ODD TRUTHS: THE OCCULT SECRETS OF PERCY SHELLEY
In 1818, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was published anonymously in London. Shelley began writing the novel as an experimental short ghost story during Europe’s “Year Without a Summer” in 1816. It went on to become one of the most famous works of Gothic romance in the English language.
The book’s plot focuses on the aspirations and torments of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who longs to “penetrate the secrets of nature”. Before matriculating at the University of Ingolstadt (the alma mater of several historical occultists), Victor comes under the influence of a few magicians of note; Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus. Spellbound by their ideas, the young man admits that they are the “lords” of his imagination.
Later, at the urging of Professor Waldman at Ingolsadt, Frankenstein further devotes himself to the study of the natural sciences and the “deepest mysteries of creation”. His research becomes a grisly obsession, and at times he spends “days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses” in pursuit of the knowledge of life and death. Ultimately, Frankenstein succeeds in his quest and becomes a kind of Prometheus, using heavenly fire (electricity) to generate a monster.
There are certainly many real-life counterparts to the empassioned character of Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s tale, but the most obvious is Percy Shelley, her husband. Like the Genevan scientist, Percy Shelley was arguably an unrealised wizard. While at Eton, the poet spent his pocket money on books on witchcraft and magic. As a student at The University of Oxford, Shelley stocked his room with crucibles, microscopes, electric machines, and air pumps; all the contraptions and instruments of an independent gentleman-scientist. Interestingly, Shelley’s novel, St. Irvyne; or, the Rosicrucian: A Romance was written while he was an undergraduate. The story traces the adventures of a hedonistic wanderer and his encounters with an elusive alchemist and Rosicrucian.
In letters to William Godwin, Shelley also mentions his affinity for Paracelsus, Albertus Magnus, and Heinrich Agrippa. In another letter, this time to Leigh Hunt, Shelley fantasises about the Illuminati. To combat the “coalition of the enemies of liberty”, he suggests creating his own cabal of “enlightened and unprejudiced members”.
But Shelley’s greatest foray into the occult sciences happened one night at Eton. So far, this is the only evidence available of Shelley assuming the role of necromancer. The following excerpt is from The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Thomas Jefferson Hogg (p. 34):
Even though the evocation was unsuccessful, Shelley’s passionate love for the fantastic never subsided. Throughout his writing career he continued to employ esoteric language to refer to poetry. In Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni (composed in 1816) Shelley compares poetry’s “sublime and strange” potential to the cave of an Alpine witch. In his 1821 essay A Defence of Poetry, Shelley likens poetry to alchemy:
“It transmutes all that it touches, and every form moving within the radiance of its presence is changed by wondrous sympathy to an incarnation of the spirit which it breathes: its secret alchemy turns to potable gold the poisonous waters which flow from death through life; it strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty, which is the spirit of its forms.”
For reasons unknown, Shelley apparently chose not to return to his occult experiments. However, his secretive legacy of investigating the preternatural was picked up by other occultist-poets such as William Butler-Yeats and Aleister Crowley. These Victorian-era magi took their research much further than Shelley ever could.