Image: Percy Shelley’s last letter to Mary in 1822. After his death she would explore her relationship to him and her widowhood in poetry. Credit to Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Mary Shelley, a prolific prose writer, turned her hand to poetry in earnest after Percy Shelley’s death, often musing on the subject of her widowhood and the loss of her husband. Her verses read as an attempt to reconcile the painful emotions she felt after his demise with her own continuing existence and loneliness.
It is interesting to consider Mary Shelley within the genre of women’s poetry from the 19th century to the modern age: aside from my more obvious research interests, Mary Shelley’s poetry strikes me because of her presentation of the female voice as a devoted lover. This theme is something that is also prominent in her later novels, such as Lodore, in which she aims to show this (sometimes fallible) loyalty: ‘I have tried to portray in its simplicity, & all the beauty I could muster, the devotion of a young wife for the husband of her choice – the disasters she goes through being described’ (Letters, II, 185). Such a sentiment is presented in a way that is not anti-feminist in the sense of the protagonist’s weakness or submission to their male counterpart. Instead, there is strength in the articulation of one’s story and the female experience. As modern criticism reiterates, especially in relation to the Romantic period, the personal narrative is not necessarily the poet’s voice. Conversely, however, the personal is still powerfully appropriated: configuration of personal experience into art meditates on the broader role of women in heterosexual relationships by empowering their perspective and provoking philosophical reflection on the experience of the protagonist.
Below are some of my favourite poems by female writers on this theme, including Mary Shelley’s most famous poem on her husband’s death, ‘The Choice’. I hope to add to this list: quotes from two of the poems are included, and there are links provided to the other texts.
Wendy Cope – ‘My Lover’
Stevie Smith – ‘Infelice’