Day 16 – The Shelleys and the vital spark

We discussed the poet at day 11 here. At 19 Shelley eloped and then married a tavern-keeper’s daughter with whom he had a baby girl. Increasingly craving more intellectual stimulation, he studied Italian, was mentored by the philosopher and author William Godwin and fell in love with Godwin’s daughter Mary. They ran away to Italy, leaving Shelley’s wife Harriet expecting their second child. Returning to England penniless (and having angered Mary’s father) Shelley and Mary lost their own first child and then married shortly after his wife Harriet took her own life. He lost custody of his two children with Harriet through his atheism.

Yet, Percy and Mary’s creative outputs increased and they spent a summer in Switzerland with Lord Byron in Switzerland where Mary, (now with second child, William), conceived ‘The Modern Prometheus’ – the subtitle to her 1818 novel Frankenstein.

In Greek myth, Prometheus created men out of water and earth and was known for his championing mankind and the human arts and sciences generally. He defied the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity, which enabled progress and civilization – but annoyed Zeus. This scenario became a play by the Greek Aeschylus, which was later widely circulated in the 18th century through illustrated translations. Prometheus represented human striving (particularly the quest for scientific knowledge) and the risk of overreaching, or unintended consequences.

Shelley used the imagery in one of his prefaces ‘to awaken the nation against slavery and degradation to a true sense of moral dignity and freedom’. Promethean iconography was trending; a cultural lens for observing the dynamics of sovereignty, slavery and liberation.

The Shelleys left Marlow in 1818 for Italy (now with a third child, Clara, named after their first). He was working on Prometheus Unbound‘, a new play. After the sad death of Clara, it was finished in 1819. He disliked how the original drama dealt with Prometheus’ release from captivity. He abandoned the reconciling of Prometheus and Zeus for the captor losing support and falling from power, allowing the captive’s release. “I was averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind. The moral interest of the fable, so powerfully sustained by the sufferings and endurance of Prometheus, would be annihilated if we could conceive of him as unsaying his high language and quailing before his successful and perfidious adversary”.

The Shelleys’ second child died too. After the loss of William, when Mary was twenty-one, she gave birth to their third and only surviving child. In 1822, her husband drowned when his sailing boat sank during a storm near Viareggio. He was not yet 30.

So what can we take from all this, carving in the cold in Horsham?

Percy and Mary Shelley both employed Promethean imagery, and they also both turned cold words into living poetry and prose; they added the magic spark. In a cruel twist, the short life of Percy Shelley came to be regarded in the Romantic era as Promethean – embodying the lone genius whose efforts to improve human existence could also result in tragedy.  

In short, you don’t get owt for nowt. We hope that our local poet’s magic spark can rub off with our cold stone through the striving which will have taken place for its creation. “Our” metaphorical Zeus can perhaps be seen as the elements we carve beneath, the resistance of the tenacious quarry block against little tools – and the psychological effect of the enormity of the task.

YOU, through your support and involvement are all valued parts in sustaining that endurance and adding the essential magic spark. But it’s not over yet, so the more you can spread the word, the more energy we can harness in our immense and tough quest.

Next carving Sunday 7th.


For any project which involves the general public, the factor above all else is safety. Planning a public sculpture created on site with a builder of homes demonstrates the rigorous consideration of safety at every stage of the complex construction process and beyond. From behind the safety fence, watching people at work on construction sites shows their different spheres of expertise. Competence is a beautiful thing; seeing tasks handled deftly, with panache. Continue reading