Mary Godwin’s Greek Learning in Response to Shelley’s Letter

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Early nineteenth-century author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, née Mary Godwin, was home-schooled by her father, William Godwin. In 1814, Mary Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley were lovers. Mary was then seventeen years old. In a letter to Mary, probably written on Oct. 25, 1814, Shelley quoted in Greek a line from Prometheus Bound.^ That line seems to have stimulating Mary to try to learn Greek.

In her journal for Oct. 31, 1814, Mary notes her learning “τυπτο”: “‘I strike’; the contemporary paradigm verb for the –ω conjugation.” The next day she records “Learn Greek all morning,”; the following day, “read in the Greek Grammar”’; the same the next day; and then the next day “read a little in the Greek Grammar” (underlined in the original).^ That ended Mary’s recorded effort to learn Greek until 1820. This abortive effort to learn Greek directly concerns the Greek Prometheus Bound text that Shelley wrote to Mary. Evidently, Mary could not read it.

On July 19, 1820, Mary began studying Greek again with “Greek exercises.” Mary wrote to Maria Gisborne:

I have now very seriously begun Greek – I pass five lines or more every day – reading them over and over again and again, so that now I may boast that I know perfectly sixty lines of Homer’s Odyssey. I am much teazed from the want of a good grammer^

Mary’s subsequent written work shows no serious engagement with ancient Greek literature.

Mary Godwin married Percy Bysshe Shelley and became Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Unlike Mary, Percy Bysshe Shelley long and extensively studied Greek literature, particularly Prometheus Bound. Promethean themes are central to the early-nineteenth-century literary masterpieces The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound, and Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

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