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The Voice of the Earth

Shelley
Posthumous painting of Shelley writing Prometheus Unbound by Joseph Severn. c1845. Severn depicts Shelley in the midst of Italian ruins being transformed by natural forces, while writing a poem in which the Earth plays a central (and speaking) role.
In Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy (1819) and Prometheus Unbound (1820), the Earth appears as a speaking figure with a political message. Shelley invokes this figure of the earth to remind us of the common origin of all humans, and therefore a certain basic equality we all share. In both texts, the Earth speaks with a kind of authority that some modern environmentalists might find appealing. At the same time, Shelley's imagining of the Earth, especially in Prometheus Unbound, is not immune to an instrumental logic in which the Earth is less valuable in herself than in the use to which she may be put.

The majority of Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy is taken up by a speech to the "Men of England," made after the death of the titular figure Anarchy, a figure indicating both a general state of violent disorder and an indictment of the government that had brought about the Peterloo Massacre. Exactly who is making this speech is not immediately clear. The figure of Hope seems a likely candidate, being the surviving opponent and almost-victim of Anarchy, while an indeterminate "Shape arrayed in Mail" stands as the apparent vanquisher of the same figure. The words, however, arise most immediately "as if" from the "indignant Earth / Which gave the sons of England birth," and later, more specifically, "As if her heart cried out aloud" (lines 139-40, 146). Despite the hypothetical tone of this attribution, the source of the speech in the earth seems confirmed by the speaker's appeal to the men as "Nurslings of one mighty Mother" and call for them to claim "the inheritance of the Earth" (149, 183). Speaking after the downfall of the tyrannical king Anarchy, the earth speaks as a voice of true authority. In this voice, the earth comes not to enslave the men of England to a new master, but to encourage them to realize a state of freedom and equality. This state, in the logic of the Earth's speech, is already anticipated in their common presence on and relation to the Earth herself.

As a speaking character in Shelley's drama Prometheus Unbound, the Earth appears somewhat differently. Still conceived of as mother (addressed as "venerable mother" by Prometheus), The Earth here is identified with the Greek Goddess Gaia. In this role, the earth is granted authority, but this authority is secondary to that of the offspring that succeed her, particularly the Eternal, Demogorgon. In Act Four, the earth comes to joyously speak of her mass as a being "interpenetrated" and says of man that "all things confess his strength." Shelley's figurations here seem to correspond to enlightenment binaries of the masculine/rational and feminine/natural and reinforce a sense of mastery eschewed in other Romantic works. Yet Shelley has the same Earth speak in Act 3, anticipating her "many children fair / Folded in my sustaining arms" and that plants, animals and "human shapes" might alike "become like sister-antelopes / By one fair dam," i.e., the earth herself. In all of her speaking appearances, Shelley's Earth gives voice to a demand for human equality and freedom. But she is somewhat less clear in helping us to understand how we are to relate to herself.

Andrew Lallier






Select Bibliography

Morton, Timothy. "Shelley's Green Desert." Studies in Romanticism 35.3 (Fall 1996): 409-430. Print.