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Percy Bysshe Shelley

1792-1822

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on August 4, 1792 at Field Place near Horsham, Sussex, England to a wealthy and political family. He was educated at Syon House Academy and Eton College before being thrown out of Oxford University after he and another student published and circulated his work The Necessity of Atheism. Shelley also published Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, a pamphlet of burlesque verse, two Gothic novels and two volumes of juvenile poetry, all before he was 20 years old.

In 1811, Shelley married Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a London tavern owner; this was a direct act of rebellion against his father and grandfather who had intended to force him into proper behavior after the humiliation they felt at his expulsion from Oxford. He then moved with his new bride to the Lake District in order to write and study. Two years after his relocation, his first serious lengthy work, Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem, was published. The inspiration for this piece was the poet's relationship with William Godwin, a political philosopher. Godwin was also the man who introduced Shelley to his second wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, who was Godwin's daughter.

Shelley held very strong convictions about how the Irish should rebel against England and the Queen's oppression, a topic of much debate during the period, which led to his pamphlet An Address to the Irish People in 1812; this took him and his wife to Dublin for nearly six months in order to distribute it to anyone they could. Shortly after their return, Harriet gave birth to their daughter Ianthe. After leaving his wife in 1814, Shelley toured Europe with Wollstonecraft. His son Charles was born to Harriet later that year, forcing Shelley to return and first deal with creditors. His grandfather's death and settlement of his estate provided a convenient solution to Shelley's debts. Returning again to the Continent for another short sojourn in the summer of 1816, Shelley met and began an acquaintance with Lord Byron, a fellow romantic poet. That November, Harriet Shelley's body was found in a lake in a London park, an apparent suicide. Shelley and Wollstonecraft married three weeks later.

In 1817, Shelley wrote Laon and Cythna, a narrative poem depicting a revolution; this work was later published as The Revolt of Islam. Shelley was also known for writing many political pieces of the time and signing them 'The Hermit of Marlow'. In 1818, the poet and his new wife left England for an extended period of travel, which some called a 'self-imposed exile', mainly in Italy. While there he wrote plays and poems, including Prometheus Unbound. On July 8, 1822, not long before his 30th birthday, Shelley was drowned when the boat he was on got caught in a storm between Livorno and Le Spezia, Italy. His body washed ashore some ten days later. Shelley and his second wife had three children, but William and Clara died in infancy, leaving only Percy Florence Shelley as their direct descendent.

Shelley is mostly known for his odes, such as To a Skylark and To the West Wind, and his short lyrical poems, such as Ozymandias and Adonais, written shortly after John Keats's death. Many critics regard Shelley as one of the greatest of the romantic poets, but others, especially antiromanticists, found that Byron, Keats, and Wordsworth had more influence. Quite a bit of his writing is autobiographical, such as Ode to the West Wind, and he also used his works as a means of sharing his spiritual beliefs, which tended to oppose traditional Christian thoughts, as shown in Mont Blanc. The English poet and critic, Matthew Arnold (1822-88) closed his essay on Shelley with these famous words:

The man Shelley, in very truth, is not entirely sane, and Shelley’s poetry is not entirely sane either. The Shelley of actual life is a vision of beauty and radiance, indeed, but availing nothing, effecting nothing. And in poetry, no less than in life, he is 'a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.'



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