Shelley’s Name-Dropping in Preface to Prometheus Unbound

face of a prisoner

In his four-page preface to Prometheus Unbound (1820), Shelley explicitly refers to Aeschylus, Milton, Dante, Shakespeare, Homer, Hesiod, Euripides, Virgil, Horace, Petrarch, Fletcher, Dryden, Pope, Plato, Bacon, Paley, and Malthus. Literary name-dropping was an aspect of Shelley’s style from his earliest works. Shelley’s early polemical pamphlet A Vindication of a Natural Diet (1813) included on its title page a quotation from Hesiod (in Greek). Shelley’s first long poem, Queen Mab (1813), included three epigraphs, one by Voltaire (in French), one by Lucretius (in Latin), and one by Archimedes (in Greek).

In Prometheus Unbound’s preface, Shelley implicitly referred to Scottish philosopher Robert Forsyth. Shelley declared: “I have what a Scotch philosopher characteristically terms, ‘a passion for reforming the world.’” Shelley’s apparent reluctance to drop Robert Forsyth’s name is striking given his propensity for name-dropping. Forsyth authored The Principles of Moral Science (1805). Only the first volume of that projected multi-volume work was published. It was published only in a single edition. Forsyth’s writing attracted little attention. Forsyth was not an influential or widely admired thinker. Nonetheless, Shelley’s friend Thomas Love Peacock admired Forsyth.^ Shelley’s implicit reference to Forsyth seems to address his friend Peacock’s intellectual interests.

Echoes of Shelley’s ambition can be recognized in the character of Robert Walton, Frankenstein‘s narrator. As a child, Walton had become a poet after reading “those poets whose effusions entranced my soul, and lifted it to heaven.” After one year of poetic work, Walton was crushed with disappointment:

I imagined I also might obtain a niche in the temple where the names of Homer and Shakespeare are consecrated. You are well acquainted with my failure, and how heavily I bore the disappointment.^

Great names figured largely in Shelley’s perception of poetry. Shelley had great aspirations for his own work. He also shared Walton’s disappoint in failure to achieve fame.

Name-dropping is not common in second-personal communication, particularly second-personal communication among family and good friends. Name-dropping is a pervasive feature of modern academic writing. Discussing literary imitation and influence provides fertile context for name-dropping.^

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