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And science dawn though late upon the earthQueen Mab VIII.227-228
Poetry is the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that to which all science must be referred.A Defense of Poetry
While Percy Bysshe Shelley's Queen Mab (1813) has not been a favorite poem among his commentators, most critics have acknowledged that the text is nevertheless remarkable in at least one respect. Its peculiarity does not consist in either its basic structure or content, for it is essentially a rather standard "vision" poem—complete with an ascent in a "magic car"—in which humanity's future paradise is revealed, but rather in the battery of "Notes" that follow the poem. These notes cannot be considered simply an appendix to the poem, for they constitute a complete text in themselves, running 115 pages in the original edition, while the poem is itself only 120 pages long.  While Queen Mab was certainly not the only poem of its era to contain lengthy annotations (one thinks of Southey's Thalaba the Destroyer (1800) or Erasmus Darwin's The Botantic Garden (1789;1792)), Shelley's notes are unusual to the extent that he uses many of them to "scientifically verify" the imagery and prophetic elements of the poem. So, for example, Shelley cites sources as diverse as Laplace, Nicholson's Encylopedia, and Thomas Trotter, in support of claims concerning the eventual disappearance of the earth's ecliptic, the visual appearance of the sun in outer space, and the need for reform of the human diet. While this use of notes is reminiscent of Darwin's The Botanic Garden, this latter poem is intended as more of a poetic introduction to contemporary science than as a prophecy concerning the future state of the earth and humanity.
Queen Mab thus presents an intriguing early example of Shelley's engagement with science, and more importantly, of his attempt to relate science to "fiction" in the form of poetry. In this essay, I read Queen Mab, if not precisely as "Romantic science fiction," at least as a work in which Shelley engages important Romantic-era understandings of the connection between science and fiction. More specifically, I argue that Queen Mab is founded on the premise of a reciprocal relationship between science and poetry, in which the visions of poetry are supported by science, but the progress and programs of the various sciences are themselves unified by a vision that only poetry can provide. This reciprocity is highlighted at several points in the poem, and I begin my discussion with an analysis of one of the initial moments of the poem, in which Queen Mab and the Spirit of Ianthe make a "sublime" ascent from the earth in a magic car. Shelley's implicit claim is that while science can loose us from the bonds of custom, only poesy can properly guide the employment of scientifically-derived technology. This latter lesson is emphasized in Mab's later description of "man's lofty destiny," an earthly paradise, to which I devote the second moment of my analysis. I then situate these elements of the poem within the context of several contemporary developments in the organization of scientific knowledge, focusing especially on the 1800 foundation of the Royal Institution and Shelley's engagement with its leading spokesperson, Humphrey Davy. Queen Mab, I argue, represents an ambivalent adoption of the view of science outlined by Davy and the Institution, for while Shelley implicitly endorses the "Baconian vision" of technological progress that underwrites the Institution's efforts to unify the efforts of the various sciences, he takes issue with the notion, advanced by Davy and others, that science can guide itself. Queen Mab attempts to demonstrate, in both several specific scenes and in the reciprocal relationship between the poem and the notes, that science requires the "dreams" of poets to guide its proper development.
The relationship between Queen Mab and Romantic-era science has not been ignored in the critical literature on the poem, but previous discussions have generally neglected the important institutional changes in the organization of scientific knowledge that characterize this period, exemplified by the development of Royal Institution. Critics have tended to describe Shelley's use of science in rather abstract terms (as, for example, an engagement with "the Enlightenment"), or have focused solely on Shelley's personal interest in science (for example, his indebtedness to Erasmus Darwin), neglecting more fundamental changes in scientific culture during this period.  My essay draws on these earlier efforts, but also seeks to locate Queen Mab within the more particular, local context of early nineteenth-century British scientific organization. In this respect, my reading of Queen Mab furthers the efforts of Shelley scholars such as Timothy Morton, who have attempted to situate Shelley's interest in science within a broader context of scientific thought, as well as historians of science such as Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, who have sought to understand the ways in which institutional reorganizations of scientific knowledge force reformulations of the relationships between scientific and other modes of knowledge and truth. 
I. "The magic car moved on": Sublimity and Science in Queen Mab, Books I—II
The utopian possibilities afforded by science functions as a motif in Queen Mab, first hinted at in the last of the poem's three epigraphs, then taken up again in Book VI, in both the poem and a supporting note, before finally being given full expression in Book VIII, again in both the poem and the notes. The epigraphs form a mini-narrative which suggests that science and technology will receive emphasis only late in the poem. The first epigraph of the poem is a quote from Voltaire ("Ecrasez l'infame!": "crush the monster"); the second, a quote from Lucretius's De rerum natura, in which Lucretius claims that he will free the men's minds from superstitions; the third epigraph is Archimedes' famous claim that if given the proper place on which to stand, he will "move the Universe." While some critics have read the final epigraph as a statement of poetry's power, this interpretation unnecessarily allegorizes the quote at the expense of its literal sense, for Archimedes' claim is that technical knowledge, under the proper circumstances, can lead to control of nature, a theme that will re-emerge several times in the course of Queen Mab.  Moreover, taken as a unit, these three epigraphs hint at a dialectic, in which two essentially negative moments lead to a positive conclusion, for the implicit argument is that if human minds are freed from superstition by a liberating scientific (i.e., non-superstitious) narrative, then tyranny will be destroyed, and the result of this double release will be the human control of nature.
This dialectic is restaged in the first book of Queen Mab. The poem begins with the narrator's observation of the figure of the sleeping Ianthe. The narrator, unsure whether Ianthe is dead or simply asleep, then witnesses the ethereal figure of Queen Mab descend to awaken the "spirit" of Ianthe. Queen Mab (generally simply denoted as "Fairy" in the poem) has judged Ianthe "alone worthy of the envied boon" of seeing the world's past and future. The "boon" begins with a journey upward in a "magic car." The first moment of this ascent is more or less terrestrial, remaining within the limits of earth's atmosphere
The magic car moved on.
The night was fair, and countless stars
Studded heaven's dark blue vault,—
Just o'er the eastern wave
Peeped the first faint smile of morn:—
The magic car moved on—
From the celestial hoofs
The atmosphere in flaming sparkles flew,
And where the burning wheels
Eddied above the mountain's loftiest peak,
Was traced a line of lightning.
After cleaving through earth's atmosphere, the car continues out into space, such that the Spirit is able to observe the globe from greater and greater distances:
Earth's distant orb appeared
The smallest light that twinkles in the heaven;
Whilst round the chariot's way
Innumerable systems rolled,
And countless spheres diffused
An ever-varying glory
And just in case Ianthe's Spirit (or the reader) missed the point of all this, Queen Mab addresses Ianthe with the following lines:
Spirit of Nature! Here!
In this interminable wilderness
Of worlds, at whose immensity
Even soaring fancy staggers,
Here is thy fitting temple.
This scene is thus supposed to simultaneously humble and elevate the mind, in a movement reminiscent of the Kantian sublime. The mind is initially humiliated, as the fancy is "staggered" by its inability to contain the immensity of the universe within a representation. Yet this failure clears the way for the mind's eventual triumph, for this humility effectively distances the self from its ties to the present material reality, such that it can discover that it is not confined to these limits, and can reach for something greater.
While a number of commentators have noted that Shelley's basic schema of a magic journey through time and space is clearly based on Volney's The Ruins (1791) and Condorcet's Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain (1795),  Shelley quickly establishes his distance from these models by using a footnote to establish this as more than simply a poetic image. Shelley accomplishes the first task by verifying the veracity of the poetic figure, using the latter part of Note 2 to explain to the reader, among other things, that
The nearest of the fixed stars is inconceivably distant from the earth, and they are probably proportionably [sic] distant from each other. By a calculation of the velocity of light, Syrius is supposed to be at least 54,224,000,000,000 miles from the earth*. That which appears only like a thin and silvery cloud streaking the heaven, is in effect composed of innumerable clusters of suns, each shining with its own light, and illuminating numbers of planets that revolve around them. Millions and millions of suns are ranged around us, all attended by innumerable worlds, yet calm, regular, and harmonious, all keeping the paths of immutable necessity. 
The note indicates that this image is not to be taken as simply one of many possible poetic images, all of which could produce the same humility, but is rather a very precise and "true" image. Lest the reader miss this point, Shelley also attempts to help the reader correctly interpret the scientific foundation of this image (just as Queen Mab helped Ianthe to correctly interpret the image itself), arguing that "The plurality of worlds,—the indefinite immensity of the universe is a most awful subject of contemplation. He who rightly feels its mystery and grandeur, is no longer in danger of seduction from the falsehoods of religious systems, or of deifying the principle of the universe."  The combination of the poetic image that captures fancy's "staggering" and the scientific foundation of that image is supposed to protect the reader from negative and false systems of understanding.
Yet while the emotional power of the image of a magic car traveling through space depends on the scientific "validity" of this vantage point, the note reminds us that the science of the image accomplishes an essentially critical, or negative, task. This image only prevents us from being seduced by false systems, rather than providing an alternative. In order to discover this positive alternative, the reader must return to the poem itself, which integrates this sublime moment into a continuing narrative. There we discover that Shelley's sublime is directed at reintegrating this "staggered" protagonist and reader back into the material universe.  Lest this reintegration of the protagonist and reader occur in a haphazard fashion, however, the narrator delivers the first lesson of this narrative: the self should not attempt to memorialize or monumentalize its own particular existence. Book II is thus devoted to a critique of all earthly monuments to the self, such as "Palmyra's palaces," the Egyptian pyramids, and Salem's "thousand golden domes." Mab's basic critique of such monuments is that they cannot achieve their goal of permanence: Palymra's palaces are in ruins, the pyramids will eventually fall, and only the flapping tent of the "wandering Arab" now marks the spot of Salem's domes. The absence of each monument tells the same "melancholy tale," that "soon/ Oblivion will steal silently/ The remnant of its fame" (II. 118-120). These technological monuments, in the construction of which thousands toiled and even perished (II.141-145), cannot achieve the permanence towards which they aim.
Yet the transitory tenure of these monuments to the self does not therefore mean that humans should renounce all ties to the world of matter and all attempts to master the universe of flux. Nor is Mab's revelation designed to open up another "spiritual" realm for the subject in which it can achieve a mastery not possible in the realm of nature. Rather, the reader is instead supposed to understand that he is inextricably connected to the world of matter, and any attempt to detach himself from that system will eventually fail. In the poem, this message is cast in the terms of a cosmic harmony that binds elements of the universe together, for "The slightest, faintest motion,/ Is fixed and indispensable/ as the majestic laws/ That rule yon rolling orbs," II. 240-241. In a later supporting note (Note 12), Shelley rewrites this message in necessitarian terms, arguing that "[h]e who asserts the doctrine of Necessity means that, contemplating the events which compose the moral and material universe, he beholds only an immense and uninterrupted chain of causes and effects, no one of which could occupy any other place than it does occupy, or act in any other place than it does act."  To construct monuments that implicitly deny this interconnection (for example, Palmyra's palace) makes the lesson that much more forcefully to later generations, who see nothing of these monuments but their ruins.
At this point in the poem, then, science has played two roles. On the one hand, it has been employed as support for the emotional power of a poetic image, insofar as the veracity of the imagery presented in the narrator's discussion of the ascent of the magic car is supposed to bolster the power of that description.  On the other hand, though, science, in the form of applied technology, plays the foil to poetry, insofar as Shelley suggests the spirit can misinterpret its ability to transcend earthly limitations as justification for self-glorification. Without proper extra-scientific guidance, science (in the form of technology) leads to ultimately unsuccessful attempts to master elements of the natural world. More generally, then, while science can act as a vital solvent, dissolving the bonds that imprison us within false systems of belief, it cannot itself guarantee that one will therefore adopt the "right" system, for if left to itself, it tends to monumentalize the self.
II. The Equator and the Ecliptic: The Progress of Technology
At this point in the poem, Ianthe's Spirit is convinced that it has learned the lessons of Mab's revelations, and attempts to take its leave, thanking Mab for the knowledge that "when the power of imparting joy/ Is equal to the will, the human soul/ Requires no other heaven." (III. 11-13) Mab retorts that while Ianthe's spirit has perhaps learned the limits of humanity (both "greatness" and "imbecility"), it still has not learned the teleological essence of man (i.e., "what he is" and his "lofty destiny"). The precondition of this knowledge is apparently the Spirit's descent into even deeper despair, an emotional nadir reached after Mab has critiqued authoritarian institutions (Book IV) and selfishness and commerce (Book V). Following these books, the Spirit despairs, proclaiming that "[i]t is a wild and miserable world" in which we live (VI. 12), and asking Mab whether "there is no hope in store?" (VI. 16)
While the Spirit's negative education is not quite at an end (Books VI-VII, for example, detail the ravages of religion), Mab does give her a hint of the positive state that is to come. This vision is again split between the poem and a supporting note. In the poem, Mab exclaims
How sweet a scene will earth become!
Of purest spirits a pure dwelling-space,
Symphonious with the planetary spheres;
When man, with changeless nature coalescing,
Will undertake regeneration's work,
When its ungenial poles no longer point
To the red and baleful sun
That faintly twinkles there.
The note explains the final two puzzling lines as Shelley argues that
The north polar star, to which the axis of the earth, in its present state of obliquity, points. It is exceedingly probable, from many considerations, that this obliquity will gradually diminish, until the equator coincides with the ecliptic: the nights and days will then become equal on the earth throughout the year, and probably the seasons too. There is no great extravagance in presuming that the progress of the perpendicularity of the poles may be as rapid as the progress of intellect; or that there should be a perfect identity between the moral and physical improvement of the human species.
As in his other notes, Shelley cites a number of scientific figures, though in this case (as in the case of the distance to Sirius), his conclusions were not in keeping with current research. 
Yet more important than Shelley's supporting data is his suggestion that changes in the natural and human worlds are linked, an intertwining that will enable man to "coalesce" with nature and thus "undertake regeneration's work." Mab takes up the precise nature of this integration in Book VIII, beginning with a description of the apparently natural changes that lay the ground for an earthly paradise. Mab presents a picture in which the polar caps are "unloosed" (VIII. 59-63) and the deserts of the world have become wooded, habitable and pacific (VIII. 70-87). And just as the deserts of the land have been transformed, so too has the "illimitable plain" of the ocean been humanized, for now "Those [previously] lonely realms bright garden-isles begem" (VIII. 101). Finally, formerly antagonistic relationships between living beings are renegotiated, symbolized by the sheathing of the lion's claws and the nightshade's loss of poisonous essence.
As Timothy Morton notes in Shelley and the Revolution in Taste: The Body and the Natural World, Shelley's utopian vision is in many ways simply a reworking of Biblical notions of paradise, but I want to underline the fact that this is a utopia in which science and happiness "dawn" in a symbiotic relationship.  This harmony is so tight, in fact, that in Book VIII it is not entirely clear precisely what sort of causality obtains between human innovation and natural change. Are climactic and environmental conditions the result of human actions or do they instead occur independently and in fact provide the foundation for human technical developments? The description of changes in Book VIII initially suggests the latter, but in the final book of the poem (Book IX), Mab suggests a reverse causality, claiming that in this vision Ianthe's Spirit has seen that
… human things were perfected, and earth,
Even as a child beneath its mother's love,
Was strengthened in all excellence, and grew
Fairer and nobler with each passing year.
While the "and" of line 134 does not necessarily demonstrate the temporal priority of the perfection of "human things," the analogy in the next line strongly suggests that first human things will be perfected, which will in turn enable the earth to strengthen itself.
The role played by humans in "terraforming" the earth is reinforced by the images of the transformed ocean and sheathed claws of the lion. Mab implies that the lion is tamed by humans ("custom's force has made/ His nature as the nature of a lamb," VIII. 127-128), and much more explicitly claims that the formerly "trackless deeps" of the ocean now "to the sweet and many-mingled sounds/ Of kindliest human impulses respond." (VIII. 99-100) The relationship between transformed human impulses and transformed nature then serves as the paradigm for a more general characterization of the relationship between humans and nature, for Mab claims that when "happiness/ And science dawn though late upon the earth" (VIII. 227-228), disease will be banished from the human body, and
Reason and passion cease to combat there;
Whilst each unfettered o'er the earth extend
Their all-subduing energies, and wield
The sceptre of a vast dominion there;
Whilst every shape and mode of matter lends
Its force to the omnipotence of mind,
Which from its dark mine drags the gem of truth
To decorate its paradise of peace.
As in the previous books, several of these claims are supported by extensive notes, outlining our future abilities to "conquer" time (Note 16), as well as the origin and eventual abandonment of the "unnatural habit" of meat-eating (Note 17).  While Shelley does not provide a note in support of his claim that matter will eventually obey the dictates of mind, this was nevertheless apparently something that he believed was validated by contemporary science, as evidenced in several letters that he sent in 1811. 
This linkage between science and the utopian terraforming of the earth does not mean, however, that humans can apply science and technology in an arbitrary manner, as the "ruins" of Books II and III demonstrated. In the wake of these ruins, Book VIII provides the Spirit, the reader—and more generally, science and human endeavor—with an orienting vision. Shelley claims in the final note to Queen Mab that "[t]he whole of human science is comprised in one question:—How can the advantages of intellect and civilization be reconciled with the liberty and pure pleasures of natural life? How can we take the benefits and reject the evils of the system, which is now interwoven with all the fibres of our being?" The advances of science and technology may lead to the dominion of reason and passion over a subdued earth, but this should be a dominion in which matter "lends/ Its force to the omnipotence of mind," and in which mind itself is oriented toward integration with its surroundings and with other human beings.  Science and technology will achieve the ends outlined in Books VIII and IX (and thus achieve the "lofty destiny" of humankind) only when they become oriented toward something like the poetic vision outlined in Book VIII.
III. "Reason's Voice": Science and Technology in the Early Nineteenth-century
While it is tempting to read Queen Mab as a young poet's attempt to claim a moral jurisdiction over the "rival" realm of scientific knowledge, the relationship between humanity, science and technology presented in the poem is not so idiosyncratic as it might seem at first glance. As a number of recent historians of science have demonstrated, the last few decades of the eighteenth-century and the first few decades of the nineteenth-century witnessed several fundamental transformations of the nature and institutions of scientific knowledge, and debates concerning the relationship between "dreams" and science figured prominently in this transforming discursive field. Chief among these changes were the foundation of the Royal Institution (1800), the repositioning by Humphrey Davy and others of chemistry as a "utopian" science, and a tremendous increase of interest in the technological application of science to agriculture and mining.
The Royal Institution, founded in 1800 by Sir Thomas Bernard, Count Rumford, and others, explicitly sought to provide early nineteenth-century British science with a unified set of goals and a public voice, steps that they felt rival institutions such as the Royal Academy had failed to take. In its first years of existence, the majority of the Royal Institution's efforts were cast as a form of social therapy. As Morris Berman notes in Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844, the foundation of the Royal Institution was part of an "attempt to make rural philanthropy 'scientific'," and the Foundation itself was closely connected (via personnel and goals) to the Board of Agriculture and the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor.  The Royal Institution was seen by its founders as a means of focusing the energies of the sciences on the sources of the problems that had led to the massive crop failures and urban overcrowding of the 1790s, and many of the Institutions first scientific efforts were focused on problems that affected the poor of the country (for example, attempts to find a substitute for expensive shoe leather).  Thus, as Berman notes, the Royal Institution provided influential institutional form and support to a "Baconian" vision of science in which "no real distinction was made between scientific and technical knowledge."  While this Baconian vision certainly had not been entirely neglected in the eighteenth-century (as evidenced by a figure such as James Watt and an institution such as the Lunar Society of Birmingham), the Royal Institution promised to unify these efforts in such a way that the interests of economy, science and "humanity" were harmoniously integrated. 
Yet the increasingly conservative political climate of the late 1790s and early 1800s meant that the Royal Institution had to cast its ameliorative efforts and goals in "politically responsible" language. In its first few years, the Institution was in dire need of funding, and members found that they could generate interest and financial support by emphasizing to potential sponsors the financial, rather than moral, profits that could be made by its technological innovation. The Institution also found it necessary to downplay many of its original goals for widespread education after only a few years, for fear that their efforts would be seen as Jacobin. This attempt to negotiate the fine line between radical and moderate science is particularly evident in the work of the Royal Institution's chief campaigner and second lecturer, Humphrey Davy.  Davy was himself a poet of sorts (his first poem, "The Sons of Genius," was published in Southey's 1799 Annual Anthology), but it was his work on the relationship between chemistry and vegetation that had attracted the attention of the Royal Institution.  While Davy's initial interest in chemistry seems to have tended toward the theoretical, the Board of the Royal Institution encouraged him to focus on "applied" science, encouragement he rewarded with discoveries in tannery, agricultural chemistry, and later, mining equipment.  For Davy, these technical developments were small but important steps leading to the melioration of the human condition. In his 1802 Introductory Lecture, he argues that in scientific endeavors,
we do not look to distant ages, or amuse ourselves with brilliant though delusive dreams concerning the infinite improveability of man, the annihilation of labour, disease, and even death, but we reason by analogy from simple facts, we consider only a state of human progression arising out of its present condition,—we look for a time that we may reasonably expect— for a bright day, of which we already behold the dawn. 
Davy thus very carefully positioned his technical efforts (and those of the Royal Institution more generally) as part of a politically moderate program of science that stood in contrast to the "brilliant though delusive dreams" of radical philosophers such as Williams Godwin, whose work in Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and the Enquirer (1797) was clearly the referent of Davy's critique.  Davy well understood that positioning the efforts of the Royal Institution as progressive but politically moderate was necessary for an emerging scientific institution still vitally in need of aristocratic patrons. Thus, while applied science, for Davy, would serve as the bridge to a state of perfection (the "bright day, of which we already behold the dawn"), it would do so outside the orbit of those, such as Godwin, who sought to found its efforts in utopian dreams.
Davy also served essentially as a spokesperson for the Royal Institution, and it was in this connection that Shelley would have directly encountered the ideology of the Royal Instutition. Davy's prestige and influence were such that a recent biographer claims by the time of Davy's death in 1829, "everyone was a Davyan, accepting that science can and must be applied to increase the comforts and reduce the dangers of life, as he did with the miners' lamps,"  and while this claim is perhaps a bit extreme, it nevertheless correctly highlights the popularity of Davy's work in the first few decades of the nineteenth-century. Shelley was certainly not immune to this influence, for he was intensely interested in science while at Oxford.  Moreover, while composing Queen Mab, he ordered copies of Rumford's treatise on stoves and Davy's Elements of Chemical Philosophy,  and in this latter text, Shelley would have read Davy's claims that "chemistry has been continually subservient to cultivation and improvement," and that
whilst [chemistry] is connected with the grand operations of nature, it is likewise subservient to the common processes as well as the most refined arts of life. New laws cannot be discovered within it, without increasing our admiration of the beauty and order of the system of the universe; and no new sciences can be made known which are not sooner or later subservient to some purpose of utility. 
This emphasis on the interrelated aesthetic and practical effects of chemistry was taken up by Shelley, and related to his correspondent Thomas Jefferson Hogg, who claims that Shelley imagined that
by chemical agency the philosopher may work a total change, and may transmute an unfruitful region into a land of exuberant plenty … the arid wastes of Africa may then be refreshed by a copious supply [of water], and may be transformed at once into rich meadows, and vast fields of maize and rice. 
The "lofty destiny" of science and technology, for Shelley as much as for Davy and the Royal Institution, was the healthy integration of humans into their surroundings on the basis of "utility."
Yet where Davy and the Royal Institution attempted to distance themselves and their technical efforts from "dreamers" such as Godwin and Condorcet, Shelley attempted to subsume both the Royal Institution's and the Godwinian visions of science within a larger poetic framework. The Royal Institution was founded precisely in order to channel the predominantly amateur and speculative scientific efforts of "gentlemen scientists" into a unified system of practical research and application, and while this unity may have required a founding "dream" on the part of the Board of the Institution, it was to be a purely rational vision. In the quote above, Davy provides a concise statement of this philosophy, claiming that scientists and the public must make a choice between "amus[ing] ourselves with brilliant though delusive dreams" and practicing authentic science. Davy thus implicitly aligns the radical and utopian philosophy of Godwin and Condorcet with poesy, positioning both as antagonists of science.  This supposed conflict between the methodologies of science and poesy was nothing new, of course—one might easily trace its lineage back to Plato, at least—but in the hands of Davy and the Royal Institution, it was intensified, for Davy implied that to devote serious attention to the language of "dreams" was to impede the social and political progress of mankind itself. While Godwin would not doubt have disputed strenuously the suggestion that his treatises were "dreams," Shelley takes a more sophisticated tactic that allows him to maintain both the Davyian and Godwinian understandings of science. Thus, in Queen Mab, Shelley argues that the choice between science and dreams cannot be an either/or proposition, for science can only orient itself toward its proper goals on the basis of a unifying and "poetic" narrative that governs its progress. Without the proper governing vision, technical knowledge will be enlisted in doomed projects, such as the palaces of Palmyra and the Pyramids. Science on its own may free us from illusions, but only poesy provides the narrative that transforms this negative moment into a positive foundation. This position later received explicit articulation in Shelley's claim in the The Defense of Poetry that "[p]oetry is the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that to which all science must be referred," but one can see the basic structure of this position even in this early poetic production.
IV. Conclusion: Science and Fiction in the Romantic Era
Queen Mab thus relates science and poesy to one another at several levels. At the most basic and obvious level, Shelley supports the prophetic, poetic, vision of the poem with science in the form of extended footnotes that articulate the rational reasons by which we should expect poetic prophecy to become reality. At the same time however, Queen Mab suggests that poetry itself (taken in an extended sense to include the visions and dreams upon which it is based) should underwrite the movement of science and technology, insofar as only poesy can provide the unifying vision within which science can properly proceed. Poesy, or fiction, thus assists science by fixing the results of science into the proper "structure of feeling," which is itself established to the extent that a poetic image can hint at a contact with the Real. In Queen Mab, Shelley attempts to generate this contact by means of the reciprocal relationship between the poem and the notes, a reciprocity that fixes the truths of science within the poetic narrative of the poem.
In an important sense, then, Queen Mab can be understood as a Romantic-era modality of "science fiction." One must use this latter term carefully, of course, and we are wise to heed Samuel R. Delany's claim that genealogies of science fiction that begin in the early nineteenth-century tend to be characterized by an unproductive ahistoricism. Queen Mab is certainly not science fiction if we understand by that term a text that quasi-realistically fictionalizes future scientific or technological developments. At the same time, however, Queen Mab is an attempt to realize poetically the truth of science, and even more importantly, it is produced within a cultural context that is increasingly committed to the imbrication of science and everyday life. Groups such as the Royal Institution sought to convince the populace (or at least the middle classes and potential patrons) that the interests of science and social reform were interlinked, and it is within this discursive field that the fiction of Queen Mab emerges. Shelley's Queen Mab, in other words, cannot be fully understood without recognizing that it represents an attempt to engage, as well as transform, early nineteenth-century understandings of the relationships between science, technology, and poetic or fictional "dreams."
This page count is based on Jonathan Wordsworth's facsimile edition of Shelley's original 1813 text (New York: Woodstock Books, 1990). All line references to the verse of Queen Mab are based on Neville Rogers, The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2 vols. (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1972). All page numbers for the Notes to Queen Mab are based on the pagination in Rogers, The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley.
For an example of the first approach, see Monika H. Lee's "'Nature's Silent Eloquence'; Disembodied Organic Language in Shelley's Queen Mab" (Nineteenth-Century Literature 48:3, September 1993 pp. 169-193). Lee provides a very useful account of the tension between rational and poetic language in the poem, but unfortunately she reads this tension as a conflict between "Enlightenment" and "Romantic" modes of thought. This abstract dichotomy forces Lee to ignore the fluidity of early nineteenth-century science, as well as the extent to which this tension ran through many "scientific" documents of the era. An interesting, and perhaps more specific reading is given by Dennis M. Walch in "Queen Mab and An Essay on Man: Scientific Prophecy versus Theodicy" (College Language Association Journal 29:4, 1986 pp. 462-482), who positions Queen Mab as a "scientific" rewriting of Pope's Essay on Man, arguing that Shelley's prophecy "is scientific in that it is based on evolution, observation, and probabilistic faith in man and nature working together toward a millennial future … " (p. 481) While I agree with Welch's basic claim, I focus here more on Shelley's notion that poesy functions as organizer for scientific endeavor than on the poem's poetic predecessors. For largely biographical discussions of Shelley's interest in scientists such as Erasmus Darwain and Humphrey Davy, see especially Carl Grabo, A Newton Among Poets: Shelley's Use of Science in Prometheus Unbound (New York: Gordian Press, Inc., 1968), as well as Desmond King-Hele's "Shelley and Erasmus Darwin" (in Kelvin Everest, ed., Shelley Revalued: Essays from the Gregynoy Conference (Leicester University Press, 1983) pp. 129-145), Erasmus Darwin and the Romantic Poets (London: Macmillan, 1986), and Shelley: His Thought and Work, Third Edition (London: Macmillan Press, 1984) pp. 162-64.
In Shelley and the Revolution in Taste: The Body and the Natural World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), Timothy Morton situates Shelley's interest in vegetarianism and images of eating within a much more widespread scientific discourse of vegetarianism and thought concerning the relationships between the human body and the natural world. In their Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyles, and the Experimental Life (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985), Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer focus on a different time period (the late 1600s), and they are relatively uninterested in poetry per se, but their description of the ideological conflict between Hobbes and Boyles concerning the efficacy and utility of Boyle's air pump illustrates well the social tensions that surround efforts to reorganize the production of scientific knowledge.
Neville Rogers, for example, reads the third epigraph in this manner, arguing that "[i]n the quotation from Archimedes Shelley seems to be thinking of the power of thought and poetry to move institutions, opinions, and the lives of men; his thought of the poet's need for a fulcrum is not unrelated to his constant concern for effectuality: e.g. his prayer to the West Wind, symbol of the driving force." (Rogers, The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, p. 381)
See, for example, Kenneth Neill Cameron, The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950) pp. 243-44 and esp. p. 391 note 6. See also Neville Rogers's notes to Queen Mab in The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, p. 381.
Rogers, The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, p. 296. Even this Note has a footnote ("*"), informing us that we can check Shelley's numerical figure in "Nicholson's Encyclopedia, art. Light" (p. 127). Yet as Kenneth Cameron notes, Shelley's precision on this point leaves something to be desired, for the Nicholson's British Encyclopedia article on light provides no precise distance between Sirius and the earth (and the article on "Star" in fact indicates a different figure for the earth-Sirius distance than that which Shelley provides). See Cameron, The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical, p. 400 note 99.
Rogers, The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, p. 296.
Shelley's stress on reintegration distances him from the Kantian sublime, for the function of the Kantian sublime is essentially one of reassurance (the transcendental Subject is reassured of its fundamental stability and endurance insofar as it discovers itself separate from the material universal), not of integration.
Rogers, The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, pp. 305-306.
As an aside, I note that Robert Zemeckis' recent science fiction film Contact (1997; based on Carl Sagan's 1985 book of the same name) opens with a sequence that is structurally similar, if not identical, to the opening of Queen Mab. The film begins with a shot of earth from outer space, as though the camera were in roughly satellite orbit, and we hear in the background sounds of contemporary music (that is, music circa 1997). The camera then begins to zoom back so that within a few seconds, the moon has whisked by, followed by each of the outer planets. The soundtrack mirrors these visual changes, as we hear increasingly antiquated radio and television broadcasts. Finally, the broadcasts stop, and the camera continues to zoom back in almost complete silence for several seconds, until we see something that is unmistakably supposed to represent the Big Bang. The logic of the shot is clear: the camera is zooming back at slightly greater than the speed of light, such that we are able to "see" how far the earliest radio broadcasts have penetrated into space, and then see how minute that distance is in comparison with the rest of the universe. This is an emotionally powerful shot, and its power depends on its apparently scientific character: that is, we are astounded not by the special effects of the shot, but by the fact that it corresponds with reality. Yet, strictly speaking, the sequence is predicated on an absolutely fictional logic; it is a physically impossible shot, since to "actually" film this would require a camera to go faster than the speed of light. Thus, like the journey of the magic car in Shelley's QueenMab, the opening sequence of Contact suggests that the truth of science can only be truly felt when it is refracted through the lens of fiction.
Kenneth Cameron notes that while this theory goes back to at least Herotodus, and had been recently supported by John Frank Newton, author of The Return to Nature (1812), it had been convincingly disproved by Laplace in his Le Système du Monde (which Shelley cites in other contexts) as well as in Nicholson's British Encyclopedia (article entitled "Equinox"). See Cameron, The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical, pp. 261-262.
Morton, Shelley and the Revolution in Taste: The Body and the Natural World, p. 88.
This latter note formed the basis for Shelley's later "Essay on the Vegetable System of Diet" (1813). In the note itself, Shelley includes quotes and claims from a number of current medical treatises, including Thomas Trotter's A View of the Nervous Temperament (1807), John Frank Newton's The Return to Nature, or Defence of Vegetable Regimen (1811), Cuvier's Lecons d'Anatomy Comparée (1800) and William Lambe's Reports on Cancer (1805, 1809).
Thomas Hogg, for example, claims that Shelley, while at Oxford, believed that "a moderate advancement in chemical science will enable us … to create … food from substances that appear at present to be as ill adapted [as lime] to sustain us," and that "[i]t will perhaps be possible at no very distant date to produce heat at will and to warm the most ungenial climates … " (Thomas Jefferson Hogg, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1906), pp. 48-49)
At the same time, though, it is fair to say that Shelley's verbs tend to undercut his thesis at this point, for his stress on mastery and dominion seem to be inconsistent with the more "ecological" relationships towards which Shelley is aiming.
Morris Berman, Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1978), pp. 2, 5.
While the Royal Society had begun with similar goals in the late seventeenth-century, Berman notes that its "interest in applied science and technology was very brief, and by 1700 almost non-existent." Berman suggests that this neglect was consonant with the Society's valorization of the "gentleman amateur tradition," in which scientific research was "pursued as a kind of hobby, a leisure class and leisure time activity." (Berman p. xx)
Berman, Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844, p. 39.
Berman provides a particularly clear account of both the membership and changing principles of the Royal Institution in chapters one, two and three of Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844.
The term "campaigner" is in fact Davy's own; see Berman p. 66. For biographies of Davy, see the account in Berman, as well as David Knight's Humphrey Davy: Science and Power (Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
See Berman, Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844, pp. 48-9.
Yet even in his initial "abstract" speculations, Davy presented the interests of humanity as the "end" of science. Thus, in his first essay, "Essay on Heat and Light" (1799), Davy mused about the connections between mind and matter in a way that is certainly reminiscent of Shelley's later claims in Queen Mab. Davy argues in his paper that oxygen brings "light" into our brain and nerves, which Davy claims authorizes us to conclude that
We may consider the sun and the fixed stars, the suns of other worlds, as immense reservoirs of light destined by the great organiser to diffuse over the universe organization and animation. And thus will the laws of gravitation, as well as the chemical laws, be considered as subservient to one grand end, perception. Reasoning thus, it will not appear impossible that one law alone may govern and act upon matter: an energy of mutation, impressed by the will of the Deity, a law which might be called the law of animation, tending to produce the greatest possible sum of perception, the greatest possible sum of happiness.cited in Knight, Humphrey Davy: Science and Power, pp. 24-5
While Davy's phrase "the will of the Deity" would not have appealed to Shelley, Davy's basic claims could easily have been included in one of Shelley's Notes to Queen Mab.
Knight, Humphrey Davy: Science and Power, p. 42.
Davy thus echoes Thomas Malthus's essentially conservative critique of Godwin and Condorcet in An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society (first edition 1798; second edition 1803). See Malthus's 1798 Preface and Volume II, Book III, Chapters I-III. My thanks to Robert Corbett for pointing this out.
Knight, Humphrey Davy: Science and Power, p. 2.
Shelley's interest in science has been well documented by a number of commentators, and amusing stories of Shelley's failed chemistry experiments are de rigeur in biographical accounts of Shelley. For several useful accounts of Shelley's engagement with chemistry and astronomy, see Hogg's The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, pp. 48-50, upon whose account most contemporary critics rely, as well as Carl Grabo, A Newton among Poets: Shelley's use of Science in Prometheus Unbound, chapter 2 and Desmond King-Hele, Erasmus Darwin and the Romantic Poets, chapter 8; Desmond King-Hele, Shelley: His Thought and Work, pp. 155-68.
See King-Hele, Shelley: His Thought and Work, p. 164.
Humphrey Davy, Elements of Chemical Philosophy (Philadelphia: Palmers for Bradford & Inskeep, etc., 1812) p. 31.
Hogg p. 48.
Even Erasmus Darwin, despite his obvious love of poetry, had positioned science and poetry as essentially opposed activities, for the professed aim of The Botantic Gardens was to lead the "votaries" of science away "from the looser analogies, which dress out the imagery of poetry, to the stricter ones, which form the ratiocination of philosophy." See the "Apology" in Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden; a Poem, in Two Parts. Part I. Containing The economy of vegetation. Part II. The loves of the plants. With philosophical notes (London, Printed for J. Johnson, 1791).
Samuel R. Delany, Silent Interviews on Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics: A Collection of Written Interviews (Hanover: Wesleyan U.P., 1994) p. 26.