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P. B. Shelley Biography

Percy Bysshe Shelley

One of the greatest and most controversial English poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on August 4, 1792. He was born in Broadbridge Heath near West Sussex and spent his childhood in the English countryside. He would go fishing and hunting in the meadows, watching birds and surveying the rivers with his friends.

His father, Sir Timothy Shelley, was a Whig Member of the Parliament and his mother was the daughter of a Sussex landowner. Shelley had four younger sisters and one young brother.

At the age of ten, Shelley was sent to the Syon House Academy. He then shifted to Eton College in 1804. Shelley, however, never flared very well in his academic results. As a child, Shelley was often a victim of bullies at his school, who would tear his clothes and books every day. This torture resulted in his decreased interest in sports and other common youthful activities.

Instead, Shelley would spend most of his time reading voraciously. Despite the poor results, Shelley showed deep interest in studying science and often came up with unusual sorts of mischief. For example, he would charge the door handle of his room with a frictional electric machine which would amuse his friends.

Although these sorts of mischief amused other boys, Shelley had almost no friends in his school. He retreated into his imagination. In 1810, Shelley graduated from University College, Oxford. It was a better academic environment for his that Eton and Shelley had also come up with his first novel (Zastrozzi) and two volumes of poetry including St. Irvyne and Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson.

He also published Original Poetry by Victor Caziere along with his sister Elizabeth. Shelley and his friend Jefferson Hogg then wrote and published a pamphlet titled The Necessities of Atheism. Although published anonymously, Shelley and Hogg were caught and expelled from Oxford.

This resulted in Shelley’s falling out with his parents who were furious at him. At the age of nineteen, Shelley eloped with Harriet Westbrook, a sixteen years old girl who was also a friend of his sister. It enraged his parents even further who refused to pay him any allowances any more.

Shelley and Harriet ran away to Scotland and were living there, but soon Shelley started to crave more intellectual companionship. She shared a platonic relationship with Elizabeth Hitchener, a woman of advanced views and far older than Shelley.

Shelley started corresponding with her, and Hitchener became the muse of his poems, inspiring him to write his philosophical poem Queen Mab. The poem revolves around a fairy, originally invented by Shakespeare in his play Romeo and Juliet, describing what utopian society on earth would be like.

Beside long forms of poetry, Shelley was also writing political pamphlets which he distributed widely. It is believed that Shelley often distributed his pamphlets by way of paper boats and glass bottles and even threw them down hot air balloons.

In 1812, Shelley met his mentor, the political philosopher William Godwin. He was introduced to Godwin through poet Robert Southey. Godwin, at that time, was going through severe financial constrains and grabbed the opportunity of mentoring Shelley, who was the heir to his father’s properties.

Godwin asked Shelley to reconcile with his father. Shelley’s relationship with Harriet was also becoming more and more troubled, although they had two children. He started believing that Harriet had married him for his money. To stay away from mundane family matters, he started spending more time in libraries and Godwin’s home studying Italian and other subjects.

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley

William Godwin had three daughters. His wife, the celebrated feminist and author Mary Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to their daughter Mary, who was Godwin’s only biological daughter.

When Shelley met Mary, she was sixteen. She was a brilliant woman and Shelley fell madly in love with her, threatening her to commit suicide if she did not reciprocate his love. In 1814, he abandoned his wife, Harriet and ran away with Mary to Paris, along with Mary’s sister Claire Claremont.

This infuriated William Godwin, so much so that he would not speak to his daughter for the next three years. Shelley, Mary and Claire were, however, perfect intellectual match and they travelled to Switzerland across France, reading aloud to each other from works of Shakespeare, Rousseau and Mary’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft.

They travelled on foot to Switzerland, Germany and Holland and returned when they had exhausted all their resources. The accounts of their journey were recorded in Mary and Shelley’s journal and were later published by Mary after Shelley’s death.

Since Mary’s father had refused to see them, Shelley and Mary started living in Bishopsgate, Surrey, where Shelley wrote Alastor, or The Spirits of Solitude. Although not well received at that time, it later came to be recognized as his first big achievement.

Mary had also become pregnant with their first child, which reignited Shelley’s conflict with his first wife Harriet. She demanded a divorce and Shelley sued her for his children’s custody. However, Shelley never accused her of being unfaithful to him though it could have helped his case.

He was not allowed the custody of his children on the grounds of being an atheist and for abandoning his first wife for no reason. Harriet died shortly after and their children were sent to foster parents. This loss tormented Shelley till the last day of his life.

In 1816, Shelley and Mary travelled to Switzerland again, and this time they were introduced to Lord Byron. Shelley was deeply influenced by him and started living next to him on the shore of Lake Geneva.  They became close friends and Shelley was inspired to write at length during this period.

On a long day of boating with Byron, Shelley wrote Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. A trip to the French Alps inspired Mont Blanc, a contemplation of human being’s relationship with nature. Shelley also encouraged Byron to write and epic poem on contemporary subjects which resulted in Byron writing Don Juan.

Shelley – Ozymandias

Shelley took part in the literary circle that surrounded Leigh Hunt. At this time he also met John Keats. Shelley composed several poems during this time including two revolutionary political tracts under the pseudonym “The Hermit of Marlow”. However, the most significant composition during this time was Ozymandias.

In 1817, inspired by the travel reports of Giovanni Battista Belzoni, Shelley along with his friend Horace Smith each began writing a poem on the Ozymandias, or Diodorus’s King of Kings.

It was a poem written in healthy competition between the two. The poem explores the fate of history and the ravages of time. Even the greatest men and the largest empires are temporary, their legacies destined to fade away into oblivion.

In antiquity, Ozymandias was the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. The British museum had collected a large statue of Ramesses II from the 13th century BCE and Shelley started writing the poem soon after the museum declared about the statue.

The portions of the statues head and torso were removed in 1816 from the mortuary temple of Ramesses at Thebes by the Italian explorer Giovanni Battista Belzoni.

Cover of Ozymandias
Cover of Ozymandias

P.B. Shelley – Political views

Shelley was a man of strong idealism and views which were reflected in his political stances as well. He was critical of tyranny and religious oppression in the early 19th century. He was one of the first men to conceive the method of non-violent protest as the most effective and appropriate response to authoritarian oppression.

Shelley also thought extensively on issues of economics and the English national debt. His deep thoughts and studies on economics are revealed from his correspondence with his friends John and Maria Gisborne.

Shelley as a Romantic poet

According to Shelley, poetry is the expression of imagination. It is not subject to the control of the active powers of mind, and its emergence and recurrence have nothing to do with consciousness. One cannot create poetry unless one is inspired. To him, the poet must be inspired and his poetry is aimed at an audience. So the target of poetry is social and the poem is the image of life.

These were general notions about poetry held by most romantic poets and Shelley was not an exception. He believed that language itself is poetry and all a poet does, is imitate. He creates new combinations of language.  The poet is inspired by the muse or madness first, and then he imitates that divine image he witnessed.

Most critics find the short lyrics of Shelley his best work: “To a Skylark” (1802), “To the West Wind” (1819), “The Cloud” (1820). Shorter love lyrics such as “I Arise from Dreams” and “To Constantia Singing”; the sonnets “Ozymandias” and “Adonais”, an elegy for John Keats written in formal Spenserian stanzas are also considered among his finest works.

Shelley’s effortless lyricism is also evident in his verse dramas such as The Cenci (1819) and Prometheus Unbound (1820). His prose works including a translation of the Symposium by Plato and the unfinished critical work A Defence of Poetry is equally skilful.

Shelley – The Masque of Anarchy

“The Masque of Anarchy” is a thoroughly political poem written in 1819, following the Peterloo Massacre. It is a call to freedom, asking people to gather in masses to resist against tyranny. It is perhaps the first modern statement on the principle of non-violence.

Shelley begins the poem with the image of the various powerful and unjust forms of authority – “God, and King, and Law”. He then imagines the emergence of a new form of social action, a radical assembly of people fighting for freedom. They are met with armed soldiers, but the protestors do not raise an arm against them.

Shelley moves to elucidate on the psychological consequences of violence met with pacifism. He says that the guilty soldiers shall be shameful and return to society. They would be recognized and isolated by friends and neighbours for the massacre.

This idea and image were later taken up by various thinkers and writers. Henry David Thoreau took up a version of it in his essay Civil Disobedience and Gandhi used it in his doctrine of Satyagraha. Shelley’s idea of protest in non-violence clearly influenced Gandhi. He would often quote excerpts from the poem while addressing the mass gathering during his campaigns for India’s freedom struggle.

Shelley as a Critic

Shelley’s critical work includes the unfinished The Defence of Poetry (1821). The essay was written in response to Thomas Love Peacock’s article “The Four Ages of Poetry”, published in 1820.

In the lines of Aristotle, Shelley believed that poetry is the vehicle to reach the ideal world and poets imitate the forms of the ideal things. He also argues that all forms of arts and science depend on nature but poetry improves nature and creates better than it.

Reason and imagination are two faculties of the mind. Reason breaks the things into parts and analyses them. Thus, the reason is the principle of analysis. Imagination, on the other hand, synthesizes the components. It has soothing power to pacify the mind.

Shelley believed that poetry strengthens the moral faculties and provides pleasure, so he treated imagination both as creative and pragmatic aspects. The poet is, therefore, a moral teacher who ideas and pleasure to society by teaching them indirectly. He is a prophet and a legislator who creates rules for society with the help of poetry.

The Defence of Poetry was published posthumously in 1840, by Mary Shelley.

Shelley – Children

Shelley had seven children but only four of them survived Shelley – Ianthe and Charles, his daughter and son by Harriet and Percy Florence Shelley, his son by Mary Shelley. Percy Shelley finally inherited the baronetcy in 1844.

Shelley – Other Important Works

In 1817, Shelley produced Laon and Cyntha , a long narrative poem. It contained references to incest and attacked religion and thus had to be withdrawn after a few copies published. It was later edited and reissued as The Revolt of Islam.

Prometheus Unbound was produced in 1820. It is a four – acts lyrical drama concerning the journey and the torments of the Greek mythological hero Prometheus. It was inspired by Promethea, a three-act classical tragic drama by Aeschylus. However, Shelley’s version is significantly different from that of Aeschylus.

“Love’s Philosophy”, another poem that was written in 1819 but published posthumously by Leigh Hunt and Mary Shelley is considered among Shelley’s best works. The poem is divided into two 8 – line stanzas and concerns the relationship between the natural world and the poet’s desire to be connected with his loved one. Shelley asks how can there be unity in the natural world but lack of unison in human relationships.

Shelley’s Death

Shelley died on 8th July 1822. He drowned in a sudden storm in the Gulf of La Spezia while returning from Leghorn to Lerici. The sinking of his boat, it was reported, was due to the storm and poor skills as sailors of the three men on the boat.