Biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in Sussex, England, in August 1792, the son of prosperous and conventional British MP Timothy Shelley, who later would have difficulty accepting his son’s aberrant lifestyle. As a boy, Shelley demonstrated signs of extreme intelligence, including boredom at Eton College. His unchallenged mind led him to invent tall tales of a gothic nature, earning him the nickname “mad Shelley” among his peers. While only sixteen, Shelley was accepted to Oxford University, but his career there was cut drastically short as a result of a pamphlet he published titled “The Necessity of Atheism” (co-authored with lifelong friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg) in 1810. The document argued for the inexistence of God, and Shelley’s ardent refusal to repudiate the pamphlet resulted in immediate expulsion. Exiled by his father, Shelley moved to London at age eighteen. He met Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a tavern owner. They soon eloped to Edinburgh, continuing Shelley’s perpetual itinerancy.

By 1814, the young couple, along with Harriet’s sister Eliza (setting a theme of ménage a trios that would stay with Shelley), had endured two years of nomadic living throughout the British Isles. During that time, Harriet gave birth to a daughter, Ianthe, and had become pregnant with a second child.

Back in London, as Shelley studied under English radical philosopher William Godwin, the adolescent love between Percy and Harriet was beginning to wane. Almost immediately, Shelley fell in love with fifteen-year-old Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft (daughter of Godwin and feminist activist Mary Wollstonecraft), resulting in the abandonment of his pregnant wife and daughter. Percy fled to France with Mary and her half sister Jane “Claire” Clairmont.

While traveling through Europe, Shelley and Mary eloped (1818) to the outrage of her father. When the young married couple returned to London, Shelley was on his second marriage in his mid-twenties, yet he discovered that his presumed “unethical,” “immoral,” “atheist,” and even “pedophilic” lifestyle had put him in social exile. Harriet had drowned herself after becoming pregnant by an unknown lover, and the British courts denied Shelley custody of his two children. His alienation among his peers and his failure in court devastated the young poet, producing a love-hate relationship with England that Shelley would battle for the rest of his short life.

Mary gave birth to two children, Clara and William, who both died in Italy within nine months of one another around 1819. Mary fell into an eternal state of depression, besides giving birth to a third son, Percy Florence, weakening the once glorious bond between the couple. By this point, Shelley had grown a tight bond with his contemporary Lord Byron, and the foursome (Percy, Mary, Claire, and Byron) spent a couple of years living in various places around Europe, producing some of their best literary material. For example, it was during this period, while at a cottage in Switzerland, and as a result of a bet, that Mary Shelley wrote the eminent Frankenstein).

By 1820, the Shelleys finally settled in Pisa, Italy, where Shelley extended his literary circle to include Byron, Leigh Hunt, Edward Trelawny, Edward Williams, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, and the young John Keats. On July 8, 1822, Percy Shelley and Edward Williams set sail from Leghorn en route to Lerici. A massive swell capsized their vessel, drowning both men.

It might seem ironic that Shelley is remembered in England with a memorial statue at Oxford University, sculpted by Edward Onslow Ford, which positions the death of the young poet in a way that deliberately evokes a Deposition of Christ (the transport of Jesus from the cross after crucifixion). Shelley is figured as some kind of ruined Messiah at a school that once expelled him for atheism.


Study Guides on Works by Percy Bysshe Shelley