Poet: Percy Bysshe Shelley
Date of Birth: 4 August 1792, Horsham, UK
Date of Death: 8 July 1822, Lerici, Italy
Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the major English Romantic poets and is regarded as one of the finest lyric and philosophical poets in the English language. A radical in both his poetry and his social and political views Shelley did not see fame during his lifetime, but recognition of his poetry grew steadily following his death. Shelley was a key member of a circle of visionary poets that included Keats, Hunt, and Byron as well as his second wife, Mary Shelley.
Shelley’s circle of friends included some of the most important progressive thinkers of the time, including his father-in-law, the philosopher William Godwin, and Leigh Hunt. Shelley produced poetry and prose steadily throughout his life, but most publishers declined his work for fear of being arrested for blasphemy or sedition.
Shelley was born in Horsham, West Sussex, England, the eldest son of Sir Timothy Shelley and Elizabeth Pilford. He received his early education at home, tutored by the cleric Evan Edwards. In 1802 he entered the Syon house Academy of Brentford, Middlesex. In 1804 he entered Eton College where he fared poorly and was subjected to bullying daily by the older boys. In 1810 he matriculated at University College, Oxford. He also published his Gothic novel Zastrozzi in 1810, in which he vented his early atheistic world view through the villain. In 1811 he published ‘The Necessity of Atheism’ which was brought to the attention of the university administration and he was called to appear before the college’s fellows. He refused to answer questions on whether he had authored the pamphlet and thus was expelled from Oxford in 1811. On his father’s intervention, Shelley was given a choice to be reinstated to Oxford if he recanted his avowed views. He refused which resulted in a falling-out with his father.
Four months after being sent down the 19-year-old Shelley eloped to Scotland with the 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook. He was convinced he had not long to live and decided to make her his beneficiary. The Westbrooks publicly disapproved of the elopement but secretly encouraged it. Shelley’s father was outraged that his son had married beneath him and cut off Shelley’s allowance and refused to receive the couple at Field Place.
Shelley visited the poet Robert Southey in the Lake District, and he informed Shelley that William Godwin, author of Political Justice, was still alive. Shelley wrote to Godwin offering himself as a devoted disciple and Godwin who saw Shelley as a source to his financial salvation advised him to reconcile with his father. At the same time the Duke of Norfolk and patron to Shelley’s father trying to reconcile father and son. Shelley’s relationship with the Duke influenced his decision to travel to Ireland where he published his ‘Address to the Irish People’ in Dublin pointing out a remedy for the state of Ireland, Catholic Emancipation, and a repeal of the Union Act. His activities e=resulted in the unfavourable attention of the British government.
Increasingly unhappy in his marriage to Harriet Shelly resented the influence of her older sister, Eliza, who had discouraged Harriet from breastfeeding their baby daughter. He accused Harriet of marrying him for money and craving more intellectual female companionship he began spending more time away from home. Eliza and Harriet moved back with their parents. Shelley’s mentor Godwin had three highly educated daughters, including his only biological daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, named after her mother, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. The younger Mary was educated in Scotland and became acquainted with Shelley when she returned to the family home. Shelley fell madly in love with her. In July 1814 Shelley abandoned Harriet, who was pregnant with their son, and he and Mary, accompanied by her sister Claire, ran away to Switzerland. They returned six weeks later, homesick, and destitute, but Mary’s furious father refused to see them, instead demanding money to avoid scandal.
In 1816, prompted by Mary’s sister, the Shelleys made a second trip to Switzerland. Mary’s sister had initiated a liaison with Lord Byron just before his self-exile in Europe. Byron had lost interest in her and she used the opportunity to introduce Mary and Shelley to Byron as bait to lure him in Geneva. Byron and Shelley rented neighbouring houses on the shore of Lake Geneva. The poets inspired and invigorated each other.
In 1816 the body of Shelley’s estranged wife was found drowned in the Serpentine in Hyde Park after being abandoned by her lover in an advanced state of pregnancy. Shelley never alluded to the affair during the custody battle for his children, and the courts awarded custody to foster parents on the grounds Shelley had abandoned his wife and was an atheist. The Shelleys took up residence in Marlow, Buckinghamshire and took part in the literary circle that surround Leigh Hunt. Shelley met John Keats during this time.
Between 1818 and 1820 the Shelleys moved between various Italian cities. Shelley spent mid-1819 writing the tragedy ‘The Cenci’. In this year, he also wrote his best-known political poems: ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ and ‘Men of England’. On hearing of John Keats’ illness in 1820, Shelley wrote a letter inviting him to join him at his home in Pisa. Keats replied with hopes of seeing him. Inspired by the death of Keats in 1821, Shelley wrote the elegy Adonais. In 1822 Shelley invited the British poet and editor Leigh Hunt to come to Italy with his family. He intended for himself, Byron, and Hunt to create a journal which would have been called The Liberal.
In 1822, less than a month his 30th birthday, Shelley was drowned during a storm on the Gulf of La Spezia. His body was washed ashore and later cremated on the beach near Viareggio. His ashes were interred in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.
Art Thou Pale for Weariness
Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?
©JG Farmer 2020