'Here is thy fitting Temple': Science, Technology and Fiction in Shelley's Queen Mab[Notice]

  • Robert Mitchell

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  • Robert Mitchell
    University of Washington

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. 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. 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 …

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