By Anna Mercer
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is frequently presented as a crucial figure in terms of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley’s biography, and his influence on her work is repeatedly acknowledged. However, the allusions to Mary in Percy’s poems indicate that she also had an impact on his work at the time of writing. Mary’s literary relationship to her husband in this way is often overlooked.
Percy wanted to publish the poem Laon and Cythna in 1817, but it was repressed on account of its subject matter. It is Shelley’s longest poem and a work of ‘violence & revolution […] relieved by milder pictures of friendship & love & natural affections’. This poem opens with verses addressed to Mary. In this ‘Dedication’, Percy considers his lover as a kindred spirit:
Thou Friend, whose presence on my wintry heart
Fell, like bright Spring upon some herbless plain;
How beautiful and calm and free thou wert
In thy young wisdom, when the mortal chain
Of Custom thou didst burst and rend in twain,
And walked as free as light the clouds among,
Which many an envious slave then breathed in vain
From his dim dungeon, and my spirit sprung
To meet thee from the woes which had begirt it long.
Percy praises Mary’s ability to fuel his creativity by her ‘wisdom’, he pays tribute to her freedom, her integrity, her ability to ‘burst and rend’ the ‘mortal chain / Of Custom’. Mary is intellectually open and liberal; she is in essence ‘free’, and therefore rejecting the tyranny in society that Percy loathed. A commitment to radical beliefs was emerging in Mary’s own writings by 1817, and had always been reflected in her upbringing (the shadow of her parents William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft), and her brave decision to elope with Percy to the continent when he was still married.
The image of ‘Spring’ falling on Percy’s ‘wintry heart’ introduces Mary as a source of renewal for the poet’s mind: this is her effect on his creativity. Percy also describes returning to Mary, ‘mine own heart’s home’, after the ‘summer task’ of writing the poem has ended: ‘As to his Queen some victor Knight of Faëry, /Earning bright spoils for her inchanted dome’. Percy’s allusion to Spenser places not just himself but Mary in a line of literary tradition.
However, Percy would later preface his poem The Witch of Atlas (composed in 1820) with verses entitled ‘To Mary (on her objecting to the following poem, upon the score of its containing no human interest)’. This demonstrates Mary’s ability to assert her literary opinions; she is a ‘difficult woman’, not a compliant muse to the authority of the male poet. Percy’s depictions of her in writing connect with his literary concerns as a writer and thinker – because she is a writer and thinker too. The verse prefaces to Laon and Cythna and The Witch of Atlas demonstrate the close intellectual relationship that the Shelleys shared; their interaction was dependent on creative reciprocal interchanges.
The Shelleys had an inclination for preface writing as a collaborative endeavour. Percy wrote the famous preface to Mary’s Frankenstein, and he wrote the preface for their joint History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (which was primarily authored by Mary). After Percy’s death Mary prefaced her husband’s posthumous publications with her own commentary. In these notes she is unafraid to praise the ‘beautiful effusions’ overlooked by Percy himself:
Shelley’s conception of love was exalted, absorbing, allied to all that is purest and noblest in our nature, and warmed by earnest passion; such as it appears when he gave it a voice in verse. Yet he was usually so averse to expressing these feelings, except when highly idealised; and many of his more beautiful effusions he had cast aside, unfinished, and they were never seen by me till after I had lost him.
Mary continues by explaining that Percy would have discarded poems such as Rosalind and Helen, had she not ‘urged him to complete them’. These extracts indicate how Mary acts as a (difficult) poetical guide for Percy, and how she shapes his writing over the course of her own intellectual development from their initial meeting in 1814 to his death in 1822. The Shelleys became close collaborators, guiding each other intellectually, producing the most exceptional writing.
Anna Mercer is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate at the University of York. Her research is on the collaborative literary relationship of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley. She is also organising a day conference on the work of Percy and Mary Shelley in London in September 2017. For more details click here.