divine wanderer

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divine wanderer

It is hard for a reader not to think that such inflated phrasing was intended by Mary Shelley to be read ironically. Yet even if these terms do call attention to themselves in that way, their context would appear to be complicated, even ambiguous, and thus not simply productive in the reader's mind of a countering deflation. For Mary Shelley the most immediate resonance would be of a work written during the same summer in which Frankenstein was begun, Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto 3. Stanza 70 of that poem contrasts the solitary Romantic impulse with the debilitating contentions of society denounced in its opening lines.

There, in a moment, we may plunge our years
In fatal penitence, and in the blight
Of our own soul turn all our blood to tears,
And colour things to come with hues of Night;
The race of life becomes a hopeless flight
To those that walk in darkness: on the sea,
The boldest steer but where their ports invite,
But there are wanderers o'er Eternity
Whose bark drives on and on, and anchor'd ne'er shall be.

This honoring of infinite mental freedom is of a piece with the thrust of major texts of European Romanticism, from Goethe's Faust to Wordsworth's Prelude, and nowhere moreso than in Byron's celebration of the artist's endeavors throughout his mature verse. Byron, however, is well aware—indeed, fashions Childe Harold's Pilgrimage around the supposition—that the rootless searcher for an infinitely receding ideal has an inverse double, which earlier in Canto III he had specifically demarcated, calling his antihero Harold "The wandering outlaw of his own dark mind" (III.20).

As these terms might suggest and as his knowing quotation of Paradise Lost in Stanza 70 indicates, Byron is himself deliberately playing against an archetype he would expect his readers immediately to recognize. It is Satan's cohort Belial who ironically pays fulsome tribute to divine wandering, which is to say, the angelic intellectual inquiry he has unknowingly forfeited with his fall:

     for who would lose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
Those thoughts that wander through eternity,
To perish rather, swallowed up and lost
In the wide womb of uncreated Night,
Devoid of sense and motion?
-- II.146-51.

Throughout the second book of his epic Milton plays upon the idea of wandering, equating it with the lost condition of all the Satanic legions. After Satan leaves Hell to scout out the new world, they are depicted as wholly unsettled in their new home:

     the ranged Powers
Disband; and, wandering, each his several way
Pursues, as inclination or sad choice
Leads him perplexed, where he may likeliest find
Truce to his restless thoughts . . .
-- II.522-26

As one group of fallen angels retires into philosophical discussion, they find their once divine assurance replaced by a fundamental uncertainty, expressed as "wandering mazes" of the mind.

Others apart sat on a hill retired,
In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate—
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.
Of good and evil much they argued then,
Of happiness and final misery,
Passion and apathy, and glory and shame:
Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy!—
-- II.557-65

In the meantime, their epitome Satan, reaching the gates of hell, confronts his daughter Sin and describes himself as on a "wandering quest" (II.830) across space in search of the newly created earth. Then, breaking out of hell and encountering the surrounding realm of Chaos, he again characterizes himself as "Wandering this darksome desert" (II.973). Satan's self-portrait may thus be seen to complete this series of references that connect the "wanderers o'er Eternity" celebrated by Byron and Belial with the darker Byronic avatar, the essentially Satanic "wandering outlaw of his own dark mind." Knowledgeable readers of Paradise Lost (and Mary Shelley proves herself such through out this novel's engagement with that prior text) might want, however, to recall the terms of its very end, where Adam and Eve depart Paradise "with wandering steps and slow" (XII.648), reminding us of how closely implicated in the idea of a fallen universe is the human condition we share with our mythic forebears.

Of course, Mary Shelley's novel can stand on its own independent of such an elaborate literary cross-referencing. When we finally hear from Victor Frankenstein of the vicissitudes and despondency he has experienced in his arctic wanderings (III:7:21), we will have another, more immediately ironic context against which to view Walton's enthusiastic apostrophe to his new friend.