Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born August 4, 1792, in Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex, England.  He was educated at Eton College and went on to Oxford University in 1810.  However, he was expelled a year later, after writing and circulating a pamphlet entitled, The Necessity of Atheism.  He could have stayed had he denounced the agnostic sentiments of the pamphlet, but he refused, estranging himself from his father.  Shelley struggled financially as a result, until he inherited his grandfather’s estate (and his seat in the House of Lords).  Later in 1911, Shelley eloped with sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook, and after two years of marriage, he published his first major work, Queen Mab, a work influenced by Shelley’s friendship with philosopher William Godwin.  In fact, much of Shelley’s early work is either politically or philosophically driven, as he was a voracious reader of Greek philosophers like Plato, or other great thinkers, including John Locke, Francis Bacon, and David Hume.

Shelley’s friendship with Godwin led to his infatuation with Godwin’s daughter Mary, and in 1814, the pair eloped, along with her cousin Jane (Claire) Clairmont, to Europe.  There they spent time with fellow writer, Lord Byron, where he proposed a contest to write a ghost story.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was famously written as a result, as was Percy’s Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude: and Other Poems.  By the end of 1816, Percy’s wife Harriet committed suicide, and Percy married Mary soon after. 

Most of Shelley’s most famous romantic poetry was written during the last four years of his life, 1818-1822: The Revolt of Islam (1818), The Cenci (1819), The Masque of Anarchy Prometheus Unbound (1820), and Hellas (1822) among them. Perhaps Shelley is most famous, however, for his essays, the most important of which were not published until after his death in 1822. These were A Philosophical View of Reform, completed in 1820, and A Defence of Poetry, written in 1821.  The latter is considered one of the finest prose pieces to come from the Romantic era.  Shelley drowned on July 8, 1822, after getting caught in a storm on his sailboat, the Don Juan, named after his friend Lord Byron’s most famous work.