xxxxxThe poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the leading figures in the English Romantic movement. Deeply devoted to the cause of political and social freedom, many of his works - like his Queen Mab, The Masque of Anarchy, Philosophical Review of Reform, and his Ode to Liberty - called for reform and, at times, open rebellion against injustice and oppression. Today he is best remembered for his love poems and his famous odes, such as To the West Wind, To Night, and To the Skylark. Among his major literary works are the verse drama The Cenci, a tale of rape and murder in 16th century Rome, and his Prometheus Unbound of 1819 wherein good eventually triumphs over evil. In 1821 he wrote Adonais, a noble elegy on the death of his friend John Keats. He and his second wife, Mary Shelley (author of the horror novel Frankenstein) lived much of their time in Italy, sometimes in the company of Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt. It was while in Italy that he was drowned at sea in July 1822. A passionate dreamer and a rebel with a cause, the poetry he composed is full of splendid imagery, glowing colour and, above all, music. He left a wealth of memorable lines which have a grandeur and a beauty all their own.


(G3b, G3c, G4)


Shelley: by the English painter Alfred Clint (1807-1883), 1819 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Godwin: by the Irish portrait painter Richard Rothwell (1800-1868), 1840 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Cremation: by the French artist and illustrator Louis Édouard Fournier (1857-1917), 1889 – Walker Art Gallery, National Museums, Liverpool, England. Peacock: by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Wallis (1830-1916), 1858 – National Portrait Gallery, London. Mary Shelley: by the English painter Reginald Easton (1807-1893), 1857, possibly based on a death-mask, - Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, England. Frankenstein: date and artist unknown. Marlow: by the English photographer Henry Taunt (1842-1922), 1896 – English Heritage Archives, Swindon, Wiltshire, England.

xxxxxThe English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the leading and most influential figures in the Romantic Movement. It is not difficult to see why. Rebellious by nature, deeply devoted to the cause of political freedom, and with a great love of nature, he possessed, in addition, the intellect and the poetic skill to convey his thoughts in majestic and memorable verse. There was, as the English essayist William Hazlitt later put it, “a fire in his eye and a fever in his blood” when it came to social and political injustice.

xxxxxHe was born at Field Place, near Horsham in Sussex. The member of a wealthy family, he attended Syon House Academy and Eton public school, where, sensitive by nature and somewhat feminine in appearance and manner, he was mocked and bullied by “tyrants and foes”. However, he was not without spirit and will power, and when he went up to Oxford in 1810 he was quickly at odds with authority. In 1811, being opposed to religion, he and a student friend wrote a two-page pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. When neither would own up to its authorship, they were both expelled. Shelley refused to apologise for his actions, and later that year eloped with Harriet Westbrook, a sixteen-year-old daughter of a London tavern owner. They journeyed to Scotland and got married at Gretna Green. His family were none too pleased! The couple then travelled to Dublin. Here he produced more pamphlets - this time calling for Irish independence - before they went to stay for a time in Wales. Short of cash, he returned to England in 1813 and produced his first major work, Queen Mab. Largely the result of correspondence he had had with the social philosopher William Godwin, this long poem took society to task, calling for social and political reform, and attacking in particular the institutions of monarchy, church and marriage. Thexfollowing year his own marriage fell apart. Shelley fell in love with Godwin’s daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1797-1851) (illustrated), and they eloped, travelling across Europe before returning to London later that year. He and his mistress received a cool reception, but his money troubles were eased early the next year when his grandfather died, and he was granted an annual income.

xxxxxThey lived for a short time near Windsor, where Shelley worked alongside his friend Thomas Love Peacock, but in May 1816 he and Mary travelled to Geneva to meet up with Byron. They were accompanied by Mary’s step sister Claire (formerly Jane) Clairmont, who was having an affair with Byron at that time. It was there that Shelley wrote his poems Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and Mont Blanc, and Mary began work on her famous novel Frankenstein. They returned to England later that year and it was soon after this that they learnt that, by all accounts, his wife, Harriet, had drowned herself in the Serpentine in London’s Hyde Park. This tragic event enabled Shelley and Mary to be married, but his two children, Ianthe and Charles, were put into care on the grounds that Shelley, as an atheist, was not fit to raise them. Having regained Godwin’s approval by their marriage, in March 1817 they settled near Marlow, close to where Peacock lived, and joined a circle of friends which included John Keats and Leigh Hunt. Here they wrote up an account of their travels on the continent, and Shelley returned to his revolutionary theme, pressing the need for protest in pamphlets signed under the nom de plume “The Hermit of Marlow”. Soon, however, they were again short of money and were obliged to make for Italy, that “paradise of exiles”, where living was much cheaper.

xxxxxThey left England for the last time early in 1818. They met up with Byron at Venice and then journeyed about Italy, making short stays at Naples, Rome, Leghorn, Florence and Pisa. At Pisa they were joined by Byron, and in the early summer of 1822 they all moved to Leghorn (Livorno) where Byron hired a villa on the bay of Lerici, close to Shelley’s house. It was during this period (1818-1822) - unsettled though it was - that Shelley showed his powers and vision as a literary poet. Turning aside from his role as a social reformer - though by no means entirely so - he devoted his poetic genius to conveying his own ideas and hopes, fervent in the belief that these would inspire future generations and bring about the ideal world he strove to achieve. As a result, to these years belongs some of his finest work, including many of his love lyrics and the short odes by which he is best remembered today, such as To the West Wind, To Night, and To the Skylark. His longer, more profound verse at this time included The Cenci, a real-life tragedy about rape and murder in 16th century Rome, and his outstanding lyric drama Prometheus Unbound (1819), the eventual triumph of good over evil.

xxxxxBut during these years his battle against political oppression continued unabated. Indeed, three of his works, The Masque of Anarchy, a call to arms following the Peterloo Massacre of August 1819; his Peter Bell the Third, a satire on Wordsworth, linked to a scathing attack upon corruption within British society; and his Philosophical Review of Reform, urging a movement for modest change, were considered too radical for publication. The first two did not appear until the 1830s, and the third was not published until 1920! In addition, in 1818 he published The Revolt of Islam, a revised version of his romance epic Laon and Cynthia (suppressed the previous year because it had included the ruthless crushing of a peaceful uprising), his Ode to Liberty, and his verse drama Hellas, in which he joyfully anticipates the success of the Greeks in their fight for freedom.  

xxxxxIn 1821, the year before his own death, Shelley wrote his Adonais, an elegy full of grace and splendour on the death of John Keats (who had died in Rome earlier that year). And he also began writing his Defence of Poetry, a prose work in which he argued that poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, creating the human values that fashion the social order. In 1822 the poet Leigh Hunt arrived at Leghorn, invited to assist Shelley and Byron in the editing of The Liberal, a new radical journal they were putting together to counter the conservative periodicals such as The Quarterly Review and Blackwood’s Magazine. Shelley travelled by his yacht , the Ariel, to see him and, once their work had been completed, he and his friend Edward Williams started their return journey, making for San Terenzo on the Bay of Lerici. They never made it. It seems that the small open boat was overturned by a sudden squall and both men were drowned. Their bodies were washed ashore ten days later near the town of Viareggio and cremated on the beach (as required by the laws of Tuscany at that time).

xxxxxThexpainting above by the French artist Louis Édouard Fournier (1857-1917) pictures the cremation, attended by (left to right), Edward Trelawny (a close friend of both Shelley and Byron), Leigh Hunt, and Lord Byron. (In fact, Hunt was not on he beach. He remained in his coach). It is said that Trelawny managed to snatch Shelley’s heart from the funeral pyre and that it was kept by Mary Shelley until her dying day.

xxxxxShelley’s ashes were taken to the Protestant cemetery in Rome and buried near to Keats’ grave. Later,xin 1894, a bust of Shelley, sculptured by the Italian Urbano Lucchesi (1844-1906) was placed in the Piazza Shelley in Viareggio in memory of the young English poet. His gravestone in Rome is inscribed with three of his favourite lines from Shakespeare:

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

xxxxxIt was a sad but, in some ways, a fitting ending to the life of so romantic a figure. He was just a few days short of his thirtieth birthday. It must be said, that his poems were never popular in his short lifetime - many politically rather than poetically motivated - but he was a passionate dreamer, and an ardent champion of liberty, and the poetry he composed is full of splendid imagery, glowing colour and, above all, music, born out of an effortless lyricism. Thus whilst his poetry was not as popular or as influential as the works of other romantic poets at this time, notably those of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Keats, he left a wealth of memorable lines which, whatever the subject matter, had a grandeur and a beauty all their own.

xxxxxIncidentally, during their last stay in Italy the Shelleys lost both of their young children. Little Clara, born in 1817 was taken ill and died while they were in Venice, and the following year their son William, born in 1816, died from malaria while they were living in Rome. Towards the end of 1819 a third child was born, Percy Florence Shelley, Mary’s only surviving child. ……

xxxxx…… In February 2005 letters from Shelley to Ralph Wedgwood, a close relative of the potter Josiah Wedgwood, were found in a semi-detached house in Norbury, South London. Written just before he was expelled from Oxford, he declares that religion was the “fabric of superstition” and that Christ never existed. The house, owned by two elderly brothers, also contained first editions by Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and H.G. Wells. ……

xxxxx…… The English novelist and poet Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) met Shelley in 1812 and they became close friends, seeing a great deal of each other when both lived near Marlow in 1817. His major work, the romance Nightmare Abbey, produced in 1818, contained characters making gentle fun of Shelley, Coleridge and Byron, together with a fund of amusing dialogue that doubtless owed much to his conversations with Shelley and his friends at that time. Peacock did not write for a living. He worked as an administrator in the East India Company for much of his life.

xxxxxShort extracts from five of Shelley’s poems are given below:


Mary Wollstonecraft

Shelley and John Polidori


xxxxxShelley’s second wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) was the only daughter of the philosopher William Godwin and his second wife, the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft. She met Shelley in 1814 and, despite his marriage to Harriet, the couple eloped to France in July of that year. They eventually married in 1816, three weeks after Harriet committed suicide. It was a successful partnership. She proved a soul-mate to Shelley, greatly assisted by the fact that she had a feeling for poetry and was herself a talented writer.

xxxxxHer writing skill was first put to the test one evening in July 1816 when she, Shelley and her step-sister Claire Clairmont were in the company of Byron and his physician John Polidori at the Villa Diodati beside Lake Geneva. After some discussion they all agreed to have a contest to see who could write the best ghost story. Mary Shelley took the challenge very seriously, and the result was the tale known as Frankenstein, one of the most famous horror stories ever written. Published in 1818, it tells of a young German scientist named Frankenstein who discovers a way to breathe life into dead flesh. The ugly human monster whom he thus creates runs amok after being rejected by his creator, and murder and mayhem follow. It was a huge success.

xxxxxFollowing Shelley’s tragic death in July 1822, she returned to England with her only surviving child, Percy, and busied herself with her husband’s papers. She published his Posthumous Poems in 1824, and edited his poetical and prose works. The journal she kept, together with her own letters, also helped to throw a great deal of light upon her husband’s character and remarkable talent. In addition, she also continued her own career as a writer. Other novels included Valperga in 1823 and The Last Man in 1826 - perhaps her best work -, and in 1830 she published The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck.

xxxxxIncidentally, and needless to say, the Gothic horror story Frankenstein, regarded today as the origin of modern science fiction, has inspired a number of such tales and their film counter-parts over the years. Perhaps the best film ever made was that starring the actress Boris Karloff as the monster in 1931. His performance has not been surpassed in the long catalogue of horror movies. ……

xxxxx…… She wrote the story while she and Shelley were living in a cottage in West Street in the town of Marlow in Buckinghamshire. The house is still there, marked by a plaque. ......

xxxxx…… But Frankenstein was not the only horror figure to be created from that evening get-together at the Villa Diodati in the summer of 1816. Byron’s physician, John Polidori (1795-1821), also made literary history. His contribution, The Vampyre, published in 1819, was an immediate success, and brought about a new and more horrifying concept of the vampire. It was no longer an animal running wild, but a creature in human form which preyed upon the society in which it dwelt. It was a creation that was to inspire many future writers and terrify their readers. ......


xxxxx…… The year 1816 has gone down in history as “The Year without summer”. It was so cold and wet that crops failed to grow and there was a widespread shortage of food. It was later established - more than a century later in fact - that at that time the sunrays had been virtually blocked out by dust from Mount Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia, which had erupted in April the previous year. It is tantalizing to think that, had it not been for this extremely wet and cold weather, Byron and his party might well have been enjoying the sunshine beside Lake Geneva on that July evening, and Frankenstein and the new and improved Vampire might never have been created! It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good!

xxxxxMary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) was Shelley’s second wife, and gained fame in 1818 with the publication of her popular horror novel Frankenstein. The tale of a scientist who makes a human monster which he cannot control, it is now regarded as the origin of modern science fiction. When Shelley was drowned in 1822, she returned to England with her sole surviving child Percy, and put her husband’s papers in order. She published his Posthumous Poems in 1824, and edited his poetical and prose works. Her own writings included the two novels Valperga and The Last Man, produced in the 1820s, and The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, published in 1830.