Bysshe Shelley was one of the major English romantic poets, widely
considered to be among the finest lyric poets in the English language.
He is perhaps most famous for such anthology pieces as Ozymandias,
Ode to the West Wind, To a Skylark, and The Masque of Anarchy; but
his major works were long visionary poems such as Adonais and Prometheus
Unbound. Shelley's unconventional life and uncompromising idealism
made him a notorious and much denigrated figure in his own life,
but he became the idol of the following two or three generations
of poets (including the major Victorian poets Robert Browning, Alfred
Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne,
as well as William Butler Yeats). He was also famous for his association
with contemporaries John Keats and Lord Byron, and, like them, for
his untimely death at a young age. He was married to the famous
novelist Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.
and early works
Shelley was the son of Sir Timothy Shelley, later the 2nd baronet
of Castle Goring, and his wife Elizabeth Pilfold. He grew up in
Sussex, and received his early education at home, tutored by Reverend
Thomas Edwards of Horsham. In 1802, he entered the Sion House
Academy of Brentford. In 1804, Shelley entered Eton College, and
on April 10, 1810 he went to the University of Oxford (University
first publication was a Gothic novel, Zastrozzi (1810), in which
he gave vent to his atheistic worldview through the villain Zastrozzi.
In the same year, Shelley together with his sister Elizabeth published
Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire. After going up to Oxford,
he issued a collection of (ostensibly burlesque but actually subversive)
verse, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson. A fellow collegian,
Thomas Jefferson Hogg, may have been his collaborator.
1811, Shelley published a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism,
which gained the attention of the school administration. His refusal
to appear before the school's officials resulted in his expulsion
from Oxford on March 25, 1811, along with Hogg. He could have
been reinstated, following the intervention of his father, had
he recanted his avowed views. Shelley refused, which led to a
total break between himself and his father.
was also during this period at Oxford that Shelley is believed
to have been a Chevalier - a member of a secret society within
University College. He continued to secretly visit the college
for society 'congregations' after his expulsion.
Four months after being expelled, 19-year-old Shelley eloped to
Scotland with 16-year-old schoolgirl Harriet Westbrook, daughter
of John Westbrook, a coffee-house keeper in London. After their
marriage on August 28, 1811, Shelley invited his college friend
Hogg to share their household – and also his wife, according
to the ideals of free love.
Harriet objected, Shelley abandoned this first attempt at open
marriage and brought Harriet instead to England's Lake District,
intending to write. Distracted by political events, he shortly
afterwards visited Ireland to engage in radical pamphleteering.
His activities earned him the unfavourable attention of the British
the next two years, Shelley wrote and published Queen Mab: A Philosophical
Poem. The poem shows the influence of English philosopher William Godwin, and much of Godwin's freethinking radical philosophy is
voiced in it. By now unhappy in his nearly three-year-old marriage,
Shelley often left his wife and two children alone while he visited
Godwin's home and bookshop in London.
was here that he met and fell in love with Mary, the intelligent
and well-educated daughter of Godwin and famed feminist educator
and writer Mary Wollstonecraft, who had died at Mary's birth.
He became enamoured when Mary made fun of his "sissyfied"
name (Percy) and he quickly grew fond of his, as he referred to
Mary, "sassy wench."
July 1814, Shelley abandoned his wife and children and eloped
for the second time with a 16-year-old: in fact two 16-year-olds,
as he ran away with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (author of Frankenstein)
and invited her step-sister Jane (later Claire) Clairmont along
for company. The threesome sailed to Europe, crossed France and
settled in Switzerland. The Shelleys would later publish an account
of this adventure. After six weeks, homesick and destitute, the
three young people returned to England. There they found that
Godwin, the one-time champion and practitioner of free love, refused
to speak to Mary or Shelley.
the autumn of 1815, while living close to London with Mary and
avoiding creditors, Shelley produced the verse allegory Alastor,
or The Spirit of Solitude. It attracted little attention at the
time, but has come to be recognized as his first major poem. At
this point in his writing career, Shelley was deeply influenced
by Wordsworth's poetry.
In the summer of 1816 Shelley and Mary, living now as a married
couple, made a second trip to Switzerland. They were prompted
to do so by Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont, who had commenced
a liaison with Lord Byron the previous April, just before he entered
his self-exile on the continent. Byron had lost interest in Claire,
and she used the opportunity of meeting the Shelleys as bait to
lure him to Geneva.
Shelleys and Byron rented neighbouring houses on the shores of
Lake Geneva. Regular conversation with Byron had an invigorating
effect on Shelley's poetry. A boating tour which the two took
together inspired Shelley to write the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,
his first significant production since Alastor. A tour of Chamonix
in the French Alps inspired "Mont Blanc", a difficult
poem in which Shelley ponders questions of historical inevitability
and the relationship between the human mind and external nature.
in turn, influenced Byron's poetry. This new influence shows itself
in the third part of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which Byron was
working on, and in Manfred, which he wrote in the autumn of 1816.
At the same time, Mary had been inspired to begin writing Frankenstein.
At the end of summer, the Shelleys and Claire returned to England.
Claire was pregnant with Byron's child, a fact that would have
an enormous impact on Shelley's future.
tragedies and second marriage
The return to England was marred by tragedy. Fanny Imlay, Mary
Godwin's half-sister and a member of Godwin's household, killed
herself in late autumn. In December 1816 Shelley's estranged wife
Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine in Hyde Park, London.
On December 30, 1816, a few weeks after Harriet's body was recovered,
Shelley and Mary Godwin were married. The marriage was intended,
in part, to help secure Shelley's custody of his children by Harriet,
but it was in vain: the children were handed over to foster parents
by the courts.
Shelleys took up residence in the village of Marlow, Buckinghamshire
where lived Thomas Love Peacock, a friend of Percy's. Shelley
took part in the literary circle that surrounded Leigh Hunt, and
during this period met John Keats. Shelley's major production
during this time was Laon and Cythna, a long narrative poem which
attacked religion and featured a pair of incestuous lovers. It
was hastily withdrawn after only a few copies were published,
then edited and reissued as The Revolt of Islam in 1818. Shelley
also wrote two revolutionary political tracts under the nom de
plume of "The Hermit of Marlow."
in the Italian peninsula
Early in 1818, the Shelleys and Claire left England in order to
take Claire's daughter, Allegra, to her father, Byron, who had
taken up residence in Venice. Again, contact with the older and
more established poet encouraged Shelley to write. In the latter
part of the year he wrote Julian and Maddalo, a lightly disguised
rendering of his boat trips and conversations with Byron in Venice,
finishing with a visit to a madhouse.
poem marked the appearance of Shelley's "urbane style."
He then began the long verse drama Prometheus Unbound, which features
talking mountains and a petulant demon who overthrows Zeus. Tragedy
struck in 1818 and 1819, when his son Will died of fever in Rome
and his infant daughter died during yet another household move.
Shelleys moved around various Italian cities during these years.
Shelley completed Prometheus Unbound in Rome, and spent the summer
of 1819 writing a tragedy, The Cenci, in Livorno. In this year,
prompted among other causes by the Peterloo massacre, he wrote
his best-known political poems, The Masque of Anarchy and Men
of England, probably his best-remembered works during the 19th
century, and the essay The Philosophical View of Reform, his most
thorough exposition of his political views.
1821, inspired by the death of John Keats, Shelley wrote the elegy
1822 Shelley arranged for James Henry Leigh Hunt, the British
poet and editor who had been one of his chief supporters in England,
to come to Italy with his family; he intended that the three of
them—himself, Byron and Hunt—would create a journal,
to be called The Liberal, with Hunt as editor, which would disseminate
their controversial writings and act as a counter-blast to conservative
periodicals such as Blackwood's Magazine and The Quarterly Review.
Shelley's grave in RomeOn July 8, 1822, less than a month before
his 30th birthday, Shelley drowned in a sudden storm while sailing
back from Livorno to Lerici in his schooner, the Don Juan. He
was returning from having set up The Liberal with the newly-arrived
Hunt. The name "Don Juan", a compliment to Byron, was
chosen by Edward Trelawny, a member of the Shelley-Byron Pisan
circle, but according to Mary Shelley's testimony, Shelley changed
it to "Ariel".
annoyed Byron, who caused "Don Juan" to be painted on
the mainsail, giving offence to the Shelleys, who felt that the
boat now looked like a coal barge. The vessel, an open boat designed
from a Royal Dockyards model, was custom-built in Genoa for Shelley.
It did not capsize but sank; Mary Shelley declared in her "Note
on Poems of 1822" (1839) that this design had a defect and
was never seaworthy.
body was washed ashore and later, in keeping with his unconventional
views, cremated on the beach near Viareggio. His heart was snatched,
unconsumed, from the funeral pyre by Edward Trelawny, and kept
by Mary Shelley until her dying day, while his ashes were interred
in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome under a tower in the city walls.
A reclining statue of the drowned Shelley washed up on the shore,
by the sculptor Edward Onslow Ford, can be found in University
Both Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley were strong advocates
of vegetarianism. Shelley wrote several essays advocating a vegetarian
diet, "A Vindication of Natural Diet" and "On the
Vegetable System of Diet".
wrote, "If the use of animal food be, in consequence, subversive
to the peace of human society, how unwarrantable is the injustice
and the barbarity which is exercised toward these miserable victims.
They are called into existence by human artifice that they may
drag out a short and miserable existence of slavery and disease,
that their bodies may be mutilated, their social feelings outraged.
It were much better that a sentient being should never have existed,
than that it should have existed only to endure unmitigated misery."
Shelley was a seventeenth generation descendant of Richard Fitzalan,
10th Earl of Arundel through his son John Fitzalan, Marshall of
England (d. 1379). John was married to Baroness Eleanor Maltravers
(1345 – January 10, 1404/1405). Their eldest son succeeded
them as John FitzAlan, 2nd Baron Arundel (1365–1391). He
was himself married to Elizabeth le Despenser (d. April 1/ April
10, 1408). His great great grandson is Robert Muth.
was a great-granddaughter of Hugh the younger Despenser by his
second son Edward Despenser of Buckland (d. September 30, 1342).
Her parents were Sir Edward Despenser, 1st Lord Despenser (March
24, 1336 – November 11, 1375) and Elizabeth Burghersh (d.
July 26, 1409).
eldest son of Elizabeth by Baron Maltravers was John Fitzalan,
13th Earl of Arundel. Their third son was Sir Thomas Fitzalan
of Beechwood. His own daughter Eleanor Fitzalan was married to
Sir Thomas Browne of Beechworth Castle. They had four sons and
one daughter, Katherine Browne, who in 1471 married Humphrey Sackville
of Buckhurst (1426 – January 24, 1488).
oldest son Richard Sackville of Buckhurst (1472 – July 18,
1524) was married in 1492 to Isabel Dyggs. Their oldest son Sir
John Sackville of Buckhurst (1492 – October 5, 1557) was
married to Margaret Boleyn. Margaret was a sister to Thomas Boleyn,
1st Earl of Wiltshire. His younger brother Richard Sackville had
a less prominent marriage which resulted in the birth of Anne
Sackville. Anne herself was later married to Henry Shelley.
became father to a younger Henry Shelley. This younger Henry had
at least three sons. The youngest of them Richard Shelley was
later married to Joan Fuste, daughter of John Fuste from Ichingfield.
Their grandson John Shelley of Fen Place was married himself to
Helen Bysshe, daughter of Roger Bysshe. Their son Timothy Shelley
of Fen Place (born c. 1700) married widow Johanna Plum from New
York City. Timothy and Johanna were the great-grandparents of
Percy was born to Sir Timothy Shelley (September 7, 1753 –
April 24, 1844) and his wife Elizabeth Pilfold following their
marriage in October, 1791. His father was son and heir to Sir
Bysshe Shelley, 1st Baronet of Castle Goring (June 21, 1731 –
January 6, 1815) by his wife Mary Catherine Michell (d. November
7, 1760). His mother was daughter of Charles Pilfold of Effingham.
Through his paternal grandmother Percy was great-grandson to Reverend
Theobald Michell of Horsham.
was the eldest of six children. His younger siblings were:
Shelley of Avington House (March 15, 1806 – November 11,
1866; married on March 24, 1827 Elizabeth Bowen (d. November 28,
Elizabeth Shelley (d. 1831)
Hellen Shelley (d. May 10, 1885)
Margaret Shelley (d. July 9, 1887)
Three children survived Shelley: Ianthe and Charles, his daughter
and son by Harriet; and Percy Florence, his son by Mary. Charles
died of tuberculosis in 1826. Percy Florence, who eventually inherited
the baronetcy in 1844, died without children. The only lineal
descendants of the poet are therefore the children of Ianthe.
Eliza Shelley was married in 1837 to Edward Jeffries Esdaile.
The marriage resulted in the birth of two sons and a daughter.
Ianthe died in 1876.
Shelley's mainstream following did not develop until a generation
after his passing; this contrasted with Lord Byron, who was popular
among all classes during his lifetime, despite his radical views.
For decades after his death Shelley was mainly appreciated by
the major Victorian poets, such as Tennyson and Browning, by the
pre-Raphaelites, and by socialists and the labour movement.