|Percy Bysshe Shelley|
Birthplace: Field Place, Sussex, England
Location of death: The ship Ariel, Viareggio, Italy
Cause of death: Accident - Drowning
Remains: Cremated, Campo Cestio, Rome, Italy
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Executive summary: Prometheus Unbound
English poet, born on the 4th of August 1792 at Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex. He was the eldest child of Timothy Shelley, M.P. for Shoreham, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Charles Pilfold, of Effingham, Surrey. His father was the son and heir of Sir Bysshe Shelley, Bart. (died in 1815), whose baronetcy (1806) was a reward from the Whig party for political services. Sir Bysshe's father Timothy had emigrated to America, and he himself had been born in Newark, New Jersey; but he came back to England, and did well for himself by marrying successively two heiresses, the first, the mother of Timothy, being Mary Catherine, daughter of the Rev. Theobald Michell of Horsham. He was a handsome man of enterprising and remarkable character, accumulated a vast fortune, built Castle Goring, and lived in sullen and penurious retirement in his closing years. None of his talent seems to have descended to his son Timothy, who, except for being of a rather oddly self-assertive character, was undistinguishable from the ordinary run of commonplace country squires. The mother of the poet is described as beautiful, and a woman of good abilities, but not with any literary turn; she was an agreeable letter-writer. The branch of the Shelley family to which the poet Percy Bysshe belonged traces its pedigree to Henry Shelley of Worminghurst, Sussex, who died in 1623. These Worminghurst or Castle Goring Shelleys are of the same stock as the Michelgrove Shelleys, who trace up to Sir William Shelley, judge of the common pleas under Henry VII, then to a member of parliament in 1415, and to the reign of Edward I, or even to the epoch of the Norman Conquest. The Worminghurst branch was a family of credit, but not of special distinction, until its fortunes culminated under the above-named Sir Bysshe.
In the character of Percy Bysshe Shelley three qualities became early manifest, and may be regarded as innate: impressionableness or extreme susceptibility to external and internal impulses of feeling; a lively imagination or erratic fancy, blurring a sound estimate of solid facts; and a resolute repudiation of outer authority or the despotism of custom. These qualities were highly developed in his earliest manhood, were active in his boyhood, and no doubt made some show even on the borderland between childhood and infancy. At the age of six he was sent to a day school at Warnham, kept by the Rev. Mr. Edwards; at ten to Sion House School, Brentford, of which the principal was Dr. Greenlaw, while the pupils were mostly sons of local tradesmen; at twelve (or immediately before that age, on the 29th of July 1804) to Eton. The headmaster of Eton, up to nearly the close of Shelley's sojourn in the school, was Dr. Goodall, a mild disciplinarian; it is therefore a mistake to suppose that Percy (unless during his very brief stay in the lower school) was frequently flagellated by the formidable Dr. Keate, who only became headmaster after Goodall. Shelley was a shy, sensitive, mopish sort of boy from one point of view -- from another a very unruly one, having his own notions of justice, independence and mental freedom; by nature gentle, kindly and retiring -- under provocation dangerously violent. He resisted the odious fagging system, exerted himself little in the routine of school-learning, and was known both as "Mad Shelley" and as "Shelley the Atheist." Some writers try to show that an Eton boy would be termed atheist without exhibiting any propensity to atheism, but solely on the ground of his being mutinous. However, as Shelley was a declared atheist a good while before attaining his majority, a shrewd suspicion arises that, if Etonians dubbed him atheist, they had some relevant reason for doing so.
Shelley entered University College, Oxford, in April 1810, returned from there to Eton, and finally quitted the school at midsummer, and commenced residence in Oxford in October. Here he met a young Durham man, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, who had preceded him in the university by a couple of months; the two youths at once struck up a warm and intimate friendship. Shelley had at this time a love for chemical experiment, as well as for poetry. philosophy, and classical study, and was in all his tastes and bearing an enthusiast. Hogg was not in the least an enthusiast, rather a cynic, but he also was a steady and well-read classical student. In religious matters both were skeptics, or indeed decided anti-Christians; whether Hogg, as the senior and more informed disputant, pioneered Shelley into strict atheism, or whether Shelley, as the more impassioned and unflinching speculator, outran the easy-going jeering Hogg, is a moot point; we incline to the latter opinion. Certain it is that each egged on the other by perpetual disquisition on abstruse subjects, conducted partly for the sake of truth and partly for that of mental exercitation, without on either side any disposition to bow to authority or stop short of extreme conclusions. The upshot of this habit was that Shelley and Hogg, at the close of some five months of happy and uneventful academic life, were expelled from the university. Shelley -- for he alone figures as the writer of the "little syllabus", although there can be no doubt that Hogg was his confidant and coadjutor throughout -- published anonymously a pamphlet or flysheet entitled The Necessity of Atheism, which he sent around to bishops and all sorts of people as an invitation or challenge to discussion. It amounted to saying that neither reason nor testimony is adequate to establish the existence of a deity, and that nothing short of a personal individual self-revelation of the deity would be sufficient. The college authorities heard of the pamphlet, identified Shelley as its author, and summoned him before them -- "our master, and two or three of the fellows." The pamphlet was produced, and Shelley was required to say whether he had written it or not. The youth declined to answer the question, and was expelled by a written sentence, ready drawn up. Hogg was next summoned, with a result practically the same. The precise details of this transaction have been much controverted; the best evidence is that which appears on the college records, showing that both Hogg and Shelley (Hogg is there named first) were expelled for "contumaciously refusing to answer questions", and for "repeatedly declining to disavow" the authorship. Thus they were dismissed as being mutineers against academic authority, in a case pregnant with the suspicion -- not the proof -- of atheism; but how the authorities could know beforehand that the two undergraduates would be contumacious and stiff against disavowal, so as to give warrant for written sentences ready drawn up, is nowhere explained. Possibly the sentences were worded without ground assigned, and would only have been produced in terrorem had the young men proved more malleable. The date of this incident was the 25th of March 1811.
Shelley and Hogg came up to London, where Shelley was soon left alone, as his friend went to York to study conveyancing. Percy and his incensed father did not at once come to terms, and for a while he had no resource beyond pocket-money saved up by his sisters (four in number altogether) and sent round to him, sometimes by the hand of a singularly pretty school-fellow, Miss Harriet Westbrook, daughter of a retired and moderately rich hotel-keeper. Shelley, in early youth, had a somewhat "priggish" turn for moralizing and argumentation, and a decided mania for proselytizing; his schoolgirl sisters, and their little Methodist friend Miss Westbrook, aged between fifteen and sixteen, must all be enlightened and converted to anti-Christianity. He therefore cultivated the society of Harriet, calling at the house of her father, and being encouraged in his assiduity by her much older sister Eliza. Harriet not unnaturally fell in love with him; and he, though not it would seem at any time ardently in love with her, dallied along the flowery pathway which leads to sentiment and a definite courtship. This was not his first love affair; for he had but a very few months before been courting his cousin Miss Harriet Grove, who, alarmed at his heterodoxies, finally broke off with him -- to his no small grief and perturbation at the time. It is averred, and seemingly with truth, that Shelley never indulged in any sensual or dissipated amour; and, as he advances in life, it becomes apparent that, though capable of the passion of love, and unusually prone to regard with much effusion of sentiment women who interested his mind and heart, the mere attraction of a pretty face or an alluring figure left him unenthralled. After a while Percy was reconciled to his father, revisited his family in Sussex, and then stayed with a cousin in Wales. Hence he was recalled to London by Miss Harriet Westbrook, who wrote complaining of her father's resolve to send her back to her school, in which she was now regarded with repulsion as having become too apt a pupil of the atheist Shelley. He replied counselling resistance. "She wrote to say" (these are the words of Shelley in a letter to Hogg, dating towards the end of July 1811) "that resistance was useless, but that she would fly with me, and threw herself upon my protection." Shelley, therefore, returned to London, where he found Harriet agitated and wavering; finally they agreed to elope, travelled in haste to Edinburgh, and there, on the 28th of August, were married with the rites of the Scottish Church. Shelley, it should be understood, had by this time openly broken, not only with the dogmas and conventions of Christian religion, but with many of the institutions of Christian polity, and in particular with such as enforce and regulate marriage; he held -- with William Godwin and some other theorists -- that marriage ought to be simply a voluntary relation between a man and a woman, to be assumed at joint option and terminated at the later option of either party. If, therefore, he had acted upon his personal conviction of the right, be would never have wedded Harriet, whether by, Scotch, English or any other law; but he waived his own theory in favor of the consideration that in such an experiment the woman's stake, and the disadvantages accruing to her, are out of all comparison with the man's. His conduct, therefore, was so far entirely honorable; and, if it derogated from a principle of his own (a principle which, however contrary to the morality of other people, was and always remained matter of genuine conviction on his individual part), this was only in deference to a higher and more imperious standard of right.
Harriet Shelley was not only beautiful; she was amiable, accommodating, adequately well educated and well bred. She liked reading, and her reading was not strictly frivolous. But she could not (as Shelley said at a later date) "feel poetry and understand philosophy." Her attractions were all on the surface; there was (to use a common phrase) "nothing particular in her." For nearly three years Shelley and Harriet led a shifting sort of life upon an income of £400 a year, one-half of which was allowed (after his first severe indignation at the mésalliance was past) by Timothy Shelley, and the other half by Mr. Westbrook. The couple left Edinburgh for York and the society of Hogg; broke with him upon a charge made by Harriet, and evidently fully believed by Shelley at the time, that, during a temporary absence of his upon business in Sussex, Hogg had tried to seduce her (this quarrel was entirely made up at the end of about a year); moved off to Keswick in Cumberland, where they received kind attentions from Robert Southey, and some hospitality from the duke of Norfolk, who, as chief magnate in the Shoreham region of Sussex, was at pains to reconcile the father and his too unfilial heir; sailed from there to Dublin, where Shelley was eager, and in some degree prominent, in the good cause of Catholic emancipation, conjoined with repeal of the union; crossed to Wales, and lived at Nant-Gwillt, near Rhayader, then at Lynmouth in Devonshire, then at Tanyrallt in Carnarvonshire. All this was between September 1811 and February 1813. At Lynmouth an Irish servant of Shelley's was sentenced to six months' imprisonment for distributing and posting up printed papers, bearing no printer's name, of an inflammatory or seditious tendency -- being a Declaration of Rights composed by the youthful reformer, and some verses of his named The Devil's Walk. At Tanyrallt Shelley was (according to his own and Harriet's account, confirmed by the evidence of Miss Westbrook, the elder sister, who continued an inmate in most of their homes) attacked on the night of 26th February by an assassin who fired three pistol shots. It was either a human assassin or (as Shelley once said) "the devil." The motive of the attack was undefined; the fact of its occurrence was generally disbelieved, both at the time and by subsequent inquirers. Shelley was full of wild unpractical notions; he dosed himself occasionally with laudanum as a palliative to spasmodic pains; he was given to strange assertions and romancing narratives (several of which might properly be specified here but for want of space), and was not incapable of conscious fibbing. His mind no doubt oscillated at times along the line which divides sanity from insane delusion. It is now, however, at last proved that he did not invent such a monstrous story to serve a purpose. The Century Magazine for October 1905 contained an article entitled "A Strange Adventure of Shelley's", by Margaret L. Croft, which shows that a shepherd close to Tanyrallt, named Robin Pant Evan, being irritated by some well-meant acts of Shelley in terminating the lives of dying or diseased sheep, did really combine with two other shepherds to scare the poet, and Evan was the person who played the part of "assassin." He himself avowed as much to members of a family, Greaves, who were living at Tanyrallt between 1847 and 1865. This was the break-up of the residence of the Shelleys at Tanyrallt; they revisited Ireland, and then settled for a while in London. Here, in June 1813, Harriet gave birth to her daughter Ianthe Eliza. Here also Shelley brought out his first poem of any importance, Queen Mab; it was privately printed, as its exceedingly aggressive tone in matters of religion and morals would not allow of publication. In July the Shelleys took a house at Bracknell near Windsor Forest, where they had congenial neighbors, Mrs. Boinville and her family.
The speculative sage whom Shelley especially reverenced was William Godwin, the author of Political Justice and of the romance Caleb Williams; in 1796 he had married Mary Wollstonecraft, author of The Rights of Woman, who died shortly after giving birth, on the 30th of August 1797, to a daughter Mary. With Godwin Shelley had opened a volunteered correspondence late in 1811, and he had known him personally since the winter which closed 1812. Godwin was then a bookseller, living with his second wife, who had been a Mrs. Clairmont; there were four other inmates of the household, two of whom call for some mention here -- Fanny Wollstonecraft, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mr. Imlay, and Claire (Clara Mary Jane), the daughter of Mrs. Clairmont. Fanny committed suicide in October 1816, being, according to some accounts which remain unverified, hopelessly in love with Shelley; Claire was closely associated with all his subsequent career. It was towards May 1814 that Shelley first saw Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin as a grown-up girl (she was well on towards seventeen); he instantly fell in love with her, and she with him. Just before this, on the 24th of March, Shelley had remarried Harriet in London, apparently with a view to strengthening his position in his relations with his father as to the family property; but, on becoming enamoured of Mary, he seems to have rapidly made up his mind that Harriet should not stand in the way. She was at Bath while he was in London. They had, however, met again in London and come to some sort of understanding before the final crisis arrived -- Harriet remonstrating and indignant, but incapable of effective resistance -- Shelley sick of her companionship, and bent upon gratifying his own wishes, which as we have already seen were not at odds with his avowed principles of conduct. For some months past there had been bickerings and misunderstandings between him and Harriet, aggravated by the now detested presence of Miss Westbrook in the house; more than this cannot be said, and it seems dubious whether more will be hereafter known. Shelley, and not he alone, alleged grave misdoing on Harriet's part -- perhaps mistakenly. The upshot came on the 28th of July, when Shelley aided Mary to elope from her father's house, Claire Clairmont deciding to accompany them. They crossed to Calais, and proceeded across France into Switzerland. Godwin and his wife were greatly incensed. Though he and Mary Wollstonecraft had entertained and avowed bold opinions regarding the marriage-bond, similar to Shelley's own, and had in their time acted upon these opinions, it is not clearly made out that Mary Godwin had ever been encouraged by paternal influence to think or do the like. Shelley and Mary chose to act upon their own likings and responsibility -- he disregarding any claim which Harriet had upon him, and Mary setting at nought her father's authority. Both were prepared to ignore the law of the land and the rules of society.
The three young people returned to London in September. In the following January 1815 Sir Bysshe Shelley died, and Percy, who had lately been in great money-straits, became the immediate heir to the entailed property inherited by his father Sir Timothy. This entailed property seems to have been worth nearly £6000 per annum. There was another very much larger property which Percy might shortly before have secured to himself, contingently upon his father's death, if he would have consented to put it upon the same footing of entail; but this he resolutely refused to do, on the professed ground of his being opposed upon principle to the system of entail; therefore, on his grandfather's death the larger property passed wholly away from any interest which Percy might have had in it, in use or in expectancy. He now came to an understanding with his father as to the remaining entailed property; and, giving up certain future advantages, he received henceforth a regular income of £1000 a year. Out of this he assigned £200 a year to Harriet, who had given birth in November to a son, Charles Bysshe (he died in 1826). Shelley, and Mary as well, were on moderately good terms with Harriet, seeing her from time to time. His peculiar views as to the relations of the sexes appear markedly again in his having (so it is alleged) invited Harriet to return to his and Mary's house as a domicile; a curious arrangement which of course did not take effect. He had, undoubtedly, while previously abroad with Mary, invited Harriet to stay in their immediate neighborhood. Shelley and Mary (who was naturally always called Mrs. Shelley) now settled at Bishopgate, near Windsor Forest; here he produced his first excellent poem, Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude, which was published soon afterwards with a few others. Thomas Love Peacock was one of his principal associates at Bishopgate.
In May 1816 the pair left England for Switzerland, together with Miss Clairmont, and their own infant son William. They went straight to Sécheron, near Geneva; Byron, whose separation from his wife had just then taken place, arrived there immediately afterwards. A great deal of controversy has arisen as to the motives and incidents of this foreign sojourn. The clear fact is that Miss Clairmont, who had a fine voice and some inclination for the stage, had seen Byron, as connected with the management of Drury Lane Theatre, early in the year, and an amorous intrigue had begun between them in London. It seems quite reasonable to suppose that she had explained the facts to Shelley or to Mary, or to both, and had induced them to convoy her to the society of Byron abroad; were this finally established as the fact, it would show no inconsistency of conduct, or breach of his own code of sexual morals, on Shelley's part. On the other hand, documentary evidence exists showing that Mary was totally ignorant of the amour shortly before they went abroad. Whether or not they knew of it while they and Claire were in daily intercourse with Byron, and housed close by him on the shore of the Lake of Geneva, may be left unargued. The three returned to London in September 1816, Byron remaining abroad; and in January 1817 Miss Clairmont gave birth to his daughter named Allegra.
The return of the Shelleys was closely followed by two suicides -- first that of Fanny Wollstonecraft (already referred to), and second that of Harriet Shelley, who on the 9th of November drowned herself in the Serpentine. The body was not found until the 10th of December. The latest stages of the lovely and ill-starred Harriet's career have never been very explicitly recorded. It seems that she formed a connection with some gentleman from whom circumstances or desertion separated her, that her habits became intemperate, and that she was treated with contumelious harshness by her sister during an illness of their father. She had always had a propensity (often laughed at in earlier and happier days) to the idea of suicide, and she now carried it out in act -- possibly without anything which could be regarded as an extremely cogent predisposing motive, although the total weight of her distresses, accumulating within the past two years and a half, was beyond question heavy to bear. Shelley, then at Bath, hurried up to London when he beard of Harriet's death, giving manifest signs of the shock which so terrible a catastrophe had produced on him. Some self-reproach must no doubt have mingled with his affliction and dismay; yet he does not appear to have considered himself gravely in the wrong at any stage in the transaction, and it is established that in the train of quite recent events which immediately led up to Harriet's suicide he had borne no part.
This was the time when Shelley began to see a great deal of Leigh Hunt, the poet and essayist, editor of the Examiner; they were close friends, and Hunt did something to uphold the reputation of Shelley as a poet -- which, we may here say once for all, scarcely obtained any public acceptance or solidity during his brief lifetime. The death of Harriet having removed the only obstacle to a marriage with Mary Godwin, the wedding ensued on the 30th of December 1816, and the married couple settled down at Great Marlow in Buckinghamshire. Their tranquillity was shortly disturbed by a Chancery suit set in motion by Mr. Westbrook, who asked for the custody of his two grandchildren, on the ground that Shelley had deserted his wife and intended to bring up his offspring in his own atheistic and anti-social opinions. Lord Chancellor Eldon delivered judgment on the 27th of March 1817. He held that Shelley, having avowed condemnable principles of conduct, and having fashioned his own conduct to correspond, and being likely to inculcate the same principles upon his children, was unfit to have the charge of them. He appointed as their curator Dr. Hume, an orthodox army-physician, who was Shelley's own nominee. The poet had to pay for the maintenance of the children a sum which stood eventually at £120 per annum; if it was at first (as generally stated) £200, that was no more than what he had previously allowed to Harriet. This is the last incident of marked importance in the perturbed career of Shelley; the rest relates to the history of his mind, the poems which he produced and published, and his changes of locality in travelling. The first ensuing poem was The Revolt of Islam, referred to near the close of this article.
In March 1818, after an illness which he regarded (rightly or wrongly) as a dangerous pulmonary attack, Shelley, with his wife, their two infants William and Clara, and Miss Clairmont and her baby Allegra, went off to Italy, where the short remainder of his life was passed. Allegra was soon sent on to Venice to her father, who, ever since parting from Miss Clairmont in Switzerland, showed a callous and unfeeling determination to see and know no more about her. In 1818 the Shelleys -- always nearly with Miss Clairmont in their company -- were in Milan, Livorno, the Bagni di Lucca, Venice and its neighborhood, Rome, and Naples; in 1819 in Rome, the vicinity of Livorno, and Florence (both their infants were now dead, but a third was born late in 1819, Percy Florence Shelly, who in 1844 inherited the baronetcy); in 1820 in Pisa the Bagni di Pisa (or di San Giuliano), and Livorno; in 1821 in Pisa and with Byron in Ravenna; in 1822 in Pisa and on the Bay of Spezia, between Lerici and San Terenzio. The incidents of this period are but few, and of no great importance apart from their bearing upon the poet's writings. In Livorno he knew Mr. and Mrs. Gisborne, the latter a once intimate friend of Godwin; she taught Shelley Spanish, and he was eager to promote a project for a steamer to be built by her son by a former marriage, the engineer Henry Reveley; it would have been the first steamer to navigate the Gulf of Lyons. In Pisa he formed a sentimental intimacy with the Contessina Emilia Viviani, a girl who was pining in a convent pending her father's choice of a husband for her; this impassioned but vague and fanciful attachment -- which soon came to an end, as Emila's character developed less favorably in the eyes of her Platonic adorer -- produced the transcendental love poem of Epipsychidion in 1821. In Ravenna the scheme of the quarterly magazine the Liberal was concerted by Byron and Shelley, the latter being principally interested in it with a view to benefiting Leigh Hunt by such an association with Byron. In Pisa Byron and Shelley were very constantly together, having in their company at one time or another Shelley's cousin and schoolfellow Captain Thomas Medwin (1788-1869), Lieutenant Edward Elliker Williams (1793-1822) and his wife, to both of whom the poet was very warmly attached, and Captain Edward John Trelawny, the adventurous and romantic-natured seaman, who has left important and interesting reminiscences of this period. Byron admired very highly the generous, unworldly and enthusiastic character of Shelley, and set some value on his writings; Shelley half-worshipped Byron as a poet, and was anxious, but in some conjunctures by no means able, to respect him as a man. In Pisa he knew also Prince Alexander Mavrocordato, one of the pioneers of Grecian insurrection and freedom; the glorious cause fired Shelley, and he wrote the drama of Hellas (1821).
The last residence of Shelley was the Casa Magni, a bare and exposed dwelling on the Gulf of Spezia. He and his wife, with the Williamses, went there at the end of April 1822 to spend the summer, which proved an arid and scorching one. Shelley and Williams, both of them insatiably fond of boating, had a small schooner named the "Don Juan" (or more properly the "Ariel"), built at Genoa after a design which Williams had procured from a naval friend, but the reverse of safe. They received her on the 12th of May, found her rapid and alert, and on the 1st of July started in her to Livorno, to meet Leigh Hunt, whose arrival in Italy had just been notified. After doing his best to set things going comfortably between Byron and Hunt, Shelley returned on board with Williams on the 8th of July. It was a day of dark, ominous and stifling heat. Trelawny took leave of his two friends, and about half-past six in the evening found himself startled from a doze by a frightful turmoil of storm. The "Don Juan" had by this time made Via Reggio; she was not to be seen, though other vessels which had sailed about the same time were still discernible. Shelley, Williams, and their only companion, a sailor-boy, perished in the squall. The exact nature of the catastrophe was from the first regarded as somewhat disputable. The condition of the "Don Juan" when recovered did not favor any assumption that she had capsized in a heavy sea -- rather that she had been run down by some other vessel, a felucca or fishing-smack. In the absence of any counter-evidence this would be supposed to have occurred by accident; but a rumor, not strictly verified and certainly not refuted, exists that an aged Italian seaman on his deathbed confessed that he had been one of the crew of the fatal felucca, and that the collision was intentional, as the men had plotted to steal a sum of money supposed to be on the "Don Juan", in charge of Lord Byron. In fact there was a moderate sum there, but Byron had neither embarked nor intended to embark. This may perhaps be the true account of the tragedy; at any rate Trelawny, the best possible authority on the subject, accepted it as true. He it was who laboriously tracked out the shore-washed corpses of Williams and Shelley, and who undertook the burning of them, after the ancient Greek fashion, on the shore near Via Reggio, on the 15th and 16th of August. The great poet's ashes were then collected, and buried in the new Protestant cemetery in Rome. He was, at the date of his untimely death, within a month of completing the thirtieth year of his age -- a surprising example of rich poetic achievement for so young a man.
The character of Shelley can be considered according to two different standards of estimation. We can estimate the original motive forces in his character; or we can form an opinion of his actions, and from there put a certain construction upon his personal qualities. We will first try the latter method. It cannot be denied by his admirers and eulogists, and is abundantly clear to his censors, that his actions were in some considerable degree abnormal, dangerous to the settled basis of society, and marked by headstrong and undutiful presumption. But it is remarkable that, even among the censors of his conduct, many persons are nonetheless impressed by the beauty of his character; and this leads us back to our first point -- the original motive forces in that. Here we find enthusiasm, fervor, courage (moral and physical), an unbounded readiness to act upon what he considered right principle, however inconvenient or disastrous the consequences to himself, sweetness and indulgence towards others, extreme generosity (he appears to have given Godwin, though sometimes bitterly opposed to him, between £4000 and £5000), and the principle of love for humankind in abundance and superabundance. He respected the truth, such as be conceived it to be, in spiritual or speculative matters, and respected no construction of the truth which came to him recommended by human authority. No man had more hatred or contempt of custom and prescription; no one had a more authentic or vivid sense of universal charity. The same radiant enthusiasm which appeared in his poetry as idealism stamped his speculation with the conception of perfectibility and his character with loving emotion.
In person Shelley was attractive, winning and almost beautiful, but not to be called handsome. His height was nearly 5 feet 11; he was slim, agile, and strong, with something of a stoop; his complexion brilliant, his hair abundant and wavy, dark brown but early beginning to grizzle; the eyes, deep blue in tint, have been termed "stag-eyes" -- large, fixed and beaming. His voice was wanting in richness and suavity -- high-pitched, and tending to the screechy; his general aspect, though extremely variable according as his mood of mind and his expression shifted, was on the whole uncommonly juvenile. The only portrait of Shelley, from which some idea of his looks used to be formed, is that painted byan amateur, Miss Curran, in 1819; Mrs. Shelley, later, pronounced it to be "in many things very like." This is now in the National Portrait Gallery, together with a quasi-duplicate of it painted by Clint, chiefly from Miss Curran's likeness, and partly from a watercolor (now lost) by Lieutenant Williams. In 1905 (Century Magazine) another portrait was brought forward: a pencil sketch taken in the last month of the poet's life by an American artist, William E. West, followed by an oil painting founded on that sketch. The two works differ very considerably, and neither of them resembles Miss Curran's portrait, yet we incline to believe that the sketch was really taken from Shelley.
If we except Goethe, we must consider Shelley to be the supreme poet of that new era of poetry commencing after the French Revolution. Victor Hugo comes nearest to him in poetic stature, and might for certain reasons be even preferred to him; Lord Byron and William Wordsworth also have their numerous champions -- not to speak of Tennyson or Browning. The grounds, however, on which Shelley may be set highest of all are mainly three. He excels all his competitors in ideality, he excels them in music, and he excels them in importance. By importance we here mean the direct import of the work performed, its controlling power over the reader's thought and feeling, the contagious fire of its white-hot intellectual passion, and the long reverberation of its appeal. Shelley is emphatically the poet of the future. In his own day an alien in the world of mind and invention, and in our day but partially a denizen of it, he appears destined to become, in the long vista of years, an informing presence in the innermost shrine of human thought. Shelley appeared at the time when the sublime frenzies of the French revolutionary movement had exhausted the elasticity of men's thought -- at least in England -- and had left them flaccid and stolid; but that movement prepared another in which revolution was to assume the milder guise of reform, conquering and to conquer. Shelley was its prophet. As an iconoclast and an idealist he took the only position in which a poet could advantageously work as a reformer. To outrage his contemporaries was the condition of leading his successors to triumph and of personally triumphing in their victories. Shelley had the temper of an innovator and a martyr; and in an intellect wondrously poetical he united speculative keenness and humanitarian zeal in a degree for which we might vainly seek his precursor. We have already named ideality as one of his leading excellences. This Shelleian quality combines, as its constituents, sublimity, beauty and the abstract passion for good. It should be acknowledged that, while this great quality forms the chief and most admirable factor in Shelley's poetry, the defects which go along with it mar his work too often -- producing at times vagueness, unreality and a pomp of glittering indistinctness, in which excess of sentiment welters amid excess of words. This blemish affects the long poems much more than the pure lyrics; in the latter the rapture, the music and the emotion are in exquisite balance, and the work has often as much of delicate simplicity as of fragile and flower-like perfection.
Some of Shelley's principal writings have already been mentioned above; we must now give a brief account of others. Of his early work prior to Queen Mab -- such romances as Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, such verse as the Poems by Victor and Cazire, and the Fragments of Margaret Nicholson -- we can only here say that they are intrinsically worthless. Alastor was succeeded (1817) by The Revolt of Islam, a poem of no common length in the Spenserian stanzas preaching bloodless revolution; it was written in a sort of friendly competition with John Keats (who produced Endymion) and is amazingly fine in parts, but as a whole somewhat long-drawn and exhausting. This transcendental epic (for such it may be termed) was at first named Laon and Cythna, or the Revolution of the Golden City, and the lovers of the story were then brother and sister as well as lovers -- an experiment upon British endurance which the publishers would not connive at. The year 1818 produced Rosalind and Helen, a comparatively weak poem, begun in England and finished in Italy, and Julian and Maddalo, a very strong one, written in the neighborhood of Venice -- demonstrating in Shelley a singular power of seeing ordinary things with directness, and at once figuring them as reality and transfiguring them into poetry. In each of these two poems Shelley gives a quasi-portraiture of himself. The next year, 1819, was his culmination, producing as it did the grand tragedy of The Cenci and the sublime ideal drama Prometheus Unbound, composed partly on the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. This last we have no hesitation in calling his masterpiece. It embodies, in forms of surpassing imagination and beauty, Shelley's deepest and most daring conceptions. Prometheus, the human mind and will, has invested with the powers proper to himself Jupiter, the god of heaven, who thereupon chains and torments Prometheus and oppresses mankind; in other words, the anthropomorphic god of religion is a creation of the human mind, and both the mind of man and man himself are enslaved as long as this god exercises his delegated but now absolute power. Prometheus, who is from of old wedded to Asia, or Nature, protests against and anathematizes the usurper enthroned by himself. At last the anathema (although Prometheus has revoked it by an act of self-conquest) takes effect: Eternity, Demogorgon, dismisses Jupiter to unending nothingness. Prometheus is at once unbound, the human mind is free; he is reunited to his spouse Nature, and the world of man passes from thraldom and its degradation into limitless progression, or (as the phrase goes) perfectibility, moral and material. This we regard as in brief the argument of Prometheus Unbound. It is closely analogous to the argument of the juvenile poem Queen Mab, but so raised in form and creative touch that, whereas to write Queen Mab was only to be an ambitious and ebullient tiro, to invent Prometheus Unbound was to be the poet of the future. The Witch of Atlas (1820) is the most perfect work among all Shelley's longer poems, though it is neither the deepest nor the most interesting. It may be rated as a pure exercise of roving imagination -- guided, however, by an intense sense of beauty, and by its author's exceeding fineness of nature. The poem has often been decried as practically unmeaning; we do not subscribe to this opinion. The "witch" of this subtle and magical invention seems to represent that faculty which we term "the fancy"; using this assumption as a clue, we find plenty of meaning in the poem, but necessarily it is fanciful or volatile meaning. The elegy on Keats, Adonais, followed in 1821; the Triumph of Life, a mystical and most impressive allegory, constructed upon lines marked out by Dante and by Petrarch, was occupying the poet up to the time of his death. The stately fragment which remains is probably a minor portion of the projected whole. The translations -- chiefly from Homer, Euripides, Calderón and Goethe -- date from 1819 to 1822, and testify to the poetic endowment of Shelley not less absolutely than his own original compositions; there are also prose translations from Plato.
Shelley, it will be seen, was not only a prolific but also a versatile poet. Works so various in faculty and in form as The Revolt of Islam, Julian and Maddalo, The Cenci, Prometheus Unbound, Epipysychidion, and the grotesque effusions of which Peter Bell the Third is the prime example, added to the consummate array of lyrics, have seldom to be credited to a single writer -- one, moreover, who died before he was thirty years of age. In prose Shelley could be as admirable as in poetry. His letters to Thomas Love Peacock and others, and his uncompleted Defence of Poetry, are the chief monuments of his mastery in prose; and certainly no more beautiful prose -- having much of the spirit and the aroma of poetry, yet without being distorted out of its proper essence -- is to be found in the English language.
Father: Timothy Shelley (Member of Parliament, b. 1753, d. 1844)
Mother: Elizabeth Pilfold
Wife: Harriet Westbrook (m. 18-Aug-1811, d. 9-Nov-1816 suicide)
Daughter: Ianthe Eliza (b. 1813, d. 1876)
Son: Charles Shelley (b. 30-Nov-1814, d. 1826)
Wife: Mary Shelley (m. 30-Dec-1816, until his death)
Daughter: Elizabeth Ianthe Shelley (b. 14-Jan-1816, d. 7-Jun-1818)
Son: William Shelley (b. 14-Jan-1816, d. 7-Jun-1818, with Mary)
Daughter: Clara Everina Shelley (b. 2-Sep-1817, d. 24-Sep-1817, with Mary)
Son: Percy Florence Shelley (Baronet, b. 12-Nov-1818, d. 6-Dec-1889, with Mary)
High School: Eton College
University: Oxford University (expelled)
Expelled from School
Lost Child Custody
Risk Factors: Vegetarian
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