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Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792-1822

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(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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...

(The entire section contains 119324 words.)

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