It’s not often that we think of English Romantic poets along with science. We tend to think of them as pure examples, an engraved picture of an enraptured youth subject to the throws of inspiration, to be found next to the words “poet” or “fool” in a dictionary.
Percy Bysshe Shelley is no exception to this. In my mid-20th Century American school-days he was seated with the Romantics, and biographically some mention would be made of his notoriety during his lifetime, the matter of which would be ascribed with a summary of libertine sexual behavior in the Byron and Shelley households. I suspect many of those descriptions, brief and bloodless as they might have been, were attempts to woo additional interest in poetry from otherwise little-interested adolescents.
Part of the joy of this project is finding surprising things in poetry among the accidents and intents of looking for material. At the end of last week, I read of the memorial service held for physicist Stephen Hawking at Westminster Abbey.
Vangelis is going to stream a musical piece with Hawking’s famously synthesized voice out to the galaxies! Somewhere out there, the odds say, a curious alien will detect this light-years from now; though probabilities also say they will have likely forgotten to bring earbuds along on their saucer-ride.
And there were celebrities! Elgar, Stravinsky and Holst got played! The ticket application form allowed future birthdates, in case time-travelers wanted to apply to attend!
But reading on I find that astronaut Tim Peake read a bit of, what, Shelley. From “Queen Mab” accounts said.
I find a copy of “Queen Mab.” Turns out it’s another kind of Shelley from the school-book aesthete. “Queen Mab” is a fairly long blank-verse epic, but I didn’t have to read far to find the parts you’d want to read for a cosmological tie-in. Right there in Canto II, Mab, the queen of the fairies, has Uber’ed up a human soul to her palace, which is more or less an atheist’s heaven, which is to say a philosophical location above the cosmos—and there, the human soul gets to observe the wonder of this perspective. Mind-blowingness ensues.
This is the kind of thing which visionary poets and scientists share, and that thing is wonder. Stacks of SciFi books would lift one nearly that high; but why couldn’t poetry, the literary artform best-suited to grasp tiny pieces of the un-graspable do that too?
What if instead of sitting at a cave entrance, I was at a place of immense gravity, where even light falls into it? If I ever go back to England that’ll make a good bedtime story for little Ada, who’s always too busy using her wooden blocks to solve equations.
Here’s something else I found remarkable, a series of notes on the issues in the poem, written by Shelly, a young man of 18 in the early 19th Century. Here’s a portion of the first one:
Light consists either of vibrations propagated through a subtle medium, or of numerous minute particles repelled in all directions from the luminous body. Its velocity greatly exceeds that of any substance with which we are acquainted: observations on the eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites have demonstrated that light takes up no more than 8′ 7″ in passing from the sun to the earth, a distance of 95,000,000 miles.—Some idea may be gained of the immense distance of the fixed stars when it is computed that many years would elapse before light could reach this earth from the nearest of them; yet in one year light travels 5,422,400,000,000 miles, which is a distance 5,707,600 times greater than that of the sun from the earth.
I was an English major, I had to look this up. Shelley, or early 19th century science, was off several billion miles on the length of a light-year, and a couple of million miles off on earth-sun distance—hey, I knew that last measurement, though from an early-childhood advertising jingle. However, ask yourself, how likely would it be that the most facile poet in any first-year college creative-writing class be conversant in those measurements, and how they are empirically proved?
So, thanks Stephen Hawking, Tim Peake, and whoever planned that part of the Westminster Abbey internment service. I now think of Percy Bysshe Shelly differently.
Musically, I started by noting in Shelley’s poem the description of deep-space orbs “in mazy motion.” I thought immediately of Mazzy Star, that late 20th Century indie band. Does mazzy/mazy go back that far? Turns out that the word mazy was something of a English Romantic poet favorite. Wordsworth, Southey, and Keats all used the word. Coleridge used it in “Kubla Kahn.” Mazzy Star is a band with a predominate sound, and though they have some great cuts with wild electric guitar, there’s more often a strummed acoustic guitar, a droning organ, and some occasional violin, all the songs are taken at a slow tempo and modest volume. The band’s lead singer, Hope Sandoval, has a style that superficially sounds easy to do, but in practice isn’t, and so my singing skills deferred trying.
So, it’s spoken word, not sung, but here are those words of Shelley’s used this month to memorialize Stephen Hawking. Use the player below to hear it.