Literary treasures from Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries

Where can you find locks of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s and Mary Shelley’s hair alongside the fragments of Sappho’s poetry? At the Bodleain Libraries in Oxford, England. And also in the book “Marks of Genius: Masterpieces from the Collection of the Bodleian Libraries.

The book includes writings and drawings and ephemera dating from ancient times -- Sappho’s fragments are from the 2nd century AD -- to the 20th century. Over all that time what constitutes genius has changed.

Author Stephen Hebron writes: “Genius has never been scientifically explained or located; thus its presence can never be either proved or refuted. The genius of a particular person may be hotly promoted and equally hotly denied, according to taste.... If the various forms the character of genius has taken over the centuries have anything in common, it is that they celebrate the variety and creativity of human beings.”

The library came into being around 1600, when wealthy Oxford alum Sir Thomas Bodley returned to town determined to build anew the library that had been torn apart by the Reformation. In 1598 Bodley promised, “I will take the charge and cost upon me... to make it fitte, and handsome with seates, and shelfes, and deskes, and all that may be needful, to stirre up other mens benevolence, to help furnish it with bookes.”


Books, manuscripts, postcards, diaries, grading cards and other ephemera appear in the library’s collection and in “Marks of Genius.” There is a Nobel Prize medallion, a number of portraits, and the original conducting score of Handel’s Messiah.

Clearly, not all the artifacts are literary, but that’s what we’ve focused on in the gallery above. Take a look at Mary Shelley’s locket, a set of Jane Austen novels, and the Codex Mendoza.

The book is in stores now. The show “Marks of Genius” is up in New York at the Morgan Library through Sept. 28, and then it travels home, to be exhibited at the Bodleian in 2015.

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