This on-line version of "On The Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci" by Percy Bysshe Shelley is edited by Melissa J. Sites and Neil Fraistat. The text is taken from Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Mary W. Shelley (London: John and Henry L. Hunt, 1824), pages 139-40. Mary Shelley's transcription of the poem can be found in Bodleian MS Shelley adds. d.7, pp. 97-8, 100, reproduced in the Garland Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts, volume 2.
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|IT lieth, gazing on the midnight sky,|
|Upon the cloudy mountain peak supine;|
|Below, far lands are seen tremblingly;|
|Its horror and its beauty are divine.|
|Upon its lips and eyelids seems to lie||5|
|Loveliness like a shadow, from which shrine,|
|Fiery and lurid, struggling underneath,|
|The agonies of anguish and of death.|
|Yet it is less the horror than the grace|
|Which turns the gazer's spirit into stone;||10|
|Whereon the lineaments of that dead face|
|Are graven, till the characters be grown|
|Into itself, and thought no more can trace;|
|'Tis the melodious hue of beauty thrown|
|Athwart the darkness and the glare of pain,||15|
|Which humanize and harmonize the strain.|
|And from its head as from one body grow,|
|As [ ] grass out of a watery rock,|
|Hairs which are vipers, and they curl and flow|
|And their long tangles in each other lock,||20|
|And with unending involutions shew|
|Their mailed radiance, as it were to mock|
|The torture and the death within, and saw|
|The solid air with many a ragged jaw.|
|And from a stone beside, a poisonous eft||25|
|Peeps idly into those Gorgonian eyes;|
|Whilst in the air a ghastly bat, bereft|
|Of sense, has flitted with a mad surprise|
|Out of the cave this hideous light had cleft,|
|And he comes hastening like a moth that hies||30|
|After a taper; and the midnight sky|
|Flares, a light more dread than obscurity.|
|'Tis the tempestuous loveliness of terror;|
|For from the serpents gleams a brazen glare|
|Kindled by that inextricable error,||35|
|Which makes a thrilling vapour of the air|
|Become a [ ] and ever-shifting mirror|
|Of all the beauty and the terror there-|
|A woman's countenance, with serpent locks,|
|Gazing in death on heaven from those wet rocks.||40|
The source of Shelley's lines ["Yet it is
less the horror than the grace/Which turns the gazer's spirit
into stone"], I would guess, is not "theoretical/critical" but
rather literary-historical. There is a series that runs from
Ben Jonson to Milton to Pope that develops the figure of the
hearer or reader or spectator as turned to stone, hence the
appropriateness of Shelley's applying it to Medusa. The
sequence goes as follows:
The first hint is given by Ben Jonson in his tribute to Shakespeare in the First Folio (1623):
Thou art a Monument without a tomb
And art still alive while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read and praises give. (22-24)
John Milton, in "On Shakespeare" prefaced to the Second Folio (1632), then expands upon Jonson's figure so that the monument is explicitly the spectator turned to stone in amazement:
Thou in our wonder and astonishment
Has built thyself a livelong monument. (7-8)
Then thou, our fancy of itself bereaving,
Dost make us marble with too much conceiving. (13-14)
Milton returns to this figure in "Il Penseroso" when he addresses Melancholy, personified as a "pensive Nun" who is looking to the skies,
Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes;
There held in holy passion still,
Forget thyself to marble.... (40-42).
Pope remembers these lines when he writes about the melancholy of a historical nun, in "Eloisa to Abelard." Eloisa addresses the statues of saints, saying,
Though cold like you, unmoved and silent grown,
I have not yet forgot myself to stone. (23-24)
I could expand upon an interpretation of this trope in its contexts, but that it beside your point. It is easily established, of course, that Shelley read all of these poets, even if one can't find *prose* references to the specific poems.
Robert J. Griffin
Tel Aviv University
Robert J. Griffin
Tel Aviv University
Candace Kern infers that Burke is not one of
the sources for Shelley's lines in his posthumously published
poem "On the Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci in the Florentine
Gallery," but the discourse surrounding the French revolution
is probably a relevant context for this fragment. Neil Hertz,
in "Medusa's Head: Male Hysteria under Political Pressure"
(_Representations_ 4 : 27-54) points out that the image
of Medusa was widely employed by British writers in popular
representations of the Terror. Both W. J. T. Mitchell, in the
essay Kern mentions, and Jerome McGann, in "The Beauty of the
Medusa: A Study in Romantic Literary Iconology" (_Studies in
Romanticism_ 11 : 3-25), emphasize the importance of this
context for Percy Shelley's poem. I discuss it as well in the
course of relating the poem to Mary Shelley's _Frankenstein_,
published the year before Percy composed his stanzas, and to
Percy's "Preface" to his wife's novel (see my essay "Concealed
Circuits: Frankenstein's Monster, the Medusa, and the Cyborg,"
in _Raritan_ 15 [Spring, 1996]: 53-69).
Shelley's interesting fragment has not received much attention, but in addition to the articles mentioned above, Carol Jacobs has a provocative close reading in "On Looking at Shelley's Medusa," in a Special Issue of _Yale French Studies_ on the topic of "The Lesson of Paul de Man" (69 : 163-79). Daniel Hughes also has a short note, "Shelley, Leonardo, and the Monsters of Thought," in _Criticism_ 12 (1970): 195-212.
While on this topic, let me thank Bob Griffin for his interesting sequence of references in Ben Jonson, Milton, and Pope. This alternative context seems germane, and it will improve my appreciation of Percy Shelley's fragment.
Shelley's interest in Medusa and the Gorgons
spanned his entire career and is evident as early as 1810, when
he used the following passage from Aeschylus' *Eumenides* (V.48
49, 52-54) as an epigraph to Canto IV of *The Wandering
Jew*:"No! women they were surely not, Gorgons I rather call
them. Nor yet can I liken them to forms of Gorgons either. . .
. sable, and altogether detestable. Their snorting nostrils
blow forth fearsome blasts, and from their eyes oozes a loathly
rheum" (trans. Herbert Weir Smyth [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
UP, 1926]: II, 277).
University of Maryland, College Park
Just a couple of thoughts about Shelley's
"Medusa". I took it (perhaps incorrectly) that Candace Kern's
query was directed less towards the fact of the viewer being
turned to stone than towards the fact that it is the "grace"
rather than the "horror" that effects this. This apparent
paradox is less striking, of course, when we read these lines
Yet it is less the horror than the grace
Which turns the gazer's spirit into stone;
Whereon the lineaments of that dead face
Are graven, till the characters be grown
Into itself, and thought no more can trace;
'Tis the melodious hue of beauty thrown
Athwart the darkness and the glare of pain,
Which humanize and harmonize the strain.
To some extent, then, Shelley is merely playing here. He presents us with the rather shocking notion that the Medusa's "grace" is what turns us to stone, only to carry on to elaborate the image so that it is more clearly conventional (placing it in precisely the lineage that Bob Griffin outlined: the viewer/audience becomes the monumental record of the subject's beauty).
But I would argue that Shelley wants us to retain some sense of our initial reading of the image as well. Shelley believed in the power of beauty - that it was potentially radical, dangerous. The interesting figure to compare with the Medusa is his Witch of Atlas:
For she was beautiful - her beauty made
The bright world dim, and everything beside
Seemed like the fleeting image of a shade:
No thought of living spirit could abide,
Which to her looks had ever been betrayed,
On any object in the world so wide,
On any hope within the circling skies,
But on her form, and in her inmost eyes. (137-44)
The Witch, of course, is forced to veil her beauty - and as such she stands for (among other things) the necessarily veiled nature of poetry ("veil after veil may be undrawn, and the inmost naked beauty of the meaning never exposed" - as he puts it in the "Defence"). Medusa, then, is a kind of unveiled Witch - which raises interesting questions in the light of the famous lines from "The Witch of Atlas":
If you unveil my Witch, no priest nor primate
Can shrive you of that sin.-- if sin there be
In love, when it becomes idolatry. (46-8)
The relationship between our transformation into monumental stone, graven with "the lineaments of that dead face", and this "idolatry" is reasonably straightforward. But while most commentators would agree that - for all his tongue in cheek attitude - Shelley is "seriously" opposed to any attempt to "unveil" the Witch (to hypostatize what should be fluid, indeterminate), it seems less clear that he is similarly troubled by the Medusa's capacity to turn us to stone. Any thoughts about this? (P.S., I haven't reviewed the literature on this poem in a long time, so if I'm just traipsing back over someone else's well-won argument, forgive me).
Victoria University of Wellington
Users might want to visit
Mandy Albright's Laugh of the Medusa Page.
University of Maryland, College Park
Shelley's interest in the Medusa carries
over into politics--by way of anthropology. As Tobin Siebers
has shown (in The Mirror of Medusa, 1983), the Gorgon
has traditionally been associated with curses and with
amuletic, ritual language. As I've argued (in Shelley's
Satire, 1994), this tradition allows Shelley to load the
figure with an ambivalent rhetorical power, especially as it's
deployed in his personal and political satire. In fact, once we
look at other contemporary satire and political journalism, we
find that Gorgonian heads--or that other monster, related by
image and association, the hydra--are everywhere, symbols of
inhuman (or frighteningly collective) conspiracies of power.
See, for example, the radical Painite journal actually titled
the Medusa (founded 1819), or the famous William Hone
pamphlet, THE POLITICAL SHOWMAN--AT HOME!.
Loyola University Chicago
The only facsimile that I have been able to locate of the "Head of the Medusa" that inspired Shelley is in Gli Uffizi Catalogo Generale, ed. Luciano Berti et al (Florence: Centro Di, 1979), inventory number P1472, page 485. The facsimile is a tiny greyscale reproduction. In order to avoid copyright infringement, and in order to elucidate the details that I can make out in the facsimile, I have made a line drawing, so that people can see how, in general, the painting is organized. This should be paired with the verbal descriptions of other scholars, such as McGann, in his "The Beauty of the Medusa."
Melissa J. Sites
University of Maryland, College Park
In the text of Shelley's poem published in
Posthumous Poems and in the manuscript lines reproduced
in the Bodleian Shelley, vol. 2, the terror and grace with
which the Medusa figure transfixes viewers seems to me to
belong to a larger Romantic interest in the allure and risk of
figured abstractions. The stony or "astonied" appearance of
these figures is a resonant emblematic image of the fact that
they are not life but art. At times, though, as in Shelley's
poem, these figures are presented as though they were once
living beings. The frequency with which the Medusa image crops
up in the French Revolution might thereby register the troubled
alliance in that history between beauty, theoretical
abstraction, and the Terror. The eroticism which Shelley and
Keats invest in such female figures insists on their
fascination as well as danger for these male Romantic poets. I
have written about Shelley's Medusa and allied figures in
Reinventing Allegory, forthcoming from Cambridge UP.
Susan Wolfson discusses the implications of Keats's interest in
the Medusa in Formal Charges (Stanford,
Theresa M. Kelley
University of Texas
An on-line discussion of Shelley's "Medusa" began on NASSR-L in mid-January, and a few of the original NASSR-L postings have been reproduced here with the permission of the authors. We hope that our hypertext edition can grow through users' comments on the poem, and comments on the comments of others. Also welcome are related images, texts, and links--as well as additions to the evolving bibliography.
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