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Creator / Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819)

"A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why."
Percy Bysshe Shelley, from A Defence of Poetry

Percy Bysshe Shelley (4 August 1792 – 8 July 1822) was an English poet of the Romantic era, known for his radicalism in his poetry and political and social views. He did not achieve fame in his lifetime, but he would become a major influence on such later poets as Robert Browning, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Thomas Hardy, and W. B. Yeats.

Shelley was born at Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex. He was the eldest child of Timothy Shelley (1753–1844), a Whig Member of Parlament, and Elizabeth Shelley (née Pilfold), the daughter of a successful butcher. Four younger sisters and one younger brother would follow.

Shelley was educated at Syon House Academy from 1802–04 and then at Eton College from 1804–10. His years at Eton were very unhappy, as he was a victim of bullying, to which he would respond violently, and he found his escape in literature and the occult. In his senior years at Eton, Shelley met a part-time teacher named Dr James Lind, who encouraged his interest in the occult and introduced him to liberal and radical authors. He also went on to write two gothic novels: Zastrozzi and St Irvyne; or, the Rosicrucian: A Romance in 1810 and completed a book of poetry he wrote with his sister Elizabeth.

In the fall of 1810, Shelley enrolled in University College, Oxford and became friends with a student named Thomas Jefferson Hogg. Under his influence, Shelley's views became increasingly radical and atheistic, and he wrote a series of political poetry. Early in 1811, He and Hogg wrote The Necessity of Atheism and distributed it throughout the college, and they were both expelled for refusing to answer questions about the authorship of the pamphlet on 25 March. Hogg submitted to his family, but Shelley remained defiant.

Late in August 1811, Shelley eloped with Harriet Westbrook, a daughter of a London tavern owner; such a marriage led Timothy to cut off the allowances. Early in 1812, Shelley, Harriet, and her older sister Eliza Westbrook went to Dublin, where Shelley distributed pamphlets in favour of Catholic emancipation, autonomy for Ireland, and free-thought. There, he also adopted a vegetarian diet. The couple soon travelled to Wales, and then to London when they ran out of funds.

In 1813, Shelley published his first major poem, Queen Mab, wherein he attacks war, religion, the eating of meat, and marriage and argues that society would be better off without these vices. Later that same year, Harriet gave birth to Ianthe, but a year later, Shelley separated from Harriet and fell in love with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Mary Shelley). Against the wishes of her father William Godwin, Shelley and Mary Godwin eloped on 27 July, leaving London to travel in France and Switzerland, taking Mary's step-sister Jane (later Claire) Clairmount with them.

Following the birth of Charles to Harriet on 30 November 1814 and the death of Sir Bysshe Shelley on 5 January 1815, Shelley inherited a substantial sum and was provided with a regular income, both of which he shared generously. He settled near Windsor Great Park later in the year and composed Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude (1815).

In the summer of 1816, Shelley, Mary, and Claire went to Geneva and met Lord Byron, with whom Claire eventually had an affair. During this summer, Shelley composed Hymn to Intellectual Beauty (1816) and Mont Blanc (1816). In November, Harriet Shelley committed suicide by drowning in the Serpentine. Shelley and Mary married the next month with Godwin's blessing, but a Chancery Court decision in March 1817 declared Shelley unfit to raise Ianthe and Charles, and the two were placed in foster care at his expense.

That same March, the Shelleys settled near Albion House, Great Marlow. There, Mary Shelley finished Frankenstein, and Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City (1817). This poem was harshly received for its attacks on religion and for its incest content. With that, Shelley begrudgingly revised the poem and republished it as The Revolt of Islam (1818) a year later.

Early in 1818, the Shelleys departed for Italy, and Shelley would remain there for the rest of his life. There, he would write poems including Prometheus Unbound (1820), a verse drama concerning the torments of Prometheus; Adoais (1821), a poem he wrote in memory of John Keats; A Defence of Poetry (1821), an essay he wrote to show the utilitarian function of poetry; and The Triumph of Life (1822), which Shelley never finished.

Percy Bysshe Shelley died on 8 July 1822, in a shipwreck off the Bay of Spezia, in Viareggio, Italy. His body was cremated on 16 August, with Leigh Hunt and Byron in attendance, and his ashes were buried in the Protestant Cemetery of Rome. News of Shelley's death reached England, and the newspaper The Courier printed: "Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned; now he knows whether there is God or no."

Shelley's ashes were moved to a different plot of land in the cemetery. Due to the nature of Shelley's death, his grave has these lines from William Shakespeare's The Tempest:

Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.

Major Works:

  • Zastrozzi (1810)
  • St. Irvyne (1810)
  • The Necessity of Atheism (1811)
  • Queen Mab (1813)
  • A Vindication of Natural Diet (1813)
  • Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude (1815)
  • Hymn to Intellectual Beauty (1817)
  • The Revolt of Islam (1818)
  • Ozymandias (1818)
  • On Love (1818)
  • The Cenci (1819)
  • Ode to the West Wind (1819)
  • Prometheus Unbound (1820)
  • The Cloud (1820)
  • To a Skylark (1820)
  • Adonais (1821)
  • A Defense of Poetry (1821)
  • The Triumph of Life (1822)

Tropes present in Shelley's works:

  • Author Tract: Shelley was vocal about his views and frequently expressed them in much of his works. To name some examples, Zastrozzi outlines Shelley's atheism through the mouth of its villain, Pietro Zastrozzi. His first major poem, Queen Mab, makes several attacks on war, religion, the eating of meat, and marriage and came with endnotes expounding on these themes.
  • Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair: "Ozymandias", the Trope Namer, describes a monument in Egypt, buried in the sand, lost to time. The irony is particularly emphasized by the 'despair' at the end of the inscription: originally it was supposed to make the observer despair in awe of the power commanded by the one who built the great monument, but the desolation changes it to an existential despair before the might of time, which would eventually leave standing neither great monuments nor memories of those who built them.
  • Satan Is Good: Shelley joins William Blake in interpreting Satan from John Milton's Paradise Lost as the hero. He writes in his essay On the Devil, and Devils:
    "Milton's Devil, as a moral being, is as far superior to his God, as one who perseveres in a purpose which he has conceived to be excellent, in spite of adversity and torture, is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy—not from any mistaken notion of bringing him to repent of a perseverance in enmity, but with the open and alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new torments."

Alternative Title(s): Percy Shelley