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Soho is my favourite part of London. I love walking from Oxford Circus to Leicester Square, dipping into Covent Garden. I don’t know much about the history of Soho (reading recommendations welcome!), but a stroll around this part of the capital today provides an air of history and also a modern, exciting, charming experience. It feels friendlier than other parts of the tourist’s London (and I admit to being more of a tourist, not a Londoner, so I still feel like a ‘visitor’). Earlier this year I was in Soho to find the blue plaque that marks Percy Bysshe Shelley’s residence on Poland Street.

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It is well worth seeking out. Firstly, the surrounding area is full of record shops and restaurants, and despite the range of retail outlets and eateries, it is a quiet haven in the city, a stone’s throw from the busy (often too busy!) hubbub of Oxford Circus. Secondly, as well as the blue plaque itself there is a wonderful Shelley mural that takes up the whole side of the building, depicting a poet-figure beneath a tree. The mural is named after Shelley’s famous poem ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and is by Louise Vines; it has decorated the building on the corner of Poland Street and Noel Street since 1989.

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However, the young Shelley’s experiences on Poland Street took place well before he composed ‘Ode to the West Wind’. Shelley lived here in 1811, when he – along with his friend and collaborator Thomas Jefferson Hogg – had just been sent down from Oxford for publishing that notorious pamphlet ‘The Necessity of Atheism’. They moved to London, found lodgings at 15 Poland Street, the name of which intrigued Shelley because of Poland’s fight for freedom.[1] By this time Shelley had not yet written any of the revolutionary material (such as The Mask of Anarchy) that later generations would associate so strongly with him, however his moral interest in the oppressed and destitute was growing. What we know of Shelley’s life in London at this time can be gauged from his letters: after his Oxford expulsion, Shelley wrote to his father repeatedly from 15 Poland Street. He also wrote to enquire about the success of one of his early novels St Irvyne: ‘Circumstances may occur, which will oblige me, in case of their event to wish for my accounts suddenly’.[2] As the editor of Shelley’s letters Frederick Jones explains, Shelley was short of money, and hoped to draw on a favourable balance from the sales of that novel.

After three weeks Hogg left for York in the north of England, and Shelley was lonely. In a letter to his absent friend he describes a reclusive life:

Certainly this place is a little solitary but as a person cannot be quite alone when he has ever got himself with him, I get on pretty well. I have employed myself in writing poetry, & as I go to bed at 8 oClock time passes quicker that [than] it otherwise might. […] Miss Westbrooke has this moment called on me, with her sister. It certainly was very kind of her. Ad[ieu][3]

One of the ‘Miss Westbrookes’ Shelley refers to is Harriet, who he would later marry and have two children with, before eloping with Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley) in 1814. On 29 April 1811 he again writes to Hogg: ‘Father’s as fierce as a lion again. […] He wants me to go to Oxford to apologise to Griffiths &c – No – of course’.[4] Griffiths was the master of University College, and clearly Shelley was defiant in his refusal to bow to Oxford’s rules.

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James Bieri’s detailed biography of the poet tells us more about his life in Poland Street after Hogg has left. Shelley walked with Medwin along the Serpentine and ‘delighted in skipping rocks across the water and floating paper boats’. At a dinner party hosted by Medwin, ‘Shelley and John Grove defended a feminist position on women against some male chauvinists’. Some of Medwin’s recollections of Shelley are evocative of the strange, wayward young man that was unpredictable and existed in a ‘dreamy state’:

[…] in Leicester Square one morning at five o’clock, I was attracted by a group of boys collected around a well-dressed person lying near the rails […] I descried Shelley, who had unconsciously spent a part of the night sub dio. He could give no account of how he got there.[5]

A strange time of displacement and uncertainty in Shelley’s life, it is fascinating to return to Poland Street and imagine him finding his way and establishing his beliefs amidst the busy, ever-changing landscape of London, no doubt feeling free of Oxford and its constraints, but anxious about the future.

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[1] James Bieri, Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) p 127.

[2] Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley (2 Vols.) ed. by Frederick L. Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964) Vol I, 11 April 1811 p. 59.

[3] PBS, Letters I 18 April 1811 p. 64

[4] PBS, Letters I 18 April 1811 p. 64

[5] Bieri, pp. 132-33.

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