Percy Bysshe Shelley, a revolutionary poet, novelist, and prominent figure of the Romantic era, left an indelible mark on the literary landscape. Although extremely talented, his life was one that contained tragedy. The celebrated poet died young but still managed to publish some of the greatest poetry of the 19th century.
Shelley was known for his works that possessed many attributes from the Romantic movement. His poems are characterized by a passionate intensity, a vivid imagination, and an exploration of the sublime. He creates a sense of awe, beauty, and appreciation for the grandeur and scale of the natural world.
Like many of the greatest poets throughout history, his work became iconic posthumously after his early death. During his career, he did not receive any awards for his work.
About Percy Bysshe Shelley
He was born on August 4, 1792, in Field Place, Broadbridge Heath, near Horsham, West Sussex, England, to his father, Sir Timothy Shelley, and his mother, Elizabeth Shelley, formally Elizabeth Pilfold. Percy was the eldest male child, having one brother, John, and four sisters, Elizabeth, Mary, Margaret, and Hellen. Due to his position as the oldest male, he was in pole position to receive his family’s estate that was passed down by Shelley’s grandfather. It is said that his siblings looked up to him.
His school life differed from his early years at his home, Field Place, in Horsham. It was in 1802 that he moved to his first school to start his formal education. He attended the Syon House Academy, an all-boys school that tested his resolve. His hot-headed nature was brought out during this time as he went through spells of bullying and taunting from his peers. His time at Syon House brought out Shelley’s love for the sciences and literature, as he was inspired by the teachings of Adam Walker.
It was in 1804 that Shelley’s education moved onto its next stage. He attended Eton College at the age of 12. His poetic journey truly started here as he began to publish his works, such as in 1810 when he wrote ‘Original Poetry; by Victor and Cazire.’ Although these works were not some of his most iconic, his first publication marked the inception of a literary great. It was during his time at Eton that he gained the reputation as ‘Mad Shelley.’
It is said that Shelley took a lot of inspiration from Dr. James Lind during his early career and actually based a character on him, the old man in ‘The Revolt of Islam‘ who frees the Laon from prison.
By the end of his time at Eton, his reading repertoire had grown significantly. He was reading widely in Plato, Pliny, and Lucretius, reading Robert Southey and Walter Scott.
Shelley went up to University College, Oxford, in 1810. It was during this period that he met Thomas Jefferson Hogg, who quickly became good friends with Shelley. They would go on to collaborate on a number of works, including the poetry collection ‘Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson.’ Despite this great connection, Shelly only spent a year at Oxford writing the prose pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism in the process.
The main reason for his short stay at the university was the institution’s decision to expel both Shelley and Hogg. This was down to the subject matter of The Necessity of Atheism, and it challenged many belief systems of the time and was not acceptable to the university board. He was offered the opportunity to return to the college, but it would have meant that he had to go against his beliefs, which he was not prepared to do. The fallout of this decision was tremendous for Shelley, as his relationship with his father became strained, and broke down because of his convictions.
The early years of Shelley’s life, particularly his teenage years, were tumultuous as he eloped in August 1811 with Harriet Westbrook, who went on to become Harriet Shelley. He had met Harriet through his sister Hellen.
After he had eloped with Harriet, both of their fathers cut off their allowances, leaving them serving on borrowed money. It was during this period that the couple moved to Edinburgh to live with Thomas Jefferson Hogg. They formed a trio.
However, due to Hogg allegedly trying to seduce Harriet while Shelley was away, the pair decided to move on and formed a household with Harriet and her sister Eliza and his newfound confident Elizabeth Hitchener.
While settled in Wales with his household, Percy Bysshe Shelley published his first major poem in 1813 with ‘Queen Mab.’ The story was about free love, atheism, and vegetarianism.
It was also in June 1813 that Harriet gave birth to Shelley’s first child Eliza lanthe Shelly. After this, their relationship deteriorated as they traveled to various locations in an attempt to outrun Shelley’s financial problems. They visited Wales, London, the Lake District, Scotland, and Berkshire. Despite their frayed marriage, they confirmed their union legally by remarrying in London. This allowed Shelley to secure the rights to his child.
It was in May 1814 that Percy Shelley would yet again elope. This time with Mary Godwin, the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. The couple would go on a tour of sorts across Europe, with Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont in tow. They went to France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. Within the year, Shelley was father to two more children, one with Harriet and one with Mary, now Mary Shelley. Charles Bysshe Shelley was born to Harriet, while Mary gave birth to a baby that died ten days later.
1816 proved to be an important year for the Shelley’s, as Percy published his work ‘Alastor,‘ and had another child with Mary, naming him William Shelley. They also embarked on a tour around Switzerland and France. During this tour, they met Lord Byron at Lake Geneva, which inspired his poem ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.’ It is said that during one of the nights, Mary Shelley had a vision, or nightmare, that later became the inspiration for her classic novel Frankenstein.
In March 1817, the Shelleys moved to the village of Marlow, Buckinghamshire. It was during the same year that Shelley published one of his famous works ‘Laon and Cythna,’ which was republished in January 1918 as ‘The Revolt of Islam,’ among fears of sparking unrest.
In December of 1918, Shelly published his poem ‘Stanzas written in Dejection – December 1818, Near Naples.’ The work was sparked largely out of his mental state at the time. After traveling through France and Italy, the Shelleys settled in Naples. Tragically, they lost another child Elena along with Clara. Shelley’s three-year-old son William had died in June, which was most likely due to malaria.
It was in 1820 that Shelley published one of his all-time great pieces of work ‘Prometheus Unbound,’ with the subtitle ‘A Lyrical Drama.’ Many scholars and critics consider this to be his crowning glory.
Overall, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s personal life was riddled with tragedy. A prime example of this was the loss of his four children.
Tragically, Shelley’s life was cut short at the age of 29 when he drowned in a boating accident off the coast of Italy in 1822. His untimely death marked the end of a brilliant literary career that had only just begun to blossom.
Percy Bysshe Shelley made significant literary contributions during his career and received recognition during his lifetime. However, it was the reputation that was built posthumously that brought him into the poetic hall of fame. Despite facing criticism and controversy, Shelley’s works have since been celebrated for their poetic brilliance and visionary ideas.
It was after his untimely death in 1822 that Shelley’s literary reputation soared. His wife, Mary Shelley, along with Leigh Hunt and Thomas Medwin, published a collection of his poems in 1824, solidifying his posthumous recognition.
Shelley’s enduring legacy was further established by the admiration and influence he garnered from later generations of poets and writers, including the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Today, Shelley is regarded as one of the greatest English poets, celebrated for his lyrical genius, his exploration of political and social themes, and his profound impact on the Romantic literary tradition.
- ‘Music, when soft voices die’
- ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples’
- ‘Mont Blanc’
- ‘To a Skylark’
- ‘The flower that smiles today’
- ‘Ode to the West Wind’
- ‘The Masque of Anarchy’
- ‘To the Moon’
- ‘Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats’
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry took great inspiration from not only his peers but poets of the past. Some of his most significant influences include poets and writers such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Milton, and William Godwin.
There were many literary figures that were influenced by the works of Shelley. Benjamin Disraeli, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Butler Yeats, H.S. Salt, Edward and Eleanor Marx Aveling (Marx’s daughter), and Bernard Shaw, who respected Shelley’s radicalism and emulated his vegetarianism.
As previously mentioned, Shelley surrounded himself with other great writers and was part of Leigh Hunt’s circle, associating himself with the likes of John Keats and Horace Smith.
Shelley also drew greatly from the works of writers and great minds of the ancient world. He incorporated elements from the world of classical Greek and Roman poets such as Homer, Ovid, and Plato. He was influenced by their mythology, imagery, and ideas.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s death was shrouded in tragedy, as he drowned in a storm at the age of 29 on July 8, 1822. He was alongside his friends Edward Elleker Williams and Charles Vivian when his boat capsized off the coast of Pisa. Their journey was from Leghorn to Le Spezia in Italy and was fatally cut short.
Tragically, Percy and Mary Shelley lost their first child after just ten days.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s fame grew mostly after his death, and his work was not critically acclaimed during his lifetime. However, when he was alive, he did gain notoriety in literary circles for his radical views, particularly after his work The Necessity of Atheism.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was a prolific poet and is most famous for a number of classic poems such as ‘Ozymandias,’ ‘Ode to the West Wind,’ ‘To a Skylark,’ ‘Music, When Soft Voices Die,’ ‘The Cloud,’ and ‘The Masque of Anarchy.’
Percy Shelley was known for having a number of wives. He married Harriet Westbrook in 1811, and the marriage lasted until 1816. Shelley then went on to marry Mary Godwin, who became Mary Shelley in 1816.