Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: In his zeal to renew the human spirit and to reform society, Shelley produced an impassioned, philosophically complex poetry suffused with prophetic vision.
The eldest child of seven, Percy Bysshe Shelley was born at Field Place near Horsham, England, on August 4, 1792, to Timothy Shelley, a socially prominent country squire and sometime Member of Parliament, and the former Elizabeth Pilford. Although there were eventually problems between the politically radical poet and his comparatively conventional father, Shelley’s early homelife was both emotionally and physically comfortable. Shelley received an excellent education, first with a local clergyman, the Reverend Evan Edwards, and later at Sion House Academy (1802-1804), Eton (1804-1810), and, for a short time, Oxford (1810-1811). Supplementing this formal instruction with omnivorous reading, Shelley was rivaled for erudition among the English Romantic poets only by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In addition to his extensive knowledge of literature, philosophy, and science, young Shelley purportedly dabbled in the occult, attempting on at least one occasion, according to some biographers, to communicate with the Devil. The attempt was unsuccessful.
With abundant curly hair and facial features which might more accurately be described as pretty than handsome, the bookish Shelley was the object of much adolescent bullying during his days at Sion House and Eton, a circumstance which helps to explain his lifelong hatred of oppression. Part of this persecution was the result of the traditional hazing of underclassmen by upperclassmen and part an expression of the scorn directed against apparent weakness and actual eccentricity by the strong and the conventional. Because of the victimization he experienced directly and because of the more serious social and political inequities which he read about and witnessed, Shelley was a rebel against irresponsible power and unreflecting obedience to authority from early in his life, seeing in selfish strength and mindless conformity twin props to injustice.
Despite his zeal to change the world, Shelley’s first publications were not manifestations of his rebelliousness but of his fascination with gothic horror. While still in his teens, he wrote and published a pair of gothic novels, Zastrozzi: A Romance (1810) and St. Irvyne: Or, The Rosicrucian (1810), neither of which made an impression on the reading public. A collaboration with his sister Elizabeth, Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire (1810), also contained much gothic material, including several pages plagiarized from the anonymous ballad collection, Tales of Terror (1801).
After his matriculation at Oxford in April of 1810 and his acquaintance with fellow undergraduate Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Shelley’s gothic urge gave way to iconoclasm, with dire consequences for his future. Having worked together on a handful of trifling compositions, Shelley and Hogg delivered to the printer toward the end of 1810 an unsigned tract entitled The Necessity of Atheism. Shelley sent copies to various English ecclesiastics and to virtually all the Oxford faculty, and after their authorship had been discovered, he and Hogg were expelled from the university, still largely a theological institution, on March 25, 1811.
Shelley moved about restlessly during the next few months, spending part of his time in London, where he renewed his acquaintance with sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook, a friend of his sister. Convinced that Harriet was a victim of authoritarian persecution, the impulsive Shelley fled with her to Edinburgh, where the two were married on August 28, 1811. Although the marriage was one of the great mistakes of Shelley’s life, it was, at first, reasonably happy despite the inevitable disapproval of Shelley’s father, already furious over the Oxford fiasco. Harriet accompanied the peripatetic Shelley from Edinburgh to York to Keswick to Dublin. When his pamphleteering and speechmaking among the Irish failed to stir their zeal for freedom, Shelley and Harriet moved temporarily to Wales and then to Lynmouth, Devon, where his political agitation brought him under government surveillance. In September of 1812, after a short return to Wales, Shelley, just turned twenty, traveled with his young wife back to London.
Shelley’s purpose in going to London was to raise funds for a Welsh land-reclamation project, but its more important consequence was the formation of friendships with the publisher Thomas Hookham, who would soon print Shelley’s first important poem, Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem (1813), the poet Thomas Love Peacock, who would eventually inspire the brilliant “A Defence of Poetry,” and the political philosopher William Godwin. Godwin, with whom Shelley had been corresponding since January, was the writer of An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice (1793), the primary source of Shelley’s egalitarian political thought.
After another short stay in Wales, during which much of Queen Mab was written and an attempt made on Shelley’s life by a mysterious assailant, the Shelleys moved again to Ireland and from there back to London, where Queen Mab was printed—for private circulation among England’s political radicals—in May of 1813. Heavily influenced by Godwinism, the poem attacks monarchy, capitalism, marriage, and other aspects of European civilization as Shelley knew it with a fervor which discouraged public distribution of the poem in reactionary England. In fact, when an unauthorized edition of the poem was released in 1821, its publisher was quickly imprisoned for his temerity.
The years immediately following the printing of Queen Mab were a period of chaos in Shelley’s personal life, and for this reason, they were comparatively less productive than the extraordinary times still to come. Gradually realizing his incompatibility with Harriet, who had borne him a daughter in June of 1813 and would bear him a son in November of 1814, Shelley fell in love with the brilliant young Mary Godwin, much to the consternation of her generally freethinking father. The couple fled to France in July of 1814, returning to England in September. The scandal inspired by their elopement and by the birth of their daughter in February of 1815, a child who died within a month, increased their ostracism from respectable English society.
Sir Bysshe Shelley, the poet’s grandfather, died in early January of 1815, and in June, Timothy Shelley, almost certainly to minimize complications in the transfer of estate properties, granted the wayward Percy a one-thousand-pound yearly allowance, twenty percent of which was to go to Harriet. Freed at last from severe financial problems, Percy and Mary rented accommodations in the vicinity of Bishopsgate, where Shelley worked intensely on Alastor: Or The Spirit of Solitude, and Other Poems. When it appeared in February of 1816, a few days after the birth to Mary of William Shelley, the book included its author’s name, the first of Shelley’s works to do so. Its title poem is a symbolic narrative of a young poet’s destruction when he undertakes an impossible quest for a self-generated ideal. The poem seems at least partially to be a warning to the idealistic Shelley himself.
Mary and Percy, along with Mary’s half sister Claire Clairmont, began their second trip to the Continent in May of 1816. They arrived at Lake Geneva soon thereafter, where they hoped to encounter Lord Byron, with whom Claire had recently become involved and whose daughter, Allegra, she would bear in the following year. Despite the clash between Byron’s dark cynicism and Shelley’s customary idealism, the two poets got on well together, and while the Alps were inspiring Byron’s gloomy The Prisoner of Chillon and portions of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818), Shelley was composing the...
(The entire section is 3299 words.)
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Born into a wealthy landed English family of conservative beliefs, Shelley developed such independence of thought that he earned the nickname “mad Shelley.” By the time he entered Oxford University in 1810, he had already published juvenile verse and two Gothic romances. At Oxford he turned to more controversial subjects. His short theological polemic The Necessity of Atheism (1811), examined and refuted proofs traditionally offered for the existence of God, and then asked readers either to supply any deficiency in its reasoning or to embrace the truth that it contained, arguing that truth can never be detrimental to society.
(The entire section is 449 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Percy Bysshe Shelley, born on August 4, 1792, at Field Place in Sussex, England, near the town of Horsham, was the eldest of seven children. His father was Timothy Shelley, a longtime member of Parliament and eventual baronet, and his mother, the former Elizabeth Pilfold. The young Shelley lived in privileged comfort, a circumstance that later offended his reformist sensibilities, and was the object of considerable family affection. His education was begun near Field Place by the Reverend Evan Edwards and was continued at Syon House Academy (from 1802 to 1804) and Eton (from 1804 to 1810). His experiences at Syon House and Eton, where he underwent considerable bullying, helped inspire his passionate hatred of oppressive power....
(The entire section is 2442 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
In Great Expectations (1860-1861), Charles Dickens has the convict Magwitch put his life’s story, as he says, into a mouthful of English—in and out of jail, in and out of jail, in and out of jail. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s life falls into a similar pattern—in and out of love, in and out of love, in and out of love. Shelley admitted as much in a letter to John Gisborne, written the year he was to drown in a boating accident, and expressive of a truth he discovered too late: “I think one is always in love with something or other; the error, and I confess it is not easy for spirits cased in flesh and blood to avoid it, consists in seeking in a mortal image the likeness of what is perhaps eternal.” At the age of...
(The entire section is 951 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In a way, life was good to Percy Bysshe Shelley—and not so good. He was born on August 4, 1792, in Field Place, Sussex, England, the firstborn son of a wealthy Whig aristocrat, Timothy Shelley, whom he loathed, and Elizabeth Pilford. His life became a permanent rebellion against parental and every other kind of authority. His verse envisions a reformed world where people would eat no flesh and thereby grow healthier, gentler, and more loving; where women would be freed from wedlock; and where all would be liberated from the restraints imposed by authority. For this, he was shunned by polite society, excoriated by literary critics, and ignored by the public.
(The entire section is 1055 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Percy Bysshe Shelley created a Romantic myth to compete with religions and philosophies that explain humanity’s relationship to the world. His agnostic faith was, by turns, drawn to materialistic and idealistic viewpoints. Finally, he despaired of radically reforming the world in his life, but he maintained his faith in the power of the human imagination to glimpse ideal truth and beauty that lie beyond experience. The cosmic power that runs the world remains remote for Shelley, and, unmindful of human desire, so nature’s beauties are false idols. Only in surges of creative imagination can humans unite with this power, a spirit that cannot be embodied in experience.
(The entire section is 109 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
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.
Shelley matriculated at...
(The entire section is 980 words.)