Upon learning of the drowning of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1822, the London Courier took a shot at the deceased poet’s atheism by writing, “now he knows whether there is a God or no.” Shelley’s wife, Mary, who had published Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus only four years prior, probably didn’t enjoy the jab at her late husband, victim of a sudden storm in the Gulf of Spezia.
Percy Shelley never achieved widespread fame during his lifetime. After death his writing spread—The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound, and Hellas became classics. Along the way the poet penned essays and journal entires describing his transition from mystical pantheism to atheism. In 1811he published “The Necessity of Atheism,” for which he received flack from the religiously-inclined. Two years later, while writing his poem, Queen Mab, he expanded and revised the essay.
Shelley was living during England’s golden age of scientific discovery. As a student at Oxford he fell in love with the new technology of ballooning. He equated the epic flights of silk balloons, which would soon carry humans, with liberation, himself once securing a revolutionary pamphlet on a number of balloons that he launched from a Lynmouth beach.
Shelley’s poetry was filled with scientific wonder. He studied under James Lind, the Scottish physician most famous for conducting the first experimental method by treating sailors with citrus to cure scurvy. While many of Shelley’s contemporaries were searching for metaphysical explanations of the growing fields of biology and chemistry, Shelley recognized poetry in the processes of nature.
The young poet found Christianity detestable, infusing his thoughts on psychology with scientific ideas. His amalgam of speculative journaling—he shared diaries with Mary—laid the foundation for her to dream up Frankenstein and usher in a new form of literature, the science fiction novel. Just as Shelley was influenced by researchers around him, those same scientists drew inspiration from the poetic materialism expressed in his verses.
In “The Necessity of Atheism,” Shelley writes that man first feared then adored the elements, paying homage to the planet by learning to control them. Humans then started to simplify categories—which is true in light of modern neuroscience as well as the historical evolution from polytheism to monotheism—and imagined a single agent as the source of all of nature.
Mounting from cause to cause, mortal man has ended by seeing nothing; and it is in this obscurity that he has placed his God; it is in this darksome abyss that his uneasy imagination has always labored to fabricate chimeras, which will continue to afflict…