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Shelley's Poems

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley Biography

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born at Field Place, Sussex, in 1792, the son of a well-to-do landowner. At the age of ten, he was sent to Syon House Academy near London. There he was bullied and often lonely, but there too he acquired an interest in science, especially astronomy and chemistry, and became an avid reader of juvenile thrillers filled with horrors of various kinds. Shelley reacted to the bullying he was subjected to with violent anger and a determination to devote himself to opposing every form of tyranny.

In 1804, Shelley entered Eton College, where he encountered more of the same bullying he had been subjected to at Syon House. His outbursts of rage and his inability to fight encouraged the other boys to provoke him. He became known as "Mad Shelley" because of his rather unconventional behavior. However, he made a number of friends at Eton and embarked on his literary career. His "Gothic" horror novel, Zastrozzi, was published in 1810. In the same year, with his sister, he coauthored a volume of poems, most of them in the Gothic tradition, entitled Original Poetry by Victor [Shelley] and Cazire [Elizabeth Shelley]. It was also in 1810 that Shelley began his short career at Oxford University. And, in addition, he published a second Gothic novel of terror, St. Irvyne, most of which he had written at Eton. A short volume of poems, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, purporting to be edited by a John Fitz-Victor, was also published by Shelley in 1810. A third publication, a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism, brought Shelley's university career to an abrupt end. On March 25, 1811, he was summoned to appear before the master of University College and, when he refused to admit or deny his authorship of the pamphlet, he was immediately expelled.

Shortly after his expulsion, he eloped to Scotland with Harriet Westbrook, a schoolgirl companion of his sister, Hellen. Shelley's marriage further alienated him from his father, whose pride had been deeply hurt by Shelley's expulsion from Oxford. Shelley and his young wife drifted from one locality to another, living precariously on whatever money they could borrow. Eventually Shelley's father settled an allowance on him. During this period Shelley continued to read incessantly. His reading helped to confirm him in the radical political and social opinions he had acquired.

In February 1812, Shelley and Harriet were in Ireland distributing Shelley's pamphlet, Address to the Irish People. In this publication, Shelley urged virtue on the Irish, who were living in misery because of the English Parliament. The remedy for their wrongs, he told the Irish people, was to be found in the practice of sobriety, moderation, and wisdom. As soon as virtue prevailed, government must succumb because government's only excuse for existing was the absence of virtue.

Toward the middle of 1813, Shelley's first poem of any merit, Queen Mab, made its appearance. Queen Mab incorporated many of Shelley's radical ideas. To Shelley, Christianity was the worst of tyrannies. God was an evil creature of the human mind. Priests, kings, and commerce were sources of evil. Marriage was a form of tyranny. The eating of meat was a cause of human vices.

A major turning point in Shelley's life occurred in July 1814, when he eloped to the continent with Mary Godwin, the daughter of the radical philosopher William Godwin, author of Political Justice. Shelley, who did not believe in marriage, had convinced himself that his wife Harriet, now the mother of two children, no longer supplied him with the complete sympathy he craved and that Mary did. It is characteristic of Shelley's sometimes blind idealism that he invited Harriet to live with Mary and himself; she refused, however, but Shelley could never understand her unwillingness to do so. The months that followed were difficult ones for Shelley. The elopement had cost him the loss of old friends, including Mary's father, and he was in constant financial difficulties. He even went so far as to ask Harriet for money to avoid being arrested for debt.

The difficulties of Shelley's life in 1814 and 1815 interfered with the writing of poetry. Not until February 1816, did he publish a poem that was on a par with Queen Mab. In that month appeared a volume in which "Alastor" was the major poem. The theme of "Alastor" is that concentration on high ideals has the effect of making the world seem dark and ugly. The volume, however, received little critical notice, and even that was unfriendly.

In May 1816, Shelley and Mary, who had been living in England, left for the Continent. The death of Shelley's wealthy grandfather made Shelley financially independent on an income of £1000 a year, the chief drain on which was the endless necessity of helping Mary's father out of his recurrent financial difficulties. In Switzerland, Shelley met Byron, who had left England only ten days before Shelley. The two developed a warm friendship which lasted until Shelley's death. The months that they spent together in Switzerland were among the happiest in Shelley's life. They found each other's company very stimulating.

It was at this time that Byron wrote the third, and best, canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Mary wrote her famous Frankenstein. This almost idyllic period in Shelley's life came to an end when Shelley had to return to England to take care of money matters in late August, 1816. Two calamities befell him shortly after his return to England: the suicide of Fanny Imlay, Mary's half sister and a member of the Godwin household, and, shortly after, the suicide of his wife Harriet. Shelley tried to gain custody of his two children but was denied it by a decision of the Lord Chancellor. On December 29, 1816, he legalized his association with Mary by marrying her.

Shelley's longest poem, The Revolt of Islam, in part a heavily symbolic account of a bloodless revolution, and in part a restatement of the radical social views of Queen Mab, was the work of more than half of 1817. It is not only Shelley's longest poem, but it is also one of his least readable poems, partly because of its symbolism and partly because of its structural weakness. Besides writing The Revolt of Islam in 1817, Shelley also wrote "Rosalind and Helen," the story of two pairs of lovers, one pair of which appears to be Shelley and Mary, whose love without marriage is justified.

In 1818, Shelley left England for Italy, never to return. During that summer, he occupied himself in reading and translating Plato's Symposium. Following a journey to Venice, where Shelley visited Byron, the Shelleys suffered a severe loss in the death of their little daughter, Clara. The death of Clara caused a strain to develop between Shelley and his wife, Mary, who felt that the journey to Venice, which was made on the insistence of Shelley, was responsible for the death of their daughter. Shelley's "Julian and Maddalo," written in the fall of 1818, reflects this tension.

After spending the winter of 1818-19 in Naples, the Shelleys moved on to Rome, where they remained from March to June 1819. The year 1819 proved to be Shelley's annus mirabilis. He completed Prometheus Unbound, the embodiment of his dream of a brave new world; he composed his play, The Cenci, a study in human wickedness which is probably the best play written by a romantic poet; and he began a political pamphlet entitled A Philosophical View of Reform, in which he made some practical suggestions for political reforms in England; in addition, he wrote a number of short poems on the political situation in England, which he was convinced bordered on revolution. In these poems, as well as in Prometheus and The Cenci, oppression is exposed and attacked. 1819 was also a sad year for the Shelleys; their only surviving child, William, died in Rome early in June.

In June 1819, the Shelleys left Rome for Leghorn, where they remained until October. In October, they moved to Florence so that Mary, who was pregnant, could be near a doctor she had confidence in. Mary's last child, Percy Florence, the only one who lived to maturity, was born on November 2. Late in January 1820, the Shelleys were again on the move. This time their destination was Pisa. The Shelleys lived either in or near Pisa until Shelley's death in 1822.

The Cenci was Shelley's last long poem. The poetry that he wrote in Pisa was either short pieces or poems of a few hundred lines. As was his custom, he read continually, partly to keep his mind stimulated and partly because he was a reader by nature. His reading, however, does not seem to have been undertaken as a preparation for writing such a great poem as Milton's Paradise Lost. Outstanding among his Pisan poems are "Epipsychidion," a work in which he extols the charms of Emilia Viviani, the young daughter of the governor of Pisa, and Adonais, an elegy in which he laments the death of John Keats and, at the same time, attacks the critics who had heaped opprobrium on himself and had, Shelley thought, been the cause of the death of Keats. A good deal of the poetry of his last years is marked by melancholy. Both Shelley and his wife were subject to periodic attacks of depression. The melancholy in Shelley's last poems is probably due to a feeling that a rift had developed between himself and his wife and also to the conviction that his attempt to improve the world through poetry had not succeeded to any noticeable degree. The critics remained hostile.

In spite of Shelley's growing disenchantment with the world, he experienced some of the deepest happiness of his life during his last months. Ironically, this happiness was associated with the boat in which he met his death. At the end of April 1822, the Shelleys and their friends the Williamses rented a house in San Terenzo, a village on the Gulf of Spezia, not far from Pisa. To San Terenzo they brought a boat, the Don Juan, built for them in Genoa according to Edward Williams' specifications. Shelley and Williams found the boat completely satisfactory and a constant source of delight. On the eighth of July, as the Don Juan was carrying the two friends from Leghorn to San Terenzo, a heavy squall suddenly came up and the Don Juan disappeared from sight. Several days later, the bodies of Shelley and Williams were washed up on the shores of the Bay of Lerici. The body of Shelley was cremated and the ashes buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, not far from the grave of Keats.