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Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Born on August 4th, 1792, Percy Bysshe Shelley is considered among “The Big Six”–six literary figures who are regarded as the core of the Romantic Poetry Movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, throughout his lifetime he was mocked and ostracized due to his unorthodox atheism and an eccentric lifestyle, and his poetic genius was not recognized until a generation after his passing.

He attended boarding school at the age of 10, where an interest in the sciences such as electricity, magnetism, and chemistry was kindled within him, such that back at home he attempted to cure his sisters’ pernios by passing electric currents through them. Also, an early flicker of his eccentricity was glimpsed during this period, when he would hint that an “alchemist” was holed-up in a secret compartment in the attic of their house! From 1804 to 1810, he attended the Eton school, where he was scorned for his androgynous appearance, his atheism, and his quiet, introverted manner. Apparently he was not one to shrug off such a constant barrage of ridicule, once even stabbing another schoolboy with a fork!

Matriculated at Oxford on August 10th, 1810, he was no more popular than ever, but he began to publish his atheistic world view, first in the Gothic novel, Zastrozzi, and then The Necessity of Atheism, in 1811. The latter saw him expelled on March 25th, 1811, after refusing to repudiate authorship. His father, an MP, intervened and Shelley was again offered the chance to recant, only to refuse again, creating a rift between Shelley and his father.

After being expelled, Shelley eloped to Scotland with Harriet Westbrook, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, and they were married in 1811. The couple had two children together, a daughter named Elizabeth Ianthe in June of 1813, and a son, Charles, in November of 1814. Throughout this tumultuous period, Shelley began to consume laudanum to treat his “nervous attacks”, he became friends with William Godwin and his family, and fell out of love with Harriet then right back into love with Mary Godwin (to be known as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein). The couple eloped to Europe together, and Harriet (who was not only caring for Shelley’s daughter but pregnant once again!), was left in such a state of estrangement, she eventually drowned herself (though her children survived in foster care).

Shelley went on to have several more children with Mary, but only their son Percy Florence Shelley survived into adulthood.

Around this period, Shelley met Lord Byron in Switzerland and while staying together on the shores of Lake Geneva (along with Mary and her step-sister Claire), the two shared many invigorating conversations with each other and ended up influencing each other’s future writings. During his stay, Shelley would often write “democrat, great lover of mankind, and atheist” in Greek after his signature in hotel ledgers (and Byron, who was much more mainstream, thought it would be apt to cross this out, and did so many times).

Shelley went on to experience further adventures and tragedies along with Lord Byron, Mary, and their cohorts. At one point, they owned a schooner, the name becoming a subject of contention between Byron and Shelley (preferring “Don Juan” and “Ariel”, respectively). Close to his death, Shelley claimed to have met his doppelganger, and suffered from increasingly morbid dreams after his wife suffered a miscarriage in 1822. On July 7th, while Shelley was returning from setting up The Liberal, a journal by which Shelley and Byron and several cohorts planned to disseminate their controversial views, the “Don Juan/Ariel” sank, 10 miles from any land, and Shelley drowned along with a few shipmates.

Afterword: Only having read a small sample of his pieces, I can’t say anything definitive about his writing. However, according to Wikipedia: “Karl Marx, Henry Salt, Mahatma Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats were admirers of his works”, so his influence has certainly trickled down throughout the years. And his character was very progressive and stubborn, despite the stifling closed-minded cultural climate he endured.


Comments (One comment)

Heather Annastasia Siladi / August 15th, 2007, 1:02 pm / #1

I love Shelly’s work. I’m working on a novel,
Original, which is very much influenced by Prometheus Unbound.

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