Along with our concluding discussion of Mary Shelley's The Last Man, our reading this week included Percy Shelley's poem "Letter to Maria Gisborne." The poem was written while the Shelley's were staying in Italy, at the home of Maria Gisborne and her husband John. Shelley used an his writing room the study/workshop of Henry, Maria's son. Henry was interested in ship-building, which most
likely accounts for the theme of shipwreck and stormy seas present in the poem. I was struck with the dark imagery and themes of the poem from the beginning, so will focus on that for my post. The poem can be read in its entirety here:
Below is the opening stanza to "Letter to Maria Gisborne" by Percy Shelley. It happens to be a sonnet, though not in the traditional English or Italian rhyme scheme.
The spider spreads her webs, whether she be
In poet's tower, cellar, or barn, or tree;
The silk-worm in the dark green mulberry leaves
His winding sheet and cradle ever weaves;
So I, a thing, whom moralists call worm,
Sit spinning still round this decaying form,
From the fine threads of rare and subtle thought--
No net of words in garish colours wrought
To catch the idle buzzers of the day--
But a soft cell, where when that fades away,
Memory may clothe in wings my living name
And feed it with the asphodels of fame,
Which in those hearts which must remember me
Grow, making love an immortality.
Worms, spiders, a winding sheet, and decay - the poem begins with a morbidity that will remain present throughout the poem. A winding sheet is a shroud in which the dead are wrapped for burial. Since Shelley refers to himself as a worm, he could be seen here as spinning his own winding sheet. Hope is introduced too, with the idea of earning fame after death for his writing and thus achieving immortality. The imagery in this opening stanza, even if masked in death, can still be seen as beauty. The silk from the worms eventually is used to create lustrous fabric. There is life in the "dark green mulberry leaves" and the mention of asphodels, which are immortal flowers that grow in the Elysian Fields. The Elysian Fields are from Greek mythology and said to be the final resting place of the souls of the heroic and virtuous. The final line is the most hopeful of all, mentioning love as another way to be immortal; to be remembered after death.