Overheard Tales: Coleridge, Shelley and Frankenstein’s Poetic Inspiration
Mary Shelley’s early life was made up of many wonderful and formative moments that would nestle in her memory, stoking her imagination, eventually to reemerge within her first and most famous novel, Frankenstein. For Day 3 of Frankenweek, this post explores one of these moments, experienced during her unique childhood, and its lingering impression on her. As the daughter of two of the most eminent writers of the age, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, the young Mary Godwin was connected with many of the nineteenth-century’s greatest thinkers, who would often visit to converse with her father. Mary was often allowed to join these conversations, as a listener and occasional contributor. Undoubtedly the most significant of these visitors – and the one who would leave the most indelible impression on Mary – was the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
As a girl, Mary often read Coleridge’s periodical The Friend, and as a teenager she attended some of his lecture series. But by far the most influential moment for Mary occurred one night when Coleridge was visiting Godwin and was preparing to recite his poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The hour had grown late, and Mary and her sister Jane (later Clare Clairmont) were hiding under the parlor sofa, eager to hear the brilliant genius of Coleridge’s imagination at work. Unfortunately they were discovered by Jane’s mother, Mrs Godwin, and were ordered to bed. To their delight, and to the everlasting influence of Mary, Coleridge made a case for them to be allowed to stay, and they were allowed to listen, with what must have been awe and excitement, to Coleridge delivering the words of what has now become one of his most famous poems.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” tells the tale of a sailor, returned from a voyage, who narrates his story to a guest on his way to a wedding. The sailor’s story is one of foreboding, despair, and supernatural horror. The journey begins well enough, but the mariner shoots and brings down an albatross – a majestic bird believed to be responsible for the good wind propelling them forth. From this moment, their fortunes are reversed, and a growing sense of doom intensifies as they approach the “limit” of the world – the equator. A ghostly ship emerges from the gloom, carrying on board Death and “the Night-Mare Life-in-Death” who are gambling for the crew’s souls. Life-in-Death wins the mariner’s soul, and when all the crew members eventually die, only the mariner is left, wandering alone, cursed to tell his tale, living out his night-mare life-in-death. One of the most chilling scenes occurs when the dead men rise to sail the ship even without a wind:
“The loud wind never reached the ship,
Yet now the ship moved on!
Beneath the lightning and the Moon
The dead men gave a groan.
They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;
It had been strange, even in a dream,!
To have seen those dead men rise.
The helmsman steered, the ship moved on;
Yet never a breeze up blew;
The mariners all ‘gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools—
We were a ghastly crew.
The body of my brother’s son
Stood by me, knee to knee:
The body and I pulled at one rope
But he said nought to me.”
This poem, which has a thrilling rhythm and haunting tone, directly impacted Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in many ways. Shelley herself acknowledges this when Frankenstein quotes Coleridge’s poem to express his fear of the ‘monster,’ and when, in her 1831 revisions, Walton writes:
“I am going to unexplored regions, to “the land of mist and snow,” but I shall kill no albatross; therefore do not be alarmed for my safety or if I should come back to you as worn and woeful as the “Ancient Mariner.” You will smile at my allusion, but I will disclose a secret. I have often attributed my attachment to, my passionate enthusiasm for, the dangerous mysteries of ocean to that production of the most imaginative of modern poets.”
Frankenstein’s confessional narration, told to Walton, might also be inspired by Coleridge’s story, while the Mariner’s state as an increasingly haunted man, doomed to live out a nightmare of life-in-death is a description that might equally be applied to Frankenstein. Likewise, the supernaturally-charged sublime regions of vast ice-capped seas and the sense of transgressing the limits of the natural world so crucial to Coleridge’s poem are also some of Frankenstein‘s most central elements.
While these influences are some of the most profound that Mary would encounter from her literary connections, there is yet another fascinating moment of connection between Shelley and Coleridge that ties into the origins of Frankenstein. Coleridge was present once more, in a spectral kind of way, at the Villa Diodati where Frankenstein was first conceived. As the storm raged outside the villa, Mary, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori and Clare Clairmont read aloud from a book of horror stories, and proceeded to come up with their own. On one of the nights, near midnight, Byron began reciting the opening stanzas of Coleridge’s poem ‘Christabel.’ Written as a kind of companion to The Ancient Mariner, ‘Christabel’ weaves a spelled tale around a demonic, vampyric woman called Geraldine, whom Christabel takes in, unaware of her hypnotic, supernatural power. One part of the poem describes a sensual disrobing of Geraldine that reveals something mysterious ambiguous – but seemingly demonic – about her:
Beneath the lamp the lady bowed,
And slowly rolled her eyes around;
Then drawing in her breath aloud,
Like one that shuddered, she unbound
The cincture from beneath her breast:
Her silken robe, and inner vest,
Dropt to her feet, and full in view,
Behold! her bosom and half her side—
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! shield sweet Christabel! (245-254)
As Byron read aloud these lines, Percy Shelley suddenly leaped from his seat and ran from the room. According to Polidori, he and “Lord Byron followed, and discovered him leaning against a mantle-piece, with cold drops of perspiration trickling down his face. After having given him something to refresh him, upon enquiring into the cause of his alarm,” they were told that Shelley had been overtaken with the sudden vision of Mary as the demonic Geraldine with eyes in the place of nipples. Shelley had dashed from the room to destroy the hideous impression from his mind. The idea had come from Mary herself, who had earlier told Shelley about Coleridge’s original idea for Geraldine’s deformity being “two eyes in her bosom.” Creepy!
What do you think about Mary Shelley’s connections with Coleridge? Can you think of any other examples? Let me know in the comments below!
Read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Christabel’ online here: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8208/pg8208-images.html