Percy Bysshe Shelley

I was no longer the votary of Romance; till then I had existed in an ideal world; now I found that in this universe of ours was enough to excite the interest of the heart, enough to employ the discussions of Reason. I beheld in short that I had duties to perform. -- Percy Bysshe Shelley, letter to William Godwin, 1812

I am formed, - if for anything not in common with the herd of mankind - to apprehend minute & remote distinctions of feeling whether relative to external nature, or the living beings which surround us, & to communicate the conceptions which result from considering either the moral or material universe as a whole. -- Percy Bysshe Shelley, letter to William Godwin, 1817

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), radical poet, spent most of his short, tragic life in semi-obscurity in exile. Following his tragic death, and the promotion of his work by his wife Mary Shelley, his work enjoyed a brief Renaissance and enjoyed the recognition it deserved, he then once again sank into obscurity, eclipsed by his wife's authorship of Frankenstein.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was educated at Eton, then Oxford. At Oxford he read the radical authors Thomas Paine and William Godwin. He acquired a reputation at Oxford for being something of an eccentric, and was eventually sent down for circulating a pamphlet he had co-authored with his friend T J Hogg (later to be Shelley's biographer) in favour of atheism, 'The Necessity of Atheism'.

In the same year he was sent down from Oxford (1811), Shelley married the sixteen year old Harriet Westbrook. It wasn't a happy marriage, they separated three years later, and in 1816 she committed suicide by drowning in the Serpentine.

Shelley eloped with sixteen year old Mary Goodwin, and they later became exiled in Italy. Shelley befriended Lord Byron and they became close friends.

It was whilst the Shelley's were cooped up with Lord Byron and friends in a cottage on the shores of Lake Geneva with a storm raging all around that Frankenstein was created. They challenged each other to write a ghost story. The party was so impressed by Mary Shelley's story that she was persuaded to turn it into a full length novel and publish.

Shelley died in a tragic boating accident off the coast of Italy (18 July 1822). Of the Shelley's four children, only one survived.

Shelley was a revolutionary and radical, ahead of his time. He was also a strong advocate of women's rights, having been influenced by Mary's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). He was anti the current establishment and privilege, church and state. His strongly held views and beliefs, together with the need to escape from the clutches of money lenders, drove him into exile.

Although an atheist, Shelley had a profound respect for Christ, who he saw as a fellow revolutionary.

Shelley's exile was a time of great upheaval and growing inequality in England, such equality has only been seen in modern times in Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair's Britain. The Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, although Britain was the victor it left a huge war debt and, as in the aftermath of the First World War, it was the poor who were forced to pay the price. In the Peterloo Massacre, troops cut down and killed protesting workers (1819). This was to influence Shelley to write The Mask of Anarchy and 'Ode to the West Wind'.

'Ode to the West Wind' was written when Shelley witnessed a violent storm whilst out walking in Florence. He was still seething with anger over the Peterloo Massacre, added to which were unfavourable reviews of his work in England, and his relationship with Mary was cooling rapidly. Whilst on the surface the Ode contains a brilliant description of the storm, there is a subtext calling to revolution. A subtext that has inspired the Literati Left ever since.

The Mask of Anarchy was not published until after Shelley's death as the publisher feared prosecution.

In the same year as the Peterloo Massacre Shelley wrote Peter Bell the Third, a satire on the mediocre poet William Wordsworth, published posthumously 20 years later in 1839. Shelley particularly detested Wordsworth as he had turned his back on reform.

Shelley was able to adapt his style to the subject matter, satire, lyrical, formal ode. The Mask of Anarchy has Gothic horror running through it, and some of the blackness of the poetry and tales of Edgar Allan Poe. As does Prometheus Unbound as we can see from the following fragment (II iv 19-23):

		... terror, madness, crime, remorse,
	Which from the links of the great chain of things
	To every thought within the mind of man
	Sway and drag heavily, and each one reels
	Under the load towards the pit of death ...

Whilst still at Oxford, Shelley wrote and published two Gothic novels, Zastrozzi (1810) and St Irvyne (1810). Major works include Queen Mab (1813, pirate copies published 1821), The Revolt of Islam (1818), originally published the year before as Laon and Cythna, then hastily withdrawn, to be republished in a toned down version with a new title, The Cenci (1819), Prometheus Unbound (1820), Swellfoot the Tyrant (1820), also known as Oedipus Tyrannus, a satire on George IV and the Caroline Affair, immediately withdrawn following publication, Adonais (1821), Hellas (1822), Posthumous Poems {edited by Mary Shelley} (1824). Other works included numerous translations and two important essays 'A Philosophical View of Reform' (written 1819, first published 1920) and 'A Defence of Poetry' (written 1821, published 1840).

Controversial in life, so in death. Following his death, the body of Shelley was cremated on a funeral pyre on the beach not far from where he drowned. A funeral befitting a Greek tragic hero. His heart was not consumed by the flames and was rescued by Edward Trelawny. There than followed an unseemly tussle between Mary Shelley and Leigh Hunt, who had acquired the heart. Mary finally obtained custody. She secreted the heart in a copy of Adonais, which she kept under her pillow.

Early Gothic influences on Shelley were Monk Lewis and Ann Radcliffe.

Monk Lewis (1775-1818), educated at Westminster and Christ College, Oxford, was author of The Monk (1796). In the first half of the 20th century The Oxford Companion to English Literature described The Monk as unreadable due to its mix of the indecent and supernatural 'The mixture of the supernatural, the horrible, and the indecent makes the book unreadable to-day'.

Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) wrote several Gothic novels, the best known being The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797).

Selected Poetry

Selected Essays

Web Resources

Suggested Reading and References

BBC, Shelley's Ode to the West Wind, Adventures in Poetry, BBC, 17 April 1999

John Hayward (ed), The Penguin Book of English Verse, Penguin Books, 1956

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Posthumous Poems, ed Mary Shelley, 1824

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley: Lyrics and Shorter Poems, intro A H Koszul, Everyman, 1907

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley: Longer Poems, Plays and Translations, intro A H Koszul, Everyman, 1907

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley: Selected Poems, ed Timothy Webb, Everyman, 1977

Literature ~ Mathew Lewis ~ Mary Shelley
(c) Keith Parkins 1999 -- June 1999 rev 4