Ralph Wedgwood was an inventor, whose most successful invention was a form of carbon paper used by Shelley in Oxford . This letter however, and several others, were prompted by another of Wedgwood’s inventions, the Othiothograph, which sought to convert letters, numbers and musical intervals into a universal language. Wedgwood based his invention on a complicated theology, and his claim to restore the ‘Universal Language and Character of Adam’ was seized upon by Shelley and Hogg as an opportunity to rehearse their anti-Christian arguments.
The correspondence is full of the youthful high-spirits and delight in role play that characterize the numerous spoof letters which Shelley wrote while at Oxford, but the language and imagery is often striking. In this letter he considers the Creation and ‘the beautiful arrangement of its particles as we now behold them’: ‘It is an argument of materialists that the original atoms had been falling thro’ infinite space, until one of these indivisible particles fortuitously diverged from it’s track. It is possible that something analogous to this was the case, but not fortuitously’. A passage in an earlier letter anticipates Frankenstein
Do you believe the equality & coextence of the three divine persons united in the Godhead? – every Xtian must answer affirmatively – then how could one third of this being as coequal with the other two possibly become a Mediator; how could that bring man nearer to the Deity, which itself was the Deity. – You will answer, - the assumption of mortality brought Christ nearer to the condition of Man – that is to suppose a mass of electrified clay possessing the power to confine, fetter & deteriorate the omnipresent intelligence of the universe. – That is to suppose one of the meanest of the Creator’s works as imposing a restraint upon the free agency of the Creator himself.
Shelley’s letters to Wedgwood, together with others by Thomas Jefferson Hogg, were unearthed by chance in 2005. Their importance was recognized just before they were sent to a car boot sale.
This then is the Spirit of Love, the harmonised intelligence of infinite Creation – Does it not deprive Language of that precision w.ch ought to be it’s most distinguishing characteristic to call this God; to embody this creature of our imaginations, & encouraging pride, to suppose that the eternal immutable Laws of nature w.d of themselves become deranged to procure us the very slight advantages w.ch Xtianity has induced.
(Christie’s sale, 8 June 2005) University College, Oxford.
Robin Darwall-Smith, ‘The student hoaxers: the new Shelley letters’, University College Record, vol. XIV no. 1 (2005), pp. 78-87.