notes on ‘Mary Shelley’

People, Adult, Man, Group, Monochrome, Panoramic


I read ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley in my twenties and was expecting a fairly typical story in the horror genre. I was not expecting to be so moved by the loneliness and social-isolation of Dr Frankenstein’s creation. More recently I listened to a program on Radio 4 called ‘You’re Dead to Me’. It was presented by Greg Jenner (of Horrible Histories fame) and gave a fascinating insight into the life of Mary Shelley. For instance, I learned she spent a great deal of her childhood by the side of her mother’s grave, and often traced the letters on her gravestone in order to practice her handwriting.


I want this poem to be entertaining to read (especially aloud to an audience) and I hope that people to enjoy the spooky gothic nature of it.

I also want to celebrate the life of Mary Shelley who did not get enough credit whilst she was alive. For instance, many people thought that her husband, the poet Percy Shelley, wrote ‘Frankenstein’, believing that a woman would not be capable of such things.

Themes in Poem

Mary Shelley was fascinated by science in all its varied forms. As can be seen from Frankenstein, however, she was worried about the conflict between science, nature and God.

As such, I chose the environment as my primary theme as I think, if she were around today, this would feature heavily in her thoughts and her writing.

Family is another important theme. Mary Shelley’s mother died when she a baby and her father disowned her. She was buried in the same graveyard and I liked the idea of them being reunited in death.

The last major theme is religion. The uprising happens in the churchyard and I intended the sense of punishment and retribution to echo some of the passages in the Old Testament where people are punished for their sins. Some of the archaic language, repetition and rhythms mirror this I think. For instance: ‘there must be some redress, there must be some retribution’, ‘yet there is hope’ and the final stanza of the poem.

The poem does raise the question as to whether these spirits come from heaven or hell and your reading of it may depend on your feeling towards people who harm the environment.

Use of language and how it relates to the theme/message

I wanted to set the gothic tone straightaway by introducing the blood moon, the stars and the black night. The long ‘oo’ sound in moon is intended to evoke a howl from a wolf and the alliterative ‘h’ in ‘hangs heavy’ echoes the sound of short nervous breaths.

I use triplets in the tolling of the hour, in order to make the tale seem like something out of a fairy tale, and I use ‘trembles, turns and tumbles’ similarly and because – at least to me – the alliteration and consonance of m/n/s imitates the sound of the earth moving around.

Next I created an extended metaphor where the bones are likened to plants. The knucklebones (like new shoots) surge up through the soil, making a ‘springtime’, the skulls are ‘mushrooms’ and arm bones are ‘saplings.’ I wanted to create a contrast between the beauty of nature and the horrific image of the dead rising from their graves as I think the conflict makes the grotesque images even more nightmarish.

The stanza about Mary Shelley’s family also plays with the contrast between what is natural and what is unsettlingly-gothic and unnatural. Her mother’s bones ‘crawl’ as a baby does, she ‘shrugs’ off her ‘earthen mantle’; they ‘embrace.’ These simple, homely verbs make the scene feel like an everyday family reunion rather than a zombie apocalypse film.

Both of these stanzas relate to the theme of science and human selfishness versus nature and human loving kindness. I am trying to give the sense that although Mary, her friends and her family rising up from the graves may be a terrifying thought, it is not as terrifying as the thought of global warming and pollution killing the planet.

The following stanza lists the victims of the environmental zombie walk in quite everyday, modern-sounding language which contrasts with the gothic introduction. I wanted to change the pace and clearly explain the message of the poem in that people who pollute the earth and, in particular, hypocrites like the scientist with her ‘frequent flyer miles’ might receive some sort of comeuppance. Nature – together with a little help from Mary Shelley & Co – might get her revenge. I wonder if this stanza is a little too simplistic compared to the others. It might need another edit. I think I’ll come back to it in a couple of months and decide then.

The last part of the poem slows down the pace again by using a lot of repetition and Old Testament- style rhythms. This matches the theme of punishment as stated in the line ‘there must be some redress, there must be some retribution.’ There is hope at the end of the poem. The repetition of ‘labour’ reinforces the fact that humankind will have to work extremely hard to make a change but the dual meaning in that ‘labour’ also means to give birth suggests that the next generation might do a better job.

The end of the poem returns to the natural imagery and is intended to make people think of the circle of life in that it echoes the biblical line ‘from earth to earth, dust to dust’ meaning people come from the earth and return to the earth. Although many people will see it as a horrific end to the poem, I am trying to explore the notion that even though the things we do, with the assistance of science, may go against the natural order, we are still animals, still part of the world, still – in essence – natural.