Percy Bysshe Shelley (August 4, 1792 – July 8, 1822) was one of the major English Romantic poets and is esteemed by some scholars as the finest lyrical poet in the English language. Shelley’s major works were long visionary poems such as Adonais and Prometheus Unbound, but he is perhaps best known for such anthology pieces as Ozymandias, Ode to the West Wind, To a Skylark, and The Masque of Anarchy.
Shelley's unconventional life and romantic idealism made him a notorious and denigrated figure in his own time, but he became the idol of later generations of poets including major Victorian poets Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Algernon Charles Swinburne, as well as William Butler Yeats. Shelley was also known for his association with contemporaries John Keats and Lord Byron. After abandoning his first wife and children, Shelley was married to the novelist Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.
Shelley's spirit of rebellion led him to flaunt the conventions of society in the name of freedom and individual expression, and both Shelley and Lord Byron experimented with notions of free love, leaving in their wake a trail of suffering, including the suicide of Shelley's first wife. Shelley’s animating spirit, the spirit of Romanticism, was well expressed in his poetry, but his life underscored the dire consequences of love conceived only as an inner imperative, unconstrained by commitment or the needs and dependence of others.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was the son of Sir Timothy Shelley (who would become the second baronet of Castle Goring), and Elizabeth Pilfold. He grew up in Sussex, and received his early education at home, tutored by Reverend Thomas Edwards of Horsham. In 1802, he entered the Sion House Academy of Brentford, and in 1804, Shelley entered Eton College, where he studied until 1810. On April 10 of that year, he enrolled in the Oxford University (University College).
Shelley’s first publication was the 1810 Gothic novel, Zastrozzi, in which he gave vent to his atheistic worldview through the villainous title character. In the same year, Shelley, together with his sister Elizabeth, published Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire. After going to Oxford, Shelley issued a collection of seemingly burlesque (but actually subversive) verse, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson. It is believed by some that a fellow collegian, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, may have been his collaborator.
In 1811, Shelley published the provocatively titled pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, an attack on authoritarian institutions which gained the attention of the school administration. His refusal to appear before the school's officials resulted in the expulsion of Shelley and Hogg from Oxford on March 25, 1811. Shelley could have been reinstated, following the intervention of his father, had he recanted his views. Shelley's refusal to do so, however, led to a total break with his father.
Four months after being expelled, 19 year old Shelley eloped to Scotland with 16 year old schoolgirl Harriet Westbrook, daughter of John Westbrook, a coffee-house keeper in London. After their marriage on August 28, 1811, Shelley invited his college friend Hogg and his wife to live together with them in the style of what is euphemistically called "open marriage," or "free love." When his wife objected, Shelley abandoned his experiment and took Harriet to England's Lake District, where Shelley hoped to write. Instead he became distracted by political events and ended up going to Ireland to engage in radical pamphleteering, which earned him the unfavorable attention of the British government.
Over the next two years, Shelley wrote and published Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem. The poem shows the influence of the freethinking radical English philosopher William Godwin. During this time Shelley would often leave his 19 year old wife alone at home caring for their two children, choosing to spend his time in Godwin's home and bookshop in London, perhaps out of his interest in Godwin's daughter, Mary. Her mother was the famed feminist educator and writer Mary Wollstonecraft, who had died giving birth to Mary.
In July 1814, Shelley abandoned his wife and children and eloped for the second time with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, with her stepsister Jane (later Claire) Clairmont along for company, both of them just 16 years old. The threesome sailed to Europe, crossed France and settled in Switzerland. The Shelleys would later publish an account of this adventure. After six weeks, homesick and destitute, the three young people returned to England. There they were met by an enraged Godwin, the one-time champion and practitioner of "free love" who now refused to speak to his "free-loving" daughter, a collapse of yet another parent-child bond.
In the autumn of 1815, while living close to London with Mary and avoiding creditors, Shelley produced the verse allegory Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude, influenced by the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth. It attracted little attention at the time, but has come to be recognized as his first major poem. From this time Shelley would return repeatedly to the poetic task of defining the romantic ideal of universal harmony, while presuming to realize the reign of "love and freedom" in human society through a series of self-serving relationships.
In the summer of 1816, Shelley and Mary, living now as if a married couple, made a second trip to Switzerland at the prompting of Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont. Clairmont had connected with Lord Byron the previous April, just prior to Byron's self-exile on the continent. But Byron soon lost interest in and cut off Claire, but not before she had lured Shelley and Mary to Geneva. The Shelley pair and Byron rented neighboring houses on the shores of Lake Geneva. Regular conversation with Byron had an invigorating effect on Shelley's poetry. A boating tour which the two took together inspired Shelley to write the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, his first significant production since Alastor. A tour of Chamonix in the French Alps inspired "Mont Blanc," a difficult poem in which Shelley ponders questions of historical inevitability and the relationship between the human mind and nature.
Shelley, in turn, influenced Byron's poetry. This new influence shows itself in the third part of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which Byron was working on, and in Manfred, which he wrote in the autumn of 1816. At the same time, Mary had been inspired to begin writing the gothic tale, Frankenstein. At the end of summer, the Shelley, Mary, and Clairmont returned to England, Clairmont pregnant with Byron's child.
The return to England was marred by tragedy. Fanny Imlay, Mary Godwin's half-sister and a member of Godwin's household, killed herself in the late autumn. In December 1816, Shelley's estranged and apparently pregnant wife Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine in Hyde Park, London. On December 30, 1816, a few weeks after Harriet's body was recovered, Shelley and Mary Godwin were married. The marriage was intended, in part, to help secure Shelley's custody of his children by Harriet, but it was in vain: The children were handed over to foster parents by the courts.
The Shelleys took up residence in the village of Marlow, Buckinghamshire, near Shelley's friend Thomas Love Peacock. Shelley took part in Leigh Hunt's literary circle and there met John Keats. Shelley's major production during this time was Laon and Cythna, a long narrative poem which attacked religion and featured a pair of incestuous lovers. It was hastily withdrawn after only a few copies were published, then edited and reissued as The Revolt of Islam in 1818. Shelley also wrote two revolutionary political tracts under the nom de plume of "The Hermit of Marlow."
Early in 1818, the Shelleys and Claire left England in order to take Claire's daughter, Allegra, to her father, Byron, who had taken up residence in Venice. Again, contact with the older and more established poet encouraged Shelley to write. In the latter part of the year he wrote Julian and Maddalo, a lightly disguised rendering of his boat trips and conversations with Byron in Venice, finishing with a visit to a madhouse. This poem marked the appearance of Shelley's "urbane style." He then began the long verse drama Prometheus Unbound, which features talking mountains and a petulant demon who overthrows Zeus. Shelley's son Will died of fever in Rome and his infant daughter died the next year during yet another household move.
The Shelleys moved around various Italian cities during these years. Shelley completed Prometheus Unbound in Rome, and spent the summer of 1819 in Livorno writing the tragedy, The Cenci. This was also the year of the Peterloo massacre, which seemed to have influenced the writing of Shelley's best-known political poems, The Masque of Anarchy, Men of England, and The Witch of Atlas. The Witch is probably his most popular work among audiences of that time. His most thorough exposition of his political views is the essay The Philosophical View of Reform. In 1821, wrote his elegy to John Keats, entitled Adonais.
In 1822, Shelley arranged for Leigh Hunt, a poet and an editor who had been one of Shelley's early supporters in England, to come to Italy with his family. Shelley hoped to work with Byron and Hunt for the creation of a journal to be called The Liberal, with Hunt as editor. The journal was conceived to be the organ through which they would disseminate their controversial writings and challenge conservative periodicals such as Blackwood's Magazine and The Quarterly Review.
On July 8, 1822 (less than a month before his 30th birthday), Shelley was sailing in his schooner (the Don Juan) back from Livorno (where he had just set up The Liberal) to Lerici. The boat itself has an interesting story. Edward Trelawny (a member of Shelley's literary circle) named the boat the Don Juan as a compliment to Bryon. Shelley did not like the name and changed it to Ariel. Byron became annoyed and had the name Don Juan painted on the mainsail, which in turn offended the Shelleys. It was, after all, the Shelleys' boat. Some find irony in these seemingly petty squabbles among men who fancy themselves deigned to guide others with their philosophy and political writings.
Though this boat was custom-built in Genoa for Shelley, Mary Shelley declared in her "Note on Poems of 1822" (1839) that the very design of the boat had a defect and was never seaworthy. In a sudden storm that blew up, the boat did not capsize but sank, and Shelley was drowned.
Shelley's body washed ashore and he was later cremated on the beach near Viareggio. His heart was snatched, unconsumed, from the funeral pyre by Edward Trelawny, and kept by Mary Shelley until her dying day, while his ashes were interred in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome, under a tower in the city walls. A reclining statue of the drowned Shelley, by the sculptor Edward Onslow Ford, can be found in University College, Oxford.
Shelley's poetic output, like many Romantic poets, was unappreciated during the poet's brief lifetime. His influence on English poesy, however, would become immense. In both his flagrantly unconventional life and his wildly supernatural poetry he became emblematic of the fiery, youthful, tortured genius of the Romantic era. Yeats in particular considered Shelley to be his single greatest influence, and one of the greatest poets of English history.
Yet, Shelley's place in the canon has always been ambiguous. On the one hand, his poetry—so rich in exuberantly imaginative metaphors and imagery—is closely allied to Wordsworth's poetry of nature and imagination. Note Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads:
The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way…
In this sense Shelley might be considered allied with the Lake School Poets, and indeed he did reside in the Lake District at one point in his career. Certainly, he shares Wordsworth's rejection of over-decorated poetic forms in favor of simpler, prose-like lines, the "language really used by men." What he did not share with Wordsworth was the latter’s tolerance or even appreciation for earlier poetic traditions. Shelley, both in his life and in his poetry, believed that the old must always be cast out to make room for the next thing. He sought to clothe natural things in the fantastic colors of the imagination. The best example of this is his poem “Mont Blanc.”
Yet Shelley cannot be considered a Lake Poet. He does not have anywhere in his poetry the kind of pastoral lyricism so beloved by Wordsworth, what Wordsworth referred to as pictures of "low and rustic life…[where] the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity." When nature appears in Shelley's poetry, it is always in the form of a volcano, a mountain-top, or a hurricane: Majestic, overpowering, and far from ordinary.
Moreover, much of Shelley's mature output consists of supernatural and mythological epics. Prometheus Unbound, Shelley's masterpiece in this genre, is a key example. Although much of its greatest imagery is drawn from the natural world, it is a wildly fantastical poem:
Prometheus, chained to the rocks of a jagged, wind-swept mountain-top, is here beginning the poem's narrative with a long invective against the gods who imprisoned him there. The story of this poem is derived from the Greek tragedy of Aesychlus, Prometheus Bound is unlike many of Shelley's other epic poems in a similar vein which were entirely contrived; Shelley re-imagines the myth and recasts Prometheus as much more than just a demiurge of Greek mythology, ultimately transforming him into a role-model of the tortured, revolutionary artist.
Works of pure imagination such as this draw comparison to Coleridge, Keats, Byron, and, even William Blake. But Shelley cannot be easily categorized. His thoroughgoing Romantic sentimentality serves to distinguish him from Coleridge and Blake while his metaphysical ponderousness distinguishes him from Byron and Keats. He is a unique figure in British poetry, and remains, to this day outside of simple categories, a status somehow befitting.
Shelley's reputation did not grow until a generation after his passing, unlike Lord Byron, who was popular among all classes during his lifetime despite his radical views. For decades after his death, Shelley was mainly only appreciated by the major Victorian poets, the pre-Raphaelites, socialists, and the labor movement. One reason for Shelley's limited reputation was the extreme discomfort with the poet's political radicalism which led popular anthologists to confine Shelley to his relatively moderate works, such as "Ozymandias" or "Lines to an Indian Air."
Karl Marx, Henry Salt, Mahatma Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, Alfred Nobel, Upton Sinclair, and William Butler Yeats were admirers of his works. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Roger Quilter, John Vanderslice, and Samuel Barber composed music based on his poems.
Critics such as Matthew Arnold endeavored to rewrite Shelley's legacy to make him seem a lyricist and a dilettante who had no serious intellectual standing and whose longer poems were not worth serious consideration. Arnold famously described Shelley as a "beautiful but ineffectual angel," a judgment radically at odds with that of the previous generation who knew Shelley as a skeptic and radical.
Many of Shelley's works remained unpublished or little known after his death, with longer pieces such as A Philosophical View of Reform existing only in manuscript until the 1920s. This contributed to the Victorian idea of him as a minor lyricist. With the rediscovery and re-evaluation of his oeuvre by scholars such as K.N. Cameron, Donald H. Reiman, and Harold Bloom in the early twentieth century, the modern idea of Shelley could not be more different.
Paul Foot, in his Red Shelley, has documented the pivotal role Shelley's works, especially "Queen Mab," have played in the genesis of British radicalism. Although Shelley's works were banned from respectable Victorian households, his political writings were pirated by men such as Richard Carlile who regularly went to jail for printing "seditious and blasphemous libel" (that is, material proscribed by the government) and these cheap pirate editions reached hundreds of activists and workers throughout the nineteenth century.
In other countries such as India, Shelley's works both in the original and in translation have influenced poets such as Rabindranath Tagore and Jibanananda Das. A pirated copy of Prometheus Unbound, dated 1835, is said to have been seized in that year by customs at Bombay.
In 2005, the University of Delaware Press published an extensive two-volume biography by James Bieri. In 2008, the Johns Hopkins University Press published Bieri's 856-page one-volume biography, Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography.
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