Shelley, Percy Bysshe

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Percy Bysshe Shelley


Born September 4, 1792, in Horsham, Sussex, England; died in a boating accident July 8, 1822, in Lerici, Italy; son of Timothy (a baronet) and Elizabeth (Pilfold) Shelley; married Harriet Westbrook, c. August 28, 1811 (died, 1816); married Mary Godwin, December 30, 1816; children: (first marriage) Ianthe, Charles; (second marriage) William, Clara, Percy Florence. Education: Attended Eton College, 1804-10, and University College, Oxford, 1810-11 (expelled).


Poet, essayist, critic, and playwright.


Zastrozzi, A Romance, G. Wilkie & J. Robinson (London, England), 1810.

(With sister, Elizabeth Shelley) Original Poetry; by Victor and Cazire, J. J. Stockdale, (London, England), 1810.

(With Jefferson Hogg) Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson; Being Poems Found amongst the Papers of That Noted Female Who Attempted the Life of the King in 1786, J. Munday (Oxford, England), 1810.

(As A Gentleman of the University of Oxford) St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian: A Romance, J. J. Stockdale (London, England), 1811.

The Necessity of Atheism, C. & W. Phillips (Worthing, England), 1811.

An Address, to the Irish People, [Dublin, Ireland], 1812.

Proposals for an Association of Those Philanthropists, Who, Convinced of the Inadequacy of the Moral and Political State of Ireland to Produce Benefits Which Are Nevertheless Attainable, Are Willing to Unite to Accomplish Its Regeneration, I. Eton (Dublin, Ireland), 1812.

A Letter to Lord Ellenborough, Occasioned by the Sentence Which He Passed on Mr. D. I. Eaton, as Publisher of the Third Part of Paine's Age of Reason, Syle (Barnstaple, England), 1812.

Queen Mab; a Philosophical Poem, privately published (London, England), 1813, W. Baldwin (New York, NY), 1821.

A Vindication of Natural Diet, Being One in a Series of Notes to Queen Mab; A Philosophical Poem, J. Callow (London, England), 1813.

A Refutation of Deism: In a Dialogue, Schulze & Dean (London, England), 1814.

Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude: And Other Poems, Baldwin, Craddock & Joy/Carpenter & Son (London, England), 1816.

A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote throughout the Kingdom, C. & J. Ollier (London, England), 1817.

Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century, Sherwood, Neely & Jones/C. & J. Ollier (London, England), 1817, revised as The Revolt of Islam; A Poem, in Twelve Cantos, C. & J. Ollier, 1818.

(With wife, Mary Shelley) History of a Six Weeks' Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland: With Letters Descriptive of a Sail round the Lake of Geneva, and of the Glaciers of Chamouni, Thomas Hookham, Jr./C. & J. Ollier (London, England), 1817.

Rosalind and Helen, A Modern Eclogue; with Other Poems, C. & J. Ollier (London, England), 1819.

The Cenci: A Tragedy, in Five Acts, C. & J. Ollier (London, England), 1819.

Prometheus Unbound. A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, with Other Poems, C. & J. Ollier (London, England), 1820.

(And translator from the Doric) Oedipus Tyrannus; or, Swellfoot the Tyrant. A Tragedy (two-act play), J. Johnston (London, England), 1820.

Epipsychidion. Verses Addressed to the Noble and Unfortunate Lady Emilia V, Now Imprisoned in the Convent of ____, C. & J. Ollier (London, England), 1821.

Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Author of Endymion, Hyperion, etc., [Pisa, Italy], 1821, Gee & Bridges (Oxford, England), 1829.

Hellas: A Lyrical Drama, C. & J. Ollier (London, England), 1822.

Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, John & Henry L. Hunt (London, England), 1824.

The Masque of Anarchy. A Poem, edited by Leigh Hunt, Edward Moxon (London England), 1832.

The Wandering Jew. A Poem, edited by Bertram Dobell, Shelley Society (London, England), 1887.

Notebooks of Percy Bysshe Shelley, from the Originals in the Library of W. K. Bixby, three volumes, edited by H. Buxton Forman, Bibliophile Society (Boston, MA), 1911.

Philosophical View of Reform, edited by T. W. Rolleston, Oxford University Press (London, England), 1920.

The Esdaile Notebook. A Volume of Early Poems, edited by Kenneth Neill Cameron, Knopf (New York, NY), 1964.

The Esdaile Poems, edited by Neville Rogers, Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1966.


Select Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Richard Garnett, Kegan Paul, Trench (London, England), 1821.

Letters from Percy Bysshe Shelley to Elizabeth Hitchener, two volumes, edited by T. J. Wise and H. B. Forman, [London, England], 1890.

Letters from Percy Bysshe Shelley to William Godwin, two volumes, edited by T. J. Wise and H. B. Forman, [London, England], 1891.

Letters from Percy Bysshe Shelley to Leigh Hunt, two volumes, edited by T. J. Wise, (London, England), 1894.

The Shelley Correspondence in the Bodleian Library, edited by H. R. Hill, Bodleian Library (Oxford, England), 1926.

Shelley and His Circle, 1773-1822, Carl Pforzheimer Library, volumes 1-4 edited by Kenneth Neill Cameron, volumes 5-8 edited by Donald H. Reiman, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1961-1986.

The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, two volumes, edited by Frederick L. Jones, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1964.


The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, four volumes, edited by Mary Shelley, Edward Moxon (London, England), 1839, reprinted in one volume, Porter & Coates (Philadelphia, PA), 1839.

Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations, and Fragments, two volumes, edited by Mary Shelley, Edward Moxon (London, England), 1840.

The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Including Various Additional Pieces from MS. and Other Sources, two volumes, edited by William Michael Rossetti, Edward Moxon (London, England), 1870, T. Crowell (New York, NY), 1878.

The Complete Poetical Works of Shelley, edited by Thomas Hutchinson, Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1904, revised by G. M. Matthews, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1969.

The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Julian Edition, ten volumes, edited by Roger Ingpen and Walter Edwin Peck, Ernest Benn (London, England), 1926-30.

Shelley's Prose; or, The Trumpet of a Prophecy, edited by David L. Clark, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1954, revised edition, 1966.

Posthumous Poems of Shelley: Mary Shelley's Fair Copy Book, edited by Irving Massey, McGill-Queen's University Press (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), 1969.

Shelley's Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald Reiman and Sharon Powers, Norton (New York, NY), 1977.

The Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics: Shelley, three volumes: The Esdaile Notebook, The Masque ofAnarchy, Hellas: A Lyrical Drama, edited by Donald H. Reiman, Garland (New York, NY), 1985.

The Prose Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by E. B. Murray, Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1993.


Works included in numerous anthologies, including Shelley Memorials, edited by Lady Jane Shelley, Smith, Elder (London, England), 1859. Translations published in The Platonism of Shelley: A Study of Platonism and the Poetic Mind, by James Notopoulous, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1949.

Shelley's manuscripts and letters are housed at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, the Bodleian Library, and in the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of the New York Public Library. In addition, there are notebooks and manuscripts in the Huntington Library; the British Library; the Pierpont Morgan Library; Harvard University; the Library of Congress; the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin; Texas Christian University; and the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome, Italy.


Percy Bysshe Shelley was "the real genius of the Romantics," according to Michael Rogers in Library Journal, yet for many the names of John Keats or Lord Byron, Shelley's contemporaries, are more familiar. Even his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein, among other tales, often garners more shelf space in bookstores than her poet/essayist husband. Such a state of affairs led Suzi Feay to wonder in the New Statesman why "a second-rate sci-fi writer" such as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley has attracted "more critical attention than one of the few high-octane, incomparable poetic geniuses of our language?" Feay answered her own question by blaming it in part on Shelley's "poncy" first name, Percy, and his "equally eccentric" middle name, Bysshe, and in part on the "rise of women's studies and political correctness." Shelley's alleged mistreatment of women has also made him a target of the same feminist scholars who have heralded his wife.

Shelley was the author of plays, poetry, essays, and voluminous amounts of letters. Best known now as the author of such poems as "Ode to the West Wind" and "To a Skylark," Shelley's lasting critical fame comes from verse works like Prometheus Unbound, The Revolt of Islam, and Adonais, as well as from his political essays and his prose assessment of the poet's place in the world, In Defence of Poetry. Mostly, however, Shelley is remembered as one of the Romantics, those wild young men of the turn of the nineteenth century who tended to live tragic lives and die young: Keats passed away at age twenty-six, Shelley at age twenty-nine, and Byron at age thirty-six. However, Shelley was much more than a hard-living poet who squandered his great talent and then drowned at sea. John R. Greenfield, writing in the Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, noted that the "life and works of Percy Bysshe Shelley exemplify Romanticism in both its extremes of joyous ecstasy and brooding despair." Greenfield went on to observe that "the major themes are there in Shelley's dramatic if short life and in his works, enigmatic, inspiring, and lasting." For Greenfield these themes include "the restlessness and brooding, the rebellion against authority, the interchange with nature, the power of the visionary imagination and of poetry, the pursuit of ideal love, and the untamed spirit ever in search of freedom." Part of Shelley that is often overlooked, however, is his commitment to reform and his refusal to take on the trappings of accepted power, be they political or religious, in his own life. This aspect of his life was stressed by L. M. Findlay in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. Findlay noted that Shelley was "a voluminous reader and bold experimenter" who "is worth consulting on any of the multifarious topics he addressed, from vegetarianism to war. He is closely associated with reform because he helped define its principles and practices, intervening in debates about the redistribution of wealth in Britain between 1810 and 1822 and the role played by religion in legitimizing tyranny."

A Child of Privilege

Shelley was a product of the very same upper-class privilege he despised as an adult; he was born into a family of aristocratic landholders and wealthy merchants. He was named after his well-to-do grandfather, Bysshe Shelley, who in 1806 was made a baronet, a title that ultimately devolved to Shelley's father, Timothy Shelley. Born at the family house, Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex, on August 4, 1792, as first son and heir, Shelley was raised with the pursuits and pastimes particular to his class. In addition to becoming a good shot and fair horseman, he also entertained his younger siblings with all sorts of tales, including ghost stories. He attended Syon House Academy for two years, then proceeded to Eton College when he was twelve years old. Nothing at home prepared him for the hazing he received by his fellow students, and Shelley

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made matters worse by losing his temper but losing the fights that would ultimately follow. He began to take an interest in electricity and chemistry while at Syon, and continued these studies at Eton, where he was called "Mad Shelley" for the experiments he developed as well as for his increasingly anti-authoritarian stands. At Eton Shelley was taken under the wing of Dr. James Lind, physician to the royal household at Windsor Castle. Shelley also had access to Lind's library, and under the doctor's tutelage continued his wide-ranging reading in science as well as in philosophy, history, and the classics.

At Eton, Shelley began writing, both poetry and prose. Though some of this juvenile poetry was published in 1810, Shelley's major early efforts were writing gothic novels, which genre he loved to read himself. The same year he left Eton for Oxford he published the novel Zastrozzi, whose eponymous villain mouths many of the dangerous opinions Shelley himself was developing at the time. The novel is essentially about a love triangle in which Contessa Matilda, spurned by Verezzi, the object of her affections, turns to Zastrozzi to get rid of Julia, her rival. Little reviewed or read at the time, the novel nonetheless established Shelley as a published author by the time he entered Oxford University, a fact that added to his reputation for being "mad." Reviewing a 2003 edition of this nearly two-century-old novel, Rogers noted that the tale is "no doubt a bit heavy-handed, but even bad Shelley is better than many other writers."

At Oxford, Shelley made the acquaintance of Thomas Jefferson Hogg, another first-year student. These two influenced one another in a growing radicalism and rejection of the staid societal rules. They discussed science and philosophy late into the night and in 1811 collaborated on a collection of poems, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, a gathering of verse at once erotic and rather treasonous and supposedly written by a mad washerwoman who had attempted to kill the king. Shelley's verse collaboration with his sister, Elizabeth Shelley, titled Original Poetry, by Victor and Cazire, was also published in 1810, while the following year saw publication of his second Gothic novel, St. Irvine; or, The Rosicrucian. However, it was the publication of a prose pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism, which Shelley and Hogg delighted in sending out to their very pious and religious teachers, that changed both young men's lives by earning them an immediate expulsion from Oxford. At school for less than a year, Shelley was now confronted with making his way in the world.

A Man of Unconventional Beliefs

In addition to losing him a place at Oxford, Shelley's stubborn refusal to disavow the ideas set forth in The Necessity of Atheism and his continuation of a friendship with Hogg also caused a rift with his father, leaving the young man without an income for two years until he came of age. Meanwhile he lived a hand-to-mouth existence but also kept company with Hogg, as well as with a sixteen-year-old girl, Harriet Westbrook, whom he had met through his sister. Influenced by the liberating philosophy of English philosopher William Godwin and Godwin's book Political Justice, Shelley decided to rescue Westbrook from her oppressive boarding school. In August of 1811 the couple eloped to Edinburgh, where they were married. Before, Shelley could barely support himself financially; now he had saddled himself with a young bride.

For the next three years the couple moved from place to place throughout England, Ireland, and Wales. Further developing his radical political ideas, Shelley published An Address, to the Irish People, a tract favoring Irish emancipation, and took it personally to Ireland, where he spoke and passed out the pamphlet to a mixed response. For Shelley, as Greenfield pointed out, "love and politics should be inseparable," but the Irish were not ready for his message. Consequently, he, his wife, and his wife's sister, who lived with them, left Ireland, settling for a time in Wales, where he wrote tracts in favor of freedom of the press. Returning to London in 1812, he met and befriended the radical publisher Leigh Hunt, as well as other aspiring writers, such as Thomas Love Peacock, who later became one of Shelley's first biographers.

The Shelleys' first child, Ianthe, was born in 1813, at about the same time Shelley began his first major literary project, the poem Queen Mab. In what Greenfield described as "a political epic," the fairy queen shows humankind's real nature through the mistakes it has made in history. The poem battles both religious dogma and the monarchy, taking on a utopian perspective. A testament to his own belief system at the time, Queen Mab has lengthy endnotes on topics from vegetarianism to free love.

During this period, Shelley met William Godwin, whose work had so impressed him as a student. He also met the man's teenage daughter, Mary Godwin, the daughter of Godwin's first wife, reformer Mary Wollstonecraft. In Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Shelley encountered a true soul mate, every bit as bright and free spirited as he. Despite the fact that Harriet was pregnant with their second child, Shelley fell in love with Mary Godwin and the couple ran away to France. By the time they returned, London society had ostracized them and Shelley needed to spend much of his free time trying to raise money to support his estranged family, which now included a second son. Shelley supposedly offered Harriet the option of staying with him and Mary as a sort of sister and companion, but Harriet refused such an offer. Finally, with the death of his grandfather in 1815, Shelley's finances achieved an even footing. By this time, too, he had turned more fully toward poetry as his main work.

Poet in Exile

The result of Shelley's concentration on poetry was the 1816 publication of Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude: And Other Poems. This work is, as Greenfield commented, "Shelley's public initiation into the Romantic idiom of poetry pioneered by Wordsworth." The title poem, "with its use of symbols, visionary elements, and mythic sources . . . , marks a real advance

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over Shelley's earlier efforts writing poetry," according to Greenfield, who further noted that "what gives Alastor vibrancy and tension—life—is that it is not a didactic morality poem; it is a subtle and complex poem in which the two kinds of poetry represented by the Narrator, the Wordsworthian poet of nature, and the visionary Poet of genius are drawn into a kind of complementary conflict." As so often was the case during Shelley's lifetime, this major work was greeted largely by negative reviews.

At this point in time, Shelley was not in England to be chafed by any less-than-positive reviews. Although still married to Harriet, he and Mary had joined Mary's stepsister, Jane Claire Clairmont, on a tour of Europe. In Switzerland they met Lord Byron, with whom Jane Claire was having an affair, and Shelley and Byron found each other excellent company. It was during this sojourn that Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin wrote Frankenstein as a contribution to a contest among these friends and lovers that each should compose a ghost story. Shelley was also productive during this stay, writing two of his most popular works, "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," and the long poem Mont Blanc, his response to the Alps. In the latter work, contrary to earlier Romantic odes to these vast mountains, Shelley proposes a nature without meaning; the only such meaning is endowed by human imagination.

Tragedy awaited the couple upon their return to England. Mary's half-sister, who was an admirer of Shelley's, killed herself, as did Shelley's estranged wife, Harriet. Shelley was free to wed Mary Godwin, which he did in 1816, but his late wife's family blocked his attempts at regaining custody of his children. The Westbrook family, in fact, cited Shelley's poetry to show that he was an unfit, immoral parent. The free love and atheism promoted in Queen Mab were put before the Court as evidence of Shelley's perfidy. In England during 1817, Shelley focused primarily on political prose writing, but also on one of his finest works, The Revolt of Islam; A Poem in Twelve Cantos, composed in Spenserian stanzas. Originally titled Laon and Cyntha, the work was quickly withdrawn from publication because of its references to incest between a brother and sister. Shelley deleted the offending passage and the work was published as The Revolt of Islam. Characterized as a "poetic forum for Shelley to condemn oppression, religious fraud, war, tyrants, and their consequences," according to Greenfield, the poem also promoted "hope, enlightenment, love." The critical reception for this long verse work was consistent with that of Shelley's other publications; reviewers complained of its unfinished feel and its obscure allusions.

One exception to such contemporary negative criticism was Shelley's poem "Ozymandias," written in late 1817 and describing an Egyptian statue of Ramses II. This verse, with its easily understood message about the futility of human ambition in the face of eternity, has become one of Shelley's most anthologized works.

In March of 1818, Shelley, Mary, and their two children set off to Europe once again to settle in Italy. Here he became part of an expatriate artistic community centered on Byron. The change of climate allowed Shelley to write some of his best poetry, despite the deaths of his two children by Mary in 1818 and 1819. His daughter's death may have inspired "Lines Written among the Euganian Hills," while Julian and Maddalo was a direct outgrowth of his growing friendship with Byron.

It was during these first years in Italy that Shelley wrote what is generally accepted as his masterpiece, Prometheus Unbound. Shelley took the mythical figure of Prometheus, who had brought humanity the gift of fire only to be bound for eternity, as the central figure for this verse drama. In Shelley's work, Prometheus is the symbol of man's soul or mind at its highest potential, and the work thus becomes an allegory of the origins of evil and the potential for spiritual rebirth through love. Prometheus Unbound was originally published in 1820, along with some of Shelley's finest lyrics, including "Ode to the West Wind," "The Cloud," "To a Skylark," and "Ode to Liberty." In "Ode to the West Wind," Shelley expresses his hope that his words, like the wind, will reform the world: "Scatter as from an unextinguished hearth / Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind! / Be through my lips to unawakened Earth / The trumpet of a prophecy!"

Shelley was incredibly prolific during his years in Italy. With Prometheus Unbound still underway, he began another verse drama, The Cenci, which moves away from mythology and uses Renaissance history as its inspiration. The story of the Cenci family, this drama is another example of Shelley's theme of struggling against established authority. In this case, the authority is a cruel father who rapes his daughter, Beatrice. She in turn plots his undoing, finally killing her father. The poem's twin themes of incest and patricide did little to endear Shelley to the conservative English, nor did other political poems and tracts he wrote at the same time: The Masque of Anarchy and A Philosophical View of Reform, neither of which was published during Shelley's lifetime.

As a change of pace, Shelley composed two satires dating from 1819 and 1820 respectively: Peter Bell the Third and Oedipus Tyrannus; or, Swellfoot theTyrant. With Epipsychidion, he sets forth "a kind of idealized autobiography of his love relationships," according to Greenfield. Also during this time the author wrote one of "the most eloquent justifications of poetry ever written," as Greenfield described A Defence of Poetry. A reaction to an essay by his friend Peacock that argued that poetry was in decline, A Defence of Poetry looks at poetry broadly to include all the arts and various creative activities which try to enrich the world with beauty or goodness. Similarly, with his 1821 poem Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Shelley employs the traditional elegiac verse form to grieve the early death of his friend Keats. At the same time, however, Shelley rejects the idea of Christian resurrection in favor of a heathen immortality for the poet whose works live on like a star in the firmament.

Death and Transfiguration

By 1822 the Shelleys had settled on the Bay of San Terenzo near Lerici in Italy. They were joined there by Edward Williams and his wife, Jane, to whom Shelley wrote several of his most lyrical poems: "Lines: 'When the Lamp Is Shattered,'" "To Jane: The Invitation," "To Jane: The Recollection, with a Guitar," and "Lines Written in the Bay of Lerici." He also began work on his last long verse work, The Triumph of Life, written in terza rima, and though unfinished, deemed by many, including early twentieth-century poet T. S. Eliot, to be Shelley's best work.

Meanwhile, Shelley's domestic life was coming undone. Mary, pregnant with another child, was unhappy in her marriage. Shortly before his thirtieth birthday, Shelley, accompanied by Williams, set out in his sailboat, the Don Juan, to welcome his friend Leigh Hunt on a visit to Italy. On their return trip, a small storm broke suddenly and overturned the craft. Both Shelley and Williams were lost, their bodies washing up on the shore ten days later, on July 18, 1822. Shelley's body was identified in part by a volume of the poetry of Keats which he was carrying with him.

Shelley was cremated and his ashes interred at the grave of John Keats in Rome's Protestant Cemetery. His youngest son, Percy Florence, born four months after his father's death, helped to keep Shelley's literary flame alive, as did Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who compiled posthumous editions of the poet's works. However, in the years since his death, Shelley's reputation fluctuated due to changing literary tastes. His early death ensured him a place at the top of the list of Romantic poets, but during the Victorian age his reputation began to suffer. Americans such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Samuel Clemens disparaged Shelley's work as well as his relationships with women. However, Victorian-era champions of Shelley were several, and included Robert Browning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, William Butler Yeats, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Edgar Allan Poe, and George Bernard Shaw. Even Karl Marx's daughter praised his work for its reformist zeal. In 1886 the Shelley Society was founded and Shelley's play, The Cenci, was staged.

By the early twentieth century, critics openly disparaged Shelley's "irrational" stance and what they found to be simplistic assertions about love conquering all. These early twentieth-century critics were in turn challenged by later critics, such as Carlos Baker and Harold Bloom, who praised Shelley for his defense of the human spirit. His stands on free love and religion also endeared him to an entirely new generation of readers during the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s. Never a favorite with the masses, still Shelley's works live on. His philosophy, Greenfield concluded, as "embodied in his verse, his prose, and his life, remain as a challenge to the servile acceptance of authority and as a challenge to us to achieve our highest potential—to always aspire to higher goals for ourselves and for society." For Donald H. Reiman, in his critical study Percy Bysshe Shelley, the proof of the poet's immortality is the "degree to which his imaginative mythic formulations have been diffused into the general cultural imagination." Reiman further explained, "The figures of Prometheus, Queen Mab, Count Cenci and Beatrice, and such natural phenomena as Mont Blanc, the west wind, a cloud, or a skylark evoke in literate English-speaking people conceptions that are as vividly informed by Shelley's imagination as the characters of Falstaff, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet are by Shakespeare's."

If you enjoy the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley

If you enjoy the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, you may also want to check out the following:

The writings of British Romantic poets Lord Byron (1788-1824) and John Keats (1795-1821).

Biographical and Critical Sources


Baker, Carlos, Shelley's Major Poetry: The Fabric of a Vision, Russell & Russell (New York, NY), 1961.

Barcus, James E., Shelley: The Critical Heritage, Routledge (London, England), 1975.

Barker-Benfield, B. C., compiler, Shelley's Guitar: A Bodleian Exhibition of Manuscripts, First Editions, and Relics of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Bodleian Library (Oxford, England), 1992.

Bieri, James, Percy Bysshe Shelley, a Biography: Youth's Unextinguished Fire, 1792-1816, University of Delaware Press, 2005.

Bieri, James, Percy Bysshe Shelley, a Biography: Exile of Unfulfilled Renown, 1816-1822, University of Delaware Press, 2005.

Bloom, Harold, editor, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Chelsea House (New York, NY), 1985.

Cameron, Kenneth Neill, The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1950.

Cameron, Kenneth Neill, Shelley: The Golden Years, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1974.

Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 2: Writers of the Romantic Period, 1789-1832, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Crook, Nora, and Derek Guiton, Shelley's Venomed Melody, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1986.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 96: British Romantic Poets, 1789-1832, 1990; Volume 110: British Romantic Prose Writers, 1789-1832, 1991; Volume 158: British Reform Writers, 1789-1832, 1996.

Dowden, Edward, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, two volumes, Kegan Paul, Trench & Co. (London, England), 1886.

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Foot, Paul, Red Shelley, Sidgwick & Jackson (London, England), 1980.

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MacCarthy, Denis Florence, Shelley's Early Life from Original Sources with Curious Incidents, Letters, and Writings, John Camden Hotten (London, England), 1872.

Medwin, Thomas, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, two volumes, Newby (London, England), 1847.

Norman, Sylva, Flight of the Skylark, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1954.

O'Neill, Michael, Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Literary Life, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1990.

Peck, Walter Edwin, Shelley: His Life and Work, two volumes, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1927.

Raine, Kathleen, Shelley, Penguin (Baltimore, MD), 1973.

Read, Herbert, In Defence of Shelley and Other Essays, Heinemann (London, England), 1936.

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Roberts, Hugh, Shelley and the Chaos of History: A New Politics of Poetry, Pennsylvania State University Press (University Park, PA), 1997.

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Shelley, Brian, Shelley and Scripture: The Interpreting Angel, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1994.

Shelley, Jane Gibson, editor, Shelley Memorials: From Authentic Sources, Ticknor & Fields (Boston, MA), 1859.

Tomalin, Claire, Shelley and His World, Scribner (New York, NY), 1980.

Wheatley, Kim, Shelley and His Readers: Beyond Paranoid Politics, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1999.

White, Newman Ivey, Shelley, two volumes, Knopf (New York, NY), 1940.

Yeats, William Butler, Essays and Introductions, Macmillan (London, England), 1961.


Criticism, summer, 2000, Michele Turner Sharp, "Mirroring the Future: Adonais, Elegy, and the Life in Letters," p. 299.

Edinburgh Review, July, 1824, William Hazlitt, review of Posthumous Poems, pp. 494-514.

Library Journal, June 1, 2003, Michael Rogers, review of Zastrozzi, p. 176.

Modern Language Quarterly, September, 1997, Ted Underwood, "The Science in Shelley's Theory of Poetry," p. 299.

New Statesman, April 4, 1997, Suzi Feay, "Shelley: The World Should Listen Now," p. 45.

Studies in Romanticism, summer, 2000, Margot Harrison, "No Way for a Victim to Act?," p. 187; winter, 2003, Forest Pyle, "Kindling and Ash: Radical Aestheticism in Keats and Shelley," p. 427.

Wordsworth Circle, winter, 2002, Mark Canuel, Coleridge, Shelley and the Aesthetics of Correction, p. 7, Neil Frastait, "The Material Shelley: Who Gets the Finger in Queen Mab?," p. 33; spring, 2004, Michael O'Neill, "Adonais and Poetic Power," p. 50, and Monica Brzezinski Potkay, "Incest as Theology in Shelley's The Cenci," p. 57.


Academy of American Poets, (September 19, 2004), "Percy Bysshe Shelley."

Keats-Shelley Journal Online, (September 19, 2004).

Percy Bysshe Shelley, (September 14, 2004).

Percy Bysshe Shelley Resource Page,http://www/ (September 14, 2004).

Representative Poetry Online, (September 19, 2004), "Percy Bysshe Shelley."*

Shelley, Percy Bysshe

views updated May 23 2018

Percy Bysshe Shelley

BORN: 1792, near Horsham, Sussex, England

DIED: 1822, off the coast of Livorno, Italy


GENRE: Poetry

The Revolt of Islam (1818)
The Cenci (1819)
Prometheus Unbound (1820)
Adonais (1821)
A Defence of Poetry (1840)


Percy Shelley was a poet, literary theorist, translator, political thinker, pamphleteer, and social activist. An extensive reader and bold experimenter, he was a major English Romantic poet. His foremost works, including The Revolt of Islam (1818), Prometheus Unbound (1820), Adonais (1821), and The Triumph of Life (1824), are recognized as leading expressions of radical thought written during the Romantic age, while his odes and shorter lyrics are often considered among the greatest in the English language. In addition, his essay A Defence of Poetry (1840) is highly valued as a statement of the role of the poet in society.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

The Elder Son of a Noble Family Born on August 4, 1792, Percy Bysshe Shelley was the son of Timothy and Elizabeth Shelley. As the eldest son, Percy stood in line not only to inherit his grandfather's considerable estate but also to sit in Parliament one day.

While in school at Eton, Shelley began two pursuits that he would continue with intense fervor throughout his life: writing and love, the two often blending together so that the love became the subject matter for the writing. Although Shelley began writing poems while at Eton, some of which were published in 1810 in Original Poetry; by Victor and Cazire and some of which were not published until the 1960s as The Esdaile Notebook, his first publication was the gothic novel, Zastrozzi (1810).

Oxford When Shelley went to University College, Oxford in 1810, he was already a published and reviewed writer and a voracious reader with intellectual interests far beyond the rather narrow scope of the prescribed curriculum. Timothy Shelley, proud of his son and wanting to indulge his apparently harmless interests in literature, could not have foreseen where it might lead when he took Shelley to the booksellers Slatter and Munday and instructed them as follows: “My son here has a literary turn; he is already an author, and do pray indulge him in his printing freaks.”

Shortly after entering Oxford Shelley met another freshman, Thomas Jefferson Hogg. The two young men immediately became fast friends, each stimulating the imagination and intellect of the other in their animated discussions of philosophy, literature, science, magic, religion, and politics. In his biography of Shelley, Hogg recalled the time they spent in Shelley's rooms, reading, and discussing, arguing, with Shelley performing scientific experiments.

Ousted for “Atheism” During his brief stay at Oxford, Shelley wrote a prose pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism (1811), which was to have a disastrous effect on his relationship with his family and a dramatic effect on his life. Indeed, Shelley's decision to publish The Necessity of Atheism and send copies of it to the conservative Oxford dons, seemed more calculated to antagonize and flaunt authority than to persuade by rational argument. Actually the title of the pamphlet is more inflammatory than the argument, which centers upon “the nature of belief,” a position Shelley derived from the skeptical philosophies of John Locke and David Hume. Nevertheless, the Oxford authorities acted swiftly and decisively, expelling both Shelley and his cohort Hogg in March of 1811. The two could probably have been reinstated with the intervention of Shelley's father, but they would have had to disavow the pamphlet and declare themselves Christians. Shelley's father insisted upon the additional demand that they should not see each other for a stipulated period of time. The result was a complete break between Shelley and his father, which led to financial distress for Shelley until he came of age two years later.

Harriet and Mary After his expulsion from Oxford, Shelley courted Harriet Westbrook, an attractive young woman of sixteen. Toward the end of 1811 the couple eloped to Scotland. The three years they spent together were marked by financial difficulties and frequent moves to avoid creditors. Despite these pressures, Shelley was actively involved in political and social reform in Ireland and Wales, writing radical pamphlets in which he set forth his views on liberty, equality, and justice. He and Harriet enthusiastically distributed these tracts among the working classes, but with little effect.

The year 1814 was a pivotal one in Shelley's personal life. Although their marriage was faltering, he remarried Harriet in England to ensure the legality of their union and the legitimacy of their children. Weeks later, however, he fell in love with Mary Godwin, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the radical English philosopher William Godwin and his first wife, the feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft. Shelley and Mary ran away together and, accompanied by Mary's stepsister, Jane (Claire) Clair-mont, spent six weeks in Europe. On their return, Shelley entered into a financial agreement with his family that ensured him a regular income. When Harriet declined to join his household as a “sister,” he provided for her and their two children, but continued to live with Mary.

Byron and the “Satanic School” In the summer of 1816, Shelley, Mary, and Claire traveled to Lake Geneva to meet with Lord Byron, with whom Claire had begun an affair. Though Byron's interest in Claire was fleeting, he developed an enduring friendship with Shelley that proved an important influence on the works of both men. Shortly after Shelley's return to England in the fall, Harriet drowned herself in Hyde Park. Shelley thereupon legalized his relationship with Mary and sought custody of his children, but the Westbrook family successfully blocked him in a lengthy lawsuit. Citing his poem Queen Mab (1813), in which he denounced established society and religion in favor of free love and atheism, the Westbrooks convinced the court that Shelley was morally unfit for guardianship. Although Shelley was distressed by his separation from his daughter and infant son, he enjoyed the stimulating society of Leigh Hunt, Thomas Love Peacock, John Keats, and other literary figures during his residence at Marlow in 1817.

Death and Posthumous Success The following year, however, motivated by ill health and financial worries, Shelley relocated his family in Italy. Shelley hastened to renew his relationship with Byron, who was also living in Italy, and the two poets became the nucleus of a circle of expatriates that became known as the “Satanic School” because of their defiance of English social and religious conventions and promotion of radical ideas in their works. The years in Italy were productive for Shelley, despite the deaths of his two children with Mary and the increasing disharmony of their marriage.

In 1819 and 1820 Shelley wrote two of his most ambitious works, the verse dramas Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci. Prometheus Unbound, on its surface a reimagining of a lost, ancient Greek play by Aeschylus, is also a statement of Shelley's revolutionary political ideas. In Shelley's version of the play—which was meant to be read, not performed—the leader of the Greek gods, Zeus, is overthrown and the Titan Prometheus, who had been condemned to eternal punishment for providing humanity with fire, is set free. Shelley based the tragedy of The Cenci on the history of a sixteenth-century Italian noble family. The evil Count Cenci rapes his daughter, Beatrice; she determines to murder him, seeing no other means of escape from continued violation, and is executed for parricide, or the killing of a close relative.

One of Shelley's best-known works, Adonais, an elegy on the death of fellow poet John Keats, was written in 1821. Drawing on the formal tradition of elegiac verse, Shelley laments Keats's early death and, while rejecting the Christian view of resurrection, describes his return to the eternal beauty of the universe.

Death and Posthumous Success Shortly before his thirtieth birthday in 1822, Shelley and his companion, Edward Williams, drowned when their boat capsized in a squall off the coast of Lerici. Shelley's body, identified by the works of Keats and Sophocles in his pockets, was cremated on the beach in a ceremony conducted by his friends Byron, Hunt, and Edward John Trelawny. His ashes, except for his heart, which Byron plucked from the fire, were buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome.

Mary Shelley took on the challenge of editing and annotating Shelley's unpublished manuscripts after his death. Her 1840 collection included Shelley's greatest prose work, A Defence of Poetry. Writing in response to The Four Ages of Poetry (1820), an essay by his friend Peacock, Shelley details his belief in the moral importance of poetry, calling poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In addition to several other philosophical essays and translations from the Greek, Shelley's posthumous works include the highly personal odes addressed to Edward Williams's wife, Jane. “To Jane: The Invitation,” “To Jane: The Recollection,” and “With a Guitar: To Jane” are considered some of his best love poems. At once a celebration of his friends' happy union and an intimate record of his own attraction to Jane, these lyrics are admired for their delicacy and refined style.

Works in Literary Context

Much of Shelley's writing reflects the events and concerns of his life. His passionate beliefs in reform, the equality of the sexes, and the powers of love and imagination are frequently expressed in his poetry, and they caused much controversy among his conservative contemporaries.

Controversial Subject Matter Shelley's first mature work, Queen Mab, was printed in 1813, but not distributed due to its inflammatory subject matter. It was not until 1816, with the appearance of Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude, and Other Poems, that he earned recognition as a serious poet. In Alastor, a visionary and sometimes autobiographical poem, Shelley describes the experiences of the Poet who, rejecting human sympathy and domestic life, is pursued by the demon Solitude.

Shelley also used a visionary approach in his next lengthy work, Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City (1818), written in friendly competition with Keats. An imaginative account of a bloodless revolution led by a brother and sister, the poem deals with the positive power of love, the complexities of good and evil, and ultimately, spiritual victory through martyrdom. Laon and Cythna was immediately suppressed by the printer because of its controversial content, and Shelley subsequently revised the work as The Revolt of Islam, minimizing its elements of incest and political revolution. Even the author's attempts at more popular work met with disapproval: Although Shelley hoped for success on the English stage with his play The Cenci, his controversial treatment of the subject of incest outraged critics, preventing the play from being produced.


Shelley's famous contemporaries include:

John Keats (1795–1821): Critically savaged during his short life, Keats found posthumous fame for his Romantic poetry.

Lord Byron (1788–1824): George Gordon, Lord Byron was one of the leading founders of Romanticism, almost as well known for his debauched lifestyle as for his poetry.

Simón Bolivar (1783–1830): Inspired by the ideals of the American Revolution, and along with Jose de San Martin, Bolivar was the key leader in the ultimately successful liberation of Spain's Central and South American colonies.

Charles Babbage (1791–1871): Recognized today as the world's first computer engineer, Babbage designed, beginning in 1822, an analog computer that he dubbed “the difference engine.” Although he never completed the project, a working model built exactly to his plans was constructed in 1991, proving the soundness of his designs.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828): Painter of the Spanish court, Goya also displayed a loose, subversive style in his personal fine art that was to prove highly influential on generations of painters.

Lyrical Poetry and the Core of Shelley's Themes Throughout his career Shelley wrote numerous short lyrics that have proved to be among his most popular works. Characterized by a simple, personal tone, his minor poems frequently touch on themes central to his more ambitious works: The “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc” focus on his belief in an animating spirit, while “Ode to the West Wind” examines opposing forces in nature. In other lyrics, including “Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills,” “Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples,” and “Lines Written in the Bay of Lerici,” Shelley explores his own experiences and emotions. Political themes also inspired several of his most famous short poems, among them “Ode to Liberty,” “Sonnet: England in 1819,” and The Masque of Anarchy (composed 1819; published 1832).

Works in Critical Context

The history of Shelley's critical reputation has been characterized by radical shifts. During his lifetime he was generally regarded as a misguided or even depraved genius; critics frequently praised portions of his poetry in passing and deplored at length his atheism and unorthodox philosophy. In addition, because of their limited publication and the scant critical attention given his works, he found only a small audience. Those few critics who voiced their admiration of his talents, particularly Hunt, who defended him vigorously in the Examiner, were ironically responsible for further inhibiting his success by causing him to be associated in the public mind with the despised “Cockney School” of poets belittled by John Gibson Lockhart and others in Blackwood's Magazine. Nevertheless, Shelley was known and admired by his great contemporaries: Byron, Keats, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey regarded his works with varying degrees of sympathy and approval.

Legacy After his death, Shelley's reputation was greatly influenced by the efforts of his widow and friends to portray him as an angelic visionary. Biographies by Trelawny, Peacock, and Hogg, though frequently self-serving, inaccurate, and sensationalized, succeeded in directing interest toward Shelley's life and character and away from the controversial beliefs expressed in his works. Critics in the second half of the nineteenth century for the most part ignored Shelley's radical politics, celebrating instead the spiritual and aesthetic qualities of his poetry. In the Victorian age he was highly regarded as the poet of ideal love, and the Victorian notion of the poet as a sensitive, misunderstood genius was largely modeled after Shelley.

Shelley's works, however, fell into disfavor around the turn of the century. Many critics, influenced by Matthew Arnold's assessment of Shelley as an “ineffectual angel,” objected to his seemingly vague imagery, nebulous philosophy, careless technique, and, most of all, his apparent intellectual and emotional immaturity. In the late 1930s Shelley's reputation began to revive: As scholars came to recognize the complexity of his philosophical idealism, serious study was devoted to the doctrines that informed his thought. Since that time, Shelley scholarship has covered a wide array of topics, including his style, philosophy, and major themes. In examining his style, commentators have generally focused on his imagery, use of language, and technical achievements. His doctrines of free love and sexual equality have also attracted commentary on the poet as an early proponent of feminism. Recent criticism of Shelley's works is generally marked by increasing respect for his abilities as a poet and his surprisingly modern philosophy.

Prometheus Unbound Shelley knew that Prometheus Unbound would never be popular, but he thought that it might have a beneficial influence on some already enlightened intellects. In letters to his publisher Charles Ollier, Shelley proclaimed that although this was his “favorite poem,” he did not expect it to sell more than twenty copies and instructed Ollier to send copies to Keats and Byron, among others. The reviewers were predictably harsh in their condemnation of the poem's moral and political principles, with the reviewer for the Literary Gazette and Journal of the Belles Lettres quipping that “no one can ever think [Prometheus] worth binding,” but there was also praise, with words such as “beauty” and “genius” used in various reviews.


Shelley was the prototypical sensitive, misunderstood poet, whose musings on nature and beauty have been much imitated in the centuries since his death, particularly among the Romantic and transcendentalist poets he helped inspire.

Leaves of Grass (1855), a poetry collection by Walt Whitman. Revised in several editions over the poet's lifetime, the poems contained in this collection for the most part celebrate nature, the role of humans in it, and the sensual experiences of the material world.

The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1999), a collection by Emily Dickinson. Although she only published a dozen poems during her lifetime, Dickinson wrote over eighteen hundred, many of which touch upon a recurring theme of the beauty and serenity of gardens and flowers.

Nature (1836), an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson. This work formed the cornerstone of transcendentalism; in it, Emerson asserts that Nature is not a thing to be learned, but a primal force that is understood at a primal level by all of us.

The Cenci In his hope that the play would be read widely and staged, Shelley again misjudged the predominance of conservatism in the literary world of pre-Victorian England. The taboo theme of incest, the horror of parricide, the “blasphemous” treatment of religion, the implicit attack on the family and all patriarchal institutions, and Shelley's own dangerous reputation—all broke the rules of British society and ensured The Cenci would be condemned by all but a few reviewers and friends, such as Leigh Hunt, to whom the play is dedicated. One reviewer's response in the British Review is typical: “The ties of father and daughter … ought not to be profaned as they are in this poem.” The play was staged only once in the nineteenth century, by the Shelley Society in 1886.

Responses to Literature

  1. Many feel that Shelley's dramatic power was informed in large part by his wild and reckless lifestyle. Do you think artists must “live on the edge” in order to produce works of dramatic power? Why or why not? How do you think Shelley's work would differ if he had led a more conventional lifestyle?
  2. Shelley's reputation in his own time suffered from his lifestyle choices. How has his reputation changed since his death? Do you think artists' lifestyles still have an effect on how we judge their work? Try to think of a modern example of a famous artist—such as an author or an actor—who is judged by lifestyle choices as much as by his or her body of work.
  3. Compare and contrast Shelley's “A Dirge” with his contemporary John Keats's “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be.” How do the two poems address the subjects of life, death, and loss?
  4. Shelley wrote an “Address to the West Wind.” Read the poem, then write the West Wind's response. What type of letter would the Wind write? Would it be formal or informal?



Allsup, James O. The Magic Circle: A Study of Shelley's Concept of Love. Port Washington, N. Y.: Kennikat Press, 1976.

Blank, Kim, ed. The New Shelley: Later Twentieth-CenturyViews. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.

Brown, Nathaniel. Sexuality and Feminism in Shelley. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Engelberg, Karsten Klejs. The Making of the Shelley Myth: An Annotated Bibliography of the Criticism of Percy Bysshe Shelley 1822–1860. London and Westport, Conn.: Mansell/Meckler, 1988.

Greenfield, John R. “Percy Bysshe Shelley.” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

“Ode to the West Wind.” Poetry for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napier kowski and Mary K. Ruby. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

O'Neill, Michael. Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin's, 1990.

“Shelley, Percy Bysshe (1792–1822).” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

“Study Questions: A Dirge.” Exploring Poetry. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

“Study Questions for Percy Bysshe Shelley.” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

Trelawny, Edward John. Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron. London: Edward Moxon, 1858.

Wilson, Milton. Shelley's Later Poetry: A Study in His Prophetic Imagination. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

views updated May 23 2018

Percy Bysshe Shelley

The English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) 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, on Aug. 4, 1792. He was the first son of a wealthy country squire. Shelley as a boy felt persecuted by his hardheaded and practical-minded father, and this abuse may have first sparked the flame of protest which, during his Eton years (1804-1810), earned him the name of "Mad Shelley." In the course of his first and only year at Oxford (1810-1811), Shelley and his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg issued a pamphlet provocatively entitled The Necessity of Atheism. Their "atheism" was little more than a hieroglyph connoting their general revulsion against establishment authoritarianism. However, both students were expelled from the university.

This event—soon combined with the influence of Political Justice by anarchist reformer William Godwin— merely intensified Shelley's rebelliousness against accepted notions of law and order, both in his private life and in the body politic. In the summer of 1811 Shelley met and married Harriet Westbrook, and he tried to set up, with her and Hogg, one of those triangular relationships that were to become characteristic of his love life, presumably because he saw in them a way to materialize his noble ideal of freedom in love and togetherness in human relationships. In the early months of 1812 Shelley evinced more than theoretical interest in the Irish cause, another manifestation of his desire for political reform.

Shelley's First Poems

Shelley attempted to convey his views on these and sundry other topics in Queen Mab (1813), a juvenile allegorical romance that, nevertheless, contained the germ of his mature philosophy: the ontological notion that throughout the cosmos there is "widely diffused/A spirit of activity and life," an omnipresent nonpersonal energy that, unless perverted by man's lust for power, can lead mankind to utopia.

By the summer of 1814 Shelley had become closely involved with Godwin, his debts, and his daughter Mary. For a brief while, the poet contemplated settling down with both Mary (as his "sister") and Harriet (as his wife); but the latter did not agree, and in late July Shelley eloped to the Continent with Mary, taking along her half sister, Claire Clairmont.

Shelley's Alastor

Back in England, Shelley was increasingly driven to the realization that utopia was not just around the corner, and this may have prompted the writing of Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude in December 1815. This ambiguous poem is a dialectical analysis of the tragic irony in the poet's fate as he is caught between the allurements of extreme idealism and his awareness that the very nature of man and the world precludes the achievement of his highest purpose. Alastor represents a transient but necessary phase in Shelley's evolution. He was hence-forth to return with unrelenting determination to his dual poetic task of defining the romantic ideal of universal harmony and of striving to bring about the reign of love and freedom in human society.

The first fruits of this ripening were the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and Mont Blanc, which were planned in 1816, during a stay in Geneva. Both poems constitute an impressive statement of Shelley's fundamental belief in an everlasting, benevolent "Spirit," the hidden source of splendor and harmony in nature and of moral activity in man.

The Revolt of Islam

The winter of 1816/1817 was a period of great emotional disturbance for Shelley. Harriet died, presumably by suicide, in December, and the courts refused to grant Shelley the custody of the two children she had borne him. In addition, he was beginning to worry about his health. However, there were encouragements as well. Partly thanks to Leigh Hunt (to whom he gave financial help with his customary generosity), 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 date, The Revolt of Islam. In this work the crude allegorical didacticism of Queen Mab gave way to genuine, although at times still turgid, symbolism. The theme of love between man and woman was adroitly woven into the wider pattern of mankind's love-inspired struggle for brotherhood. Like the French Revolution, the failure of which had preoccupied Shelley for a long time, The Revolt of Islam ends in disaster. But the poet had now come to a mature insight, absent from Alastor, into the complex interplay of good and evil. Man's recognition of his 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. The Revolt of Islam illustrates a discovery that often signaled the romantic poet's accession to wisdom and that John Keats described, in April 1819, as the recognition of "how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul."

Exile and Prometheus Unbound

In March 1818 the Shelleys (still accompanied by Claire Clairmont) left England, never to return. The bulk of the poet's output was produced in Italy in the course of the last 4 years of his short life. Though life in Italy had its obvious rewards, this period was by no means one of undiluted happiness for Shelley. He was increasingly anxious about his health; he was beginning to resent the social ostracism that had made him an exile; exile itself was at times hard to bear, even though the political and social situation in England was most unattractive; and his son William died in June 1819.

However, although a note of despondency can be perceived in some of his minor poems, such as the Stanzas Written in Dejection near Naples, the major ventures of Shelley's later years testify to the relentless energy of an imaginative mind steadily concerned with fundamentals and ever eager to diversify its modes of expression. In Prometheus Unbound (1818-1819), Shelley turned to mythical drama 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. Moreover, the same dialectical reconciliation of the puzzling dualities of life received more purely lyrical shape in the Ode to the West Wind of October 1819.

Dramas and Social Tracts

Like the other romantic poets, Shelley was aware of the limitations of lyrical poetry as a medium of mass communication. He, too, endeavored to convey his message to a larger audience, and he experimented with stage drama in The Cenci (1819), a lurid but carefully constructed tragedy which illustrates the havoc wrought by man's Jupiterian 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 unexpectedly robust satires and with scathing polemical aggressiveness, venting his social indignation in the stirring oratory of The Masque of Anarchy (1819); in Peter Bell the Third (1819), a parody of William Wordsworth and an ironic comment on the elder poet's political and artistic disintegration; in Oedipus Tyrannus, or Swell-foot the Tyrant (1820), a mock tragedy on the royal family; and in Hellas (1821). The last of his major political poems, Hellas celebrates the Greek war of liberation, in which Lord Byron was involved in more active ways; it crowns a large series of minor poems in which Shelley, throughout his writing career, had hailed the resurgent 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 congenial outlet in his "visionary rhymes," in which the peculiar, dematerialized, yet highly sensuous quality of his imagery embodied his almost mystical concepts of oneness and love, of poetry and brotherhood, without destroying their ethereal ideality. Such themes remained the fountainhead of his inspiration to the last, but—as he was nearing 30— with a more urgent, yet less strident sense of the unbridgeable gap between the ideal and the real. He conveyed this sense with poignantly subdued elegiac tones in The Sensitive Plant (1820) and in the poem that he composed on the death of John Keats, Adonais (1821).

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Wordsworth had been about the same age, some 20 years earlier, when they had expressed, in Dejection and the Immortality Ode, their disenchanted consciousness and stoical acceptance of the decay that life and experience had brought to their visionary powers. Shelley too, it seems, came to be affected with a similar dismaying sense of fading imagination; his response, however, was significantly different from theirs. Far from submitting to the desiccating consequences of growth, he wrote the Defence of Poetry (1821), 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, which T. S. Eliot considered his "greatest though unfinished poem." This work contains an impassioned denunciation of the corruption wrought by worldly life, whose "icy-cold stare" irresistibly obliterates the "living flame" of imagination.

Shelley's death by drowning in the Gulf of Spezia near Lerici, Italy, on July 8, 1822, spared him—perhaps mercifully—the hardening of the spirit that, in his view, had destroyed Wordsworth.

Further Reading

Newman Ivey White, Shelley (2 vols., 1940), is still the standard biography. Other biographical studies include Edward Dowden, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1909); Edmund Charles Blunden, Shelley: A Life Story (1947); A. B. C. Whipple, The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Final Years of Byron and Shelley (1964); Jean Overton Fuller, Shelley: A Biography (1968); and George Bornstein, Yeats and Shelley (1970). A convenient introduction for the general reader is Desmond King-Hele, Shelley: His Thought and Work (1960).

For general critical studies of the poetry see Carlos H. Baker, Shelley's Major Poetry: The Fabric of a Vision (1948); Peter Butter, Shelley's Idols of the Cave (1954); Neville Rogers, Shelley at Work: A Critical Inquiry (1956; 2d ed. 1967); Milton T. Wilson, Shelley's Later Poetry: A Study of His Prophetic Imagination (1957); Harold Bloom, Shelley's Mythmaking (1959); Ross Greig Woodman, The Apocalyptic Vision in the Poetry of Shelley (1964); and George M. Ridenour, ed., Shelley: A Collection of Critical Essays (1965).

Other aspects of Shelley's thought are studied in Ellsworth Barnard, Shelley's Religion (1936); Kenneth Neill Cameron, The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical (1950); Earl J. Schulze, Shelley's Theory of Poetry: A Reappraisal (1966); and John Pollard Guinn, Shelley's Political Thought (1969). More specifically concerned with Shelley's philosophy are A. M. D. Hughes, The Nascent Mind of Shelley (1947); J. A. Notopoulos, The Platonism of Shelley (1951); and C. E. Pulos, The Deep Truth: A Study of Shelley's Scepticism (1954).

Since Harold Leroy Hoffman wrote An Odyssey of the Soul:Shelley's "Alastor" (1933), several studies have been devoted to single works: Bennett Weaver, Prometheus Unbound (1957); Donald H. Reiman, Shelley's "The Triumph of Life" (1965); and Earl R. Wasserman, Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound": A Critical Reading (1965). For assessments of Shelley's influence and reputation see Sylva Norman, Flight of the Skylark: The Development of Shelley's Reputation (1954), and Roland A. Duerksen, Shelleyan Ideas in Victorian Literature (1966). □

Shelley, Percy Bysshe

views updated May 14 2018


SHELLEY, PERCY BYSSHE (1792–1822), English poet.

Born on 4 August 1792, into a family of privilege and social standing, Percy Bysshe Shelley voiced the yearnings of the underclasses and revolutionized English poetry. He saw his father, Sir Timothy Shelley (1753–1844), a Sussex squire and a member of Parliament, as an unredeemable tyrant, and maintained a lifelong concern with throwing off oppression.

His schooling at Syon House Academy (1802–1804) extended the sense of oppression he associated with his father to include all of society. Similarly, during the six years he spent at Eton he loathed life and developed a sense of isolation and a fear of violence. Before going up to Oxford in 1810, Shelley wrote several tales and poems characterized by their appeal to the lurid. At Oxford he was free of Eton, but was dejected by the atmosphere of established privilege and intellectual mediocrity. His publication in 1811 of The Necessity of Atheism represented a direct challenge to authority, and he was expelled as a result.

Breaking with his father, Shelley moved to London, where he drifted into a close friendship with sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a London tavern owner, and in 1811 eloped with her to Edinburgh. They took up residence in the Lakes, where Shelley was influenced by the writings of the dissenting philosopher and atheist William Godwin (1756–1836), and by the poet and man of letters Robert Southey (1774–1843), who helped Shelley connect religion and social criticism.

The most intense education in practical politics came during a six-week stay in Ireland in 1812. Self-education, he believed, would remove prejudice. A good life built on atheism, free love, republicanism, and vegetarianism informed Shelley's first major poem, "Queen Mab" (1813), a work more philosophic than poetic.

In 1814 Shelley began an affair with Mary Godwin, the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. In 1816 his wife, Harriet, with whom he had two children, committed suicide. Shelley and Godwin eloped to Switzerland that same year. Shelley went through months of introspection following the upheaval caused by his actions. His verse allegory Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude (1816) issues from his probings. It is a psychological meditation leading to an ideal vision of beauty. On a return to Switzerland he developed the idea of the confrontation between a sensitive mind and brutal, unthinking matter in "Mont Blanc" (1817) and began a friendship with Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron; 1788–1824). Shelley wrote his longest poem, and the last of his youth, "The Revolt of Islam," in 1818. Believing that the essence of revolution is moral and social, Shelley rose to a new dimension of literary maturity.

In 1818 Shelley moved permanently to Italy, where he produced the bulk of his poetic works, many of which were first published in Posthumous Poems (1824). Awash in personal difficulties, he considered his relationship with Byron in "Lines Written in the Euganean Hills." In Venice with Byron he wrote "Julian and Maddalo," a major poem of psychological analysis. In Naples he wrote "Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples," in which he concludes that Christianity suppressed ancient connections to nature at the cost of human development. Contemplating the ancient artifacts in Rome, Shelley arrived at the belief that power and imperialism were destroyed by the forces of human love, freedom, and nature. "Prometheus Unbound" is the result of Shelley's intense concentration and speculation. In it he shows that the immanence of a moral and political revolution achieved through suffering leads to hope.

The most popular of Shelley's works, The Cenci (1820), embodies his reaction to a culture of hypocrisy. Perhaps the greatest political poem ever written, "The Mask of Anarchy" was completed in twelve days. In Pisa in 1820 Shelley wrote "A Philosophical View of Reform" and the "Ode to Liberty," showing how human freedom in culture arises inevitably. "The Ode to the West Wind," "To a Skylark," and "The Cloud" give expression to an escape into a purer world of creative possibilities. Composing "The Witch of Atlas" provided another release of frustrated emotion. "Epipsychidion," another flight, is an erotic love hymn, and a review of his emotional life at twenty-eight.

Shelley's best-known prose appears in A Defense of Poetry (1821), where he notes that poetry has a moral and political function to enhance freedom in society. In "Adonias," he attacks reviewers and gives tribute to contemporaneous poets. Shelley's revolutionary ideals moved him to write Fragments Written for Hellas supporting Greek independence. Steeped in Dante, Shelley wrote his last major poem, "The Triumph of Life," in 1822. The sparse style and lack of personal emotion distinguishes the poem from his earlier works. On 8 July 1822, Shelley's sailing boat went down in the Gulf of Spezzia less than a month from his thirtieth birthday, and he drowned.

Critical perceptions of Shelley have followed two paths since the nineteenth century: the poet of abstraction challenging the limits of poetry and language, or the working-class hero. Hailed as the most lyrical of poets, who seeks aesthetic value in bodiless consciousness, he is equally evaluated as the champion of poetry in the service of politics, culture, and society.

See alsoByron, George Gordon; Godwin, William; Romanticism; Shelley, Mary.


Clark, Timothy, and Jerrold E. Hogle, eds. Evaluating Shelley. Edinburgh, 1996.

Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit. New York, 1975.

King-Hele, Desmond. Shelley: His Thought and Work. 3rd ed. Rutherford, N.J., 1984.

Sperry, Stuart M. Shelley's Major Verse: The Narrative and Dramatic Poetry. Cambridge, Mass., 1988.

Richard L. Gillin

Shelley, Percy Bysshe

views updated Jun 11 2018

Shelley, Percy Bysshe (1792–1822) English poet. A committed atheist, Shelley was expelled (1811) from Oxford University for his beliefs. His radical pamphlets forced him into hiding in Wales, where he wrote Queen Mab (1813). Alastor (1816) reflects his political idealism. From 1818, he lived in Italy with his second wife, Mary Shelley. The Cenci (1819) is a five-act tragedy. The Peterloo Massacre (1819) prompted The Mask of Anarchy. Prometheus Unbound (1820), a four-act lyrical drama, is a masterpiece of Romanticism. Julian and Maddalo (1924) explores his friendship with Lord Byron. Smaller poems include “Ode to the West Wind” (1819), and “To a Skylark” (1820). The death of John Keats inspired Adonais (1821). Shelley drowned in a boating accident.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe

views updated May 29 2018

Shelley, Percy Bysshe (1792–1822). Perhaps the least accessible of the Romantic poets, though recent attention to his radical politics has modified the Victorian picture of ‘a beautiful and ineffectual angel’. Son of a Whig landowner, a precocious and unconventional career at Eton and Oxford was followed by a precipitous first marriage and, soon after, elopement to the continent with the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Already he had published Queen Mab (1813), later revered in chartist circles. ‘Ode to the West Wind’ (1819) best represents his impetuous idealism and technical accomplishment, foreshadowing Prometheus Unbound (1820), which imagines a bloodless revolution where ‘mankind had only to will that there should be no evil and there would be none’. The sad reality was recognized in The Masque of Anarchy when news of the Peterloo massacre reached him in Italy and A Philosophical View of Reform shows a more measured concern. Neither were published in his lifetime, abruptly ended by an accident at sea.

John Saunders

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