The Romantic period is probably one of the most significant periods of change in literature. It is during this period that a lot of high quality works were produced be it in literature, art or music. Apart from being rich in poetry the period can be seen as an exaltation of the imagination. This was replacing the rational thought which had overcome Europe at the time.
The Romantics also saw themselves as prophets and used their works to prophesise about the future of mankind. Due to this it is interesting to investigate whether these prophesies of the future of mankind have actually come true. The essay will look at how exactly the two romantic writers of Frankenstein (Mary Shelley) and the poem Darkness (Lord Byron) and what these two writers prophesised in their works. Also in the end see whether what the writers are trying to portray in their texts can be applied to modern day. References to other romantic works by William Wordsworth and William Blake also aid in this investigation.
The essay reaches a conclusion that the various themes displayed in the texts can be applied to modern day and do serve as a warning as most of which these writers feared would happen to mankind is actually taking place to this day. As a final point, that indeed their warnings are justified.
Throughout the ages it can be observed that they were a lot of periods of change that happened throughout the history of literature. These include the Victorian era. One of the most influential periods of change happens to be the Romantic era. The word suggests that this era was based on peoples’ appreciation of love and romance. All the same, though love was a common theme during works of the time the Romantic of era was in actual fact a movement in the creativity of artists and writers of the time. This movement was not just a shift in the mind sets of those involved with literature but it also involved art and music.
The movement began in the late 1700s in Western Europe and continued towards the mid 1800s. In the 1700s there were a lot of advancements being made by the European people including advancements in science and social changes such as the Industrial Revolution. Majority of these changes were brought forth by the Age of Enlightenment that went through the 18th century which saw the awakening of scientific thought, the overthrowing of the conquering religious knowledge and the change in European philosophy as a means of finding reason in the world. It also saw the beginning of the Industrial Revolution which took over Europe during the 18th century.
The Romantic era was basically a rebellion against the scientific and rational thought that gripped Europe during the previous age of enlightenment. This rebellion saw the shift from rational thought to more concentration on emotions, passion for life and nature. Other important themes of the Romantic era were nationalism, freedom and liberty.
These themes formed the ideals of most Romantics and they displayed them through all their works. Romantics also concerned themselves with using their works as a means of displaying human society and its link with nature often spoke of the future of mankind. They saw themselves as prophets of the future and used heir works as warnings of the future.
One of the most influential works of literature written at the time is the poem Darkness by Lord Byron. The poem was written in 1816 in the midst of very strange events which people thought at the time were signs of the apocalypse. That year was known as the year without a summer due to darkness which had over shadowed the land which originated from the volcanic ash cloud of the eruption of Mount Tambora a volcano situated in Indonesia the previous year. Unfortunately the people in Geneva did not know this and went into a panic believing the apocalypse was near. The chaos and activity of the time were the inspiration behind Byron’s poem. In addition he wrote his poem as a means of writing about the calamity which will take over mankind if immoral behaviour is continued.
Another important work is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Mary Shelley was the wife of another famous poet by the name of Percy Shelley. The book was written while on a visit to the Swiss Alps with Percy at the Lord Byron’s home. Here due to the unseasonal rain they had to remain indoors and entertained themselves with ghost stories. Due to the urging of the Lord himself a competition was set to see who would write the creepiest story and Mary took the prize through the writing of her book Frankenstein; Or The Modern Prometheus which is the full name. The book is based on the story of a young ambitious scientist who sets out to create life but ends up creating a monster. This book is a metaphor for what would become of mankind if they continue to tamper with nature.
The theme of nature and its destruction is a common theme in a lot of Romantic works. In this paper the manner in which these two writers warn the reader of the misfortune that will take over mankind by looking at various themes and methods the authors use to expose them. Also reference will be made to other works of the Romantic period to show the similarities and differences of the works.
Chapter 1: The Theme of Nature in the Works
The theme of nature was very prominent in many Romantic works. It was believed that nature possesses an ability to revitalize the mind and help man escape from the constraints of civilisation. The root of these beliefs also come from the fact that the Romantic period arose from the time when Europe was undergoing the Industrial Revolution which saw the destruction of forests and beautiful scenery to make space for factories and mills for industrial purposes.
According to them, nature was viewed as a sublime Godly creation which was to be appreciated and not destroyed. This is portrayed through the setting of the texts and the many creative ways the writers made lucid descriptions of nature.
In Frankenstein, Shelley uses elaborate description of the scenery to display this. Looking at the first letter from Richard Walton, he describes sensations he feels as he walks through the streets of St Petersburg, ‘I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves and fills me with delight’. The beauty of the environment around him inspires him to continue his voyage to the north pole and increases his excitement about the beauty of the north pole which is he is so eager to see. Throughout the novel it can be noted how nature uplifts and provides some healing for both the monster and Victor Frankenstein.
Another famous work is the poem ‘Daffodils’ also known by the title ‘I wondered lonely as a cloud’ by William Wordsworth, a celebrated Romantic poet. Wordsworth wrote this poem after taking a walk with his sister admiring the daffodils in the fields surrounding him. Similar to Mary Shelley, he paints an ostentatious image of the beauty of the flowers their ability to invite him to enjoy them through use of language. He describes the flowers as ‘fluttering’ and ‘dancing’ as if to say the movements of the flowers are as gentle as the fluttering of butterflies and birds in the breeze and their motions graceful as if they were dancing.
The use of imagery was also very important tool for the Romantics to exhibit their message and aid the reader in appreciating the beauty of nature they often portray. ‘There, Margaret, the sun is for ever visible; its broad disk skirting the horizon and diffusing a perpetual splendourâ€¦’ Here, Walton describes in his first letter to his sister Margaret, how the sun spreads over the horizon at the North Pole. The words ‘perpetual splendour’ further enhance the beauty of the region.
In Daffodils, Wordsworth also refers to the power of nature to enlighten his heart from sadness, ‘â€¦For oft, when on my couch I lie/ In vacant or in pensive mood,/They flash upon that inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude;/And then my heart with pleasure fills,/And dances with the daffodils.’ The words ‘vacant’ and ‘solitude’ describe his empty state of mind. The daffodils ‘flash’ appear brightly within his ‘inward eye’ which is his imagination filling his heart with ‘pleasure’.
These are all demonstrations of the power nature has over the individual as portrayed by the Romantic writers.
Chapter 2: The Consequences of the Pursuit of Knowledge
One of the major themes in Frankenstein is the pursuit of knowledge and its consequences. The prior to the Romantic period was the Age of Enlightenment which saw a rise of rationalism and continuous significant scientific advancements. These concerned Mary Shelley and other Romantic writers. The concern was they saw this rationalist movement as man trying to meddle with the laws of nature. This is the foundation of the character of Victor Frankenstein.
At the age of 17, Frankenstein goes off to university where he meets many intellectuals and wise professors who inspire him to pursue natural science. Sadly, this inspiration eventually turns into an obsession. ‘I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.’ From this we see how Frankenstein aspires to achieve greater accomplishments than philosophers before him. He also aims to overcome nature. This means he aims to overcome God himself for God be the creator of nature. Due to this obsession, he sacrifices all his time, energy and health to create life, ‘â€¦with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding places.’
‘It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils’. This opening line of Chapter Five sets a dark, depressing, and cold scene which gives a feeling of foreboding as a means of warning of events to come. Words such as ‘anxiety’, ‘agony’ depict the depressing scene of the coming to life of the monster.
Shocked at the hideousness of his creation he laments, ‘How can I describe my emotions at this catastropheâ€¦’ as a part of reinforcing his shock there is a use of exclamation marks as he says, ‘â€¦ Beautiful! – Great God!’ This is ironic, in that Frankenstein had sought to create life as a means of being able to uncover nature and certifying himself to be greater than God. Ironically, he calls upon God upon his failure though he never mentions God before.
The monster is described to have ‘yellow skin’, ‘lustrous black’ hair and ‘pearly white’ teeth which form a ‘horrid contrast’ with his ‘watery eyes’, ‘dun white sockets’ his ‘shrivelled complexion’ and ‘straight black lips’. This image painted of the monster depicts how he was created to have beautiful features yet upon his awakening, they come together to form a hideous being. The eyes in their sockets also give a sense of sadness within the monster. The monster is therefore an unnatural being with human features.
Unable to bare the being he had created he runs of to his room. He begins to develop fever like symptoms. He recalls the monster as, ‘â€¦the wretch – the miserable monster I had created.’ The use of the word ‘I’ demonstrates his selfishness and how he does not even consider how the monster feels. The fact that he does not give the monster a name and refers to it as ‘the creature’ or the ‘wretch’, demonstrates his disappointment and dislike for that which he has created.
Through these different devices Mary Shelley allows the reader to visualise the scene and have a share in the experiences of the characters. Nonetheless, it may be possible that the monster is a metaphor for scientific creations created with the intention of beauty going horribly wrong. This can be paralleled to the pursuit of knowledge and how it can have dire consequences for in the story it can be seen that the monster brings death and destruction.
Chapter 3: The Consequences of the Immorality of Mankind
The poem Darkness, creates grisly apocalyptic images of the earth and mankind at their demise. The opening line of the poem Darkness by Lord Byron along with the title of the poem already prepares the reader of the grim mood displayed in the poem. ‘I had a dream, which was not at all a dream’. Here the narrator of the poem describes having an experience similar to a dream which but turns out to be more of a nightmare not in his mind but in reality. Basically, Byron speaks as though he had a premonition of the grave future ahead for mankind. This opening just as the opening of chapter five of Frankenstein, ‘It was on a dreary night of Novemberâ€¦’ is foreboding and gives a sense of grief and impending doom.
The inspiration behind this poem was not only due to the very strange events of the time which made people believe in the coming of the apocalypse but also immoral acts of mankind. The Industrial Revolution had also provoked a lot of social unrest. Countless underprivileged European citizens moved from their rural countryside homes to work in factories. They worked under very harsh conditions and were paid vey low wages. This exploitation was all in the name of greed and the pursuit of wealth and prosperity in the advancing European societies. These inhumane acts in the name of gaining wealth and gaining status were part of the inspiration behind another famous Romantic works.
One such work is ‘Jerusalem’ by William Blake which was inspired by the writer’s condemnation of the products of the Industrial Revolution. Written in 1804 ‘Jerusalem’ later became a patriotic hymn during the First World War and is used as a national anthem for England at certain sporting events. This piece speaks of England being a special land and a possible candidate for the building of a New Jerusalem given the possibility that Jesus Christ visited the land as a boy. In essence, the poem ‘Jerusalem’ gives hope to the society where as lord Byron’s poem speaks of death and destruction giving no sign of optimism of a brighter future.
The poem has no obvious structure. It is an 82 lined poem of free verse. It is not divided into any stanzas and is therefore continuous but there is a large use of punctuation marks to break this continuality. This is very evident through lines 78 and 79. ‘The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave, /The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;’ These repetitive breaks portray the disturbance of he natural flow of nature and life during this catastrophe hitting the world. They also help vary the tone and speed of the poem. At the beginning it is slow and calm displaying the gloom of the world, then fast and chaotic and finally slow and calm again to portray the doom taking over the earth.
Nature is also at a standstill and seemingly dead as the lightless world. ‘â€¦The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air/ And the clouds perish’dâ€¦’ and ‘The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still/ And nothing stirr’d within their silent depths’. It seems nature too has “died” due to the disappearance of light.
Byron uses a lot of interesting words to expose the pure gloom and doom he experiences in the events of the poem. The poem itself is centred on the disappearance of light from the earth. Words which accentuate this theme are, ‘â€¦swung blindâ€¦ blackened dull gloomâ€¦’ In addition, the light is described as ‘despairing’. In other words, it is as if it is non existent. Fear is also exposed as he talks of how it has overcome the people and how even the toughest of animals were ‘tame and tremulous’. Onomatopoeic words such as ‘shrieked’, ‘gnashed’, ‘howled’, ‘hissing’, describe the sounds. The fact that there are a lot of sounds creates a certain degree of chaos. Furthermore, the sound of the forests’ ‘crackling’ as people try to make fire to light up shows the desperation.
The main image in this piece is that of mankind turning into beasts due to the desperation to find light. ‘â€¦the wildest brutes/ Came tame and tremulousâ€¦’ The more frightening creatures are also consumed by fear to the point that they began to pose no danger and instead the humans became the monstrous ones. Images used to enhance this are, ‘â€¦vipers crawl’dâ€¦ Hissing, but stingless–they were slain for foodâ€¦’ The vipers which were now harmless were being ‘slain’. The word slain puts an emphasis on the cruelty now consuming the humans.
The images used in Darkness can also be linked to apocalyptic images used in the bible. Matthew 24:29 reads, “â€¦immediately after the distress of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ This is similar to Byron’s imagery of, ‘â€¦The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars/ Did wander darkling in the eternal space, Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth/ Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air’. In the desolation and men becoming beasts Byron adds, ‘â€¦there was no love leftâ€¦’ which can be a reference to Matthew 24:19, ‘â€¦And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.’
The disturbance in the peace is enhanced when the writer states, ‘â€¦And War, which for a moment was no more/ Did glut himself again: a meal was bought/ With bloodâ€¦’ This demonstrates that war had arisen again with man fighting and killing each other just for food. This can be compared to the war referred to in Jerusalem by William Blake. Firstly, a sense of evil of the unjust is also displayed in Wordsworth’s poem. The ‘dark satanic mills’ the poet describes are a reference to the mills and factories built during the Industrial Revolution causing all the social unrest which he protested against. The word ‘satanic’ fully highlights how Blake views the mills as sinister due to the unjust manner in which workers were being treated.
In the 3rd stanza he speaks of gathering up arms in order to fight against the evil brought forth by the mills. On the other hand, it turns out the war he refers to is more of a mental fight for he says, ‘â€¦I will not cease from mental fight, / Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand/ Till we have built Jerusalem/ In England’s green and pleasant land.’ In effect, Jerusalem is a tool in restoring peace and tranquillity in England. The poem itself is more of a call to the English people to rally against the iniquitous acts done to them due to Industrial Revolution. It also gives a sense of hopefulness that freedom and harmony can be restored to the human race.
In contrast, Lord Byron’s poem does not speak of hope that in the end light which is seen from the last line, ‘â€¦Darkness had no need/ Of aid from them–She was the Universe.’ This line is as if to say nothing can save the human race from the cruel end they have subdued themselves onto by their immoral acts. Darkness is finally personified and the fact tat it is compared to the universe shows the vast degree to which darkness has taken over the world.
Chapter 5: The Symbols of Light and Fire in the Two Texts
Symbolism is a very important literary tool used to convey different messages and present ideas and emotions to the reader. The most important symbol in the texts is the symbol of light. In Frankenstein light symbolises knowledge and discovery. This is first illustrated when Richard Walton asks, ‘What could not be expected in the country of eternal light?’ Walton is clearly vey optimistic about reaching the north pole and looks forward to the enlightenment which will be brought forth by the voyage. The light is a positive object both Walter and Frankenstein try to reach in the hopes of gaining knowledge and enlightenment.
Lord Byron uses light to represent life and the balance between nature and the human race. It also represents morality and discretion of man. The disappearance of light means, firstly, the loss of morality of people, ‘â€¦ men forgot their passions in the dread/ Of this their desolationâ€¦’ Secondly, a break in the balance with men turning into beasts and beasts becoming ‘tame’. The end result is chaos, gloom and the destruction of nature. This is what the darkness represents in the poem; consequences of man’s loss of morality. Likewise, the scene set for the opening of Chapter five of Shelley’s book is dull and cold taking place under ‘half-extinguished light’ giving a foreboding effect of the consequences of Frankenstein’s work.
Fire is a more dangerous version of light which can be created by man. Although fire provides light it also burns and causes pain as discovered by the monster while he was by himself in the forest in Chapter 11. ‘How strange, I thought that the same cause should produce such opposite effects.’
Normally, to create a fire there must be a spark. Frankenstein collects his materials and then infuses ‘â€¦a spark of being into the lifeless thingâ€¦’ This ‘spark’ could symbolise the starting of a dangerous fire.
In Darkness, the disappearance of light causes the world to become ‘void/â€¦ a lumpâ€¦’ in other words, an empty place. This results in people becoming desperate for light and they try to create their own light, ‘â€¦The habitations of all things which dwell/ Were burnt for beaconsâ€¦ Forests were set on fire’. The desperation only causes more destruction as they destroy nature by setting it to fire all in the search of light.
The symbol is further enhanced through the full name of Mary Shelley’s Book which happens to be, Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus. In context, the Greek God Prometheus was assigned by Zeus, the god of the sky and the king of the Greek gods, to form man out of water and Earth. However, against the orders of Zeus, he gives man the knowledge of fire. He was then severely punished for this deed and defying Zeus by being tied to a stake where everyday an eagle came to eat his liver.
Victor Frankenstein can be compared to Prometheus, as his attempt to acquire more knowledge for himself and mankind only brought dire consequences resulting in the deaths of the ones he loved. Though he did not give fire to humanity he gave the gift of the secret of life, ‘the spark of being’ but withal it still remains unknown exactly what this spark really is. Similar to Prometheus defying Zeus, Frankenstein tries to defy God and he too is punished for it.
Romantic writers prided themselves with being individuals and Mary Shelley and Lord Byron clearly pay testament to that. These two texts are all very unique though there are some similarities the main one being the ability of the writers to warn of the future.
Other writers vey well known woks which waned of the fall of mankind
In Frankenstein, the monster is basically an unnatural being. The coming to life of the monster brings an aftermath of death and destruction. In addition the anxiety which Frankenstein experiences could be an illustration of the anguish mankind will suffer from due to these scientific advances. The use of religion i.e. the defiance of God in Frankenstein and apocalyptic imagery in Darkness further enhance their warnings.
The question is. were the Romantic writers correct? The answer is yes. The world has changed with wars and global warming, terrorism, corruption and immense poverty being just some of the troubles of the world.
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