Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Byron’s friend, was the only among the romanticists who understood that liberty could not be won without the revolutionary struggle.

His poetic style is symbolical and often metaphori­cal, it is rather complex for the common readers to understand.

Shelley was born on 4 August, 1792. His grandfa­ther, the founder of the family fortune, was a powerful old man, fond of arguing. Shelley’s father, Sir Timo­thy, was a country landowner. Both Shelley’s grand­father and father were radical Whigs in politics. Sir Timothy supported the extremely radical Whig Lord, the Duke of Norfolk, who had secured a baronetcy for the family, Shelley’s mother belonged to an old and more aristocratic family than her husband did. Shelley wrote about his mother that she was rational.

Thus born at the country seat of a wealthy and aristocratic family, Shelley was educated at Eton and Oxford. But he was extremely unhappy at school. He was nicknamed “a mad Shelley” because of his lack of interest both in games and in studies. From his earliest childhood Shelley had been a rebel against cruelty and tyranny — whether that of school, father, priest or king.

In his dedication to the “Revolt of Islam” (1817) Shelley says:

I do remember well the hour which burst

My spirit’s sleep. A fresh May day it was.

When I walked forth upon the glittering grass,

And wept, I knew not why;

Until there rose

From the near school-room voices that, alas!

Were but one echo from a world of woes —

The harsh and grating strife of tyrants and of foes.


So, without shame I spoke: —

I will be wise,

And just, and free, and mild, if in me lies

Such power, for I grow weary to behold.

The selfish and the strong still tyrannize

Without reproach or check.

I then controlled my tears, my heart grew calm,

And I was meek and blood.”

He was with mutual relief, graduated from Eton in 1810 and entered Oxford. The range of his interests was broad enough to include philosophy, science, history, politics and literature. Shelley was extremely interested in the radical Whig’s stand for Irish Freedom and discussed the current events in Ireland with his friend Hogg. Shelley and Hogg were bold enough to put their signatures in defence of an Irish journalist, Peter Finnerty, imprisoned for his revolutionary writings. More than that, Shelley published a book of poems in which he cursed war, praised heroes of the French Revolution and glorified freedom:

Monarchs of earth! thine is the baleful deed,

Thine are the crimes for which thy subjects bleed.

Ah! When will come the sacred fated time

When man unsullied by his leaders’ crime

Despiting wealth, ambition, pomp and pride

Will stretch him fearless by his foeman’s side.

Shelley asked the Duke of Norfolk to lend him £100 for the trip to Ireland. On 20 January, 1812, Shelley wrote to his friend Elizabeth Hichener that he was writing an “Address” to the poor Irish Catholics. Hatred between the Protestants and the Catholics was inevitable. Although there were more Catholics than Protestants in Ireland, they became the oppressed citizens in their own country. They couldn’t become members of the Dublin Parliament, couldn’t vote in the elections. No Catholic could become a lawyer, go to university or accept any public post.

Shelley delivered his speech to a very large meeting in February, 1812 that was published in the “Dublin Evening Post”. The main idea of his speech centred around the crimes committed by his nation in Ireland. Shelley “couldn’t but blush for his countrymen”.

Like Byron, Shelley was persecuted on account of both his revolutionary views and his behaviour. During this time Shelley wrote the main part of his first important poem “Queen Mab” — a long allegorical piece about the past, present and future state of the world.

In 1814 he left his wife for Mary, the daughter of the radical philosopher William Godwin. Shelley lived for some time in Switzerland where he became close to Byron. His elegy “Adonais” was dedicated to John Keats (1795-1821); Shelley praised Keats, though he had not been his close friend. They had common political views, because both were the bright representatives of the Age of Romanticism. The loss was great:

I weep for Adonais — he is dead.

O, weep for Adonais, though our tears

Thaw not the frost which finds so dear a head!

And, thou, sad Hour, selected from all years.

To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers

And teach them thine own sorrow, say: with me

Dided Adonais; till the Future dares

Forget the past, his fate and fame shall be

An echo and a light into eternity!

By that time Shelley had also written two important prose works: an essay “In Defence of Poetry” where he attacked the point of view that poetry is only an ornament of life; the second essay was written on “A Philosophic View of Reform”. Both works were unpublished during Shelley’s life.

In 1822 Shelley wrote his last major poem “Hellas”, dedicated to the Greek Prince Mavrocordato who was soon to enlist Byron in the war for Independence started in Greece in October 1822.

The end of his life Shelley spent in Italy. He was greatly impressed by its nature, art, history and literature. On 8 July, 1823, he set off in his little sailboat for the voyage. There was a great storm; and ten days later Shelley’s body was cast up on shore. In one of the pockets there was a volume of Keats’ poems.

The famous English journals accepted his death with joy: “Now he knows whether there is a God or not”.

Shelley remained unknown till 1840. Only radical press quoted him. Professor Newman Ivy White said that “the most characteristic and at the same time the most appealing qualities of Shelley’s poetry is its unique sense of Loneliness, and its superb faith in human destiny. The intensity combined with Shelley’s music makes him one of the most hypnotic of English poets.”

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