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Health Benefits of Poetry

In a new biography Fiona Sampson, professor of poetry at The University of Roehampton, sheds fresh light on the mysterious Mary Shelley


Fiona Sampson, the professor of poetry at the University of Roehampton, has published multiple collections of poetry, been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, and received an MBE from the Queen for services to literature. Her most recent collection, The Catch, was described in The Guardian as “a narrative of mystical experience … deeply aware of history and ecology.” But her most recent piece of writing is a work of prose, not poetry; a biography of the writer Mary Shelley to mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of her masterpiece, Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus.

Shelley, the daughter of feminist thinker Mary Wollstonecraft and radical philosopher William Goodwin and wife to Percy Bysshe Shelley, the acclaimed Romantic poet, has long appealed to biographers. Indeed, there are lots of biographies of her, Sampson says. “Some of them are good and some are less good, but really since Muriel Spark’s in the 1950s there hasn’t been one which, rather than making her a character which they move around through time and place, tried to see what she was doing, how she thought, what she was like.”

Sampson wanted to write a literary biography that shed light on Mary Shelley’s real life, one that would be neither too dryly academic nor melodramatically fictional. To describe the weather at the time of Shelley’s birth, she drew on information in almanacs. She sought out the digitized birth and death records from the Naples commune where the Shelleys spent the winter of 1818-19, and found the details of a mysterious child, Elena Adelaide, registered under Mary and Percy’s names. The handwriting revealed that Mary wasn’t present and didn’t sign her own name, the spelling of which was garbled.

All this research helped create a picture of the romantic writer that succeeds in “reimagining Shelley’s life so that suddenly new images loom and old truisms fade,” according to The Washington Post.

“I didn’t invent anything, not the tiniest detail, and I prided myself on that,” Sampson says. “But at the same time I wanted it to be a literary work, that is to say engaging, readable, three-dimensional.”


Despite the immediate and astonishing popularity of Frankenstein, which Mary Shelley finished at the age of 19, her literary career was only sporadically successful. She did plenty of anonymous hack work, writing travel books and biographies. But although she wrote several other novels, including the first dystopian novel, The Last Man, few left an enduring mark.

For Sampson, it was Shelley’s gender that prevented her career from truly taking off. Because “Frankenstein” was published anonymously, many assumed it was the work of her husband, Percy. Later on, her father-in-law forbade her from using her own (married) name ‘Shelley’ so that subsequent works could only be described as written “by the author of Frankenstein.” Meanwhile, her notoriety in London circles as the child-bride of a famous poet — who had abandoned a wife and child for her — tarnished her reputation irrevocably.

While the social conventions of Shelley’s world differ from today’s, Sampson nevertheless sees parallels. “To me her whole career is very recognizable,” she suggests. “That’s to say, it’s an extraordinary talent, but the records show her repeatedly pitching books after she’d had this big success to John Murray, who was big respectable publishing house at the time – the best – and they never accepted a single book by her despite her track record.”

Today, she adds, “One of the things that happen is that a lot of women get a first book but they never get a second book. Another thing that happens is that women in middle age, which for a man is his prime, become culturally invisible and are just regarded as, ‘Oh, what, still here? So you must be mid-list.’”

Poetry and music

Fiona Sampson
Fiona Sampson

Sampson’s own career has unspooled along an unusual track. She left school at age 16 to study music, but after a number of years playing professional violin returned to Oxford to do an undergraduate degree. (“It’s a great deal easier to be a concert violinist than to be a poet,” she has remarked.) She completed a Ph.D. in the philosophy of language — focusing on late Heidegger and late Wittgenstein — and then began to analyze the interactions between poetry and health. This led to more than a decade in which she introduced poetry at hospitals, hospices, nursing homes and psychiatric wards, working with the dying, the long-term ill, children, and people with learning difficulties and mental- health problems.

“I was convinced that writing ought to be useful in the most extreme contexts,”’ she explains. “if not, then what’s it for?”

Her musical training still plays into her literary work. Sampson’s 2016 study Lyric Cousins, traces connections between the two forms and was praised in the New Statesman magazine as an “erudite and eclectic exploration” that probes “musical time and poetic metre, form and phrasing, and the tricky issue of ‘meaning.’” In the book, she says, she wanted to go “beyond the intuition that these genres have something in common but find out what they do have in common.”

Sampson spent seven years as editor of the prestigious and influential Poetry Review, being only the second woman to hold the position since Muriel Spark in 1947. In 2013, she joined Roehampton, a university in southwest London. She set up and now directs the Roehampton Poetry Centre, which runs two poetry competitions each year, one for the best book and another, open to anyone, for a single poem. At Roehampton she teaches graduate students and some undergraduates, relishing its diverse environment and the fact that many students are the first in their families to go to college. “One of the joys of teaching at Roehampton is that it’s a university where the student body is extremely multicultural and that’s very exciting,” she says. “It means that you can’t take for granted any particular position in the classroom.”

Despite her many responsibilities and achievements — organizing festivals, editing, translating, and judging contests — writing poems remains Sampson’s calling, crafting verses that capture and entrance the reader. “I am a writer, that’s my career,” she says. “That’s who I am.”

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