Reader's Encyclopedia

Shelley, Percy Bysshe (1792 - 1822)

English poet. Although he was the son of a conservative country squire, Shelley was influenced early in life by the doctrines of the Enlightenment, ardently championing liberty and rebelling against the strictures of English politics and religion. While at Oxford he wrote and circulated a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism, and was expelled for "contumacy in refusing to answer certain questions" about it. In 1811, when he was nineteen, he eloped with sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook, and the pair spent the following two years traveling in England and Ireland, distributing pamphlets and speaking against political injustice. By 1814, however, an estrangement was growing between them, and they were separated. At about the same time, he met William Godwin, whose Political Justice had strongly influenced the early direction of his thinking, and soon fell in love with Godwin's daughter Mary (see Mary Shelley). In the summer of 1814 he and Mary eloped to the Continent; though they did not believe in marriage because of its exclusiveness and limitations, they were married after Harriet committed suicide in 1816. Their household, however, was scarcely conventional, and after 1818 they lived exclusively in Italy, where Shelley did his best work.

Shelley's early poetry includes Queen Mab, written in 1812-13, a long work inveighing against orthodox Christianity and secular tyranny, and Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude (1816), an allegory of a youth seeking in vain for a being equal to his most perfect imaginings. His "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," conceived during a voyage to Lake Geneva with Byron in 1816, reflects Shelley's Platonism. He revised the early "Laon and Cythna," an allegorical poem on the French Revolution, and renamed it The Rise of Islam; somewhat similar in ideological content to Queen Mab, it was the last poem Shelley wrote before leaving for Italy in 1818. He was working on The Cenci (1819), a blank-verse drama on the unfortunate Beatrice Cenci, when news came of the Peterloo Massacre, which was the result of a government-ordered cavalry charge on a working-class rally at Manchester; inspired by outrage and pity, he wrote the Mask of Anarchy (pub 1832). He soon began working on Prometheus Unbound, a lyric and symbolic drama for which he adapted elements from the Greek myth of Prometheus.

In 1819 the Shelleys moved to Pisa, where Shelley composed many of his shorter lyrics, among them The Cloud, "To a Skylark," Ode to the West Wind, and The Sensitive Plant; with the earlier Ozymandias, these poems have become the most famous among Shelley's works, though their popularity has obscured his general recognition as a philosophical poet.

Among Shelley's last works are Epipsychidion, a passionate love poem addressed to Emilia Viviani; and Adonais, an elegy on the death of Keats, modeled after the elegies of Bion and Moschus and frequently considered to be, of elegies in English, second only to Milton's Lycidas. In 1821, in response to Thomas Love Peacock 's disparaging comments on the value of poetry in The Four Ages of Poetry, Shelley wrote his famous Defence of Poetry. Based somewhat on Sir Philip Sidney 's essay, and drawing on ideas contained in the Symposium and Ion of Plato, the Defence is interesting primarily for the light it throws on Shelley's philosophical thought and his analysis of the value of the creative imagination.

In 1822 the Shelley household, which now included Jane and Edward Williams, moved to the Bay of Lerici, where Shelley wrote the poems addressed to Jane and sailed with Edward. He was at work on a long poem, The Triumph of Life, which was left incomplete when his boat was caught in a storm and he and Edward Williams were drowned. Their bodies were washed ashore at Viareggio, where, in the presence of Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt, they were burned on the beach.

A thorough student of Greek, Shelley was a Platonist and a humanist, looking to the Athens of the time of Pericles as the ideal toward which present-day civilization should be directed. Though his enthusiasms had the spontaneity and impulsiveness of an adolescent, there can be little question of the sincerity of his beliefs or his dedication to his liberal ideals. Never an atheist, he rejected orthodox Christianity but always held to the idea of some "pervading spirit co-eternal with the universe" ; and he rejected all conventions that he believed stifled love and human freedom. His poetry, typically abstract and allegorical, reflects his concern with the nature of transcendent reality.

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