03 July 2012

Shelley's Ghost

"Percy Bysshe Shelley" Amelia Curran (1819)

While studying in Ireland one summer I got the chance to hear the critic Terry Eagleton give a talk at the end of which he sang a tune about English literature whose refrain was “Milton, Blake, and Shelley will smash the ruling class yet.” I wasn’t a big Milton or Blake fan but I was of Shelley.

So a few weeks ago I was more than to happy to indulge in all things Shelley at an excellent exhibit at the main branch of the New York Public Library called “Shelley’s Ghost: The Afterlife of a Poet,” which showcased items related to Shelley and his family and friends including his wife, Mary Godwin Shelley, in-laws William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and friend Lord Byron.

The exhibit was a collaboration between the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle housed at the library and the Bodleian Library at Oxford University where the exhibit originated. Small and intimate, the design was as Gothic as you can get for a New York library with dim lighting, dark velvet curtains framing faux windows, and silhouettes on the wall that appeared to be melting. The perfect setting in which to ponder some of the leading writers of the Romantic era.

"A Cat in Distress" (ca. 1803-1805), Shelley's earliest surviving poem. 
Transcribed by his sister Elizabeth.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), the son of a baronet, demonstrated an early gift for writing and published his first work while at Oxford. Another publication, a pamphlet espousing atheism, would get him expelled. Shortly afterwards he married Harriet Westbrook, a friend of his sisters, only to abandon her (she was pregnant at the time) and their daughter a few years later to run off with Mary Godwin, the daughter of William Godwin (his mentor) and Mary Wollstonecraft (the young couple allegedly had clandestine meetings at Wollstonecraft’s grave). They would spend the rest of their time together (they married after Harriet's death) living a nomadic life primarily in Europe. In the summer of 1816 they stayed in Switzerland with Lord Byron where the story goes to keep themselves entertained one night, they held a competition to see who could write the best horror story. Mary Shelley’s effort would become Frankenstein.

Life was not easy with the early death of all but one of their children, unfaithfulness on Shelley’s part, and constant money problems. Yet during this time Shelley managed to produce "Adonaïs, "Ozymandias," Prometheus Unbound, and a preface to Frankenstein among other things. He drowned while sailing from Livorno to Lerici at the age of 29 and was buried in Rome in the same cemetery as another doomed English poet, John Keats. Mary Shelley would spend the rest of her life promoting the work and legacy of her late husband. She never remarried.

"Mary Godwin Shelley" Reginald Easton (1857)

Tragedy was a theme running throughout the exhibit. From the untimely deaths of Wollstonecraft, Shelley, and Byron to the suicides of Mary Shelley’s half sister, Fanny, and Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, to the loss of children including Byron’s beloved daughter Allegra at age five. The morbid aspect of their lives may be one of the reasons why interest in them continues to this day. But their writing deserves a revisit if you haven’t done so since school. 

On display were notebooks and manuscripts including excerpts from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein manuscript, the first time they've been seen in the U.S. And then there were the letters. I found the ones between Godwin and Wollstonecraft the most interesting, including notes she wrote to him while waiting to give birth to Mary (Wollstonecraft would die 11 days afterwards). The only known letter to Bryon from Allegra was also especially moving.

Other items included Harriet Shelley’s engagement ring, Shelley’s baby rattle of gold and coral (he did come from money after all), and bits of Shelley’s skull (not sure I wanted to see that). A nice finishing touch to the exhibit were small letterpress cards with Shelley quotes that visitors could take away. One read, “No man has a right to monopolize more than he can enjoy.” Indeed.

The exhibit is over (I really must blog about these things while they’re still going on) but you can visit the library’s website to read more about it here.

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