SHELLEY, Percy Bysshe

(1792 - 1822)
“Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted”

A major figure among the English Romantic poets of the 19th century, Percy Bysshe Shelley led what was for his times an unconventional life and died tragically young.  He was born into a well off family with traditional values:  his father was a member of parliament and the young Shelley was educated at Eton and University College, Oxford.  However Shelley did not share his parents’ orthodox views, being not only an atheist but also believing in political radicalism and sexual freedom.  Having being expelled from Oxford for his atheist views, he eloped with the 16 year old Harriet Westbrook and by the time he was 21 he had published his first long serious work, Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem, in which he set out his theory of revolution. Whilst writing the poem he became friends with William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and fell in love with their daughter Mary, with whom he eloped in 1814.  During 1814 and 1815 both Harriet and Mary had children by Shelley, and when Harriet committed suicide in 1816, Mary and Shelley married a scant 3 weeks later.  For a short while after their marriage the Shelleys lived in Marlow, but by 1818 they had moved to Italy where, on July 8, 1822, shortly before his thirtieth birthday, Shelley was drowned in a storm in the Gulf of Spezia.

However despite all the emotional turbulence in his personal life, Shelley produced some of the best known poems of social philosophy of the 19th century.  In a passionate outpouring between 1817 and 1822 he wrote, amongst others, an attack on religion in  Laon and Cythna, commented on the inevitable decline of empires and their leaders in Ozymandias, responded to the horrors of the Peterloo Masacre  in England in 1819 and addressed the failures of the French Revolution in  Prometheus Unbound.  In 1821, only  a year before his own death he wrote Adonais, a beautifully lyrical elegy inspired by the death of his friend and fellow poet John Keats.  Shelley considered this poem to be the “least imperfect” of all of his work.

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 Percy Bysshe SHELLEY

Books by this author

Queen Mab

SHELLEY, Percy Bysshe