Welcome to a post that intertwines literature and history (with an added dose of scandal). Thanks for reading!
Background on Shelley Romance/Marriage
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was a poet during England’s Romantic era and is best known for his lyrics. [Lyric poems are introspective and explore intense personal emotions.] His second wife, Mary Shelley (1797-1851), wrote short stories, novels, dramas, etc. She was the daughter of William Godwin, a successful political philosopher whose leanings were anarchistic, and Mary Wollstonecraft, a proto-feminist best known for her essay A Vindication of the Rights of Women (in which she argued that women could be as intellectual as men if educated). In 1811, 19-year-old Percy eloped with a 16-year-old girl from his sisters’ school; however, Percy became increasingly unhappy over the next couple years. During this time, he wrote to William Godwin, whom he admired, and begged to be his devoted disciple (and offered money that Godwin needed to support his large family). Estranged from his wife, Percy went to meet the Godwins. He soon fell madly in love with one of the daughters, Mary. The two “dated” from 1814-1816, traveling around Europe. In December 1816, the body of Percy’s estranged wife was found drowned. Three weeks later, on the next-to-last day of that year, Percy Shelley married Mary Godwin.
Frankenstein & Ozymandias
Bear in mind that the Shelleys were friends with Lord Byron, Thomas Love Peacock, Leigh Hunt, and John Keats. On January 1, 1818, Mary published Frankenstein anonymously. The novel was inspired from a friendly competition in the friend group to come up with a gothic ghost story. Her husband’s preface at the front led people to believe he wrote it. Less than two weeks later, on January 11, Percy published the sonnet Ozymandias in The Examiner. Ozymandias is a Greek name for Rameses II, an Egyptian pharaoh in antiquity. Again, the work was born from a friendly head-to-head. On this occasion, Percy and friend Horace Smith wrote sonnets based off a text from Greek historian Diodorus Siculus where he quoted the inscription on an Egyptian statue: “King of Kings Ozymandias am I. If any want to know how great I am and where I lie, let him outdo me in my work.” They submitted the sonnets under pen names; Percy used “Glirastes.” Here is Percy’s version:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away
In different ways, both works address themes of legacy and hubris.