposite, where he is vexing the implications of industry with his poetic form. Either way, the symbolic reference of Greek mythological figures correlates to the implications these poets had in establishing a figure for the mindset of their ideology - Prometheus, for example.

Tea and Toast and Ideas

Percy Shelley’s political ideals speaks through his works, as we can see in his poetry and letters and essays. He spoke out on reform, made life decisions for political reasons, and was timely radical. The course of “Letter to Maria Gisborne” is simplistic, and offers a rudimentary account of the estate they are staying by the grace of the Gisborne’s, but also commentary of the progressiveness on industry, engineering, and magical realism. The crossover of science and magic are evident in paintings of the time that implicate these ideals of awe and enthusiasm, provoking the pursuit of ideas and invention. (in progress)