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 political, religious, and sexual views. As a boy, Shelley demonstrated signs of extreme intelligence, excelling in Latin and Greek, and taking an early interest in scientific experimentation. Also showing early signs of his antiauthoritarian politics and resistance to social convention, when he entered the prestigious Eton College in 1804, he refused to participate in the hierarchical social system among the students known as "fagging," leading to harassment from his peers. His general eccentricity, and continued scientific and occult experimentation, including trying to conjure the Devil, earned him the nickname "Mad Shelley." He began his writing career very young, publishing two gothic romance novels and a volume of poems, co-authored with his sister Elizabeth, before he turned eighteen.

Shelley entered Oxford University in 1810, 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 1811. The short text, sent by Shelley and Hogg to the Oxford Deans and Bishops, is one of the earliest texts in English to argue for the nonexistence of God, giving the authors an important place in the history of atheism. 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. Despite his belief in free love and his opposition to monogamy, drawn primarily from reading Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, he agreed to marry Harriet. They soon eloped to Edinburgh, continuing Shelley’s perpetual itinerancy.

His destined political career as inheritor of his father's seat in the House of Commons having been shot by his expulsion from Oxford, Shelley nonetheless remained committed to his now extremely radical politics. Inspired by the ideals of the American and French Revolutions, his radicalism is on display in the recently recovered pamphlet "Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things" (1811), his first serious poetic endeavor, in which he denounces the monarchy and aristocracy, British imperialism, the war with France, and the Anglican church. For much of 1812, Shelley put his beliefs into practice, organizing and pamphleteering in Ireland for the cause of Irish independence, and making contacts with radicals. He also began what would be a very fateful correspondence with William Godwin, whose book An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), considered one of the founding texts of philosophical anarchism, exerted a profound and lasting influence on Shelley. His political activities brought him under the surveillance of spies for the British Home Office, and his Irish servant Daniel Healey was eventually arrested for distributing Shelley's inflammatory pamphlets. In 1812 he also began composing his first major poetic effort, Queen Mab, which would be privately printed in 1813; during a visit at the Godwin household in November, Shelley met Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who died after giving birth to Mary in 1797) for the first time. Fleeing the authorities in Ireland at the end of 1812, the Shelley household, which at the time included Harriet's sister Eliza Westbrook and Elizabeth Hitchener, a radical school teacher with whom Shelley had long corresponded, settled in Tremadoc in Wales, where Shelley continued his radical activities among the poor and the workers. In February 1813, Shelley exchanged gunshots with an intruder in their home, which Shelley claimed (probably accurately) was an attempted assassination. They quickly fled back to Dublin.

In addition to Queen Mab, in 1813 Shelley published his pamphlet arguing for vegetarianism "A Vindication of the Natural Diet." In June 1813, Harriet gave birth to their first child, Eliza Ianthe. In hiding and under financial strain, the Shelleys were itinerant through much of the year, though a considerable time was spent with the Godwins, through whom Shelley no doubt met many members of the radical underground in London. He also met and began what would be a lifelong friendship with the author Thomas Love Peacock. In May 1814, Shelley saw Mary Godwin, who had been in Scotland, again and they soon fell in love; in July they fled to Europe with along with Mary's half sister Jane “Claire” Clairmont, much to the outrage of Godwin. True to his free love principles, Shelley had no intention of abandoning Harriet, to whom he wrote many letters inviting her to join them. Harriet, pregnant with their son Charles, declined to do so. At the end of 1814 the crew returned to London and, joined by Hogg, lived in free love union. Shelley associated with the ultra-radical underground during this period, including the shadowy atheist and revolutionary George Cannon, who in 1815 published portions of Shelley's Queen Mab and his Humean atheistic dialogue "A Refutation of Deism" in the a short-lived periodical called The Theological Inquirer. In February 1815, Mary gave birth prematurely to a baby girl that tragically died soon after.

Shelley continued to write through this period, culminating in his first published book of poems Alastor; or, the Spirit of Solitude (1816), which showed the deep influence of William Wordsworth. The volume included what would become some of Shelley's most famous lyrics, including "Stanzas.–April 1814," "Mutability," and "To Wordsworth." The book went mostly unnoticed at the time, with the prominent exception of Leigh Hunt, whom Shelley had met back in 1811, who wrote a piece on promising young poets, including Shelley and John Keats, for his periodical The Examiner. Shelley and Hunt reestablished their connection after this, beginning a profound and important friendship. In January 1816, Mary gave birth to their son William. In May, Shelley, Mary, William, and Claire Claremont took another trip to Europe; in Switzerland they met Lord Byron, already by this time a literary celebrity who had fled England in infamy. Stuck inside one evening due to a thunderstorm, the group decided to devise ghost stories for entertainment, which would eventually lead to the publication Mary's first novel Frankenstein (1818), as well as The Vampyre (1819), written by Byron's personal physician John Polidori. Both works are important landmarks of Gothic fiction. During a trip to Mont Blanc, Shelley signed the guestbook at the inn, adding next to his name in Greek: "democrat, atheist, philanthropist." Here he also wrote his great lyric poem "Mont Blanc – Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni." The Shelley entourage returned to England at the end of the year, where they would eventually settle for a time in Marlow, close to Peacock. In December tragedy struck with the suicide of Harriet Shelley, who drowned herself in the Serpentine river. Subsequently, Shelley is denied custody of his children because of his radical political and religious views, Queen Mab in particular being cited in the Chancery court hearing. Shelley and Mary are married on December 30, thereby repairing relations with Godwin.

1817 was a relatively calm and happy time for the Shelleys, residing in Marlow, writing, and spending time with friends. Through Hunt, Shelley met Keats, William Hazlitt, and other writers and artists that frequently gathered at the Hunts' home in Hampstead Heath. In January, Hunt published Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" in The Examiner. Shelley continued his political pamphleteering as well, publishing several short texts under the pseudonym "The Hermit of Marlow." In May, Shelley begins composing his political epic Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City, which would be published at the end of 1817, only to be quickly pulled from circulation, revised and republished as The Revolt of Islam in 1818. In August, after being twice rejected, Mary's Frankenstein is accepted for publication. During this time, Mary also wrote and published her History of a Six Weeks' Tour about their European travels of 1816. In September, Mary gives birth to their daughter Clara.

Due to Shelley's poor health, in March 1818 the family departed for Italy; Shelley couldn't have known it, but he would never see his native England again. During this summer of travel in Italy, Shelley completed his translation of Plato's Symposium and his long poem Rosalind and Helen. The Shelleys also reunited with Byron, who was living in Venice. In the fall, Shelley begins writing his masterwork Prometheus Unbound. In December, another child, Elena, is born, either by Mary or Claire Claremont, in Naples. In early 1819, considered Shelley's annus mirabilis, the Shelleys settled in Rome; Shelley's Rosalind and Helen, a Modern Eclogue; with Other Poems was published early in the year, including, in addition to the title poem, three of Shelleys best known lyrics "Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills," "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," and his sonnet "Ozymandias." By the summer, Shelley had completed his tragedy The Cenci. In June, real tragedy struck in the form of the death of William Shelley, after which Mary, again pregnant, fell into a deep depression. Despite the melancholy of their home, Shelley remained amazingly productive, continuing work on Prometheus Unbound, as well as completing his long poem "Julian and Maddalo," which fictionalized his relationship with Byron (the poem remained unpublished until 1824, after Shelley's death). In August, news of the Peterloo Massacre, in which unarmed and peacefully protesting workers were attacked by the Yeoman cavalry, resulting in many deaths, launched Shelley into a series of what he called "political songs," as well as his famous poem of protest "The Mask of Anarchy," which he sent to Hunt for publication in The Examiner. Hunt, recognizing that he would again land himself in jail for libel if he published the poem, held back the manuscript until 1832, when it was first published in bowdlerized form. England was on the brink of revolution, and Shelley recognized this in his first extended work of political theory A Philosophical View of Reform (which would remain unpublished until the early 20th century), in which he wrote: "so dear is power that the tyrants themselves neither then, nor now, nor ever, left or leave a path to freedom but through their own blood." During the closing months of 1819, Shelley also wrote some of his best lyrics, including the "Ode to the West Wind." In November, Percy Florence, the only Shelley child to survive into adulthood, is born.

In January 1820, the Shelleys settled in Pisa. The Cenci, rejected for theatrical production, is published in March. In April, Mary begins working on her second novel, Valperga (1824). In June, Elena Adelaide Shelley died in Naples. In July, hearing of Keats's poor health from Hunt, Shelley invites the younger poet to come stay with them in Pisa. Keats took up the offer, but died in Rome in early 1821 before he arrived in Pisa, and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery, where Shelley would soon come to rest as well. In August, Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, with Other Poems was published, including many of Shelley's most famous lyric poems, such as the "Ode to the West Wind," "The Cloud," "To a Skylark," and the "Ode to Liberty." In August, Shelley begins working on his political satire Oedipus Tyrannus; or, Swellfoot the Tyrant, which would be published in December only to be quickly withdrawn after libel threats from the Society for the Suppression of Vice. After meeting the Italian countess Emilia Viviani in November, Shelley begins writing his long poem on free love, Epipsychidion.

In January 1821, in response to his friend Peacock's satirical essay "Four Ages of Poetry," Shelley begins writing A Defence of Poetry in response, which he ultimately abandoned unfinished, and which remained unpublished until 1840. In A Defence of Poetry, he echoed the claimed first made in A Philosophical View of Reform that poets and philosophers are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Epipsychidion was published in a very small edition in May 1821, followed shortly after by Adonais, his elegy for John Keats, which was printed in Pisa in a small edition. In May, Shelley was the subject of controversy in the British press due to the republication of Queen Mab in a pirated edition, which was immediately prosecuted for blasphemous libel and the publisher imprisoned. Shelley disavowed the work publicly, but privately expressed amusement over the whole affair. Soon after the first piracy, another one was published by his old comrade George Cannon. These piracies ultimately resulted in the wide circulation of Queen Mab, Shelley's only work to become popular in his lifetime; the book became a staple of working-class radical literature, earning the title of "The Bible" of the Chartist Movement and influencing the development of Owenite Socialism. Friedrich Engels would later begin a translation of the poem into German. In August, Shelley visited Byron in Ravenna, and they begin plans for a periodical called The Liberal, to be edited by Leigh Hunt, who Shelley had been long trying to entice to Italy. During the summer, Shelley was also at work on Hellas, a "dramatic poem," which he had finished by November. Also in November, Byron's entourage arrive in Pisa. Shelley and Byron spend much time together, riding horses, conversing, shooting their pistols in target practice, and walking the countryside.

Hellas was published in February 1821. In May, Leigh Hunt and his large family embark for Italy, promising happiness for Shelley in enlarging his circle in Italy, and work on their joint periodical The Liberal. Shelley was also at work on his final major poem "The Triumph of Life," which would remain unfinished. In June, Mary suffered a miscarriage from which she almost died. In July, the Hunts finally arrived in Leghorn, where Shelley travelled to welcome them on his boat the Don Juan (named after Byron's masterwork). After helping settle the Hunts, Shelley and his friend Edward Williams set sail on the Don Juan on July 8 to return to their families in Lerici; a storm sank the Don Juan, drowning Shelley and Williams. Their bodies were found days later washed up on the shore. They were burned on the beach, with Byron, Hunt, and their friend Edward John Trelawny in attendance. Trelawny claimed to have pulled Shelley's heart from the flames, to give it to Mary. Shelley's remains were buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, along with Keats, where his tombstone reads "Cor Cordium" ("heart of hearts") added by Leigh Hunt, and bears lines from Shakespeare's The Tempest, added by Trelawny: "Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange."

It wasn't until long after his death that Shelley, during his lifetime reviled as an atheist, a libertine, and a dangerous political radical insofar as he was known at all, would become recognized as a great poet, and then it was mostly for his lyric poems, written occasionally in between the long political and philosophical poems that were his life's occupation. Previously with Byron at the center of what the right wing poet laureate Robert Southey termed "the Satanic School" of poets, Shelley by the end of the nineteenth century had been transformed into a lyric angel. It might seem particularly ironic that Shelley is remembered 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

“The Cloud” is a poem composed by one of the most well-known poets in history, Percy Bysshe Shelley, sometime between 1819 and 1820. The work would be published in a volume which also included the poet’s lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound in 1820....

In 1814, William Wordsworth published The Excursion. Upon reading it, Mary Shelley is reputed to have noted in diary regarding the once-legendary figure who was a singular influence upon her husband as well as the other young bucks of the Romantic...