I have no friend,

Category: Writing & Reading | Type: Discussion | Title: Frankenstein (in Context) | Author: Mary Shelley | Ch: Letter 2

This plaintive admission, which describes the three principals, touches on a subject that figures prominently in the work of both Shelleys—a profound isolation that can be ameliorated only by friendship and love. Walton, Frankenstein, and the monster closely resemble one another in their individual loneliness. 

Percy Shelley's allegorical poem ALASTOR or The Spirit of Solitude follows aloneness to its tragic consequences. Shelley's friend Thomas Love Peacock suggested the title, saying that the name means "the spirit of solitude as a spirit of evil." Alastor is destroyed by his unfulfilled need for love and friendship. The poem, published in 1816 and written in 1815, soon after Mary and Percy returned from the Continent and shortly before she writes Frankenstein, has correspondences with the novel. Both Mary and Percy describe a quest for a lover, mate, or friend and the devastating effects of failure. Percy Shelley writes in the Preface to Alastor that Alastor's "mind is at length suddenly awakened and thirsts for intercourse with an intelligence similar to itself. He images to himself the Being whom he loves" but, never finding it, is confined to a rotting narcissism. Following the publication of Frankenstein, Mary writes Mathilda, a novel that opens describing an equally withering solitude, a childhood of isolated self-education, followed by an incestuous relationship, which can be seen as love at its most intimate and yet solitary, secret, self-enclosed. The wish for the closest possible intimacy made incest a theme and in instance a practice. Lord Byron and his half-sister had a love affair, the result of which was a child. 

Walton is writing to his sister. Other close though not incestuous relationships between siblings distinguished some of the Romantics. Jane Austen makes the point in Mansfield Park that the relations between siblings have a depth never achieved even by conjugal love. The brother and sister or, as in her case her relationship with her sister, Cassandra, is formed at the most impressionable time of one's life, early childhood, and sustained through the vicissitudes of adolescence and early adulthood. The brother and sister William and Dorothy Wordsworth, two years apart, separated in childhood and reunited in their early twenties, formed an intense bond. She continued to live with her brother after his marriage and through the remainder of her life, helping to care for his children and assist with his poetry. One of Wordsworth's finest poems, "Lines...Tintern Abbey," attests to the fertile complexity of their relationship, and her Journals record in poignant ways her devotion. 

Nearly equal in importance to the sibling relationship is that between friends who are united by a common endeavor, literature in the case of the Romantics. Possibly the most remarkable collaboration between any English poets was that of Wordsworth and Coleridge, a relationship that shaped their independent poetic missions and refined their ideas about literature. Wordsworth addressed and dedicated his epic-length autobiographical poem, The Prelude, to Coleridge, its best reader. In one of the most poignant poetic exchanges in English literature, the opening five stanzas of Wordsworth's then incomplete "Ode: Intimations of Immortality..." inspired Coleridge's "Dejection: An Ode" as a response, which in turn helped Wordsworth to then complete the Ode. 

The anxiety of solitude is a function of Romanticism's preoccupation with the individuated self, one, as Rousseau had shown in his Confessions, that, owing to its unique early experiences and acute sensibility, senses itself different and apart from all others. The Confessions begins, 

   I HAVE begun on a work which is without precedent, whose accomplishment will have no imitator. I propose to set before my fellow-mortals a man in all the truth of nature; and this man shall be myself.

   I have studied mankind and know my heart; I am not made like any one I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I at least claim originality, and whether Nature has acted rightly or wrongly in destroying the mold in which she cast me, can only be decided after I have been read. (transl. W. Conyngham Mallory)

Wordsworth writes that the poet differs in degree not kind; nevertheless, the difference can be isolating. Because of their individuality and heightened imaginations Blake and Shelley were thought mad by some, the poet John Clare did go mad, and young Thomas Chatterton, having lost his audience, killed himself. For a variety of reasons ranging from politics and Puritanical conventions to health and the weather Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats resided on the Continent. Coleridge's Ancient Mariner (he debuts in two paragraphs), a wanderer over the entire world, functions for Frankenstein as the representative isolate, condemned to apartness by a heinous act and then driven mad by witnessing its consequences. 

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