Authors: Percy Bysshe Shelley

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English poet

August 4, 1792

Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex, England

July 8, 1822

At sea off Viareggio, Lucca (now in Italy)


Percy Bysshe Shelley, English poet, was born at Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex, on August 4, 1792, the eldest son of a landed country squire. After some tutoring, he was sent to Syon House Academy, where his shyness exposed him to brutal bullying. Entering Eton in 1804, he lived as much apart from the other students as possible, a moody, sensitive, and precocious boy with the nickname “mad Shelley.” There, he wrote Zastrozzi, a wild gothic romance, Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire, and another inferior gothic romance, St. Irvyne, all published in 1810. {$I[AN]9810000408} {$I[A]Shelley, Percy Bysshe} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Shelley, Percy Bysshe} {$I[tim]1792;Shelley, Percy Bysshe}

Percy Bysshe Shelley

(Library of Congress)

Shelley matriculated at University College, Oxford, in 1810. He and Thomas Jefferson Hogg were expelled during their second term for publishing and sending to bishops and heads of colleges a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism. At this time, Shelley fell in love with Harriet Westbrook, daughter of a retired hotel keeper. They eloped and, despite Shelley’s open break with the conventions of the Christian religion and particular scorn for the marriage ceremony, they were married in Edinburgh in August 1811. Both fathers contributed to their support for the next three years, which the couple spent pursuing political reforms in southern England, Ireland, and Wales.

In 1813, their first child was born in London, and Shelley’s first long poem, Queen Mab, was published. Meanwhile, marriage with Harriet was proving a failure. In May 1814, Shelley met Mary Godwin, the daughter of William and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, radical reformers. Mary shared his belief that marriage was only a voluntary contract. Harriet left for her father’s home, and Shelley and seventeen-year-old Mary eloped to Switzerland, accompanied by Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister. When they returned to England in September, Shelley proposed to Harriet that she come live with Mary and him; however, there was no reconciliation.

Mary and Shelley had a son in 1816 (the year of Alastor). They, with Claire, spent the summer in Switzerland and became close friends of George Gordon, Lord Byron. Soon after they returned to England in the autumn, they heard that Harriet had drowned herself. Shelley was then free to marry Mary Godwin, and they wed on December 30, 1816. A court order denied him the custody of his two children by Harriet.

After he had completed The Revolt of Islam, the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont, with her child by Byron, went to Italy. There Shelley remained the rest of his life, wandering from Lake Como, Milan, Venice, Este, Rome, Florence, and Pisa to other places. He spent much time with Byron. Julian and Maddalo is a poem in the form of a conversation between Shelley (Julian) and Byron (Maddalo). Next followed The Mask of Anarchy, a revolutionary propaganda poem; The Cenci, a realistic tragedy; and Prometheus Unbound, a lyric tragedy completed in 1819 and published in 1820. Earlier in the same year, at Pisa, he wrote some of his most famous lyrics, in “The Cloud,” “Ode to the West Wind,” and “Ode to a Skylark.”

The chief productions of 1821 were Epipsychidion, a result of his platonic relationship with Countess Emilia Viviani; an uncompleted prose work, A Defence of Poetry, published after his death, and Adonais, an elegy inspired by the death of John Keats. From his wide reading, Shelley was most greatly influenced by Plato, Lucretius, Baruch Spinoza, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, and Robert Southey. Godwin’s influence lasted until Shelley’s death. His final poem, The Triumph of Life, was incomplete at the time he was drowned, July 8, 1822, while sailing off Viareggio. His body was first buried in the sand, then cremated. The ashes were buried in the Protestant cemetery at Rome, January 21, 1823.

The nineteenth-century notion of the sensitive poetic soul owes a great deal to the ideal young man (Alastor, “the brave, the beautiful the child of grace and genius”) built up largely by Shelley of Shelley. Yet in the history of English literature, Shelley is not as important as William Wordsworth or as influential as Byron or Keats. Today he has many admirers, but for those who dislike Romantic poetry in general, Shelley is a particularly vulnerable target. Unquestionably he could give a songlike character to his verse, and he was a lover of unusual colors, blurred outlines, and large effects. He was also a lover of startling and frank realism and had an obvious passion for the mysterious. In technique, he illustrated something more concrete by the less concrete. What Shelley starts to define often results in vague though pretty images. He offers emotion in itself, unattached, in the void.

Shelley was at war with the conventions of society from childhood. As a political dreamer, he was filled with the hope of transforming the real world into an Arcadia through revolutionary reform. As a disciple of Godwin, he directed Queen Mab against organized religion. The queen shows the human spirit that evil times in the past and present are attributable to the authority of church and state. In the future, however, when love reigns supreme, the chains of the human spirit will dissolve; humankind will be boundlessly self-assertive and will temper this self-assertion by a boundless sympathy for others. Then a world will be realized in which there are no inferior or superior classes or beings. The end of Prometheus Unbound expresses this vision of humanity released from all evil artificially imposed from without, a humanity “where all things flow to all, as rivers to the sea,” and “whose nature is its own divine control.”

The moral law that evolved with Shelley’s thought was an insistence on the duty and the right of all individuals to rule their own destinies. This right was not arbitrary but devolved from the high standard of universal love which linked the seeking of individual liberty with the obligation to do all in one’s power to secure a like freedom from tyranny for all. The reign of love when no authority is necessary was his millennium.

Author Works Poetry: Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire, 1810 (with Elizabeth Shelley) Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, 1810 Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem, 1813, revised 1816 (as The Daemon of the World) Alastor: Or, The Spirit of Solitude, and Other Poems, 1816 Mont Blanc, 1817 The Revolt of Islam, 1818 Rosalind and Helen: A Modern Eclogue, with Other Poems, 1819 Letter to Maria Gisborne, 1820 Epipsychidion, 1821 Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, 1821 Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1824 (includes Prince Athanase, Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation, The Witch of Atlas, The Triumph of Life, The Cyclops, and Charles the First) The Mask of Anarchy, 1832 Peter Bell the Third, 1839 The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1839 The Wandering Jew, 1887 The Complete Poetical Works of Shelley, 1904 (Thomas Hutchinson, editor) The Esdaile Notebook: A Volume of Early Poems, 1964 (K. N. Cameron, editor) Long Fiction: Zastrozzi: A Romance, 1810 St. Irvyne: Or, The Rosicrucian, 1810 Drama: The Cenci, pb. 1819 Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, pb. 1820 Oedipus Tyrannus: Or, Swellfoot the Tyrant, pb. 1820 Hellas: A Lyrical Drama, pb. 1822 Charles the First, pb. 1824 (fragment) Nonfiction: The Necessity of Atheism, 1811 (with Thomas Jefferson Hogg) An Address to the Irish People, 1812 Declaration of Rights, 1812 A Letter to Lord Ellenborough, 1812 Proposals for an Association of . . . Philanthropists, 1812 A Refutation of Deism, in a Dialogue, 1814 History of a Six Weeks’ Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, 1817 (with Mary Shelley) A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote Throughout the Kingdom, 1817 An Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte, 1817(?) Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations, and Fragments, 1840 A Defence of Poetry, 1840 Shelley Memorials, 1859 Shelley’s Prose in the Bodleian Manuscripts, 1910 Note Books of Shelley, 1911 A Philosophical View of Reform, 1920 The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1964 (2 volumes; Frederick L. Jones, editor) Translations: The Cyclops, 1824 (of Euripides’ play) Ion, 1840 (of Plato’s dialogue); “The Banquet Translated from Plato,” 1931 (of Plato’s dialogue Symposium) Miscellaneous: The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1926–30 (10 volumes; Roger Ingpen and Walter E. Peck, editors) Shelley’s Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts and Criticism, 1977 (Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers, editors) Bibliography Bieri, James. Percy Bysshe Shelley, a Biography. 2 vol. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004-2005. A well-reviewed valuable addition to Shelley scholarship. Examines the poet’s life through analysis of his cultural, literary, personal and romantic contexts. Includes bibliography and index. Bloom, Harold, ed. Percy Bysshe Shelley. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. An excellent selection of some of the most important works on Shelley published since 1950. Bloom’s introduction, an overview of Shelley’s poetry, is highly recommended. Blumberg, Jane. Byron and the Shelleys: The Story of a Friendship. London: Collins & Brown, 1992. Blumberg describes the friendship among George Gordon, Lord Byron, and the Shelleys. Bibliography and index. Cronin, Richard. Shelley’s Poetic Thoughts. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981. An incisive study of Shelley’s thought within his poems and his manner of handling language. Cronin scrutinizes poetic forms as they manage realism and fantasy, elegy and dream. Contains notes and an index. Duff, David. Romance and Revolution: Shelley and the Politics of a Genre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Duff examines Romanticism and politics in the work of Shelley. Bibliography and index. Everest, Kelvin, ed. Percy Bysshe Shelley: Bicentenary Essays. Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 1992. A collection of biographical and critical essays on the life and works of Shelley. Includes bibliographical references. Frosch, Thomas R. Shelley and the Romantic Imagination: A Psychological Study. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2007. This volume offers in-depth analysis of a few of Shelley’s major works. Readers are given insight into the possible meaning behind his themes and characterizations and the personal reasons that Shelley’s may have had for using them. Hamilton, Paul. Percy Bysshe Shelley. Tavistock: Northcote House in association with the British Council, 2000. Hamilton’s biography provides the story of Shelley’s life and criticism and interpretation of his works. Höhne, Horst. In Pursuit of Love: The Short and Troublesome Life and Work of Percy Bysshe Shelley. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. A biography of Shelley offering insights into his life and work. Includes bibliographical references and index. Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1975. This major biography presents Shelley as a sinister and sometimes cruel artist of immense talent. Holmes claims new answers to questions about Shelley’s Welsh experiences and about his paternity of a child born in Naples. Critical readings of Shelley’s writings are less valuable than their biographical context. Contains illustrations, bibliography, notes, and an index. Lewis, Linda M. The Promethean Politics of Milton, Blake, and Shelley. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. Lewis examines the Greek myth of Prometheus in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the works of William Blake. Bibliography and index. Morton, Timothy, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Shelley. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. This collection of essays by international scholars examines Shelley, lending much of its attention to lesser-known areas of his writing, including drama, prose, and translations. The essays are organized thematically and are divided into three sections, focusing on his life, his writing, and the role he played in the culture and politics of his time. All of the essays are previously unpublished and offer new perspectives on Shelley’s writing and his role in the literary canon. Simpson, Michael. Closet Performances: Political Exhibition and Prohibition in the Dramas of Byron and Shelley. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998. Simpson examines the role of politics and censorship in the plays of Lord Byron and Shelley. Bibliography and index. Sperry, Stuart M. Shelley’s Major Verse: The Narrative and Dramatic Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. This excellent study of Queen Mab, Alastor, The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound, The Cenci, The Witch of Atlas, Epipsychidion, and The Triumph of Life attempts to synthesize philosophical, psychological, and biographical approaches to Shelley. Wasserman, Earl R. Shelley: A Critical Reading. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971. Wasserman’s massive, detailed readings of virtually all Shelley’s major poems have been extremely influential. Wasserman emphasizes Shelley’s metaphysical skepticism and discusses his conceptions of existence, selfhood, reality, causation, and their relation to transcendence. Some of the readings are very dense and may be intimidating for the beginning student, but no serious student of Shelley can ignore them. Wheatley, Kim. Shelley and His Readers: Beyond Paranoid Politics. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999. Examines Shelley’s reception in major British periodicals and the poet’s idealistic passion for reforming the world. Wroe, Ann. Being Shelley. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. This biography focuses on the themes and images that were present throughout Shelley’s life and works. Wroe examines his poetry, notes, books, and letters to reveal the links between his life and writing.

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