Percy Bysshe Shelley
BORN: 1792, near Horsham, Sussex, England
DIED: 1822, off the coast of Livorno, Italy
The Revolt of Islam (1818)
The Cenci (1819)
Prometheus Unbound (1820)
A Defence of Poetry (1840)
Percy Shelley. Shelley, Percy B., photograph. AP Images.
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) Clairmont, 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 beliefin 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.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
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.
SimOn 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.
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.
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).
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
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.
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 Tre- lawny, 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.
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-Century Views. 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 Napierkowski 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.