Shelley’s “Letter to Maria Gisborne” as Workshop Poetry

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garret, invention, poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley, steamboat, verse epistle, workshop

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Shelley’s “Letter to Maria Gisborne” is a playful improvisational verse epistle, widely praised for its urbanity and its display of the poet’s invention. The verses turn on a catalogue of the collection of odd scientific and mechanical objects that Shelley found scattered around him in the place he composed the letter, the Livorno workshop of Gisborne’s son, a young engineer who was building a new-model steamboat at the time (with Shelley’s financial and intellectual backing). In the context of that space, the poem reads as a response to competing notions of invention. For Shelley, the engineer’s workshop is an attractive alternative to the poet’s tower—which was uncomfortably close to a Grub Street garret. Verbal and visual images of poets’ and scientists’ workshops, from Hogarth and Mary Robinson, to Joseph Wright of Derby and Frankenstein, illustrate the tensions embodied in the physical location and poetic performance of Shelley’s celebrated “Letter.”

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The European Legacy, v. 24, issue 3-4, p. 380-395