Percy Bysshe Shelley

In 1812 Southey, disillusioned by the “failure” of the French Revolution, wrote to a friend: “Here is a man at Keswick, who acts upon me as my own ghost would do. He is just what I was in 1794. His name is Shelley, son of the member for Shore-ham; with 6000 pounds a year entailed upon him, and as much more in his father’s power to cut off. Beginning with romances of ghosts and murder, and with poetry at Eton, he passed at Oxford into metaphysics; printed half-a-dozen pages, which he entitled ‘The Necessity of Atheism’;… was expelled in consequence; married a girl of seventeen, after being turned out of doors by his father; and here they both are, in lodgings, living upon £200 a year, which her father allows them… I tell him all the difference between us is that he is nineteen, and I am thirty-seven.”

The girl was Harriet Westbrook, daughter of an innkeeper. Shelley married her out of chivalric pity. After three restless years–in Edinburgh, the Lake Country, Ireland, Wales, and London–he gave her up and eloped to Italy with Mary, the gifted daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. For four years he had endured most of the humiliations of poverty. At twenty-three he came into his own fortune. A restless soul, like Petrarch and Byron, he found no fixed abode, but every few months was up and away, to Ireland, to Wales, to England again, to Switzerland, to Italy and back, from town to country, country to town. His last three years he lived here and there in that “Paradise of exiles, Italy.” The story of his drowning while sailing his own boat home from Leghorn to Lerici, of the burning of his body on the shore, and of the snatching of his heart from the pyre, is a tale on every tongue. He was not quite thirty years old.

At least two false conceptions of Shelley have survived him. According to one, now happily outlived, he was a dangerous, Satanic enemy of all religion, order, morals; according to the other he was, in Matthew Arnold’s specious phrase, a “beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous, wings in vain.” Surviving portraits are sickly and effeminate: except the picture by West. In this, he looks more the man he was–of tender and open heart, generous, winning, quick and vigorous in action, incorruptible, inflexible, exasperated with the greed and stupidity of mankind. Byron knew him as “the most gentle, the most amiable, least worldly-minded person I ever met.”

At school from ten to eighteen, chiefly at Eton, he suffered what a sensitive high-strung lad of genius suffers; but he made a few warm friends, did some extravagant writing, revelled in “necromancy,” dangerous chemical experiments, and the trumpery of tales of terror, and won the nickname, “Mad Shelley.”

But at some time during these years, at seventeen or eighteen, he met the strange experience, a sudden blinding intimation of ideal beauty, of “Nature’s naked loveliness,” which he describes in the preludes to the Revolt of Islam and Alastor, and in the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. Thus he became a poet.

His acquaintance at Oxford with Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, his expulsion, his break with his father, served to settle his nonsense, clear his mind, and release his gift of song.

READ ALSO:  Francis Bacon and His Works

The family, bred for generations in propertied conservatism, and rejoicing in a baronetcy, was the last from which such a poet was to be expected. To be sure, Sir Philip Sidney, two hundred and fifty years before, was a kinsman, and the two had many striking points in common–in their gallant chivalry, their theory and practice of poetry. But this youngster Shelley was a radical, would not renounce his atheistic views, apologize to Oxford, toady for a political career, nor humiliate himself to the tyranny of convention, for his father or anyone else. Into his first marriage, he was in some measure lured by his own chivalry, and it owed its tragic ruin as much to the constant intermeddling of his wife’s older unmarried sister as to any other cause.

Shelley’s affairs, like those of Byron and Burns, have led to no end of talk, condemnation, and excuse. But the genius of a high order, especially in a time so full of revolutionary impulse as theirs, is unsubmissive to conditions that fit ordinary society. Mary Godwin was perhaps a better mate for Shelley than any other woman he ever knew. Though their elopement was quite in accord with Godwin’s theories of free love, the “philosopher” was in a fury over it; yet his rage did not keep him from accepting Shelley’s financial aid for some time after.

For not only did the burden of mankind’s misery at large weigh heavily on Shelley’s mind and heart; any single instance touched him to the quick and stirred his generous hand to relief. During his last year in England, at Great Marlowe on the Thames, he worked manfully to relieve the poor in that region who were suffering from the new industrial conditions. He loved “the starlight smile of children,” knew how to romp and play with them on even terms, and was a devoted father.

He saw the wretched world about him as the result of centuries of tyranny, greed, violence, selfish exploitation of men and women and children, misrepresentation, and obscuration of the truth. It was a conspiracy of king, priest, and soldier, perverting, corrupting, and destroying everything. Only the spiritual forces of Love and Joy and Truth ruling the human heart could ever prevail against it, and of such a victory the vision was ever before him. To it, he committed the gallant energies of his genius. It is his one grand theme. At twenty he was in Ireland writing and working for Irish freedom. Most of his longer poems rehearse the struggle for human liberty. In Queen Mab, written when he was twenty-one, the Fairy Queen transports the soul of Ianthe aloft to a vision, first of the human misery from war and superstition and trade, then of man’s recovery through reason, science, and purity of heart. Alastor (1816) traces the fatal agony of a young poet in conflict with this perverted world. In his longest poem, The Revolt of Islam (1818), first called Laon and Cythna, he sets forth in allegory the liberation of the world from tyranny through the love and martyrdom of a high-souled young man and woman. With glowing hope he turns to America, “a People mighty in its youth,” whence will come release to the mother country from the inbred monsters which now oppress her. In his greatest work, Prometheus Unbound, he shows how Intelligence linked with Love (Asia) and Vision (Panthea), supported by popular brute strength (Demogorgon), will in the end overthrow all tyranny (Jupiter). In his Spenserian Mask of Anarchy, roused by the news of the “Manchester Massacre,” he pictures the pageant and chariot of the skeleton Anarchy threatening to crush Hope, and exhorts the hosts of English labourers to resist such exploitation, not by violence, but by return to old English liberties, by Love and Justice and Wisdom and Science and Poetry. In The Triumph of Life, a similar chariot and charioteer move along, dragging tyrants behind them, and crushing the mad misguided human horde beneath the wheels. His extravaganza in the manner of Aristophanes, Swellfoot the Tyrant, reiterates the theme; and he touches it again at the close of his gorgeous Spenserian phantasy, The Witch of Atlas, who in her wilful capricious rovings makes fools of kings, priests, and soldiers. It is implied in his terrible drama, The Cenci, with its Shakespearian atmosphere, where the lovely Beatrice suffers unjust death at the hands of the law for killing a brutal father who had done her incestuous wrong. Hellas. written within a year of his death, and inspired by the Persae of Aeschylus, is a half dramatic, half lyric representation of old Greek love of liberty rising to free modern Greece from Turkish tyranny in the face of all Europe.

Let the tyrants rule the desert they have made;
Let the free possess the paradise they claim.

Such regeneration of the world should be easy enough. Do we not learn from Rousseau and Godwin that all men in their natural state are not only free and equal but good?

Progressive as were Shelley’s ideas, the abounding spring of his “romanticism” was in Greek literature, especially in the plays of Aeschylus and in the thought and imagery of Plato. His little essay, A Defence of Poetry, sets forth a Platonic theory that all his works illustrate. He delighted too in the Homeric Hymns of which he made spirited English versions, and in the radiant and diminutive imagery of Theocritus and his kind.

The Prometheus Unbound is his most elaborate composition. The old Prometheus story of vicarious suffering for mankind had been shaped by Aeschylus to his hand. But this basic theme he develops with resonant echoes, not only of the old play but of King Lear, Milton’s Samson, Marlowe’s Faustus, into a spectacle of the tragic sufferer like Goethe’s Faust and Byron’s Manfred. There are traces of romantic storm and stress, of the shudders of the old tale of terror in which he had once dabbled; but the whole fabric is etherealized into a glorification of human freedom through love and intelligence. Past dazzling transcriptions of sunset, deep water, dark woods, domed and statued cities, snow peaks and vast expanse of plain, a Crucifixion, an Aphrodite rising from the sea, it moves forward with the swift and free momentum of Shelley’s natural music, now light, now deep, to the lyric finale of all Nature and humankind.

Like Spenser, Shelley saw about him a world in desperate need of regeneration; like Spenser, he found the most convenient medium for the expression of his ideas in allegory; like Spenser, he found natural nourishment for his genius in Plato, especially in the ideas contained in the Symposium, which he translated for his wife. The Spenserian stanza, “a measure inexpressibly beautiful,” as he says, he used for his most sustained work, The Revolt of Islam, and for his most carefully wrought, Adonais.

READ ALSO:  Emily Dickinson - Life and Literary Contributions

Shelley loved a boat. Wherever he lived, by the Thames, the Arno, the lake of Geneva, the lagoons of Veaice, he owned or had the use of a boat. His inspiration, always sensitive to local conditions, was often strongest when he was drifting or sailing alone. It is not surprising that in poem after poems, such as Queen Mab, Alastor, The Witch of Atlas, Adonais, the boat, usually self-propelled or borne on swift current, past towering cliffs or dark pine forest or sunlit glades, leaps lightly forward with the rapid movement of his verse, a symbol of his own mind. For the swift movement of rapidly flowing water is the natural movement of his melody. Which is to be expected in one always so sensitively aware of the Platonic spiritual beauty manifest in all physical beauty. Hence his love of things evanescent and half disembodied, of light in all its forms, of dew, mists, clouds, sky, ice, fire, wind, falling leaves, vanishing birds, and of the dark and lonely mysteries of caverns, old ruins, deep evergreen forest, unscaled heights, and death.

Excellent examples are his short poems, which have always been the favourites, such as Lines among the Euganean. Hills, Stanzas in Dejection near Naples, The Cloud, The West Wind, Arethusa, To Night, “Music when soft voices die,” Indian Serenade, Ozymandias, and To a Skylark.

When Shelley learned of the death of John Keats in Rome, he was convinced that the scathing review of Keats’s work by the vested literary interests in the Quarterly had caused it. He had hardly known Keats, and except for Hyperion, did not appreciate much of his poetry. Yet his old chivalric fire leapt into flame at the stupid cruelty of the reviewer, and he sprang to noble revenge in his Adonais.

This splendid memorial is his most carefully wrought poem. It springs from three ancient pastoral elegies, as lovely as Shelley’s and as exquisitely made—Theocritus’s lament for Daphnis, Bion’s for Adonis, and Moschus’s for Bion. But the sensuous details of the originals Shelley has touched with his peculiar transforming and etherealizing power, and Aphrodite becomes his Platonic Urania, cupids and wood-gods turn to the poetic imaginings of the dead poet, and mourning deities are changed into extraordinary shadow portraits of Byron and Shelley himself. He floods with his peculiar poetic glamour the old cemetery on the edge of Rome where Keats was buried, and where now lie the remains of Shelley himself with those of his little son William. The poem rises on the long swell of the Spenserian stanza to a glorious Platonic apotheosis of the soul of Keats, and ends with the strange prophecy of his own fate a year later:

My spirit’s bark is driven
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given…

I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.


  • Charles Grosvenor Osgood, The Voice of England, 2nd Ed., 1935, 1952 Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York.

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter