‘The tangled web’ – An account of the interwoven lives of Shelley, Byron, William Godwin, Mary Shelley et al.

Report on the meeting led by Gareth Owen.

Gareth was introduced as a poet and a former presenter of ‘Poetry Please’ on Radio 4. There was a good turn-out for the meeting and many new faces were seen. The talk he gave was fascinating and delivered in an engaging manner. The ‘web’ he described was, indeed, ‘tangled’ and the writer of this piece will not attempt to unravel it as she will fail to do it justice. Some interesting ‘markers’ in the talk are, however, highlighted below:

Gareth began by stating that Shelley was an atheist, vegetarian, for ‘free love’, and a republican. At the age of 18 he was sent down from Oxford for writing a pamphlet on ‘The Necessity of Atheism’. Gareth read out an extract from the pamphlet, and I was struck by how succinctly and eloquently Shelley put the arguments for atheism, writing in 1811.

‘If he [God] is infinitely good, what reason should we have to fear him? If he is infinitely wise, why should we have doubts concerning our future? If he knows all, why warn him of our needs and fatigue him with our prayers? If he is everywhere, why erect temples to him? If he is just, why fear that he will punish the creatures that he has, filled with weaknesses? If grace does everything for them, what reason would he have for recompensing them? If he is all-powerful, how offend him, how resist him? If he is reasonable, how can he be angry at the blind, to whom he has given the liberty of being unreasonable? If he is immovable, by what right do we pretend to make him change his decrees? If he is inconceivable, why occupy ourselves with him? IF HE HAS SPOKEN, WHY IS THE UNIVERSE NOT CONVINCED? If the knowledge of a God is the most necessary, why is it not the most evident and the clearest.’

Shelley wrote ‘one of the first pacifist statements’, entitled ‘The Mask of Anarchy’. Apparently, Shelley also influenced Marx.
Gareth gave us a brief summary of the connections between William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary and Percy Shelley and Byron. Their lives may seem dissolute, by modern day standards, and full of drama -a ménage of adults and children who travelled extensively, two deaths by drowning, intrigues and affairs (Did Byron and Shelley prey on women?), and the death of both children. Byron lived the longest, dying at the age of 36.

Despite what may be thought or suspected of Shelley and the others, they have left a rich literary legacy.

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