Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Introduction

(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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...

(The entire section is 77,298 words.)