Poetry News

A hand-written draft of Shelley's "On Life"

By Harriet Staff

Archive geeks take note: The Morgan Library, a New York based collection of historical manuscripts, early printed books, and old drawings and prints, occasionally blogs about treasures from their vaults.

A recent post shows a hand-written page from a working draft of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "On Life," a short philosophical meditation and one of his best known pieces of prose. Topped with a little hand-drawn doodle of a tree, the page reads:

Life, & the world, or whatever we call that which we are & feel, is an astonishing thing. The mist of familiarity obscures from us the wonder of our being... Life, the great miracle, we admire not, because it is so miraculous. It is well that we are thus shielded by the familiarity of what is at once so certain and so unfathomable, from an astonishment which would otherwise absorb and overawe the function of that which is its object.

According to the Morgan's librarian/blogger, the essay was penned sometime in late 1819 in the back of a vellum-bound notebook that also contained Shelley's "A Philosophical View of Reform":

The notebook was disbound, probably around 1916, and while there's no physical evidence that these leaves came at the end of the notebook, "On Life" grew out of an early passage from the lengthier treatise. Neither essay was published in Shelley's lifetime -- another version of "On Life" was printed with two other short essays in The Athenaeum in 1832, but "A Philosophical View of Reform" did not appear in print until 1920, and this manuscript was not edited for publication until the mid-20th century.

Other recent posts on the blog include a letter by Charles Dickens, in which he laments his crippling writer's block and calls himself "a Monster to my family"; and a book of short poems and sketches called The Puppet Show, written and illustrated by John Ruskin when he was all of ten.

Originally Published: January 9th, 2012