Joseph Severn. Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound. 1845. Oil on canvas. Keats-Shelley Memorial House, Rome, Italy.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (4 August 1792 – 8 July 1822) was an English poet, widely regarded as one of the “Big Six” writers of the Romantic Period (along with William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and close friend, Lord Byron), though he did not experience much fame during his lifetime. His radical philosophical views and troubled personal life did little to gain public admiration, and it wasn’t until much after his death that his poems and essays were entered into the literary canon of the time.

Shelley’s most famous works include the poems “Ozymandias”, “Ode to the West Wind”, “Mont Blanc”, and his chef-d'oeuvre, Prometheus Unbound.

Early Life and Education

Percy Shelley was born in Field Place, Sussex, the first child of aristocratic parents Elizabeth Pilfold and Timothy Shelley, on August 4th, 1792 (Jeaffreson 28).  Shelley’s early education was private and informal, closely mirroring that of his five sisters.  A local clergyman named Mr. Edwards taught the young boy the languages of Greek and Latin, and soon after this, Shelley continued his education at Sion House in Brentford in 1802 (Medwin 14).  Scion House was considered a “classical school” for sons of “ordinary professional men”, seeking the “middle way of life” (Jaefferson 45). Here, his delicate, awkward appearance garnered him daily abuse from the older boys, who forced him to do various degrading tasks and sometimes even physically assaulted him (Medwin 16). At this school, Shelley cultivated a disdain for classic languages, and instead focused of his time instead on daydreaming, drawing, and reflection (Medwin 20).  After Sion House, Shelley moved on to Eton College, where he received much of the same treatment. He was nicknamed “Mad Shelley” for his reactions to his continual bullying, once even stabbing a fellow boy’s hand with a fork after provocation (Hay 20). 

Later Education and Marriage to Westbrook

It wasn’t until 1810, at age seventeen, when Shelley started his undergraduate studies at Oxford College, that his career as a writer truly began. Though far from the model student (he rarely ever attended class), Shelley did write his first publication: Zastrozzi; a Romance, and composed seven other works in this same year, including St. Irvyne, and the first outlines of Queen Mab (Jaefferson 123). However, these early romances did not bring him the most attention, but rather, a controversial pamphlet penned with a fellow classmate entitled The Necessity of Atheism. This writing was then distributed to “every university professor and administrative professional, as well as every bishop in the United Kingdom” (Damrosch 868). Unsurprisingly, this move quickly got Shelley expelled in April of 1811.

After his expulsion from Oxford, Shelley entered into a period of his life marked by restlessness, travel, and a search for companionship – either for love or friendships. He eloped with a sixteen-year-old girl named Harriet Westbrook, a schoolmate of his younger sisters. This neither a romantic or intellectual pairing, but rather, it seems that Shelley was more interested in her naivety, admiration, and his ability to mold her into a noble creature (Hay 21). These unsteady foundations did not produce the sturdiest marriage, and so it came as no surprise when Shelley found himself pining after another young woman just two years later – and only one year after Percy and Harriet welcomed their first of two children. Many conjectured reasons for Shelley’s marital dissatisfaction include his dislike of Harriet’s overbearing sister Eliza, with whom they lived, and that Harriet was “stifling his poetic and intellectual development” (O’Neill 31). 

Relationship with the Godwins

Unhappy with his marriage, Shelley spent an increasing amount of time away from his wife and home; in particular, he was often in the company of one of his idols - William Godwin – the anarchist philosopher and writer. Shelley, thinking his literary hero to be dead, was delighted to find that he was still living; and, at that, residing in London (O’Neill 20). Shelley wrote to Godwin, expressing his devotion and interest in his work, and was swiftly welcomed into his circle, both for his intelligence and for his willigness to pay Godwin's excessive debts (Mellor 19). As much as Shelley was interested in Godwin’s politics, he became increasingly infatuated with Godwin’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Mary, over the course of two years (Hay 22). Mary was the product of two highly recognized and radical writers, Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, the latter dying just days after giving birth to her daughter. Both of her parents had such heavily influenced Shelley’s work that it seems it would be impossible for Shelley to resist the young woman. He wrote of her in The Revolt of Islam:

"They say that thou wert lovely from thy birth,

Of glorious parents, thous aspiring Child.

I wonder not for One then left this Earth...

Of its departing glory; still her fame

Shines on thee...

The shelter, from thy Sire, of an immortal name." (Mellor 21).

They eloped, despite the fact that Percy was still legally married to his first wife, Harriet (O’Neill 31). The couple immediately left to travel across Europe in Italy, Switzerland, and Germany, and during these travels, Mary became pregnant with her first child – a girl – who dies shortly after birth.  This is the first in the string of many child deaths for the couple (Hay 36). In the late stages of Mary’s pregnancy, Percy became a more passionate, and perhaps a more practiced purveyor of free love – and Shelley’s sister Claire was of the same philosophy. She often accompanied him in his travels and spent an increased amount of personal time with Shelley (Hay 43). Mary was constantly consummed with jealousy for Claire and the wealth of time that her step-sister spent with her betrothed (Mellor 30). The two continued this affair for years, and Mary's only wish was to be without Claire (Mellor 34). In 1816, Percy’s health began deteriorating, and Claire had the perfect solution. She proposed that Percy and Mary should accompany her to Switzerland with her new beau, Lord Byron. The couple accepted, and landed in Geneva in June (Pabst-Kastner). 

The time in Geneva was a successful one. Lord Byron and Percy quickly became friends, and the majority of their days were filled with philosophical discussions, writing, and boating (Hay 83). Mary, on the other hand, became increasingly unhappy; plagued with the thoughts of her dead mother and first daughter. It was during this time that Mary experienced her famous “walking nightmare”, in which she envisioned the beginnings of her most famous work, Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus (Pabst-Kastner). Percy worked closely with Mary on the development of this novel, not only helping her with its plot structure, but also seeking publishers and heavily editing her work (Hay 87). 

Later Life and Death

The same year that Frankenstein was published, the Shelleys traveled to Italy, where they eventually moved permanently two years later. In Italy, another daughter of the Shelleys, Clara, dies, followed by the death of their son William a year later (Hay 156). The deaths proved too much for Mary, and she became distant from her husband and entertained thoughts of suicide (Hay 167). It wasn’t until the birth of their next child, Percy Florence, that the two were able to reconcile (Pabst-Kastner). Though their relationship was stronger, Percy still devoted much of his time to his favorite hobby, boating. It was on this prized boat, the Don Juan, that Percy met his untimely death. While traveling from Livorno to Lerici, he encountered a storm, and being an inexperienced sailor, he drowned on July 8th, 1922 (Mellor 247). 

Works Cited

Damrosch, David, Kevin J. H. Dettmar, Susan Wolfson, and Peter Manning. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.

Hay, Daisy. Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. Print.

Jeaffreson, John Cordy. The Real Shelley. New Views of the Poet's Life. Vol. 1. London: Hurst & Blackett, 1885. Print.

Medwin, Thomas, and H. Buxton Forman. The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley. London. H. Milford, Oxford UP, 1913. Print.

Mellor, Anne Kostelanetz. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge, 1989. Print.

O'Neill, Michael. Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin's, 1990. Print.

Pabst-Kastner, Charlotte. "A Biographical Sketch of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851)." A Biographical Sketch of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851). N.p., 24 Jan. 2003. Web. 27 Sept. 2013. Web.

Suggested Further Reading

Bieri, James. Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography : Exile of Unfulfilled Renown, 1816-1822. Newark: University of Delaware, 2005. Print.

Stock, Paul. The Shelley-Byron Circle and the Idea of Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.