Reality TV regularly shows us the results when competitions challenge people to be creative against the clock, whether that means implementing a business plan or baking a cake. Along West Street at the top end of Marlow, heading towards Henley-on-Thames, is a reminder of a time, 200 years ago, when literature used to do something similar.
For this is where Percy and Mary Shelley once lived. The house has since split into several flats but, in 1817, the Shelleys were completing or creating two significant literary works. The story of how they stayed with Lord Byron at his villa on Lake Geneva the previous summer, reading each other ghost stories because of the inclement weather until Byron challenged each to write his or her own story, is well known. By April-May 1817, Mary was completing work on what had started out as a short story, but became a novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Publication followed on 1 January 1818, albeit anonymously.
What is perhaps less well known is that Shelley’s poem Ozymandias may also have had a competitive origin. According to Stephen Hebron, Curator of Special Projects at Oxford’s Bodleian Library,
“It was written sometime between December 1817 and January 1818, and was probably the result of a sonnet competition between Shelley and his friend Horace Smith, who stayed with the Shelleys at their home in Marlow between 26 and 28 December. In such competitions two or more poets would each write a sonnet on an agreed subject against the clock.”
Shelley’s Ozymandias beat Smith’s version to publication by three weeks, being printed on 11 January 1818, and is much-quoted two centuries on. Across the road, at 47 West Street, is a plaque to Thomas Love Peacock, novelist, poet and satirist – and close friend of Percy Shelley. Peacock outlived Shelley by more than 40 years, but his writings now lie in an Ozymandias-like state of obscurity. Peacock’s old home is a showroom for a firm supplying natural stone and porcelain for the discerning home owner.
Remarkably, another plaque at number 31 reminds us that TS Eliot came to live in this street a century after the Shelleys, in a house which Aldous Huxley lent him. By 1917, Eliot was beginning to come to the wider world’s attention for his poetry, including The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock which had been published two years earlier. 31 West Street now houses an excellent fine dining restaurant.
Given its length, perhaps it’s just as well that Eliot didn’t have to write Prufrock against the clock.