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Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley (August 4, 1792 - July 8, 1822) was an English Romantic poet, famous for poems such as "Ozymandias" , "Ode to the West Wind" and "To a Skylark".

Born into an extremely wealthy family of Sussex gentry and heir to a baronetcy, Shelley received education at Eton College and then went to the University of Oxford (University College). His first publication was a Gothic novel, Zastrozzi (1810), in which he gave vent to his atheistic worldview through the villain Zastrozzi. In the same year, Shelley together with his sister Elizabeth published Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire. After going up to Oxford, he issued a collection of (ostensibly burlesque but actually subversive) verse, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson. A fellow-collegian, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, may have been his collaborator.

In 1811, Shelley published a pamphlet, "The Necessity of Atheism", which resulted in his being sent down from Oxford, along with Hogg. He could have been reinstated, following the intervention of his father, had he recanted his avowed views. Shelley refused, which led to a total break between himself and his father.

In the same year, Shelley eloped to Scotland and married Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a coffee-house keeper. Once married, Shelley moved to the Lake District to write, but shortly afterwards visited Ireland in order to engage in political pamphleteering. Two years later he published Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem. The poem shows the influence of the British philosopher William Godwin, and much of Godwin's freethinking radical philosophy is voiced in it. By now unhappy in his marriage, Shelley fell in love with Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter, Mary. In July 1814 they eloped to Europe. After six weeks, out of money, they returned to England. In the next year, Shelley produced the verse allegory Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude. It attracted little attention at the time.

In the summer of 1816 the Shelley entourage (which by then included Mary's step-sister Claire Clairmont) went to Switzerland, where they met Byron (whose mistress Claire Clairmont had become the previous April). They stayed near him on the shores of the Lake of Geneva. A tour of Chamonix in the French Alps produced "Mont Blanc", a difficult poem in which Shelley ponders questions of historical inevitability and the relationship between the human mind and external nature. In December 1816 Harriet Shelley committed suicide. A few weeks after her body was recovered from the Serpentine River in London's Hyde Park, Shelley and Mary Godwin were married.

In 1817, Shelley produced Laon and Cythna, a long narrative poem in which the two principal figures were incestuous lovers and which attacked religion. It was hastily withdrawn after only a few copies were published, then edited and reissued as The Revolt of Islam in 1818.

Shelley also wrote two revolutionary political tracts under the nom de plume of "The Hermit of Marlow." Early in 1818, he and his new wife left England for the last time and settled in Italy. During the remaining four years of his life, Shelley produced his major works, including Prometheus Unbound (1820) and Adonais (1821). Traveling and living in various Italian cities, the Shelleys were friendly with Byron. Tragedy struck in 1818 and 1819, when his infant daughter and son died of climate-related illnesses. In 1822 Shelley arranged for his friend Leigh Hunt, the British poet and editor who had been one of his chief supporters in England, to come to Italy with his family; he intended that the three of them -- himself, Byron and Hunt -- would create a journal, to be called The Liberal, with Hunt as editor, which would disseminate their controversial writings and act as a counter-blast to conservative periodicals such as Blackwood's Magazine[?] and The Quarterly Review[?].

On July 8, 1822, Shelley drowned in a sudden storm off Leghorn in the Bay of Spezia[?], while sailing back from Pisa and Leghorn to Lerici in his schooner, the Don Juan. He was returning from having set up The Liberal with the newly-arrived Hunt. The name "Don Juan", a compliment to Byron, was chosen by Edward Trelawny, a member of the Shelley-Byron Pisan circle, but according to Mary Shelley's testimony, Shelley changed it to "Ariel". This annoyed Byron, who caused "Don Juan" to be painted on the mainsail, giving offence to the Shelleys, who felt that the boat now looked like a coal-barge. The vessel, an open boat designed from a Royal dockyards model, was custom built in Genoa for Shelley. It did not capsize but sank; Mary Shelley declared in her "Note on Poems of 1822" (1839) that this design had a defect and was never seaworthy.

Shelley's body was washed ashore and later cremated on the beach near Viareggio[?]. His heart was snatched, unconsumed, from the funeral pyre and kept by Mary Shelley until her dying day, while his ashes were interred in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome[?].

Three children survived him: Ianthe and Charles, his daughter and son by Harriet and Percy Florence, his son by Mary. Charles died of tuberculosis in 1826; Percy Florence, who eventually inherited the baronetcy in 1844, died without children. The only lineal descendents of the poet are therefore the children of Ianthe.

External Links e-texts of some of Percy Bysshe Shelley's works:



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