Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Major Works: Queen Mab (1813), Alastor (1816), "Mont Blanc" (1817), Prometheus Unbound (1820), "Ode to the West Wind" (1820), Epipsychidion (1821) "Adonais" (1821), "A Defence of Poetry" (written 1821, published 1840)

Biographical Notes: Born into the landed gentry, Percy Shelley was a brilliant child who entertained his younger siblings with imaginative gothic tales, some of which were published.  He went to Eton at 11, where he was ridiculed and bullied for eccentricity and sensitivity, and later to Oxford, where he was expelled after delivering copies of his and Thomas Hogg's essay, The Necessity of Atheism, to the faculty and administrators at Oxford and to all the Anglican bishops in England.  Shelley was an ardent idealist who rebelled against both church and class hierarchies; he believed in his power to bring justice and truth to the world through reason and poetry—before age 21, he had agitated extensively for commoners' rights in England and Ireland and tried to establish libertarian communes in Devon and Wales.   Shelley married sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook (though he opposed the institution of marriage), and after recognizing that he did not love her, he eloped with and later married Mary Godwin, daughter of free-thinking philosopher and writer William Godwin and outspoken feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Harriet's suicide, the suicide of Mary's half-sister, and the loss of several children through the courts and death demoralized Shelley, and public outcry against his "immoral relationships" forced him to move permanently to Italy.  Shelley was close friends with the leading popular poet of the age, Lord Byron, another "moral renegade," and he died at 29 sailing home from a visit to Byron and Leigh Hunt.  Shelley's poetry was read by few in his day, though it was popular among the radical political fringe.  Critical appreciation of his work rose only after the middle of the 19th century.

"Scandal and Outrage"
Shelley married his first wife, Harriet, mostly from a sense of gallantry—after encouraging her to adopt his own unorthodox religious and political beliefs, he attempted to "rescue" her, through marriage, from the vicious persecution of offended schoolmates and teachers.  When three years later he fell in love with Mary Godwin, who was intellectually more his equal than Harriet, Shelley's idealistic beliefs made him think it wrong that the "false convention" of marriage should prevent his greater happiness with Mary.  He asked Harriet to live with Mary and him as a sister, but she refused and eventually killed herself.  Shelley lost legal custody of his and Harriet's two children.  Meanwhile, Mary's step-sister, who lived with the Shelleys, got pregnant by Byron, but public opinion held that Shelley was the father.  Fearing that he and Mary might have their own two children taken from them, they fled England for Italy.  Both of these children died soon after.

Shelley's radicalism
In his early visionary poem Queen Mab, Shelley claimed that "Kings, priests, religion, and commerce are pernicious and must perish," and the Queen of Faery predicts, "Women will be emancipated; love will be tender and true; man will become vegetarian and hence healthy and gentle; and the earth will shift its position."  In his earlier years Shelley believed humanity was corrupted by the institutions of church and government and a class-driven social structure.  Later, he held the view that the institutions were an outgrowth of human nature, that reform must take place within the hearts of individuals before society would change.  The individual transformation that Shelley advocated was a doctrine of universal love.

Shelley on imagination, nature, and poetry
Shelley thought that for the receptive imagination, nature provides fleeting glimpses of divinity, of an elusive and eternal higher plane of existence.  He believed that people cannot articulate or understand in thought what they experience in these occasional moments of intuitive visionary revelation, but that poetry offered the best, closest approach.  In "A Defence of Poetry," he writes that poetry is "the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds."  Great Poets, he says, capture those elusive moments in all of our lives of evanescent thoughts and feelings that are fleeting imaginative visitations of a "diviner nature through our own."  Poetry "makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world; it arrests the vanishing apparitions which haunt the interlunations of life. . . .  Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man."

To Shelley, great art was created after visionary ascent to the eternal, and he struggled against the limitations of language and the human mind in trying to convey what is impossible to express in words.  He felt it was important to make the attempt, though, because he felt the radical changes he wished to effect in human nature were possible only by appealing to individuals through "transforming enlargements of imagination" in poetry, so all could experience great visionary truths.  Social change would come only after men were regenerated through art to love what is good and beautiful—for this reason Shelley believed that "Poets are the hierophants ('interpreters of sacred mysteries') of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves.  Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" ("A Defence of Poetry").  

The poetry
Shelley's poetry was often criticized in the past as vague, extravagant, and "merely emotive."  Recent critics suggest that the "vagueness and extravagance" are a product of Shelley's frustration with the limited ability of language to express his visionary experience—like trying to describe music in words, it just doesn't work.  His "emotiveness" indicates the passion with which he wanted to share his personal vision.


Shelley's poetry is remarkable for its stylistic excellence and variety: it ranges from direct and simple language, concrete and spare imagery with a "typically Romantic haunting strangeness," to a "Yeats-like union of passion, abstraction, symbolism and headlong speed" (David Perkins).