Niedecker’s Mary: Still Shelley

Lorine Niedecker’s poem about author Mary Shelley (Collected Works, 212-213) begins by posing the question “Who was Mary Shelley?” While many of my classmates seem to believe that the poem answers this question successfully and that it enacts a sort of feminist liberation of Mary from the shadow of her husband Percy, I argue that the most important question asked by the poem is actually in the second and third lines: “What was her name/before she married?” Niedecker never answers this question, though its answer is not too terribly difficult to find – as we mentioned in class, her maiden name was Mary Wollstonecraft Goodwin.

The heritage that her former name calls upon is, to my mind, more stirring to a feminist than the surname of Shelley might be to a poet, even if that poet was a student of Romantic Poetry. Her maiden name establishes and clarifies Mary’s ties to two incredibly important figures: her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft- author of one of the seminal feminist works of the 18th/19th centuries (A Vindication of the Rights of Women)- and her father, William Goodwin-a celebrated and radical philosopher.

Yet Niedecker, by leaving the question “What was her name/before she married?” completely unanswered, ignores Mary’s connection to these luminaries. In a move that, to me, seems counterintuitive, Niedecker’s poem actually only covers events in Mary’s life that occurred after her marriage to Shelley. Ironically, the poem seems fixated on Mary in relation to Shelley, even when it is theoretically trying to present Mary as a woman and a writer in her own right. She “eloped with this Shelley” (4) is the crucial piece of the section discussing her riding “a donkey/till the donkey had to be carried” (5-6)- an act demonstrating her endurance and strength is only mentioned because it occurred during her elopement. Even when she is labelled “Frankenstein’s creator” (7), the next move is an immediate switch of focus to Shelley (“before her husband was to drown” 9). In the discussion of Frankenstein’s creation “after Byron” (11) it is uncertain if it is Percy or Mary Shelley who “talked the candle down” (12).

The repeated question- “Who was Mary Shelley” (13)- provokes answers that are still complicated and seem to be inextricably linked with her marriage. Out of the entire poem, line 14 is the only reference to any skill or accomplishment attained (presumably) before her marriage to Shelley: “She read Greek, Italian.” Then the focus, while admittedly on Mary herself as a mother and not her husband specifically, changes again to Mary after her marriage, discussing how “She bore a child/Who died/and yet another child/who died” (15-18).

Thus, the entire poem (with the probable exception of the one line I mentioned) refuses to answer the question “Who was Mary Shelley/What was her name/before she married?” (1-3). Instead, it seems concerned with only defining who was Mary Shelley after her marriage, a move that counteracts the very act of writing a poem with the ostensible purpose of separating the legacy of Mary Wollstonecraft Goodwin from her husband Percy Shelley. I find this to be utterly disappointing and am surprised that I’m the first of our class to notice (or, at least, to mention) this fact. To my mind, if Niedecker’s goal was the definition of Mary’s identity as a woman and a writer separate from her role as wife and mother, she would have done better to speculate on Mary before her marriage to Shelley or at least to try and understand how “her name/before she married” helped to define her as a woman and/or a writer. By failing to even consider the lineage implicit in her maiden name, Niedecker ignores what very possibly could be Mary’s most notable attribute, above even her marriage to Shelley.