Subject Material

Percy Bysshe Shelley - A Romantic Rebel

Published: 06.08.2012, Updated: 04.03.2017
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The Romantic era was not only idyllic pastorals and longing for the simple and natural; it was also a time of revolution and protest. The “old ways” of society were challenged by a generation of angry young men and women. In pamphlets and articles they attacked the established values and institutions. The Church, Christianity, the educational system, the legal system, and not least the aristocracy and Royalty were all the targets of a harsh and defiant criticism from these radical writers. One of them was Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose short and dramatic life stands as a symbol of the revolutionary ideas and strong emotions of the romantic period.

The Rebel

Portrait of Percy Bysshe ShelleyPortrait of Percy Bysshe ShelleyShelley seems to have been rebellious by nature. He was a highly intelligent boy and was interested in science and literature; he was particularly fascinated by the Gothic tradition which was popular at the time. But his school career was to be a line of disciplinary reproaches from day one at Sion House Academy in Sussex until he was expelled from Oxford in his freshman year for “contumaciously refusing to answer questions”. At Eton, he had picked up on radical literature and was reading the works of philosophers like Hume and Voltaire. He also developed a scepticism towards Christianity, and at Oxford he wrote and published a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism,” which was a contributory factor for his expulsion from Oxford.

Love and Morality

In London, Shelley met Harriet Westbrook, who probably was his inferior intellectually – but she was madly in love with him. Shelley was flattered and entered a relationship with Harriet, possibly as some sort of a fling.  But as she was disgraced by her parents for being associated with an atheist and a rebel, he was provoked into marrying her. He was nineteen and she sixteen; and entering a marriage on such premises would, not surprisingly, prove to be a mistake. The young couple travelled in Scotland and in Ireland, where Shelley wrote and gave speeches to encourage the work for political reforms. He and Harriet had two children together, but their marriage was withering, and when he, in 1814, met 17-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Goodwin, he was lost; their mutual attraction was electric. They eloped to Switzerland for the summer, and when they came back, Harriet drowned herself in Hyde Park in London. A few years previously, Shelley had published his first important poem, “The Queen Mab,” expressing his socialist criticism of society and his denunciation of Christianity. This, in combination with his somewhat infamous conduct of life was the reason why his appeal for custody of his children was turned down by the authorities; he was seen as “morally unfit,” they proclaimed in the verdict.

In Exile

Percy and Mary moved to Italy in 1818, both because of his bad health and because he felt exiled by the verdict. In Italy they socialised with other English expatriates, like Lord Byron and Edward Trelawny. During his stay in Italy, his writing became richer and more poignant due to influential friends and circumstances that moved him emotionally, for example the death of his little daughter Clara. Percy and Mary had a son when they lived in Florence, which brought some happiness into their lives. Still, Shelley was often depressed and felt anger and pity for “the ways of mankind and the wrongs of the world”. But all this inspired his writing. One of his best love poems,“Emilia,” was inspired by a beautiful Italian woman (with whom Shelley probably was in love) who was locked up in a convent because she refused to marry the old nobleman her parents had promised her to. The death of his friend, John Keats, in 1821, also moved Shelley to produce some of the finest poetry in English literature. Mary was also active writing, and her famous “Frankenstein” was written during their stay in Italy.

The Death of a Poet

Shelley died in 1822, 30 years old, and the circumstances around his death and cremation were truly befitting a romantic rebel. After a meeting with colleagues in connection with the launching of a new periodical, The Liberal, Shelley and a friend were sailing homewards along the Italian coast. A violent storm broke, and they capsized and drowned; their bodies were found washed up on the shore two weeks later. Italian law required cremation, so the friends who had gathered (Lord Byron was one of them) decided to burn the bodies on the beach. As the flames picked up, and Shelley’s body slowly decomposed, Edward Trelawny stepped out and snatched his heart out of the flames, and presented it to Mary; a strong symbolic act resembling the dramatic scene in “Frankenstein,” where the monster rips the heart out of Elizabeth’s bosom. Another mystic element of Shelley’s death was his own forewarning of the way he died; in one of his latest works, “Adonais,” which was “a vindication of all poets and their immortality,” there are several passages that give a detailed description of death by drowning.


There are many examples of how poets and writers live their literature, or become what they write. Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of them; his short life and dramatic death certainly became a true analogy of the rebellious and ardent ideas that characterized the romantic era.

 

 

Activities

  • Follow the link and read the two poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley – “Song to the Men of England” and “England in 1819” and see how these lines express Shelley’s political views. List some key issues that Shelley addresses in these poems.Two Critical Poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • Shelley’s radicalism and rebellious nature may not seem so outrageous from today’s viewpoint. But in the early 19th century, things were different. What do society’s reactions to Shelley’s protests tell us about the virtues and values of pre-Victorian England?
  • There is an on-going literary debate as to what extent the writer’s socio-cultural and personal background is important for the understanding of his work. Discuss how this issue is particularly intriguing regarding a writer like Shelley. If you want more information about this issue you may follow this link: Literature in Theory 
  • Can you come up with other examples of writers who “lived their literature”?
  • Some say that all artists are self-centred narcissists wrapped up in themselves. In what respect can that be true about Shelley? Does his life also indicate that he had empathy and a social conscience?