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  • Shelley, the Cat, the Kite and the Bolt of Lightning May 11, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    Beachcombing thought that today he would combine a recent obsession – cats, with an older obsession – lightning and a coming obsession, kites. The party guilty for bringing these three unlikely subjects together was none other than Romantic brat extraordinaire Percy Bysshe Shelley (obit 1822 – ‘I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed’ blah blah) who at some point in the very early nineteenth century sent up a local tomcat on a kite to see what lightning would do to ‘a living body’.

    Now Shelley, often described by fawning biographers as a ‘sensitive soul’, had showed a fascination from an early age in the potential of science to wreck – a principle he would later apply in his poetry and his love affairs. Just to give the reader a flavour, as he was being driven away to Eton his family’s chimney exploded: the young genius had put a primitive bomb under it, timing the catastrophe to when he would be out of the range of punishment but close enough to hear and enjoy the mayhem. That could stand for Shelley’s philosophy through the few short years of his life.

    His sister recalls some other examples of Shelley’s ‘eccentric amusements’ with electricity:

    When my brother commenced his studies in chemistry, and practised electricity upon us, I confess my pleasure in it was entirely negatived by terror at its effects. Whenever he came to me with his piece of folded brown packing-paper under his arm, and a bit of wire and a bottle (if I remember right) my heart would sink with fear at his approach; but shame kept me silent, and, with as many others as he could collect, we were placed hand-in-hand round the nursery table to be electrified; but when a suggestion was made that chilblains were to be cured by this means, my terror overwhelmed all other feelings, and the expression of it released me from all future annoyance’.

    And the poet’s interests in this direction continued in his short sojourn at Oxford (before he was predictably enough expelled). This is a contemporary recalling a visit to his rooms.

    ‘[Shelley] then proceeded, with much eagerness and enthusiasm, to show me the various instruments, especially the electrical apparatus; turning round the handle very rapidly, so that the fierce, crackling sparks flew forth; and presently standing upon the stool with glass feet, he begged me to work the machine until he was filled with the fluid, so that his long, wild locks bristled and stood on end. Afterwards he charged a powerful battery of several large jars; laboring with vast energy, and discoursing with increasing vehemence of the marvellous powers of electricity, of thunder and lightning; describing an electrical kite that he had made at home, and projecting another and an enormous one, or rather a combination of many kites, that would draw down from the sky an immense volume of electricity, the whole ammunition of a mighty thunderstorm; and this being directed to some point would there produce the most stupendous results.’

    Shelley had already sent the cat into orbit long before his time at ‘the other place’. Presumably he had been inspired by  Franklin’s kite experiment – described though not carried out in 1750. And arguably we see here in this description the origins of Dr Frankenstein’s later fictional experiments with electricity. Pity that cat though…

    Beachcombing has not yet been able to track down the cat and kite source – though is satisfied that the event took place as it appears (unreferenced!) in trustworthy works, as well as a whole host of untrustworthy ones.

    Typically enough Percy’s first surviving poem is entitled ‘A Cat in Distress’ [pictured above] in which master Shelley pontificates about the unfair treatment meted out to a cat: ‘But this poor cat// Only wanted a rat.’ etc etc

    Still his kite flying was in the name of science…

    Any lightning, kite, cat or, why not, Shelley stories: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com