• Rebekah Musk

Beholding Shelley’s Euganean Hills

Rebekah Musk

This semester, the new English Literature MA module Nineteenth Century Literature: Place – Space – Text asked students to complete a digital map for their formative assessment. Their brief was to select a nineteenth-century text and to use a digital mapping tool such as Google MyMaps or CartoDB to create a map of an element of their chosen text. That map should raise questions about the ways that we conceive of or understand place/space in the text. For more information about this task, please get in touch with the module tutor, Joanna Taylor. Here, Rebekah suggests how mapping Shelley’s poem ‘Lines Written among the Euganean Hills’ (1818) can inform our reading of the poem, and she indicates how such a mapping might uncover the political valences of this text.

This is a map of Percy Shelley’s ‘Lines Written among the Euganean Hills’ (1818). There are two layers to this map. The first plots all the places mentioned by Shelley and each symbol gives an idea of what each of those places are (cities, mountains, etc).

The points on this map show what Shelley claims to be able to see from the Euganean Hills
The points on this map show what Shelley claims to be able to see from the Euganean Hills

The second layer is potentially more interesting: the orange stars represent the points that Shelley claims to be able to see and the yellow icon represents where he is stood. The purple polygon represents the area that the reader imagines Shelley can see simply from reading the poem, whereas the orange polygon was produced by looking at the map and working out the smallest distance Shelley would need to be able to see in order to see all the places he mentions.

Here, I have calculated the extents to which Shelley could feasibly have seen from the Hills, and compared that to the  imagined view the claims to behold.
Here, I have calculated the extents to which Shelley could feasibly have seen from the Hills, and compared that to the imagined view the claims to behold.

The black lines labelled North, East, South and West required a little more work to place as they represent the actual distance that Shelley would be able to see, assuming perfect visibility and eyesight. I worked with some friends in the maths department in order to calculate this, and after some discussion we came up with the simplified formula D≈√2RH. In this equation D represents the distance that Shelley can see, H is the height of the highest point of the Euganean Hills (601m or 0.601km) and R is the radius of the earth (6371km). According to this equation D ≈ 87.5km. However a more accurate version of the equation was produced which takes into account the curvature of the earth, D ≈ √2R’H. All the letters represent the same as before, except that R becomes the radius of earth x 7/6, which takes into account the fact that the earth is not flat. In this case D ≈ 94.5km. The black lines on the map are roughly placed at around 94km from the yellow symbol representing Shelley. As you can see, this square falls between the two estimates produced by reading the text and looking at the map with no real numerical values for the distances.

There is also a blue marker in France. This is not a mentioned location, but clicking on it brings up a map of Europe in 1818 which shows the political situation at the time the poem was written.

Europe in 1818
Europe in 1818

This is useful for a more political reading of Shelley, especially considering the difference in the size of the Austro-Italian border at that time he was writing. At this time Austria was one of the great powers of Europe and controlled many territories, including some in Italy. This is referenced by Shelley when he discusses ‘The Celtic Anarch’s hold’ and remarks that ‘a hundered cities lie, chained like thee ingloriously’. The idea of cities being chained and fixed in place became clear during the mapping process as Venice and Padua were incredibly easy to map accurately as their location has not changed, although their size may well have done. It is interesting to compare the modern day map of Europe with the map from 1818 as the borders of most nations have shifted, often significantly, but we can still find cities in the same places as Shelley did. In a bigger project, overlaying a historical map like this one onto a contemporary map would allow for a more detailed reading of the political implications of Shelley’s poem.

In a way creating this map felt almost like mapping in reverse; instead of mapping a journey or route I was instead mapping a static place and its surroundings. This is similar to the poem in a sense, because Shelley does not travel at all, he just rotates his view. The world, especially the natural world, moves around Shelley. The cities remain fixed but time and people move within them, the sun makes its journey through the sky causing Shelley’s view to change according its location, birds travel in the sky above him. If we consider the manner in which Shelley arrives at such a perfect spot to see so many places to reference, his bark ‘piloted by soft winds’, there seems to be some greater natural force at work in bringing him to this location. The fact that Shelley (physically if not imaginatively) remains in a single location for the entirety of the poem suggests that the location is of great significance and it is possible that this map, alongside further mapping and research, could help develop explanations regarding this.