Project Description

Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Godwin

In 1792 the French Revolution burst into flame, the mob of Paris stormed the Tuileries, the King of France was cast into a dungeon to await his execution, and the wild sons of anarchy flung their gauntlet of defiance into the face of Europe. In the same year Percy Bysshe Shelley was born. He was nineteen years old of age when he made the acquaintance of a sixteen-year-old girl named Harriet Westbrook – a most precocious girl. She made up her mind to get Shelley at any cost, and her audacity was equaled only by his simplicity. While Shelley was not at all in love with her, Harriet played upon Shelley’s feelings by telling him that her father was cruel to her, and that he contemplated actions still more cruel. Nothing could be more flattering to a young man’s vanity than to have this girl cast herself upon him for protection. It did not really matter that he had not loved her. The pair set off for Edinburgh by stagecoach where they were married by the Scottish law. The girl whom he had taken tried for a time to meet her husband’s moods and to be a real companion to him. The young pair drifted about from place to place, running deeper into debt each day, and finding less and less to admire in each other. Shelley took to laudanum. Harriet dropped her abstruse studies, which she had taken up to please her husband, but which could only puzzle her. A child was born, and Shelley went through a second form of marriage, so as to comply with the English law. This proved to be the end of an unfortunate marriage. Word was brought to Shelley that his wife was no longer faithful to him. Shelley had taken a great interest in William Godwin, the writer and radical philosopher. One day in 1814, Shelley called on Godwin, and found there a beautiful young girl in her seventeenth year, “with shapely golden head, a face very pale and pure, a great forehead, earnest hazel eyes, and an expression at once of sensibility and firmness about her delicately curved lips.” This was Mary Godwin—one who had inherited her mother’s power of mind and likewise her grace and sweetness. From the very moment of their meeting Shelley and this girl were fated to be joined together, and both of them were well aware of it.
In little more than a month from the time of their first meeting, Shelley and Mary Godwin left Godwin’s house, and hurried across the Channel to Calais. They wandered almost like vagabonds across France, eating black bread and the coarsest fare, walking on the highways when they could not afford to ride, and putting up with every possible inconvenience. Yet it is worth noting that neither then nor at any other time did either Shelley or Mary regret what they had done. To the very end of the poet’s brief career they were inseparable. There could have been no truer union than this of Shelley’s with the woman whom nature had intended for him. It was in his love-life, far more than in his poetry, that he attained completeness. When he died by drowning, in 1822, and his body was burned in the presence of Lord Byron, he was truly mourned by the one whom he had only lately made his wife. As the lover and husband of Mary Godwin, there was nothing left to wish. In his verse, however, the truest word concerning him will always be that exquisite sentence of Matthew Arnold: “A beautiful and ineffectual angel beating his luminous wings against the void in vain.