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Lay for the Day
30th August

1797: Mary Godwin is born in London, the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, two of England’s most renowned radical intellectuals, who had fallen in love just over a year before. Her mother died 11 days after the girl’s birth, and she was raised by her father, and later by an unsympathetic stepmother.
Mary had no formal education, but her home was full of books and talk. When she was eight years old she hid under the parlour sofa with her stepsister Jane to hear Coleridge recite the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Her first book, a poem called Mounseer Nongtongpaw, or The Discoveries of John Bull in a Trip to Paris was published by her father’s Juvenile Library imprint when she was 11. (The title is Anglo-mangled French: monsieur n’entend pas, sir doesn’t understand.)
She met the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, along with his wife Harriet, when she was 15 and he 20. Two years later, on 28th July 1814, they ran away to France. Stepsister Jane, who had been their chaperone that summer when they were walking out and falling in love, came with them.
Mary and Percy Shelley lived eight years together, marked by the births of four children and the deaths of three, the suicides of the poet’s first wife and of Mary’s younger half-sister, and by the publication of Mary’s novel Frankenstein. After Percy drowned in a storm at sea on 8th July 1822, she committed herself to immortalising her husband’s memory, and her comprehensive edition of his poems in 1839, with biographical annotations, established his preeminence as the most romantic of the English Romantics.
In May 1824, a month after their close friend Lord Byron died, she wrote in her journal: “At the age of twenty-six I am in the condition of an aged person – all my old friends are gone … & my heart fails when I think by how few ties I hold to the world…”

Reproduction from the 1841 portrait by Rothwell in the National Portrait Gallery










The Gale

Autumn came without gentleness,
One night stripping prospective gold
Off the branches, branches
From the trees and trees from earth.
Few, yet mostly green, the decimated leaves
Shine and play in the strong sun
And the urban birds, that don’t know resignation,
Have unseasonably naked homes.

The fade to glory that I thought the lovers’ fate;
This weather fears me,
A single fury may pre-empt.
If one blow should empty our arms
And all the strewn leaves rot
Perch in my heart still to sing our distress.


John Gibbens
from The Smell of Thyme

The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar