Shelley, Percy Bysshe (1792-1822)

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Author: Susan Balée
Date: 2002
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Critical essay; Work overview; Excerpt; Biography
Length: 10,635 words

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Page 243

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Susan Balée

Introduction

The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is Poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature… . Poets are … the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present… . Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry, 1821

In his own lifetime, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry and prose languished in the shadow of his personal reputation as an atheist and an adulterer. However, like a mirror, he reflected in his verse, his essays, and his political pamphlets, the best (most prominent and cogently argued) of the radical theories of the reformers of his day. Although he died long before the working classes had adequate representation or rights, and long before divorce and adultery lost their intense social stigma, his work indicated the future path of labor unions and equality between the sexes.

Shelley endured both social and literary exile during his own era, with many of his best works not published until long after his death. The futurity he imagined, however, finally arrived in the twentieth century. Percy Shelley’s poems and essays routinely appear in anthologies devoted to nineteenth-century literature, and his name is recognizable to any student of English literature as one of the greatest of the Romantic poets.

EARLY LIFE

PERCY Bysshe Shelley was born on 4 August 1792 at Field Place, in Sussex, the son of Timothy Shelley, a member of Parliament, and the grandson of Bysshe Shelley, a wealthy landowner who was made a baronet in 1806. Shelley grew up in a respectable family of minor aristocracy, the first child and doted-upon elder brother of several little sisters. Verbally precocious, young Shelley delighted in telling stories of ghosts and devils and other supernatural horrors to his awestruck young listeners. Almost as soon as he could read, Shelley developed a taste for Gothic fiction— tales of ruined castles with ghosts and secret chambers, terrified maidens, and dark, gloomy heroes—a genre of literature that had become increasingly popular since the French Revolution of 1789.

In fact, in many ways Percy Shelley embodied the contradictions of the era into which he was born. His childhood corresponded with the Reign of Terror—both politically in France, and imaginatively in literature—and he also enjoyed the fruits of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment with its scientific advances in numerous fields, including those that Shelley soon found most intriguing: electricity, gases, and combustion. In fact, it was young Shelley’s love of setting fires that determined his father to send him away to school to learn not only Greek and Latin, but also self-discipline. Thus, at age ten, the sensitive, proud boy, much attached to his mother and young sisters, left home to enter the all-male realm of Syon House, a prep school outside London.

Most of Shelley’s major biographers agree that Shelley’s experiences at the hands of his brutal schoolboy companions profoundly affected the course of his later life, and not in a way that Timothy Shelley could have desired. A country boy, pale and delicate of face and frame, with long curling hair and an effeminate voice, Percy Shelley was soon the object of daily torture from the school’s bullies. When provoked beyond his breaking point, Shelley responded with fits of uncontrollable and ineffective rage, to the delight of his tormentors. At age twelve Shelley left Syon House for Eton, but he fared no better among his peers there. He refused to serve as a valet (or “fag”) for the older students—a tradition of English boys’ schools—and thus had no protection Page 244  |  Top of Articlefrom the elder boys against the cruelties of his peers. Again, his more brutal companions sought him out for special punishment, tormenting him until he cried and screamed in impotent rage, earning him the nickname “Mad Shelley.” Ever after, he remembered his school days with anguish and loathing. His only release from the emotional and physical pain of his life at Syon and Eton came from his own imagination and from books.

Shelley’s early life, then, contained all the elements that would later produce his best writing. He felt oppressed by tyrants—his teachers, his fellow students, and later his father; he felt betrayed—by his father and mother, for sending him away to school; he was tormented for being different and yet refused to change—he would not “fag,” no matter how much abuse he suffered for refusing to serve the older boys. The pattern of Shelley’s life as a rebel was early established, as was his thirst for justice and his kindness to those who were powerless and oppressed.

His love of lurid, Gothic literature continued, as did his pleasure in being the adored (and occasionally feared) mentor of younger females. His experiments with electricity, fire, and explosives continued, and his knowledge of Greek and Latin prospered apace. A product of the Enlightenment as well as the governmental oppression that produced the American and French revolutions, Shelley laid the groundwork of his future notoriety during his sophomore year at Oxford when he published his first explosive work of literature, The Necessity of Atheism.

LIBERTY AND FREE LOVE

SHELLEY’S Necessity of Atheism made him infamous at Oxford. Indeed, the authorities there were so outraged by the principles outlined in it that Shelley, with his friend and collaborator, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, were expelled. Before the notorious pamphlet appeared, however, Shelley had already published several works of Gothic fiction and verse. Notable among these was Zastrozzi, a rather derivative romance based on his copious readings in the Gothic fiction of M. G. “Monk” Lewis and Ann Radcliffe, which appeared in 1810, when Shelley was a mere eighteen years old.

The Oxford University experience struck Shelley as suffocatingly clerical (daily attendance at chapel was mandatory for students), although at least the scion of Field Place did not have to endure the bullying of his peers. Instead he made his first really close male friend there in the person of Hogg, another freshman. Hogg turned Shelley’s mind from Gothic fiction to political doctrine. Together they began to read and discuss the best—and most radical—works of eighteenth-century political philosophers, including Thomas Paine, David Hume, William Godwin, John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They burned to revolutionize English society, particularly the claustrophobic corridors of Oxford, and they felt inspired by the French Revolution, despite its long and bloody aftermath of anarchy.

Reacting to what they saw as the religious tyranny of Christianity—its wars and inquisitions, its insistence on “unnatural” institutions, such as marriage—they set out to prove that no evidence of the senses, reasoning, or personal testimony supported the existence of a supreme deity, and that, instead, such a belief is a “passion of the mind,” full of prejudice and without proof. The pamphlet had its intended effect of shocking the Oxford authorities, and Shelley and Hogg were promptly expelled. Timothy Shelley was horrified by his son’s “impious” pamphlet and tried to get him to recant his heretical views, which he would not do. At this point a rift began to open between father and son, and Shelley, no longer on speaking terms with Timothy, lived in a kind of exile in London, trying to decide what to do with his life.

During these months Shelley slept badly, troubled by nightmares about the existence of a “double self” (a very Gothic concept that recurred throughout his life in his dreams, his waking hallucinations, and ultimately his writings); he had also become a sleepwalker, sometimes waking in strange places outdoors. Idle, bored, and lonely, he began to visit the Westbrooks, a London family he knew slightly through his younger sisters. John Westbrook, the paterfamilias, owned a coffeehouse, and the family lived comfortably. His youngest daughter, Harriet, was a sixteen-year-old beauty. Within four months Shelley had worked his charm on her, culminating in their elopement to Scotland. (Although he did not believe in marriage, Harriet Westbrook emphatically did and would not run away with him otherwise.)

When Timothy Shelley discovered the elopement, and his aristocratic son’s mesalliance with a shopkeeper’s daughter, he cut off Percy’s allowance. After Percy responded with several enraged and demanding letters, berating his father as a tyrant Page 245  |  Top of Articleand a bigot, Timothy cut off all relations with his son. When Percy Shelley turned nineteen on 4 August 1811, he had been expelled from Oxford, alienated from his family, and married to a sixteen-year-old girl who depended on him for financial, intellectual, and emotional support. At this point his life took on a nomadic quality, as desperate finances and his reputation as a troublemaker forced him to move residences with regularity. The one ideal of this period that remained constant for the rest of his life was his desire to found a commune of like-minded spirits, whose members could live, love, and work together, equal in everything.

RADICAL POLITICS

Now drawn to politics as much as he had once been drawn to Gothic fiction, Shelley began to read the works of William Godwin, in particular Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (first published in 1793), which advocated the rights of the working classes. In January 1812 he wrote Godwin his first fan letter, and a correspondence began between the young atheist and the aging political philosopher.

During this time Shelley’s writing was completely given over to political poems and pamphlets. The best poem of this era is his “A Tale of Society As It Is,” based on the true story of a poor woman whose only son is pressed into the army, leaving her to provide for herself as best she can:

For seven years did this poor woman live
In unparticipated solitude.
Thou might have seen her in the desert rude
Picking the scattered remnants of its wood.
If human, thou might’st there have learned to grieve.

In 1812 Harriet and Shelley went to Ireland, where Shelley hoped to inspire a revolution among the downtrodden peasants there, having written a political pamphlet, An Address to the Irish People, for precisely this purpose. Godwin, with whom he continued to correspond, worried about the incendiary nature of the pamphlet Shelley was distributing in Dublin. Godwin urged him to tone down his rhetoric or he would incite the mob to violence, causing them to “rise up like … seed of dragon’s teeth, and their first act will be to destroy each other” (14 March 1812, Letters, vol. 1, p. 269).

Shelley responded that Godwin’s was a sort of armchair radicalism and that Political Justice’s emphasis on gradual change through “fireside discussions” and congenial intercourse among those of different political persuasions had effected little change in the conditions of the working poor in twenty years. Shelley wanted to see real change occur, not just talk of its future possibility. In such a spirit Shelley addressed the Catholic Committee in Dublin but soon realized that the liberal wing of Irish politics was severely disorganized. More importantly he saw the real horrors of poverty and famine in the streets of Dublin, which he described to Godwin in a letter as the “depth of human misery,” and the poor people themselves as “one mass of animated filth” (Letters, vol. 1, p. 268). He attempted to help the most miserable of those he encountered, but frequently his interference in their lives did little or no good at all. Shelley’s idealism about an Irish revolution began to falter in the face of such abject poverty. He and Harriet determined to leave Ireland, and the one real change that Shelley took with him was a new system of diet: he had become a vegetarian.

QUEEN MAB

AFTER leaving Ireland, Shelley and Harriet lived in successive places in Wales and England, with a variety of people—Harriet’s elder sister Eliza, Shelley’s schoolmarm correspondent, Miss Hitchener, Shelley’s Oxford friend, T. J. Hogg—as Shelley attempted to put into action his idea of a radical commune. During this period of his life he continued to read voraciously on a variety of subjects and began composition of his first long political poem, Queen Mab.

In the summer of 1813 Shelley’s London publishers brought forth Queen Mab, and Harriet Shelley gave birth to their first child, Eliza lanthe Shelley. The targets of Queen Mab, a poetic polemic, are organized religion, political tyranny, the destructiveness of war, and the perversion of love caused by marriage and prostitution. The poem advocates free love, atheism, vegetarianism, and democracy. Queen Mab was a radical poem by a radical and prodigiously intelligent young man. It survived until well into the nineteenth century as a text beloved by radical reformers and Marxists.

The poem itself, though immature in some ways (Shelley was only twenty years old when it appeared), exudes an angry eloquence.

Power, like a desolating pestilence,
Pollutes whate’er it touches; and obedience
Page 246  |  Top of Article
Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth,
Makes slaves of men, and of the human frame,
A mechanized automaton.
(3.177-180)

Like other Romantic poets, Shelley responded harshly to the Industrial Revolution and the demoralizing effect of factory life on the working classes. Another theme underscored in Queen Mab, particularly in light of Shelley’s personal life, is his insistence that the “very essence of love is liberty” and that “any law which would bind [lovers] to cohabitation for one moment after the decay of their affection would be a most intolerable tyranny.” (Shelley’s Prose, pp. 115-117)

Shelley turned twenty-one in August, but the inheritance he and Harriet hoped he would come into did not materialize. Timothy Shelley, through his lawyers, obstructed the money, and Shelley and Harriet were forced to continue life in relative penury, with the addition of a new baby to their responsibilities. Shelley’s only recourse was to negotiate with moneylenders for loans at ruinous interest rates (one as much as 300 percent a year), to be paid on the death of his grandfather or father, at which point he would certainly inherit a significant amount of money. During this period of uncertainty Shelley became even closer to William Godwin, whom he had now met several times in person, a relationship that would lead, in less than a year, to a surprising and rather shocking consequence. Also during this period, Shelley’s diary records his first serious unhappiness with Harriet. She had become physically repugnant to him, and he began to regret that he had ever married her.

MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT GODWIN

MANY biographers have noted that the moment when Percy Shelley met Mary W. Godwin was a turning point in the course of his life. Certainly it was for Mary, whose mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had written Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), a very early and much celebrated feminist text, and whose father, Godwin, was the revered author of Political Justice. Mary’s mother had died shortly after giving birth to her, but she had endowed her daughter with a luminous intellect. Mary Godwin at age sixteen glowed with intellectual brilliance and physical beauty. Shelley, who was also intensely cerebral, well read, and physically “beautiful” (a description that Godwin and many others used to describe him), recognized instantly that he had met his match in Mary. Her feelings, if anything, were even stronger. She knew that Shelley was a married man and a father, but her sense of connection to him was immediate and electric. At his first introduction to Mary in June 1814, he also met Jane (later “Claire”) Clairmont, Mary’s younger stepsister, the woman who would form the third angle of the triangular relationship that the three would share for the rest of Shelley’s life.

Within a matter of weeks Mary and Shelley had declared their love for each other, and Shelley announced it to Godwin, surprised that Mary’s father should be so appalled by this instance of true and “free” love. Godwin, who believed in many types of equality, didn’t believe that his daughter should cast her lot with a married man and bring a scandal upon the family. He tried everything to dissuade the two, even bringing Harriet Shelley to London to remind Percy of his vows to her. For his part, Shelley calmly told Harriet that he felt for her a brother’s love for a sister, but that his romantic passion burned for one woman only: Mary Godwin. Harriet’s announcement that she was pregnant with their second child did not dissuade him.

Meanwhile, Godwin barred Mary and Claire from leaving the house, in a vain attempt to keep them from Shelley. In the end, all precautions were useless: Shelley carried away both Mary and Claire on 28 July 1814, spiriting the girls to Dover by carriage, then by boat to France.

FABLES AND ROMANCES: 1814-1816

SHELLEY and the girls’ first impressions of France reflected the landscape’s desolation—the country had been ravaged by years of the Napoleonic Wars. They passed through village after village that had been sacked and burned, their inhabitants famished and wretched. The Shelleys decided to press fast through this ruined landscape for Switzerland.

By the time they reached the Alps, Shelley was writing a romance about a sect of primitive Christians who had escaped the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and fled into a fertile valley of Lebanon to live in peace. This sect, and Shelley’s romance, was called The Assassins. As Richard Holmes observes, the work’s main theme Page 247  |  Top of Articleof flight followed by a happy and productive community reflects the issues in Shelley’s own life as he fled London with the girls and sought a new community of existence with them in Europe.

The Assassins is an unfinished work of approximately four chapters, but it was preparation for Shelley’s long poem of the next year, Alastor, seven hundred lines of blank verse depicting, as Shelley explained, “one of the most interesting situations of the human mind.” The poem is loosely based on the myth of Narcissus and Echo; the Narcissus character is a poet in search of an ideal vision of beauty. He dreams of such a woman, but as a product of his imagination, she cannot be possessed. He ignores an Arab girl who actually falls in love with him; instead he embarks on a perilous river journey, searching for the woman of his dreams. In the course of the journey he grows ill and old and ultimately finds himself in a grotesque landscape, staring at his own image in a pond, “as the human heart, / Gazing in dreams over the gloomy grave, / Sees its own treacherous likeness there” (472-474). All of the landscapes described, Shelley emphasized, were interior ones—mental landscapes that corresponded to emotional states he wanted to explore.

The poem’s full title is Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude, and it is this spirit that Shelley tries hard to evoke. Mental solitude, Shelley emphasizes, ultimately brings despair to the individual. Humans are meant to live and love in communities, not alone. The poem appeared in 1816 and most of its reviewers found it obscure and difficult, though possessed of some striking imagery. The reception accorded Alastor would be echoed throughout Shelley’s career. During his lifetime Shelley never enjoyed a regular readership of congenial minds.

Insofar as Bysshe Shelley, Percy’s grandfather, had died in January 1815, Shelley returned with his menage to England. His first wife, Harriet, gave birth to his son, Charles, in November 1814, but Shelley would have nothing to do with either Harriet or his two children by her. In January 1816 Mary gave birth to their first surviving child, William. Of all his children, this son was the one to whom Shelley was most attached.

Complications of old Sir Bysshe’s will prevented the Shelleys from leaving London while they waited for a resolution to their financial problems. During this time Claire Clairmont set her cap at the most famous poet of the age, George Gordon, Lord Byron. Her pursuit of Byron introduced him to the Shelleys and linked them all for one memorable and intensely literary summer.

BYRON AND SHELLEY: SWITZERLAND 1816

BY THE END of April, Shelley had found out from the courts that he would not inherit anything yet from his grandfather’s estates. Claire Clairmont had begun an affair with Lord Byron, who had succumbed to her persistent charms shortly before leaving London for the Continent (Byron, too, had had business with the courts—attaining a legal separation from his wife—and, also like Shelley, had a bad reputation in England as a sexual libertine). In late May the Shelleys connected with Byron in Geneva, Switzerland.

During the course of this summer the Shelleys and Byron became close friends and companions. They discussed the latest advances in science, philosophy, and literature. Regarding literature, they often discussed German Gothic fiction, of which all were fond. Byron found a collection of German horror tales and, after avidly reading and discussing these tales, Shelley suggested that all of them should try their hands at writing a ghost story. The most accomplished of the stories from that summer is still famous today: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. Mary’s story is similar to Shelley’s long poem Alastor in that both show the way that humans who endure isolation for long periods ultimately succumb to despair. The significant difference between the two works is that Frankenstein’s monster is forced by his creator into a life of spiritual and physical exile, whereas the young protagonist of Alastor chooses his solitary life. (Dr. Frankenstein, obsessed by his desire for knowledge about the sources of life and death, more closely resembles the youth, and by the time he tries to reconnect to his friends, family, and the woman he loves, it is too late.)

During this summer Shelley and Byron frequently sailed together on Lake Leman. Shelley, it turned out, could not swim, but he refused Byron’s offer to teach him. Also during this summer, Shelley traveled with Claire and Mary through the Alps. The striking scenery provided Mary with a backdrop for the confrontation scene between Dr. Frankenstein and his monster on the Mer de Glace (“sea of ice”). Shelley, like virtually every other English visitor before him, felt overwhelmed by Page 248  |  Top of Articlethe cruel majesty of the Alps. Both fascinated and fearful, he felt the human mind to be a puny thing indeed in comparison with the brute force of nature represented by the Alpine landscape. Shelley’s poem, “Mont Blanc” is the poet’s attempt to understand the effect that viewing the huge mountain had on his mental landscape.

In the first section of “Mont Blanc,” Shelley analyzes the way the mind amasses information through sensory experience: “The everlasting universe of things / flows through the mind” (1-2). The mind serves as a filter for experience, but it also adds something to the data it takes in, because “from secret springs / The source of human thought its tribute brings” (4-5). In section 2 of the poem, Shelley establishes the mind as a ravine through which a river of sensory perceptions flows. His fascination with his own (admittedly brilliant) mind is evident:

Dizzy ravine!… when I gaze on thee
I seem as in a trance sublime and strange
To muse on my own separate fantasy,
My own, my own human mind.
                               (34-37)

In section 3 the poet finally looks up at Mont Blanc and wonders: “Has some unknown Omnipotence unfurled / The veil of life and death?” (52-53). The sight of the massive peak does not merely inspire awe in the poet, it terrifies him: “For the very spirit fails, / Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep / That vanishes among the viewless gales!” (56-59). The poet goes on to muse that when humans contemplate the wilderness (Nature in its wildest, most inhuman landscapes), the contemplation inevitably provokes one of two conclusions: belief or disbelief in a supreme being.

Section 4 describes the ineluctable power of a moving glacier, the “flood of ruin” (107) that it causes, not just to rocks and trees but also to humans who attempt to live in its shadow. The glacier moves, but “Mont Blanc yet gleams on high,” immune to the catastrophes below it, indifferent witness to scenes of both life and death. Section 5 provides the poem’s finale, a difficult meditation on Nature and the human mind:

And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?
                                     (142-144)

Some critics suggest that Shelley implies that Nature has no meaning other than that assigned to it by the individual human mind. The fact that shortly after his visit to Mont Blanc he began signing “Atheist” in the hotel registers that asked for his occupation (a prank that got back to England and further inflamed popular sentiment against him) seems to support the notion that the sublime scenery of the Alps did not produce faith in Shelley, but only increased his doubt in the existence of a deity that cared about the fate of humankind.

LEIGH HUNT AND LONDON’S YOUNG POETS

BY the end of summer financial affairs prompted Shelley with Mary and Claire (now three months pregnant with Byron’s child) to return to London. The autumn of 1816 saw a renewed interest in labor reform and poor relief in England. Shelley was a passionate advocate of these causes, as was Leigh Hunt, the editor of an important liberal journal, the Examiner. In the 1 December issue of his journal Hunt had listed Shelley with John Keats as rising English poets. Shelley, thrilled to finally receive a positive review, wrote Hunt a passionate and revealing letter. He identified himself as a reformer, one with “powers deeply to interest, or substantially to improve, mankind.” Unfortunately he also felt like Frankenstein’s monster, or the youth of Alastor, for he added, “I am an outcast from human society; my name is execrated by all who understand its entire import,—by those very beings whose happiness I ardently desire” (8 December 1816, Letters, vol. 1, p. 517). Hunt, he felt, understood him—and their friendship, as well as their professional connection, prospered.

Meanwhile, during the autumn of 1816 it was really Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Westbrook, who felt like an outcast from human society. She had left her two children by Shelley with her parents and taken lodgings in Chelsea under an assumed name. Pregnant, presumably with the child of an officer stationed at the barracks in Chelsea, Harriet committed suicide on 9 November. She jumped into the Serpentine River, and her body was not found for over a month.

Harriet left a suicide note asking Shelley to raise their son, Charles, but to let her elder sister keep their daughter, lanthe. Shelley refused and ultimately lost custody of both children. Meanwhile, Mary pressured him to marry her since Harriet’s Page 249  |  Top of Articledeath had freed him, and he did so on 30 December 1816. Then, for several weeks beginning in late January, Mary and Shelley stayed with the Leigh Hunts. Although he did not reveal how deeply he was affected by Harriet’s suicide at the time (presumably to spare Mary), Shelley later wrote to Byron that her death gave him a shock that he barely survived.

At the Hunts’, Shelley got to know the other leading English poets and writers of the day, including John Keats and William Hazlitt. Keats remarked in his journals that he did not like Shelley’s antireligious fanaticism, and Hazlitt found him full of book learning but with little real experience in the world. Hazlitt wrote, “Curiosity is the only proper category of his mind, and though a man in knowledge, he is a child in feeling….” (A R. Walles and Arnold Glover, eds., The Collected Works of William Hazlitt, vol. 6., pp. 48-49). The Hunts, however, loved Shelley and gave much comfort to him and Mary.

MARLOW: 1817-1818

IN February the Shelleys moved to their own house in Marlow, outside London. Claire left her young daughter by Byron with the Hunts and moved back in with Percy and Mary. At the house in Marlow, Shelley wrote his long political poem Laon and Cythna, published in 1818 as The Revolt of Islam. In this poem Shelley tried to capture the primary event of his epoch, the one that influenced every writer of his time: the French Revolution. In his preface to the poem Shelley writes: “Can he who was the day before a trampled slave suddenly become liberal-minded, forbearing, and independent? … Such is the lesson which experience teaches us now. But, on the first reverses of hope in the progress of French liberty, the sanguine eagerness for good overleaped the solution of these questions… .”(Poetical Works, p. 33).

In early September, Mary gave birth to Clara, who joined big brother William in the Shelley household. During the fall Shelley wrote more political pamphlets about the wretched state of the working classes in Europe. His health was bad—he suffered from pains in his side that were later diagnosed as kidney stones—and he felt depressed.

In January The Revolt of Islam appeared to mixed reviews, at least one of which savaged the author personally. The poem’s protagonists are Laon and Cythna, a man and woman (brother and sister in the original poem, which was why Shelley had to amend and retitle the work to get it published) who together battle the forces of oppression through their leadership of a revolutionary army. The Tyrant’s army engages with the freedom fighters and the poem includes some gruesome battle scenes: “their eyes started with cracking stare / And impotent their tongues lolled in the air / Flaccid and foamy like a mad dog’s hanging … (stanzas 16-17). Laon and Cythna, after capture and torture, regain their freedom, become lovers, and lead their revolutionaries back into the Tyrant’s city, which they liberate. Laon looks to the future with hope in an impassioned speech.

“The seeds are sleeping in the soil: meanwhile
 The Tyrant peoples dungeons with his prey,
 Pale victims on the guarded scaffold smile
  Because they cannot speak; and day by day,
  The moon of wasting Science wanes away
 Among her stars, and in that darkness vast
 The sons of earth to their foul idols pray….
 
 This is the winter of the world….
 Behold! Spring comes….
  The future, a broad sunrise; thus arrayed
 As with the plumes of overshadowing wings’
From its dark gulf of chains, Earth like an eagle
 springs.”
                                      (stanzas 24-25)

The poem is clearly a dark one, reflecting Shelley’s feelings about the current state of politics in Europe. Only after much present despair and suffering can the future, the spring of the world, give hope to the downtrodden.

During the period he was composing The Revolt of Islam, Shelley was also visiting the British Museum and studying the many Egyptian artifacts, including the Rosetta stone, recently brought back to England by archaeologists who had explored Ramses’ tomb. Shelley decided to write a sonnet about some of these fragments and produced one of his most famous poems, “Ozymandias.” This poem describes a statue discovered in the desert by a traveler. The statue’s trunk is missing and its head lies in the sand, “a shattered visage” whose “sneer of cold command / Tell that its sculptor well those passions read.” The pedestal of the statue declares that its subject is Ozymandias, “King of Kings / Look on my Page 250  |  Top of Articleworks, ye Mighty, and despair!” However, what the desert traveler looks on beside the statue is nothing: “boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

By March 1818, Shelley realized that he could no longer stay in England. He didn’t have the financial resources and the social stigma attached to his name was painful. Once again, he chose the exile’s route and he, with Mary and Claire and their children, left for Europe. This time, they settled in Italy.

ITALY AND GREEK TRAGEDY

AFTER moving from inn to inn for several months, unable to get a lease on a house they liked, the Shelleys finally settled in the Mediterranean port of Livorno. Shelley began to read the Greek dramatists Euripides and Sophocles in the original. He was commencing the work that would later lead to his excellent translations of several major Greek, Latin, and Spanish works into English. Moreover, he discovered that the act of translating classic texts served to jumpstart his own ideas about particular myths. A poem he wrote in 1819, Prometheus Unbound, is such a refashioning of a classic myth to meet a present need.

As a fine practitioner of the art himself, Shelley, in his bestknown work of prose, A Defence of Poetry, comments on translation. He acknowledges that the translator has a tricky task that he will never fulfill completely because he can never completely “transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet.” On the other hand, the masterpieces of literature possess a transcendent power. They continue to generate significance for readers far beyond their original time and culture.

All high poetry is infinite; it is as the first acorn, which contained all oaks potentially … after one person and one age has exhausted all of its divine effluence which their peculiar relations enable them to share, another and yet another succeeds, and new relations are ever developed, the source of an unforeseen and unconceived delight.
(Shelley’s Prose, p. 291)

However, in 1818 Shelley’s Defence had not yet been written and his reading among the classic authors primarily served to distract him from his inability to write anything original of his own. When he began to jot down the translations it was simply to put some words in his otherwise blank notebooks. In this frame of mind he spent his early days in Italy outside, in the woods or fields and always near streams, alternately reading and bathing in the cool waters.

In April of that year Lord Byron demanded that Claire deliver their child, Allegra, to him so that he could have her educated. Claire did so, reluctantly, but by August was anxious to see her daughter, particularly as she had had no word of Allegra by post despite repeated requests. Shelley agreed to go to Venice, where Byron was now living in a palace on the Grand Canal, to check on Allegra. Claire traveled with him, though they did not tell Byron this because he had developed a strong aversion to his former mistress. She was to wait, in hiding nearby, for Shelley’s report.

Shelley and Byron once again hit it off famously, and Byron offered the Shelleys the use of his country home, Este, in the Euganean Hills southwest of Venice. Shelley agreed, then promptly wrote to Mary that she should come immediately with the children from Livorno to Este and meet him, Claire, and Allegra there. Mary did so, though Clara was ill during the trip. To make matters worse, as soon as they arrived, Shelley insisted they all go to Venice to see Byron. Clara worsened and, when they reached Venice, she died in her mother’s arms. After her funeral they returned to Este, where Mary fell into a deep and enduring depression and Shelley, sad as well as terribly guilty, wrote one of his best poems, “Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills.”

This poem begins with one of Shelley’s favorite images—a sea voyage, one in which the sailor’s bark is freighted with human grief.

Many a green isle needs must be
In the deep wide sea of Misery,
Or the mariner, worn and wan,
Never thus could voyage on—

Reaching the green isle, however, the despairing mariner has a moment of clarity when he can enjoy the beauty around him and contemplate his surroundings free from the shroud of unhappiness that has enveloped him. Noon comes with “a soft and purple mist / like a Vaporous amethyst” (287-288), and the poet mariner sees flowers glimmering at his feet, with the distant line of “the olive-sandalled Apennine” to the south and the Alps,

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whose snows are spread
High between the clouds and sun;
And of living things each one;
And my spirit which so long
Darkened this swift stream of song,—
Interpenetrated lie
By the glory of the sky:
Be it love, light, harmony,
Odour, or the soul of all
Which from heaven like dew doth fall,
Or the mind which feeds this verse
Peopling the lone universe.
(308-319)

Whether it comes from heaven, or simply from the narrator’s own mind—imagination—the glory of the sky briefly lightens the speaker’s darkened spirit. He longs for a place, an island of calm in the storm of life, where he can build a bower for those he loves, “far from passion, pain, and guilt” with “the light and smell divine / Of all flowers that breathe and shine / We may live so happy there” (350-353).

SHELLEY AND BYRON IN VENICE (“JULIAN” AND “MADDALO”)

SHELLEY’S wish for a happy bower that he could share with his loved ones—with Mary, Claire, and their children—was a long time coming. But while Mary dealt with her grief in silence, Shelley wrote. They returned to Venice, and Shelley’s stimulating relationship with Lord Byron resumed. They took leisurely gondola rides, rode horses on the Lido at twilight, and spent most of every night discussing politics, philosophy, and literature. The relationship invigorated Shelley and he captured their differences in a dialogic poem, Julian and Maddalo. Shelley is thinly disguised here as Julian, an optimist who believes that society can be improved and individuals can control their own fates. Byron is Count Maddalo, a cynic who believes that men are sheep, prey to their own desires as well as the caprices of fate and circumstance. Shelley describes the differences in the temperaments of his protagonists in a prose preface, then begins the poem with a detailed description of the marshland outside of Venice where Julian, the narrator, “rode one evening with Count Maddalo.” Julian delights in the barren scenery: “I love all waste / And solitary places; where we taste / The pleasure of believing what we see / Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be “Maddalo points out a lunatic asylum in the distance, a place they will visit later in the poem.

The next day Julian visits Maddalo and they continue the debate they’ve begun the day before about whether humans have free will. Julian believes that men can choose their course in life: “We know / That we have power over ourselves to do / And suffer—what, we know not till we try / But something nobler than to live and die” (184-187). “‘My dear friend,’ “Maddalo tells him,” ‘my judgement will not bend to your opinion’ “(191-192). He then adds, “‘I knew one like you / Who to this city came some months ago / With whom I argued in this sort, and he / Is now gone mad,—and so he answered me—’ “(195-198). Maddalo suggests they go and visit the madman “’and his wild talk will show / How vain are such aspiring theories’ “(200-201).

They take another gondola ride out to the island where the asylum stands, enduring the shrieks and cries of its inhabitants as they climb its “oozy stairs” to where the Maniac sits in an upper chamber. The Maniac, once a brilliant and wealthy man, lost his mind when the woman he loved deserted him. He delivers a linguistically shimmering, though disconnected, monologue, and Maddalo observes that, based merely on the quality of his language and his metaphors, “the colours of his mind seemed yet unworn.” He adds, “‘Most wretched men/Are cradled into poetry by wrong / They learn in suffering what they teach in song.’” Julian is virtually silenced, and the comment on poets being urged to their art by suffering is one that could be aptly applied to Shelley himself.

Shelley sent Julian and Maddalo to Hunt for publication, but it never saw print in his lifetime. Nevertheless, it is a psychologically acute poem that shows Shelley had reached a new level of maturity and self-awareness.

PROMETHEUS UNBOUND

BY the spring of 1819 Shelley and his menage had settled into a house in Rome. Like millions of other tourists to the famous Italian city, they toured the ruins and the galleries with avidity. Shelley, in particular, was struck by the quality of the ancient architecture; the Arch of Titus and the Arch of Constantine located in the Forum drew his concentrated attention. Classically carved reliefs of chariots and Victory with her angel wings struck him as particularly important symbols. These were offset for him by the luxuriant growths of foliage over many of the Roman Page 252  |  Top of Articleruins—the power and imperialism of ancient Rome had been destroyed, but Nature had reassumed its primacy.

In this atmosphere Shelley took up the myth of Prometheus, the one who liberated humankind with his gift of fire, and began giving it his particular spin. (Mary had already given the myth her treatment in Frankenstein.) Shelley’s model came from Aeschylus, whose drama he had read in Greek, but with more modern references to recent advances in science and medicine. (Shelley also read avidly in these fields.) And, of course, Prometheus resembles Shelley: both are extreme nonconformists; both have suffered for their “gifts” to humankind.

In Aeschylus’ drama, whose outlines Shelley followed, Jupiter, the leader of the gods, has chained Prometheus to a rock where he is daily tortured by an eagle that gnaws upon his liver. Shelley had felt himself persecuted first by his father, and later by various branches of the British government, because of his avowal of atheism and his pursuit of free love. He suffered expulsion from Oxford and the loss of the bulk of his inheritance, but he would not recant his views. Similarly Prometheus in his poem will not recant, and fiends come to show him visions of war and famine, of all the evil deeds that the humans he tried to help have committed since his gift.

Some of these visions are the events of Shelley’s era, such as the French Revolution’s aftermath of bloody despotism, and the cruel fate of the poor caught in the wretched conditions of urban factories. Like Wordsworth and other Romantic poets who deplored what the Industrial Revolution had done both to the landscape and the working poor, he presents a grim view of a modern city:

Look! Where round the wide horizon
       Many a million-peopled city
Vomits smoke in the bright air.
Hark that outcry of despair!
                        (550-553)

In Shelley’s poem, Prometheus (and by extension, humanity) can only be saved by love. Personified by the character Asia, love can make Prometheus whole again. He is a personality divided from Jupiter, his polar opposite and other half. Shelley is here playing with a concept that absorbed the writers of his era: the idea of the doppelganger, or double. The study of mental processes that would eventually become the discipline called psychology had just begun to explore the idea that all humans possess a “second self,” a part of the mind that lies hidden from the waking consciousness. Nowadays, thanks to Freud, we would call this second self the unconscious or subconscious mind, but in Shelley’s era, doctors had only just begun to recognize that insanity was not the same as demonic possession, that individuals could be motivated by inner impulses they were unaware of in their normal states. Romantic writers, already fascinated with the idea of the individual self, were drawn to the concept of the double—thus, stories and poems featuring a doppelganger occur frequently in literature of the early nineteenth century. (Indeed, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster is clearly his double, a being he has created from his own mind.)

Asia travels to the volcanic center of the earth (Shelley had recently visited Vesuvius) to speak to the ruler there, Demogorgon, and plead for Prometheus’ liberation. Demogorgon’s realm is the past—history, memory, the world at its beginning. Asia asks him, “Who is the master of the slave?” (ll5). She wants to know who created evil in the universe and whether it is the same person who created good. Is it, she wonders, Jupiter, and if so, is he the master or the slave of his own creation? Demogorgon evades a direct answer, but he shows Asia the course of history bursting out of the center of the earth like lava from a volcano. Historic moments spark from the earth in the shape of hurtling chariots (like the ones Shelley had studied on the arches at the Forum).

The rocks are cloven, and through the purple night
I see cars drawn by rainbow-winged steeds
Which trample the dim winds: in each there stands
A wild-eyed charioteer urging their flight
                                     (2.4.129-32)

Demogorgon himself rides in the final chariot; he comes out of the center of the earth to restore Prometheus to freedom by ending Jupiter’s reign over the earth.

Unfortunately, two acts follow this climactic event, and most critics agree that the poem weakens in its final sections. Shelley abandons his Aeschylus model at this point, and political rhetoric about dethroning tyrants is not enough to power the poem to a satisfying conclusion.

In May 1819, recovering from the intensity of writing Prometheus Unbound, Shelley resumed his Page 253  |  Top of Articletourist visits. This time, instead of focusing on classical Rome, he studied the Renaissance history and monuments of the city. This study brought him to the Palazzo Cenci, on the banks of the Tiber. This sinister old building contained the residue of a Renaissance tragedy: Count Cenci’s murder of his two eldest sons and the rape of his eldest daughter, Beatrice. Shelley decided to rework the tale of the tragedy as a play and imagined it as a popular melodrama for the English stage.

Unfortunately, another tragedy was soon to befall Shelley’s circle in Rome. His beloved son, four-year-old William, fell ill in late May and died on 7 June. Shelley wrote to a friend in England, “it seems to me as if, hunted by calamity as I have been, that I should never recover any cheerfulness again” (letter to Peacock, 10 June 1819, from The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley).

ANARCHY IN THE WIND

IN early September news reached the depressed Shelley household from England that served to stir Percy, at least, from the torpor caused by Will’s death. The news was political and it was grim. On 16 August at St. Peter’s Field on the outskirts of Manchester, some sixty thousand working men and women had gathered to discuss labor reform in the factories. Armed and mounted militia, sent by the government to break up the meeting, instead turned the field into the site of a massacre. Many of the unarmed workers, including women and children, were slaughtered that day on St. Peter’s Field, and the event went down in history as “Peterloo.”

Shelley was both horrified and immediately inspired to write a poem of political protest about the event. In twelve concentrated days of writing he produced The Mask of Anarchy. The poem begins with a scene depicting the English ministers arriving at St. Peter’s Field riding the horses that will eventually trample the crowd. They bring murder, fraud, hypocrisy, and destruction with them, in a political echo of the four horses of the Apocalypse from the Bible. Anarchy rides the last horse, a white horse “splashed with blood”:

With a pace stately and fast
Over the English land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude.
                      (38-42)

A woman then lies beneath the horse’s hooves—at Peterloo, a mother and her child fell before one of the horsemen and the child was trampled to death—and, in Shelley’s poem, Anarchy halts. The woman, a “maniac maid” named Hope, tells the crowd that her father’s name is Time and he is weak with waiting for a better day. “‘He has had child after child / And the dust of death is piled /Over every one but me— / Misery, oh, Misery!’ “(94-97). She and the rest of the crowd expect Anarchy to trample her at this point, but instead a vengeful Shape rises out of the mist and strikes Anarchy from his horse, killing him. Hope is delivered, and she rises to issue a call for the English working classes to demonstrate for reform and to claim their political rights.

She asks everyone who suffers to assemble: “’From the workhouse and the prison / Where pale as corpses newly risen / Women, children, young and old / Groan for pain, and weep for cold….’ “(275-279). She begs them to stand calm if the Tyrant’s militia attacks them, to cross their arms “like a forest close and mute” (320), and to wait for the laws of England to arbitrate for them and to set them free.

Shelley is advocating passive resistance and mass demonstrations as the instruments of political change—a far different solution from the one he had advocated years before in Ireland. Shelley’s political philosophy had matured with experience, though his call for the people to seek justice was as eloquent as it had ever been. The final stanza of the poem exhorts them:

“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.”
                      (368-372)

As soon as he completed The Mask of Anarchy, Shelley sent it to Leigh Hunt in London for publication in The Examiner. If Hunt had published it, as Shelley wished, the poem would certainly have provoked an explosive reaction in England. Shelley might have finally reached the broad readership he sought; he might finally have found an audience that sympathized with him.

Instead, Hunt chose not to publish the poem. The reason had to do with English law at the time. Publishers of any material deemed seditious— Page 254  |  Top of Articleand anything demanding reform and addressed to the working classes was considered such— could be sued for libel, fined heavily, and even imprisoned. This had already happened on numerous occasions, and 1819 witnessed the worst of the English government’s attack on the free press: there were more than seventy-five prosecutions for libel during that year. Hunt chose not to risk publication, and The Mask of Anarchy became another of Shelley’s works that did not appear in print until long after his death.

In October the Shelleys moved to Florence; Mary was expecting a baby in November and they wanted to be near Dr. Bell, a famous surgeon residing there. Shelley spent his first weeks in Florence roaming the city, with many excursions to the Uffizi Gallery and its fine sculptures. In late October he walked alone along the banks of the Arno, the wind blowing in hard from the west. This experience prompted him to write the poem that remains one of his best known today, “Ode to the West Wind.”

The poem begins with the wind itself bringing autumn: “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being / Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead / Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing “The wind knocks the leaves and the seeds of trees to the earth, where they eventually rest like corpses underground. However, far from being the harbinger of death, the west wind provokes the seasonal change that culminates in spring, when the seeds germinate and push their buds up “with living hues and odours.” The speaker wishes the west wind could take him up too like a leaf because “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed! / A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed / One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.”

Shelley wishes the wind could scatter his “words among mankind,” like the trumpet of a prophecy. No doubt Shelley wished some instrument could be the means of distributing his Mask of Anarchy to an audience in England. His urge to help the working classes was great, but exiled in Italy and blocked by his publishers in England, he felt powerless to reach them. Nevertheless, the poem ends on one of his characteristic moments of hope: “O Wind, / If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

CITY OF GHOSTS

IN January 1820 the Shelleys moved to Pisa, where the weather was warmer than Florence, though the city itself was past its glory. Once a thriving port city, Pisa had since been enclosed by marshes; ruined medieval palaces marked its heyday. Shelley’s thoughts, however, were on current politics, and in that frame of mind he added more to a prose work he was composing, A Philosophical View of Reform, as well as a poem on a similar theme, his “Ode to Liberty.” In the prose work Shelley’s aim was to trace the development of political thought and revolution from the emergence of human liberty in ancient times to the struggle for reform in his own. Shelley believed that liberty in human thought and action was a social “law” and that all societies moved toward it in the course of their development. Shelley also believed that periods of great social upheaval prompted the production of great literature.

Unfortunately, like so many of Shelley’s political writings, these works did not appear during Shelley’s life—indeed, A Philosophical View of Reform was not published until a century after his death. What did appear was an edition of his melodramatic play, The Cenci. This play, though considered shocking and gruesome by some critics, sold very well and garnered mostly positive reviews.

In the late summer of 1820 Claire left the Shelleys to take a position as governess in Florence. Mary Shelley had long resented Claire’s presence in their household, so it was a relief to her, though a sad parting for Shelley. He worked, however, on other poems, such as “The Witch of Atlas,” a fantasy about a witch who creates a hermaphrodite for a companion, and on translations from Homer and Dante.

Lonely without Claire, and needing a third woman to complete his idea of female companionship, Shelley went through a brief infatuation with a beautiful Italian girl, Emilia Viviani, whose parents had confined her in a convent while they found a suitable husband for her. Shelley, himself imprisoned that fall by ill health and depression, wrote her many a woeful poem. In January 1821 Shelley composed his Epipsychidion (meaning the “soul out of my soul,” or “the beloved”), a poem that is as close as he ever came to autobiography in his writings. The poem is dedicated to Emilia, rather than to Mary, and many stanzas underscore Shelley’s feelings of unrequited love for her.

I never thought before my death to see
Youth’s vision thus made perfect. Emily,
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I love thee; though the world by no thin name
Will hide that love from its unvalued shame.
                                     (41-44)

The poem depicts a man in crisis; a man who has searched all his life for love but not been satisfied with the “mortal forms” of love he’s found. Eventually an emotional crisis finds him “at bay, wounded and weak and panting” (273-274), at which point he is rescued by the being who seems to be his true love, a woman characterized as “the moon.” Unfortunately, he ultimately discovers that his moon goddess is “cold” and he “lay … nor alive nor dead.” It is clear from Shelley’s manuscripts, and Mary Shelley’s later comments on them, that she was the moon. She rescued him from his unhappy marriage to Harriet Westbrook, but ultimately she turned cold toward Shelley (prompted, perhaps, by the deaths of Clara and “Willmouse” in Italy). A vision then comes and rescues the poet once again, and this vision is the pure, lovely Emilia Viviani.

Epipsychidion is nothing if not sad. It reveals Shelley’s constant search for a woman who will love him completely and his consistent failure to find her. Emilia Viviani, as it happens, was soon married to someone else, ending Shelley’s courtly wooing of her with poetry and letters.

DEATHS AND POEMS

THE young poet John Keats died in 1821, and Shelley wrote Adonais, an elegy for him. Shelley told Claire of the poem, noting that writing poetry offered him his only mental relief from “the stormy mist of sensations.” Storms were much on Shelley’s mind, and they make their way into Adonais, a poem that owes much to Milton’s Lycidas.

The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
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.
                                            (487-495)

In the fall of 1821 the Greek war for independence was heating up, and Shelley was inspired to write Hellas, a long poem that mingles the current war with an ancient one depicted in Aeschylus’ The Persians. Shelley hoped the rapid publication of Hellas would help the Greeks in their struggle for independence, and when a small edition appeared in February 1822 it turned out to be the last of Shelley’s works that he would ever see in print.

In 1822 Byron had once again joined the Shelleys in Pisa, and the two men resumed their camaraderie. It was hard, however, for Shelley to work in the shadow of the greatest living poet of his time. (Byron’s Don Juan and Cain were thought by most critics, including Shelley, as two of the best poems ever written.) As usual when unable to spur his own creative work, Shelley turned to translation. During this period he translated Goethe’s Faust. He also felt miserably alienated from Mary, as is evident from one of the poems he gave their friends Edward and Jane Williams. One stanza reads:

When I return to my cold home, you ask
Why I am not as I have lately been?
You spoil me for the task
Of acting a forced part in life’s dull scene.
Of wearing on my brow the idle mask
Of author, great or mean,
In the world’s carnival. I sought
Peace thus, & but in you I found it not.

Soon Shelley had developed a new infatuation with Jane Williams, to whom most of his final poems were dedicated.

THE BAY OF SPEZIA

IN April 1822 Claire Clairmont’s worst fears about Allegra, her daughter being raised by Byron, were realized: Allegra died of typhus fever at the convent school where Byron had placed her. Shelley immediately decided to move his menage from Pisa to Lerici, a fishing village on the Bay of Spezia, for the summer. Claire nearly went mad with grief, but at least their surroundings in Lerici were physically beautiful. Shelley wrote to Byron, “Nature is here as vivid as we are dismal, and we have built, as Faust says, ‘our little world in the great world of all’ “(The Letters of Percy Eysshe Shelley, p. 423).

Edward and Jane Williams lived with the Shelleys at their rented house on the shores of the Bay of Spezia, and Shelley, still an avid boater, acquired a swift twenty-four-foot schooner, the Don Juan. Shelley spent the summer sailing with Page 256  |  Top of Articlethe Edwards; his own creative force had been quenched by the presence of Byron; as he wrote to a friend in France, “I do not write—I have lived too long near Lord Byron & the sun has extinguished the glow worm… .” (letter to Horace Smith from The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, p. 423). Nevertheless, in late May, Shelley began to compose the last poem he would ever write, “The Triumph of Life.”

This poem, the title of which connotes a happy victory for modern readers, was anything but. Instead, it comes from a Roman concept that Shelley found on the arches of Constantine and Titus. The Roman triumph was a cruel moment of victory over conquered peoples, and Shelley’s poem depicts the conquest of life over human happiness. Life brings physical aging, grief, guilt, intellectual failure, and remorse.

The poem follows the structure of Dante’s Inferno, including the terza rima, or triple rhyme scheme of aba, bcb, cdc, and so on, with the middle rhyme of each tercet, or group of three, becoming the first and third rhyme of the following group. Further, in an echo of Dante’s being guided through hell by Virgil, the poet-narrator of Shelley’s poem is guided through “the pageant of life” by Rousseau—the spirit of Shelley’s age, who believed in free love and social justice. The poem is grim: Life is depicted as a chariot that rolls over humanity with deadly force. Humans dance stupidly toward their inevitable death in a macabre image reminiscent of medieval paintings of the Black Plague.

In the historical evolution of personages and events that Shelley loved elaborating, Rousseau describes to the poet the successive ages of man and the fall of every empire, the death of every leader. Nevertheless, there is still one note of hope in the long dirge of death and remorse, and that note is still, for Shelley, love: “In words of hate and awe, the wondrous story / How all things are transfigured, except Love.”

The last complete stanza of the poem that Shelley wrote begins: “Then, what is Life?” But he was never able to answer it, because the Don Juan sank under full sail, in the Bay of Spezia, on 8 July 1822. Shelley was on board, with Edward Williams and a boat boy, when a summer squall overtook their craft. The captain of a nearby boat looked away from the struggling schooner for a moment and when he looked back, the Don Juan had disappeared beneath the waves.

Shelley’s body washed onto the beach ten days later. In the presence of Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt, and several local fisherman, his body was burned on the beach. Later, his ashes were placed in a Protestant cemetery in Rome. Mary Shelley returned to England to raise their one surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley, who later inherited the family fortune.

Selected Bibliography

I. COLLECTED WORKS. The Complete Poetical Works of Shelley, edited by Thomas Hutchinson (Oxford, 1904), corrected in a new edition by G. M. Mathews (London, 1970); Shelley’s Prose: or, The Trumpet of a Prophecy, edited by David L. Clark (Albuquerque, N.M., 1966); The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Neville Rogers; two of four proposed volumes published to date (Oxford, 1972-); The Lyrics of Shelley, edited by Judith Chernaik (Cleveland, 1972); Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York and London, 1977).

II. FIRST EDITIONS OF INDIVIDUAL WORKS. Zastrozzi; a Romance (London, 1810); Queen Mab; A Philosophical Poem, with Notes (London, self-published anonymously, 1813); Alastor; or, the Spirit of Solitude: and Other Poems (London, 1816); History of a Six Weeks’ Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland (written with Mary, published as “anonymous” by Hookham & Oilier, London, 1817, this volume contains the first edition of “Mont Blanc”); Laon and Cythna, suppressed and reissued as The Revolt of Islam (London, 1818); Rosalind and Helen, A Modern Eclogue, with Other Poems (London, 1819); The Cenci: A Tragedy in Five Acts (London, 1819).

Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, with Other Poems (London, 1820); Oedipus Tyrannus: or, Swell-foot the Tyrant. A Tragedy in Two Acts (London, self-published anonymously, 1820); Epipsychidion: Verses Addressed to the Noble and Unfortunate Lady Emilia VNow Imprisoned in the Convent of—(by Anonymous, London, 1821); Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Author ofEndymion, Hyperion, etc. (Pisa, 1821); Hellas: A Lyrical Drama (London, 1822); Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Mary Shelley (London, 1824); The Mask of Anarchy. A Poem. (London, 1832); Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments, ed., Mary Shelley (London, 1840); A Philosophical View of Reform (London, 1920).

III. LETTERS AND JOURNALS. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1965); The Journals of Claire Clairmont, edited by Marion Kingston Stocking (Cambridge, Mass., 1968); The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, edited by Betty T. Bennett, 3 vols. (Baltimore and London, 1980-1988); The Journals Page 257  |  Top of Articleof Mary Shelley, 1814-44, edited by Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert (Oxford, 1987).

IV. BIOGRAPHIES. Thomas Jefferson Hogg, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2 vols. (1858; reprinted London, 1933); Newman Ivey White, Shelley, 2 vols. (London, 1947); Kenneth Neill Cameron, The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical (London, 1950); Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (London, 1975); Michael O’Neill, Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Literary Life (London, 1989; New York, 1990).

V. CRITICAL EDITIONS AND TEXTUAL STUDIES. Harold Bloom, Shelley’s Mythmaking (New Haven, 1959); Kenneth Neill Cameron and Donald H. Reiman, eds., Shelley and His Circle: 1773-1822 (Cambridge, Mass., 1961-1986; this is a catalog edition of extensively annotated manuscripts in the Carl H. Pforzheimer Library that includes mss. by the Shelleys, Byron, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Leigh Hunt, and others); Donald H. Reiman, Shelley’s “The Triumph of Life”: A Critical Study, Eased on a Text Newly Edited from the Bodleian Manuscript (Urbana, III, 1965); Earl R. Wasserman, Shelley: A Critical Reading (London and Baltimore, 1971); Timothy Webb, The Violet in the Crucible: Shelley and Translation (Oxford, 1976).

William Keach, Shelley’s Style (London and New York, 1984); Angela Leighton, Shelley and the Sublime: An Interpretation of the Major Poems (Cambridge, 1984); Timothy Clark, Embodying Revolution: The figure of the Poet in Shelley (Oxford, 1989); Alan M. Weinberg, Shelley’s Italian Experience (London, 1991); Kelvin Everest, ed., Percy Bysshe Shelley, Bicentenary Essays (Bury St. Edmunds, U.K., 1992). Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi, Shelley’s Goddess: Maternity, Language, Subjectivity (New York, 1992); Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran, eds., Shelley: Poet and Legislator of the World (London and Baltimore, 1996); Timothy Clark and Jerrold E. Hogle, eds., Evaluating Shelley (Edinburgh, 1996).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1383000027