Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792–1822
(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Victor and The Hermit of Marlow) English poet, essayist, dramatist, and novelist. See also The Cenci Criticism and Percy Bysshe Shelley Literary Criticism.
Shelley was a major poet of the English Romantic period. His foremost works, including The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound, Adonais, 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 considered among the greatest in the English language.
Born in Horsham, Sussex, Shelley was educated at University College, Oxford. Before the age of twenty he had published two Gothic novels, Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, and two collections of verse, Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire—written with his sister—and Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, coauthored with his Oxford friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg. In 1811 Shelley and Hogg were expelled from Oxford for publishing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism, an event that estranged him from his family and left him without financial means. Later that year he eloped with Harriet Westbrook, a schoolmate of his sister. During the next three years Shelley and Harriet were actively involved in political and social reform in Ireland and Wales, with Shelley writing radical pamphlets in which he set forth his views on liberty, equality, and justice. In 1814 Shelley 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 daughter of the radical English philosopher William Godwin and his first wife, the feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft. Shelley and Mary eloped to Europe, accompanied by Mary's stepsister, Jane (Claire) Clairmont. On their return, Shelley entered into a financial agreement with his family that ensured him a regular income. When Harriet declined to join his household as a "sister," he provided for her and their two children, but continued to live with Mary. In 1816 Shelley, Mary, and Claire traveled to Lake Geneva to meet with the poet Lord Byron. Shelley returned to England in the fall, and shortly thereafter Harriet drowned herself in Hyde Park. Shelley then legalized his relationship with Mary and sought custody of his children, but the Westbrook family successfully blocked him in a lengthy lawsuit. Citing his poem Queen Mab, in which he denounced established society and religion in favor of free love and atheism, the Westbrooks convinced the court that Shelley was morally unfit for guardianship. In 1818, motivated by ill
health, financial worries, and the fear of losing custody of his and Mary's two children, Shelley relocated his family to Italy. Renewing his friendship with Byron, who was also living in Italy, Shelley became part of a circle of expatriots known as the "Satanic School" because of their defiance of English social and religious conventions and promotion of radical ideas in their works. Shelley and Mary remained in Italy until Shelley's death in a boating accident off the coast of Lerici in 1822.
Shelley's first mature work, Queen Mab, was printed in 1813, but not distributed due to its inflammatory subject matter. It was not until 1816, with the appearance of Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude, and Other Poems—a visionary and semi-autobiographical work—that he earned recognition as a serious poet. Shelley's next lengthy work, Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City, is an account of a bloodless revolution led by a brother and sister. It was immediately suppressed by the printer because of its controversial content, and Shelley subsequently revised the work as The Revolt of Islam, minimizing its elements of incest and political revolution. In 1819 Shelley wrote two of his most ambitious works, the verse dramas Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci. In Prometheus Unbound—which is usually regarded as his masterpiece—Shelley transformed the Aeschylean myth of Prometheus into an allegory on the origins of evil and the possibility of regenerating nature and humanity through love. The Cenci differs markedly from Prometheus Unbound in tone and setting. Shelley based this tragedy on the history of a sixteenth-century Italian Count who raped his daughter and was in turn murdered by her. Although Shelley hoped for a popular success on the English stage, his controversial treatment of the subject of incest outraged critics, preventing the play from being produced. One of Shelley's best-known works, Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, was written in 1821 as a tribute to Shelley's contemporary, Keats. In the same year, Shelley wrote Epipsychidion, in which he chronicled his search for ideal beauty through his relationships with women. Shelley's last work, The Triumph of Life, was left unfinished at his death. Despite its fragmentary state, many critics consider The Triumph of Life a potential masterpiece and evidence of a pessimistic shift in Shelley's thought. In addition to his long poems and verse dramas, Shelley wrote numerous short lyrics that have proved to be among his most popular works, among them "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," "Ode to the West Wind," and "Ode to the Skylark."
The history of Shelley's critical reputation has been characterized by radical shifts. During his lifetime his work was frequently censured because of his atheism and unorthodox philosophy, as well as widespread rumors about his personal life. Those few critics who voiced their admiration of his talents were ironically responsible for further inhibiting his success by causing him to be associated in the public mind with the despised "Cockney School" of poets belittled by John Gibson Lockhart and others in Blackwood's Magazine. Nevertheless, Shelley was known and admired by many of his contemporaries, including Byron, Keats, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey. Critics in the late nineteenth century for the most part ignored Shelley's radical politics, celebrating instead the spiritual and aesthetic qualities of his poetry. In the Victorian age he was highly regarded as the poet of ideal love, and the Victorian notion of the poet as a sensitive, misunderstood genius was modeled largely after Shelley. His works, however, again fell into disfavor around the turn of the century. Many critics objected to his seemingly vague imagery, nebulous philosophy, careless technique, and, most of all, his apparent intellectual and emotional immaturity. In the late 1930s Shelley's reputation began to revive as scholars came to recognize the complexity of his philosophy. Modern commentators have generally focused on his imagery, use of language, and technical achievements, in addition to his exploration of the political and social phenomena of his time.