Shelley on the Poetry of the Hellenistic East and Frankenstein

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In his Defence of Poetry, Shelley contrasted the bucolic and erotic poetry of the Hellenistic East with Homer’s epics and fifth-century Athenian tragedy.^ Among poets of the Hellenistic East, Shelley explicitly mentions Theocritus. Theocritus flourished in the 3’rd century BCE and is thought to have been born in Sicily. In addition, Shelley translated from Moschus (born in Syracuse about 150 BCE) and Bion of Smyrna (born in Smyrna, present-day Turkey, and flourished about 100 BCE, although Shelley probably thought that Bion lived about 280 BCE).^ Theocritus, Moschus, and Bion all wrote Greek bucolic poetry. Bion, who wrote a poem about the death of Adonis, also wrote erotic poetry. With respect to fifth-century Athenian tragedy, Shelley explicitly mentions Sophocles’s tragedies.

Frankenstein has emotional dynamics typical of Hellenistic literature. In Frankenstein, Victor declares:

I … found not only instruction but consolation in the works of the orientalists. Their melancholy is soothing, and their joy elevating to a degree I never experienced in studying the authors of any other country. When you read their writings, life appears to consist in a warm sun and garden of roses, in the smiles and frowns of a fair enemy, and the fire that consumes your own heart. How different from the manly and heroical poetry of Greece and Rome.^

Victor’s attraction to the “orientalists” resulted from his disappointed enthusiasm for natural philosophy.

Victor’s friend Clerval soothed Victor’s failure in relating to his creature. Victor described Clerval as one “whose eyes and feelings were always quick in discerning the sensations of others.”^ Victor subsequently declares of Clerval:

Excellent friend! how sincerely did you love me, and endeavour to elevate my mind, until it was on a level with your own. A selfish pursuit had cramped and narrowed me, until your gentleness and affection warmed and opened my senses; I became the same happy creature who, a few years ago, loving and beloved by all, had no sorrow or care. When happy, inanimate nature had the power of bestowing on me the most delightful sensations. A serene sky and verdant fields filled me with ecstasy.^

The reference to “elevate my mind” seems to attempt to balance internal faculties with the homoeroticism of Victor’s relationship with Clerval. Overall, the passage is weighted with characteristic tropes of the literature of sensibility. It emphasizes the external faculties of sensation that Shelley associated with the orientalists.^

Victor’s and Clerval’s responses to the news of William’s murder involve wide swings in emotional tone typical of Hellenistic literature. Clerval, a local childhood friend of Victor and his family, weeps with Victor upon learning the news of William’s murder. Clerval had recently nursed Victor for several months through Victor’s nervous fever. When Clerval asks Victor, “What do you intend to do?” Victor replies to his intimate friend, “To go instantly to Geneva: come with me, Henry, to order the horses.” To order the horses? That emotionally deflating detail wryly leads into Victor declaring that Clerval comforted him not “by the common topics of consolation, but by exhibiting the truest sympathy.” Clerval actually and comically comforts Victor with a mash-up of classical thinking (Plato, Cicero, Seneca) about governing passions and grief.^ Frankenstein as a whole consistently reproduces emotional dynamics characteristic of Hellenistic literature and competition for attention.

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