Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Curran, 1819
|Born:||August 4, 1792 |
|Died:||July 8, 1822 |
Percy Bysshe Shelley (August 4, 1792-July 8, 1822; pronounced ['pɜːsi bɪʃ 'ʃɛli]) was one of the major English Romantic poets and is widely considered to be among the finest lyric poets of 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. However, his major works were long visionary poems including Alastor, Adonais, The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound and the unfinished The Triumph of Life. Shelley's unconventional life and uncompromising idealism, combined with his strong skeptical voice, made him a notorious and much denigrated figure during his life. He became the idol of the next two or three generations of poets (including the major Victorian poets Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Butler Yeats and Subramanya Bharathy). He was also admired by such persons as Karl Marx, Henry Stephens Salt and George Bernard Shaw. He is also famous for his association with contemporaries John Keats and Lord Byron; an untimely death at a young age was common to all three. He was married to the famous novelist Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and wrote the introduction to the 1818 edition of the novel.
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 he 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 matriculated at University College, Oxford. His 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. Whilst at Oxford, he issued a collection of verses (perhaps ostensibly burlesque but quite subversive), Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson. A fellow collegian, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, is thought to have been his collaborator.
In 1811, Shelley published a pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. This gained the attention of the university administration and he was called to appear before the college's academics. His refusal to repudiate the authorship of the pamphlet resulted in his being sent down from Oxford on March 25, 1811, along with Hogg. The re-discovery in mid-2006 of Shelley's long-lost 'Poetical Essay on the existing state of things', a long, strident anti-monarchical poem printed in Oxford, gives a new dimension to the expulsion, reinforcing Hogg's implication of political motives ('an affair of party'). Shelley was given the choice to be reinstated after his father intervened, on the condition that he would have had to recant his avowed views. His refusal to do so led to a falling out with his father.
Four months after being expelled, the 19-year-old Shelley travelled to Scotland with the 16-year-old schoolgirl Harriet Westbrook to get married. After their marriage on August 28, 1811, Shelley invited his college friend Hogg to share their household, which included his wife. When Harriet objected, however, Shelley abandoned this first attempt at open marriage and brought her to Keswick in England's Lake District, intending to write. Distracted by political events, he visited Ireland shortly afterward in order to engage in radical pamphleteering. Here he wrote the Address to the Irish People and was seen at several nationalist rallies. His activities earned him the unfavourable attention of the British government.
Over 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 Shelley's interpretation of Godwin's freethinking radical philosophy is voiced in it. Although Queen Mab is dedicated to Harriet, trouble already loomed in their relationship. Unhappy in his nearly three-year-old marriage, Shelley often left his wife and child (Ianthe Shelley, 1813-76) alone while he visited Godwin's home and bookshop in London. It was here that he met and fell in love with Godwin's intelligent and well-educated daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, known to the world as Mary Shelley. Mary was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Mary Wollstonecraft had had an affair with Godwin, was briefly married to him, and died a few days after giving birth to Mary in 1797.
On July 28, 1814, Shelley abandoned his pregnant wife and child to elope with a 16-year-old for the second time. In fact, he managed to catch two 16-year-olds at this time: when he ran away with Mary, he also 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 William Godwin, the one-time champion and practitioner of free love, refused to speak to Mary or Shelley.
In 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 it has now 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 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 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. The Shelleys and Byron rented neighbouring houses on the shores of Lake Geneva. Regular conversation with Byron had an invigorating effect on Shelley's poetry. While on a boating tour the two took together, Shelley was inspired to write his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, often considered his first significant production since Alastor. A tour of Chamonix in the French Alps inspired Mont Blanc, a difficult poem in which Shelley pondered questions of historical inevitability and the relationship between the human mind and external nature.
Shelley, in turn, influenced Byron's poetry. This new influence showed itself in the third part of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, which Byron was working on, as well as in Manfred, which he wrote in the autumn of 1816. At the same time, Mary was inspired to begin writing Frankenstein. At the end of summer, the Shelleys and Claire returned to England. Claire was pregnant with Byron's daughter, Allegra Byron, a fact that would have an enormous impact on Shelley's future.
The return to England was marred with 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.
The Shelleys took up residence in the village of Marlow, Buckinghamshire where a friend of Percy's, Thomas Love Peacock, lived. Shelley took part in the literary circle that surrounded Leigh Hunt, and during this period, he met John Keats. Shelley's major production during this time was Laon and Cythna, a long, narrative poem in which he attacked religion and featured a pair of incestuous lovers. It was hastily withdrawn after only a few copies were published. It was later 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 Marlowe."
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. Contact with the older and more established poet encouraged Shelley to write once again. During 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. This 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 Clara Everina died during yet another household move.
A daughter, Elena Adelaide Shelley, was born December 27, 1818 in Naples, Italy and registered there as the daughter of Shelley and a woman named Marina Padurin. Some scholars speculate that her true mother was actually Claire Clairmont or Elise Foggi, a nursemaid for the Shelley family. Other scholars speculate she was a foundling Shelley adopted in hopes of distracting Mary after the deaths of William and Clara. However, Elena was placed with foster parents a few days after her birth and the Shelley family moved on to yet another Italian city, leaving her behind. Elena died 17 months later, on June 10, 1820.
The Shelleys moved around various Italian cities during these years. Shelley completed Prometheus Unbound in Rome, and he 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. These were most likely his most-remembered works during the 19th century. Around this time period, he wrote the essay The Philosophical View of Reform, which was his most thorough exposition of his political views to that date.
In 1821, inspired by the death of John Keats, Shelley wrote the elegy Adonais. The text of this famous poem can be found at 
In 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 meant for the three of them—himself, Byron and Hunt— to create a journal, which would be called The Liberal. With Hunt as editor, their controversial writings would be disseminated, and the journal would act as a counter-blast to conservative periodicals such as Blackwood's Magazine and The Quarterly Review.
On 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, Don Juan. Shelley claimed to have met his Doppelgänger, foreboding his own death. 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. However, according to Mary Shelley's testimony, Shelley changed it to "Ariel". This annoyed Byron, who forced the painting of the words "Don Juan" on the mainsail. This offended the Shelleys, who felt that the boat was made to look much 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 the design had a defect and that the boat was never seaworthy.
Many believe his death was not accidental. Some say that Shelley was depressed in those days and that he wanted to kill himself, others that he did not know how to navigate, others believe that some pirates mistook the boat for Byron's and attacked him, and others have even more fantastical stories. There is a mass of evidence, though scattered and contradictory, that Shelley may have been murdered for political reasons. Previously, at his cottage in Tann-yr-allt in Wales, he had been surprised and apparently attacked by a man who was probably an intelligence agent. Details of this incident can be found in Richard Holmes's biography, Shelley: The Pursuit (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975).
In the days before he died, he was almost shot on two separate occasions. A British consul defended the shooter from the first of these two incidents, keeping him from all legal consequence. As for navigation, two other Englishmen were with him on the boat. One was a retired Navy officer and the other a boatboy, who should have known how to navigate to the nearby coast at Livorno. They drowned with Shelley, but an Italian boy who was also aboard did not drown. His identity, however, has remained a mystery. The boat was found beneath the waves near the shore, and it was plainly seen that one side of the boat had been rammed and staved in by a much stronger vessel. However, the liferaft was unused and still attached to the boat. Had it been an accident, they would at least have tried to swim for the beach. To do this, they most likely would have removed their clothing. However, the bodies were found completely clothed, including boots. In his 'Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron', Trelawny noted that the shirt that Williams's body was clad in was 'partly drawn over the head, as if the wearer had been in the act of taking it off [...] and [he was missing] one boot, indicating also that he had attempted to strip.' Trelawny also relates a supposed deathbed confession by an Italian fisherman who claimed to have rammed Shelley's boat in order to rob him, a plan confounded by the rapid sinking of the vessel. A large amount of cash and valuables was found untouched in the boat.
On March 28, 2006, a claim was made in a scholarly magazine at a University in the city of Kragujevac, Serbia that there is enough evidence to accuse the British establishment of Shelley's assassination. Shelley had been under surveillance while in Britain from the days of his activism in Ireland, and it is quite within the bounds of possibility that this surveillance continued while he was on the continent. His growing popularity with the Chartist movement and residual fear of an English revolution in imitation of the French, would have made him a possible target for British intelligence. The day following Shelley's death, the Tory newspaper "The Courier" gloated "Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is a God or no." (See Edmund Blunden, Shelley, A Life Story, London: Oxford University Press, 1965).
Shelley's body washed ashore, and later, in keeping with his unconventional views, was cremated on the beach near Viareggio. "The Funeral of Shelley" (also known as "The Cremation of Shelley"), by Louis Eduard Fournier, is an 1889 painting of the scene at Shelley's funeral pyre. Unfortunately, this painting is known to be inaccurate for several reasons. In pre-Victorian times, it was an English custom that women were not to attend funerals for reasons of health. Mary Shelley did not attend the funeral, but she was featured in this painting, kneeling at the left-hand side of the canvas. Also, Trelawney, in his account of the recovery of Shelley's body, records that "the face and hands, and parts of the body not protected by the dress, were fleshless", and by the time that the party returned to the beach for the cremation, the body was even further decomposed. In his graphic account of the cremation of Shelley's body, he writes of Lord Byron's being unable to face the scene, and withdrawing to the beach.
Shelley's heart was snatched from the funeral pyre by Edward Trelawny; Mary Shelley kept it for the rest of her life. Shelley's ashes were interred in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome under a tower in the city walls with the inscription 'Cor Cordium' or 'heart of harmony'. The grave site is the second in the cemetery. Some weeks after Shelley was put to rest Trelawny came to Rome and did not like the position of his friend among a number of others and purchased what seemed to him to be a better plot near the old wall. The ashes were exhumed and moved to their present location. Trelawny purchased the adjacent plot and over 60 years later his remains were placed there.
A reclining statue of Shelley's body washed up on the shore, created by the sculptor Edward Onslow Ford, can be found at University College, Oxford as the centrepiece of the Shelley Memorial there.
Julian Rathbone's 2002 novel "A Very English Agent", about 19th century government spy Charles Boylan, carries a lengthy section on Shelley's time in Italy, in which Boylan tampers with Shelley's boat on orders from the English government, thus causing his death. Rathbone though is at pains to state he is "a novelist, not a historian" and that his work is very much a piece of fiction.
He also makes an appearance in Jude Morgan's 2005 novel Passion, along with Byron, Keats, Coleridge, Leigh Hunt, and a wealth of other English Romantic figures, though the novel's main focus is the lives of the women behind the famous poets: Lady Caroline Lamb, Augusta Leigh, Mary Shelley, and Fanny Brawne.
Shelley appears in Frankenstein Unbound by Brian Aldiss. The book is a time travel romance featuring Mary Shelley. There was also a movie made, based on the novel, directed by Roger Corman and starring John Hurt and Bridget Fonda, in 1990.
Shelley also features prominently in The Stress of Her Regard, a 1989 novel by Tim Powers which proposes a secret history connecting the English Romantic writers with the mythology of vampires and lamia.
He makes an appearance in the alternative history novel The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Only referenced in passing by another character, in this world he doesn't drown in Italy, but lives to become a fierce critic (and perhaps saboteur) of Lord Byron's pro-industrial 'Radical party' government, for which he is arrested, declared insane, and placed in a madhouse.
The events featuring the Shelley's and Lord Byron's relationship at the house beside Lake Geneva in 1816 have been fictionalized in film, twice (1) A 1986 British production, Gothic, directed by Ken Russell, and starring Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, and Natasha Richardson (2) A 1988 Spanish production, Rowing with the Wind (Remando al viento), starring Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley Both these movies deal mostly with Mary Shelley's creation of the Frankenstein novel, while Percy tends to be quite a minor character in both films
Both Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley were strong advocates of vegetarianism. Shelley wrote several essays on the subject, the most prominent of which being "A Vindication of Natural Diet" and "On the Vegetable System of Diet".
Shelley 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 strong advocate for social justice for the lower classes. He witnessed many of the same mistreatments occurring in the domestication and slaughtering of animals, and he became a fighter for the rights of all living creatures that he saw being treated unjustly.
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.
Elizabeth 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).
The 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).
Their 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.
Henry 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.
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.
He was the eldest of seven children. His younger siblings were:
Three children survived Shelley: Ianthe and Charles, his daughter and son by Harriet; and Percy Florence, his son by Mary. Charles suffered from tuberculosis but died in a rain storm as he was struck by lightning 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.
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 son Percy Florence Shelley, and his wife Jane, adopted Jane's niece Bessie Florence Gibson. Bessie married Leopold James Yorke Campbell Scarlett - Lord Abinger, and so the Scarletts/Abingers became heirs to the Shelleys. Several members of the Scarlett family were born at Percy Florence's seaside home 'Boscombe Manor', in Bournemouth. The 1891 census shows Lady Shelley living at Boscombe Manor with several great nephews.
Shelley's mainstream following did not develop until a generation after his passing. This differed from Lord Byron, who was popular among all classes during his lifetime despite his radical views. For decades after his death, Shelley was mainly only appreciated by the major Victorian poets, including Tennyson, the pre-Raphaelites, the socialists and the labour movement. One reason for this was the extreme discomfort with Shelley's radical politics which led popular anthologists to confine Shelley's reputation to the relatively sanitised 'magazine' pieces such as 'Ozymandias' or 'Lines to an Indian Air'.
Karl Marx, Henry Salt, George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats were admirers of his works. Ralph Vaughan Williams and Samuel Barber composed music based on his poems.
Critics such as Matthew Arnold endeavoured to rewrite Shelley's legacy to make him seem a lyricist and a dilettante who had no serious intellectual position and whose longer poems were not worth study. Matthew Arnold famously described Shelley as a 'beautiful but ineffectual angel'. This position contrasted strongly with the judgement of the previous generation who knew Shelley as an atheist and radical.
Many of Shelley's works remained unpublished or little known after his death, with longer pieces such as A Philosophical View of Reform existing only in manuscript till the 1920s. This contributed to the Victorian idea of him as a minor lyricist. With the inception of formal literary studies in the early twentieth century and the slow rediscovery and re-evaluation of his oeuvre by scholars such as K.N. Cameron and Donald Reimann, the modern idea of Shelley could not be more different.
Paul Foot in his Red Shelley has documented the pivotal role Shelley's works, especially Queen Mab, have played in the genesis of British radicalism. Although Shelley's works were banned from respectable Victorian households, his political writings were pirated by men such as Richard Carlile who regularly went to jail for printing 'seditious and blasphemous libel' (ie material proscribed by the government) and these cheap pirate editions reached hundreds of activists and workers throughout the nineteenth century. Some details on this can also be found in William St Clair's The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge: CUP, 2005) and Richard D. Altick's The English Common Reader (Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1998) 2nd. edn.
In other countries such as India, Shelley's works both in the original and in translation have influenced poets such as Rabindranath Tagore and Jibanananda Das. A pirated copy of Prometheus Unbound dated 1835 is said to have been seized in that year by customs at Bombay. In 2005 the University of Delaware Press published an extensive two-volume biography by Jame Bieri.
Altick, Richard D. The English Common Reader. Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1998) Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit. St Clair, William, The Godwins and the Shelleys: A Biography of a Family. London: Faber and Faber, 1990) St Clair, William, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)