This Day In Writing History
On August 4th, 1792, the legendary poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in Horsham, England. His father was Sir Timothy Shelley, a Whig Member of Parliament. His mother was a landowner in Sussex. As a young boy, Percy Bysshe Shelley received his education at home from a tutor. At the age of 10, Shelley entered the Syon House Academy of Brentford.
Two years later, in 1804, Shelley entered Eton College, where he did poorly as a student due to daily harassment by a gang of sadistic bullies. They devised torments for him called "Shelley-baits" which included tearing the books out of his hands and literally ripping the clothes off his back.
In 1810, at the age of eighteen, Shelley matriculated at University College, Oxford. According to legend, Shelley only attended one lecture during his time at Oxford and chose to educate himself by reading for as long as 16 hours a day. By all accounts, Shelley was unpopular with both the students and the faculty. He did make one friend, however - a fellow student named William Jefferson Hogg, who would later write a memoir of their friendship.
During his first year of college, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote and published his first book, a Gothic novel called Zastrozzi (1810). In this book, Shelley vented his atheistic, anti-religious ideals through his villain Zastrozzi, who abducts his enemy, the Conte Verezzi, and chains him to a wall in a cavern. There, Zastrozzi extracts his revenge by tormenting Verezzi and ultimately manipulating him into committing suicide, a sin resulting in eternal damnation, according to Verezzi's Christian faith. Why? In retribution for Verezzi's father (also a devout Christian) abandoning a young woman he had impregnated - Zastrozzi's mother.
The same year he published Zastrozzi, Shelley collaborated on a book of poetry with his sister Elizabeth, which they published as Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire. In 1811, Shelley published his second Gothic novel, St. Irvine, or The Rosicrucian. He collaborated again on a poetry book, this time with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, called Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson - a ribald and subversive collection of verse.
He also published a pamphlet called The Necessity Of Atheism. When the pamphlet caught the attention of the faculty, including the Dean, Shelley was ordered to appear before them at a hearing. The faculty offered Shelley a deal: if he agreed to recant the views he expressed in the pamphlet, he could remain at college. Shelley refused, and they expelled him. His father intervened to try and get him reinstated. The faculty offered him the same deal, and again, he refused to recant his views, angering his father.
Four months after he was expelled from college, Percy Bysshe Shelley, then nineteen years old, went to Scotland to marry his 16-year-old girlfriend, Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a pub owner. They were married on August 28th, 1811, and Shelley's father disinherited him as a result. When Shelley offered to let his old college friend William Jefferson Hogg live with them, Harriet objected. So, he took her to Keswick in Northern England, intending to begin a writing career.
Shelley was distracted by the political events of the time, and went to Ireland, where he wrote and performed his Address to the Irish People at Nationalist rallies, (he was stridently anti-war and anti-monarchy) earning him the wrath of the British government. Three years later, Shelley's marriage to Harriet had become unhappy. He often left her alone with their daughter, Ianthe. When he went to visit writer / journalist / philosopher William Godwin at his home and bookshop in London, Shelley also met his daughter, Mary Godwin.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin had been named after her mother, a writer, philosopher, and feminist, who wrote the 1792 feminist philosophy book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. She would later be known as Mary Shelley, author of the horror classic Frankenstein; on July 28th, 1814, Percy Bysshe Shelley left his pregnant wife and ran off with Mary, taking Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont, along for company. They sailed to Europe, wandered through France, and settled in Switzerland. Six weeks later, broke and homesick, they returned to England.
In the fall of 1815, while living near London with Mary, Shelley wrote his epic poem Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude. It attracted little attention when it was published, but has since been recognized as his first major work. In the summer of 1816, Shelley and Mary made another trip to Switzerland, at the behest of Claire Clairmont, who wanted them to meet Lord Byron - her ex-lover, whose interest she hoped to recapture.
The Shelleys and Byron rented neighboring houses on Lake Geneva. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron became good friends, and their conversations got Shelley's creative juices flowing again; he began writing prolifically. When he and Byron took a tour of Chamonix in the French Alps, it inspired Shelley to write the poem Mont Blanc. In December of 1815, not long after the Shelleys returned to England, Percy's estranged wife Harriet committed suicide, drowning herself in the Serpentine in Hyde Park, London.
A few weeks after Harriet's body was recovered, Percy and Mary Shelley were properly married, partly so Percy could regain custody of his children. Unfortunately, the court refused to grant him custody of his children because he was an atheist. They were placed with foster parents. The Shelleys moved to Marlow, Buckinghamshire, where Percy became part of Leigh Hunt's literary circle and soon met poet John Keats. During this time, Shelley wrote his second major work, Laon and Cythna; or The Revolution of the Golden City, a long narrative poem that attacked religion and featured a pair of incestuous lovers. It was withdrawn after only a few copies were published. It would later be edited and republished as The Revolt of Islam in 1818.
That same year, the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont left England for Italy to take Claire's daughter Allegra to her father, Lord Byron, who was living in Venice. When Percy reconnected with his old friend, Byron again inspired him to write. He began work on Prometheus Unbound, a play in verse, which he would complete in Rome, as the Shelleys moved around Italy during the following couple of years.
Tragedy struck when first their son William, then their infant daughter Clara died. On December 27th, 1818, a third child was born - a daughter named Elena, but the identity of her mother is a mystery. Some scholars believed that Percy Shelley fathered her with either Claire Clairmont or the family nursemaid, Elise Foggi. Other scholars believe that Percy adopted Elena in the hopes of distracting Mary from her grief. He would refer to Elena as his "Neapolitan ward" and place her with foster parents not long after her birth when he and Mary moved again. Elena would die when she was just 18 months old.
In 1820, when he heard of John Keats' illness, Percy Shelley wrote to him, inviting him to join him at his home in Pisa. Keats replied that he hoped to see Shelley, but his plans changed, and he instead went to Rome with artist Joseph Severn. When Keats died the following year, Shelley wrote a poem for him called Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats.
In 1822, Shelley invited his old friend and supporter Leigh Hunt to come to Italy with his family. Shelley intended for himself, Hunt, and Lord Byron to create a literary magazine called The Liberal. With Hunt as editor, Shelley and Byron could disseminate their controversial writings. The magazine would act as a strong counterpoint to conservative periodicals such as Blackwood's Magazine and The Quarterly Review.
Sadly, on July 8th, 1822, Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in a storm while sailing from Livorno to Lirici on his schooner, the Don Juan. At the time, he was returning after having set up The Liberal with Leigh Hunt. The boat, which was custom made for Shelley in Genoa, sank after being pounded by the sudden storm. Shelley claimed to have had a premonition of his death. Mary Shelley would later claim that her husband's boat wasn't seaworthy. Most believe that the boat was seaworthy and sank as the result of both the storm and the poor seamanship of Percy Shelley and his two mates.
Some have claimed that Percy Shelley had been depressed and committed suicide at sea, while others believe that Shelley's boat was attacked by pirates who mistook it for Lord Byron's ship. There is also evidence, albeit scattered and contradictory, that Shelley was murdered for political reasons by an agent of the British government.
When Shelley's body washed ashore, he was cremated on the beach as per the requirements of the quarantine laws of the time. His heart was rescued from the pyre by his friend, writer / adventurer Edward Trelawny, and given to Mary Shelley, who kept it with her until the day she died, after which, it was interred next to her grave.
Quote Of The Day
"Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted." - Percy Bysshe Shelley
Today's video features a reading of Percy Bysshe Shelley's classic poem, Ode To The West Wind. Enjoy!