Sixteen years ago I was in my second year of an M.A. in religion, and engaged in the leadup to masters’ exams. Putting the exams together was kind of fun. They could be on any three topics that covered a certain diversity of religion, culture, and era, and mine were Feminist Theology, Dogen’s Shobogenzo, and The Theology of Romantic Poetry.
For the Romantics, my reading list consisted entirely of works of five of the Big Six: William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. (The sixth, Byron, didn’t particularly interest me and his work didn’t seem to have many theological implications.) I took note of the lack of female voices–I was studying feminist theology, after all–but didn’t think that there were any that came up to the standard, except maybe Dorothy Wordsworth or Mary Shelley, but neither was noted for her poetry. I hadn’t heard of Hannah More or Joanna Baillie, and somehow thought of Emily Bronte as not quite within the period. Excuses, excuses. If I’d done a little digging, a little looking beyond the canon that had been blessed by men, handed down through generations of male scholars, and endorsed by my male advisor, I’d have expanded my list.
Well, I’m finally remedying the gap by reading Frankenstein. I’m listening to the audiobook version, and it’s making it a little difficult to get out of the car. And wow, here’s something else that might have changed my mind about that reading list (even if it did mean including novels): the subtitle is “or, The Modern Prometheus.” How did I not notice that Mary Shelley and her husband both created masterworks that explicitly expanded upon the myth of Prometheus? Prometheus Unbound was on my exam reading list, you betcha, and it’s the longest poem I’ve ever loved. And Prometheus is such a rich figure for liberal religionists: the human who dared to steal a power the gods had reserved for themselves and give it to humanity, and who, in P. B. Shelley’s reading, is thereby a hero. (I have a feeling that M. Shelley’s point of view is more nuanced. Shh, don’t tell me the end.) Of course, I was a very new UU then, and not yet a minister. Now I’m musing about Prometheus, fire, power, responsibility, and what it means to “play God” if the gods themselves are discredited. And I’m really looking forward to what the novel has to say about all those points.
Next up, some of those female poets who were very famous in their day, I now know, but who got insufficient respect from anthologies and me before.