Percy Bysshe Shelley

(1792-1822)


Short Biography

Birth and family

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born at Field Place, Warnham near Horsham, Sussex, the eldest son of Timothy Shelley (MP), and grandson of the eponymous Percy Bysshe Shelley, a wealthy landowner. His mother, Elizabeth née Pilfold, was the daughter of a Sussex landowner. He had one brother and four sisters.

Early education

In 1798 (6) he was sent to study under the local vicar, Evan Edwards, and in 1802 (10) he entered Sion House Academy in Isleworth, where he was remembered by his cousin Medwin as rather effeminate, but very animated. Entering Eton in 1804 (12), he was subjected to bullying and victimisation by his fellow pupils, to which treatment he would respond by becoming enraged. Here, he was befriended by Dr Lind, physician to the King, who lived close by at Windsor Castle, and who introduced Shelley to scientific reasoning and experiment. Shelley retained a warm affection for him in later life.

First publications

In 1809 (17) he published at his own expense Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire, containing two of his sister’s poems as well as a selection of his own, and he wrote Zastrozzi and St Irvyne, or the Rosicrucian (both published 1810, 18), gothic novels inspired by William Godwin’s St Leon.

First emotional attachment

He developed an attachment for his cousin, Harriet Grove, composing several poems of regret when they were separated by their respective fathers after Harriet reported his republican and atheistic opinions.

Oxford University : taking on the establishment

He entered University College, Oxford in 1810 (18), where he published various verses in Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson in association with his friend Thomas Hogg. It was also at this time that he read Godwin’s Political Justice, which contained a detailed critique of the laws of property and primogeniture. Shelley himself was to be a major beneficiary of these same laws as heir to a baronetcy and to the landed estates his grandfather had acquired by astute marriages. In 1811 (19) he and his friend Hogg were expelled from Oxford for writing and distributing a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, copies of which he had sent to all the heads of colleges in Oxford. His father attempted to get him to renounce his opinions, and to separate him from Hogg, but Shelley stood firm, moved to London, and suggested that he would renounce his entitlement to his inheritance in return for an annuity of £100 per annum, a proposal which apparently shocked his father more than his atheism. A temporary reconciliation was nevertheless arranged, and he returned home to Field Place for a time.

Harriet Westbrook : second emotional attachment and first marriage

In London he had met and visited the Westbrook family, whose 15 year old daughter Harriet had fallen in love with him. He travelled to Cwm Elan in Wales to stay with his cousin Thomas Grove (elder brother of Harriet Grove), and shortly after wrote to Hogg that Harriet (Westbrook) had thrown herself on his protection in response to her father’s demand that she should return to school. Shelley considered himself flattered, and eloped with Harriet to Edinburgh, where they were married.

His father cuts him off

At this point his father refused even to open his letters, and handled their relations henceforward through his London solicitor. Harriet's father was a coffee house owner and she was not considered a suitable match for Shelley.

His friend Hogg disappoints

He visited London alone, leaving Harriet with his friend Hogg at York. On his return he found Harriet's sister Eliza had joined her, and learned that in his absence Hogg had tried to seduce his wife. Though feeling this to be a betrayal of his trust, he nevertheless persevered with Hogg as a friend.

Harriet's sister forms a menage à trois : he writes to William Godwin

The Shelleys left with Eliza (and without Hogg) for the Lake District, where they met the poet Robert Southey, and it was from here that Shelley made first contact by letter with his future father in law, William Godwin, announcing himself as a man of £6000 a year, an admirer of Godwin’s Political Justice, and eager to disseminate truth and happiness.

Ireland : the wandering continues

They moved to Dublin in 1812 (20), where he made a speech at the Fishamble Theatre, and published two political pamphlets urging greater political rights for Catholics and autonomy for Ireland (Address to the Irish People and Proposals for an Association of .... Philanthropists), but he was discouraged from continuing with his political work in Ireland by Godwin, who wrote to him that he was preparing a bloodbath in the province.

Wales and Devon : Elizabeth Hitchener forms a menage à quatre

He became a vegetarian, and they left Ireland to live for a time in Wales, where he made plans to set up an egalitarian commune at Nantgwilt, but was unable to raise money to take the lease on the estate 'embosomed in the solitude of mountains, woods and rivers, silent, solitary and old', which he had proposed to use as a base. They moved to Lynmouth in Devon, where Elizabeth Hitchener, with whom he had been conducting a long correspondence, joined them, and they busied themselves distributing Shelley's leaflet The Declaration of Rights by means of bottles or small boats made of waxed boxes complete with sails launched into the Bristol Channel, or by hand made silk hot air balloons powered by a spirit soaked wick, or else by Dan Healy, an Irish orphan taken in by the Shelleys, who was employed in posting the leaflet on walls and barns when no-one was looking, an activity which led to his arrest in Barnstaple, and subsequent imprisonment.

Tremadoc

The Shelleys moved back to Wales, where they became involved in William Maddocks' ambitious project to create a new town at Tremadoc on reclaimed land, a commercial venture which Shelley saw as a practical opportunity to create an ideal community. He threw himself enthusiastically into fundraising on Maddocks' behalf. Dan Healy rejoined them, having served his term in Barnstaple Gaol. Shelley was then, by his own account, the target of an assassination attempt, though the motives for the attack and perpetrator were never discovered. They left Tremadoc the next day, never to return.

Godwin and Queen Mab

Shelley returned briefly to Dublin, then to London, taking a house at Windsor, while Harriet went with Eliza to stay with her parents. He met Godwin, and showed the publisher Thomas Hookham the first draft of Queen Mab. Through Hookham he was introduced to the author Thomas Love Peacock, who became his long standing friend and correspondent. Queen Mab: a Philosophical Poem, destined to become a favourite radical text of the 19th century, was published in May 1813 (21), and, in the same year, his daughter Ianthe was born.

Mary Wollstoncraft : third emotional attachment : Claire Clairmont forms a second menage à trois

Later that year he met and fell in love with Mary Wollstoncraft, the daughter of William Godwin. They broke the news to Godwin, who refused to countenance the affair. Shelley then announced his predicament to his wife, who was herself pregnant with their second child at the time. After taking and recovering from an overdose of laudanum, Shelley made off with Mary, accompanied by Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont, visiting first France and then Switzerland. From Charenton he wrote to Harriet assuring her of his continued affection, and inviting her to join them. They returned by river up the Rhine, making notes as they went for the History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817, 25). On his return to England in 1815 (23) Mary gave birth to a child who died after two weeks.

Grandfather dies

His grandfather died in June 1815 (23), and he negotiated part of a settlement with his father, which enabled him to pay Harriet’s debts and settle the sum of £200 a year on her. He also arranged to pay significant amounts on behalf of Godwin, giving rise to rumours that Godwin had sold his two daughters to Shelley in return for payment of his debts.

Travels to Lake Geneva : meets Lord Byron

Mary bore him a son, William, in January 1816 (24), and he published the long poem Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude. In May he left England once again, travelling with Mary and Claire Clairmont to Geneva, where he met Lord Byron. He and Byron took neighbouring villas on the shores of Lake Geneva (m). Unknown to Shelley, Claire Clairmont was already pregnant with Byron’s child.

Frankenstein

It was at Byron’s Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva that Mary Shelley / Wollstoncraft is credited with beginning the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, as part of a competition in writing horror stories suggested by Byron, though there is much evidence to suggest that it was Percy rather than Mary who actually wrote the novel.

Return to England

They returned to England in September, settling at Marlow (m). Godwin continued to importune him for money, showing little gratitude for what he had already given him (payments amounting to some £4700 (about £250,000 in modern values) according to Shelley).

Wife commits suicide : marries Mary : loses children

His wife Harriet’s pregnant body was found in the Serpentine on 10th December 1816 (24), the evidence suggesting that she had committed suicide, and on 30th December he married Mary Godwin. Shelley’s son and daughter by Harriet had already been placed in the care of a clergyman in Warwickshire, and the Westbrooks now sued Shelley formally for the custody of the two children. In March 1817 (25) the Court of Chancery found against Shelley, effectively depriving him of his children.

Featured in The Examiner

In December 1816 (24) Leigh Hunt featured Shelley in an article entitled Young Poets in The Examiner, together with John Keats and John Hamilton Reynolds, and he corresponded with and met both Hunt and Keats.

A trip to Italy

In January 1817 (25) Claire Clairmont gave birth to Byron’s child, Allegra, and Mary Shelley had a second child, Clara, in September of the same year. Shelley completed a long poem, Laon and Cythna, which was published, after some revision of its incestuous and anti religious content, as The Revolt of Islam (1818, 26). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was also published in the same year, before they left England for Italy in March, along with their two children, Claire Clairmont and Allegra, and a nurse, Elise.

Byron will not see Claire, but takes custody of Allegra

Though Byron was prepared to take custody of Allegra, he explicitly forbade Claire from visiting him, and the child was therefore delivered to him in Venice (m) by the nurse.

Spends time with Byron in Venice

At Bagni di Lucca (m) Shelley made a translation of Plato’s Symposium, which he called The Banquet of Plato. He then made a trip with Claire to Venice, enabling her to visit Allegra, who had been passed by Byron into the care of the British Consul and his wife. He spent more time with Byron, riding horses along the Lido, and later talking late into the night at his palazzo, which encounter was later to become the subject of his narrative poem Julian and Maddalo (1819, 27).

At Byron's villa at Este : death of daughter

Byron offered him the use of his villa at Este (m), and Shelley wrote to Mary to join him there. On the way the baby Clara developed dysentery, and she died in Venice. At Este he began Prometheus Unbound, a lyrical drama in four acts.

Rome and Naples

They moved to Rome (m), then Naples (m), where, according to Mary, they lived in utter solitude, and where they also rather mysteriously registered the birth of a child, Elena Adelaide, though there is no mention in Mary’s correspondence that it was hers. Two dismissed servants claimed that the child was Shelley's by Claire Clairmont. Mary later described Naples as a 'paradise inhabited by devils'.

Rome again

They returned to Rome, and he continued working on Prometheus Unbound (1820, 28). He also began to write The Cenci, a blank verse drama about Beatrice Cenci, who had been incestuously violated by her father, and had subsequently murdered him.

Death of son : birth of son

In June 1819 (27) his son William died after a short illness, and, after moving to Florence (m), Mary bore another child in November, who they called Bysshe Florence.

San Guiliano near Pisa

They moved to the Baths of San Guiliano (m), where Shelley wrote The Witch of Atlas (p1824, d2).

Pisa : fourth emotional attachment

In Pisa in 1820 (28), he was introduced to Emilia Viviani, the daughter of the governor of Pisa (m), who had been consigned to a convent by her father while he tried to find a suitable husband for her. He became emotionally involved with her, entering into correspondence and writing Epipsychidion (1821, 29), a long lyric poem which gave a poetic overview of his search for ideal love with the various women of his acquaintance.

In Defence of Poetry

In 1821 (29), as a response to an article by Peacock in the Literary Miscellany, he wrote In Defence of Poetry (p1840, d18), in which he argued that poetry is distinguished from prose by virtue of its quality of prophetic imagination.

Keats dies and is celebrated by Shelley in Adonais

Hearing of the arrival of John Keats in Italy, he wrote inviting him to Pisa, but his letter arrived too late. Keats was already dead. Shelley composed his elegy to Keats, Adonais (1821, 29), then finished the long poem Hellas (1822, 30), in honour of the Greek rising against the Turks, and featuring the wandering Jew who had first appeared in St Irvyne.

Shelley's circle

The Shelleys had by this time brought together a small circle of friends : Thomas Medwin, Edward and Jane Williams, and Trelawny the sailor, and Shelley found Byron accommodation close by at the Villa Lanfranchi when Byron found it necessary to leave papal territory with his mistress, the Countess Guiccioli, together with her brother and father. He seems to have quickly regretted having Byron as a close neighbour. Differences over the treatment of Allegra and Claire Clairmont, for whom Shelley maintained a warm and sympathetic affection, and Shelley’s revulsion for Byron’s immorality, became obvious.

Allegra dies

In April 1822 (30) Allegra (Byron's daughter by Claire Clairmont) died of typhus.

Godwin importunes

Godwin continued to bombard Mary with letters about his financial plight, at the same time pressing her to persuade Shelley, who he roundly abused, to send money. She had a miscarriage.

Shipwreck

Shelley began, but never finished, his last major poem, The Triumph of Life, in 1822 (30). Leigh Hunt arrived in Genoa (m), on an invitation from Byron to take part in publishing a periodical with himself and Shelley as contributors, and proceeded to Leghorn (Livorno) (m). Shelley went to meet him, and then began the journey back to Lerici (m) with Williams in his boat, but a storm arose and it was sunk.

Cremation on the beach

His body was found some weeks later, a copy of Keats poetry in one pocket and a volume of Sophocles in the other. He was temporarily buried in the sand, before being cremated on the sea shore by his friends.

Posthumous publication suppressed

Mary Shelley returned to England, and arranged the publication of Posthumous Poems in 1824 (d2), but the book was suppressed at the insistence of Shelley’s father.

Burial

His ashes were buried in the English cemetery near Rome, which he had himself visited and described as follows : ‘The English burying place is a green slope near the walls, under the pyramidal tomb of Cestius, and is I think the most beautiful and solemn cemetery I ever beheld. To see the sun shining on its bright grass, fresh when we visited it with the autumnal dews and hear the whispering of the wind among the leaves of the trees which have overgrown the tomb of Cestius.....and to mark the tombs mostly of women and young people who were buried there, one might, if one were to die, desire the sleep they seem to sleep.’