In line to inherit a fortune and a parliament seat, Shelley was prince of his own home and led an idyllic childhood. He was known for entertaining his younger siblings with games and ghost stories.
At the age of 10, Shelley left home for the Syon House Academy. He was a victim of bullying and torment. Two years later, he transferred to Eton College where his peers were no different. His temper was fragile and his fighting skills were poor. The boys would call him “Mad Shelley" and “Shelley the Atheist" while tearing at his clothes and books.
He took interest in the lectures on electricity and chemistry. One of his favorite pranks was to use a frictional electric machine to charge the handle of his door. His last prank at Eton was to blow up a tree with gunpowder. He read a large amount of Plato, Pliny and gothic romances. Aside from books, Shelley was unsuccessful at finding any friendship at Eton.
In 1810, Shelley entered University College at Oxford. He paid little attention to the lectures but read up to 16 hours a day. In his first publication, the Gothic novel Zastrozzi, he reveals his atheism. The rejection of God in 19th century England was an offense that typically led to ostracization. Shelley placed his views in the mouth of the villain, the title character.
Shelley published a pamphlet in 1811 titled The Necessity of Atheism. This less subtle work caught the attention of the university’s administrators. He was given the choice to recant the opinions described in the pamphlet or be expelled. Shelley chose the latter. His father urged the school to reconsider. They chose to readmit him if he denied authorship and reconciled himself to Christianity. He refused, creating a rift between himself and his father.
Four months after his expulsion, Shelley ran off to Scotland and eloped with Harriet Westbrook, a 16-year-old classmate of his sisters. His father had forbidden the relationship because Harriet came from a lower-class family. Harriet had been sending letters stating that she would kill herself from unhappiness without Shelley. Harriet’s family overtly showed disapproval but secretly encouraged the union with the wealthy heir.
Cut off from his allowance, Shelley lived in poverty with his new wife, her sister Eliza whom he hated and one of his friends. He often visited poet Robert Southey, a former political radical, in Keswick. Through Southey, Shelley met William Godwin, author of Political Justice, a book that strongly influenced his youth. Shelley offered himself to Godwin as a devoted disciple. Godwin saw the young nobleman as a means to support his family.
Shelley became convinced his marriage to Harriet was only about his money. He disliked the influence of Eliza. He increasingly spent time with other female intellectuals, including the daughters of Godwin. Harriet and Eliza moved back in with their parents.
Shelley became infatuated with Godwin’s daughter Mary. He threatened suicide if she would not return his passion. In 1814, he abandoned his pregnant wife to run away to Switzerland with Mary and her sister Claire. Because she could speak French, Claire was useful on the trip. A third sister, Fanny, was left behind.
Six weeks later, they returned penniless. William Godwin refused to see them, although he still demanded money from Shelley. They returned to Switzerland in 1816 because Claire had befriended Lord Byron. Byron and the Shelleys rented neighboring houses on Lake Geneva. The group would regularly talk poetry and art to universal benefit. Shelley began his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty on that trip and convinced Byron to write his epic Don Juan. After being challenged to write a horror story, Mary created Frankenstein.
When they returned to England, Fanny killed herself over the shame of being excluded from the journey. Two months later, the body of Shelley’s wife Harriet was found, quite pregnant, drowned at Hyde Park. He was now free to legally wed Mary.
They moved to Marlow in Buckinghamshire. Shelley worked closely with Thomas Love Peacock, Leigh Hunt and John Keats. He composed Laon and Cythna, a narrative poem attacking religion and featuring a pair of incestuous lovers. Only a few copies were published before the book was withdrawn.
In 1818, they revisited Lord Byron, who now lived in Venice. Shelley’s writing gained a new energy. In the next two years, he lost two of his children. Another daughter, Elena Adelaide Shelley, was born in late 1818. The identity of the mother is lost to history, but may have been Claire or one of the family’s nursemaids.
July 8, 1822, Shelley drowned in a boating accident. The causes are mysterious. He was crossing the Gulf of Spezia with two other men when a sudden storm sank their boat.
One theory doubts the sailing skill of the passengers. Another states the boat was defective and not seaworthy. Some believe Shelley was depressed at the time and wanted to die. Those who recovered the boat believe there was evidence of ramming. Some say pirates believed Byron to be on board. Others say it was a political assassination.
Regardless the cause, Shelley’s legacy is his influence over other writers and radicals. Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Henry David Thoreau and WB Yeats all grew from his works. Even Mohandas Gandhi says Shelley’s belief in nonviolent protest inspired him.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
- Image Source: Wikimedia Commons – Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Curran, 1819
- Poetry Foundation: Percy Bysshe Shelley
- Academy of American Poets: Percy Bysshe Shelley