January 3, 2011
To do this intellectual exhibition full justice would require a decade of study, but there is much on show to inspire the casual passer by like myself. The Bodleian exhibits works of literature that influences global culture in their compact gallery off the Old Schools Quadrangle. Whilst devotees of Shelley's poetry spend an entire tea break absorbing just one of his notebooks, I use this visit to become a convert to his genius.
The open notebooks with his swirling yet precise handwriting thoroughly engage me. Shelley would develop work in two notebooks simultaneously, and in any book he would start writing from both the front and the back. The application Shelley devoted to developing his craft is clearly evident in this concise exhibition.
The fascinating information boards are brutally honest about the poet's fractured first marriage and his turbulent family ties. A picture of Shelley's painful private life is built up as each cabinet is visited. Work by his second wife Mary is refreshingly included in the display. Her story of Frankenstein is to be performed as an adaptation in the National Theatre's forthcoming programme.
Trinkets on display give these cabinets of books colour, for example a ring containing a hair of the poet is included. However, the connection the visit gives you with Shelley's actual words feels the most valuable item to savour. The words fresh from the pen of Shelley, inked onto the pages of his notebooks, come alive in the imagination.