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Summary Article: Shelley, Percy Bysshe
From Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literature: The Encyclopedia of the Gothic

The Gothic writings of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) have often been marginalized by critics, and tend to be dismissed as juvenilia bearing little relation to his later, canonical work. Recent scholarship, however, has re-examined the Gothic prose and poetry produced by Shelley in his teenage years, reinstating these texts in the established corpus of Gothic literature and at the same time recognizing that the influence of the Gothic extended beyond his formative years.

Shelley was just eighteen when his first Gothic prose romance, Zastrozzi, was published in 1810, and this novel was closely followed by the publication of another, St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian, in 1811. Both novels are highly melodramatic and were poorly reviewed, with even Shelley himself later dismissing them in a letter to William Godwin on March 8, 1812 as "distempered" and "unoriginal" (Shelley 1964: I 266). St. Irvyne in particular contains a number of stylistic flaws: the novel consists of two separate plots that bear little relation to each other and the conclusion is weak, leaving a number of loose ends. It is never explained, for example, how Ginotti, who is seized by the devil and turned into a giant skeleton in the first plot, is able to reappear in the second plot as the mysterious stranger Frederic de Nempere, especially as these characters appear to exist in different times and places. Shelley also seems to have written a third novel, The Nightmare, in collaboration with his cousin Thomas Medwin, although this text is now lost.

Shelley's novels are indebted to his childhood fascination with the occult. During his adolescence he read many of the Gothic publications produced by the Minerva Press, and, although critics remain undecided as to whether he wrote his own novels in seriousness or to parody these works, the influence of the Minerva texts upon his own early writing is clear. Zastrozzi is a tale of jealousy, murderous passion, suicide, family feuds, and revenge, with the identity of Zastrozzi remaining shrouded in mystery until the novel's conclusion. St. Irvyne incorporates a range of conventional Gothic elements such as a band of outlaws, a castle, a pact with the devil, immortality, a midnight meeting at a ruined abbey, and bloodied corpses and skeletons. Both of his novels feature the themes of sexual desire and seduction as used by Matthew "Monk" Lewis, a popular Gothic writer particularly admired by the young Shelley (see lewis, matthew). These texts also demonstrate the influence of two other Gothic writers, Charlotte Dacre and Ann Radcliffe, to the extent that some of the scenes contain direct borrowings from their work (see radcliffe, ann).

During the period that Shelley was working on Zastrozzi, he was writing a volume of poetry in conjunction with his younger sister, Elizabeth, entitled Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire, which was published in 1810. Several poems in the collection contain distinctly Gothic elements, such as dark and stormy nights, death, graves, and ghosts. Four of the poems in particular are notably Gothic in theme and style: "Saint Edmond's Eve" is the tale of the ghost of a wronged nun seeking revenge; "Revenge" recounts how a young woman is seized by a specter and taken to the world of the dead in revenge for the evil actions of her lover's father; "Ghasta; Or, the Avenging Demon!!!" alludes to the story of the Wandering Jew and concludes with the summoning of the spirits of the dead; and "Fragment, or The Triumph of Conscience" is concerned with the ghostly return of the murdered Victoria, complete with bloodied dagger in her hand. Like the early novels, the poems that Shelley contributed to this collection are heavily indebted to Lewis' The Monk (1796), and also to his Tales of Wonder (1801). One contemporary reviewer (in the January 1814 edition of The Poetical Register) tersely remarked that "there is no ‘original poetry’ in this volume," and it was commonly noted that "Saint Edmond's Eve" was lifted wholesale from Lewis' Tales. As a result of these observations of plagiarism, Original Poetry was removed from sale by Shelley's embarrassed publisher, despite 1500 copies having being printed.

Shelley's interest in the Gothic was by no means confined to his early works. In fact, the influence of this genre on his mature writings is evident throughout his adult canon. Shelley was part of the circle of second-generation Romantics, who, during the dreary summer of 1816 spent in Geneva, produced Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and Gothic tales by Lord Byron and John Polidori (see byron, george gordon, sixth baron; polidori, john). As critics have recently recognized, Shelley contributed significantly to Mary's novel. It was after hearing Shelley and Byron discuss the principle of life and the concept of reanimation that Mary had the waking dream that inspired Frankenstein, and her journals indicate that she discussed the project in depth with Shelley. Shelley seems to have added four or five thousand words to the original text, in addition to changing the division of the novel's chapters, and Frankenstein is now regarded more as a collaborative novel than as the work of a single individual (see shelley, mary wollstonecraft).

Shelley himself wrote an unpublished review of Frankenstein in which he linked the tale to a number of concerns – the mind, necessity, human nature – that feature prominently in his own poetry, often in association with conventionally Gothic themes. These include terror, dream visions, villains, and secret spaces, and occur in works as diverse as Alastor (1815), Mont Blanc (1816), The Cenci (1819), and Prometheus Unbound (1820).

SEE ALSO: Byron, George Gordon, Sixth Baron; Lewis, Matthew; Polidori, John; Radcliffe, Ann; Romanticism; Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft.

  • Lewis, M. (1796) The Monk, A Romance. London: J. Bell.
  • Lewis, M. (1801) Tales of Wonder. London: W. Bulmer for J. Bell.
  • Review of Original Poetry (1814) The Poetical Register, and Repository of Figurative Poetry (January), 617.
  • Shelley, M. (1818) Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. London: Macdonald & Son for Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, and Jones.
  • Shelley, P. B. (1810) Zastrozzi, A Romance. London: G. Wilkie & J. Robinson.
  • Shelley, P. B. (1811) St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian: A Romance. London: J. J. Stockdale.
  • Shelley, P. B. (1964) The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley (ed. Jones, F. L.), 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon.
  • Shelley, P. B. & Shelley, E. (1810) Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire. Worthing: Printed for the Authors.
  • Cameron, K. N. (1951) The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical. London: Gollancz.
  • Halliburton, D. G. (1967) Shelley's "Gothic" novels. Keats-Shelley Journal 16, 39-49.
  • Hogle, J. E. (1981) Shelley's fiction: "The stream of fate." Keats-Shelley Journal 30, 78-99.
  • Murphy, J. V. (1975) The Dark Angel: Gothic Elements in Shelley's Works. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press.
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