Percy Bysshe Shelley is considered one of the most important English Romantic poets to have ever lived. He is the author of some of the English language’s most famous poetic anthologies such as Ode to the West Wind, The Master or Anarchy, Ozymandias.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born to Sir Timothy Shelley, a Whig Parliamentary member, and his wife on August 4, 1792. He received a good early education but when he entered Eton College in 1804, he did very badly. Often the target of other students’ bullying, his only solace was his books. In 1810, he entered University College in Oxford and was unpopular there as well. It’s rumored that he attended only one formal lecture, but spent sixteen hours a day pursuing his own reading.
That same year saw his publishing debut with Zastrozzi, a Gothic novel that allowed him to express his atheistic view. He also published Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson and in 1811, his famous pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism was published as well. The pamphlet got him expelled from school and his father intervened. When he refused to renounce his atheist views in exchange for reinstatement, the school rejected him and he had a falling-out with his father.
Only four months later, Shelley traveled to Scotland with a schoolgirl, Harriet Westbrook, after probably a few weeks of dating, so they could get married in August 1811. They then moved to Keswick, England and Shelley traveled to Ireland. His experiences there at several Irish nationalist rallies led him to pen An Address to the Irish People, a political pamphlet that condemned violent protests and radical revolution, in 1812. A year later, his child Ianthe was born, but Shelley was unhappy with his marriage and spent his time traveling.
In November of that year, Shelley returned to London and met Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of William Godwin. The pair fell in love almost instantly. She was attracted to his elegance and intelligence. Other than the fact that he was unsatisfied with his marriage, he was attracted to her beauty and intellectual interests. By 1814, Shelley was a regular visitor at the Goodwin home and on June 26, they openly declared that they loved each other. Mary was Percy’s inspiration for verses in many of his works, including the later Revolt of Islam.
The next eight years that the pair spent together was a period where they were “living on love” – they moved constantly, rarely had money, and had four children together, only one of which lived to adulthood. These deaths inspired Mary’s work Frankenstein, which Percy encouraged her to write after she dreamed about it. Percy even edited it for her before it was published.
When Mary’s father discovered the relationship, he forbade it even though he continued to accept money from Shelley. In grief, Shelley attempted suicide and after he recovered, they fled to France on June 28 along with Jane “Claire” Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister. They settled in Switzerland briefly but later returned to London. In 1815, Shelley published Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude – a poem heavily influenced by his travels with the two girls. It’s also believed that another huge influence on him at the time was the poetry of Wadsworth, which he had taken to reading on their journey.
In 1816, Percy was inspired to write Hymn to Intellectual Beauty whilst on a boat trip with Mary near Lake Geneva. When they returned to England, one of Mary’s sisters killed herself and soon after, Shelley’s wife did the same. A few weeks later, in December 1816, Shelley married Mary to ensure that Shelley would get custody of his children but they were given to foster parents because he was an atheist. During this time, he wrote Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City, a poem that used a pair of incestuous lovers to attack religion. It was later withdrawn and republished as The Revolt Of Islam.
Julian and Maddalo was published in 1818 and it was the first example of his “urban style” where he produced long verse dramas. Within two years of this, two of his children died and another daughter was born, taken by foster parents, and died. His next works included The Masque of Anarchy and Men of England. The death of his friend John Keats in 1821 inspired Shelley to write Adonais, an elegy.
On July 8, 1822, Shelley died during a sudden storm while sailing on his schooner to Lerici. On February 1, 1851, Mary died, about two months after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
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