The Deep Dive Anthology

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: "The Choice"

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851)


Mary Shelley wrote “The Choice” shortly after her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, died in a boating accident in Italy. More than a eulogy, the poem reflects on the time the couple spent in Italy and how his death has tainted the country she once found joy in. It laments that Mary has already suffered great loss—all her children except for one died—and without Shelley’s comforting presence, his death is almost worse than the deaths of their children.

Mary and Percy traveled to Italy often. Mary also wrote about Italy in multiple articles, short stories, reviews, and travel books. Italy was a special place to Mary. In her poem “The Choice,” Mary says Italy is now “a tomb” (line 6). Percy drowned in Italy and he was buried in Rome, turning the country in which Mary found joy into a country that reminded her of yet another death in her troubled life.

Percy was not the first major death Mary survived. Many of her children died at birth or shortly thereafter. Her only child to survive into adulthood was Percy Florence Shelley. In “The Choice,” Mary wrote about one of her children exploring ruins in Italy before he passed, and in the same stanza she said to the spirit of her husband, “And thou his playmate…” (line 97). In this way, Mary’s husband shifted from helping her though the loss of their children to becoming another source of her grief. He gave her the bitter-sweet image of playing with their dead children, something she could not do yet.

Mary ended this poem reflecting on the boating accident and giving an apostrophe to Edward, the other man who drowned with Shelley. She resolved to be a wanderer on earth while waiting to join Percy and Edward in her true home, the land beyond the living.

Rationale for why this piece is worthy of consideration

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is known for her novel, Frankenstein. However, she was more than the author of one famous novel. Mary was a poet as well as a novelist, and she also edited her husband’s poems and published them herself after his death. This piece shows a different side to the author of Frankenstein, and it also shows an interesting glimpse into the lives of the Shelleys. Mary had a tragic life, losing all of her children except one and now her husband as well. “The Choice” shows Mary Shelley as a poet as well as a novelist, and also as a mourning mother and wife.

Significant dates in the author's life

30 August 1797: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is born to philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft in London, England.

10 September 1797: Mary’s mother dies when she is still an infant.

11 November 1812: Mary meets Percy Bysshe Shelley, a pupil of her father and a poet.

1814: Mary and Percy elope. They travel across Europe with Claire Clairmont.

June 1816: Lord Byron rents Villa Diodati in Switzerland, where he invites Mary, Percy and Claire Clairmont to visit with him often. During a spell of bad weather, they write ghost stories and Mary has a dream that inspires her story, Frankenstein, which she eventually publishes.

1817: Mary and Percy publish a book they wrote together, History of a Six Week’s Tour, detailing their travels across Europe.

1 January 1818: Mary publishes the novel that gives her a name in literary history, The Modern Prometheus, better known as Frankenstein.

12 November 1819: Mary gives birth to Percy Florence Shelley. Percy Florence Shelley is her only child to grow into adulthood.

July 1822: Percy Shelley goes sailing in his boat the Don Juan with Edward Williams, and the boat sinks killing them both.

September-December 1822: Mary starts collecting and editing Percy’s poems to publish, and she translates part of Lord Byron’s work, Don Juan.

July 1823: Mary writes a poem about Percy’s death, “The Choice.”

11 August 1823: Mary reveals herself as the author of Frankenstein in its second volume.

April 1824: Mary writes a eulogy for Lord Byron after he dies, but it is rejected.

June 1824: Mary creates a preface for and edits Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

23 January 1826: Mary publishes the dystopian novel, The Last Man.

August 1838: Sir Timothy Shelley had been upset when Mary first published Percy’s poems, and now under the rule that she omit any poems that mentioned memoirs of his son, Sir Timothy allows Mary to publish the poems. Mary pens her own bibliographic annotations, however, to sidestep the condition.

1 February 1851: At 53 years of age, Mary dies.

Overview of "The Choice"

This is a mournful poem, with Mary lamenting the loss of her husband and thinking about the loss of her children as well. It is also slightly bitter because she saw her children die and now her husband has died to be with them, leaving her alone save one child.

In this way, a major theme is death. She takes this further to contemplate how death can be a place—Italy—and perhaps also personified in Nature. She says that Italy is “a tomb” (line 6). Nature is portrayed as violent and vivid, and it could be said to be like her emotions.

Italy is another theme. She spent a lot of happy time in Italy with Percy and wrote about it, but it is now a symbol of her loss because Percy drowned in Italy and is buried there. She names different places in Italy—such as Rome—in her contemplation. What was once a place of joy has transformed into a place that reminds Mary of her sorrows.

Nature is a vivid part of this poem. Mary Shelley is a Romantic poet, so it is not surprising that Nature plays a key role in her poem. However, Nature in "The Choice" is presented differently than the way Romantic poets generally presented Nature. Instead of representing the idealistic state of happiness and peace, Nature reminds Mary of what she no longer has—her husband and her most of her children. Instead of freeing her from the city by being the ideal state of peace and joy, it confines her as Mary says, “The sky a vault…” (line 6). This aspect of Nature is also haunting because to the Romantic poet, Nature is a place where one finds peace and rest. However, Mary sees reminders of her husband’s absence. On the other hand, it is almost as if Percy lives in Nature: “Thou liv'st in Nature - love - my Memory” (line 119).

Water is mentioned frequently in her poem, an ironic theme because Percy drowned. It is as if Mary cannot escape her husband’s murderer. Water is an ironic element because as much as it is needed for life, it can take away one’s life just as easily.

The poem’s rhyme scheme is basically aa bb cc with the occasional slant rhyme. The simple pattern might represent the simple way in which people were taken away from Mary: a shows up and a is taken away to be no more, b shows up and b dies, and so on. It comes quickly and it ends quickly, sadly like the lives of Mary’s children. They are born and they pass shortly after, like the rhyme scheme.

Full text of "The Choice"

My Choice!—My choice, alas! was had and gone
With the red gleam of the last autumnal sun;
Lost in that deep wherein he bathed his head,
My choice, my life, my hope together fled:—
A wanderer here, no more I seek a home,
The sky a vault, and Italy a tomb.
Yet as some days a pilgrim I remain,
Linked to my orphan child by love’s strong chain;
And since I have a faith that I must earn,
By suffering and by patience, a return
Of that companionship and love, which first
Upon my young life's cloud like sunlight burst,
And now has left me, dark, as when it beams,
Quenched in the might of dreadful ocean streams,
Leave that one cloud, a gloomy speck on high,
Beside one star in the else darkened sky;—
Since I must live, how would I pass the day,
How meet with fewest tears the morning's ray,
How sleep with calmest dreams, how find delights,
As fire-flies gleam through interlunar nights?

First let me call on thee! Lost as thou art,
Thy name aye fills my sense, the love my heart.
Oh, gentle Spirit! thou hast often sung,
How fallen on evil days thy heart was wrung;
Now fierce remorse and unreplying death
Waken a chord within my heart, whose breath,
Thrilling and keen, in accents audible
A tale of unrequited love doth tell.
It was not anger,—while thy earthly dress
Encompassed still thy soul's rare loveliness,
All anger was atoned by many a kind
Caress or tear, that spoke the softened mind—
It speaks of cold neglect, averted eyes,
That blindly crushed thy soul’s fond sacrifice:—
Mine heart was all thy own,—but yet a shell
Closed in it's core, which seemed impenetrable,
Till sharp-toothed misery tore the husk in twain,
Which gaping lies, nor may unite again.
Forgive me! let thy love descend in dew
Of soft repentance and regret most true;—

In a strange guise dost thou descend, or how
Could love soothe fell remorse,—as it does now?—
By this remorse and love,—and by the years
Through which we shared our common hopes and fears,
By all our best companionship, I dare
Call on thy sacred name without a fear;—
And thus I pray to thee, my friend, my Heart!
That in thy new abode, thou'lt bear a part
In soothing the poor Mary's lonely pain,
As link by link she weaves her heavy chain!—
And thou, strange star! ascendant at my birth,
Which rained, they said, kind influence on earth,
So from great parents sprung, I dared to boast
Fortune my friend, till set, thy beams were lost!
And thou, Inscrutable, by whose decree
Has burst this hideous storm of misery!
Here let me cling, here to these solitudes,
These myrtle-shaded streams and chestnut woods;
Tear me not hence—here let me live and die,
In my adopted land—my country—Italy.

A happy Mother first I saw this sun,
Beneath this sky my race of joy was run.
First my sweet girl, whose face resembled his,
Slept on bleak Lido, near Venetian seas.
Yet still my eldest-born, my loveliest, dearest,
Clung to my side, most joyful then when nearest.
An English home had given this angel birth,
Near those royal towers, where the grass-clad earth
Is shadowed o'er my England's loftiest trees:—
Then our companion o'er the swift-passed seas,
He dwelt beside the Alps, or gently slept,
Rocked by the waves, o'er which our vessel swept,
Beside his father, nurst upon my breast,
While Leman's waters shook with fierce unrest.
His fairest limbs had bathed in Serchio's stream;
His eyes had watched Italian lightnings gleam;
His childish voice had with its loudest call,
The echoes waked of Este's Castle wall;
Had paced Pompeii's Roman Market-place;
Had gazed with infant wonder on the grace
Of stone-wrought deities, and pictured saints,
In Rome's high palaces:—there were no taints
Of ruin on his cheek—all shadowless
Grim death approached—the boy met his caress,
And while his glowing limbs with life's warmth shone,
Around those limbs his icy arms were thrown.
His spoils were strewed beneath the soil of Rome,
Whose flowers now star the dark earth near his tomb:
It’s airs and plants received the mortal part,
His spirit beats within his Mother's heart.
Infant immortal! chosen for the sky!
No grief upon thy brow’s young purity
Entrenched sad lines, or blotted with its might
The sunshine of thy smile's celestial light;—
The image shattered, the bright spirit fled,
Thou shin'st the evening star among the dead.

And thou, his playmate, whose deep lucid eyes,
Were a reflection of these bluest skies;
Child of our hearts, divided in ill hour,
We could not watch the bud's expanding flower,
Now thou art gone, one guileless victim more,
To the black death which rules this sunny shore.

Companion of my griefs! thy sinking frame
Has often drooped, and then erect again
With shews of health had mocked forebodings dark;—
Watching the changes of that quivering spark,
I feared and hoped, and dared to trust at length,
Thy very weakness was my tower of strength.
Methought thou wert a spirit from the sky,
Which struggled within it's chains, but could not die,
And that destruction had no power to win
From out those limbs the soul that burnt within.—
Tell me, ye ancient walls, and weed-grown towers,
Ye Roman airs and brightly painted flowers,
Does not this spirit visit that recess
Which built by love, enshrined his earthly dress?—
—No more! no more!—what though that form be fled,
My trembling hands shall never write thee—dead—
Thou liv'st in Nature, Love, my Memory,
With deathless faith for aye adoring thee,
The wife of Time no more, I wed Eternity.

'Tis thus the Past—on which my spirit leans,
Makes dearest to my soul Italian scenes.
In Tuscan fields the winds in odours steeped
From flowers and cypresses, when skies have wept,
Shall, like the notes of music once most dear,
Which brings the unstrung voice upon my ear
Of one beloved, to memory display
Past scenes, past hopes, past joys, in long array.
Pugnano’s trees, beneath whose shade he stood,
The pools reflecting Pisa's old pine wood,
The fire-flies’ beams, the aziola's cry
All breathe his spirit which can never die.
Such memories have linked these hills and caves,
These woodland paths, and streams, and knelling waves
Fast to each sad pulsation of my breast,
And made their melancholy arms the haven of my rest.

Here will I live, within a little dell,
Which but a month ago I saw full well:—
A dream then pictured forth the solitude
Deep in the shelter of a lovely wood;
A voice then whispered a strange prophecy,
My dearest, widowed friend, that thou and I
Should there together pass the weary day,
As we have done before in Spezia's bay,
As through long hours we watched the sails that neared
O'er the far sea, their vessel ne'er appeared;
One pang of agony, one dying gleam
Of hope led us along, beside the ocean stream,
But keen-eyed fear, the while all hope departs,
Stabbed with a million sting our heart of hearts.
The sad revolving year has not allayed
The poison of those bleeding wounds, or made
The anguish less of that corroding thought
Which has with grief each single moment fraught.
Edward, thy voice was hushed—thy noble heart
With aspirations heaves no more—a part
Of heaven-resumèd past thou art become,
Thy spirit waits with his in our far home.

(July 1823)

Annotation of the piece

“Lost in that deep wherein he bathed his head,” (line 3)
Percy died in a boating accident in Italy. A force necessary for life—water—took Percy’s life in a sad twist of fate.

“The sky a vault, and Italy a tomb.” (line 6)
Italy used to be a country that brought Mary joy—she had many fond memories of being in Italy with her children and husband, most of whom are now all dead. What once brought Mary freedom and joy now makes her feel trapped and have memories of sorrow.

“And since I have a faith that I must earn,
By suffering and by patience…” (lines 9-10)
Many Romantic poets rebelled against the church. It is unclear if Mary is saying that faith makes one suffer and is the cause of her sorrow—saying it is not a kind thing—or if she is not speaking ironically and saying her faith is one of sorrow and dignifying the validity thereof.

“Quenched in the might of dreadful ocean streams,”  (line 14)
Mary uses vivid metaphors and similes, many of which include Nature being fierce and along the lines of a Gothic Romance. This metaphor speaks about the memories of Mary’s life which had some good parts just for the bad ones to rush in like a “dreadful ocean streams.” It possibly alludes to Percy’s drowning in a powerful sea, just as her bad memories could be said to drown her.

“A tale of unrequited love doth tell.” (line 28)
This could refer to Percy’s affair with another woman.

“So from great parents sprung…” (line 53)
Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a famous feminist. Her father, William Godwin, was a famous philosopher.

“First my sweet girl, whose face resembled his,” (line 63)
Mary lost many children: all but one either died in infancy or before adulthood. Mary has gone through a life of heartache,
and Percy dying—her one constant, the one who helped her grieve the loss of her children—is almost more than her poem’s persona can bear.

“Rocked by the waves, o'er which our vessel swept,
Beside his father, nurst upon my breast,” (lines 72-73)
This seems to be the image of Mary's—and the Romantic poet’s—ideal. It is domestic bliss where the husband, wife, and child are alive and relaxing together. More than that they are in the sublime, resting in Nature. Childhood and Nature are two Romantic ideals. However, even in this beautiful image lurks irony because they are relaxing in a boat on water, which will be the death of Percy. Even Mary’s memories of happier times remind her of her husband’s death.

“His fairest limbs had bathed in Serchio's stream;” (line 75)
Serchio is a river in Italy.

“The echoes waked of Este's Castle wall;” (line 78)
This refers to a medieval castle in Italy, and it has a moat which lends more to the idea that even Mary’s happy memories of things past are haunted with water, of images of her husband’s death.

“Had paced Pompeii's Roman Market-place;” (line 79)
Mary’s child explored Italy with “infant wonder,” enjoying the world, but he became like the legendary town—buried (line 80).

“In Tuscan fields the winds in odours steeped” (line 124)
Tuscany is a region in Italy where Mary’s memories are centered in this poem, the place of happy memories with her husband and children as well as the place that reminds her of their deaths. Tuscany itself is known for its countryside and art, and Mary seems to be referring to its beautiful fields.

“Pugnano’s trees, beneath whose shade he stood,” (line 130)
Pugnano is a village in Italy.

“…the aziola's cry” (line 132)
This makes reference to a poem by Percy Shelley, "The Aziola," one that Mary edited and published after his death.

“Edward, thy voice was hushed—thy noble heart” (line 156)
Edward is the man who was with Shelly on that fateful boating trip, and both of them drowned in Italy’s sea.

For further reading

“The Choice” poem online:
“The Choice.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Harry Buxton Forman, The Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley in Verse and Prose (Oxford University: Reeves and Turner, 1880) 50-57

More information on Mary Shelley:

Fiona Sampson, “The Treacherous Start to Mary and Percy Shelley’s Marriage,” Literary Hub, May 2018,

Mary Shelley: The Birth of Frankenstein, Films On Demand, 2003, accessed November 13, 2020.

Mary Shelley, The Journals of Mary Shelley: Part 1: 1814-July 1822, ed. Paula Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert (Oxford University Press, 1987).

“Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,” Poetry Foundation, accessed November 13, 2020,

Patricia Duncker, 2004, “Mary Shelley’s Afterlives: Biography and Invention,” Women 15 (2): 230–49. doi:10.1080/0957404042000234079.

Shanon Lawson, “A Chronology of the Life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,” Romantic Circles, 11 February, 1998, accessed November 13, 2020,

Shanon Lawson, “The Mary Shelley Chronology and Resource Site,” Romantic Circles, March 1998, accessed November 13, 2020,

This page references: