Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1792–1822

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Biographical note

Poet, son of Sir Timothy Shelley, was born at Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex, and ed. at Brentford, Eton, and University College, Oxford, whence for writing and circulating a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, he was expelled. One immediate result of this was a difference with his father, which was deepened into a permanent breach by his marriage in the following year to Harriet Westbrook, the pretty and lively daughter of a retired innkeeper. The next three years were passed in wandering about from place to place in Ireland, Wales, the Lake District, and other parts of the kingdom, and in the composition of Queen Mab [1813], the poet’s first serious work. Before the end of that period he had separated from his wife, for which various reasons have been assigned, one being her previous desertion of him, and the discovery on his part of imperfect sympathy between them; the principal one, however, being that he had conceived a violent passion for Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin daughter of William Godwin, with whom he eloped to Italy in 1814, and whom he married in 1816, his first wife having drowned herself. The custody of his two children, whom he had left with their mother, was refused him by the Court of Chancery. In Switzerland he had made the acquaintance of Byron, with whom he afterwards lived in intimacy in Italy.

Returning to England in 1815 he wrote his first really great poem, Alastor [1816], followed by the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, Prince Athanase, Rosalind and Helen, and Laon and Cythna, afterwards called the Revolt of Islam [1817]. In 1818 he left England never to return, and went to Italy, and in the next two years — while at Rome — produced his two greatest works, the tragedy of The Cenci [1819] and Prometheus Unbound [1820]. He removed to Venice in 1820 in the company of Byron, and there wrote Julian and Maddalo, a poetic record of discussions between them. Epipsychidion, Hellas, and Adonais, a lament for Keats, were all produced in 1821. After a short residence at Pisa he went to Lerici on the Gulf of Spezzia, where he indulged in his favourite recreation of boating, and here on July 8, 1823, he went, in company with a friend, Mr. Williams, on that fatal expedition which cost him his life. His body was cast ashore about a fortnight later, and burnt, in accordance with the quarantine law of the country, on a pyre in the presence of Byron, Leigh Hunt, and Trelawny. His ashes were carefully preserved and buried in the Protestant cemetery at Rome near those of Keats.

The character of Shelley is a singularly compounded one. By the unanimous testimony of his friends, it was remarkable for gentleness, purity, generosity, and strong affection: on the other hand he appears to have had very inadequate conceptions of duty and responsibility, and from his childhood seems to have been in revolt against authority of every kind. The charge of Atheism rests chiefly on Mab, the work of a boy, printed by him for private circulation, and to some extent repudiated as personal opinion. As a poet he stands in the front rank: in lyrical gift, shown in Prometheus, Hellas, and some of his shorter poems, such as “The Skylark,” he is probably unsurpassed, and in his Cenci he exhibits dramatic power of a high order. Among his shorter poems are some which reach perfection, such as the sonnet on “Ozymandias,” “Music when soft voices die,” “I arise from dreams of thee,” “When the lamp is shattered,” the “Ode to the West Wind,” and “O world! O life! O time!” During his short life of 30 years he was, not unnaturally, the object of much severe judgment, and his poetic power even was recognised by only a few. Posterity has taken a more lenient view of his serious errors of conduct, while according to his genius a shining place among the immortals.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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