Percy Bysshe Shelley’s copy of Homer’s Odyssey

image of two copies of Homer, bound in red, on their sides

Contributor: Valentina Varinelli

Location: Keats-Shelley House, Rome

Description: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s copy of Homer’s Odyssey is on long-term loan to Keats-Shelley House, Rome, from the present Lord Abinger, the Shelleys’ heir. Homer occupied a pre-eminent position in Shelley’s personal canon, yet the existence of this copy is largely unknown. It consists of volumes 3 and 4 of the so-called ‘Grenville Homer’ (1801) bound together in one volume (the complete set would have included volumes 1 and 2, again bound in one volume, which comprised the Iliad), and it is contained in a custom-made red quarter-leather solander box with “Homer Odyssey” and “Shelley’s Copy” gold-tooled on the spine, which is both an indication and a product of the fetishisation of this volume. The recto of the second front fly-leaf is inscribed: “Percy Bysshe Shelley March 5 – 1816”. (However, the inscription is not Shelley’s autograph. Nora Crook has established that it is in fact in Mary Shelley’s hand of 1816 (private email communication).)

The Shelleys spent the winter of 1815-16 in Bishopsgate, at the edge of Windsor Great Park, where their only visitors were Shelley’s friends, Thomas Jefferson Hogg and Thomas Love Peacock, who later remembered that winter as “a mere Atticism”. As Peacock recalled, “Our studies were exclusively Greek” (Peacock, Memoirs, II: 341). In the company of these two classics enthusiasts, Shelley’s interest in Greek literature increased and surpassed any other passion.

This copy of the Odyssey is more than a relic from that period. Shelley’s ownership is a sign of his refined bibliophilic taste. The Grenville Homer is celebrated as “the most critical edition of Homer which the university of Oxford has published” in Thomas Frognall Dibdin’s Introduction to the Knowledge of Rare and Valuable Editions of the Greek and Latin Classics, a manual for book collectors which Shelley ordered in September 1815 (Shelley, I: 433). It is enriched with Richard Porson’s collation of the thirteenth-century Harleian manuscript of the Odyssey (now British Library Harley MS. 5674) at the end of volume 4, and it “is printed in a handsome Greek type, with very few contractions” (Dibdin, I: 388-89). In his Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1858), Thomas Jefferson Hogg recalled the poet eagerly reading from this fine book:

    Shelley’s delight was to read Homer, and it grew and strengthened with his years. He had a copy of the Grenville Homer, bound in russia, in two volumes, the Iliad in one, and the Odyssey in the other; one of these volumes was continually in his hand. It would be a curious problem to calculate how many times he read the whole through. He devoured in silence, with greedy eyes, the goodly and legible characters often by firelight, seated on the rug, on a cushion, or a footstool, straining his sight, and striking a flame from the coals with the shovel, or whichsoever of the fire-irons he could first seize upon, remaining in front of the fire until the cheek next to it assumed the appearance of a roasted apple. (Hogg, II: 373-74)

The copy of the Odyssey at Keats-Shelley House matches Hogg’s description. It is a small quarto (19.4 cm x 15 cm) bound in Russia leather with blind-tooled decoration on the borders and spine, blue, red, and yellow marbled edges, and ‘Homer’ gold-tooled on the spine. Its excellent condition may indicate that Shelley took special care of his more valuable books. Alternatively, it may be the result of his declared preference for the Iliad, of which he wrote that it “surpasses any other single production of the human mind”, adding: “I can never believe that the Odyssey is a work of the same author” (Shelley, I: 545).

The volume of the Iliad that completed Shelley’s set of the Grenville Homer is missing. It is not known when or how the two volumes became separated from each other, but it is possible that the Iliad was lost in the course of the Shelleys’ residence in Italy. The complete set described by Hogg might have travelled with the Shelleys to Milan in March 1818. However, given the value of the volumes, and that they already carried a Greek-Latin edition with them (now in the Pforzheimer Collection), it seems more likely that the Grenville Homer was among the books that Shelley urgently requested to be sent to him in October 1821, and again the following January, as he decided to settle in Pisa “for some indefinite time” (Shelley, II: 362-63 and 373). These were the books that Thomas Love Peacock had borrowed from the library which Shelley had left behind in Marlow at the time of his emigration (Peacock, Letters, I: 119 and 185-86). They eventually reached Shelley in San Terenzo in the Bay of Lerici on 29 June 1822 (Gisborne and Williams: 155), two days before he sailed for Leghorn to greet Leigh Hunt, and nine days before his death. The wreck of the Don Juan was loaded with books (Trelawny: 155-56), and it is tantalising to speculate that Shelley, being finally reunited with his cherished edition of Homer, might have taken his favourite work, the Iliad, with him on his last boat trip.

Since Edward John Trelawny’s numerous (and contradictory) accounts of the volumes he found in Shelley’s pockets when his body was washed ashore, the books that belonged to the poet have occupied a special place in the myth of his death. The copy of the Odyssey at Keats-Shelley House is no exception. After travelling from England to Italy, it was brought back to England by his widow as a relic of his genius and a memento of her loss.

Date: 1800 [1801]

Creator: Homer, Thomas Grenville, Richard Porson et al. (ed.)

Subject: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Media:

title page of Shelley's copy of Homer

autograph inscription to Shelley's copy of Homer

Media rights: reproduced with the owner’s permission

Object type: printed book

Format: ink on paper

Language: Greek, Latin, English (for the fly-leaf inscription)

Related objects: The notebook shared by the Shelleys, 1814-1818

Publisher: Keats-Shelley House, James Harry, 9th Baron Abinger

References

Dibdin, Thomas Frognall, An Introduction to the Knowledge of Rare and Valuable Editions of the Greek and Latin Classics, 3rd edn, 2 vols (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1808)

Gisborne, Maria, and Williams, Edward E., Maria Gisborne and Edward E. Williams, Shelley’s Friends: Their Journals and Letters, ed. by Frederick L. Jones (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951)

Hogg, Thomas Jefferson, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2 vols (London: Moxon, 1858)

Peacock, Thomas Love, The Letters of Thomas Love Peacock, ed. by Nicholas A. Joukovsky, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001)

—― Memoirs of Shelley, in The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, as comprised in The Life of Shelley by Thomas Jefferson Hogg, The Recollections of Shelley & Byron by Edward John Trelawny, Memoirs of Shelley by Thomas Love Peacock, ed. by Humbert Wolfe, 2 vols (London: Dent, 1933)

Shelley, Percy Bysshe, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. by Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964)

Trelawny, Edward John, Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author, ed. by Rosemary Ashton (London: Penguin, 2013)

 

 

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