Shelley’s Ghost in the New York Public Library

I had planned to write about a strange relief of a centaur that I found on the exterior of a building on Park and 36th, but I stumbled onto a much better monster-related find while walking up Fifth Avenue. A banner hanging at the entrance to the New York Public Library announced ‘Shelley’s Ghost, The Afterlife of a Poet.’

How could I resist an exhibit on the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary (of Frankenstein), his friends and family?

For non-New Yorker monster fans, the main branch of the New York Public Library is the big, often photographed building on 42nd Street with two large marble lions at the Fifth Avenue entrance. The lions are called Patience & Fortitude, and the Beaux-Arts building is a landmark in every sense of the word. There is always some kind of exhibit at the branch and they are often wonderful.

The ‘Shelley’s Ghost’ exhibit examines the life of the great romantic poet, in the context of his friends and family. Shelley was the prototype of the ‘bad boy’ that girls love. He was good looking, got expelled from Oxford, was ostracized by his family for his radical politics and eloped with sixteen-year-old brides TWICE. Yes, Mary was his second teenaged bride. He drowned when a sudden storm sunk his sailboat — the Don Juan — off the Italian coast when he was only 29. Mary, the keeper of her husband’s literary legacy, is largely responsible for his place in the history of poetry.

Frankenstein related memorabilia was on display. A newspaper clipping for a performance of ‘Presumption: or The Fate of Frankenstein’ (the first theatrical interpretation of Mary’s masterpiece in 1823); a film clip from the 1910 silent film of Frankenstein and some of Mary’s notebooks were included.

Lord Byron, the most famous poet of his day, and Shelley were close friends. They were introduced by Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister. Claire had a brief romance with Byron and gave birth to a daughter named Allegra. The story of the extended Shelley and Wollstonecraft/Godwin (Mary’s parents) clans and that of their political and literary friends would serve as a good template for a Spanish telenovela. Just replace the English names with Spanish and you’re good to go. Romance, drama, conflict, politics, fame, travel, money, power, sex, death, celebrities and poetry — what more could a soap opera need?

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,
Like wither’d leaves, to quicken a new birth:
And, by the incantation of the verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth
The trumpet of prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

From Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’


    • Candy

      Yes, they did! In fact, that’s part of the story behind Frankenstein. Shelley and Mary, who was all of 18 at the time, were visiting Byron at a country house and the rainy weather was keeping them from the walks in the fields and forests that the poets loved. Byron suggested that they try writing ghost stories. The guys got bored but, Mary…. well, the rest is history. I’ve often wondered about Byron and Shelley’s ghost stories. Unfinished or not, two great poets trying a different genre. I’m sure those stories were worth reading.

      I’m not an expert, but it seems like there have been a few ‘poetic’ circles, with poet/writer/artist/friends supporting each other and sharing their work. Maybe we’re recreating that in the 21st century with blogs? It’s not the same as sitting around a table with a bottle of wine, but it does make big distances less important.

    • Candy

      I think it’s his most well-known poem. I grabbed the last few stanzas, as they speak to me most directly, but the entire poem is a true work of art.