To Feri in fond memories of our conversations about the Renaissance and the Romantics
Shelley himself called his Witch of Atlas "a fanciful poem." To his publisher Ollier he writes: "I send you the "Witch of Atlas", a fanciful poem, which, if its merit be measured by the labour which it cost, is worth nothing" (Jones II. 257). Ever since the publication of Wilson Knight's Starlit Dome, however, it has been seen as "an attempt to create a composite figure of supernature from all Shelley's intuitions of sleep and dream, poetic creation and especially poetic symbolism, his own psychic conflicts and eternity insight, and, at the start, that even more final mystery than death, the darkly magic quality of birth…Shelley attempts to penetrate both the womb and purpose of creation through fine use of his mythopoeic art" (in Ridenour 152).
The poem consisting of seventy eight ottava rima stanzas was composed with amazing ease in three days in August 1820 after Shelley, unaccompanied, went on foot from Lucca to a shrine, a seat of pilgrimages, on top of Monte San Pellegrino in the Apennines. Incidentally it was around this time in August 1820 that Prometheus Unbound was published: The Witch of Atlas in the insubstantial airiness and variety of the exuberant imagery and also in some of the topics addressed, directly or indirectly, like the nature of beauty, the nature of the poetic mind and the relationship between poetry and history, is a virtuoso piece that shows some aspects of Shelley's mind as it was when he composed the 4th act of Prometheus Unbound.
The Witch poem was preceded by something completely different. A few weeks earlier Shelley wrote an epistle, one of his most successful poems in the conversational style, a Letter to Maria Gisborne, a lady friend and confidant, who had just returned to London for a short time and offered her home in Leghorn to Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley and their young son while she would be away with her family. The poem has been compared in its colloquial idiom and circular structure to Coleridge's famous conversation poem, This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison, because both have a circular movement which passes through an imaginative reconstruction of a scene from which the poet is unwillingly excluded (Scrivener 256). What makes the poem so memorable among other things is the successful balance Shelley is able to strike between objective imagery in the descriptive passages and the disclosure of his inner state in highly subjective digressions. The Letter first describes Shelley's own surroundings and shows in the description an amazing richness of well observed details. The poet summons the quaint witch memory as well to be able to identify some of the well known objects with his friends' presence there in the past. Then Shelley moves on to describe London and the people whom Mrs. Gisborne was likely to meet (Godwin, Coleridge, Hunt, etc) and here Shelley displays a rare virtue, an ability to draw human characters with a few traits which give a deep insight into the complexity of mind and psyche. And then he returns to his environment by drastically juxtaposing London - with its hackney coaches and prostitutes - and nature. Here in the creation of landscape once again he seems to be able to exercise careful observation and create imagery based on carefully selected realistic details which survey as full and vivid an impression of the skyscape as possible in language: the subtle motions and changes in the light again are reminiscent of Coleridge's best poetry (e.g. Dejection):
… - unpavilioned heaven is fair
Whether the moon, into her chamber gone,
Leaves midnight to the golden stars, or wan
Climbs with diminished beams the azure steep,
Or whether clouds sail o'er the inverse deep
Piloted by the many-wandering blast,
And the rare stars rush through them dim and fast - 257-263
The Letter to Maria Gisborne begins with a quaint trope in which Shelle compares himself writing the poem to the antithetical spider and silkworm:
The spider spreads her webs, whether she be
In poet's tower, cellar, or barn, or tree;
The silkworm in the dark green mulberry leaves
His winding sheet and cradle ever weaves… 1-4
These are the two aspects of poetry deeply explored by Shelley in his Defenceof Poetry and other theoretical writings aswell as in various poems of his: poetry is both introspection, self-scrutiny, the poet creates organically out of himself the fine threads of poetry - wherever the spider happens to be she is able to weave a tapestry (as Keats calls it in his letter to J. H. Reynolds, 19 February 1818) out of her own inner self, whereas poetry also is committed to public history, the silkworm weaves both a winding sheet and a cradle - an obvious reference to time - while hiding among the green mulberry leaves. The two allegorical figures, the spider and the silkworm, constitute a pair of natural things that inhabit the poetic world of Shelley and often give his poetry a quasi-Dantesque touch. The most famous pair is the eagle and the snake which appear in the introductory section and then again and again in The Revolt of Islam where they seem to stand for the antagonistic forces of nature which sustain life:
When round pure hearts a host of hopes assemble,
The Snake and Eagle meet--the world's foundations tremble! I. xxxiii. 8-9.
In The Letter to Maria Gisborne one of the allegorical creatures, the spider, is female the other, the silkworm, however, is male.
The Witch of Atlas is probably a daughter of the quaint witch Memory summoned in the Letter to Maria Gisborne, who is identical with the Witch Poesie mentioned as early as in July 1816 in Mont Blanc ("the still cave of the witch Poesie," line 44) whose birth takes us back to prehistoric times preceding the emergence of antagonisms and strife. What we have in this poem is pure myth which is, however, strong enough to carry Shelley's absolutely post-French-Revolution social sympathies and indignations at the end. This is possible since Shelley is ready to treat myth itself ironically and in the final lines he subverts the meaning which has been solidly established by the imagery built mainly on light effects and by the very rich verbal echoes which evoke a host of associations with pagan and native traditions. In the last stanza Shelley admits that what you have read is only part of the story: the rest will be told another time
...for it is
A tale more fit for the weird winter nights
Than for these garish summer days, when we
Scarcely believe much more than we can see. 669-672.
This final paradox which suggests that the light of summer days kills the light of which the whole poem is constituted is not only an admission of failure to complete the story but an awakening from the illusion the poet has been entertaining up to now concerning the power of language to create its own reality. This seems to be the modern approach to the problem defined by the "linguistic turn". Interestingly enough, though, György Lukács in his erly writings offers very interesting insights into the way the Romantic imagination works, and as I have shown elsewhere ("The Old Sin Expiated: Keats, New Historicism and its Relevance in Hungarian Critical Discourse" in Alternative Approaches to English-Speaking Cultures in the 19th Century. Ed Séllei Nóra. Debrecen, 1999. 101-120) some of his ideas may be used to clarify some enigmatic points in European Romanticism. following the In one of his earliest publication, a collection of essays entitled A lélek és a formák (1910, in German 1911, The Soul and the Form, 1972) György Lukács seems to posit the Platonic conflict between living and thought as central to the concept of Romanticism. It is in form, he suggests, that the conflict can be resolved: "a life-and-death struggle" (Lukács 1972: 22) is to be fought between the claims of life and the desire for truth which finds its resolution in form, "the self-assertive Logos," which always emerges out of despair and thus becomes affirmative (see Bacsó 218). What once upon a time Lukács called form these days would be called language. In the same essay he also explains how in the Romantic stance irony inevitably emerges as an integral aspect. With a profound insight into the central conflict of the Romantic stance Lukács suggests that the conflict conflict between thought and living in the final analysis cannot be resolved, because "all action, every deed, every act of creation is limiting. No action can be performed without renouncing something, and he who peforms an action can never possess universality." The main idea is that creation itself is also action and thus necessarily limited. Most obviously this is the idea that Shelley here as in several other poems of his is able to realize: creative action also is limited, although language is able to create its own reality, the reality constituted by language has to renounce its claim for unversality.
The Witch of Atlas is deeply immersed in mythology. Shelley's Hellenism is one of those revceived ideas that one does not want to bother about any longer. Still in this context once again it is easy enough to see that Lukács was right when in an essay of 1934 on Hölderlin's Hyperion he emphasised that Hellenism had been present in European culture continously since the early Renaissance and when he pointed out the tragic sense of loss that is characteristic of Hölderlin's own Hellenism: az õ görögsége más, sötétebb, fájdalomdúltabb, mint a renaissance és a felvilágosodás sugaras utópiája az antikvitásról (Lukács 1934: 113), we shall be ready to see that Shelley is much closer to the Renaissance concept of antiquity than e.g. Hölderlin. In the Witch of Atlas, too, the world of the Greek myths seems to express something that Keats called "the religion of joy." Shelley seems to be unique not only in this sunny utopistic concept of Hellenism he displays but also in the sense that his mythological syncretism is much more thoroughgoing than any attempt in the Romantic period to fuse mythological traditions. In this poem, for instance, he combines the ancient Greek vision of the world with elements of ancient Egyptian myths, and with neoplatonic speculations even more importantly with the rich allegorical traditions of the English Renaissance, a Renaissance form of Neoplatonism (he borrows many elements from Porphyry's Dissertation about the Cave of Nymphs as the title goes in the translation of Thomas Taylor, Shelley's eccentric Platonic contemporary) and the allegorical traditions established by Spenser and Milton. Lurking behind the lines, however, in this case, there is above all the rich mythic world that we associate with Shakespearean magic. The poem explores the nature of the creative power of the mind, and the witch, indeed bodies forth the forms of things unknown, and it turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name (A Midsummer Night's Dream V.i.). From nothing to the local habitation and a name in Shelley the steps lead from Shadow to Shape and eventually to Form. The whole poem is fully inhabited by insubstantial shadows, shapes and forms, which have colour, reflect light, but have no conrete contours, they are in a continual process of metamorphosis. They live somewhere on the borderline between sleep and wakefulness, dream and reality, the conscious and the subconscious, the potential and the actual. The magic world created by the superb musical and image creating power of Shelley's language is strongly reminiscent of the way dream consumes and transforms reality in Prospero's magic island. The creative mind, the Witch, although perhaps more cheerful and mischievous, probably corresponds to Prospero and very much like Prospero she also needs someone to implement her conceptions, so she creates her own Ariel, who is a strange fellow indeed. "By strange art she kneaded fire and snow / Together [a motif reminiscent of Coleridge again], tempering the repugnant mass / With liquid love […] a fair Shape out of her hands did flow - / A living Image, which did far surpasses / In beauty that bright shpae of vital stone / Which drew the heart out of Pygmalion" (XXXV). Actually Shelley'Ariel is a Hermaphrodite. This is obviously again a Hellenistic element in the poem. The Greek name itself, Hermaphroditos, is masculine, but according to some sources, being the offspring of Hermes and Aphrodite, the Hermaphrodite has actually inherited both of its parents' characteristics. It has the kind of perfection the Romantics for ever were looking for, a synthesis of absolute beauty and the power of magic, an ideal humanity transcending sex.
Of the many statues of Hermaphrodites which survive in marble copies, one is usually described as a masterpiece. It is the sleeping Hermaphrodite of which Shelley probably saw a copy in Italy. Stanza XXXVI certainly seems to be a description of that version:
A sexless thing it was, and in its growth
It seemed to have developed no defect
Of either sex, yet all the grace of both -
In gentleness and strength its limbs were decked;
The bosom swelled lightly with its full youth -
The countenance was such as might select
Some artist that his skill should never die,
Imaging forth such perfect purity.
The creature has no human limitations. Although it is asleep all during the voyage of the Witch along the river in her boat, when the boat goes upward and backward, the way we go back in time to reach our destination, or simply because the way up and down are the same, it is the wings of the Hermaphrodite that lift up the boat and propel it against the current of the stream.
The Witch herself is both creator and creature, she is created by the gods before time began and on her turn she creates the beauty that belongs to the sublunar world. We can say that she is both Poet and Poem, and in the same way the Hermaphrodite also is not simply creature but is also a creative presence so the great dichotomies that disrupt the world in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (to which, Wasserman claims, the Witch of Atlas may be read as an answer, Wasserman 369) is resolved by Shelley in a successful way. Frankenstein, this most ingenious allegorical narrative of Mary Shelley's about creation which also is destruction, must have preoccupied Shelley's mind as he wrote two Prefaces to it. The destructive process unleashed by the creation of the monster in Frankenstein is replaced in the Witch of Atlas by the synthesizing influence of the presence of the Witch in the world of actuality: in the final section of the text, at the end of her journey, although in a more frivolous way than in Prometheus Unbound, Shelley describes how "the world's great age begins anew" (final Chorus of Hellas, 1060): death is changed to sleep, the difference between the miser and the beggar is annihilated, the influence of monarchy and priesthood is curbed and all the shy lovers are united.
So in The Witch of Atlas the silkworm and the spider come together, the split between the female and the male is healed in the creative imagination which, in Shelley's analysis, is androgynous, and that is why it is able to create not only organically from its own lovely inner reality but it can also serve as a social instrument shaping the history of the world. Since the creative impulse is realized in language, and the creative impulse is mercurial, has no fixed boundaries, in language which is solid and fixed it can find no permanent dwelling place in language and consequently the story cannot be completed.
BACSÓ, Béla, "A forma utópiájától az utópia formájáig (Lukács György fiatalkori
mûvészetfilozófiájáról" in Bacsó, Béla-Földényi, F. László eds. A fiatal Lukács dráma és mûvészetelmélete. Budapest: Magyar Színházi Intézet, 1979. 218-251.
JONES, L. Frederick, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press,
KNIGHT, G. Wilson, The Starlit Dome. Studies in the Poetry of Vision. Methuen, 1941.
LUKÁCS, György, "Hölderlin Hyperionja" (1934) in Lukács, György, Goethe és kora.
Budapest: Hungária Kiadó. É.n.
LUKÁCS, Georg, Soul and Form. Anna Bostock, trans. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press,
SCRIVENER, Michael Henry, Radical Shelley. The Philosophical Anarchism and Utopian
Thought of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982.
WASSERMAN, Earl R. Shelley. A Critical Reading. Baltimore and London: The Johns
Hopkins Press, 1971.