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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 3296 words.)

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