Rebel With a Cause: The Life of Shameless Shelley

‘Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound’ by the artist Joseph Severn, painted in 1845, 23 years after the poet’s death
‘Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound’ by the artist Joseph Severn, painted in 1845, 23 years after the poet’s death

by Ray Setterfield


March 25, 1811 — Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in 1792, the eldest son of Sir Timothy Shelley, a Member of Parliament, wealthy landowner and Justice of the Peace. In turn, Sir Timothy was the son of American-born Sir Bysshe (pronounced “Bish”) Shelley, 1st Baronet of Castle Goring.

Thus, the future poet stood in line to inherit not only his grandfather's considerable estate but also a title and a seat in Parliament.

Like prime ministers David Cameron and Boris Johnson, Shelley was educated at Eton College, where he began writing poetry. From there he went up to Oxford University.

Always a rebel, Shelley once described his occupation in the register of a hotel as “Democrat, Philanthropist, Atheist.”

It was his atheist views that got him into trouble at Oxford after he had been studying there for only a year. He and a friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, had jointly written a pamphlet called ‘The Necessity of Atheism’ and circulated it under the pseudonym ‘Jeremiah Stukeley’.

At the time, arguing publicly against God’s existence was a crime in England. Easily recognisable from the style of writing as the pamphlet’s author, Shelley was hauled before the Oxford Council of Deans. He refused to admit or deny the authorship and was suspended.

Without telling the student, his father negotiated a deal with the university that would have allowed his son back in – provided he renounced his atheism publicly. Shelley flatly refused, with the result that he was expelled – and permanently estranged from his father.

After that he took up writing full-time, bolstered by a legacy of £1,000 a year resulting from the death of his grandfather.

At the age of 19 Shelley eloped to Scotland with his sister’s 16-year-old friend, Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a coffee shop owner. Their marriage further enraged Shelley’s father, who considered his son had wed beneath him.

The union was to end in tragedy after five years when the pregnant Harriet committed suicide by drowning herself in the Serpentine lake in London’s Hyde Park.

Before the suicide, Shelley had become increasingly unhappy with his marriage and had accused Harriet of marrying him for his money. He had been spending more and more time away from home, including regular visits to a bookshop owned by atheist journalist and philosopher William Godwin.

There he met William’s 16-year-old daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. The pair became lovers and for the second time Shelley eloped, leaving behind two angry fathers. The couple sailed to France, then made it on foot to Switzerland where they stayed for six weeks. They were married in December, 1816, just 15 days after Shelley heard of Harriet’s death.

After returning to England and “facing the music” with their parents, the Shelleys moved to Italy in 1818. There they spent much time with friends including the flamboyant poet Lord (George Gordon) Byron, who had been famously described by his lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, as ''mad, bad and dangerous to know’'.

They would enjoy sailing on Lake Geneva discussing poetry and other topics, including ghosts and spirits, and it was on one of these trips that Byron suggested each of them should write a ghost story. That was how Mary came to write the novel, Frankenstein.

His love of sailing was to prove fatal for Shelley. On July 8, 1822, while piloting his schooner across Italy’s Bay of Spezia he ran into a storm and the boat foundered. It would be 10 days before his body was washed up near the resort city of Viareggio.

By that time the waves and sea creatures had taken their toll and Shelley’s body was unrecognisable. He was identified only by a volume of Sophocles in one pocket and a book of Keats’s poems – belonging to his friend, English poet Leigh Hunt – in the other.

Shelley was just 29 when he died. Grotesquely by today’s conventions, Mary carried his heart in a silk bag for the rest of her life.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most celebrated writings include the poem Queen Mab – which he dedicated to Harriet – and the verse drama Prometheus Unbound. Probably his most famous poem, though, is Ozymandias, a sonnet that reflects on the changing nature of political power and tyranny, suggesting that all rulers and their kingdoms will fall to the sands of time. In part, it reads:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies . . .
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

It was not until after his death that Shelley became accepted as one of the major English Romantic poets.

Published: March 21, 2020

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