Percy Bysshe Shelley

(4 August 1792 – 8 July 1822)

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822)

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley is considered one of the greatest of English poets. His writing had both great sensitivity and power. Though his life was short, he made a tremendous impact on the thinking of his time. He was a great humanitarian, and wanted dignity and freedom for everyone.

Early years

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on Horsham, Sussex and attended Sion House Academy before entering University College, Oxford, in 1804.

While there he wrote The Necessity of Atheism (1811); “If the knowledge of a God is the most necessary, why is it not the most evident and the clearest?”

Personal life

Shelley was expelled from school for expressing his atheistic views, and estranged from his father, he eloped to with sixteen-year old Harriet Westbrook to Scotland where they married in 1811.

After their marriage , Shelley invited a college friend to share their household but when she objected, Shelley brought her to Keswick in England’s Lake District, intending to write. Distracted by political events, he visited Ireland shortly afterward in order to engage in radical pamphleteering earning him the unfavourable attention of the British government.

Around this time between 1812 and 1813 Shelley live in Plas Tan-yr-Alltm in North Wales.

However after having two children, the marriage broke down when Shelley tried to have an open marriage.

Shelley next made several trips to London to the bookshop and home of atheist journalist William Godwin, widower of writer Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.

Shelley eventually eloped with Mary to Switzerland and they married. Mary, now Mary Shelley went on to write the novel Frankenstein.

Radical

Percy Shelley’s ideas ran directly counter to those of his time, when a few were held to be rightfully in authority and the many were supposed to do what they were told without question. Shelley would have none of this. His Song to the Men of England expresses this dramatically:

Men of England, heirs of glory,
Heroes of unwritten story…
Rise like lions after slumber
In unconquerable number.
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you.
Ye are many, they are few.

Queen Mab – too shocking for the public

Shelley’s first significant poem Queen Mab was written when he was eighteen. It was all about ‘integrity and loveliness’, about the evil of tyranny in any form, and ‘suicidal selfishness’.

Amongst other things, it attacked established religion, and its content was so shocking that had to be published privately. Even then, legal proceedings were taken against the publisher.

Challenging authority

People in power did not like Shelley’s ideas, which they found threatening. Shelley did not make it any easier for himself by challenging those in authority, as when about a year after entering University College, Oxford, he joined with a friend to write and circulate a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism.

This was based partly on the work of the philosopher David Hume. It was sent to a range of people, including heads of college and bishops. The idea was to promote discussion – but the result was that copies of the book were burnt and Shelley and his friend were expelled from Oxford.

Free speech and tolerance

Shelley always argued in favour of free speech and tolerance; he optimistically ended an open letter (intended for publication) with the words:

The time is rapidly approaching… when the Mahometan [Muslim], the Jew, the Christian, the Deist, and the Atheist, will live together in one community, equally sharing in the benefits which arise from its association, and united in the bonds of brotherly love.

A life overseas

Chilled by the hostility of those in power in England – and by the British winters! – Shelley spent much of his life overseas, turning for friendship to other writers, such as Byron, who found themselves in a similar position.

But Shelley went on writing, covering a vast range of human subjects, from tender and delicate poems such as To a Skylark, to a poetic drama in honour of human freedom, Prometheus Unbound.

He was conscious that half the human race at that time was denied a public voice, and said that as long as woman remained a “bond-slave” of man, life must remain “poisoned at the wells”.

Perhaps the greatest accolade to Shelley was the high praise accorded to him by other poets. William Wordsworth, himself a renowned poet, called Shelley “the best of all”.

Death

Shelley died when the rather unstable boat in which he was sailing in Mediterranean with a companion capsized in a storm. His body was washed to shore, where his friends, who did not feel that a Church burial was right for Shelley, built a funeral pyre on the beach and said farewell to him. Shelley was one month short of thirty when he drowned. There is a memorial to Shelley in Westminster Abbey, London.

There is a statue of Shelley in University College Oxford.

Greatness lies in caring for one another and for nature

One of his poems, Ozymandias, especially emphasises the futility of dictators who set themselves up as supremely important, only to have all their vain show wiped out by the passage of time. Shelley imagines a traveller in the desert who happens upon the remains of a huge statue, now broken, forgotten, half buried in the sand. Among the remains, the traveller reads an inscription:

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.

Greatness, Shelley taught, lies not the power a person may snatch for personal glory. It lies rather in caring for one another and for nature, from which alone a universal quality of life can spring. That message is as true for our times as it was for his.

See also…