Percy Bysshe Shelley Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)
0111201583-Shelley_P.jpg Percy Bysshe Shelley (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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.

Percy Bysshe Shelley Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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.

Shelley’s pamphlet—which he contentiously sent to bishops and heads of the colleges at Oxford—coupled with his political writings and conspicuous efforts to support an imprisoned Irish journalist, brought him to the attention of the masters and fellows of University College. They summoned him to a meeting in March, 1811. There, instead of acknowledging authorship and reiterating his stance as a pursuer of truth, he refused to acknowledge the pamphlet and argued that because it had been printed anonymously, his questioners had no legal right to interrogate him concerning its authorship. The university then expelled him, not for his published religious or political beliefs, but for his stubbornness in answering questions, a matter of college discipline.

Soon after his expulsion, Shelley eloped with Harriet Westbrook. The young married couple’s itinerant lifestyle took them through England, Ireland, and Wales in pursuit of various political causes. In 1813 their first child was born and Shelley’s first long poem, Queen Mab, saw publication. This poem attacked established religion, especially Christianity; political tyranny; and the destructive forces of war and commerce. It also attacked the institution of marriage, which, Shelley argued, polluted human love and gave rise to prostitution; however, the poem also gave an optimistic look at the future when these forces would be overthrown and subjugated by love. Even while his poem was being printed, Shelley recognized that it was too radical to be left unchallenged. Instead of offering its two hundred printed copies for general sale, he privately distributed seventy copies to friends and acquaintances he thought would appreciate the poem’s worth.

The other copies of Queen Mab remained unsold until 1821, when a radical bookseller named Clark bought them and put them up for sale. Clark was immediately prosecuted by the Society for the Suppression of Vice. However, Richard Carlile, another printer brought out a new edition in late 1821 and a second edition in 1822. Ironically, twenty-five years after its first printing, Queen Mab had become the most popular and influential of Shelley’s writing, hailed almost as a Bible by middle- and working-class reformers.

Percy Bysshe Shelley Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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. These were also the years in which he developed his fascinations with science and literature. The former brought about his successful attempt to burn down a willow tree with a magnifying glass and his unsuccessful attempt to summon the devil; the latter led to the publication of his first book, a gothic novel, before his eighteenth birthday.

Shelley entered University College, Oxford, in October of 1810, and was expelled on March 25, 1811, for his distribution of The Necessity of Atheism, a collaboration with Hogg. His expulsion aggravated the difficulties that already existed between him and his father, and finding himself unwelcome at home, Shelley took up residence in London, where he became reacquainted with Harriet Westbrook, a classmate of his sister. Westbrook soon replaced Harriet Grove in Shelley’s affections, Grove having rejected the young poet earlier in the year. After the sixteen-year-old Westbrook had made herself irresistible by claiming to be a sufferer of persecution, the two ran off to Edinburgh, where they were married on August 29, 1811. Although the marriage appears to have been reasonably happy at first, it eventually became one of the great disasters of Shelley’s life.

Hogg lived with the Shelleys in Edinburgh and later in York, but Hogg’s unsuccessful attempt to seduce Harriet during a short trip by Shelley to Sussex resulted in the couple’s quick departure for Keswick, this time accompanied by Harriet’s meddlesome sister, Eliza. At Keswick, Shelley became acquainted with Robert Southey, who saw in Shelley’s radical ways a reflection of what he had once been, and began corresponding with his future father-in-law, William Godwin, celebrated among liberals as the writer of An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793). Godwin’s ideas were among the most powerful influences on Shelley’s own early political ethos.

In February of 1812, Shelley traveled to Dublin, Ireland, where he issued pamphlets and delivered speeches in favor of increased Irish autonomy. He then took himself and his household to Wales and later to Lynmouth, Devon, where A Letter to Lord Ellenborough was refused publication, most of the copies being burned by the printer, and where his servant was arrested for handing out sheets of his Declaration of Rights. Having come under government surveillance, he then retired to Tremadoc, Wales, after which he departed for London, arriving on October 4, 1812.

During the six weeks he spent in London, Shelley met Godwin, Thomas Hookham, and Peacock, all of whom were to figure prominently in his later career. Shelley’s explicit purposes in going to London, however, were to raise money for an engineering project near Tremadoc that was being supported by one of his liberal friends and to deal with some of his own financial difficulties. Having done what he could, he returned to Tremadoc for the winter but left for Ireland after someone purportedly tried to shoot him on February 26, 1813.

Shelley was back in London by April, where Queen Mab was published in May (by Hookham) and where Shelley’s daughter, Eliza Ianthe, was born in June. During the next several months, the Shelleys’ wanderings continued, but most of their time was spent in or near London, thus giving them continuing access to the Godwin household and allowing the growth of their friendship with the amiable Peacock. This seems to be the period, too, when Harriet and Shelley began drifting apart. Their differences in temperament were becoming less easy to ignore, and the annoying presence of the irascible Westbrook was driving her brother-in-law to distraction. The inevitable crisis occurred after Shelley, to Godwin’s horror, expressed his love for Godwin’s teenage daughter Mary on June 27, 1814. Harriet was not amenable to Shelley’s suggestion that Mary become part of the family, and after a period of melodramatic chaos, Shelley and Mary, with Mary’s half sister Claire Clairmont, fled to France on July 27, 1814. After an impromptu Continental tour, the errant lovers returned to England on September 13. During the next six months, both Harriet and Mary gave birth to children by Shelley, but only Charles Bysshe Shelley, Harriet’s son, survived infancy.

Shelley and Mary found that they were not welcome among most of their old friends, though Peacock remained loyal, and Shelley spent a great deal of his time dodging creditors. His financial troubles were somewhat eased when his father, in June, 1815, began providing him with a generous annual allowance, but his social problems continued. In August of that year, he and Mary rented a cottage outside Bishopsgate, where they lived for a time in somber seclusion. Following a journey up the Thames, however, Shelley recovered his equanimity and began work on the poetry of the Alastor volume. Alastor was published in February, 1816, shortly after the birth of William Shelley, the poet’s second son.

Shelley, with Mary, their son, and Claire Clairmont, embarked on a second Continental tour in May. Claire, who had secretly carried on an affair with Lord Byron and was carrying his child, urged the group on to Lake Geneva, where they soon encountered the celebrated author of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-1818, 1819). Byron and Shelley, though vastly different in personality, quickly became friends, and their many conversations proved fruitful to the poetry of both. The friendship was also beneficial to Mary, who began work on Frankenstein (1818) during an evening at Byron’s quarters in the Villa Diodati. The encounter was less fortunate for Claire, who discovered that Byron felt no love for her, though he expressed a willingness to rear their child so long as its mother kept discreetly at a distance.

Shelley was generous in his attempts to assist Claire, who accompanied the Shelley household to Bath after their return from the Continent in late summer. Even without the complication of Claire’s pregnancy, the next few months were among the most tumultuous of Shelley’s life. The first shock occurred in October, when Mary’s half sister Fanny Imlay took her own life. This was soon followed by the disappearance of Harriet Shelley, whose body was found on December 10, 1816, floating in the Serpentine, where she, too, had become a suicide. Shelley and Mary were married three weeks later, after which a custody fight for Ianthe and Charles ended in failure on March 27, 1817. Shelley was judged an unfit father because of his “immoral and vicious” principles.

In the midst of these troubles, Shelley found himself winning recognition as a poet, most notably through Leigh Hunt’s “Young Poets” article in The Examiner in December, 1816. Shelley quickly took advantage of the opportunity offered by the article, which grouped him with John Hamilton Reynolds and Keats, to introduce himself to Hunt, through whom he met Keats, Horace Smith, and other members of the London literary scene. With the birth of Clara Allegra Byron at Bath on January 12, 1817, and with his own involvement in the child custody case, Shelley found it not only possible but also necessary to spend considerable time in the capital, a circumstance that augmented his chances for literary friendships.

A few weeks before the handing down of the Chancery decision, Shelley moved his entourage to Albion House in Great Marlow, where he had easy access to London and where he could accommodate his many literary visitors. The Marlow period, despite its occasional traumas, was a time of comparative stability, during which Shelley did the last of his political pamphleteering and published the longest of his poems, The Revolt of Islam. He also began Rosalind and Helen and became a father for the fifth time. His daughter Clara was born on September 2, 1817. Unfortunately, because of new financial worries brought on largely by loans to his improvident father-in-law and because of concern that the courts might take custody of William and Clara, Shelley and Mary left Marlow in February, 1818. On March 11, they sailed from England, intending to reach Italy. After that date, Shelley never saw England again.

The Shelley party crossed France and passed through the Alps to Turin and Milan. While in Milan, Shelley exchanged letters with Byron concerning Allegra, and it was finally decided that Byron’s daughter would be sent to his apartments in Venice under the protection of a nurse. The Shelleys then traveled to Pisa and Leghorn, where they lingered for several weeks. They next occupied the Casa Bertini at the Baths of Lucca, where Shelley completed Rosalind and Helen, which was published during the spring of 1819.

Because of disturbing letters from Allegra’s nurse, Shelley and Claire departed for Venice on August 17, 1818, arriving five days later. Byron and Shelley resumed their friendship, a circumstance that inspired Shelley’s Julian and Maddalo, and Claire was pleased to find Allegra in good health, though the chaos of Byron’s bizarre household had necessitated her being placed, for a time, with another family. More significant, as a result of Shelley’s misleading statements to Byron concerning the whereabouts of Mary and the annoying Claire, Shelley was forced to ask Mary to make a quick journey from Lucca to Este, where Byron had offered him the use of a house. During the trip, Clara became infected with dysentery; she died in Venice on September 24, 1818.

Clara’s death brought Shelley and Mary grief and a cooling of their love, but the months at Este were, nevertheless, productive. In addition to his work on Julian and Maddalo, Shelley composed “Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills” and began Prometheus Unbound. Their journey to Rome during November showed less production, but their three-month stay in Naples saw the completion of Prometheus Unbound, act 1. Following their return to Rome in March, 1819, Shelley wrote the play’s second and third acts and became interested in the history of the Cenci family. During June, however, in the midst of the poet’s fruitful literary activities, William became ill. The crisis came quickly, and after a sixty-hour struggle, the child died on June 7, 1819.

Soon thereafter, the grieving parents moved to Leghorn, where Shelley immersed himself in further literary endeavors, primarily the writing of The Cenci, though The Mask of Anarchy was also written there. In October, the Shelleys were again on the move, this time to Florence, where Shelley’s last child, Percy Florence, was born on November 12, and where the literary deluge continued. While living at the Palazzo Marino, Shelley wrote Peter Bell the Third, “Ode to the West Wind,” portions of A Philosophical View of Reform, and act 4 of Prometheus Unbound. Shelley himself considered Prometheus Unbound, published in August of 1820, to be his greatest work, a view which many, if not most, critics have since shared.

In late January, 1820, the Shelleys took inexpensive lodgings in Pisa, in and around which they were to reside during most of the remainder of Shelley’s life. With the birth of Percy Florence, Mary’s spirits had improved considerably, and much of what had made life bitter for the couple during the previous months appears to have faded from prominence. There were disasters still to come, but there were moments, too, of idyllic tranquillity, as well as further periods of creative accomplishment. Shelley divided 1820 among Pisa itself and nearby Leghorn and San Giuliano. In addition, he traveled with Claire to Florence, where she was to live in the household of a prominent physician. During the year, he seems to have done further work on A Philosophical View of Reform and also wrote “The Sensitive Plant,” “To a Skylark,” the “Letter to Maria Gisborne,” The Witch of Atlas, and Oedipus Tyrannus.

During the first months of 1821, after making the acquaintance of the charming Teresa Viviani, Shelley wrote Epipsychidion, a poem inspired by Teresa’s virtual imprisonment in the St. Anna convent school. In February and March, after reading a somewhat cynical essay by Peacock, he composed his brilliantly idealistic response, A Defence of Poetry, published in 1840. Adonais was written on April 11, after he received the shocking news of the death of Keats, whom he had tried to persuade to join him in Pisa for the sake of Keats’s health, and the stirring Hellas was completed in October.

This was the period, too, when the celebrated Pisan Circle began to form. Thomas Medwin had arrived in late 1819, and Shelley met Edward and Jane Williams in January of 1820. In August of 1820, Shelley traveled to Ravenna to lure Byron to Pisa. Experiencing considerable difficulties because of his own political activities and those of his mistress’ family, Byron joined the group late in 1820, along with Teresa Gamba Guiccioli and members of her family. With the addition on January 14, 1822, of Edward Trelawny, a friend of Edward Williams, the Pisan Circle was complete.

With the arrival of Trelawny, 1822 began well, but subsequent months would bring a double catastrophe to Shelley and his friends. The first tragedy occurred in April, when Allegra Byron died in a convent at Ravenna. Claire had been terribly concerned about Allegra from the moment she was told that Byron had left the child behind during his retreat from governmental authorities. He had left Allegra in good hands, but the convent, as Claire had feared, was vulnerable to epidemics, and on April 20, Allegra had succumbed to typhus.

The second tragedy involved Shelley himself. Shelley had continued his literary endeavors in 1822, working primarily on his poems Charles the First and The Triumph of Life, but with every encouragement from Williams and Trelawny, he also developed an interest in sailing, despite not knowing how to swim. So interested was he, in fact, that he ordered a small boat to be built, delivery of which he accepted on May 12. On July 1, he and Williams sailed the boat, the Don Juan, to Leghorn to meet Hunt, whom Shelley had invited to Italy to found a literary journal. On July 8, Williams and Shelley began the return voyage in threatening weather. Their bodies were washed ashore several days later, and under Trelawny’s supervision, they were cremated on the beach. In a typically Romantic gesture, Trelawny snatched Shelley’s heart from the ashes, and it was eventually given to Mary.

Percy Bysshe Shelley Biography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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 twenty-nine, Shelley was still looking for his antitype; he believed he had found her, at last, in a nineteen-year-old Italian girl imprisoned in a nunnery, and had written one of his greatest poems, Epipsychidion, in celebration, typically disregarding the impact the poem would have on his wife Mary. Mary, however, had been party to a similar emotional event five years earlier when Shelley had abandoned his first wife, Harriet Westbrook Shelley, then pregnant with his second child, to elope with Mary. Both times Shelley speculated that the women could live with him, together, in harmony—the first combination, wife Harriet as sister, lover Mary as wife; the second combination, as stated metaphorically in Epipsychidion, wife Mary as Moon, Teresa Viviani as Sun to Shelley’s Earth, with a comet, Claire Claremont, Mary’s half-sister, zooming into their “azure heaven” as she willed.

One of Shelley’s great biographers, Kenneth Neill Cameron, says that Shelley was rather ahead of his time, at least ahead of today’s liberal divorce laws, but most readers still find the facts of Shelley’s love-life disturbing. His vision of love is wonderful; his idealism that sought to change the world through love and poetry is wonderful; the reality of that vision and idealism translated into life was a disaster. Shelley knew it and this awareness caused him to seek self-destruction.

His intense fits of love aside, Shelley could be the most thoughtful and loving of men. He was selfless, generous to a fault, a brilliant radical devoted to saving the world and just as passionately devoted to the pursuit of metaphysical truth. Edward John Trelawny provides a description of Shelley in his study, German folio open, dictionary in hand (Shelley always read literature in the original—Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, German—so that he could be sensitive to the style and linguistic nuances of the art), at 10 a.m., and the identical picture at 6 p.m., Shelley having hardly moved, forgetting he had not eaten, looking tired and pale. “Well,” Trelawny said, “have you found it?,” referring to some truth Shelley sought. “Shutting the book and going to the window,” Shelley replied, “’No, I have lost it’: with a deep sigh: ’I have lost a day.’”

Shelley was born into a family of landed gentry. His father, Timothy, was a member of Parliament and his grandfather Bysshe Shelley was a very wealthy landowner. Shelley studied at Eton, where he rebelled against the hazing system; fell madly in love with a cousin, Harriet Grove; attended Oxford, briefly, until his expulsion for printing a pamphlet defending atheism; and completed his teenage years by eloping with sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Harriet and Shelley had two children, Ianthe and Charles, the latter born after Shelley had left Harriet to elope with Mary Godwin, the sixteen-year-old child of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and William Godwin, author of The Inquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793). After Harriet committed suicide by drowning, probably because of her pregnancy with another man’s child, Shelley married Mary. The couple lived in England for a while, but left for Italy to protect Shelley’s health and to escape the group of friends, including William Godwin, who had come to depend on Shelley for financial support.

In Italy, they settled near Lord Byron, who had fled England for his own personal reasons—a divorce and a child allegedly by his half-sister. Mary and Shelley had two children, Clara and William. When Clara died from an illness exacerbated by the traveling that Shelley forced on his family in Italy, the love-light seemed to wane in the Shelleys’ marriage. The following year, 1819, Shelley’s son died, and even greater despondency descended on them. Shelley was also disheartened by his ineffectiveness as a poet—no popularity, no audience, no hope of saving the world through his poetry. In Adonais, his eulogy for John Keats, Shelley tempts himself to put the things of this world aside, to die. On July 8, 1822, Shelley and Edward Williams set sail from Leghorn, too late in the afternoon considering their destination and with a storm pending. They drowned in the brief tempest. Several weeks later, the two bodies were discovered on separate lonely beaches. In Shelley’s pockets were a book of Sophocles and Keats’s latest volume of poems, opened as if he had been reading. Byron, Trelawny, Leigh Hunt, and some Italian health officials cremated the bodies, Hellenic style, on the beach. Trelawny claims that Shelley’s heart would not burn, or at least did not burn, and that he salvaged it from the ashes. Shelley, who likened the poet to fire and who prominently used the image of releasing one’s fate to the stream, thus lived and died the myth of his poetry.

Percy Bysshe Shelley Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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.

Shelley spent part of his education at Eton and at Oxford. He was expelled from Oxford for refusing to claim authorship of The Necessity of Atheism (1811), a pamphlet that he had printed and sent to professors and bishops to provoke debate. Reduced to living off pocket money donated by his sisters, he met and married Harriet Westbrook after her father threatened to send her away to school. She was a girl of sixteen. He took her first to Edinburgh, Scotland, and to York, where his best friend tried to seduce her, thence to Ireland and several towns in Wales, where Shelley was nearly assassinated for rescuing sheep from slaughter, and finally back to London, all in three years’ time. Soon Shelley abandoned Harriet and their children to run off with a girl of sixteen, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, daughter of reformer William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary’s half sister Claire Claremont joined them and became their constant companion. Upon their return from a second romp through Europe in 1816, two women in their circle committed suicide: Harriet and Mary’s half sister Fanny, who was hopelessly in love with the poet. Free to marry, Shelley and Mary were wed. After a judge ordered him to relinquish custody of his children by Harriet, Shelley left England with Mary and Claire for Italy, fortified by a large income from his grandfather’s inheritance.

Such were the external events of Shelley’s youth, the rocky soil in which the seeds of his genius took root. First came a slim volume of poems called Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire (1810), written with his sister Elizabeth, and then the gaudy Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem (1813; revised as The Daemon of the World, 1816), a diatribe against wealth, aristocracy, tyranny, and its tool, religion. Late in 1815, Shelley embarked upon a mythic quest for a perfect counterpart in love in Alastor: Or, The Spirit of Solitude, and Other Poems (1816), a motif that recurs in The Revolt of Islam (1818) and Epipsychidion (1821). The latter two works are veiled autobiographical allegories of his relations with several women, including the Contessina Emilia Viviani, daughter of the governor of Pisa, whose confinement to a nunnery until the governor could find a groom who demanded no dowry struck Shelley’s pity for victims of parental abuse.

In 1816, the Shelleys took Claire to a tryst with the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron at his home near Lake Geneva. Shelley commemorated his friendship with Byron in Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation (1824). The excursion had unexpected literary repercussions. While they were amusing themselves with ghost stories one evening, Byron’s physician proposed a contest to see who could write the best horror story. He himself produced a tale of vampires. Byron and Shelley quit after a first try. Mary, however, produced the greatest horror novel ever, Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818).

Under the influence of the ancient Greek poets and philosophers, Shelley was growing more idealistic, and his poetry undertook higher aims. In “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and Mont Blanc (1817), lyrics of a finer grace and timbre, Shelley discerned the ultimate object of his mature work, an “unseen Power” moving through Nature, an ideal form of truth available to the imagination in moments of awe and wonder. For reasons of health and a fear that custody of his children by Mary might be taken from him, Shelley went to Italy in 1818. There, he produced the works on which his reputation depends. In “Ode to the West Wind,” he manages to harness his creativity to the “unseen Power” behind Nature. In Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts (1820), his most comprehensive myth of human renewal and change, he explores its remote, godlike character. That is followed by three quite diverse dramas: Hellas: A Lyrical Drama (pb. 1822), a glorification of liberty inspired by the Greek insurrection; Oedipus Tyrannus: Or, Swellfoot the Tyrant (pb. 1820), a mockery of King George IV, a work that was suppressed by the government after only a few copies were sold; and The Cenci (pb. 1819, pr. 1886), a dramatic poem based on an actual Italian case at law involving a count who raped his daughter and was killed in revenge. Some critics have called it the greatest verse drama in English since William Shakespeare’s plays. Shelley penned a grotesque attack on the poet William Wordsworth titled Peter Bell the Third (1839). There were several political outbursts as well, most notably The Mask of Anarchy (1832), expressing outrage at the massacre of workers at Manchester. In a scant three days, Shelley wrote The Witch of Atlas (1824), a puzzling frolic on the power of poetry, somewhat akin to Queen Mab. The years in Italy were as versatile as they were prolific.

Yet frailty and disappointment were taking their toll. Feelings of dejection and despair mounted with the recurrent lapses of health, the deaths of two children, Mary’s depression, and the years of public scorn. As he mourns the death of the poet John Keats in Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821), Shelley seems resigned to death as a victory over cruel life. His last, unfinished poem, The Triumph of Life (1824), depicts the gloomy spectacle of Life vanquishing virtually all great individuals and artists.

Death came to Shelley unexpectedly on July 8, 1822, off Viareggio, Lucca (now in Italy), by drowning. His boat was sunk during a storm, probably overrun by a larger vessel manned by men determined to steal money from Byron. Weeks later, his corpse was identified by the book of Keats’s poems thrust into his pocket. Shelley’s body was burned on the beach, his remains interred near Keats’s at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

Percy Bysshe Shelley Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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.

Percy Bysshe Shelley Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical 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 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.