UPDATE: Hotel Register in Which Shelley Declared Himself to be an Atheist: FOUND

In the category of "hiding in plain sight," I can now offer a higher resolution copy of the Hotel de Villes de Londres' register.

This has been available since 22 July on the Trinity College Library site (the "Trinity Library blog"). My original searches did not unearth this and I was forced to rely on the much poorer quality image that appeared here (the "Trinity College blog")  I have my friend Stathis Potamitis to thank for this discovery.  He is obviously more thorough than I am!! Therefore I offer my apologies to all of my readers.

The Trinity Library blog also fills in many of the gaps that were left out of the Trinity College blog. The page came to the Trinity College Library as part of a bequest by the granddaughter of Richard Monckton Milnes. Milnes was a poet in his own right but is more widely known as a patron of writers.  Here is a portion of the Britannica entry:

"He published the pioneering Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848), secured a pension for Tennyson, made the American sage Ralph Waldo Emerson known in England, and was an early champion of the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. He also formed a large library of erotic books that included the first serious collection of the works of the Marquis de Sade."

Several very rare Shelley editions were included in the bequest, and the page from the register was discovered pasted inside the front cover of Milnes' copy of Shelley's poem The Revolt of Islam.

The higher resolution image now puts us in the position of advancing some more refined conclusions.  Here is the relevant portion of the page:

Here is what Trinity Library blog suggests:

"Underneath Shelley’s name is written ‘Mad. M. W. G.’ – Madame Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the future Mary Shelley – and a further name, now crossed out, was Claire Clairmont. It was very likely to have been Byron who underlined Shelley’s name along with ‘the fool’ in the Greek text, in order to vent his frustration at Shelley’s outrage, and who crossed out Claire Clairmont’s name. A later visitor cut this page out of the visitors’ book..."

Professor Wilson in the Trinity College blog adds:

“Lord Byron, no stranger to scandal, claimed to have struck out one of Shelley’s inscriptions. There are grounds to think that this is Byronic hyperbole and that it was Byron who in fact underlined, rather than struck out, Shelley’s name in the hotel register”.

This thesis originally appealed to me.  I liked the idea of Byron telling people that he had crossed out Shelley's name when in fact he had underlined it.  There is a deliciously Byronic aspect to this bit of chicanery.   But the more I think about this, the more I think it is inconsistent with his character.  I am therefore not sure how we arrive at the conclusion that Byron had anything to do with the underlining of Shelley's or crossing out of Claire's names - but more on this later.  There may, however, be details that have yet to be released by Trinity Library. 

With respect to the Greek portion of the entry, I turned to my old friend Stathis, a respected lawyer based in Athens.  Now, there are two distinct Greek entries.  The first is the famous and well known declaration by Shelley that he was an atheist.  We know know exactly what he wrote and in what order.  Says Stathis: "It is clear that what Shelley wrote is: “I am a lover of humanity, a democrat and an atheist.”

Now, it has also been suggested that Shelley's Greek is less than perfect.  Yet Stathis notes only that there is one spelling mistake (Shelley writes δημωκρατικός, with an ‘ω’ as opposed to the correct ‘o’) and that the Greek is missing its accents.

For Shelley scholarship the more interesting aspect of the register is the Greek quote that appears immediately beneath Shelley's entry.  In my last post, I proposed that the handwriting in each case appeared to be the same; allowing for the speculation that Shelley may have engaged in one of his classic ironic inversions.  But the higher resolution image from the Trinity Library post tells a different story.  Here is Stathis:

"...the Greek seems to be by two different hands – for example the α is different in the two parts, the quote has all the accents unlike the first one where only άθεος is accented, the θ is also different as is the final ς.  Shelley’s Greek includes a spelling mistake (δημωκρατικός, with an ‘ω’ as opposed to the correct ‘o’).  By contrast the Greek of the quote is perfect.  Interestingly, the word order is different from the original [Psalm 14.1]: “ο άφρων είπεν εν τη καρδία αυτού, ουκ έστιν θεός" as opposed to "Είπεν άφρων εν τη καρδία αυτού, ουκ έστι Θεός".  This would suggest someone who is familiar with both Greek and the Psalms (or possibly only the particular one) and is able to reproduce from memory, however with a slight change in the word order that still works well in Greek."

It is worth looking back to my previous post to remind ourselves what Psalm 14 is about.  There I wrote:

The opening words of Psalm 14:1 have for centuries been used by Christians to assail atheists; the “fool” of the line is assumed to be the atheist.  However, this is a mistake. The second half of the first verse goes on to say, “They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.” Again, the assumption is often made that “they” refers to the atheist.  But Psalm 14 2-3 goes on to make it clear that god looks down on all people as corrupt:
2 The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God.
3 They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.
The Hebrew word translated in the King James version as "fool" is nâbâl.  But this is an adjective that means "stupid and wicked". It comes from the root verb nâbêl, which means "to be foolish or morally wicked". Thus, I believe the connotation intended is less that the individual is a mere fool, and more that he has a defective moral character which is the result of his belief that god will not notice his bad behavior. The Psalm’s introductory note comments that ‘David describeth the corruption of a natural man. He convinceth the wicked by the light of their conscience. He glorieth in the salvation of God.”  The implication, then, is that all people are morally wicked and can only raise themselves up with the help of god. In a nutshell: “you are an idiot if you think you can do this by yourself.”

Based on the assumption that the handwriting was the same, I offered an interpretation:

Shelley was an astute reader of scripture. He has also become justly famous for his ironic inversions in which he seizes on old myths and employs them to obtain a radically different moral result. Here I could easily see Shelley using this quotation to accuse his enemies of moral perfidy. In effect saying, “You think you are better than me, but you are all, according to your own god, morally wicked.”

But it would seem that I am quite wrong.  Stathis also points us to the famous scholasticist, St Alselm:

"I noted before that the particular quote was used by Saint Anselm in his Proslogion as part of his famous ontological proof of the existence of God.  Anslem attempts a reduction ad absurdum of the denial of the existence of God.  His argument is that since God is a being of which something greater cannot be conceived, that means that it must not lack in any attribute that would make it less than perfect.  “Existence” is in Anselm’s view such an attribute, indeed a non-existent God would be less perfect than an existent God, therefore God must necessarily exist.  This “a priori” proof of the existence of God was criticized by many philosophers, including Hume and other empiricists, and that discussion must have been familiar to William Godwin and perhaps, through him, to Mary Shelley.  However, the Proslogion was written in Latin – it is not clear to me that quoting the Psalms in Greek should be seen as a reference to Saint Anselm’s argument (it would have been a clearer reference had the quote been in Anselm’s Latin)."

Shelley himself was intimately familiar with philosophical works of David Hume (though perhaps the interest indeed derived from Godwin), so I am not sure we need to assume it came to Shelley through Mary.  In any event, based on Stathis' analysis, it is clear I am wrong that Shelley made this entry and I think we must conclude that it was made by someone else. But who? As I noted previously, it is tempting to think it might have been Byron.  But the Greek is perfect and Byron's Greek was anything but perfect. It seems most likely then that someone familiar with the Psalms and St Anselm inserted the remark - someone offended by Shelley's assertion of atheism; but this hardly narrows it down as literally every educated English traveler of the day would have been familiar with both.

Which brings us to the question of the underlining. Stathis offers this thought:

"The underlining of Shelley’s name seems to be repeated by the same hand under the words ‘ο άφρων’, “the fool”.  To me this suggests that whoever quoted from the Psalms wanted to make sure that people understood that “the fool” was Shelley."

I find this a very attractive idea.  Now it also takes us back to Byron.  Byron himself asserted that he had tampered with at least one register.  And it is important to remember, as Shelley's biographer Bieri points out, that Shelley made a similar entry in possibly as many as four registers. This means that we may not be looking at the register in which Byron crossed out Shelley's name - perhaps he crossed it out somewhere else; perhaps for the first time in history we should give Byron the benefit of the doubt!  The Hotel de Villes de Londres was, however, the place to stay in Chamonix; if Byron was going to see one of Shelley's entries, it is most likely that he saw it there.  So let's allow ourselves some guesswork.

Byron and his friends arrive at the Hotel.  He looks for and finds Shelley's entry. It would be entirely within his character to play the devil and critique Shelley by underlining the word "the Fool" and then Shelley's name. But why would he cross out Claire's name? He had been made aware at that point that Claire carried his child.  Shelley has literally forced him to admit paternity and accept responsibility. But his admission was grudging and he made it clear from the very start that he would have nothing more to do with Claire. So why would he cross her name out? What possible motive would he have to protect her? The answer is unclear to me. But I welcome the speculation of others. And if Claire's name was not crossed out by Byron, by whom.....and when? Did Claire do it herself?


My thanks to Stathis Potamitis for his careful and thoughtful assistance.  Stathis and I have known one another for decades. One of the hallmarks of our friendship is our spirited and perpetual dialogue about our favourite poets, his (Byron) and mine (Shelley).  Indeed I can thank him for rekindling my interest in Shelley which had lain dormant for many years.  It happened in a succession of debates at seaside tavernas in the Peloponese in the winter of 2013. You can find out more about Stathis here.