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Shelley's House at 15 Poland Street, London
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In 1811, only one year into their studies at University College, Oxford, Shelley and his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg were expelled. Shelley's disdain for the establishment was already fervent, and the pair had co-written a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. Shelley refused to disclaim the work, and Hogg subsequently insisted that he share his friend's punishment.
Shelley had never liked academic life, and the conclusion of The Necessity - that 'Every reflecting mind must allow that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity' - seems willfully calculated to aggravate the church hierarchy in which the university participated. The pamphlet was distributed amongst bishops, clerics and the heads of colleges, and although the pair covered their tracks with false names, Shelley's refusal to disavow his work indicates the personal pride he felt towards it.
The pair moved to London and took lodgings at 15 Poland Street, in Soho. Until the great fire of 1666, the area had been largely fields and cottages, but in the decades following the urban developer Gregory King began building the Soho of today, in an attempt to alleviate over-crowding in London's centre. The area became highly cosmopolitan with refugees fleeing persecution in Europe settled, and it grew famous as the home of a great wealth of crafts-people who opened shops.
The international aspect appealed to Shelley; according to his biographer, John Addington Symonds, the name Poland Street "reminded him of Thaddeus of Warsaw and of freedom." Symonds records that, "he was further fascinated by a gaudy wall-paper of vine-trellises and grapes, which adorned the parlour; and vowed that he would stay there for ever."
While he was there, Shelley laid the foundations for his life of political agitation. He maintained a his close friendship with Hogg, and refused to submit to the authority of the tutor his father had selected for him. Relations between the poet and his father broke down completely that year, when Shelley eloped with Harriet Westbroke, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a coffee-house owner, and a school friend of his sister's. This brought Shelley's early residence in London to an end, and the pair were married in Edinburgh, where Hogg joined them.
Today, there is a mural on the corner of Poland Street and Noel Street, painted in 1989 by Louise Vines. Entitled 'Ode to the West Wind' after Shelley's famous poem, it depicts a great tree splitting at its trunk, while a man reads casually from a book in the foreground. Underneath is a plaque commemorating Shelley's residence in Poland Street.
© David Thorley, 2007
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