Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 3,295 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1300L

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About this Person
Born: August 04, 1792 in Horsham, England
Died: July 08, 1822 in Italy
Nationality: British
Occupation: Poet
Other Names: Victor; The Hermit of Marlow
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(Also wrote under pseudonyms Victor and The Hermit of Marlow) English poet, essayist, dramatist, translator, and novelist.


Shelley is known as a major English Romantic poet. His foremost works, including The Revolt of Islam (1818), Prometheus Unbound (1820), Adonais (1821), and The Triumph of Life (1824), are recognized as leading expressions of radical thought written during the Romantic age, while his odes and shorter lyrics are often considered among the greatest in the English language. In addition, his essay A Defence of Poetry (1840) is highly valued as a statement of the role of the poet in society. Thus, although Shelley was one of the early nineteenth century's most controversial literary figures, his importance to English literature is today widely acknowledged.

Shelley's brief life was colorful. The eldest son of Sir Timothy and Elizabeth Shelley, landed aristocrats living in Horsham, Sussex, he was educated first at Syon House Academy, then Eton, and finally University College, Oxford. His idiosyncratic, sensitive nature and refusal to conform to tradition earned him the name "Mad Shelley," but during his years as a student he enjoyed several close friendships and pursued a wide range of interests in addition to his prescribed studies; he experimented in physical science, studied medicine and philosophy, and wrote novels and poetry. Before the age of twenty he had published two wildly improbable Gothic novels, Zastrozzi (1810) and St. Irvyne (1811), and two collections of verse. Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire (1810), written with his sister, continued in the Gothic mode, while Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson (1810), coauthored with his Oxford friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, was a collection of treasonous and erotic poetry disguised as the ravings of a mad washerwoman who had attempted to stab King George III. In 1811, during his second term at Oxford, Shelley turned to philosophical concerns with his The Necessity of Atheism, a pamphlet challenging theological proofs for the existence of God. Assisted by Hogg, he published the tract, distributed it to the clergymen and deans of Oxford, and invited a debate. Instead, he and Hogg were expelled, an event that estranged him from his family and left him without financial means. Nonetheless, later that year he eloped to Scotland with Harriet Westbrook, a sixteen-year-old schoolmate of his sisters. The three years they spent together were marked by financial difficulties and frequent moves to avoid creditors. Despite these pressures, Shelley was actively involved in political and social reform in Ireland and Wales, writing radical pamphlets in which he set forth his views on liberty, equality, and justice. He and Harriet enthusiastically distributed these tracts among the working classes, but with little effect.

The year 1814 was a pivotal one in Shelley's personal life. Although their marriage was faltering, he remarried Harriet in England to ensure the legality of their union and the legitimacy of their children. Weeks later, however, he fell in love with Mary Godwin, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the radical English philosopher William Godwin and his first wife, the feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft. Shelley and Mary eloped and, accompanied by Mary's stepsister, Jane (Claire) Clairmont, spent six weeks in Europe. On their return, Shelley entered into a financial agreement with his family that ensured him a regular income. When Harriet declined to join his household as a "sister," he provided for her and their two children, but continued to live with Mary.

In the summer of 1816, Shelley, Mary, and Claire traveled to Lake Geneva to meet with Lord Byron, with whom Claire had begun an affair. Though Byron's interest in Claire was fleeting, he developed an enduring friendship with Shelley that proved an important influence on the works of both men. Shortly after Shelley's return to England in the fall, Harriet drowned herself in Hyde Park. Shelley thereupon legalized his relationship with Mary and sought custody of his children, but the Westbrook family successfully blocked him in a lengthy lawsuit. Citing his poem Queen Mab (1813), in which he denounced established society and religion in favor of free love and atheism, the Westbrooks convinced the court that Shelley was morally unfit for guardianship. Although Shelley was distressed by his separation from his daughter and infant son, he enjoyed the stimulating society of Leigh Hunt, Thomas Love Peacock, John Keats, and other literary figures during his residence at Marlow in 1817. The following year, however, motivated by ill health, financial worries, and the fear of losing custody of his and Mary's two children, Shelley relocated his family in Italy. There, they moved frequently, spending time in Leghorn, Venice, Naples, Rome, Florence, Pisa, and Lerici. Shelley hastened to renew his relationship with Byron, who was also living in Italy, and the two poets became the nucleus of a circle of expatriots that became known as the "Satanic School" because of their defiance of English social and religious conventions and promotion of radical ideas in their works. The years in Italy were predominantly happy and productive for Shelley despite the deaths of his and Mary's children Clara and William and the increasing disharmony of their marriage. Shortly before his thirtieth birthday, Shelley and his companion, Edward Williams, drowned when their boat capsized in a squall off the coast of Lerici. Shelley's body, identified by the works of Keats and Sophocles in his pockets, was cremated on the beach in a ceremony conducted by his friends Byron, Hunt, and Edward John Trelawny. His ashes, except for his heart, which Byron plucked from the fire, were buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome.

Much of Shelley's writing reflects the events and concerns of his life. His passionate beliefs in reform, the equality of the sexes, and the powers of love and imagination are frequently expressed in his poetry. Shelley's first mature work, Queen Mab, was printed in 1813, but not distributed due to its inflammatory subject matter. It was not until 1816, with the appearance of Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude, and Other Poems, that he earned recognition as a serious poet. In Alastor, a visionary and sometimes autobiographical poem, Shelley describes the experiences of the Poet who, rejecting human sympathy and domestic life, is pursued by the demon Solitude. Shelley also used a visionary approach in his next lengthy work, Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City (1818), written in friendly competition with Keats. An imaginative account of a bloodless revolution led by a brother and sister, the poem deals with the positive power of love, the complexities of good and evil, and ultimately, spiritual victory through martyrdom. Laon and Cythna was immediately suppressed by the printer because of its controversial content, and Shelley subsequently revised the work as The Revolt of Islam, minimizing its elements of incest and political revolution.

In 1819 Shelley wrote two of his most ambitious works, the verse dramas Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci (1819). Usually regarded as his masterpiece, Prometheus Unbound combines myth, political allegory, psychology, and theology. Shelley transformed the Aeschylean myth of Prometheus, the fire-giver, into an allegory on the origins of evil and the possibility of regenerating nature and humanity through love. The variety of verse forms Shelley employed exhibits his poetic virtuosity and makes it one of his most challenging works. The Cenci differs markedly from Prometheus Unbound in tone and setting. Shelley based this tragedy on the history of a sixteenth- century Italian noble family. The evil Count Cenci rapes his daughter, Beatrice; she determines to murder him, seeing no other means of escape from continued violation, and is executed for parricide. Although Shelley hoped for a popular success on the English stage, his controversial treatment of the subject of incest outraged critics, preventing the play from being produced.

One of Shelley's best-known works, Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, was written in 1821. Drawing on the formal tradition of elegiac verse, Shelley laments Keats's early death and, while rejecting the Christian view of resurrection, describes his return to the eternal beauty of the universe. In the same year, Shelley wrote Epipsychidion, in which he chronicles his search for ideal beauty through his relationships with women—Harriet, Mary, Claire, and finally Emilia Viviani, an Italian girl he and Mary befriended and to whom the poem is addressed. Although Shelley's interest in Emilia soon diminished, the work she inspired is considered one of his most revealing and technically accomplished poems. Shelley's last work, The Triumph of Life, left unfinished at his death, describes the relentless march of life that has destroyed the aspirations of all but the sacred few who refused to compromise to worldly pressures. Despite its fragmentary state, many critics consider The Triumph of Life a potential masterpiece and evidence of a pessimistic shift in Shelley's thought.

Throughout his career Shelley wrote numerous short lyrics that have proved to be among his most popular works. Characterized by a simple, personal tone, his minor poems frequently touch on themes central to his more ambitious works: the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" and "Mont Blanc" focus on his belief in an animating spirit, while "Ode to the West Wind" examines opposing forces in nature. In other lyrics, including "Lines Written among the Euganean Hills," "Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples," and "Lines Written in the Bay of Lerici," Shelley explores his own experiences and emotions. Political themes also inspired several of his most famous short poems, among them "Ode to Liberty," "Sonnet: England in 1819," and The Masque of Anarchy (composed 1819; published 1832). Shelley's shorter lyrics, praised for their urbane wit and polished style, have established him as a preeminent poet of nature, ideal love, and beauty.

Mary Shelley took on the challenge of editing and annotating Shelley's unpublished manuscripts after his death. Her 1840 collection included Shelley's greatest prose work, A Defence of Poetry. Writing in response to The Four Ages of Poetry (1820), an essay by his friend Peacock, Shelley detailed his belief in the moral importance of poetry, calling poets "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." In addition to several other philosophical essays and translations from the Greek, Shelley's posthumous works include the highly personal odes addressed to Edward Williams's wife, Jane. "To Jane: The Invitation," "To Jane: The Recollection," and "With a Guitar: To Jane" are considered some of his best love poems. At once a celebration of his friends' happy union and an intimate record of his own attraction to Jane, these lyrics are admired for their delicacy and refined style.

The history of Shelley's critical reputation has been characterized by radical shifts. During his lifetime he was generally regarded as a misguided or even depraved genius; critics frequently praised portions of his poetry in passing and deplored at length his atheism and unorthodox philosophy. Serious study of his works was hindered by widespread rumors about his personal life, particularly those concerning his desertion of Harriet and his supposed involvement in an incestuous love triangle with Mary and Claire. In addition, because of their limited publication and the scant critical attention given his works, he found only a small audience. Those few critics who voiced their admiration of his talents, particularly Hunt, who defended him vigorously in the Examiner, were ironically responsible for further inhibiting his success by causing him to be associated in the public mind with the despised "Cockney School" of poets belittled by John Gibson Lockhart and others in Blackwood's Magazine. Nevertheless, Shelley was known and admired by his great contemporaries: Byron, Keats, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey regarded his works with varying degrees of sympathy and approval.

After his death, Shelley's reputation was greatly influenced by the efforts of his widow and friends to portray him as an angelic visionary. Biographies by Trelawny, Peacock, and Hogg, though frequently self-serving, inaccurate, and sensationalized, succeeded in directing interest toward Shelley's life and character and away from the controversial beliefs expressed in his works. Critics in the second half of the nineteenth century for the most part ignored Shelley's radical politics, celebrating instead the spiritual and aesthetic qualities of his poetry. In the Victorian age he was highly regarded as the poet of ideal love, and the Victorian notion of the poet as a sensitive, misunderstood genius was largely modeled after Shelley.

Shelley's works, however, fell into disfavor around the turn of the century. Many critics, influenced by Matthew Arnold's assessment of Shelley as an "ineffectual angel," objected to his seemingly vague imagery, nebulous philosophy, careless technique, and, most of all, his apparent intellectual and emotional immaturity. In the late 1930s Shelley's reputation began to revive: as scholars came to recognize the complexity of his philosophical idealism, serious study was devoted to the doctrines that informed his thought. Since that time, Shelley scholarship has covered a wide array of topics, including his style, philosophy, and major themes. In examining his style commentators have generally focused on his imagery, use of language, and technical achievements. The importance of neo-platonism, the occult, the Bible, the French Revolution, and Gothicism, as well as the works of individual philosophers—Wollstonecraft, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Godwin—to Shelley's thought and writings has been explored by other critics. Attention has also been devoted to recurring themes in Shelley's work. His doctrines of free love and sexual equality have particularly attracted commentary on the poet as an early proponent of feminism. Recent criticism of Shelley's works is generally marked by increasing respect for his abilities as a poet and his surprisingly modern philosophy. In addition, the details of his personal life continue to fascinate students of English literature, inspiring numerous biographies and peripheral studies about his life and friends.


Born August 4, 1792, near Horsham, Sussex, England; died by drowning, July, 1822, in Italy; cremated, ashes buried near Keats's grave in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome, Italy; son of Timothy and Elizabeth Shelley; married Harriet Westbrook, August 28 (or 29), 1811 (died, c. 1816); married Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, December 30, 1816; children: (first marriage) Ianthe, Charles; (second marriage) first child, a daughter (died in infancy), William (died, 1819), Clara Everina (died, 1818), Percy Florence.


English poet, novelist, essayist, and speaker.


  • Zastrozzi, A Romance, [London], 1810.
  • (With Elizabeth Shelley) Original Poetry; by Victor and Cazire, printed by C. & W. Philips (Worthing), 1810.
  • (With Thomas Jefferson Hogg) Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson; Being Poems Found amongst the Papers of That Noted Female Who Attempted the Life of the King in 1786: Edited by John Fitzvictor, printed by J. Munday (Oxford), 1810.
  • (Under name "A Gentleman of the University of Oxford") St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian: A Romance, [London], 1811.
  • The Necessity of Atheism, printed by C. & W. Phillips (Worthing), 1811.
  • An Address, to the Irish People, [Dublin], 1812.
  • Proposals for An Association of Those Philanthropists, Who Convinced of the Inadequacy of the Moral and Political State of Ireland to Produce Benefits which Are Nevertheless Attainable Are Willing to Unite to Accomplish Its Regeneration, printed by I. Eton (Dublin), 1812.
  • A Letter to Lord Ellenborough, Occasioned by the Sentence which He Passed on Mr. D. I. Eaton, as Publisher of the Third Part of Paine's Age of Reason, printed by Syle (Barnstaple), 1812.
  • Declaration of Rights (broadside), [Dublin], 1812.
  • Queen Mab; a Philosophical Poem: With Notes, printed by P. B. Shelley (London), 1813, printed by W. Baldwin (New York), 1821.
  • A Refutation of Deism: In a Dialogue, printed by Schulze & Dean (London), 1814.
  • Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude: And Other Poems, printed by S. Hamilton (London), 1816.
  • (Under name "The Hermit of Marlow") A Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote throughout the Kingdom, [London], 1817.
  • Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century, printed by B. M'Millan (London), 1817, revised edition published as The Revolt of Islam; A Poem, in Twelve Cantos, 1817.
  • Rosalind and Helen, A Modern Eclogue; with Other Poems, [London], 1819.
  • The Cenci: A Tragedy, in Five Acts, (produced by the Shelley Society, 1886), [London], 1819.
  • Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts, with Other Poems, C. & J. Ollier, 1820.
  • Oedipus Tyrannus; or, Swellfoot the Tyrant: A Tragedy: In Two Acts: Translated from the Original Doric, J. Johnston, 1820.
  • Epipsychidion: Verses Addressed to the Noble and Unfortunate Lady Emilia V______ Now Imprisoned in the Convent of ______, C. & J. Ollier, 1821.
  • Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Author of Endymion, Hyperion etc., [Pisa], 1821, printed by W. Metcalfe (Cambridge), 1829.
  • Hellas: A Lyrical Drama, C. & J. Ollier, 1822.
  • Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, [London], 1824.
  • The Masque of Anarchy: A Poem, edited by Leigh Hunt, Edward Moxon, 1832.
  • Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments, two volumes, edited by M. W. Shelley, Edward Moxon, 1840.
  • The Wandering Jew: A Poem, edited by Bertram Dobell, Shelley Society, 1887.
  • Note Books of Percy Bysshe Shelley, from the Originals in the Library of W. K. Bixby (privately printed), three volumes, edited by H. Buxton Forman, [St. Louis], 1911.
  • A Philosophical View of Reform, edited by T. W. Rolleston, Oxford University Press, 1920.
  • The Esdaile Notebook: A Volume of Early Poems, edited by Kenneth Neale Cameron from the manuscript in the Carl H. Pforzheimer Library, Knopf, 1964.
  • The Esdaile Poems, edited from the manuscripts by Neville Rogers, Clarendon Press, 1966.
  • The Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics, Shelley, 3 volumes: The Esdaile Notebook, The Masque of Anarchy, Hellas: A Lyrical Drama, edited by Donald H. Reiman, Garland, 1985.


  • Select Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Richard Garnett, Kegan Paul, Trench, 1882.
  • Letters from Percy Bysshe Shelley to Elizabeth Hitchener (privately printed), two volumes, edited by T. J. Wise and Harry Buxton Forman, [London], 1890.
  • Letters from Percy Bysshe Shelley to William Godwin (privately printed), two volumes, edited by Wise and Forman, [London], 1891.
  • The Shelley Correspondence in the Bodleian Library: Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Others, Mainly Published from the Collection Presented to the Library by Lady Shelley in 1892, edited by H. R. Hill, printed by John Johnson (Oxford), 1926.
  • Shelley and His Circle, 1773-1822, eight volumes, volumes 1-4, edited by Kenneth Neill Cameron, volumes 5-8, edited by Donald H. Reiman, Harvard University Press, 1961-1986.
  • The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, two volumes, edited by Frederick L. Jones, Oxford University Press, 1964.


  • The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, four volumes, edited by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Edward Moxon, 1839, one volume, Porter & Coates, 1839.
  • The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Including Various Additional Pieces from MS. and Other Sources, two volumes, edited by William Michael Rossetti, Edward Moxon, 1870, T. Crowell, 1878.
  • The Complete Poetical Works of Shelley, edited by Thomas Hutchinson, Clarendon Press, 1904, revised by G. M. Matthews, Oxford University Press, 1969.
  • The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Julian Edition), ten volumes, edited by Roger Ingpen and Walter Edwin Peck, Ernest Benn, 1926-1930.
  • Shelley's Prose; or The Trumpet of a Prophecy, edited by David L. Clark, University of New Mexico Press, 1954, corrected, 1966.
  • Posthumous Poems of Shelley: Mary Shelley's Fair Copy Book, Bodleian Ms. Shelley Adds. d.9 Collated with the Holographs and the Printed Texts, edited by Irving Massey, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1969.
  • Shelley's Poetry and Prose, edited by Donald Reiman and Sharon Powers, Norton, 1977.


  • Work contained in books, including Shelley Memorials, edited by Jane, Lady Shelley, Smith, Elder, 1859; and The Platonism of Shelley: A Study of Platonism and the Poetic Mind, Duke University Press, 1949. Collections of Shelley's works are housed at the Bodleian Library, in Lord Abinger's collection (on deposit at the Bodleian), in the Carl H. Pforzheimer collection in the New York Public Library, and at the Huntington Library, the British Library, the Pierpont Morgan Library, Harvard University, the Library of Congress, the University of Texas, Texas Christian University, and the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome.



  • Allsup, James O., The Magic Circle: A Study of Shelley's Concept of Love, Kennikat Press, 1976.
  • Blank, Kim, editor, The New Shelley: Later Twentieth-Century Views, St. Martin's, 1991.
  • Blunden, Edmund, Shelley: A Life Story, Viking, 1947.
  • Brown, Nathaniel, Sexuality and Feminism in Shelley, Harvard University Press, 1979.
  • Cameron, Kenneth N., The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical, Macmillan, 1950.
  • Clutton-Brock, A., Shelley: The Man and the Poet, Methuen, 1910.
  • Crook, Nora, and Derek Gruton, Shelley's Venomed Melody, Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Dawson, P. M. S., The Unacknowledged Legislator: Shelley and Politics, Clarendon Press, 1980.
  • Dunbar, Clement, A Bibliography of Shelley Studies: 1823-1950, Garland, 1976.
  • Engelberg, Karsten Klejs, The Making of the Shelley Myth: An Annotated Bibliography of the Criticism of Percy Bysshe Shelley 1822- 1860, Mansell/Meckler, 1988.
  • Fuller, Jean Overton, Shelley: A Biography, Cape, 1968.
  • Gribble, Francis, The Romantic Life of Shelley and the Sequel, Eveleigh Nash, 1911.
  • Hogg, Thomas Jefferson, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, two volumes, Edward Moxon, 1858.
  • Holmes, Richard, Shelley: The Pursuit, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1974.
  • Keach, William, Shelley's Style, Methuen, 1984.
  • Leighton, Angela, Shelley and the Sublime: An Interpretation of the Major Poems, Cambridge University Press, 1984.
  • Murphy, John V., The Dark Angel: Gothic Elements in Shelley's Works, Bucknell University Press, 1975.
  • O'Neill, Michael, The Human Mind's Imaginings: Conflict and Achievement in Shelley's Poetry, Clarendon Press, 1989.
  • O'Neill, Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Literary Life, St. Martin's, 1990.
  • Peck, Walter E., Shelley: His Life and Work, two volumes, Houghton Mifflin, 1927.
  • Symonds, John Addington, Shelley, Macmillan, 1878.
  • Trelawny, Edward John, Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron, Edward Moxon, 1858.
  • Webb, Timothy, Shelley: A Voice Not Understood, Manchester University Press, 1977.
  • Wilson, Milton, Shelley's Later Poetry: A Study in His Prophetic Imagination, Columbia University Press, 1959.
  • Wright, John W., Shelley's Myth of Metaphor, University of Georgia Press, 1970.


  • Nineteenth Century, January, 1888, pp. 23-29.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2101101274