Everyone knows Mary Shelley (1797-1851) as the writer of well-known Gothic novel Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus (1818), but she wrote poetry as well. Shelley was the daughter of political philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836) and her mother the was well-known writer and “early feminist” Mary Wollonstonecraft (1759-1797). She never knew her mother who died shortly after giving birth to Mary. Her parents were liberals and her father gave her a good education even if it was informal. As a young girl Mary Shelley started to write short stories and maintained a lifelong interest in writing. She wrote novels, drama, poetry and about her travels. She married the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1816 and they travelled a lot and lived a somewhat unconventional life together until he drowned in Switzerland. They met in 1814 and Mary’s father never accepted their marriage. Mary got pregnant before they married which gave the pair social difficulties. After her husband’s death Mary focused on their young son and her writing. Mary Shelley died of a brain tumour at the age of 53 in London. She had been ill for over a decade.
Context and literary themes
This poem “A Night Scene” is about a woman called Isabel. The poem is quite lenghty and has a number of themes common to any writer of the Romantic period. Pay attention to the vivid descriptions of light, the Stars and the Night. How does they frame the story told in the poem? What can be said about the woman named Isabel? Notice how the protagonist takes on a male perspective: “That on that couch my Isabel reclines. I see yon brilliant star and waving tree,”
The Poem: “A Night Scene”
I see thee not, my gentlest Isabel;
Ambrosial night, with her mysterious spell,
Has woven shadows thick before thy face,
Drawing impervious veils athwart the space
That does divide us; thy bright eyes alone
A lucid beam into the dark have thrown,
Till the long lashes and the downcast lid
Quench it again, and the bright orbs are hid.
I see thee not: the touch of they soft hand,
And thy deep sighs, fraught with emotion bland,
Are to my sense the only outward signs
That on that couch my Isabel reclines.
I see yon brilliant star and waving tree,
Through which its beams rain down inconstantly;
I see ten thousand of those radiant flowers
Which shed light on us in dim silver showers,
High in the glorious heavens; I see full well
All other forms – not thine, my Isabel.
Sweet Mystery! I know that thou art there–
I scent the fragrance of thy silken hair;
The lines that do encircle thee I trace;
That spot is hallow’d by thy lovely face;
Thy woman’s form, in soft voluptuousness,
Enriches vacant air in yon recess;
Yet to my eyes no sign of thee appears,
And the drear blank suggests a thousand fears.
Speak, Isabel! – And yet not thus were broken
The cruel spell – for have not spirits spoken?
Are then thine eyes no nearer than that star,
Which unattainably doth shine afar?
Thy voice as immaterial as the wind
That murmurs past, yet leaves no form behind?
And is the visiting of this soft gale,
Rich with the odours of the flow’rets pale,
Which sweeps my bosom with delicious fanning,
My thrilling limbs with arms aerial spanning,
Is it as truly real, as warmly glowing
As thy dear form, rich with the life-tide flowing?
Ah, darling, quick thine arms around me throw,
Press thy warm lips upon my night-cool brow,
In thy dark eyes thy fair soul I must read –
One kiss, sweet heaven, ’tis Isabel indeed!
List of works by Mary Shelley – Information about the poem cited.
wikipedia.org (various entries about Mary Shelley and her literary works)