This week from the Shelley conference, Sharon Ruston reflects on her paper ‘Chemistry and the Shelleys’. Ruston highlights the influence of Humphry Davy on the Shelleys’ work, as well as thinking about the continued relevance of their literary investigations of science in the twenty-first century.
‘Sir Humphry Davy, Bt’ by Thomas Phillips (1821)
The influence of science on the works of the Shelleys is a particularly important area of study in Romantic criticism. How did your paper rethink the Shelleys’ engagement with Humphry Davy and the chemistry of the Romantic period more broadly?
I was trying to argue that a specific aspect of the chemistry of the day appealed to the Shelleys and found its way into their writings on politics, literary creation, poetics, and identity. Namely, chemists such as Davy thought that all the elements of the world already existed, that they could be neither created nor destroyed but were instead transformed into new modes of being. This was Davy’s view. In Elements of Chemical Philosophy (1812), Davy states that, “Most of the substances belonging to our globe are constantly undergoing alterations in sensible qualities, and one variety of matter becomes, as it were transmuted into another.” This new way of thinking about elements had come about because chemists had realised that water, steam, and ice were different states of the same compound. John Dalton wrote, “No new creation or destruction of matter is within the reach of chemical agency. We might as well attempt to introduce a new planet into the solar system, or to annihilate one already in existence, as to create or destroy a particle of hydrogen.” The Shelleys metaphorize these sentiments in their writings, such as when Percy Shelley describes the “power” of the “modern literature of England”: “The mass of capabilities remains at every period materially the same; the circumstances which awaken it to action perpetually change.” It can also be seen in Mary Shelley’s account of literary creation in the 1831 introduction to Frankenstein: “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself.” I want to think more about how Romantic-era writers, politicians, and even scientists dealt with the idea that everything already exists but is constantly changing into new forms . It seems to be a kind of worldview that might appeal to those interested in revolution and political change.
Image of the voltaic pile: ‘Professor Davy’s Great Galvanic Apparatus at the Royal Institution. By which he has effected the decomposition of the Alkalies’
In your paper you explained how chemistry was a science of decomposition and recomposition, suggesting that we can see such an idea playing out in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s metaphors of change and transformation. How does science’s commitment to taxonomy work in tension with Davy’s understanding of mutability, chemical change, and transformation? How/does this tension play out in Shelley’s poetry?
Davy was keen on taxonomy. You can see this in his race (often with French chemists) to isolate and name chemical elements. Davy isolated more chemical elements than anyone else has, before or since, often using the new science of electro-chemistry to decompose further and identify elements such as potassium, chlorine, and magnesium. That said, Davy always worried that a new means – like electro-chemistry – would come along and achieve further decomposition. He preferred the term “undecompounded” to “elemental”, which perfectly demonstrates his concern. His preferred word means only that elements had not yet been decompounded, not that they never would be. It is an interesting philosophical question to consider how it is possible to be sure that the simplest form of a substance had been attained. One of the most decisive experiments of the period was Antoine Laurent Lavoisier’s decomposition of water into its component parts and its recomposition back into water in 1785. In my paper, I likened this to the way the ever-changing clouds in the skies endlessly form and reform, continually making new shapes. Shelley makes this point in his poem “Mutability” and yet there is also a constant in the poem. The only thing that will survive is the principle of change. The poem enacts uncertainty, with each four-line stanza rounded off with a full stop or other punctuation mark and the final, forceful statement: “Nought may endure but Mutability.”
Frankenstein 1831 Frontispiece
With the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s publication of Frankenstein approaching in 2018 (see frankenreads.org), the continued presence of the novel across the globe is a point of literary and academic interest for Romantic scholars and enthusiasts. How are the Shelleys’ literary investigations of science relevant in the twenty-first century? What can we learn from the Shelleys about the dangers and potentials of science?
The influence of Frankenstein is still so present in today’s world. For example, anxieties about genetically-modified food labelled it “Frankenfood.” Hybrid embryos were called “Frankenbunnies.” And it goes on and on. Concern about the dangers of science is expressed in such labels. Percy Shelley, in contrast, was more vocal on the potentials of science. Thomas Jefferson Hogg recalls Shelley proposing: “Water, like the atmospheric air, is compounded of certain gases: in the progress of scientific discovery a simple and sure method of manufacturing the useful fluid, in every situation and in any quantity, may be detected; the arid deserts of Africa may then be refreshed by a copious supply, and may be transformed at once into rich meadows, and vast fields of maize and rice.” William Godwin was convinced that there was a physical as well as a moral aspect to human “perfectibility”; at some far distance in the future, Godwin imagines that men “will cease to propagate,” there will be no disease, and “In addition to this they will perhaps be immortal”. These dreams and aspirations for science become nightmares and horror in the hands of Mary Shelley. As we continue to push for longer, healthy lives, I suspect Frankenstein will continue to be invoked.