Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822)

Life and Works


Shelley was born on August 4, 1972, at Field Place near Horsham in Sussex the oldest of 7 children, of whom the next 5 were girls. His father was a baronet and Whig Member of Parliament. After two years at the Syon Academy in London, at the age of 11, he was sent to Eton, where he stayed from 1804 to 1810. There he received good training in the classics, and became interested in radical politics. A non-conformist, he felt unhappy and later was to associate the bullying he experienced with other forms hatred and tyranny. Shelley was judged eccentric: he did not like sports and did not know how to fight. Instead, he was a precocious writer. He produced poems and two Gothic novels Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne (1810). The Gothic bent was to persist in his imagination. In October of 1810, Shelley went to University College, Oxford but he was expelled in March. He had sent his pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism written with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hog, to all professors and even to the bishops. At 18, he argued that God did not exist since there was no sensory proof of him. Since his argument was logical, he hoped to convert his interlocutors. His father feared legal action would be taken against him for blasphemous libel and he started communicating with his son through a solicitor. Shelley asked to be disinherited.

In 1792, Percy Bysshe Shelley was born at Field Place, in Sussex.

Shelley eloped in 1811 with Harriet Westbrook, daughter a tavern owner. Although he was not in love and despite the fact that he rejected marriage as an institution, he married her because he had disturbed her religious opinions and exposed her to the persecution schoolboys and teachers. He also hoped to mold her soul. Together they spent the following two years traveling in England and Ireland, handing out pamphlets and speaking against political injustice. In Ireland he wanted to reform and organize the Irish into "the society of peace and love". To that purpose he distributed 1.500 copies of his pamphlet Address to the Irish people, advocating Catholic emancipation and repeal of the Act of Union. in Lynmouth (Devon), Shelley tried to set up a small community of free spirits composed mainly of females. In Wales he distributed his pamphlet "A Declaration of Rights" placing it in dark green bottles, which he threw into the ocean or in balloons.

Shelley's portrait painted by Amelia Curran in 1819

Like Wordsworth and Coleridge in 1797-98, Shelley came to the attention of the Home Office spies because of his radical activities and writings. In order to meet Wordsworth and Coleridge, he went to the Lake District in Keswick where Shelley met Southey, instead. Shelley was 19 and Southey 37. Shelley considered him a deist and an "advocate of liberty and freedom", but soon he was disillusioned by his conservative politics.

Throughout his life, Shelley somehow was to attract violence. While in Keswick he was injured in an attempted housebreaking and robbery. In Wales he was assaulted twice in a skirmish in February of 1813. Later in Italy, he was to be attacked by a man enraged by Shelley's atheism.

During his nomadic life, he wrote his first important poem Queen Mab (1813), an erudite, fantastic, philosophical lyrical poem full of visionary and didactic passages. The Queen of Faery delivers the disembodied soul of Ianthe a series of lectures on social, religious, political themes. She declares that Necessity rules the world and will gradually usher in a happier time without kings, priests, religion and commerce. She makes an apology for free love and a world in which women will emancipate, men will become vegetarian and be healthy and gentle. Poems will renovate society. Queen Mab became known as the "Chartist's Bible".


Percy Bysshe Shelley miniature portrait, mid 19th century,
after the portrait by Amelia Curran.
Percy Bysshe Shelley as a boy: tinted drawing
by the Duc de Montpensier

Like all young radicals, Shelley was influenced by the philosophy of William Godwin. His Political Justice (1793) argued for a society governed by reason, devoid of private property and institutions like "government" and "marriage which were considered corrupt. The human would be free, obeying only his innate rationality.

In 1814 he met the attractive Mary, daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. The poet's marriage was in tatters. Shelley had married a girl of sixteen and only three years later abandoned her and his children so as to elope with another one of seventeen. Accompanied by Mary's fifteen-year-old half-sister Jane (later called Claire Clairmont) they went to the Continent. Shelley also invited Harriet to join them and live as his sister, an offer that she predictably declined. Short of funds, Shelley, Mary and Jane (Claire), returned to London. Shelley came into an annual income under his grandfather's will. The publication of Alastor coincided with the birth of his favorite son William. Meanwhile Claire got obsessed with Byron, and remained pregnant.

Mary Shelley

Pursued by creditors, suffering from ill-health, and ostracized from society, Shelly, together with Mary and Claire embarked on a second tour on the Continent and spent the summer in Switzerland. Shelley met Lord Byron the first time at Lake Geneva in 1816. Both of them were aristocratic revolutionaries, advocated utopian ideals of freedom and social justice. Both were very careless in personal relationships, particularly women and both were fleeing scandal in their native England. (Byron, at the time had left England and a young bride amidst gossip about an affair with his half-sister). In Switzerland, Shelley wrote "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" and "Mont Blanc". Wordsworth was one of Shelley's favorite poets. He admired his spiritual aspirations, yet he was disappointed by his increasing conservatism. He read Wordsworth's poems assiduously to Byron, to whom he transmitted his enthusiasm of Tintern Abbey and the Ode. As a result, Byron's Childe Harold and Manfred were to be influenced by Wordsworth love of nature. Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" and "Mont Blanc" are written in response to Tintern Abbey. Shelley was seduced by Wordsworth's conception of the sublime and pantheistic life-force "a motion and a spirit that impels/ All thinking things, all objects and all thought/, And rolls through all things" (Tintern Abbey). Rather than rejecting the existence of a benevolent deity, he also argued of a power, similar to Wordsworth's motion and spirit, although on occasions this power dissolves into a "dark reality". Mont Blanc, Shelley's masterpiece, attempts to explain the function and origin of poetry and it relevance in the cosmos. It claims that the poet is inspired by the same powers that have created the violent landscape, thus enabling him to speak the ultimate truths that unmask the lies and injustices of repressive governments. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her famous novel Frankenstein.

At the end of the summer of 1816, the Shelleys returned to England. Claire was living with Shelley and his wife, and he was believed to be the father of her child, which scandalized public opinion. Mary's half sister Fanny Imlay committed suicide and Shelley felt responsible. Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine in 1816. In the hope that he could assume custody of his two children by her, Shelley married Mary on December 30. Yet the court denied Shelley the custody of his children by his first wife and was never to see them again.

In London he met other writers, such as Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt, Haydon, Keats, Charles and Mary Lamb. Shelley engaged in sonnet writing competitions with Keats, Leigh Hunt, and Horace Smith. Thus he composed 'Ozymandias', a sonnet about the fleeting nature of fame and power. Disappointed by the public's cold reception of The Revolt Of Islam(1817), another allegoric epic of revolutionary struggle, Shelley decided to leave England. In March he and Mary, their son and daughter William and Clara, in the company of Claire and her daughter by Byron, Allegra, set out to Italy, where Byron was residing. In 1819 they went to Rome and in 1820 to Pisa. On the whole they lived a nomadic life passing through many Italian cities, Milan, Livorno, Venice, Rome, Naples.

Shelley wrote Prometheus Unbound, a lyrical drama, full of cosmic optimism, heavily influenced by the friendship with Byron, the luxuriant climate and nature of Italy, the classical world and the Renaissance spirit. A symbol of political defiance, Prometheus was an important figure in the works of Shelley and Byron. In Shelley, Prometheus becomes a poet and Christ-like figure. He redeems the world from hostilities and brings the millennium.

His shorter lyrics, composed at that time were written on a more tragic tone. He had chronic ill health, suffered the loss of two of his children (Clara died partly through his own negligence; William died at the age of four) and estrangement from Mary. He also suffered because his political hopes foundered and because his poems were not appreciated by the public. During these years he composed a series of major works--The Cenci, Epipsychidion, Adonais, Hellas, the Triumph of Life and The Defence of Poetry, The Mask of Anarchy and a wealth of shorter lyrics.

Shelley never learned to swim. In 1816, during his boating expedition with Byron on Lake Leman, while they were visiting places associated with Rousseau and Gibbon, the freethinkers they admired, Shelley was caught in a storm and almost drowned. He often predicted his death by drowning. Unfortunately, six years later, his fears came true on July 8 in 1822. Shelley and a friend were caught in a storm in an open boat. Shelly was carrying a book of poems by Keats. The fish-eaten bodies were washed ashore at Viareggio, where in the presence of Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt, they were burned on the beach. Shelley was 29 years old. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. Mary Shelley brought to light the remainders of his works.

Shelley's grave

His shorter lyric pieces like "To a Skylark" or "Ode to the West Wind" made him a favorite of the Victorians. Shelley fell out of favor with the modernists and the New Critics.

Shelley is a master of the lyric. He was an extraordinary sense of rhythm and music. Shelley appeals to the modern reader through qualities of style, his imagery, versifications and rhetorical patterns. Shelley comes very near to the poetry of the twentieth century. In poems like, "Lines Written Among the Eugenean Hills" his short sentences, easy flow, simple and direct language and the concrete, spare images anticipate the modernist aesthetic. In Adonais, he transmutes philosophical ideas into rhetoric. Like Yeats he brings together passion, abstraction, symbolism and speed. Prometheus Unbounddisplays a wealth of styles, playing one speaker against the other. Singing movements, assonance, unusual contrasts of color, proliferating clauses, rapidly flowing lines end in a cluster of associations. Shelley experiments with voice: melodious lines of some characters are followed by harsh grating sounds of their antagonists.

Louis Edouard Fournier 'The Funeral of Shelley' 1889

Among Shelley's resources is his facility in creating myths, solemn speeches, condensed aphorisms, direct hard speech. Despite his apology of atheism, his thought does belong to the neo-Platonic tradition to which he gives a personal twist. In "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" he intuits an eternal reality beyond the fragmented condition of our world in which everything is fleeting, illusory and unsubstantial. Poetry and art render in words the visionary insights into the eternal. Art translates the eternal in words and images, it has to present "forms more real" than those belonging to ordinary reality. It has to reach to those territories that lie beyond the realm of language, to express the ultimate reality and a "deep truth" that is imageless and untellable. His verses are fraught with the frustration of not being able to reach the unsayable. Shelley celebrates Beauty and an abstract sense of beauty that pervades the world.

In order to overcome the limitations of common language, Shelley uses a profusion of images that together imply the whole as is the case of Epsipsychidion or "To a Skylark". Poetry is fundamental to human in life. For Shelley as for Blake and Coleridge, evil is of moral or metaphysical nature and takes on the forms of selfishness, aggressiveness of fear. For Shelley, man was corrupted by society and its institutions, yet once the human heart would be transformed the world would too. A fundamental bettering of social institutions was dependent on the inner regeneration of man through his yearning for beauty and goodness. In his visionary flights towards the transcendent, the artist redeems man from decay and reminds him of his divine nature. Shelley claimed for poets a great cultural role, that of "unacknowledged legislators of the world". The poet awakened man to the reality of the ideal and caused "the transforming enlargements of imagination".