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 “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and Mont Blanc (1817). Suggesting a transformed Wordsworthianism, Shelley’s two poems imply a nonanthropomorphic something whose power lies behind all things but who can be known only indirectly through one’s own power of creative intellect.
Following the Shelleys’ return to England on September 8, 1816, two tragedies occurred which haunted the poet for the remainder of his life. On October 9, Fanny Imlay, another of Mary’s half sisters, took a fatal dose of laudanum, and on November 9, Harriet jumped into the Serpentine. Her body was recovered on December 10. Percy and Mary were married on December 30, but this attempt to make their relationship socially acceptable failed. Shelley was declared an unsuitable father for his two children, and their care was entrusted to a Dr. and Mrs. Hume.
Despite the emotional trauma of this period, Shelley became acquainted with Leigh Hunt, liberal editor of The Examiner, literary parodist Horace Smith, essayist Charles Lamb, critic William Hazlitt, and poet John Keats. He also achieved a reconciliation of sorts with his father-in-law, Godwin. His London friends, new and old, provided ample companionship for the Shelleys during visits to their latest home, this time in Great Marlowe, where they lived from February of 1817 until February of the following year and where their daughter Clara was born on September 2. Nor did they neglect their writing. While Mary completed Frankenstein (1818), inspired by an evening of ghost stories at Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva the previous August, Percy wrote two political tracts, A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote Throughout the Kingdom (1817) and An Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte (1817?), as well as the longest of his poems, The Revolt of Islam (1818). Originally published as Laon and Cynthia (1817), The Revolt of Islam tells the story of a revolution carried out without malice and eventually defeated by the ruthless reactionary forces of oppression. The poem implies, as does much of Shelley’s work, that the task of reforming the world will meet with many temporary defeats before its final triumph and that true revolutionaries must operate out of a spirit of love rather than a spirit of hatred, even if death is the reward of such virtue.
On March 11, 1818, the Shelleys left England for the third time, an exile from which the poet would never return. After traveling overland to Milan, Shelley corresponded tactfully with George Gordon, Lord Byron about Byron’s infant daughter Allegra, but the aristocratic poet, involved in a period of monumental debauchery in Venice and wanting to avoid Claire at all costs, refused to claim his daughter. He eventually agreed to take her from the hands of her nurse Elise, but the hopes of Claire and the Shelleys that Allegra would win her father over and become a beloved member of the Byron family were never realized. She would die of typhus on April 20, 1822, in a convent nursery near Ravenna, Italy, where Byron had placed her.
After leaving Milan, the Shelleys took up residence in Leghorn for a month, followed by a two-month stay in the Appenines. Percy was working on a translation of Plato’s Symposium at about this time and was completing Rosalind and Helen (1819), a poetic narrative of the trials and triumphs of love. A reunion of Shelley and Byron at Venice in late summer provided material for Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation (1824), primarily a poetic dialogue between a Shelleyan idealist and a Byronic cynic. Most of the poem was written at a villa in Este lent to the Shelleys by Byron, as were much of the “Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills,” a topographic poem about personal and social regeneration, and the first act of Shelley’s great poetic drama Prometheus Unbound (1820). Prometheus Unbound was ultimately to become Shelley’s deepest statement on the transforming power of love and forgiveness in a world dominated by vengeful hatred.
Shelley himself was in need of forgiveness during the Este period. Having been forced by a lie to Byron to ask Mary to make a precipitate journey to Este, Shelley inadvertently caused the death of his frail daughter Clara, barely a year old. Under the stress of travel, Clara developed dysentery and died at Venice on September 24, 1818. The grief-stricken Mary never entirely forgot this apparent lapse in her husband’s concern for his family’s welfare.
On November 5, 1818, the Shelleys left Este and, after visiting Rome, lived for several weeks in Naples. They then returned to Rome, where Shelley wrote the second and third acts of Prometheus Unbound and began The Cenci (1819), which he finished in August at Leghorn. If Prometheus Unbound is Shelley’s profoundest statement on the power of love to save and purify, The Cenci, a drama influenced by Jacobean tragedy, is his strongest delineation of the power of hatred to corrupt. The play narrates the downfall of Beatrice Cenci, whose participation in a plot to kill the father who has raped her destroys her soul in a way that her father’s crime alone could never have done.
The move to Leghorn during the composition of The Cenci, at least partially a reaction to the latest unhappy episode in the Shelleys’ lives, the death of their son William in Rome on June 7, 1819, also produced The Masque of Anarchy, an allegory of political oppression inspired by the slaughter of peaceful demonstrators for reform in Manchester on August 16, 1819, the infamous Peterloo Massacre. Although intended for quick publication in Leigh Hunt’s The Examiner, the poem was so volatile that it was not presented to the public until 1832.
From Leghorn, the restless Shelleys moved to Florence, settling in during October of 1819. On November 12, Mary gave birth to Percy Florence Shelley, her only child to survive to adulthood. Also at Florence, Percy finished Peter Bell the Third, a Wordsworthian parody which remained unpublished until 1839, and the final act of Prometheus Unbound. Eventually published in the Prometheus Unbound volume was another of the poems of the Florence period, the magnificent “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley’s visionary statement of the revolutionary’s faith that a new and better world will arise when a corrupt world falls into ruin.
The Shelleys’ next move was to Pisa, where they lived during much of the first half of 1820. They then spent several weeks of the summer at Leghorn, moving from there to the Baths of San Giuliano and returning to Pisa on October 31. The poems of this period include several more of those which appeared in the Prometheus Unbound volume, among them “The Sensitive Plant,” “The Cloud,” and “To a Skylark.” All three poems explore man’s mingled compatibility and incompatibility with the sublunary natural world. Two other products of 1820 were Oedipus Tyrannus: Or, Swellfoot the Tyrant, a farcical drama satirizing contemporary English politics, and The Witch of Atlas, a seriocomic allegory of the presence of divine beauty in the realm of mutability. Oedipus Tyrannus was anonymously published in 1820 and was immediately suppressed, while The Witch of Atlas appeared in the Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1824).
The last two years of Shelley’s life, spent mainly at Pisa, were among his most productive. Buoyed by the companionship of such friends as Thomas Medwin, Edward and Jane Williams, Lord Byron, and Edward Trelawny, all members at one time or another of the famous Pisan Circle, Shelley wrote both inspired poetry and inspired prose. In January and February of 1821, after visiting Teresa Viviani in the Convent of St. Anna, where her father had sent her until he could find her an appropriate husband, Shelley composed Epipsychidion (1821), a poem of the psyche’s yearning for its ideal mate. The poem was published anonymously in May of 1821. In February and March of the same year, in answer to Thomas Love Peacock’s “The Four Ages of Poetry,” Shelley wrote “A Defence of Poetry,” an eloquent essay on the poet’s function as prophetic visionary, a work which unfortunately did not appear in print until 1840. In May and June, after hearing of the death of Keats, he produced Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821), among the finest of all English elegies and a passionate affirmation of the immortality of artistic genius. In October, he wrote Hellas: A Lyrical Drama, a poetic drama inspired by the War of Greek Independence and dedicated to Prince Alexander Mavrocordato, a Pisan friend who had left to fight on the side of the revolutionaries. Published in February of 1822, Hellas was the last of Shelley’s works to appear during his lifetime.
In the final months before his death, Shelley was working on the drama Charles the First (1824) and on the dark dream vision The Triumph of Life (1824). He finished neither. Occupying many of his hours during this period, too, was a daredevil fascination with sailing. Many of his poems include comparisons of the imaginative soul to a boat moving across an expansive sea, and though Shelley had never learned to swim, the dangerous freedom of the open ocean possessed an irresistible appeal for him. With a cabin boy, Charles Vivian, and his friend Edward Williams, Shelley set sail during threatening weather on July 8, 1822, for San Terenzo from Leghorn in his new boat the Don Juan. The bodies of the three washed ashore several days later. Shelley was not yet thirty years old.
Shelley was a poet for whom the millennial promise of the French Revolution had not been realized but might still be achieved. He despised the reactionary politics of the postrevolutionary period and worked tirelessly to inspire that transformation of the human soul which might prepare the way for the era of freedom, peace, and love which he so deeply desired. He saw the poet as reforming prophet, capable of energizing the human spirit by giving it glimpses of perfect, eternal truth. He yearned for the ideal and desperately hoped for the salvation of the mundane. Since his death in Italy at age twenty-nine, he has been the symbolic embodiment of youthful rebellion and unvanquished benevolence for generations of liberal reformers, and though they have not produced a world equal to his vision of a new Golden Age, they have achieved, often under his direct influence, some of his most cherished goals.
Baker, Carlos. Shelley’s Major Poetry: The Fabric of a Vision. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1948. A pioneering and eminently successful attempt to present a unified reading of Shelley’s most important poems. Weaving intellectual biography together with extensive analyses of individual works, Baker treats Shelley as a philosophical visionary.
Blunden, Edmund. Shelley: A Life Story. London: Oxford University Press, 1965. A readable, intelligent biography of medium length. Excellent for gaining an understanding of the historical context of Shelley’s life and work.
Curran, Stuart. “Percy Bysshe Shelley.” In The English Romantic Poets: A Review of Research and Criticism, edited by Frank Jordan. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1985. A description and evaluation of scholarly work on Shelley. A standard source for any serious student of the poet.
Curran, Stuart. Shelley’s Annus Mirabilis: The Maturing of an Epic Vision. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1975. A discussion by one of the century’s foremost Shelley scholars of the writings produced from late 1818 to early 1820. Curran’s premise is that Shelley fully embraced the vocation of poet during this key period and dedicated himself to the arduous task of creating a poetic vision worthy of standing beside those of the epic visionaries of the past. The breadth of Shelley’s sources is voluminously documented.
Reiman, Donald H. Percy Bysshe Shelley. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1969. An excellent condensed analysis of Shelley’s life and writings. Includes a useful three-page chronology of major events and a six-page selected bibliography. Especially worthwhile for the beginning student.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose: Authoritative Texts and Criticism. Edited by Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1977. Authoritatively edited texts of nearly all Shelley’s important works, with informative notes and a generous selection of essays by the critics.
Wasserman, Earl R. Shelley: A Critical Reading. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971. A book of uneven brilliance which lacks the unity and consistency of Baker’s volume but is highly original and strongly recommended for the advanced student looking for intellectual challenge.
White, Newman Ivey. Shelley. 2 vols. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947. Despite its date of publication, this compendiously detailed study remains the standard scholarly biography. Extensively endnoted and indexed.