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Percy Bysshe Shelley
1792 - 1822
 



The English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley ranks as one of the greatest lyric poets in the history of English literature.
 

 

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born at Field Place near Horsham, Sussex, on Aug. 4, 1792. He was the first son of a wealthy country squire. Shelley as a boy felt persecuted by his hard-headed and practical-minded father, and this abuse may have first sparked the flame of protest which, during his Eton years (1804-1810), earned him the name of "Mad Shelley." In the course of his first and only year at Oxford (1810-1811), Shelley and his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg issued a pamphlet provocatively entitled The Necessity of Atheism. Their "atheism" was little more than a hieroglyph connoting their general revulsion against establishment authoritarianism. However, both students were expelled from the university.

This event - soon combined with the influence of Political Justice by anarchist reformer William Godwin - merely intensified Shelley's rebelliousness against accepted notions of law and order, both in his private life and in the body politic. In the summer of 1811 Shelley met and married Harriet Westbrook, and he tried to set up, with her and Hogg, one of those triangular relationships that were to become characteristic of his love life, presumably because he saw in them a way to materialize his noble ideal of freedom in love and togetherness in human relationships. In the early months of 1812 Shelley evinced more than theoretical interest in the Irish cause, another manifestation of his desire for political reform.


Shelley's First Poems

Shelley attempted to convey his views on these and sundry other topics in Queen Mab (1813), a juvenile allegorical romance that, nevertheless, contained the germ of his mature philosophy: the ontological notion that throughout the cosmos there is "widely diffused/A spirit of activity and life," an omnipresent non-personal energy that, unless perverted by man's lust for power, can lead mankind to utopia.

By the summer of 1814 Shelley had become closely involved with Godwin, his debts, and his daughter Mary. For a brief while, the poet contemplated settling down with both Mary (as his "sister") and Harriet (as his wife); but the latter did not agree, and in late July Shelley eloped to the Continent with Mary, taking along her half sister, Claire Clairmont.


Shelley's Alastor

Back in England, Shelley was increasingly driven to the realization that utopia was not just around the corner, and this may have prompted the writing of Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude in December 1815. This ambiguous poem is a dialectical analysis of the tragic irony in the poet's fate as he is caught between the allurements of extreme idealism and his awareness that the very nature of man and the world precludes the achievement of his highest purpose. Alastor represents a transient but necessary phase in Shelley's evolution. He was hence-forth to return with unrelenting determination to his dual poetic task of defining the romantic ideal of universal harmony and of striving to bring about the reign of love and freedom in human society.

The first fruits of this ripening were the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and Mont Blanc, which were planned in 1816, during a stay in Geneva. Both poems constitute an impressive statement of Shelley's fundamental belief in an everlasting, benevolent "Spirit," the hidden source of splendour and harmony in nature and of moral activity in man.


The Revolt of Islam

The winter of 1816/1817 was a period of great emotional disturbance for Shelley. Harriet died, presumably by suicide, in December, and the courts refused to grant Shelley the custody of the two children she had borne him. In addition, he was beginning to worry about his health. However, there were encouragements as well. Partly thanks to Leigh Hunt (to whom he gave financial help with his customary generosity), Shelley was gaining some recognition as an original and powerful poet.

During the spring and summer of 1817, Shelley composed his most ambitious poem to date, The Revolt of Islam. In this work the crude allegorical didacticism of Queen Mab gave way to genuine, although at times still turgid, symbolism. The theme of love between man and woman was adroitly woven into the wider pattern of mankind's love-inspired struggle for brotherhood. Like the French Revolution, the failure of which had preoccupied Shelley for a long time, The Revolt of Islam ends in disaster. But the poet had now come to a mature insight, absent from Alastor, into the complex interplay of good and evil. Man's recognition of his boundaries is the first step to wisdom and inner liberty; martyrdom does not put an end to hope, for it is a victory of the spirit and a vital source of inspiration. The Revolt of Islam illustrates a discovery that often signaled the romantic poet's accession to wisdom and that John Keats described, in April 1819, as the recognition of "how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul."


Exile and Prometheus Unbound

In March 1818 the Shelleys (still accompanied by Claire Clairmont) left England, never to return. The bulk of the poet's output was produced in Italy in the course of the last 4 years of his short life. Though life in Italy had its obvious rewards, this period was by no means one of undiluted happiness for Shelley. He was increasingly anxious about his health; he was beginning to resent the social ostracism that had made him an exile; exile itself was at times hard to bear, even though the political and social situation in England was most unattractive; and his son William died in June 1819.

However, although a note of despondency can be perceived in some of his minor poems, such as the Stanzas Written in Dejection near Naples, the major ventures of Shelley's later years testify to the relentless energy of an imaginative mind steadily concerned with fundamentals and ever eager to diversify its modes of expression. In Prometheus Unbound (1818-1819), Shelley turned to mythical drama to convey, in a more sensitive and complex way, the basic truth that had been expressed through the narrative technique of The Revolt of Islam. Moreover, the same dialectical reconciliation of the puzzling dualities of life received more purely lyrical shape in the Ode to the West Wind of October 1819.


Dramas and Social Tracts

Like the other romantic poets, Shelley was aware of the limitations of lyrical poetry as a medium of mass communication. He, too, endeavored to convey his message to a larger audience, and he experimented with stage drama in The Cenci (1819), a lurid but carefully constructed tragedy which illustrates the havoc wrought by man's Jupiterian lust for power, both physical and mental, in the sphere of domestic life.

Shelley's interest, however, lay in wider issues, which he now began to tackle in unexpectedly robust satires and with scathing polemical aggressiveness, venting his social indignation in the stirring oratory of The Masque of Anarchy (1819); in Peter Bell the Third (1819), a parody of William Wordsworth and an ironic comment on the elder poet's political and artistic disintegration; in Oedipus Tyrannus, or Swell-foot the Tyrant (1820), a mock tragedy on the royal family; and in Hellas (1821). The last of his major political poems, Hellas celebrates the Greek war of liberation, in which Lord Byron was involved in more active ways; it crowns a large series of minor poems in which Shelley, throughout his writing career, had hailed the resurgent spirit of liberty, not only among the oppressed classes of England but also among the oppressed nations of the world.


Final Poems and Prose Works

Shelley's concern with promoting the cause of freedom was genuine, but his personality found a more congenial outlet in his "visionary rhymes," in which the peculiar, dematerialized, yet highly sensuous quality of his imagery embodied his almost mystical concepts of oneness and love, of poetry and brotherhood, without destroying their ethereal ideality. Such themes remained the fountainhead of his inspiration to the last, but - as he was nearing 30 - with a more urgent, yet less strident sense of the unbridgeable gap between the ideal and the real. He conveyed this sense with poignantly subdued elegiac tones in The Sensitive Plant (1820) and in the poem that he composed on the death of John Keats, Adonais (1821).

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Wordsworth had been about the same age, some 20 years earlier, when they had expressed, in Dejection and the Immortality Ode, their disenchanted consciousness and stoical acceptance of the decay that life and experience had brought to their visionary powers. Shelley too, it seems, came to be affected with a similar dismaying sense of fading imagination; his response, however, was significantly different from theirs. Far from submitting to the desiccating consequences of growth, he wrote the Defence of Poetry (1821), one of the most eloquent prose assessments of the poet's unique relation to the eternal. And, in 1822, he focused on the poet's relation to earthly experience in The Triumph of Life, which T. S. Eliot considered his "greatest though unfinished poem." This work contains an impassioned denunciation of the corruption wrought by worldly life, whose "icy-cold stare" irresistibly obliterates the "living flame" of imagination.

Shelley's death by drowning in the Gulf of Spezia near Lerici, Italy, on July 8, 1822, spared him - perhaps mercifully - the hardening of the spirit that, in his view, had destroyed Wordsworth.
 


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Percy Bysshe Shelley was born August 4, 1792, the first of seven children born to Timothy Shelley, a country squire who became a baronet in 1815 upon the death of his father, Sir Bysshe Shelley. Percy attended Sion House Academy from 1802-4 and then Eton, where the young intellectual and idealist encountered the public school system of "fagging," in which upperclass boys tyrannized their juniors, who ran errands and acted as servants. Afterwards Shelley equated school with prison. Although University College, Oxford, where he enrolled in 1810, came as something of a relief, within a few months he was expelled along with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg for refusing to acknowledge or deny authorship of a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism.

His father visited him in London after his expulsion, insisting that he renounce his friend Hogg and his beliefs, which included atheism, vegetarianism, free love, and political radicalism; Shelley refused. The resulting estrangement from his father was completed when Shelley eloped with Harriet Westbrook, the 16-year-old daughter of a coffee-house keeper. Shelley now sought a vocation: he went to Ireland for a few months to campaign for political reform; his poem "Queen Mab" appeared in 1813. The following year he met his hero William Godwin, the author of Political Justice, and fell in love with his daughter Mary, a radical and an idealist like himself. The daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary later wrote Frankenstein and The Last Man, two novels that remain popular and influential today. Taking along Mary's step-sister Jane Clairmont (daughter of the second Mrs. Godwin), Mary and Percy eloped to Switzerland in July 1814.

An inheritance from his grandfather of 1000 per annum in 1815 alleviated Shelley's financial difficulties, which were often caused by his generosity to others, but his domestic situation became very complex: Harriet, who had already given him a daughter, Ianthe, bore a son, Charles, on Nov. 30, 1814, after Shelley had been living with Mary for several months. A few months later (Feb. 22, 1815) Mary bore a daughter, who lived only a few days, and in January 1816 their son William was born. In 1816, Percy, Mary, and Jane Clairmont (who had reinvented herself as Claire and become Lord Byron's mistress) returned to Geneva, where they met Byron and his friend (and doctor) John Polidori. They visited each other daily and regularly sailed together on the lake. The famous ghost story-telling competition which lead Mary to come up with Frankenstein occurred in June. After they returned to England, Mary's half-sister Fanny Imlay committed suicide in October, and less than a month later, Harriet (apparently pregnant by another man) drowned herself. Shelley married Mary in December but lost custody of his children by Harriet to her family.

In 1818 the Shelleys left England for Italy, where their infant daughter Clara and then their son William died and where Percy Florence was born. Shelley gathered a circle of friends, including Byron, around him. Despite his radical views and despite his habit of falling in love with young women in this circle (like Emilia Viviani and Jane Williams, common-law wife of Edward Williams), Shelley was the peacemaker among them — Byron said that everyone else he knew was a beast compared with Shelley. Returning by sailing yacht from a peacemaking mission on behalf of Byron to Claire Clairmont, Shelley drowned at sea during a fierce storm. Mary Shelley edited his poems and advanced his fame after his death.
 


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The he spirit of revolution and the power of free thought were Percy Shelley's biggest passions in life. After being sent away to boarding school at the age of ten, he attended a lecture on science which piqued his interest in the properties of electricity, magnetism, chemistry and telescopes. On return trips home, he would try to cure his sisters' chilblains by passing electric currents through them. He also hinted of a mysterious "alchemist" living in a hidden room in the attic.

While attending the Eton school from 1804 to 1810, the quiet, odd and reflective boy was taunted relentlessly by schoolmates. This generated in him extremes of anger, once even driving him to stab another boy with a fork. Shelley detested the practice of younger boys buying protection (through doing menial tasks) from older bullies. He was ever the visionary and daydreamer, often forgetting to tie his shoelaces or to wear a hat. His odd behavior eventually earned him the nickname of "Mad Shelley".

At school, Shelley became intrigued with the revolutionary political and philosophical ideas of Thomas Paine and William Godwin. Throughout his life, he emphatically expressed his political and religious views in a struggle against social injustice, often to the point where it got him into trouble or mired in controversy. Later, in Geneva with Byron, he would often write "democrat, great lover of mankind, and atheist" in Greek after his signature in hotel ledgers. Upon finding one of these signatures, Lord Byron remarked: "Do you not think I shall do Shelley a service by scratching this out?" which he promptly did. Shelley detested the monarchy and aristocracy. He was a great believer in the idea of the power of the human mind to change circumstances for the better in a non-violent way.

Shelley attended University College, Oxford in 1810. His friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg describes Shelley's college rooms as such:

Books, boots, papers, shoes, philosophical instruments, clothes, pistols, linen, crockery, ammunition, and phials innumerable, with money, stockings, prints, crucibles, bags, and boxes were scattered on the floor and in every place. . . . The tables, and especially the carpet, were already stained with large spots of various hues, which frequently proclaimed the agency of fire. An electrical machine, an air pump, the galvanic trough, a solar microscope, and large glass jars and receivers, were conspicuous amidst the mass of matter.

The young Shelley was often seen indulging in his habit of sailing paper boats on the water of any nearby pond, lake or river, or reading with a book held right up to his eyes, lying very close to the fire.

   "... insanity hung as by a hair suspended over the head of Shelley ..." ~ Shelley's cousin Medwin ~

In 1811 Shelley wrote and distributed to various bishops and heads of colleges a short pamphlet he wrote on The Necessity of Atheism. One of these he sent to a poetry professor along with a letter signed "Jeremiah Stukley". The professor then brought the letter and essay, which proposed free inquiry into religious belief and suggested that the existence of God remained unproven by physical evidence or reason, to the University College master. Shelley and his friend Hogg were both subsequently expelled from Oxford. This incident greatly upset Shelley's father and grandfather. His relationship with them and his closeness to the rest of his family was never completely mended.

Although he intellectually disliked the institution of marriage, stating that it was not necessary if two people loved each other, he eloped to Scotland in 1811 and married sixteen year-old Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a London merchant and a school friend of his sister. Shelley's father immediately cut off his monetary allowance upon hearing the news, but was eventually persuaded to restart it. Meanwhile, Shelley continued to write political pamphlets, often sending them out in bottles or homemade paper boats over the water, or inside fire balloons into the sky.

At the beginning of 1812 Shelley started to suffer from "nervous attacks" for which he took doses of laudanum. He also started to sleepwalk when life became difficult or stressful. One evening he was either attacked, or imagined he was attacked, outside the door of his cottage. His wife and a neighbor found him lying senseless at the foot of the entryway. It was also in 1812 that he met and became friends with William Godwin and his family.

Harriet bore Shelley's first child, Elizabeth Ianthe, in June of 1813 and by the end of the year was pregnant again. But by 1814, Shelley had fallen in love with Mary Godwin, which upset both Harriet and Mary's father, William. When the two persuaded Mary to stop seeing Shelley for a little while, he showed up distraught and hysterical at her house with laudanum and a pistol, threatening to commit suicide. Soon reconciled, Shelley and Mary later traveled around Europe with Mary's sister Jane (later Claire) Clairmont. By the time they returned to London, Mary was pregnant. Harriet gave birth to Charles, Shelley's first-born son in November of 1814, but she was by now painfully aware that Shelley did not love her anymore.

"Teach me half the gladness / That thy brain must know, / Such harmonious madness / From my lips would flow ...." ~ Shelley in 'To A Skylark' ~

Mary gave birth to a tiny girl in February of 1815, but the baby died within a few weeks. She was soon pregnant again, and gave birth to a son, William, in early 1816. Mary, Shelley and Claire spent the summer of 1816 at Lake Geneva at a residence near Byron's. The famous "ghost story contest" which spawned Mary Shelley's Frankenstein took place during this period.

Tragedy struck twice near the end of 1816 after Mary and Shelley had returned to London. Depressed, Mary's sister Fanny committed suicide in October. Later, Harriet's body was found one November morning, drowned in Hyde Park's Serpentine. She had presumably killed herself. She was several months pregnant from an affair with a military officer who had later been sent abroad, and assumedly despondent about Shelley leaving her for Mary. Shelley had had no contact with Harriet since the spring. He soon proposed to Mary and they were married on December 30, 1816.

The newlyweds eventually moved to Great Marlow, where Mary finished her work on Frankenstein while pregnant, and Shelley provided help to the poor -- a habit which made the local aristocrats call him "mad". In a bout of hypochondria, Shelley also imagined for weeks that he was developing elephantiasis after sitting next to a woman with fat legs on a coach.

In 1817 daughter Clara was born, and in 1818 Shelley left England for good to seek warmer climes for his health, not to mention that he also wanted to escape his persecutors in the press and within his own family. While in Italy, Claire Clairmont became pregnant again (after having had Byron's daughter Allegra in 1817), but the identity of the father remains uncertain. Many speculate that Shelley himself was the father, as it is obvious from letters and accounts that he felt a great love for both Claire and Mary; and after all, he was a great proponent of the completely radical idea of "free love" as put forth in his essay On Love and the poem Epipsychidion:

I never was attached to that great sect,
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion, though it is in the code
Of modern morals....

A baby (Elena Adelaide), born in late 1818 was listed as Shelley and Mary's, but scholars are convinced that it was most likely Claire's. Nonetheless, the child was sent off to foster care, and later died at the age of two.

Tragedy struck the Shelleys again and again in Italy. Baby Clara died in 1818 in Mary's arms while she waited in the hall of an inn for Shelley to find a doctor. Depressed and bitter in December of 1818, in failing health and with a marriage that was falling apart, Shelley composed his Stanzas written in Dejection, near Naples, where he writes:

   Alas! I have nor hope nor health,
   Nor peace within nor calm around,
   Nor that content surpassing wealth
   The sage in meditation found,
   And walked with inward glory crowned--
   Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.
   Others I see whom these surround--
   Smiling they live, and call life pleasure;
   To me that cup has been dealt in another measure.

Little William became ill in late May of 1819, and although watched over agonizingly by his parents and loved ones, he died on June 7. This pain was mixed with the joy of the birth of son Percy Florence in November of the same year. Stress took its toll, as Shelley's cousin Medwin, during a visit in 1820, described the twenty-eight-year old poet as "tall, emaciated, stooping, with grey streaks in his hair."

Percy Shelley could not swim, and even though he had recently been involved in a boating accident in a canal one night in which he was nearly drowned, he and several friends decided to spend the summer of 1822 sailing on the Bay of Lerici. A boat was ordered and built for this purpose -- named Don Juan by Byron, but renamed Ariel by Shelley. Meanwhile, the pregnant Mary, who was expecting in December, suffered another miscarriage in June. Shelley himself suffered from disturbing recurring nightmares and hallucinations during the summer. One vision was of a naked child rising out of the sea and clapping its hands; another was an encounter with his own doppelganger on the terrace, who then asked him "How long do you mean to be content?"; and the most terrifying was of his good friends Jane and Edward Williams coming into his room one night, bloody and mangled, to tell him that the house was falling down -- and when he rushed to Mary's room to warn her, he found himself strangling her. Shelley wrote to a friend and asked him to send a lethal dose of prussic acid, not to use immediately, but as comfort to hold "that golden key to the chamber of perpetual rest."

"You were all brutally mistaken about Shelley, who was without exception the best and least selfish man I ever knew." ~ Byron, upon Shelley's death ~

On July 7, after a long trip of sailing out to visit several different friends, a sudden afternoon storm sunk the Ariel ten miles from any land. The bodies of Shelley, Williams and the boat's sailor washed up ten days later and were treated and cremated on the beach because of quarantine laws to protect against the plague. Shelley's ashes were buried in the Protestant cemetery at Rome. His heart was first given to a friend, then to Mary, and eventually buried in Bournemouth. Shelley's final, unfinished poem was, perhaps ironically, titled The Triumph of Life.
 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 16 December, 2008