Born: September 4, 1792
Field Place, Sussex, England
Died: July 8, 1822
The English romantic poet Percy Shelley ranks as one of the greatest lyric poets in the history of English literature.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born at Field Place near Horsham, Sussex, England, on August 4, 1792. He was the first son of a wealthy, country landowner. As a boy, Shelley felt harassed by his father. This abuse may have first sparked the flame of protest which, during his school days at Eton from 1804 until 1810, earned him the name of "Mad Shelley." At school, however, he proved himself to be a very capable and intelligent student. He also began writing some short fiction pieces.
In the course of his first and only year at Oxford University, in England (1810–1811), Shelley and a friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg issued a pamphlet provocatively entitled "The Necessity of Atheism (the belief that there is no God)." Both students were expelled from the university. This event intensified Shelley's rebelliousness against accepted notions of law and order, both in his private life and in government. In the summer of 1811 Shelley met and married Harriet Westbrook.
Shelley's first poems
Shelley attempted to communicate his views on politics other topics in the poem "Queen Mab" (1813). Though an immature poem, nevertheless, it contained the germ of his mature philosophy: that throughout the cosmos there is "widely diffused / A spirit of activity and life," an omnipresent (being everywhere) energy that, unless misguided by people's lust for power, can lead humankind to paradise.
By the summer of 1814 Shelley had become closely involved with Mary Godwin (1797–1851). In late July Shelley left his wife and ran away to continental Europe with Godwin. In 1816, they married. The same year, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.
When Shelley returned to England, he was increasingly driven to the realization that paradise was not just around the corner. This may have prompted the writing of "Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude" in December 1815. In this poem Shelley writes that poets are caught between the enticements of extreme idealism (visions for the improvement of humankind) and the awareness that the very nature of humans and the world prevents the achievement of this highest purpose.
Both Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" and "Mont Blanc," were planned in 1816, during a stay in Geneva, Switzerland, and make an impressive statement of his belief in an everlasting, compassionate "Spirit," the hidden source of splendor and harmony in nature and of moral activity in humans.
"The Revolt of Islam"
The winter of 1816 and 1817 was a period of great emotional disturbance for Shelley. Harriet, his wife, died, presumably by suicide, in December. The courts refused to grant Shelley the custody of their two children. In addition, he was beginning to worry about his health. However, there were encouragements as well. Shelley was gaining some recognition as an original and powerful poet.
During the spring and summer of 1817, Shelley composed his most ambitious poem to that date, "The Revolt of Islam." In this work the theme of love between man and woman was skillfully woven into the wider pattern of humankind's love-inspired struggle for brotherhood. The work demonstrates that Shelley had now come to a mature insight into the complex relationship between good and evil. A person's recognition of his or her boundaries is the first step to wisdom and inner liberty. Martyrdom does not put an end to hope, for it is a victory of the spirit and a vital source of inspiration.
"Exile" and "Prometheus Unbound"
In March 1818 Percy and Mary Shelley left England, never to return. The bulk of the poet's output was produced in Italy in the course of the last four years of his short life. Though life in Italy had its obvious rewards, this period was by no means one of pure happiness for Shelley. He was increasingly anxious about his health. He was beginning to resent the social ostracism (shunning) that had made him an exile. The exile itself was at times hard to bear, even though the political and social situations in England were most unattractive. Finally, his son William died in June 1819. A note of despair can be perceived in some of his minor poems, such as the "Stanzas Written in Dejection near Naples." In "Prometheus Unbound" (1818–19), Shelley turned to myths (ancient stories that explain natural occurrences) to convey, in a more sensitive and complex way, the basic truth that had been expressed through the narrative technique of "The Revolt of Islam."
Drama and social tracts
Like the other romantic poets, Shelley was aware of the limitations of poetry as a medium of mass communication. He, too, struggled to deliver his message to a larger audience. He experimented with stage drama in The Cenci (1819) a tragedy which illustrates the problems caused by humans' lust for power, both physical and mental, in the sphere of domestic life.
Shelley's interest, however, lay in wider issues, which he now began to tackle in satires (humorous pieces pointing out people's weaknesses). He vented his social outrage in the stirring argument of The Masque of Anarchy (1819); in Peter Bell the Third (1819), a satire of the poet William Wordsworth (1770–1850); and in Oedipus Tyrannus, or Swell-Foot the Tyrant (1820), a mock tragedy on the royal British family.
In "Hellas" (1821), Shelley's major political poem, Hellas celebrates the Greek war of liberation. It crowns a large series of minor poems in which Shelley, throughout his writing career, had hailed the spirit of liberty, not only among the oppressed classes of England but also among the oppressed nations of the world.
Final poems and prose works
Shelley's concern with promoting the cause of freedom was genuine, but his personality found a more compatible outlet in his "visionary rhymes." In his poems the almost mystical concepts of oneness and love, of poetry and brotherhood are expressed. Such themes remained the source of his inspiration to the last. As he was nearing his thirtieth year, he wrote with a more urgent yet less harsh sense of the unbridgeable gap between the ideal and the real. He movingly expressed this sense in "The Sensitive Plant" (1820) and in the poem that he composed on the death of John Keats (1795–1821), "Adonais" (1821).
Shelley's The Defence of Poetry (1821) is one of the most eloquent prose assessments of the poet's unique relation to the eternal. And, in 1822, he focused on the poet's relation to earthly experience in The Triumph of Life. This work contains an impassioned condemnation of the corruption wrought by worldly life, whose "icy-cold stare" irresistibly obscures the "living flame" of imagination.
Shelley drowned in the Gulf of Spezia near Lerici, Italy, on July 8, 1822, shortly before his thirtieth birthday. He is regarded as one of the greatest English poets of the romantic age of art.
For More Information
Hohne, Horst. In Search of Love: The Short and Troublesome Life and Work of Percy Bysshe Shelley. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.
Hawkins, Desmond. Shelley's First Love. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1992.
White, Newman Ivey. Shelley. New York: Knopf, 1940. Reprint, New York: Octagon Books, 1972.