Monday, December 24, 2007


(August 4, 1792 – July 8, 1822; pronounced /ˌpɝsi ˌbɪʃ ˈʃɛli/) was one of the major English Romantic poets and is widely considered to be among the finest lyric poets of the English language. He is perhaps most famous for such anthology pieces as Ozymandias, Ode to the West Wind, To a Skylark, and The Masque of Anarchy. However, his major works were long visionary poems including Alastor, Adonais, The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound and the unfinished The Triumph of Life.

Shelley's unconventional life and uncompromising idealism, combined with his strong skeptical voice, made him a notorious and much denigrated figure during his life. He became the idol of the next two or three generations of poets, including the major Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite poets Robert Browning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, as well as William Butler Yeats and poets in other languages such as Jibanananda Das and Subramanya Bharathy. He was also admired by Karl Marx, Henry Stephens Salt, and Bertrand Russell. Famous for his association with his equally short-lived contemporaries John Keats and Lord Byron, he was married to novelist Mary Shelley.

Son of Sir Timothy Shelley, a Sussex landowner and Whig Member of Parliament, Shelley grew up in Horsham, Sussex, and received his early education at home, tutored by Reverend Evan Edwards of Warnham. In 1802, he entered the Syon House Academy of Brentford. He was routinely bullied while he was there, both because of his "girlish" appearance and his family's aristocratic ties. Shelley had a poor temper was particularly inept with his fists. As one of his classmates wrote, he was "like a girl in boy's clothes, fighting with open hands."[1] In 1804, Shelley entered Eton College, where he fared little better, subjected to an almost daily mob torment his classmates called "Shelley-baits". Surrounded, the young Shelley would have his books torn from his hands and his clothes pulled at and torn until he cried out madly in his high-pitched "cracked soprano" of a voice.[2] On April 10, 1810 he matriculated at University College, Oxford. Legend has it that Shelley attended only one lecture while at Oxford, but frequently read sixteen hours a day. By all accounts he was unpopular with both students and dons, but managed to forge a close relationship with Thomas Jefferson Hogg. His first publication was a Gothic novel, Zastrozzi (1810), in which he gave vent to his atheistic worldview through the villain Zastrozzi. In the same year, Shelley, together with his sister Elizabeth, published Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire. While at Oxford, he issued a collection of verses (perhaps ostensibly burlesque but quite subversive), Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, with Thomas Jefferson Hogg.

In 1811, Shelley published a pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. This gained the attention of the university administration and he was called to appear before the college's fellows. His refusal to repudiate the authorship of the pamphlet resulted in his being sent down (expelled) from Oxford on March 25, 1811, along with Hogg. The re-discovery in mid-2006 of Shelley's long-lost 'Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things', a long, strident anti-monarchical poem printed in Oxford, gives a new dimension to the expulsion, reinforcing Hogg's implication of political motives ('an affair of party').[3] Shelley was given the choice to be reinstated after his father intervened, on the condition that he would have had to recant his avowed views. His refusal to do so led to a falling out with his father.

[edit] Married life

Four months after being expelled, the 19-year-old Shelley travelled to Scotland with the 16-year-old schoolgirl Harriet Westbrook to get married. After their marriage on August 28, 1811, Shelley invited his college friend Hogg to share their household, which included his wife. When Harriet objected, however, Shelley abandoned this first attempt at open marriage and 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. Here he wrote the Address to the Irish People and was seen at several nationalist rallies. His activities earned him the unfavourable attention of the British government.

Unhappy in his nearly three-year-old marriage, Shelley often left his wife and child (Ianthe Shelley, 1813-76) alone while he visited William Godwin's home and bookshop in London. It was here that he met and fell in love with Godwin's intelligent and well-educated daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, known to the world as Mary Shelley. Mary was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Mary Wollstonecraft had had an affair with Godwin, was briefly married to him, and died a few days after giving birth to Mary in 1797.

On July 28, 1814, Shelley abandoned his pregnant wife and child to elope with a 16-year-old for the second time. In fact, he managed to catch two 16-year-olds at this time: when he ran away with Mary, he also invited her step-sister Jane (later Claire) Clairmont along for company. The three sailed to Europe, crossed France, and settled in Switzerland, an account of which was subsequently published by the Shelleys. After six weeks, homesick and destitute, the three young people returned to England. There they found that William Godwin, the one-time champion and practitioner of free love, refused to speak to Mary or Shelley.

In the autumn of 1815, while living close to London with Mary and avoiding creditors, Shelley produced the verse allegory Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude. It attracted little attention at the time, but it has now come to be recognized as his first major poem. At this point in his writing career, Shelley was deeply influenced by Wordsworth's poetry.

On July 8, 1822, less than a month before his 30th birthday, Shelley drowned in a sudden storm while sailing back from Livorno to Lerici in his schooner, Don Juan. Shelley claimed to have met his Doppelgänger, foreboding his own death. He was returning from having set up The Liberal with the newly-arrived Leigh Hunt. The name "Don Juan", a compliment to Byron, was chosen by Edward John Trelawny, a member of the Shelley-Byron Pisan circle. However, according to Mary Shelley's testimony, Shelley changed it to "Ariel". This annoyed Byron, who forced the painting of the words "Don Juan" on the mainsail. This offended the Shelleys, who felt that the boat was made to look much like a coal barge. The vessel, an open boat designed from a Royal Dockyards model, was custom-built in Genoa for Shelley. It did not capsize but sank; Mary Shelley declared in her "Note on Poems of 1822" (1839) that the design had a defect and that the boat was never seaworthy.

Many believe his death was not accidental. Some say that Shelley was depressed in those days and that he wanted to die; others that he did not know how to navigate; others believe that some pirates mistook the boat for Byron's and attacked him, and others have even more fantastical stories. There is a mass of evidence, though scattered and contradictory, that Shelley may have been murdered for political reasons. Previously, at his cottage in Tann-yr-allt in Wales, he had been surprised and apparently attacked by a man who was probably an intelligence agent. Details of this incident can be found in Richard Holmes's biography, Shelley: The Pursuit

Both Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley were strong advocates of vegetarianism. Shelley wrote several essays on the subject, the most prominent of which being "A Vindication of Natural Diet" and "On the Vegetable System of Diet".

Shelley, in heartfelt dedication to sentient beings, wrote: "If the use of animal food be, in consequence, subversive to the peace of human society, how unwarrantable is the injustice and the barbarity which is exercised toward these miserable victims. They are called into existence by human artifice that they may drag out a short and miserable existence of slavery and disease, that their bodies may be mutilated, their social feelings outraged. It were much better that a sentient being should never have existed, than that it should have existed only to endure unmitigated misery;" "Never again may blood of bird or beast/ Stain with its venomous stream a human feast,/ To the pure skies in accusation steaming;" and "It is only by softening and disguising dead flesh by culinary preparation that it is rendered susceptible of mastication or digestion, and that the sight of its bloody juices and raw horror does not excite intolerable loathing and disgust."

Shelley was a strong advocate for social justice for the 'lower classes'. He witnessed many of the same mistreatments occurring in the domestication and slaughtering of animals, and he became a fighter for the rights of all living creatures that he saw being treated unjustly. How he reconciled his views with his lack of responsibility for Harriet and his offspring, both inside and outside of marriage, is a matter of some debate.

Shelley's mainstream following did not develop until a generation after his passing. This differed from Lord Byron, who was popular among all classes during his lifetime despite his radical views. For decades after his death, Shelley was mainly only appreciated by the major Victorian poets, the pre-Raphaelites, the socialists and the labour movement. One reason for this was the extreme discomfort with Shelley's radical politics which led popular anthologists to confine Shelley's reputation to the relatively sanitised 'magazine' pieces such as 'Ozymandias' or 'Lines to an Indian Air'.

Karl Marx, Henry Salt, Mahatma Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats were admirers of his works. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Roger Quilter, John Vanderslice and Samuel Barber composed music based on his poems.

Critics such as Matthew Arnold endeavoured to rewrite Shelley's legacy to make him seem a lyricist and a dilettante who had no serious intellectual position and whose longer poems were not worth study. Matthew Arnold famously described Shelley as a 'beautiful but ineffectual angel'. This position contrasted strongly with the judgement of the previous generation who knew Shelley as a skeptic and radical.

Many of Shelley's works remained unpublished or little known after his death, with longer pieces such as A Philosophical View of Reform existing only in manuscript till the 1920s. This contributed to the Victorian idea of him as a minor lyricist. With the inception of formal literary studies in the early twentieth century and the slow rediscovery and re-evaluation of his oeuvre by scholars such as K.N. Cameron, Donald H. Reiman, and Harold Bloom, the modern idea of Shelley could not be more different.

Paul Foot in his Red Shelley has documented the pivotal role Shelley's works, especially Queen Mab, have played in the genesis of British radicalism. Although Shelley's works were banned from respectable Victorian households, his political writings were pirated by men such as Richard Carlile who regularly went to jail for printing 'seditious and blasphemous libel' (ie material proscribed by the government) and these cheap pirate editions reached hundreds of activists and workers throughout the nineteenth century. Some details on this can also be found in William St Clair's The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge: CUP, 2005) and Richard D. Altick's The English Common Reader (Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1998) 2nd. edn.

In other countries such as India, Shelley's works both in the original and in translation have influenced poets such as Rabindranath Tagore and Jibanananda Das. A pirated copy of Prometheus Unbound dated 1835 is said to have been seized in that year by customs at Bombay. In 2005 the University of Delaware Press published an extensive two-volume biography by Jame Bieri.

No comments: