English Literature
Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley

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The Life and Legacy of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was a prominent Romantic poet, often compared to his contemporary, Lord Byron. He is best known for his poetry and tumultuous love life, but his controversial ideas were ahead of his time. He championed free thought, free love, and human rights, and even after his tragic death, his work continues to inspire readers. Let's delve deeper into the life of this remarkable and influential poet.

Early Years

Shelley was born into a politically active family in Sussex, with his father hoping for a future in politics for his son. However, from a young age, Shelley showed a different interest - he was a bright, mischievous, and imaginative child with a passion for writing. His rebellious and unhappy childhood eventually led to his expulsion from Oxford for publishing a pamphlet titled "The Necessity for Atheism." This caused a rift between Shelley and his father, ultimately leading him to elope with Harriet Westbrook.

Marriage and Controversy

Shelley and Harriet, the daughter of a successful tavern owner, had two children together, but their marriage was far from happy. Harriet's sister Eliza also lived with them, adding further strain. As their relationship deteriorated, Shelley became acquainted with William Godwin, whom he supported financially and visited frequently. It was through Godwin that Shelley met Mary Godwin, the daughter of renowned feminist and writer Mary Wollstonecraft. Despite Godwin's progressive views, he was shocked when Shelley and Mary fled to Europe with Mary's step-sister, Jane Clairmont. In a letter to a friend, Godwin expressed his disappointment, stating, "I had the utmost confidence in him...but then, on Sunday, June 26, he accompanied Mary...to the tomb of Mary's mother...and there, it seems, the impious idea first occurred to him of seducing her, betraying me, and abandoning his wife." Despite Mary's stepmother's efforts to convince her to return home, the trio continued on their journey.

Struggle and Success

Shelley's initial attempts at poetry were not well-received, with his writings on atheism, free-living, and human rights causing controversy. He challenged societal and political norms during a time of European revolutions and wars. However, after his grandfather's death, the Shelleys' financial situation improved, allowing them to settle in London for a while. During this period, Shelley wrote "Alastor, or Spirit of Solitude" (1816), and in the summer of the same year, he and Mary joined Lord Byron in Switzerland. It was during their stay at Lake Geneva that Mary began writing her famous novel, "Frankenstein" (1818), while Shelley produced two poems - "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" and "Mont Blanc."


Shelley's poem "Alastor" follows the journey of a poet who starts off disconnected from those around him but becomes increasingly restless after a dream. He follows a river until he reaches the edge of a mountain and ultimately dies alone in a tranquil spot. In the preface, Shelley explains the poem's purpose - to caution against shutting out love, whether it be for individuals or humanity as a whole. He references two groups of people - those who are self-absorbed and lacking imagination, rejecting love and suffering spiritually, and the intellectuals who understand love but choose to distance themselves from it. Interestingly, "Alastor" may have been partly inspired by Shelley's own life, as he himself left his home to seek new truths and experiences.Similarly, "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" includes a reference to a pivotal moment in Shelley's life when he decides to dedicate himself to the betterment of humanity and free it from superstition. The poem exclaims, "Sudden, thy shadow fell on me; I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy! I vowed that I would dedicate my powers to thee and thine: have I not kept the vow?" These lines may also allude to Shelley's break from his previous life and his unwavering dedication to a new, more meaningful path.

In Conclusion

Despite facing opposition and hardships, Shelley's poetry remains celebrated and studied to this day. His progressive ideas and passionate pursuit of truth and love set him apart as a revered figure in the literary world.

The Significant Influence of William Godwin on Percy Bysshe Shelley's Philosophical Ideas

In 1818, Percy Bysshe Shelley eloquently expressed his longing to revisit the memories of his past in his poem 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty'. This desire to delve into his past was a result of the deep philosophical musings that were ignited in his mind after reading William Godwin's 'Political Justice'. In a letter to Godwin dated January 1812, Shelley credited the book for shaping his character, expanding his perspective, and ultimately making him a better person.

The year 1816 saw Shelley's journey to Mont Blanc, which had a profound impact on his poetic work. During this trip, he was deeply inspired by the natural surroundings, and these inspirations can be seen in his complex poem, 'Mont Blanc'. In a letter to Thomas Love Peacock, Shelley described the awe-inspiring pinnacles of snow and the vastness of the aerial summits, confessing to feeling a sense of ecstatic wonder and madness. This experience is reflected in the detailed descriptions in the poem, although they may serve as a distraction from its underlying atheistic message. The poem opens with a philosophical tone, discussing the flow of the universe through the mind.

The second section of the poem shifts focus to the Ravine of Arve, with Shelley describing his response to this natural marvel. The structure of the poem suggests that both sections should be read together to fully comprehend its message.

K.N. Cameron's analysis of the poem highlights how some critics see the 'human mind' as the central entity in the first section, while others view the 'universe of things' as the primary element. The former perspective suggests that the mind gives significance to the passive flow of the universe, likening it to a feeble brook that echoes and blends with the sounds of other natural objects. The latter viewpoint sees the human mind as the feeble brook, echoing the surrounding universe.

The Inspiration Behind 'Ozymandias'

In 1818, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote his renowned poem 'Ozymandias' at a time when there was a growing fascination with Ancient Egypt. This fascination was sparked by the arrival of ancient relics brought from Egypt by Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni, including a statue of Ramses II. It was this interest in the remnants of ancient civilizations that led Shelley to participate in a friendly competition with Horace Smith to write a poem on the theme of 'Ozymandias'.

The poem depicts a traveler stumbling upon the remains of a statue in the desert, bearing the inscription "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!" This scene is inspired by the statue of Rameses II brought to London by Belzoni, and it reflects Shelley's contemplation on the fleeting nature of power and the enduring impact of time.

The Personal Loss Reflected in 'Ode to the West Wind'

Shelley wrote 'Ode to the West Wind' in 1819 during a period of immense personal tragedy and loss. This highly emotive poem is a reflection of his struggle to come to terms with the challenges and tragedies in his life, symbolized by the powerful west wind. Through this piece, Shelley expresses his longing for transformation and renewal, both personally and politically.

In 1818, Percy Bysshe Shelley suffered the heartbreaking loss of his daughter Clara and son William. This, along with other significant social and historical events, deeply influenced his poem 'Ode to the West Wind', which reflects on death and the possibilities for a new world order. He believed in the power of his words to bring about change, stating "Drive my dead thoughts over the universe, like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!" In his poem 'Adonais', written in 1821, Shelley grieved the death of fellow poet John Keats and used it as an opportunity to denounce a harsh critic. The concluding verse alludes to ships and eerily foreshadows Shelley's own death by drowning the following year.

In 1822, inspired by the Greek War of Independence, Shelley wrote 'Hellas', a verse play aimed at rallying England to support Greece. Tragically, in August of that year, Shelley drowned after his yacht sank in a storm. Ten days later, his body was discovered and cremated on the shore of Viareggio. This marked the end of Shelley's eventful life, in which he used his radical intellect and passion for justice to challenge societal norms and advocate for change.

Did Percy Bysshe Shelley Possess a Premonition of His Own Death?

One of the most intriguing questions surrounding the life and death of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a renowned Romantic poet, is whether he had a premonition of his own fate. In a letter to his friend Peacock, he expressed a feeling of living a "life in death" and ended the letter with the word "adieu", which was unusual for him. Later, he claimed to have witnessed a phantom child rising from the sea, just a few months before his own drowning. Whether this was a mere coincidence or a premonition, it adds a chilling factor to Shelley's untimely demise.

Early Life and Controversial Reputation

Born in Sussex in 1792, Shelley was raised by a father who was actively involved in politics, which had a significant influence on Shelley's own ideologies. He made a name for himself as a controversial figure, eloping with Harriet Westbrook in 1811 and then fleeing to Europe with Mary Godwin in 1814, whom he eventually married. In 1816, his poem 'Alastor' gained recognition and praise. Tragically, the same year, his first wife Harriet took her own life, and he married Mary. The newlyweds settled in Italy, where Shelley wrote some of his most renowned pieces, such as 'Ode to the West Wind' and 'Mont Blanc'. In 1818, his famous poem 'Ozymandias' was published, and in 1822, he completed his verse drama 'Hellas'.

Recommended Reading on Percy Shelley

For those interested in learning more about the life of Percy Shelley, recommended titles include "Memoirs of Shelley" by T.L. Peacock, "The Young Shelley: Genesis of a Radical" by K.N. Cameron, and "Shelley: The Golden Years" by K.N. Cameron. These books provide insight into Shelley's life, relationships, and literary works.

The Legacy of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Despite his controversial reputation and untimely death, Percy Bysshe Shelley's impact on literature and advocacy for societal change cannot be ignored. He is best known for his poems 'Ozymandias' and 'Ode to the West Wind', which showcase his brilliance and boldness in challenging societal norms. Although his life came to a tragic end, his legacy lives on through his powerful words and ideas.

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