Malcolm Stewart’s copy of the best-known portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley, by amateur artist Amelia Curran, was executed in 1900. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

Shelley’s baby rattle, made of coral and gold and engraved “B*S 1792.” The coral helped with teething. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

Thought to be a miniature portrait of young Shelley, drawn in pencil and watercolor by Antoine-Philippe, duc de Montpensier (1775–1807). Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

“A Cat in Distress,” Shelley’s earliest known extant poem, transcribed and embellished by his sister Elizabeth, ca. 1803–5. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

The conclusion of Shelley’s The Necessity of Atheism, surviving copies of which are extremely rare. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

More Views

Title page of Queen Mab; A Philosophical Poem: With Notes, 1813 edition. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Shelley’s draft of Queen of the Universe, the revision of Queen Mab, is characteristically enlivened with his drawings. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Harriet Shelley’s engagement ring, made of gold, turquoise, and diamond, in its original leather box, ca. 1813. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Harriet Shelley’s last letter, written to her sister and parents, as well as to Shelley, December 1816. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Heirloom scarf ring descended through the family of Percy Bysshe Shelley, made of gold, blue enamel, and pearls, ca. 1811. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Front cover and pages from the manuscript of “A Philosophical View of Reform,” November 1819–ca. 1820, with Shelley’s scribbled notes, calculations, and drawings. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

More Views

Draft of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” probably late 1817. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

Fair copy of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” dated “Octr 25” [1819]. Oxford, Bodleian Libraries   More information

Christopher Adams, a drama student from Oxford University, reads “Ode to the West Wind” aloud. Courtesy Oxford, Bodleian Libraries

Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Sabbath Walk” — leaf 5 (recto) from the Esdaile Notebook, ca. 1808–15. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Mary to the Sea-Wind” — leaf 40 (recto) from the Esdaile Notebook, ca. 1808–15. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Translation of the Marsellois Hymn” — leaf 76 (recto) from the Esdaile Notebook, ca. 1808–15. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Percy Bysshe Shelley, “The Wandering Jews Soliloquy” (concluded) — leaf 91 (recto) from the Esdaile Notebook, ca. 1808–15. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Percy Bysshe Shelley, “To Harriett” — leaf 92 (verso) from the Esdaile Notebook, ca. 1808–15. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

Shelley’s grave in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome; wood engraving, 19th century. NYPL, Berg Collection   More information

Supposed fragments of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s skull, with notes documenting that the relics once belonged to Miss Taylor, a niece of Edward Trelawny. NYPL, Pforzheimer Collection   More information

More Views

Shelley’s American admirer Walt Whitman (1819–1892), in the frontispiece portrait to the first edition of his Leaves of Grass (1855). NYPL, Rare Book Division   More information

W. B. Yeats (1865–1939), photographed in Dublin, January 24, 1908, by Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882–1966). NYPL, Rare Book Division   More information

Robert Browning (1812–1889), from a drawing made by Field Talfourd (1815–1874), in Rome, 1855. NYPL, Print Collection   More information

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Radical, Lover, Atheist, Poet

share

“Two Different Natures”

A Privileged Early Life

A Radical Education

Ongoing Scandal

Works That Challenged “Tyrants”

Sudden Deaths

Shelley’s Ghost

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) is one of the great English poets. His life was brief, eventful, and scandalous. He was expelled from Oxford University, twice eloped with 16-year-old girls, was ostracized for his radical political views, was usually heavily in financial debt, and was forced to spend his final years in exile. Tragedy was never far away: his first wife, Harriet, committed suicide, and only two of his children survived into adulthood. He himself drowned off the coast of Italy, aged just 29.

In the face of these upheavals, Shelley steadily developed his unique literary gifts and, in the space of a few years, composed some of the finest poems and prose works of the Romantic period. They range from short lyrics to ambitious large-scale works. Their beautiful language articulates the most subtle ideas, and their visionary intensity is driven by an unwavering commitment to intellectual freedom and political reform.

Shelley was but one prominent member of a celebrated literary family. His second wife, Mary, wrote one of the most influential, and lasting, novels of the early 19th century — Frankenstein — and was instrumental in establishing his literary reputation after his death. Mary’s parents, the writers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, were central figures in the English Enlightenment.

Shelley wrote that “the poet and the man are two different natures.” His ghost may now be found in the story of his remarkable life, and in his achievements as a writer. As a young man, Shelley would attach his writings to small hot-air balloons and launch them off the English coast. Today, the power and continuing relevance of his work is felt around the world.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s childhood was privileged. His grandfather, Sir Bysshe, was a prosperous baronet who had come from America and married, in succession, two wealthy heiresses. His father, Sir Timothy, was a conventional Sussex landowner and member of Parliament. When not at school, Shelley lived in the sheltered confines of the family home, Field Place — in the county of West Sussex — surrounded by adoring sisters. With his eldest sister, Elizabeth, he wrote and published his earliest book, Original Poetry by “Victor” (Shelley) and “Cazire” (Elizabeth), in 1810. (Unfortunately, Elizabeth’s poetry was, in fact, partly plagiarized and the book was withdrawn.)

In the family, Shelley was always known as Bysshe (pronounced Bish), and his baby rattle, seen here, was therefore engraved “B*S.” The coral soothed sore gums, while the eight bells and whistle of elaborately chased gold would have provided a diversion from infant sorrows.

It is not certain that the sensitively drawn miniature portrait, also seen here, represents the young Shelley, but the long face, large blue eyes, and gentle expression match the description given by his cousin, Thomas Medwin, who knew him at school: “The expression of countenance was one of exceeding sweetness and innocence. His blue eyes were very large and prominent.”

“A Cat in Distress” is Shelley’s earliest known extant poem. It survived in this transcription by his favorite sister, Elizabeth, who also made the watercolor sketch of the cat. Elizabeth was Shelley’s closest companion at Field Place, and the poem seems to refer to an incident the two had shared.

Shelley was educated first at Eton College, the leading English private school, and then at Oxford University, which he entered in 1810. He was already forming the radical, unconventional opinions that would shape his brief life, and after less than two terms he and a friend, T.J. Hogg, were expelled from the university — at the time a Christian establishment run almost exclusively by clergymen — for publishing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism.

Shortly after his expulsion, Shelley eloped with 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook, a friend of his sister Hellen. The subsequent marriage, and his increasingly unorthodox politics, permanently estranged Shelley from his family. Over the next few years, Shelley and Harriet moved constantly around England, Scotland, and Wales. Shelley became a committed radical: he privately printed and distributed pamphlets and broadsides, spoke at public meetings in Dublin, and became a devotee of William Godwin’s writings. He also wrote his long poem Queen Mab when he was 20.

Queen Mab’s subject is nothing less than “The Past, the Present, and the Future,” and the poem is Shelley’s most powerful expression of his youthful radicalism. Fearing prosecution, he withdrew Queen Mab soon after it was printed, distributing 70 or so copies privately, and removing from most of these his name on the title page and the dedication to his wife, Harriet. The original manuscript of Queen Mab has not survived, but Shelley wrote extensive revisions directly onto the pages of a copy of the first edition, seen here, for a new version of the poem that he eventually abandoned.

As Shelley pursued his passion for reforming society, his personal life, always complicated, began to unravel. In 1814, just before his 22nd birthday, he fell in love with William Godwin’s daughter, Mary; left Harriet; and eloped to the Continent with Mary and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont. Shelley and Mary returned to the condemnation of family and friends, and were often in considerable financial difficulty.

Thrown into despair by Shelley’s desertion, Harriet Shelley drowned herself in the Serpentine lake in London’s Hyde Park in late 1816, aged 21. Her body was recovered on December 10, and an inquest into the death of one “Harriet Smith” was held the following day. Although her precise movements in the months leading up to her death are uncertain, we know that she was living away from home, that she had taken a lover, and that she was pregnant. Seen here is Harriet’s last letter, written to her sister and parents, as well as to Shelley. Muddled and full of self-recrimination, it reveals the nervous exhaustion and profound depression of her final days.

In the subsequent court case, Shelley lost custody of his and Harriet’s two children, Ianthe and Charles. Soon afterward Mary’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, also committed suicide. Shelley expected the court of posterity to judge him as a poet. That court, he said, was “a very severe one,” and he feared the verdict would be “guilty death.” For the next century, other, equally severe courts tried him for his personal behavior, and delivered their verdicts.

Shelley’s notebooks show him at work as he disciplines and shapes his thoughts to create highly crafted poetry and prose. Mixed up with literary compositions are reading notes, memoranda, draft letters, accounts, and the numerous doodles — typically of trees or sailing boats — that Shelley habitually drew during intervals of thought.

The Esdaile Notebook, compiled between 1808 and 1815, contains 56 or 57 of Shelley’s youthful poems. He dedicated a number of them to his first love, Harriet Grove, and some to his first wife, Harriet Westbrook Shelley (who probably authored one or two poems herself). Shelley asked a friend, the publisher Thomas Hookham, to consider the notebook for publication, but he declined. The notebook was unknown to scholars for many years after Shelley’s death. First owned by Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, then by their daughter, Ianthe, and then by Ianthe’s descendants, the Esdailes, who kept it in private hands, the Esdaile Notebook was finally published in 1964. With its range of poetic forms, it is now seen as the record of Shelley’s poetic apprenticeship.

Generations of American schoolchildren memorized “Ozymandias,” one of Shelley’s mature works, for classroom recitations. Ozymandias is the Greek name for Ramses II, who ruled Egypt from 1279 to 1213 B.C.E. He was a military conqueror and a great builder, but Shelley’s sonnet — with its ironic line, “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair” — describes how time obliterates the achievements of even the mightiest tyrants.

Shelley wrote his best-known poem, “Ode to the West Wind,” in Florence in late 1819. Technically it is a series of four sonnets written in terza rima, the verse form he would use again, with similar fluency, in his final poem, “The Triumph of Life.” The west wind is an agent of change: with seasonal rejuvenation comes a personal rebirth that will, in turn, inspire the “unawakened Earth.”

Shelley and Mary spent their last four years together, from 1818 to 1822, in Italy. Theirs was an unsettled and uncertain life. They were frequently on the move — Venice, Pisa, Rome, Florence, and Bagni di Lucca were all, for periods, their home. Two of their children, Clara and William, died in infancy.

It was, however, a period of great creativity for both Shelley and Mary, who spent much of their time reading and writing. He composed a number of masterpieces: poems such as Prometheus Unbound, “Epipsychidion,” “Ode to the West Wind,” and “Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats,” as well as the prose works “A Defence of Poetry” and “A Philosophical View of Reform.”

Shelley’s last days were as intense and vivid as the rest of his brief life. He and Mary lived by the sea in a remote village on the Gulf of La Spezia. They shared their house, the Villa Magni, with Claire Clairmont and their friends Edward and Jane Williams. At night Shelley was troubled, Mary remembered, by “nervous sensations and visions.” During the day he wrote and often went sailing with Edward Williams in his boat, the Don Juan. In July 1822, while Shelley and Williams were sailing back to the Villa Magni, a sudden storm took them by surprise, and they were both drowned. The bodies washed ashore some days later.

Shelley was cremated on the beach at Viareggio, and his ashes interred in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. The poet’s friend Edward John Trelawny, who supervised the cremation, snatched Shelley’s heart from the flames, and it was treasured by Mary Shelley until her own death. Trelawny also retained fragments and ashes from the charred remains of the cremation for himself, and gave pieces away as precious Shelley relics over the course of his long life.

When Shelley died in 1822, his publications were appreciated by only a few admirers, the one exception being his early poem Queen Mab, which was popular among radicals in pirated editions. “The ungrateful world did not feel his loss,” Mary Shelley wrote in 1824, “and the gap it made seemed to close as quickly over his memory as the murderous sea above his living frame.”

Shelley’s reputation as a poet, however, grew steadily over the course of the 19th century. Matthew Arnold dismissed him as “a beautiful but ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain,” but he was admired by writers as diverse as Robert Browning and Walt Whitman. Shelley has often been called a poet for the young, and his poetry certainly had a profound influence on the youthful W. B. Yeats, who later remembered Edward Dowden reading aloud passages from his yet unpublished Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley: “I who had made the Prometheus Unbound my sacred book was delighted with all he read.”

In Oxford, a memorial to the poet was opened at his old college, and the Bodleian Library gratefully received a gift of Shelley manuscripts and relics from his daughter-in-law, Jane, Lady Shelley. Collectors on both sides of the Atlantic sought out Shelleyan treasures, some obsessively. By the mid-20th century, Shelley’s literary reputation was secure.

 

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.

Patrons who contribute comments are asked to read our Policy on Patron-Generated Web Content.

View our privacy policy