Jesse Monteagudo

John Lauritsen's Shelley

Filed By Jesse Monteagudo | September 26, 2011 8:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History
Tags: John Lauritsen, Mary Shelley, Oresteia, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus, The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Thomas Medwin

In 2007, 240px-Percy_Bysshe_Shelley_by_Alfred_Clint.jpgJohn Lauritsen published The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein, in which he argued that it was Perry Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), and not his second wife Mary, who wrote that great novel. "The evidence," Lauritsen says, "both textual and extra-textual, conclusively shows that Mary Shelley had neither the imagination nor the technique to write Frankenstein. Every page of Frankenstein shows the hand of Shelley: his ideas, imagination, passion, and mastery of prose."

Not surprisingly, Lauritsen's book caused some controversy among academic and feminist circles. This "academic reaction," Lauritsen believes, is "due to two things: 1) Mary Shelley was an icon, a sacred cow, to academic feminists, and 2) many or even most of the leading scholars of English Romanticism were invested in what I call 'the Mary Shelley myth.' That is to say, reputations were at stake."

Frankenstein was not the first time that Lauritsen wrote about, or published, the works of Shelley.

"My personal interest in Shelley began when I first read his translation of Plato's Dialogue on Eros: The Symposium (or what Shelley titled The Banquet)," Lauritsen writes. "This greatest of Plato's dialogues, devoted to male love, came fully alive, and I was hooked. Since then my admiration has increased for Shelley's principled radicalism, his atheism, his imagination, and his mastery of both poetry and prose."

In 2001 Lauritsen's Pagan Press - which he founded in 1982 to "publish books of interest to the intelligent gay man" - published an edition of Shelley's translation of Plato's The Banquet. Lauritsen and his press continue in this tradition with two more volumes of Shelley translations from the Greek; this time of plays by Aeschylus (524-456 BC).

The first volume, Oresteia, contains the Oresteia trilogy: Agamemnon, Choëphori (or Libation Bearers), and Eumenides (or Kindly Ones). The second volume, a veritable Promethean feast, includes Aeschylus's play Prometheus Bound, along Shelley's own poem Prometheus Unbound, an appreciation of the same by John Addington Symonds, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's poem Prometheus. In translating Aeschylus, Shelley collaborated with his cousin, Thomas Medwin (1788-1869).

Both the Oresteia and the Prometheus translations were published after Shelley's death by Medwin, who then and since has gotten sole credit for those translations. Lauritsen uses both biographical and textual evidence to argue that Shelley's contributions to these editions are at least as significant as his cousin's.

"No other English poet was capable of the brilliant versification on display in the Aeschylus translations," he writes. "Shelley's hand is also manifest in the dialogue passages, where he masterfully uses pentameter (the meter of Chaucer and Shakespeare) as he did in his own poems, most notably Prometheus Unbound."

These are not "slavishly literal, word-for-word translations" but recreate "the full and entire sense - the energy, wit, irony and pathos - of the original." As a gifted translator at the level of Pope and Dryden, Shelley produced translations that are poetic masterpieces in their own right; ones that "could effectively be put on the stage."

Though Shelley married (eloped) with two women - Harriet Westbrook and Mary Godwin - and was linked to others, Lauritsen is convinced that Shelley was gay, or at least bisexual. Actually, Lauritsen "insists on using 'gay' to comprise both the exclusively gay and the 'bisexual' categories. A gay man is aware of, acknowledges and accepts, his erotic attraction to other males, and it is irrelevant whether he is also attracted to females, or is capable of having sex with them. The main evidence for Shelley's gayness is in the many homoerotic references in his works, some of them coded and intended only for the 'initiated,' but others remarkably direct."

The "one great love of his [Shelley's] life" was Thomas Jefferson Hogg, with whom Shelley wrote a subversive pamphlet that caused both men to be expelled from Oxford. Shelley's letters to Hogg, Lauritsen tells me, "were written in anguish and heart-felt sincerity." Shelley's last "beloved friend," Edward Ellerker Williams, drowned with him in a boating accident in the Gulf of Spezia (July 8, 1822). Both men were cremated; their ashes were mixed (like lovers) and buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

There is enough in these Pagan Press editions to interest any intelligent gay man. In fact, as Lauritsen points out, "all of the authors and artists in my two latest books were or are gay: Aeschylus, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Thomas Medwin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, John Lauritsen, and Jerry Harding, who did the cover art for Oresteia. The eroticism of the painting used for the Prometheus cover strongly suggests that the artist, Jean-Louis-Cesar Lair was also gay."

From reading Shelley's writings or translations, an intelligent gay man will get "pleasure from the sounds, images and ideas of great poetry."

Oresteia: The Medwin-Shelley Translation by Aeschylus, translated by Percy Bysshe Shelley & Thomas Medwin; Edited and with Foreword by John Lauritsen; Pagan Press; 192 pages; $14.

Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, translated by Thomas Medwin & Percy Bysshe Shelley + Prometheus Unbound by Percy Bysshe Shelley; Edited and with Foreword by John Lauritsen; Pagan Press; 211 pages; $16.

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Lauritsen's argument is entirely rooted in explicit misogyny, since it consists entirely of masturbating over the supposed intellectual and artistic superiority of gay men over icky, icky girls.

Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin, was one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 18th and 19th Centuries. He took an active part in his daughter's education (which, like the Bronte's was unorthodox but creative, experiential and emphasized critical thought). She wrote other novels with complex views of history and social order. She supplied numerous entries on history and political theory to the 'Cabinet Cyclopedia'... a publication which attracted some of the leading minds of the time. To suggest she "didn't have the imagination" to write Frankenstein is an act of extreme misogyny and small mindedness. If you're interested in whether Percy Shelley was gay... fine but don't, in the process, try to demean one of the 19th Century's most creative minds.

I think Lauritsen also ignores the fact that whether or not Shelley ever had sex with another man, it's a stretch to call him gay.

The whole idea of a gay man (as an identity) is a 20th century development. The word 'homosexual' was only coined in the mid 19th century, after the Insustrial Revolution lead to the formation of gay communities in urban centres (which had not existed to the same extent before.) Before that being gay was an act rather than an identity - the crime of sodomy was the ACT of anal sex. It was not an identity.

As for the author of 'Frankenstein' - well Mary Shelley is the acknowledged writer. To suggest her husband was in fact the author, remains an unproven theory.

You know Jesse, I'm frankly surprised (and not a little disappointed) that a man of your lucid intellect and rhetorical gifts could write so uncritically about another man whose scholarship is at best sloppy and undisciplined and at worst, how shall we say . . . both
vapidly and breathlessly wishful?