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Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Childhood & Education

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born 4 August 1792 in Horsham, England. He was the first of seven children (two died as babies) born to Elizabeth Pilfold Shelley and her husband, a Whig Parliamentarian named Sir Timothy Shelley. As the son of a Member of Parliament who stood to inherit a sizeable income, Shelley attended only the best schools. In 1804, at the age of twelve, he went off to Eton College, the boys' boarding school. The other boys teased him mercilessly. Shelley was a classic bully target - bookish, awkward, dainty in appearance. Having grown up with only sisters - his one brother wasn't born until 1804, two years after Shelley left for Eton - he had no idea how to play sports or do anything boys normally liked to do. A natural introvert, Shelley's torment at school only caused him to retreat deeper into his mind.

In 1810, Shelley enrolled at University College, Oxford, to begin his spectacularly unsuccessful college career. "Oxonian society was insipid to me, uncongenial with my habits of thinking," Shelley wrote dismissively of the school. "I could not descend to common life: the sublime interest of poetry, lofty and exalted achievements, the proselytism of the world, the equalization of its inhabitants, were to me the soul of my soul."5 With his mind focused on loftier things, Shelley ignored his lectures and turned to his favorite pastimes, reading and writing. Within the year he had published his first novel, Zastrozzi. He and a friend named Thomas Hogg together published a book of bawdy poetry, which nearly got him expelled.

Shelley managed finish that job by the end of his first year, with the publication of an essay entitled The Necessity of Atheism. Oxford dons were shocked by the essay's pro-atheist arguments and called for Shelley to be thrown out of school. His father intervened and managed to negotiate a deal in which Shelley could be reinstated to school if he disavowed the arguments in the pamphlet. No dice. Shelley remained an avowed atheist until the end of his days. Shelley was expelled, and his father was furious. "My father's notions of family honour are incoincident with my knowledge of public good. I will never sacrifice the latter to any consideration," Shelley wrote a year after the expulsion. "My father has ever regarded me as a blot, a defilement of his honour."6

On 28 August 1811, again with the great disapproval of his family, Shelley ran off to Scotland to marry a 16-year-old named Harriet Westbrook. Shelley knew he was not in love with Harriet, but because he had caused her to fall in love with him, he later explained, "Gratitude and admiration all demand that I should love her for ever."7 This was a lifelong characteristic for Shelley: if he believed something to be Right, according to his own personal moral code, he had to do it, whether it was a good idea or not. "He loved truth with a martyr's love; he was ready to sacrifice station and fortune, and his dearest affections, at its shrine,"8 his second wife Mary Shelley wrote. He cheered himself by thinking of the marriage as a sort of social experiment, in which he could shape "a really noble soul into all that can make its nobleness useful and lovely."9 Harriet gave birth to their first daughter, Ianthe, on 23 June 1813.

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