Percy Bysshe Shelley (4 August 1792 – 8 July 1822) was one of the major English Romantic poets. American literary critic Harold Bloom describes him as "a superb craftsman, a lyric poet without rival, and surely one of the most advanced sceptical intellects ever to write a poem." A radical in his poetry as well as in his political and social views, Shelley did not achieve fame during his lifetime, but recognition of his achievements in poetry grew steadily following his death and he became an important influence on subsequent generations of poets including Browning, Swinburne, Hardy and Yeats.
Shelley’s critical reputation fluctuated in the twentieth century, but in recent decades he has achieved increasing critical acclaim for the sweeping momentum of his poetic imagery, his mastery of genres and verse forms, and the complex interplay of sceptical, idealist, and materialist ideas in his work. Among his best-known works are "Ozymandias" (1818), "Ode to the West Wind" (1819), "To a Skylark" (1820), and the political ballad “The Mask of Anarchy” (1819). His other major works include the verse drama The Cenci (1819) and long poems such as Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude (1815), Julian and Maddalo (1819), Adonais (1821), Prometheus Unbound (1820)—widely considered his masterpiece--Hellas (1822), and his final, unfinished work, The Triumph of Life (1822).
Shelley also wrote prose fiction and a quantity of essays on political, social, and philosophical issues. Much of this poetry and prose was not published in his lifetime, or only published in expurgated form, due to the risk of prosecution for political and religious libel. From the 1820s, his poems and political and ethical writings became popular in Owenist, Chartist, and radical political circles and later drew admirers as diverse as Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi, and George Bernard Shaw.
Shelley's life was marked by family crises, ill health, and a backlash against his atheism, political views and defiance of social conventions. He went into permanent self-exile in Italy in 1818, and over the next four years produced what Leader and O'Neill call "some of the finest poetry of the Romantic period". His second wife, Mary Shelley, was the author of Frankenstein. He died in a boating accident in 1822 at the age of twenty-nine.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on 4 August 1792 at Field Place, Broadbridge Heath, near Horsham, West Sussex, England. He was the eldest son of Sir Timothy Shelley (1753–1844), a Whig Member of Parliament for Horsham and his wife, Elizabeth Pilfold (1763–1846), the daughter of a successful butcher. He had four younger sisters and one much younger brother. Shelley’s early childhood was sheltered and mostly happy. He was particularly close to his sisters and his mother, who encouraged him to hunt, fish and ride. At age six, he was sent to a day school run by the vicar of Warnham church, where he displayed an impressive memory and gift for languages.
In 1802 he entered the Syon House Academy of Brentford, Middlesex, where he was bullied and unhappy and sometimes responded with violent rage. He also began suffering from the nightmares, hallucinations and sleep walking that were to periodically afflict him throughout his life. Shelley developed an interest in science which supplemented his voracious reading of tales of mystery, romance and the supernatural. During his holidays at Field Place, his sisters were often terrified at being subjected to his experiments with gunpowder, acids and electricity.
In 1804, Shelley entered Eton College, a period which he later recalled with loathing. He was subjected to particularly severe mob bullying which the perpetrators called "Shelley-baits". His interest in the occult and science continued, and contemporaries describe him giving an electric shock to a master, blowing up a tree stump with gunpowder and attempting to raise spirits with occult rituals. In his senior years, Shelley came under the influence of a part-time teacher, Dr James Lind, who encouraged his interest in the occult and introduced him to liberal and radical authors. In his last term, his first novel Zastrozzi appeared and he had established a following among his fellow students.
Prior to enrolling for University College, Oxford in October 1810, Shelley completed Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire (written with his sister Elizabeth), the verse melodrama The Wandering Jew and the gothic novel St. Irvine; or, The Rosicrucian: A Romance (published 1811).
At Oxford Shelley attended few lectures, instead spending long hours reading and conducting scientific experiments in the laboratory he set up in his room. He met a fellow student, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, who became his closest friend. Shelley became increasingly politicised under Hogg's influence, developing strong radical and anti-Christian views which were dangerous in the reactionary political climate prevailing during Britain's war with Napoleonic France.
In the winter of 1810–1811, Shelley published a series of anonymous political poems and tracts, resulting in his expulsion from Oxford on 25 March 1811, along with Hogg. Hearing of his son's expulsion, Shelley's father threatened to cut all contact with Shelley unless he agreed to return home and study under tutors appointed by him. Shelley's refusal to do so led to a falling-out with his father.
In late December 1810, Shelley had met Harriet Westbrook, a pupil at the same boarding school as Shelley's sisters. They started to correspond frequently that winter. Shelley’s infatuation with Harriet developed in the months following his expulsion, when he was under severe emotional strain due to the conflict with his family, his bitterness over the breakdown of his romance with his cousin Harriet Grove, and his unfounded belief that he might be suffering from a fatal illness. Harriet Westbrook’s elder sister Eliza, to whom Harriet was very close, encouraged the young girl's romance with Shelley.
Shelley’s correspondence with Harriet intensified in July, while he was holidaying in Wales, and in response to her urgent pleas for his protection, he returned to London in early August. Putting aside his philosophical objections to matrimony, he left with the sixteen-year-old Harriet for Edinburgh on 25 August, and they were married there on the 28th.
Hearing of the elopement, Harriet’s father, John Westbrook, and Shelley’s father, Timothy, cut off the allowances of the bride and groom.
Surviving on borrowed money, Shelley tried to settle matters with his father, without any success, while Harriet's sister Eliza moved in with them.
Shelley wrote to William Godwin, author of Political Justice, offering himself as his devoted disciple. Godwin advised Shelley to reconcile with his father, become a scholar before he published anything else, and give up his avowed plans for political agitation in Ireland.
At this time Shelley was also involved in an intense platonic relationship with Elizabeth Hitchener, a 28-year-old unmarried schoolteacher of advanced views, with whom he had been corresponding. Hitchener, whom Shelley called the "sister of my soul" and "my second self", became his confidante and intellectual companion as he developed his views on politics, religion, ethics and personal relationships.
Shelley also met his father’s patron, Charles Howard, 11th Duke of Norfolk, who helped secure the reinstatement of Shelley’s allowance. With Harriet’s allowance also restored, Shelley now had the funds for his Irish venture.
On 23 June Harriet gave birth to a girl, Eliza Ianthe Shelley, and in the following months the relationship between Shelley and his wife deteriorated. Shelley resented the influence Harriet’s sister had over her, while Harriet was alienated by Shelley’s close friendship with an attractive widow, Harriet Boinville, and her daughter Cornelia Turner. Following Ianthe’s birth, the Shelleys moved frequently across London, Wales, the Lake District, Scotland and Berkshire to escape creditors and search for a home.
In March 1814, Shelley remarried Harriet in London to settle any doubts about the legality of their Edinburgh wedding and secure the rights of their child. Nevertheless, the Shelleys lived apart for most of the following months, and Shelley reflected bitterly on: "my rash & heartless union with Harriet".
In May 1814, Shelley began visiting his mentor Godwin almost daily, and soon fell in love with Mary, the sixteen-year-old daughter of Godwin. Shelley and Mary declared their love for each other during a visit to her mother’s grave. When Shelley told Godwin that he intended to leave Harriet and live with Mary, his mentor banished him from the house and forbade Mary from seeing him. Shelley and Mary eloped to Europe on 28 July, taking Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont with them. Before leaving, Shelley had secured a loan of £3,000 but had left most of the funds at the disposal of Godwin and Harriet, who was now pregnant.
Shelly and Mary returned to England on 13 September, and Shelly spent the next few months trying to raise loans and avoid bailiffs. Mary was pregnant, lonely, depressed and ill. Her mood was not improved when she heard that on 30 November Harriet had given birth to Charles Bysshe Shelley, heir to the Shelley fortune and baronetcy.
In early January 1815, Shelley’s grandfather, Sir Bysshe died leaving an estate worth £220,000. However, the settlement of the estate, and a financial settlement between Shelley and his father (now Sir Timothy), wasn’t concluded until April the following year.
In February 1815, Mary gave premature birth to a baby girl who died ten days later, deepening her depression.
In August Shelley and Mary moved to Bishopsgate where Shelley worked on Alastor, a long poem in blank verse based on the myth of Narcissus and Echo. Alastor was published in an edition of 250 in early 1816 to poor sales and largely unfavourable reviews from the conservative press.
On 24 January 1816, Mary gave birth to William Shelley. Shelley was delighted to have another son, but was suffering from the strain of prolonged financial negotiations with his father, Harriet and William Godwin. Shelley showed signs of delusional behaviour and was contemplating an escape to the continent.
Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont, who had affair with Lord Byron, introduced him to Shelley in Geneva, where Shelley, Byron and the others engaged in discussions about literature, science and "various philosophical doctrines".
Shelley and Byron then took a boating tour around Lake Geneva, which inspired Shelley to write his "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty", his first substantial poem since Alastor.
In January 1817 Claire gave birth to a daughter by Byron who she named Alba, but later renamed Allegra in accordance with Byron's wishes. Shelley made provision for Claire and the baby in his will.
In December 1816 Shelley's estranged wife Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine. Harriet, pregnant and living alone at the time, believed that she had been abandoned by her new lover. In her suicide letter she asked Shelley to take custody of their son Charles but to leave their daughter in her sister Eliza's care.
Shelley married Mary Godwin on 30 December, despite his philosophical objections to the institution.
In March 1817 the Shelleys moved to the village of Marlow, Buckinghamshire. The Shelley household included Claire and her baby Allegra, both of whose presence was resented by Mary. Shelley's generosity with money and increasing debts also led to financial and marital stress, as did Godwin's frequent requests for financial help.
On 2 September Mary gave birth to a daughter, Clara Everina Shelley. Soon after, Shelley left for London with Claire, which increased Mary's resentment towards her step-sister.
In December 1817 he wrote "Ozymandias", which is considered to be one of his finest sonnets.
On 12 March 1818 the Shelleys and Claire left England to escape its "tyranny civil and religious". A doctor had also recommended that Shelley go to Italy for his chronic lung complaint, and Shelley had arranged to take Claire's daughter, Allegra, to her father Byron who was now in Venice. On their journey to Venice, Shelly and Mary's baby daughter Clara became seriously ill on the journey and died on 24 September in Venice. Following Clara's death, Mary fell into a long period of depression and emotional estrangement from Shelley.
The Shelleys moved to Naples than Rome. In Rome, Shelley was in poor health, probably suffering from nephritis and tuberculosis which later was in remission. Nevertheless, he made significant progress on three major works: Julian and Maddalo, Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci. Julian and Maddalo is an autobiographical poem which explores the relationship between Shelley and Byron and analyses Shelley's personal crises of 1818 and 1819. The poem was completed in the summer of 1819, but was not published in Shelley's lifetime. Prometheus Unbound is a long dramatic poem inspired by Aeschylus's retelling of the Prometheus myth. It was completed in late 1819 and published in 1820. The Cenci is a verse drama of rape, murder and incest based on the story of the Renaissance Count Cenci of Rome and his daughter Beatrice. Shelley completed the play in September and the first edition was published that year. It was to become one of his most popular works and the only one to have two authorised editions in his lifetime.
Shelley's three-year-old son William died in June, probably of malaria. The new tragedy caused a further decline in Shelley's health and deepened Mary's depression.
On 12 November, Mary gave birth to a boy, Percy Florence Shelley in Florence. Around the time of Percy's birth, the Shelleys met Sophia Stacey, who was a ward of one of Shelley's uncles and was staying at the same pension as the Shelleys. Sophia, a talented harpist and singer, formed a friendship with Shelley while Mary was preoccupied with her newborn son. Shelley wrote at least five love poems and fragments for Sophia including "Song written for an Indian Air".
The Shelleys moved to Pisa in January 1820. Following the death of Keats in 1821, Shelley wrote Adonais, which Harold Bloom considers one of the major pastoral elegies. The poem was published in Pisa in July 1821, but sold few copies.
In November 1821 Byron moved into Villa Lanfranchi in Pisa, just across the river from the Shelleys. Byron became the centre of the "Pisan circle" which was to include Shelley, Thomas Medwin, Edward Williams and Edward Trelawny.
In the early months of 1822 Shelley became increasingly close to Jane Williams, who was living with her partner Edward Williams in the same building as the Shelleys. Shelley wrote a number of love poems for Jane.
Mary almost died from a miscarriage on 16 June, her life only being saved by Shelley's effective first aid. During this time, Shelley was writing his final major poem, the unfinished The Triumph of Life, which Harold Bloom has called "the most despairing poem he wrote".
On 1 July, Shelley and Edward Williams sailed in Shelley's new boat the Don Juan, custom-built for him in Genoa, to Livorno where Shelley met Leigh Hunt and Byron in order to make arrangements for a new journal, The Liberal. After the meeting, on 8 July, Shelley, Williams and their boat boy sailed out of Livorno for Lerici. A few hours later, the Don Juan and its inexperienced crew were lost in a storm.
Shelley's badly-decomposed body washed ashore at Viareggio ten days later and was identified by Trelawny from the clothing and a copy of Keats's Lamia in a jacket pocket. On 16 August, his body was cremated on a beach near Viareggio and the ashes were buried in the Protestant Cemetery of Rome.
Shelley's ashes were reburied in a different plot at the cemetery in 1823. His grave bears the Latin inscription Cor Cordium (Heart of Hearts), and a few lines of "Ariel's Song" from Shakespeare's The Tempest:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
When Shelley's body was cremated on the beach, his "unusually small" heart resisted burning, possibly due to calcification from an earlier tubercular infection. Trelawny gave the scorched heart to Hunt, who preserved it in spirits of wine and refused to hand it over to Mary. But he finally relented and the heart was eventually buried either at St Peter's Church, Bournemouth or in Christchurch Priory.