Percy Bysshe Shelley

1792-1822

Shelley was the son of an MP who later became a baronet. He was well educated at Eton and began privately publishing his writings in his teens. At Oxford, he pursued a radical course of reading and was expelled in 1810 for publishing a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism. The same year he eloped with the 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook; they married in Edinburgh despite his philosophical opposition to marriage. He began a nomadic life of public speaking, corresponding, and publishing on such subjects as political reform, democracy, and vegetarianism in England, Ireland and Wales. Queen Man, an expression of the visionary revolutionise he was attempting to enact, was published in 1813. He and Harriet had a daughter this year and a son the next, but the marriage failed shortly thereafter and Harriet attempted suicide.

In 1814, Shelley published A Refutation of Deism and eloped with Mary Godwin, daughter of the English radical William, and her 15-year-old half-sister Claire Clairmont; they travelled through northern Europe. The next year Shelley, having returned to London, received an annuity of 1,000 on the death of his father. He published Alastor in 1816, had a son with Mary Godwit, visited Byron on the continent, where he wrote "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" and "Mont Blanc" and Mary began Frankenstein. Later the same year, he married Mary after Harriet successfully drowned herself. Shelley was denied custody of his children by Harriet. In addition to a close relationship with Thomas Love Peacock, he was friendly with Leigh Hunt, John Keats, and William Hazlitt.

Shelley published The Revolt of Islam in 1818 and decided to live abroad to escape creditors and social ostracism. Following the death of her daughter that year and her son the next, Mary Shelley suffers a breakdown; despite his unhappy family circumstances Shelley continued to write prolifically, composing, among other works, The Cenci and "Ode to the West Wind." He wrote A Defence of Poetry in 1821 along with "Adonais", his elegy to Keats. Shelley drowned in a sailing accident in 1822. Despite the early suppression of and attacks on his poetry, Shelley has long been valued for his lyric powers, though his intellectual and political tendencies have often been obscured by critics.

TEXTS:

Ode to the West Wind

The Cenci is based on a historical incident of 1599, when Beatrice Cenci was executed in Rome for the murder of her father. Shelley hoped it would be produced at Covent Garden theatre, but the manager would not consider it on the grounds of the incestuous content, and it is unlikely that it could have been licensed. It was not performed until 1886, when the Shelley society staged it privately, and not until 1922, on the centenary of Shelley's death, did it see public performance in England, though it had been produced by this time in Europe. The play was published in 1820 and is the only of Shelley's plays to have a second edition in his lifetime.

Web Resources