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The Triumph of Life: Mary Shelley


[clock] 5-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 1976

The voice is that of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1797—1851, daughter of the radical philosopher William Godwin and the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died as a result of her birth. She eloped with Percy Shelley, who was married to Harriet Westbrook at the time, and became his second wife after Harriet committed suicide. Shelley and Mary lived a nomadic life, moving around England and the Continent, never settling down anywhere for long. Three of their four children died in infancy. Their eight years together were a series of crises, many of them brought about by the drain of outsiders on their emotional and physical resources. After Shelley’s accidental drowning, Mary, who was 24 at the time of his death, supported herself and their surviving son by her own writing, and by editing and annotating Shelley’s work. She published the first complete edition of his poems. Her own works consist of essays, short stories, and six novels, of which Frankenstein, written when she was 19, is the most famous. Her journal has been an important biographical source for Shelley’s and her life together.

1

My father taught me to think
to value mind over body,
to refuse even the airiest cage

to be a mouth as well as an ear,
to ask difficult questions,
not to marry because I was asked,
not to believe in heaven

None of this kept me from bearing
four children and losing three
by the time I was twenty-two

He wanted to think I sprang
from his head like the Greek goddess

He forgot that my mother died
of my birth, The Rights of Women
washed away in puerperal blood
and that I was her daughter too

2

I met him when I was sixteen
He came to sit at my father’s feet
and stayed to sit at mine

We became lovers
who remained friends
even after we married

A marriage of true minds
It is what you want
It was what we wanted

We did not believe in power
We were gentle
We shared our bodies with others
We thought we were truly free

My father had taught us there was a solution
to everything, even evil

We were generous, honest
We thought we had the solution

and still, a woman walked
into the water because of us

3

After that death, I stopped
believing in solutions

And when my children died
it was hard not to suspect
there was a god, a judgment

For months, I wanted to be
with those three small bodies,
to be still in a dark place

No more mountain passes
No more flight from creditors
with arms as long as our bills
No more games to find out
who was the cleverest of us all
No more ghost stories by the fire
with my own ghost at the window,
smiles sharpened like sickles
on the cold stone of the moon

For months, I made a fortress
of my despair
“A defect of temper,” they called it
His biographers never liked me

You would have called it a sickness,
given me capsules and doctors,
brushes and bright paints,
kits for paper flowers

4

An idea whose time has come,
you say about your freedom
but you forget the reason

Shall I remind you of history,
of choice and chance, the wish and the world,
of courage and locked doors,
biology and fate?

I wanted what you want,
what you have

If I could have chosen my children
and seen them survive
I might have believed in equality,
written your manifestoes

Almost two hundred years
of medical science divide us

5

And yet, my father was right
It was the spirit that won in the end

After the sea had done
what it could do to his flesh
I knew he was my husband
only by the books
in his pockets: Sophocles, Keats

The word survives the body

It was then I decided
not to marry again
but to live for the word

6

I allowed his body to be burned
on that Italian beach
Rome received his ashes

You have read that our friend
snatched his heart from the fire
You call it a grisly act,
something out of my novel

You don’t speak of the heart
in your letters, your sharp-eyed poems
You speak about your bodies
as if they had no mystery,
no caves, no sudden turnings

You claim isolation, night-sweats,
hanging on by your teeth

You don’t trust the heart
though you define death
as the absence of heartbeat

You would have taken a ring,
a strand of hair, a shoelace
—a symbol, a souvenir

not the center, the real thing

7

He died
and the world gave no outward sign

I started a Journal of Sorrow

But there were the words, the poems,
passion and ink spilling
over the edges of all those sheets
There was the hungry survivor
of our bodily life together

Would it have lasted, our marriage,
if he had stayed alive?

As it was, we fed each other
like a pair of thrushes
I gave his words to the world
and they came back to me
as bread and meat and apples,
art and nature, mind and flesh
keeping each other alive

His last, unfinished, poem
was called The Triumph of Life

8

You are surprised at my vision,
that a nineteen-year-old girl
could have written that novel,
how much I must have known

But I only wanted to write
a tale to tremble by,
what is oddly called a romance

By accident I slid
out of my century
into yours of white-coated men
in underground installations,
who invent their own destruction
under fluorescent lights

And in a few more decades
when your test tube babies sprout
you will call me the prophet
of ultimate horror again

It was only a private nightmare
that dreamed the arrogance of your time

I was not your Cassandra
In any age, life has to be lived
before we can know what it is

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