First our pleasures die - and then our hopes, and then our fears - and when these are dead, the debt is due dust claims dust - and we die too.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
While the reputations of authors and poets can wax and wane both during their lives and the years that follow, few have polarised opinion as much as Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). His name is inextricably associated with the other Romantic poets, Byron and Keats, but his atheism (and his appalling treatment of his wife) invoked genuine hatred while he lived, and the quality of the poetry of the Romantics in general, and his in particular, has, at times, been much derided. However, the list of his admirers is far longer then the list of his critics.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on 04 August 1792 in Horsham, England. He was the eldest of seven children, and had five sisters and one brother. He received his early education at home, tutored by the Reverend Evan Edwards of nearby Warnham. In 1802, he entered the Syon House Academy at Brentford, Middlesex. In 1804, Shelley entered Eton College, where he fared poorly, subjected to an almost daily torment that his classmates called “Shelley-baits”.
On 10 April 1810, he matriculated at University College, Oxford. Legend has it that Shelley attended only one lecture while at Oxford, but frequently read sixteen hours a day. His first publication was a Gothic novel, Zastrozzi (1810), in which he vented his atheistic world view through the villain Zastrozzi. In 1811, Shelley published his second Gothic novel, St Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian, and a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism. This gained the attention of the university administration and he was called to appear before the College’s fellows, including the Dean, George Rowley. His refusal to repudiate the authorship of the pamphlet resulted in his being expelled.
Four months after being expelled, the 19-year-old Shelley eloped to Scotland with the sixteen year old schoolgirl Harriet Westbrook, and the couple married on 28 August 1811. Unhappy marriage, Shelley often left his wife and child, and fell in love with Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. On 28 July 1814, Shelley abandoned his pregnant wife and child when he ran away with Mary, then sixteen, inviting her stepsister Claire Clairmont along for company. The three sailed to Europe, crossed France, and settled in Switzerland, an account of which was subsequently published by the Shelleys. After six weeks, homesick and destitute, the three young people returned to England. The Shelleys took up residence in the village of Marlow, Buckinghamshire, where a friend of Percy’s, Thomas Love Peacock, lived.
Shelley took part in the literary circle that surrounded Leigh Hunt, and during this period he met John Keats. Shelley’s major production during this time was Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City, a long narrative poem in which he attacked religion and featured a pair of incestuous lovers.
Early in 1818, the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont left England in order to take Claire’s daughter, Allegra, to her father Byron, who had taken up residence in Venice. The Shelleys moved around various Italian cities during these years. In late 1818 they were living in a ‘pensione’ on the Via Valfonde. Shelley completed Prometheus Unbound in Rome, and he spent the middle of 1819 writing a tragedy, The Cenci, in Leghorn. In this year, influenced by the Peterloo massacre, he wrote his best-known political poems, The Masque of Anarchy and Men of England. These were probably his most-remembered works during the nineteenth century. Around this period, he wrote the essay The Philosophical View of Reform, which was his most thorough exposition of his political views to date.
On 8 July 1822, less than a month before his thirtieth birthday, Shelley drowned in a sudden storm while sailing back from Livorno to Lerici in his schooner, Don Juan. He became an idol of the next three or four generations of poets, including the important Victorian Pre-Raphaelite poets.