Percy Bysshe Shelley

(1792 - 1822)

The spirit of revolution and the power of free thought were Percy Shelley's biggest passions in life. After being sent away to boarding school at the age of ten, he attended a lecture on science which piqued his interest in the properties of electricity, magnetism, chemistry and telescopes. On return trips home, he would try to cure his sisters' chilblains by passing electric currents through them. He also hinted of a mysterious "alchemist" living in a hidden room in the attic.

While attending the Eton school from 1804 to 1810, the quiet, odd and reflective boy was taunted relentlessly by schoolmates. This generated in him extremes of anger, once even driving him to stab another boy with a fork. Shelley detested the practice of younger boys buying protection (through doing menial tasks) from older bullies. He was ever the visionary and daydreamer, often forgetting to tie his shoelaces or to wear a hat. His odd behavior eventually earned him the nickname of "Mad Shelley".

At school, Shelley became intrigued with the revolutionary political and philosophical ideas of Thomas Paine and William Godwin. Throughout his life, he emphatically expressed his political and religious views in a struggle against social injustice, often to the point where it got him into trouble or mired in controversy. Later, in Geneva with Byron, he would often write "democrat, great lover of mankind, and atheist" in Greek after his signature in hotel ledgers. Upon finding one of these signatures, Lord Byron remarked: "Do you not think I shall do Shelley a service by scratching this out?" which he promptly did. Shelley detested the monarchy and aristocracy. He was a great believer in the idea of the power of the human mind to change circumstances for the better in a non-violent way.

Shelley attended University College, Oxford in 1810. His friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg describes Shelley's college rooms as such:

Books, boots, papers, shoes, philosophical instruments, clothes, pistols, linen, crockery, ammunition, and phials innumerable, with money, stockings, prints, crucibles, bags, and boxes were scattered on the floor and in every place. . . . The tables, and especially the carpet, were already stained with large spots of various hues, which frequently proclaimed the agency of fire. An electrical machine, an air pump, the galvanic trough, a solar microscope, and large glass jars and receivers, were conspicuous amidst the mass of matter.

The young Shelley was often seen indulging in his habit of sailing paper boats on the water of any nearby pond, lake or river, or reading with a book held right up to his eyes, lying very close to the fire.

... insanity hung as by a hair suspended over the head of Shelley ... ~ Shelley's cousin Medwin ~

In 1811 Shelley wrote and distributed to various bishops and heads of colleges a short pamphlet he wrote on The Necessity of Atheism. One of these he sent to a poetry professor along with a letter signed "Jeremiah Stukley". The professor then brought the letter and essay, which proposed free inquiry into religious belief and suggested that the existence of God remained unproven by physical evidence or reason, to the University College master. Shelley and his friend Hogg were both subsequently expelled from Oxford. This incident greatly upset Shelley's father and grandfather. His relationship with them and his closeness to the rest of his family was never completely mended.

Although he intellectually disliked the institution of marriage, stating that it was not necessary if two people loved each other, he eloped to Scotland in 1811 and married sixteen year-old Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a London merchant and a school friend of his sister. Shelley's father immediately cut off his monetary allowance upon hearing the news, but was eventually persuaded to restart it. Meanwhile, Shelley continued to write political pamphlets, often sending them out in bottles or homemade paper boats over the water, or inside fire balloons into the sky.

At the beginning of 1812 Shelley started to suffer from "nervous attacks" for which he took doses of laudanum. He also started to sleepwalk when life became difficult or stressful. One evening he was either attacked, or imagined he was attacked, outside the door of his cottage. His wife and a neighbor found him lying senseless at the foot of the entryway. It was also in 1812 that he met and became friends with William Godwin and his family.

Harriet bore Shelley's first child, Elizabeth Ianthe, in June of 1813 and by the end of the year was pregnant again. But by 1814, Shelley had fallen in love with Mary Godwin, which upset both Harriet and Mary's father, William. When the two persuaded Mary to stop seeing Shelley for a little while, he showed up distraught and hysterical at her house with laudanum and a pistol, threatening to commit suicide. Soon reconciled, Shelley and Mary later traveled around Europe with Mary's sister Jane (later Claire) Clairmont. By the time they returned to London, Mary was pregnant. Harriet gave birth to Charles, Shelley's first-born son in November of 1814, but she was by now painfully aware that Shelley did not love her anymore.

Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow ....
~ Shelley in 'To A Skylark' ~

Mary gave birth to a tiny girl in February of 1815, but the baby died within a few weeks. She was soon pregnant again, and gave birth to a son, William, in early 1816. Mary, Shelley and Claire spent the summer of 1816 at Lake Geneva at a residence near Byron's. The famous "ghost story contest" which spawned Mary Shelley's Frankenstein took place during this period.

Tragedy struck twice near the end of 1816 after Mary and Shelley had returned to London. Depressed, Mary's sister Fanny committed suicide in October. Later, Harriet's body was found one November morning, drowned in Hyde Park's Serpentine. She had presumably killed herself. She was several months pregnant from an affair with a military officer who had later been sent abroad, and assumedly despondent about Shelley leaving her for Mary. Shelley had had no contact with Harriet since the spring. He soon proposed to Mary and they were married on December 30, 1816.

The newlyweds eventually moved to Great Marlow, where Mary finished her work on Frankenstein while pregnant, and Shelley provided help to the poor -- a habit which made the local aristocrats call him "mad". In a bout of hypochondria, Shelley also imagined for weeks that he was developing elephantiasis after sitting next to a woman with fat legs on a coach.

In 1817 daughter Clara was born, and in 1818 Shelley left England for good to seek warmer climes for his health, not to mention that he also wanted to escape his persecutors in the press and within his own family. While in Italy, Claire Clairmont became pregnant again (after having had Byron's daughter Allegra in 1817), but the identity of the father remains uncertain. Many speculate that Shelley himself was the father, as it is obvious from letters and accounts that he felt a great love for both Claire and Mary; and after all, he was a great proponent of the completely radical idea of "free love" as put forth in his essay On Love and the poem Epipsychidion:

I never was attached to that great sect,
Whose doctrine is, that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion, though it is in the code
Of modern morals....

A baby (Elena Adelaide), born in late 1818 was listed as Shelley and Mary's, but scholars are convinced that it was most likely Claire's. Nonetheless, the child was sent off to foster care, and later died at the age of two.

Tragedy struck the Shelleys again and again in Italy. Baby Clara died in 1818 in Mary's arms while she waited in the hall of an inn for Shelley to find a doctor. Depressed and bitter in December of 1818, in failing health and with a marriage that was falling apart, Shelley composed his Stanzas written in Dejection, near Naples, where he writes:

  Alas! I have nor hope nor health,
     Nor peace within nor calm around,
  Nor that content surpassing wealth
     The sage in meditation found,
     And walked with inward glory crowned--
  Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.
     Others I see whom these surround--
  Smiling they live, and call life pleasure;
To me that cup has been dealt in another measure.

Little William became ill in late May of 1819, and although watched over agonizingly by his parents and loved ones, he died on June 7. This pain was mixed with the joy of the birth of son Percy Florence in November of the same year. Stress took its toll, as Shelley's cousin Medwin, during a visit in 1820, described the twenty-eight-year old poet as "tall, emaciated, stooping, with grey streaks in his hair."

You were all brutally mistaken about Shelley, who was without exception the best and least selfish man I ever knew. ~ Byron, upon Shelley's death ~

Percy Shelley could not swim, and even though he had recently been involved in a boating accident in a canal one night in which he was nearly drowned, he and several friends decided to spend the summer of 1822 sailing on the Bay of Lerici. A boat was ordered and built for this purpose -- named Don Juan by Byron, but renamed Ariel by Shelley. Meanwhile, the pregnant Mary, who was expecting in December, suffered another miscarriage in June. Shelley himself suffered from disturbing recurring nightmares and hallucinations during the summer. One vision was of a naked child rising out of the sea and clapping its hands; another was an encounter with his own doppelgänger on the terrace, who then asked him "How long do you mean to be content?"; and the most terrifying was of his good friends Jane and Edward Williams coming into his room one night, bloody and mangled, to tell him that the house was falling down -- and when he rushed to Mary's room to warn her, he found himself strangling her. Shelley wrote to a friend and asked him to send a lethal dose of prussic acid, not to use immediately, but as comfort to hold "that golden key to the chamber of perpetual rest."

On July 7, after a long trip of sailing out to visit several different friends, a sudden afternoon storm sunk the Ariel ten miles from any land. The bodies of Shelley, Williams and the boat's sailor washed up ten days later and were treated and cremated on the beach because of quarantine laws to protect against the plague. Shelley's ashes were buried in the Protestant cemetery at Rome. His heart was first given to a friend, then to Mary, and eventually buried in Bournemouth. Shelley's final, unfinished poem was, perhaps ironically, titled The Triumph of Life.

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