George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century

By Archibald Henderson | Go to book overview
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The Shelley and Shakespeare Societies

THE SHELLEY SOCIETY, ORGANIZED BY FREDERICK JAMES FURNIVALL, HELD ITS inaugural meeting at University College on March 10, 1886.Along with his passion for founding literary societies for the purpose of establishing the fame of great English poets upon a permanent basis, Furnivall was intent upon widening the knowledge of the English language and literature, which at that period was amazingly chaotic and inadequate. He joined the Philological Society in 1847, founded the enormously influential Early English Text Society in 1864, was primarily instrumental in founding the Ballad Society in 1868, founded the New Shakespeare Society in 1875, the Browning Society in 1881, and the Shelley Society in 1886.1 The visits of Shelley to Furnivall's early home at Egham, and the fact that his father was Mrs. Shelley's physician, strongly influenced him in founding the Shelley Society. He carried on and directed for many years the pioneer work for the New English Dictionary; and W. W. Skeat says that Furnivall's share in that work was "even of superior importance to that of the editor [Sir James A. H. Murray], who reaped where Furnivall had sown."2Furnivall, a barrister, was neither a philologist nor a competent literary critic, and was unbridled in his criticism and denunciation of students and scholars who disagreed with him. But he was a tireless worker, a mighty enthusiast, and a doughty champion of English language and literature.

Shaw attended as a visitor the first regular meeting of the Shelley Society on April 14, 1886. Following H. Buxton Forman's address on "The Vicissitudes of Queen Mab," Shaw rose and commented that he "regarded Queen Mab as a work far superior to The Cenci, which he considered antiquated. Queen Mab was a perfectly original poem on a great subject. Throughout the whole poem Shelley showed a remarkable grasp of facts, anticipating also the modern view that sociological problems are being worked out independ

It seems that Furnivall decided upon the founding of a Shelley Society shortly after the inauguration of the Browning Society on October 28, 1881. He records in his diary for 1881: "I resolved to found the Shelley Society--on the hill between Hendon and Hampstead--on Sunday, December 6, about 1:50 P.M." It was not founded until five years later. Furnivall also founded the Chaucer and the Wyclif Societies. He was one of the founders of the Working Men's College.
Frederick James Furnivall: A Volume of Personal Record, with a biography by John Munro ( Oxford University Press, 1911).


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George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century
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