Frankenstein at 200

Portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, by Richard Rothwell, 1840

The definitive exhibition on the Byron-Shelley circle was hosted by the New York Public Library in 2012. Shelley’s Ghost brought together materials from the Bodleian and the NYPL’s own Pforzheimer Collection, including the manuscript of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Byron’s love letters, a necklace made from Percy Shelley’s hair, the water-damaged copy of Sophocles’s Tragedies that had been on his person when he drowned, as well as fragments of his skull taken from the funeral pyre, among other artifacts.

A new exhibition at the Morgan Library celebrates the bicentennial of FrankensteinIt’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200 collects many of the same items as Shelley’s Ghost. It is a much bigger exhibition with a narrower scope, focusing on the inspiration, creation, and legacy of the classic novel, which was published in 1818. In it’s own way Frankenstein at 200 is the equal of Shelley’s Ghost.

Pages from the manuscript are on display, loaned by the Bodleian. The curators provide a cultural context with eighteenth century galvanic equipment and surgical tools, a number of important Gothic paintings, including Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781) and Philip James de Loutherbourg’s Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard (1790). The lives of the Shelleys are presented through letters and portraits, including the well-known Richard Rothwell painting of Mary, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery in London. The aforementioned fragments of Percy’s skull (calvariae disjecta?) are present, as is the manuscript of a love poem he was carrying when he drown, the ink washed to a blur. (I have written about the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Shelley’s death in an earlier post.)

All of these items are on display in a single gallery, which is worth the price of admission alone. A light but cheerful second gallery contains a collection of advertising posters from the various film adaptations of the novel, and modern illustrations, including those by Lynd Ward and Bernie Wrightson. The highlight of this gallery is an original six-sheet poster for the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff.

A page from the manuscript of Frankenstein
The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli, 1781
Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard, Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1790
Fragments of the skull of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Manuscript of a poem retrieved from the body of Percy Bysshe Shelley

It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200 runs through January 27, 2019 at the Morgan Library in New York.

Symphonie Fantastique

Simon Callow with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

Last week we attended a terrific production of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique at Carnegie Hall. It is a dramatic and delirious piece—an opium dream of murder and witchcraft punctuated by incredible orchestral “special effects”—most famously the fall of a guillotine.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner led the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in a recreation of the 1832 Paris production where the Symphonie was accompanied by its rarely heard companion piece, Lélio. This is a direct sequel in which the protagonist awakens from an overdose of opium and rises out of despair by contemplating the healing power of art. In the process he conjures a series of musical reveries performed by the orchestra, soloists, and a full choir (in this case the National Youth Choir of Scotland).

While the Symphonie is a purely orchestral work, Lélio is a piece of theater. It requires an actor to play the part of the protagonist—representing Berlioz himself—who interacts with the musicians. Simon Callow played the part in this production, to my delight. Callow is one of two actors I would go out of my way to see in anything. (David Suchet is the other.)

The entire concert was electrifying—really triumphant. I felt a genuine frisson. I think everyone in the audience sensed that something special was happening on stage. I would say it was like nothing I have ever heard, but it might actually have been something I have never heard. Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim writes in The New York Times:

The Orchestre Révolutionnaire, which Mr. Gardiner founded in 1989, plays on period instruments that produce earthier tone colors than their modern equivalents. Some have since gone extinct, like the serpent and the ophicleide, precursors of the tuba that look like plumbing designed by Dalí.

Since Berlioz’s time, wind instruments in particular have developed so that their sound more perfectly resembles the human voice. But in this earlier stage, a quality of thingness still inhabits the sound of clarinets and oboes. Their solos came across as the voices of animated objects in a way that marvelously suited Berlioz’s macabre vision.

A different program of Berlioz pieces, performed by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, can be heard here.

The Grave of William Blake Rediscovered

Photo: Victoria Jones/PA

On August 12, 2018 a new memorial was unveiled at Bunhill Fields in London marking the grave of poet, artist, and printer William Blake (1757-1827). Previously a stone in the burial ground attested that Blake and his wife Catherine were interred “near by.” The unveiling of the new monument marks the 191st anniversary of Blake’s death and the culmination of fourteen years of work by Luis and Carol Garrido to identify the location of the grave.

The Guardian reports:

“When you see the stone that says ‘near by’, it’s so vague,” Luis Garrido said. “We wanted to know the exact spot.”

Finding it proved a bigger challenge than they imagined. Bunhill Fields was a cemetery popular with Dissenters, and when Blake died, largely unrecognised, in 1827, his was the fifth of eight coffins to be buried in the plot.

The graveyard had been arranged in a grid, and the co-ordinates were in the Bunhill Fields burial records, given as “77, east and west, 32, north and south”. But after bomb damage during the second world war, the Corporation of London decided to transform part of the site into gardens, leaving only two remaining gravestones, and moving Blake’s stone next to a memorial to an obelisk commemorating Daniel Defoe.

The burial records were not always precise, according to Carol Garrido, whose skills as a landscape architect were vital. “You could see the handwriting in the burial order book change,” she said. “We imagined someone who was a clerk in the office, writing what the foreman of the gravediggers told them.” By using the two existing graves to find a point of origin, after two years they had found the right place.

The crowd-funded monument was designed by Lida Cardozo and is inscribed with a passage from Blake’s poem Jerusalem: “I give you the end of a golden string / Only wind it into a ball / It will lead you in at Heavens gate / Built in Jerusalems wall.” A detailed account of how Luis and Carol Garrido located the grave can be read here.

See also: The Tomb of Coleridge Rediscovered.

The Tomb of Coleridge Rediscovered

When the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge died in 1834, he was buried in the chapel of Highgate School near his final home in the north London village. There he lay with other members of his family for more than a century until 1961. That year the coffins of Coleridge, his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and grandson, were moved to St Michael’s Church on Highgate Hill amidst much fanfare.

But in the ensuing decades the exact location of Coleridge’s tomb in the church had been forgotten. An excavation has now uncovered the poet’s final resting place behind a brick wall enclosing one end of a seventeenth-century cellar. The church itself dates from 1831. The Coleridge vault is in the former wine cellar of the 1696 Ashurst House that had earlier occupied the location, and was incorporated into the church basements. According to St Michael’s website: “Covered in dust and barely distinguishable from the rubble in which they repose, the five coffins are bricked solidly into the rear portion of this wine cellar, barely visible through the grille of one of two air vents.” It is, apparently, “a rather dangerous, rubble-strewn area of the church.”

Now St Michael’s is launching a fundraiser to restore the cellar and vault and build a resource center. A program of events will be held on June 2:

[T]wo distinguished authorities on Coleridge—Malcolm Guite and Seamus Perry have kindly agreed to provide addresses on Coleridge’s spirituality and his life in Highgate. Malcolm is Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge and author of Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Hodder 2017). Seamus is Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford and Fellow of Balliol College.

Meanwhile a distinguished local poetry performer, Lance Pearson; members of the Friends [of Coleridge], and hopefully descendants of STC himself will recite some of his words and poems. A tour of Coleridge’s Highgate will include a visit to the HSLI’s Coleridge Room, and a limited tour of the crypt and burial area beneath our church.

Tickets are £40 for a good cause. More information on the church website here.

Lord Tennyson in Camelot

Alfred Tennyson with book, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865

Alfred, Lord Tennyson spent most of his career as a poet in the realm of Arthurian legend. It was not by any means his only subject, but it was one to which he returned again and again. His definitive treatment of the rise and fall of Camelot, the book-length cycle, Idylls of the King, was written over a quarter of a century between 1859 and 1885. But much earlier, at the outset of his career, Tennyson identified the unrealized potential in this iconic British mythology, writing that, “most of the big things except ‘King Arthur’ had been done.”

Previous generations of Romantic poets had consciously rejected the subject. “As to Arthur…What have we to do with him,” asked Coleridge. Lord Byron was likewise disinterested. “By the by,” he wrote, “I fear that Sir Tristem and Sir Lancelot were no better than they should be…So much for chivalry. Burke need not have regretted that its days are over.” Yet Tennyson dared to assert the relevancy of the Arthurian tradition to the modern world, and in so doing, achieved not only a masterpiece, but a renewal of the Victorian imagination.

Tennyson first read Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century prose epic, Le Morte d’Arthur, in his youth. “The vision of Arthur as I have drawn him,” he later told his son, “came upon me when, little more than a boy, I first lighted upon Malory.” Tennyson understood the character as “a man who spent himself in the cause of honour, duty and self-sacrifice, who felt and aspired with his nobler knights, though with a stronger and clearer conscience than any of them.”

It was not immediately clear to Tennyson how to approach the subject. In the 1830s he wrote four different poems that dealt with Arthur and Camelot in various ways. He also experimented with treatments and arrangements of the material in four outlines written during the same period.

The outlines were composed in the early 1830s, probably around 1833. The first describes the landscape of Camelot in prose, focusing on the mountain where Arthur’s hall was built: “The Mount was the most beautiful in the world…but all underneath it was hollow, and the mountain trembled…and there ran a prophecy that the mountain and the city on some wild morning would topple into the abyss and be no more.” The second outline records the symbolism that the young Tennyson attributed to various characters: the two Guineveres represent primitive Christianity versus Roman Catholicism; Mordred, the skeptical understanding; Merlin, science; the Round Table, liberal institutions; Excalibar, war. Another outline arranges the cast of characters based on their relationships to one another. The last is a proposed sequence for a five-act narrative connecting the legends. While none of these early sketches exactly predicted the form that Tennyson’s mature work would take, they give a sense of the systematic approach he used to arrive at it.

The most famous of the poems from this period was The Lady of Shalott. It was based on a medieval Italian novelette from the thirteenth century collection, Cento Novelle Antiche. Tennyson was, at the time, unfamiliar with Malory’s version of the tale and later said, “I doubt whether I should ever have put it in that shape if I had been then aware of the Maid of Astolat in Mori Arthur.” The subtext in Tennyson’s rendering is the movement of the artist from isolation and imitation of the world into experience of the world—in Tennyson’s words, “out of the region of shadows into that of realities.” To develop this theme, Tennyson modified the story substantially. Several important elements, like the Lady’s mirror, are his invention, not present in the original source.

The other three poems were Sir Launcelot and Queen GuinevereSir Galahad, and the Morte d’Arthur. In all of them Tennyson pays close attention to imagery, often expanding upon depictions in Malory’s narrative for heightened emphasis. For example, he turns Malory’s fairly straightforward image of Excalibur as a sword decorated with precious stones into a sword that “twinkled with diamond studs, / Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth-work / Of subtlest jewellery.” But he also drew out and expanded the interior life of the characters. The dramatic last words that Tennyson gives to Arthur, while of his own invention, add to Malory rather than contradicting him. The emphasis of Arthur’s speech in the Morte d’Arthur is on prayer; Arthur says, “More things are wrought by prayer / Than this world dreams of.” The entire speech reflects Tennyson’s skill at weaving his own moral vision into a poem that remains relatively faithful to the source material.

By the 1840s Tennyson had found in King Arthur a figure who could represent idealism and faith for Victorian society. His early experimentations would bear fruit in the Idylls of the King. In that work Tennyson navigated the knife’s edge between the heroic and tragic, achieving something sublime. In the end Arthur slays the traitor Mordred in battle but is left “all but slain himself,” his kingdom fallen. As in Malory, he is last seen taken by boat toward the mythical island of Avalon, “Somewhere far off, pass[ing] on and on, and go[ing] / From less to less and vanish[ing] into light.” To cite Tennyson’s own early symbolism: faith and virtue overcome materialism and doubt, but not without a cost. And indeed, the Victorian faith—Tennyson’s own faith—was even then retreating into mystery and mysticism. But this was not a final retreat. Arthur is an inherently Christlike figure, destined to “come again / To rule once more.” The Idylls end with another beginning: “And the new sun rose bringing the new year.”

Writing about the Victorian period at the turn of the millennium, philosopher John Michell recalled,

In my childhood some sixty years ago the code of behaviour one was supposed to live by was properly called Victorian. One source of that code was the Bible, and another was the romance of King Arthur. Putting them together, the Victorians conceived an ideal type of modern human being, the fair, kind, and honourable Christian gentleman.

Tennyson is in part to thank for that wonderful ideal.

“Strange Stories of the Death of Poets”

The Funeral of Shelley, by Louis Édouard Fournier, 1889

The Quarterly Review probably did not kill John Keats with its criticism of Endymion, as Lord Byron claimed, but it did eerily foretell the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Notwithstanding his obvious talents as a poet, like all radicals Shelley was rather insufferable. He would give “atheist” as his occupation in hotel registers and bore casual acquaintances with tirades against the government. Even the gentle Keats was provoked to a sharp retort. “Does Shelley go on telling strange Stories of the Death of kings,” he asked a mutual friend. “Tell him there are strange Stories of the death of Poets—some have died before they were conceived.”

Inevitably, Shelley ran afoul of the the Quarterly Review, which was the leading conservative literary journal of the early-nineteenth century. Contributors included Sir Walter Scott, Robert Southey, the future prime minister George Canning, gothic novelist Charles Maturin, and others. Scott’s enthusiastic praise for Emma in its pages established the contemporary reputation of Jane Austen. But the Quarterly was better known for its pugilistic criticism, gaining a reputation as the “Hanged, Drawn, and Quarterly.”

In the issue for April of 1819, editor John Taylor Coleridge (brother of Samuel) wrote an absolutely withering mockery of Shelley’s political philosophy:

Mr Shelley would abrogate our laws—this would put an end to felonies and misdemeanours at a blow; he would abolish the rights of property, of course there could thenceforward be no violations of them, no heart-burnings between the poor and the rich, no disputed wills, no litigated inheritances, no food in short for sophistical judges, or hireling lawyers; he would overthrow the constitution, and then we should have no expensive court, no pensions or sinecures, no silken lords or corrupt commoners, no slavish and enslaving army or navy; he would pull down our churches, level our Establishment, and burn our bibles—then we should pay no tithes, be enslaved by no superstitions, abused by no priestly artifices: marriage he cannot endure, and there would at once be a stop put to the lamented increase of adulterous connections amongst us, whilst by repealing the canon of heaven against incest, he would add to the purity, and heighten the ardour of those feelings with which brother and sister now regard each other; finally, as the basis of the whole scheme, he would have us renounce our belief in our religion…

This is at least intelligible; but it is not so easy to describe the structure, which Mr Shelley would build upon this vast heap of ruins. ‘Love,’ he says, ‘is to be the sole law which shall govern the moral world;’ but Love is a wide word with many significations, and we are at a loss as to which of them he would have it now bear. We are loath to understand it in its lowest sense, though we believe that as to the issue this would be the correctest mode of interpreting it; but this at least is clear, that Mr. Shelley does not mean it in its highest sense: he does not mean that love, which is the fulfilling of the law, and which walks after the commandments, for he would erase the Decalogue, and every other code of laws.

Then came the coup de grâce, in the form of an ill omen:

Like the Egyptian of old, the wheels of his chariot are broken, the path of mighty waters closes in upon him behind, and a still deepening ocean is before him:—for a short time, are seen his impotent struggles against a resistless power, his blasphemous execrations are heard, his despair but poorly assumes the tone of triumph and defiance, and he calls ineffectually on others to follow him to the same ruin—finally, he sinks ‘like lead’ to the bottom, and is forgotten. So it is now in part, so shortly will it be entirely with Mr. Shelley.

When the article was published Shelley was living in Italy. He read it in October at Delesert’s English Library in Florence. He was observed there, “earnestly bent over the last Quarterly…reading to the end of the article in the same earnest manner, his nose almost touching the book: suddenly he burst into convulsive laughter, and hastily rising, closed the book and left the room, his Ha! ha! ringing down the stairs.”

Less than three years later, Shelley drowned in the Ligurian Sea when a sudden storm overtook his sailboat, on July 8, 1822.  “We shall never know by what curious premonition John Taylor Coleridge found his biblical image,” writes Richard Holmes in Shelley: The Pursuit.