ESL – Percy Bysshe Shelley

8 July


Percy Bysshe Shelley, a great English Poet, died July 8 in 1822

Apologies firstly for the delayed blog entry.  French students of English have started coming to us for the summer,  We enjoy devoting most our time to our young guests, helping them to improve their English ability and doing activities such as kayaking, archery and go karting. Hence my blog entries will be fewer during the summer.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, a controversial English writer of deep personal conviction, was born on August 4, 1792.

At 18 years old in the autumn of 1810, Shelly entered University College, Oxford.   But after a few months, a dean demanded that Shelley visit his office. Shelley and his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg had co-authored a pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism. Its premise shocked and appalled the faculty (“…The mind cannot believe in the existence of a God.”), and the university demanded that both boys either acknowledge or deny authorship.
Shelley did neither and was expelled.  Shelley’s parents were so exasperated by their son’s actions that they demanded he forsake his beliefs, including vegetarianism, political radicalism and sexual freedom. In August of 1811, Shelley eloped with Harriet Westbrook, a 16-year-old woman his parents had explicitly forbidden him to see.
His love for her was centered on a hope that he could save her from committing suicide. They eloped, but Shelley was soon annoyed with her and became interested in a woman named Elizabeth Hitchener, a schoolteacher who inspired his first major poem, Queen Mab. The poem’s title character, a fairy originally invented by Shakespeare and described in Romeo and Juliet, describes what a utopian society on earth would be like.
Shelley not long later was introduced to a Mary Godwin Wollstonecraft, the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wolstonecroft.  Godwin was not in favor of Shelley dating his daughter.  In fact, Godwin so disapproved that he would not speak with Mary for the next three years. Shelley and Mary fled to Paris, taking Mary’s sister, Jane, with them. They departed London by ship and, mostly travelling by foot, toured France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland, often reading aloud to each other from the works of Shakespeare and Rousseau. 
A dedicated vegetarian, Shelley authored several works on the diet and spiritual practice, including “A Vindication of Natural Diet” (1813). In 1815, Shelley wrote Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude, a 720-line poem, now recognized as his first great work. That same year, Shelley’s grandfather passed away and left him an annual allowance of 1,000 British pounds.

Friendship with Lord Byron

In 1816, Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, invited Shelley and Mary to join her on a trip to Switzerland. Claire had begun dating the Romantic poet Lord Byron and wished to show him off to her sister. By the time they commenced the trip, Lord Byron was less interested in Claire. Nevertheless, the three stayed in Switzerland all summer. Shelley rented a house on Lake Geneva very near to Lord Bryon’s and the two men became fast friends. Shelley wrote incessantly during his visit. After a long day of boating with Byron, Shelley returned home and wrote Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. After a trip through the French Alps with Byron, he was inspired to write Mont Blanc, a pondering on the relationship between man and nature.

Harriet’s Death and Shelley’s Second Marriage

In the fall of 1816, Shelley and Mary returned to England to find that Mary’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, had committed suicide. In December of that year it was discovered that Harriet had also committed suicide. She was found drowned in the Serpentine River in Hyde Park, London. A few weeks later, Shelley and Mary finally married. Mary’s father,

William Godwin, was delighted by the news and accepted his daughter back into the family fold. Amidst their celebration, however, loss pursued Shelley. Following Harriet’s death, the courts ruled not to give Shelley custody of their children, asserting that they would be better off with foster parents.

With these matters settled, Shelley and Mary moved to Marlow, a small village in Buckinghamshire. There, Shelley befriended John Keats and Leigh Hunt, both talented poets and writers. Shelley’s conversations with them encouraged his own literary pursuits. Around 1817, he wrote Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden city.

His publishers balked at the main storyline, however, which centers on incestuous lovers. He was asked to edit it and to find a new title for the work. In 1818, he reissued it as The Revolt of Islam. Though the title suggests the subject of Islam, the poem’s focus is religion in general and features socialist, political themes.

Life in Italy

Shortly after the publication of The Revolt of Islam, Shelley, Mary and Claire left for Italy. Lord Bryon was living in Venice, and Claire was on a mission to bring their daughter, Allegra, to visit with him. For the next several years, Shelley and Mary moved from city to city.

While in Rome, their first-born son William died of a fever. A year later, their baby daughter, Clara Everina, died as well. Around this time, Shelley wrote Prometheus Unbound. During their residency in Livorno, in 1819, he wrote The Cenci and The Masque of Anarchy and Men of England, a response to the Peterloo Massacre in England.

Death and Significance

On July 8, 1822, just shy of turning 30, Shelley drowned while sailing his schooner back from Livorno to Lerici, after having met with Leigh Hunt to discuss their newly printed journal, The Liberal. Despite conflicting evidence, most papers reported Shelley’s death as an accident. However, based on the scene that was discovered on the boat’s deck, others speculated that he might have been murdered by an enemy who detested his political beliefs.

Shelley’s body was cremated on the beach in Viareggio, where his body had washed ashore. Mary Shelley, as was the custom for women during the time, did not attend her husband’s funeral. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ashes were interred in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. More than a century later, he was memorialized in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

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