Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Percy Bysshe Shelley (4 August, 1792 - 8 July, 1822) was one of the leading poets of the second wave of the English romantic movement, along with Keats and Byron. He also was involved in liberal political activism, and a number of scandalous romantic attachments (like Byron). Because the establishment considered his personal life to be immoral, his works were not widely read or acclaimed during his lifetime, and his reputation as a poet took some time to grow following his death.

Shelley's poems reflect a longing for freedom and harmony and an opposition to all forms of authoritarianism. He regarded religion and law as ideological tools of governments. These views attracted a lot of criticism in his life. Despite his unconventional views and lifestyle, his poems were widely read in the more strait-laced and conventional later nineteenth century.

He is perhaps best known for his poem "Ozymandias" (1817), with its well-known lines;

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!


Shelley was born at Field Place, Warnham, Sussex and was a member of an aristocratic family. His father was a Member of Parliament. During his time as a schoolboy at Eton College he experienced a lot of bullying. He went on to Oxford University but in 1811 was compelled to abandon his studies there after issuing a pamphlet advocating atheism, The Necessity of Atheism. In the same year he married Harriet Westbrook, his landlord's daughter, and got to know the philosopher William Godwin. He went to Ireland where he attended nationalist demonstrations and wrote a pamphlet supporting Irish independence: this attracted the attention of the British authorities.

His marriage was unhappy and he often left his wife and his daughter Ianthe. Before long he fell in love with Mary (Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) William Godwin's 16-year-old daughter, and in 1814 he travelled with her to Switzerland, accompanied by her half sister Jane (later known as Claire) Clairmont. Six weeks later the penniless trio returned to England, where William Godwin - who had earlier advocated free love - declined to give them financial help.

Two years later, in 1816, Shelley and Mary returned to Switzerland, at the invitation of Claire Clairmont who was staying there and who used their presence to lure Lord Byron to Geneva. Claire and Byron had had an affair, but he had then lost interest in her. At the end of that summer, Shelley, Mary and Claire returned to England. A few months later, in December 1816, Shelley's wife Harriet drowned herself in London, and he married Mary shortly after. As Mary Shelley she became a famous author, author of, among other works, Frankenstein. One reason for the marriage was to have custody of Shelley's children by Harriet, but in the end the courts awarded custody to Harriet's parents.

Shelley and Mary lived in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, where another friend of Shelley was also living - the novelist Thomas Love Peacock. Among his other friends were Leigh Hunt and John Keats.

In 1818 Shelley, Mary and Allegra (Claire Clairmont's daughter by Byron) traveled to Venice, where Byron was staying. Shelley lived in Italy for the next four years until his death, staying in various cities. His son William died in Rome in 1819.

Shelley loved to sail on his schooner Don Juan; on one trip, from Leghorn to La Spezia, it was caught in a storm and sank. Shelley drowned, and his body washed ashore near Viareggio; he was cremated on the beach, and his ashes were buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

Some of his Works


  • Queen Mab: a Philosophical Poem (1813), a juvenile work, described as "a philosophical poem, but set within a framework of lyrically descriptive fantasy. It was accompanied by extensive Notes, showing wide reading. According to Edmund Blunden, "the Chartists . . . carried it with them as their gospel in one of the many cheap impressions."[1]
  • Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude (1815)
  • Mont Blanc (1816)
  • Hymn to Intellectual Beauty (1817)
  • Laon and Cythna (1817), a fantasy-based narrative poem about tyranny and human potential.
  • The Revolt of Islam (1817), a modified version of Laon and Cythna, in which the hero and heroine are no longer brother and sister, and other changes are made, to make it more acceptable.
  • Ozymandias (1817) was the result of a friendly sonnet competition between Shelley and his benefactor Horace Smith. In Shelley's version, the remains of the statue exemplify the transitory nature of tyranny.
  • Ode to the West Wind (1819) (Even in this "nature piece" there was a moral and political message.)
  • The Masque of Anarchy (1819). Although this vicious satire on the reactionary government in Britain was sent to Leigh Hunt for publication in The Examiner, Hunt did not feel able to publish it until ten years after the poet's death.
  • Men of England, A Song to the (1819)
  • England in 1819 (1819)
  • The Witch of Atlas (1819), a playful fantasy in 78 ottava rima stanzas, with (unusually) no strong political message
  • Julian and Maddalo (1819), about the relationship between the poet and Byron, whom Shelley adored, but also strongly cricised.
  • Prometheus Unbound (1820, but started two years before), an allegory of the downfall of tyranny, in dramatic form. At the time Shelley considered it his best work. It was published with other works
  • To a Skylark (1820)
  • Adonais (1821), an elegy for John Keats in 55 Spenserian stanzas
  • Hellas (1821)
  • The Triumph of Life (1822, unfinished, published posthumously in 1824)

Verse drama

  • The Cenci (1819)


  • The Necessity of Atheism (1811)
  • Plato, The Banquet (or Symposium) - translation from Plato (1818)
  • A Philosophical View of Reform (1819)
  • A Defence of Poetry (published in 1840). This was a response to an article by Thomas Love Peacock, which argued that poetry had lost its function. It contains the famous statement that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

Prose juvenilia

  • Zastrozzi (1810)
  • St Irvyne (1810)

Shelley's poetry

Like Keats, Shelley was mainly preoccupied with writing longer narrative poems, which he probably did more successfully precisely because he did not take Keats's advice to "load every rift with ore". These poems generally had some significant message. Some of his satires he could not get published. Some of the lyrics for which he is now best known were published in periodicals, but most did not come out until after his death. Edmund Blunden describes Prometheus Unbound as likely to induce a "luminous haze" if read with inattention, and this is probably true of much Shelley's work. His work was infused with moral and political (he would probably have regarded these two adjectives as virtually identical) attitudes and values.


Shelley was much vilified by the establishment in his lifetime, with the result that many people had heard of him but few had read his work. His reputation took some time to grow following his death, but it was consolidated when in 1839 Mary Shelley published his collected poems.


  1. Blunden, E. Shelley: a life story. Collins. 1946

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