Setting William Blake to music

by Joseph Andrew Thompson

My introduction to William Blake came through a copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience, lent to me by a high-school friend. Over the course of a few weeks, I read it through and through, enchanted by its elegant simplicity. Visually, it had the magic of a book of fairy tales, yet its perfect verse – a mix of hymn, nursery rhyme, and ballad – spoke to the mature listener. This was a book from a different era, with its own norms, but in mine, I had not yet encountered such a juxtaposition. I admittedly became a ‘Blake-head’, and though I went on to immerse myself in his extraordinary body of work, I have since returned again and again to this songbook with great joy.


As it does to so many Blake admirers, ‘A Poison Tree’ has always stood out to me amongst the collection’s poems. Blake placed the moral at the beginning, in a uniquely metered quatrain that serves as a rhyming proverb, complete even if read apart from the rest of the poem. Its meaning is simple: Speak your anger and it will dissipate, but bury it and it will grow. More so, voicing your anger is natural and perhaps preferred when directed at friends. With enemies, though, the opposite is true. It is from this second scenario that the dark narrative of the poem develops, laden with metaphor. In short, it relays that suppressed wrath can grow like a tree, which may one day bear a poisonous, yet tempting, fruit. Around this tree the fates of the speaker and his foe intertwine. Though Blake spoke to the conscience of his own time and culture, what makes ‘A Poison Tree’ appealing to so many is his use of universal imagery. With basic, easily recognized, and relatable symbols (friend, foe, anger, tears, fears, forbidden fruit, etc.), Blake tells an intriguing parable that is left open to interpretation. It is applicable across all cultures and eras, conveying a struggle that is common to all mankind.

In the title of the book, Blake refers to the poems as ‘Songs’, and it has been said he would at times sing them in social gatherings to the delight of those in attendance. Indeed, the opening song, ‘Introduction’, contains these couplets:

Piping down the valleys wild
Piping songs of pleasant glee, (1-2)

Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe,
Sing thy songs of happy chear: (9-10)

And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear. (19-20)


That these are works of a musical nature is evident, and as a composer, I have always found it hard to read this collection without imagining the kinds of melodies Blake might have paired with his words. In keeping with his storybook design, I hear them as simple, memorable songs, at times sweet, and at others, sinister. They might be sung in a playful voice, and when accompanied, illustrated by a vivid musical texture.


It is in this manner that I therefore approached the poem, when, while writing and recording my band Astralingua’s upcoming album Safe Passage, I elected to set ‘A Poison Tree’ to music. I used a basic ABAB form, alternating keys, and wrote the melody to be catchy, slightly taunting, and with enough space and pause throughout for the consideration of each line. Imagining the song as  something that a band of minstrels might play before a royal court – a theatre piece of sorts – I coloured it with mandolins and lutes, hoping to conjure in the mind of the listener a sense of the Old World that serves as the setting for many a fairy tale. I aimed for a version that would be fun and entertaining, yet still contain a deep message for the King to ponder.


Though only four stanzas long, ‘A Poison Tree’ is a poem of many layers, and fits well within the overarching themes of Safe Passage. The album discusses mortality, isolation, struggle, and the movement between worlds, all the while asking the questions: What is Safe Passage? From where to where is it granted? Who or what provides it? Who denies it? ‘A Poison Tree’ drives further this enquiry with its enigmatic tale of wrath. Is the narrator consumed or satisfied by his anger? Does the unsuspecting foe simply fall prey to a the narrator’s trap, or is it his own corrupt thirst for the ‘shiny apple’ that is his undoing? For what else is this narrative a metaphor? Finally, the duality of worlds operating within the poem – that of the schemer and that of the deceived – are mirrored in the other songs of Safe Passage, which intimate dreams within dreams and parallel realities dissolving into each other.

It has pleased me to no end that I should find such occasion to incorporate something of Blake’s in my own creative work. It is a union, an homage, and the continuation of tradition. Most importantly, it spreads even further the work of a great visionary Master. The world needs more poets and men like William Blake and with this adaption I hope to delight those that know him and introduce him to those that yet do not.   Enjoy!


Astralingua’s upcoming album Safe Passage is released on March 8th, 2019. It is now available for pre-order at Bandcamp.  

Joseph Andrew Thompson is a composer, musician, writer, and the creative mind behind the duo Astralingua. With a background in classical music and a keen interest in the spaces between this world and the next, he draws inspiration from classic literature, folklore, philosophy, astronomy, and the musics of old. Wandering the Land of Nod, he is ever at work on the next song. 



Nice ink, Keats

by Gareth Evans


An ephemeral post seems to be a good place to talk about doodles. In their purest form, you may have little idea when you start how either will finish. The youthful Keats’s marginal sketches in his 1815/1816 medical notebook are more purposeful than this but were nevertheless created to fill some unexpected vacuum of time. By any other hand they would be overlooked, however, this medical student was to become a poet, one who relished meaningful imagery. Together these miniature flower portraits appear like hieroglyphs that have yet to been interpreted. That they are so minute adds to their obscurity, the book itself is only 18.5 by 11 cm, while good graphic reproductions can be hard to access. In fact, I only first started thinking seriously about the sketches when I saw the original on display at the Keats House Museum some time ago.


Their instant of creation seems to be a hiatus in the course of a lecture during Keats’s study at the United Hospitals of Guy’s and St Thomas’. Unlike some other parts of Keats’s existing notes this is clearly not a fair copy, but raw notes taken down in the lecture room. Astley Cooper is a probable candidate for the lecturer, a draw for the Hospital’s prospective students, he came to be known as ‘the greatest surgical teacher in Europe’. The lines of Keats’s writing begin to curve as they move down the page around a hand that held the quick-moving pen with an iron grip. Then, mid- sentence, when an alternative manipulation of a dislocated jaw is about to be revealed, the writing stops.


Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London


Lectures within a hospital that housed the lecturer’s in-patients may have been liable to this sort of interruption. Keats was left in mid-flow with a pen nib quivering with ink. He may have just tapped the ink back into the inkpot before it dried up while the – no doubt mildly frustrated – students waited for any sign of whether the lecture would continue or not. If this indeed was the state of affairs, he seems to have dissipated his nervous energy by the dispatch of some small sketches.


First, he draws a flower, one that could be seen as having elements of both the ambiguous and the exact. The wild pansy (viola tricolor) is a native flower that is not short of cultural and poetical associations. Among the ragbag of names applied to it are heartsease and love-in-idleness. Traditionally some people have seen two, or sometimes three, faces kissing in the outline of the petals. A poetical book-name was added, sometime in the 1500s, from the French pensée (‘thought’).


Scientifically, the wild pansy does not conform to a precise description; the markings on the face of its flower being variable within certain parameters. The outline of the distinctive pansy of Keats’s time was still close to the wild type, called by plant breeders ‘horse-faced’ (always popular in gardens, early 19th-century plant breeders were beginning to bring it into the fold of ‘fancy flowers’ by selection and hybridisation, a process that was to eventually lead to the round-flowered, blousy type familiar to us from garden centres and supermarkets).  Ornate and diverse, the wild pansy has the appearance of being purposefully streaked with pigment. Often the upper petals, or ‘ears’, are purple, also spots can occur near the ‘eye’ of the plant around which there can also be radial streaks, or nectar lines as we now know they are.


As in his poetry, Keats could visually recall and characterise a flower without the need of a model. Interestingly, this species’ natural variability means that he can be accurate while at the same time have some license. Within the outline he added precise strokes to represent the top two petals in horizontal half-moon shapes and a splatter of dots around the central ‘eye’. Also, he characteristically captured what might be called the gesture or posture of the whole plant: in this case the wild pansy’s recognisable ‘chin-up’ flower on a high, articulated stem.


Leigh Hunt’s sister-in-law Elizabeth Kent deemed it an impertinence to describe such a familiar plant: as she says in her Flora Domestica of 1823, they could be had at ‘a nursery, or Covent Garden flower-market, six or more may be had for shilling, all of them covered with flowers and buds’. In terms of the purest contemporary scientific culture the pansy’s variability was an irritant; given its garden associations it was in danger of being too close to triviality. In the context of Keats’s formal studies his sketch can be seen as a similar act to drawing a likeness of ZZ Top in your lecture notes; a tremor of release, or even rebelliousness.


However, Keats’s sketch appears to be depicting something very particular, not rocker or punk, more Puck. Shakespeare’s ‘little western flower’ was a wild pansy, the source of functional magic that drives the action in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oberon tells of its conception

Yet marked I where the bolt of Cupid fell.
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound.
And maidens call it ‘love-in-idleness.’
Fetch me that flower. The herb I showed thee once.
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
Fetch me this herb, and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.


In an age, and a class, which prided itself on exercising a new botanical literacy, authors (including Elizabeth Kent and Leigh Hunt) expressed no doubt in the identity of Shakespeare’s love-in-idleness. The botanical authority William Curtis gave this passage a serious, but also half jocular, justification in his attractive Flora Londinensis, 1777-1798:

Linnaeus remarks [on] the black lines which sometimes appear on the Petals, Milton had observed the same, ‘Pansies sreakt with Jet’. In a poor soil the purple and yellow in the bloom of this flower frequently become very faint, and sometimes fade into a perfect white, this variation in colour gives a propriety to the Metamorphosis of this flower in which Shakespear [sic] pays an elegant compliment to his royal mistress.

‘Viola tricolor’ from Curtis’ Flora Londinensis

In conjuring up the magic flower, the young Keats tapped into his then parallel literary life, while at the same time pointing to an early mentor. He was to go on to make a passionate study of Shakespeare plays in 1817 when, newly qualified, he had left the prospect of a medical career behind him. But as we learn from Robert White’s Keats as a Reader of Shakespeare (1987), of all the plays we can be sure of his familiarity with A Midsummer Night’s Dream during 1816 through his reading of it with Charles Cowden Clarke, son of the headmaster at his school at Enfield.


Keats’s fellow lodger Henry Stephens had still to devise his blue-black ink, so Keats’s ink was probably purple-black or purple-brown oak gall ink. Away from the study of a painful anatomical correction, with his surplus ink he streaks and splatters the white flower he had outlined, ‘now purple with love’s wound’. Was he playing with Cupid’s blot? Here Keats was – appropriately – enacting Puck’s gesture in marking numerous carefully placed spots with ink/juice on the flower’s face as Puck was to on the eyelids of random mortals;

Through the forest have I gone.
But Athenian found I none,
On whose eyes I might approve
This flower’s force in stirring love.
Night and silence.–Who is here?
Weeds of Athens he doth wear:
This is he, my master said,
Despised the Athenian maid;
And here the maiden, sleeping sound,
On the dank and dirty ground.
Pretty soul! she durst not lie
Near this lack-love, this kill-courtesy.
Churl, upon thy eyes I throw
All the power this charm doth owe.
When thou wakest, let love forbid
Sleep his seat on thy eyelid:
So awake when I am gone;
For I must now to Oberon.

Puck grasping pansies. Sir Joshua Reynolds for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, 1789


Sketching to the words of Shakespeare, little wonder that Keats could appear distracted at this time. Here is Charles Cowden Clarke’s story of the reply that the student Keats gave when quizzed about his attitudes to his medicinal training:

he expressed his grave doubt if he should go on with it. ‘The other day,’ he said to me ‘During the lecture, there came a sunbeam into the room, and with it a whole troop of creatures floating in the ray; and I was off with them to Oberon and fairy land’.


In this reading, Keats’s sketch is more a flower of the imagination than of the field or garden, holding multiple meanings during process of its creation. But what of the other three flower sketches? Here there are many things to question and consider. Frustratingly, some that can just be discerned in reproduction have a much greater potential interest; some that are a little clearer are difficult to positively identify. Collectively they can appear like a random chord sequence without obvious significance. However, it is possible that there may be a theme to the sequence, even between just two of them, as one completed sketch suggested another. Of course, there is also Keats’s other early reading; remembering that flowers take on several literary masks according to time and place: daffodil, narcissus, narcisse, asphodel. A passage in Keats’s own early work particularly strikes me. In a poem dated November 1815, he addresses an affected poet friend, George Felton Matthew, for criticising his poetry. With an earnestness which, at best, these sketches possess he chides Matthew; ‘For thou wast was once a floweret blooming wild / Close to the source, bright, pure and undefil’d’.


Whichever way this interesting subject may go, this thought-doodle is spent for now – my intellectual ink has run dry.



Gareth Evans writes articles on the history and culture of plants and their use ( He worked in, and with, botanic gardens for 16 years, specialising in the history of plants and medicine. Recent Highlights include: ‘Seeds of Inspiration’, Linder Memorial Lecture, Beatrix Potter Society, March 2018, and ‘Keats’s Flight from the Vegetable Monster’, a paper at the 4th Bicentennial John Keats Conference 1817.

Bringing Frankenstein back to life

by Andrew Weltch


Think of the ‘original’ cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, and the image that comes to mind is probably Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. But you actually have to go back a further two decades for the genuine original and the creature’s first appearance on film – played by Charles Ogle in a 1910 short by the Edison Company.

Until recently, my only knowledge of that film was a well-known still of Ogle’s monster, twisted and staring at the camera, with his wild hair and claw-like fingers. Out of context, it looks ridiculous, almost comical, and I had long dismissed this lost film as unworthy of any attention.

But now that short is available to view online, expertly restored and free. And what a treat it is!

Experts at the US Library of Congress added missing intertitles and a score by Donald Sosin, and have restored the print to a condition that is a vast improvement on earlier uploaded versions. Frankenstein can now be viewed free on YouTube (and below). There’s quite a story behind the restoration. The film had been thought lost until the American Film Institute named it among its top 10 most wanted lost films in 1980, when a certain Al Dettlaff of Cudahy, Wisconsin, revealed he had acquired a print (almost certainly the only surviving print) as part of a collection of old nitrate films in the 1950s.

Unwilling to release it for restoration, Dettlaff had his own 35mm copy made and eventually produced DVDs of the film, which he sold at conventions. Those became the source of the previous relatively crude online versions. In 2005, Dettlaff’s decomposed body was found at his home. The eccentric and reclusive character had been dead for a month – from natural causes, aged 84. The Library of Congress bought the Dettlaff collection in 2015, and the restoration of Frankenstein was completed in 2018 – fittingly 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel.

The film was made at Edison’s studios in the Bronx, New York City, written and directed by James Searle Dawley, photographed by James White, and starring (uncredited) Charles Ogle as the creature, Augustus Phillips as Frankenstein, and Mary Fuller as his fiancée, Elizabeth. Described as “a liberal adaptation of Mrs. Shelley’s famous story”, Dawley shot the film in three or four days, and it was released in March 1910. The Edison Kinetogram, the Edison company’s film magazine, reported:

In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Whenever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of elimination of what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.”


It may not be ‘repulsive’ – there are no severed limbs or unhealed wounds that would characterise later film versions of the story, but this debut appearance is no less scary.  The scene in which the monster is created is eery and bizarre, as it gradually takes human form from some kind of potion, which Frankenstein has concocted – a technique apparently achieved by burning a puppet and running the film backwards. The film opens with Frankenstein bidding farewell to his father and fiancée, and heading off to college. An intertitle tells us that two years later he has discovered the secret of life. (That’s a good college and a smart student!)

But instead of building the perfect human as he intends, another intertitle tells us the evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a twisted creature, which will horrify its creator. Appalled by the sight of his creation, Frankenstein returns home to the loving arms of his fiancée. But, like some faithful puppy (but much less cute), the creature follows, only to become madly jealous at the sight of this rival for his creator’s attention, and shocked at the sight of himself in a mirror. The creature leaves, but returns to gate-crash the wedding night, before the story is resolved – and it’s all done, rather cleverly, with mirrors.



Hats off to Mike Mashon and the team in the Moving Image Section of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress for restoring and preserving this piece of movie history. This is an important film for many reasons – not least because it was the first Frankenstein film and therefore the cinematic ancestor of the hundreds (or even thousands) which have followed.  It’s also a fascinating and impressive film in its own right – especially for the sequences involving the creation of the monster and the mirror in Frankenstein’s study.

Definitely worth 12 minutes of your time.



Andrew Weltch is a writer, editor and public relations consultant, whose interests include film and history. He blogs about arts and entertainment and runs a communications consultancy.  

Re-imagining the Wordsworths IV: A walk with sound

by Kate Sweeney



It is an autumn morning in Gateshead and I am walking through Saltwell Park. The sun is bright but the shadows are long. I push the buds of my headphones into my ears and contemplate the distance from the small lake to the war memorial, wondering if it is about a 3.18 minute walk – the length of the final sound file in the ‘Re-Imagining The Wordsworths’ project.

Asphalt. A dog runs in front of me then stops and looking back, smiles and wags its tail. I am not in The Lake District and I am not surrounded by peaks, but the sounds of other birds from far away gradually get louder.

Leaves. My red boots step through the first drifts that gather at the edge of the path. Sycamore, Elm.


Grass. The dew underfoot changes the colour of the leather. The soft sounds of violins mixed with rain recorded in other places drown out the shrieks of little children and the brooding low sounds of their parents.

Earth. Scuffed soil under a swing. I remember the blue light on the snow that evening well over a year ago. Voices recall the space and the beauty.

Look up! The clouds are thin, like paths across a distant field. The horizon fades to a bleached yellow just above the rooftops of the newly built houses peeking through the trees. I open my coat and increase my stride.

Stone. I circle around the base of the memorial. There will be paper flowers here soon. Turning back to the lake, I look down at my long shadow and wave at myself.

Silence. The 3 minutes are over. I sit down, disturbing a pigeon at the end of my bench.


The other sound pieces recorded as part of ‘Re-Imagining The Wordsworths’ can be found in the previous blog posts here, here and here. They were produced as part a collaboration between the Wordsworth Trust and the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership. Hannah Peircy, Jemima Short, Lucy Stone and Kate Sweeney would like to thank Michael Rossington, Sarah Rylance and Evie Hill (Newcastle University), Jeff Cowton, Lynn Shepherd, Bernadette Calvey, Melissa Mitchell, and Susan Allen (Wordsworth Trust), Tracey Messenger, Helen Robinson, and the Students of Keswick School, Deirdre Wildy (Queen’s University Belfast), Robert McFarlane, and sound artists Conor Caldwell (Queen’s University Belfast) and Danny Diamond.

Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens


These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of the Rime appeared, Coleridge was commissioned by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the manager of Drury Lane Theatre to write a play. He began writing Osorio, an Elizabethan-style drama that eventually became Remorse. It was going to be published with Wordsworth’s drama The Borderers to raise money for a German tour. When that project failed, some of Osorio made it into Lyrical Ballads (‘The Dungeon’ and ‘The Foster Mother’s Tale’).


Given he was working on a drama that was to be presented (so he hoped) at an actual theatre, the stage and its various practices were not far from Coleridge’s mind as he began writing the Rime. He would have been mindful, for example, of how a story could be presented not just through the spoken word, but by the mechanics of stage effects. And those effects appear in the poem. The Rime is a series of ‘set pieces.’ It consists of visually arresting descriptions reminiscent of the decorative backdrops to performances at the contemporary theatre, such as the description of the Mariner’s ship which, when becalmed, becomes part of a scene painting: ‘As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean’. Images such as these are why Gustav Doré could produce powerful illustrations of the Rime in 1876 and why his work perfectly complements the poem. Because the whole tale is a series of tableaux, of vividly realised pictures against which the Mariner’s tale is set, it is easy to imagine his ship emerging into view upstage as painted flats of the ‘Ice mast high’ slide apart in front of it; or to envisage the hulk of the ‘Spectre-ship’ ship emerging from the wings, gliding on grooves past the doomed Mariner and his crew.


Such images in the poem are also, as in a theatre, mediated through light to mute or enhance colours to create the right ambience. The ‘dismal sheen’ of the surrounding ice, that subdued light that the Mariner describes is reminiscent of how atmospheric effects were created in the contemporary theatre when coloured silks or transparencies were dropped down in front of a scene and lit from behind. That feature would not just show the muted light of the ice cliff, but Coleridge describes the effect of these transparencies when he has the Mariner talk of the moon that shines through the fog as the albatross perches ‘on mast or shroud:’ ‘thro fog smoke-white / Glimmer’d the white moon-shine.’ That same effect, a gauze or silk hanging, would create the ethereal whites in the poem, such as when the moon ‘bemocked the sultry main / Like April hoar-frost spread’ and the light is diffused throughout the harbour that is ‘white with silent light’.


Coloured silks could create the ominous reds – that ‘moonlight bay’ so ‘white all o’er’ is punctuated by ‘dark-red shadows’ and there is the ‘still and awful red’ of the ‘charmèd water’. The same technique could produce the spectral greens that Coleridge describes – that wall of ice is ‘green as Emerauld’, and there is a ‘Burnt green’ that the Mariner sees dancing on the water’s surface as well as the ‘glossy green’ of the water snakes. Contemporary stage lighting could also reproduce some of the colour effects of the poem. The presence of all those greens is reminiscent of the oil lamps used on the stage in the days before limelight, lamps which produced a green-tinged light. There is even a suggestion of the iridescence that arises from a film of oil floating on water in the phrase: ‘The water, like a witch’s oils / Burnt green and blue and white.’ Perhaps, too, there is a hint of the notorious propensity of those lamps to smoke in the brief description of the ship’s crew whose ‘stony eyeballs glitter’d on / In the red and smoky light.’



There I might be stretching a point. But, even if subconscious, that the Rime had a certain staginess was obvious to one contemporary. William Wordsworth specifically criticised the poem for its performative and pictorial qualities. He described it as a series of happenings decorated with ‘too laboriously accumulated’ imagery. He considered it to be at odds with the philosophy of what was by now his Lyrical Ballads, that of creating poetry centred around emotions recollected in tranquillity in which he advocated a verse form that thinned out such pictorial, stagy mediation, in favour of a more direct connection with poet and reader. To that end, he placed Coleridge’s poem at the end of the first volume of the 1800 edition of the Ballads. He moved it upstage, if you like. In the middle, at the back where it could not properly be seen.


Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan


For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that has been done is a challenge, even for the most dedicated. Forming an independent and well-informed personal opinion is even more difficult.

Entering the world of the conference or research paper can offer an additional test of stamina. For the student, it is a vital step along the road to a successful academic career, but for the lay reader, that step can seem one too far. An examination of the references, citations, notes or however the lengthy lists of works referred to in an article of just ten pages is described can be daunting. The reader might be justified in wondering whether they have the intellect to read the piece, or whether it was even meant for them in the first place. Feeling excluded from the discussion is not an uncommon experience and one that academic authors perhaps do not always appreciate. On occasion, those authors appear to be writing only for themselves, not for an audience at all, so obscure is their point.

But, you remind me after 200 words; this is a book review, not a general assessment of the Keats literary sourcebook. It is to be hoped that Nicholas Roe, editor and contributor to John Keats and the Medical Imagination (part of the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine series) will not be offended by a review that starts by pointing out the potential difficulties experienced by the reader of comparable books. This book is a collection of new essays by eminent scholars first presented at the Keats Foundation Bicentenary Conference at Guy’s Hospital in London in May 2015. The conference had as its theme ‘John Keats: Poet-Physician, Physician-Poet’ and it sought to challenge any notion still held that John Keats’s poetry was not, to any significant degree, influenced by his experience as a student of medicine. As Roe points out in his Introduction (illustrated by two wonderful old photos of Thomas Hammond’s Edmonton surgery, taken more than a century after Keats served his apothecary’s apprenticeship there) it was not until the second half of the 20th century that the idea of Keats as other-worldly, of limited experience and interested in nothing but beauty, was replaced by a more accurate, robust assessment of a robust young man. Keats’s life was enriched by the inspiration of science and art and interwoven with love and loss of a most down-to-earth, human kind.

The essays in this book take us into the world of Keats the botanist, the dissector, the melancholic and the terminally ill. It expands our knowledge of the details of Keats’s life as a medical student and practising doctor and offers a focus on the ways in which his studies of the human body and the mind of man infuse his poetry and letters. We take an intellectual journey with R.S. White through poetry that exhibits Keats’s fascination with mourning and melancholia, focusing on ‘Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil’, and look at how he wove tuberculosis, the ‘family disease’ into his work.

For those interested in a Keats chronology, Hrileena Ghosh considers the difficulties of dating many of the poems Keats wrote whilst a medical student. The analysis of the letters and poetry written by him during this period – between October 1815 and March 1817 – is fascinating and adds much to the context within which he was writing, noting that he became more prolific whilst living with his brothers, in Cheapside. They were likely to have been considerably more supportive than his student contemporary (and later inventor of ink) Henry Stephens, with whom he shared lodgings earlier in his training, and who was notoriously cutting about Keats the medical student/poet. It is analysis like this undertaken by Ghosh that reinforces a picture of familial harmony that Keats so treasured, and the loss of which – following the death of youngest brother Tom and the emigration of George to America – that affects and infuses later work.


Nicholas Roe’s recent biography, and his marvellous essay in this volume, ‘Mr Keats’, offer rich detail of the life of Keats the medical student and surgeon. Roe himself discovered a newspaper article describing the treatment of a female patient shot in the head by her husband, whose surgeon is referred to as the eponymous ‘Mr Keats’ (undoubtedly John). Mr Keats gave evidence of the wound, and of the treatment required to extract it. Such incidental detail can offer much to a rounded view of Keats the man behind the poetry. He was a real man, in the real world, part of events totally unconnected with his poetic life.

‘The Beauty of Bodysnatching’, an essay by Druin Burch, author of the wonderful Digging up the Dead, a biography of surgeon Astley Cooper, takes us into darker places and the world of the body snatcher. Gruesome but irresistible, the work of the anatomist, and the men who supplied the bodies they cut up to further medical knowledge are used to highlight the thirst poets such as Keats, Coleridge and Wordsworth had for a greater knowledge of nature. The respect for scientists and those embarking on a career with their hands literally in the bowels of the human condition is clear in their writing, Burch maintains, once again challenging the notion of Keats as a fragile sensitivity snuffed out by the critics. He engaged in required practices of the medicine of the time and his discoveries and observations stayed with him on into his most famous work.

Richard Marggraaf Turley, in Chapter 10, moves us away from the dissecting room and into the mind of Romantic psychiatry by examining the role of surveillance in Keats’s work. Initially, this essay seems slightly out of place in this volume, but by examining Ode to Autumn specifically, Margraaf Turley takes us into the politics of the mind, a subject that fascinated an era riven with suspicion and fear of the mob, the spy or the rebel. He brings Keats into the 21st-century world (where he can most certainly hold his own) of social media and our own concerns about how quickly private thoughts and actions can become public property. The mind is, after all, central to this delve into the medical imagination.


‘John Keats, Medicine, and Young Men on the Make’ by Jeffrey N. Cox suggests a way to view Keats’s choice to leave medicine for poetry not so much as an event in his life story, but as a decision made during a creative period when other men of similar age, Keats’s friends and acquaintances, faced the same dilemma. Should I work at immortality through my writing, or enjoy a comfortable but perhaps more mundane existence pursuing a trade or profession that enables me to support a wife and family? Keats’s decision became one that caused particular torment when his love for Fanny Brawne could hardly be declared openly because of his lack of prospects. Cox also looks at the ways in which ‘money-getting’ and the necessary compromises that would have to be made to ‘Mammon’’ as Shelley referred to the eternal problems of financial security, are represented in Romantic poetry and writing of this period.

Other chapters are to me as a non-academic, less accessible and require extended periods of concentration that might, as mentioned earlier in this review, exclude the lay reader or Keats obsessive. They are no less interesting, however, and if you are particularly interested in plants and the study of botany, Chapter 6 by Nikki Hessell, awakens the reader to the in-depth knowledge of botany that was necessary to the work of an apothecary and how Keats took his studies into his poetic vocabulary.

This is not a book many will buy new, outright. At over £70 it has a niche market. However, if you want an elaboration of the connections between Keats and medicine, as student and poet, this book has much to offer the patient, selective reader. It is certainly well worth requesting from a university or specialist library.


Suzie Grogan is a professional writer, editor and researcher, working in the fields of social and family history and mental health. Her first book was published in 2012 and since then she has written two further books, published by Pen & Sword History, including Death, Disease & Dissection examining the life of an apprentice surgeon-apothecary in the early 19th century, to give her an excuse to write about John Keats. She has now been commissioned to write an ‘In the footsteps of…’ John Keats for publication in 2021, the bicentenary year.  Suzie has a popular blog at No wriggling out of writing and had her own radio show ‘Talking Books’, for many years. She is married with two children and has just made the move to Huelgoat in France, although she still intends to spend time in London and her beloved Lake District. Find out more at



“The wondrous works with which Nature adorns her chosen dwelling-places”: Following in Frankenstein’s footsteps

by Allison O’Toole


When we fall in love with a piece of literature, we want to feel closer to it. We can discuss it, read works about it, consume re-imaginings and responses and re-creations, and absorb as much as possible around its edges. But ultimately, we only have the text itself, and whatever background, history and personal interest we bring to our readings of it. Because analysis is subjective, isn’t it? We bring so much of ourselves to our individual understandings of a story.

If a text feels particularly poignant or personal, we may take opportunities, where possible, to increase our intimacy with it. In recognition of its bicentennial, my friend Tess and I each seized the chance to become closer to our favourite novel, Frankenstein. We each visited Geneva, Chamonix, and other significant sites, I in 2016 to follow the Shelleys, and she in early 2018 in the footsteps of Victor Frankenstein and his Creation.

Cologny, today a municipality of Geneva, was an essential stop as the birthplace of both the novel and its eponymous protagonist. Mary would not have had her famous dream of “the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together” at the still-standing Villa Diodati, but there’s still a thrill that comes with standing so close to where Frankenstein began. I took a water shuttle – a boat that’s part of Geneva’s public transportation system – in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Villa from afar. While the motorized shuttle was a far cry from anything they’d have used, I could still envision the Byron-Shelley party boating out into the lake in view of a different city skyline, but with the same mountains towering above. Victor, Elizabeth, and Clerval also surely played along the shore and rowed into the lake themselves.


But they’re not the only ones in the novel who visit Geneva. We both had to visit the statue of the Creature in Plainpalais, despite its much-later formation and the morbid event its placement commemorates. The statue itself is absolutely incredible, its size more impressive than any human actor (even with the lifts in Karloff’s boots). This modern interpretation has the Creature dressed in a hoodie and jeans, but his mismatched limbs and patchwork skin evokes both his humanity and his monstrosity. It’s worth a few minutes to take photos for any lover of Frankenstein; even if, like Tess, you have to shyly ask English-speaking strangers to take a photo for you. She insists it’s worth it, especially if the strangers tell you to pose “like you’re in love.”


It can be harder to envision the streets that Frankenstein and Shelleys traversed in modern Geneva, but that’s not the case in Ingolstadt, especially in 2018. The whole city was celebrating Frankenstein, Tess felt like she couldn’t turn a corner without seeing posters advertising events and exhibitions, as well as informational pamphlets about the city’s connection to the novel. She admits a bit of tunnel vision, more interest in Frankenstein than other available tourist attractions. A storied and intellectual space, especially as Shelley presents it, Ingolstadt felt like the true beginning of Victor’s (and certainly the Creature’s) journey. Walking the streets of the old, walled city, Tess felt an emotional churning; “this is where things start to happen in the book, and here I am.”

Being in the physical space where a novel takes place can help solidify a part of the story in our minds. Even with a vivid imagination, the images we have are, to an extent, amorphous. Seeing a visual adaptation of a novel can help concretize our mental image of a character or setting, but reading a novel like Frankenstein, we can’t help but be informed by decades of re-imaginings, from films to ballets to breakfast cereals. While there’s no definite way the characters must look, we can start to bring our vision of their setting closer to what Mary Shelley envisioned herself. This is especially gratifying in a novel where the landscape is practically another character itself. Tess felt like she could see the Creature lumbering out of the walled city of Ingolstadt into its surrounding forests, and could feel Victor’s isolation on the rough and windy Orkneys. While the locals were warm (and apparently largely unaware of the islands’ connection to Frankenstein), their home was as harsh and unforgiving as Shelley describes.

My most striking experience of connecting with a Shelley’s work on my trip was not with Mary’s novel. While Pont Pélissier is briefly mentioned in Frankenstein, it’s more significantly the spot where Percy began writing “Mont Blanc.” I’ve always felt a sense of swirling intensity in the descriptions of the landscape in the poem, but standing in the “dark, deep Ravine” over the “vast river” and looking up at the sun on the mountains, I could, more than ever, connect with the sense of the sublime in Shelley’s words. From high in the Alps, as well as in the valley below, I was awestruck by the immensity of the mountains; it was easy to see how the Shelleys were moved to create some of their best work by the permanence, stillness, and scale of the scene.

Tess felt the same way visiting the Mer de Glace. She couldn’t fathom its size from photos alone, and felt like she couldn’t take it all in at once. There was too much. This was her first time being so close to mountains or glaciers, and she felt a sense of inherent awe and violence in the unforgiving ice and rocks of the Alps. This is a scene where only a truly superhuman being, like the Creature, could thrive. She was also able to ascend into the mountains, looking on Mont Blanc from a facing mountain range, and admits that she cried at its rugged beauty. (I did too, when I got close as close as tourists can get to Mont Blanc. It’s a lot to take in.) More than any art she’d seen before, this scene helped her understand what the sublime truly means.



While she doesn’t hope to communicate the sublime in every piece she creates, Tess believes that this experience helped her develop her art. She was able to do some drawing from life on her trip, and she truly realized how futile it can be to try to capture every small detail of a landscape. In any form of art, we can only communicate so much, but we can create something truly immersive. Tess is drawn to art (like Frankenstein) where there’s a sense that there’s more going on in the world of the story than what we’re being given. Barely-explored characters like Ernest Frankenstein and Margaret Saville have lives separate from the narrative. Animals live in the mountains near Chamonix and the forests outside Ingolstadt. The people living on the Orkneys barely realize they’re a part of Victor’s and the Creature’s narratives at all. This is something that we strive to incorporate into our own work – the sense that you’re only seeing a part of a bigger picture. You can’t take in that whole picture, so relish what you can take in.



The Romantics understood, of course, the inspirational power that the landscape could hold for artists, but they also understood the appeal of following artists who came before. Byron and Percy Shelley visited scenes of importance to Rousseau, and Keats followed Burns’ life in Scotland; these trips informed their work too. I find that this humanizes the poets who can seem a bit larger than life – their trip was motivated by the same desire as mine. Victor Frankenstein never set foot in the real Ingolstadt, but he’s just as (if not more) real in the public imagination at this point than his creator and her circle. Walking these real streets, changed as they are in two hundred years, feels like bringing these figures to life.


You can find more from Allison O’Toole and Tess Eneli Reid in Called into Being: A Celebration of Frankenstein, which you can now support on Kickstarter!

Allison is a freelance editor whose recent work includes Wayward Sisters: An Anthology of Monstrous Women and The Pitiful Human-Lizard. Tess is an illustrator and storyboard artist who self-publishes comics that focus on stories about the agency of people in harsh landscapes, and exploring personal histories in the underbelly of small-town Canada.

Keats’ ‘To Autumn’: Turning a corner

by Ian Reynolds


From the exceedingly good cakes of Mr Kipling in nineteen-seventies TV commercials, to supermarket adverts in more recent times, and most often without even a passing nod to Keats, copywriters have borrowed heavily from what many consider to be the poet’s great last ode – ‘To Autumn’.



The changing of the seasons, visions of mists of mellow fruitfulness, fruit on the vine, ripe, plump; the dividend of summer coming literally to fruition in its last days – the words paint an evocative picture delighting the senses – warm lusciousness, wellbeing, poetic symmetry, with a feeling of tranquillity and transcendence. This is why I have always loved this poem. It is also considered by many to be Keats most untroubled work. Ancient mythology and the Hellenic world are put to one side in this most perfect pastoral poem. Many scholars of Keats are much better qualified than this writer to do a critical analysis of the poem. Therefore, I will not go further, but to quote Professor Stanley Plumly from his book ‘Posthumous Keats: a personal biography’– he captures the sublime vision of the poem so eloquently:


It is this specific Sunday’s view of a last–summers–day’s–beginning–of–autumn–day’s transition, season to season, and at once this vision of eternal autumn, its mists, its fullness, its gatherings, its drowsiness, and its warmth that sets it apart. It is the full cup emptied, filled then unfilled. The tone, therefore, is residually spiritual, elevated beyond the autumnal emotion.


This discussion will endeavour to set out how the poem came into almost full being in just a few days in September 1819. It will also explore the change of poetical style from the Miltonic (John Milton – Paradise Lost) to the purest English, greatly influenced, in my view, by Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770). Chatterton was a prodigious talent from a very young age writing his first meaningful poems at eleven. However, despite this, he was considered by many to be a literary forger/impostor-poet. Most famously, the creation of a medieval identity for himself in the name of a fifteen-century priest/poet called Thomas Rowley. He even invented Rowley’s medieval language. Nonetheless, he was a creative genius publishing poems, sketches, essays, songs…before his young life was cut short aged seventeen after a drug overdose – some say accidental, others not. At the time of his premature death he had published fifty-three pieces and secured a book contract.

The Death of Chatterton, by Henry Wallis, Tate Gallery, London



The ode ‘To Autumn’ was created by John Keats on Sunday 19th September, 1819. We know this exact date because on Tuesday 21st September Keats wrote from Winchester to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds “How beautiful the season is now. How fine the air – a temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking – Dian skies. I never liked stubble-fields so much as now – aye, better than the chilly green of the Spring. Somehow, a stubble plain looks warm, in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”


Keats had been in Winchester since mid August, save for a trip up to London on 10th to 15th September, writing to finish off a number of his works which would later be included in Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems published in June 1820 by Taylor and Hessey. Good progress had been made, with the exception of the troublesome Hyperion, which he had commenced in the autumn of the preceding year. He writes to Benjamin Bailey on 14th August confirming that he has been “…writing parts of my Hyperion…” however five weeks later, he tells John Hamilton Reynolds that he has given up with writing Hyperion, citing that it had too many Miltonic inversions in it, and he wanted to give his self up to other sensations. In this same letter to Reynolds he also mentions that he always somehow associated Thomas Chatterton with autumn. “He is the purest writer in the English language. He has no French idiom, or particles like Chaucer – ‘tis genuine English idiom in English words”.


Keats later in the same week again revisits Chatterton in a long journal letter to his brother George and wife Georgina, written over the period Friday 17th to Monday 27th September. The journal entry for Saturday 18th September he reverts to the subject of Thomas Chatterton – it must have been in the forefront of his mind – “The purest English I think – or what ought to be the purest – is Chatterton’s”. He also advises that as part of his daily routine he takes a walk everyday for “an hour before dinner”; he goes on to share some detail about the first mile of his walk; passing the cathedral, through the college-like squares, onwards to College Street, crossing some meadows…You can virtually imagine him on the later part of his walk, standing on the chalk hills of the Twyford Downs, looking down towards the stubble-fields, and the visual warmth that they exude. In almost exactly one year to the day, John Keats would be embarking of the last chapter of his life, onboard the Maria Crowther bound for Italy. In a little more than 500 days he would be dead.


It is well known that Keats greatly appreciated the work of Thomas Chatterton. Indeed he dedicated ‘Endymion – A Poetic Romance’ published in 1818 to the memory of Chatterton:



Many scholars have looked at Keats’s published poetry to see influences of Chatterton. The acclaimed biographer of Keats Robert Gittings notes certain ad-hoc similar aspects of style in his earlier work, especially in the more tranquil and simple poems, but nothing that substantive. However, the turning point falls on that September weekend on 1819 when ‘To Autumn’ was written. Gittings writes: “To Autumn’ is the only later, major poem of Keats profoundly influenced by Chatterton, with greater debts that critics have realised. Besides the third minstrel’s song from Aella, other relaxed, spontaneous melodies of Chatterton’s perhaps also flooded Keat’s mind as he gave up the ‘artful or rather artist’s humour’ associated in his mind than with Milton and enjoyed temporary relief from tension.”


George Keats ended up with the only surviving fair copy of ‘To Autumn’ and in 1839 he gave it to a Miss Barker (late Mrs Ward) of Louisville, Kentucky. She gave it to her grand-daughter in 1896 who bequeathed it to the poet, Keats biographer and avid collector Amy Lowell, and henceforth to the Houghton Library at Harvard where it remains. Written on two pages, it is said that due to age, rather appropriately, the paper has taken on an oak-brown autumnal hue.



Ian Reynolds is a retired mechanical engineer who lives in Oxfordshire. He has a personal interest in those associated with the Keats-Shelley Circle, and poets of the Romantic period, especially John Keats. He is unaffiliated. Ian’s other interests include reading, listening to music, particularly rock and jazz, road cycling and wine.


References/Further reading

Groom, Nick. 2004″Chatterton, Thomas (1752–1770), poet.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography .

Plumly, Stanley, Posthumous Keats: a personal biography, (2008), New York: W.W. Norton

Gittings, Robert. “Keats and Chatterton” Keats-Shelley Journal 4 (1955): 47-54.


Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve


Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus:

As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or feeling of classical poetry or classical history, could have stooped to profane and vulgarise every association in the manner which has been adopted by this son of promise’.

Among Keats’s contemporaries, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron recognized Keats’s potential as a poet but not his execution. Years later, his mechanics in ‘Endymion’, or lack thereof, continue to be the subject of debate. What’s more, in the context of the early 19th century, education, class and/or political affiliation (Keats’s Tory sympathies had been well-known) often affected reviewers’ judgment. For example, Lockhart’s vitriol continued: “Mr Keats has adopted the loose, nerveless versification, and Cockney rhyme of the poet of Rimini”. Nor did it help that Keats undermined his own credibility by publicly acknowledging ‘Endymion’ should not have been published. In essence, the odds were stacked against him.

Given the period, when ‘Mad’ King George III’s reign had begun to wane and the upstart colonies had emerged victorious, the negative criticism could also have come from the strenuous objection to the racial overtones in ‘Endymion’ Book IV. Endymion, the shepherd king and poem’s hero has spent the previous three books lamenting his love and loss of the moon goddess and poetic muse, Cynthia. His long journey toward reclaiming her has left Endymion without hope: “What is there in thee, Moon! that shouldst move/My heart so potently?” (Book III). In Book IV however, he meets a mortal woman with whom he falls in love: “My sweetest Indian, here, /Here, will I kneel, for thou redeemest hast/My life from too thin breathing…”.

There are several references to this woman’s cultural heritage, which must have rattled those who considered interracial love taboo. How must the gentry, including the nouveau noble, Lord Byron, have responded to such an overt description? (By contrast, Lord Byron’s lyrical work, Hebrew Melodies of 1815, later set to Isaac Nathan’s songs, was well-received by conservative pundits, though the Jewish connection would be suppressed by future publishers.) Keats extricates himself from these treacherous waters when, during the dénouement at the end of the poem, the Indian woman is revealed to be Cynthia in disguise. Yet, even the suggestion of such a relationship would have sparked controversy, given the fact that mythological figures were conventionally depicted as white-skinned:

The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis
Jacques-Louis David, 1818


Is this a revisionist viewpoint? I think not; the British colonies were a means to an end—trade, commerce, wealth, imperial dominance—but to accept actual intermingling with the indigenous people would be tantamount to treason, and would continue to be so into the 20th century. For example, during the waning days of Queen Victoria’s reign, her friendship with an Indian-Muslim attendant, Abdul Karim, would evoke outrage.

The greatness of ‘Endymion’ lies in Keats’s willingness to experiment, and make a radical departure from poetic convention by his choice of heroine. Some contemporary critics lambasted the poetical mechanics and the verbiage, but others – including Byron – realized that the poem was challenging both the subjective and technical boundaries of verse. How sublime, then, that in ‘Endymion’ John Keats’s Shepherd King exemplified Romantic ideals—a reverence for love, the individual, as well as beauty in all its colours.


My Indian Bliss!
My river-lily bud! one human kiss! (Book IV)
‘Golpa Ma’ watercolor – Rare Books of India



Writer Wendy Shreve graduated from Smith College and received her Master’s Degree in English at the University of Montana. Her poetry, short stories, novels and articles have been published on-line as well as in print. Wendy’s film blog,, has a local, national and international following.

Film reviews: Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour

by Michael Johnstone


A chief aim of Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Mary Shelley is established in the film’s opening shot: a young Mary Godwin sits on the ground against the gravestone of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, reading a Gothic novel. From there, we will learn that Mary looks like her mother, that William Godwin taught his daughter to read by tracing the letters of her mother’s name on the gravestone, that Mary feels connected to her mother through her writing (in one scene holding A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), and that silhouettes and a small portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft are prevalent in William Godwin’s bookshop and home. The film depicts Mary Shelley as a woman author of fierce independence and ambition, confronting and overcoming the obstacles of a man’s world of writing, learning, publishing, and entitlement (social and sexual). Frankenstein, the film proposes, was Mary’s stinging commentary on that world, where men are “monsters” and young women such as Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont are discounted. As Claire says through tears after copying the manuscript of Frankenstein, she identified with the creature’s struggles and expected many more would, and so Mary “must” publish the novel.


Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley. Image: IFC Films

Al-Mansour’s film hits its emotional core once Mary drafts Frankenstein, presented in a series of images tracking Mary’s recognition of the destructive behaviour of men such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, interspersed with images of handwritten words that form and dissolve as Mary’s voiceover relates parts of the creature’s account. Here, the images and voiceover link Mary and the creature, reinforcing the film’s premise that the novel is the culmination of a young woman’s life of abandonment and contending with prejudice owing to her sex. When Percy has read that first draft, he proclaims its genius, but then wishes the creature to be “perfect,” an “angel,” to show humanity hope — a suggestion Mary refuses, replying that their lives are a mess, that she is a mess, which is reality. Percy relents, admitting Mary’s way is better. Overall, the sequence is absorbing, as a speculation upon the novel’s genesis and as an idea of the creature expressing the experience of women, especially women artists. I am tempted to think of Jane Austen’s observation in Northanger Abbey that women novelists were “an injured body” in the early nineteenth century ….


Regarding the context of the early nineteenth century, those very familiar with the period and either of the Shelleys in particular will notice the film’s creativity regarding chronology. When Mary and Percy first meet conflates different times: in Scotland, when she is sixteen and he twenty-one, they tell each other, which would be a year later than the proper year of 1812; Percy was visiting William Godwin in 1814, the year that saw him and Mary elope to France and Switzerland, but the film portrays all these events as taking place in the same year, mere months or weeks apart. The film’s own timeline produces additional historical anomalies. Claire Clairmont goes to a performance of Byron’s Werner, which he will not write until 1822. While the months during 1816 spent with Byron in Geneva was Mary and Percy’s second trip to Europe, the film makes it their first, and they are childless though their son William was born in January. (In fact, the film collapses their first three children into the birth and death of Clara, which actually came after Mary finished and then published Frankenstein, not before. It also skips over the months in Bath when the Shelleys returned to England, where Mary wrote much of Frankenstein and Claire gave birth to Allegra Byron in early 1817.) Moreover, Percy’s dialogue includes lines from his works, such as “the imagination is the instrument of moral good,” said in a church where he and Mary have their first kiss, though he composes A Defence of Poetry in 1821.

I mention these chronological glitches partly to warn those who might identify them and, perhaps, be pulled out of the film. On one hand, I am curious why Al-Mansour and the writer, Emma Jensen, made such choices. On the other hand, the film never definitively sets us in a specific year or month, which, upon reflection, allows it to fashion a sense of timelessness, or, rather, of not being strictly bound by time. We have impressions of Mary and Percy, which render them as both of their historical moment and relevant to our own. Mary’s struggles as a woman and author, therefore, continue across two hundred years, and her creature remains a voice for those denied the “compassionate touch” (as William Godwin says in the film) of the world.

However, the film as a whole feels anticlimactic. This feeling is highlighted by the scene of the nightmare that spurred Mary to write Frankenstein. It involves a mere several seconds of a haughty man touching a rod to the creature’s arm, the creature otherwise covered by a white sheet — not the harrowing, vivid “reverie” recounted by Mary Shelley in her introduction to the 1831 edition of the novel. Although the film finishes strongly, with Percy publicly acknowledging Mary’s authorship of Frankenstein at a gathering of men in William Godwin’s bookshop, it seems never quite to find the full, radical force of the “fire” in Mary’s “soul.” There are missed opportunities to delve further into the fraught months of the novel’s composition, when Mary faced scandal, upheaval, and loss.

Bel Powley, Elle Fanning, and Douglas Booth as Percy Shelley


Still, the film is carried by a compelling performance from Elle Fanning as Mary Shelley. Tom Sturridge is magnetic as Lord Byron, and Bel Powley gives her Claire Clairmont engaging depth as a woman even more discounted than Mary. The cinematography is lush, bold, and attentive, particularly with interiors such as the bookshop, the lodgings in St. Pancras, and the villa in Geneva. In the end, we have a film that certainly reminds us Mary Shelley at eighteen and nineteen years old shaped modernity, though it perhaps leaves wanting a richer, more rigorous portrait of how she did so.


Mary Shelley, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, written by Emma Jensen. Starring Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Stephen Dillane, Ben Hardy. USA, May 2018; UK, July 2018.

Michael Johnstone teaches at the Department of English, University of Toronto. His Twitter ID is @mikejwrites  



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