Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792-1822
(Also wrote under pseudonyms of Victor and The Hermit of Marlow.) English poet, essayist, playwrite, translator, and novelist. The following entry presents recent criticism of Shelley. See also, The Cenci Criticism.
Shelley is regarded as a major English Romantic poet. His foremost works, including Prometheus Unbound, Adonais, The Revolt of Islam, and The Triumph of Life, are recognized as leading expressions of radical thought written during the Romantic age, while his odes and shorter lyrics are often considered among the greatest in the English language. In addition, his essay A Defence of Poetry is highly valued as a statement on the moral importance of poetry and of poets, whom he calls “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” While Shelley's significance to English literature is today widely acknowledged, he was one of the most controversial literary figures of the early nineteenth century.
Shelley was born the eldest son of Sir Timothy and Elizabeth Shelley, landed aristocrats living in Horsham, Sussex. He was educated first at Syon House Academy, then Eton, and finally University College, Oxford. Before the age of twenty he had published two Gothic novels, Zastrozzi (1810) and St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian (1811), and two collections of verse, Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire (1810), written with his sister, and Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholsen (1810), coauthored with his Oxford friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg. Shelley's 1811 publication of The Necessity of Atheism caused him to be expelled from Oxford, an event that estranged him from his family and left him without financial means. Nonetheless, later that year he eloped to Scotland with Harriet Westbrook, a sixteen-year-old schoolmate of his sister. For the next three years Shelley was actively involved in political and social reform in Ireland and Wales, writing radical pamphlets in which he set forth his views on liberty, equality, and justice. The year 1814 was a pivotal one in Shelley's personal life. Although their marriage was faltering, he remarried Harriet in England to ensure the legality of their union and the legitimacy of their children. Weeks later, however, he fell in love with Mary Godwin, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the radical English philosopher William Godwin and his first wife, the feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft. Shelley and Mary eloped in Europe, and upon their return continued to live together, though Shelley provided for Harriet and his two children. In the summer of 1816 Shelley traveled to Lake Geneva to meet with Lord Byron. The two men developed an enduring friendship that proved an important influence on the work of both men. Shortly after Shelley's return to England in the fall, Harriet drowned herself in Hyde Park. Shelley subsequently sought custody of his children, but the Westbrook family successfully blocked him in a lengthy lawsuit. After a brief residence at Marlow in 1817, during which he enjoyed the company of Leigh Hunt, Thomas Love Peacock, John Keats, and other literary figures, Shelley relocated his family to Italy. There they moved frequently, spending time in Leghorn, Venice, Naples, Rome, Florence, Pisa, and Lerici. The years in Italy were productive for Shelley, and saw the publication of many of his greatest works of poetry. Shortly before his thirtieth birthday Shelley and a friend, Edward Williams, drowned when their boat capsized in a squall off the coast of Lerici. Shelley's body was cremated on the beach in a ceremony conducted by his friends Byron, Hunt, and Edward John Trelawny. His ashes were subsequently buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome.
Much of Shelley's writing reflects the events and concerns of his life. His passionate belief in reform, the equality of the sexes, and the powers of love and imagination are frequently expressed in his poetry. Shelley's first mature work, Queen Mab, was printed in 1813, but not distributed due to its inflammatory subject matter. In it Shelley denounced established society and religion in favor of free love and atheism. The visionary and sometimes autobiographical poem Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude (1816) describes the experiences of the Poet who, rejecting human sympathy and domestic life, is pursued by the demon Solitude. An imaginative account of a bloodless revolution led by a brother and sister, Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century (1818) deals with the positive power of love, the complexities of good and evil, and ultimately, a spiritual victory through martyrdom. The subsequently revised edition of the work as The Revolt of Islam minimized its elements of incest and political revolution. The verse drama Prometheus Unbound (1820) combines myth, political allegory, psychology, and theology. In the work Shelley transformed the Aeschylean myth of Prometheus, the fire-giver, into an allegory on the origins of evil and the possibility of regenerating nature and humanity through love. Shelley based The Cenci on the history of a sixteenth-century Italian noble family. After the evil Count Cenci rapes his daughter, Beatrice, she determines to murder him, seeing no other means of escape from continued violation, and is executed for parricide. Drawing on the formal tradition of elegiac verse, Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821) laments Keats's early death and, while rejecting the Christian view of resurrection, describes his return to the eternal beauty of the universe. Epipsychidion (1821) chronicles Shelley's search for ideal beauty through his relationships with women. Among his shorter poems, the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc” focus on Shelley's belief in an animating spirit, while “Ode to the West Wind” examines opposing forces in nature. “Ode to Liberty,” “Sonnet: England in 1819,” and The Masque of Anarchy feature several of his most enduring political themes. Shelley's last work, The Triumph of Life, left unfinished at his death, describes the relentless march of life that has destroyed the aspirations of all but the sacred few who refused to compromise to worldly pressures.
The history of Shelley's critical reputation has been characterized by radical shifts. During his lifetime he was generally viewed as a misguided or even depraved genius; critics frequently praised portions of his poetry in passing and deplored at length his atheism and unorthodox philosophy. Nevertheless, Shelley was known and admired by his great contemporaries; Byron, Keats, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey regarded his works with varying degrees of sympathy and approval. Shelley was regarded as the prototype of the misunderstood poetic genius during the Victorian era, while serious interest in his works began to revive in the late 1930s as scholars came to recognize the complexity of his style, philosophy, and major themes. In examining his style commentators have generally focused on his imagery, use of language, and technical achievements. The importance of neo-platonism, the occult, the Bible, the French Revolution, and Gothicism, as well as the works of individual philosophers—Wollstonecraft, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Godwin—to Shelley's thought and writing has been explored by other critics. Attention has also been devoted to recurring themes in Shelley's work. His doctrines of free love and sexual equality have particularly attracted commentary on the poet. Recent criticism of Shelley's works has generally been marked by increasing respect for his abilities as a poet and his surprisingly modern philosophy. Overall, Shelley remains a central figure in English Romanticism. His major works are respected as challenging credos of revolutionary philosophy, and his odes and shorter lyrics are widely known for their stylistic mastery. Furthermore, his Defence of Poetry stands as a powerful statement of the Romantic ideal of art and the artist.