Last reviewed: June 2018
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. Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley
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.