Study Guide

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley Introduction

"Even in modern times, no living poet ever arrived at the fullness of his fame," the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote. "[T]he jury which sits in judgment upon a poet, belonging as he does to all time, must be composed of his peers; it must be impanelled by Time from the selectest of the wise of many generations." He continues to do so today.

Percy Bysshe Shelley Trivia

When he was nineteen, Shelley wrote a pamphlet entitled "Declaration of Rights." To get the missive out to as many people as possible, he bottled some of the copies and tossed them in the sea. Others he launched via balloons.

As a student at Eton, Shelley sometimes engaged in the decidedly un-Romantic pastime of setting trees on fire using sunlight and glass.

Shelley was said to have a hunched posture and a narrow chest as a result of a lifetime of bending over books.

Shelley was a vegetarian.

When Shelley fell in love with Mary Godwin, he suggested to his current wife Harriet Westbrook that the three of them live together, with Mary as his new wife and Harriet as his sister. Harriet didn't go for that. We can't imagine why.

Shelley could be a bit absent-minded. If he couldn't remember whether he'd eaten that day, he'd call out to his wife, "Mary, have I dined?" When he did bother to eat he usually did it standing up, while reading a book.

Shelley's body was identified when it washed ashore by the copy of Keats' Lamia that he carried in his pocket.

When Percy Bysshe Shelley was cremated, his heart would not burn, possibly because of a health condition that caused its calcification. His friend Edward Trelawny removed it from the fire and gave it to Mary Shelley. Legend has it she kept the crumbled remains in her desk.

Percy Bysshe Shelley Resources

Books

Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Complete Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Shelley was one of the leading poets of the Romantic age. His images evoke the Romantics' fascination with nature, innocence and discovery. Poems like Queen Mab, Epipsychidion and Ozymandias (the guy really knew how to choose a title, huh?) are classics of English literature.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Necessity of Atheism and Other Essays
Shelley was given to what his father disapprovingly called "printing freaks" - passionate screeds on whatever topic gripped his sensibilities at the moment. He was kicked out of Oxford for the pro-atheist missive The Necessity of Atheism, and wrote essays on subjects from vegetarianism to the nature of poetry.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound (1820)
Shelley never intended this unusual drama to be performed on the stage. Instead, it is the reader's task to create the images in his or her own imagination. Shelley's play is about the mythical figure of Prometheus and the abuse he endures at the hands of Zeus. Prometheus was a popular figure in the Shelley household: the subtitle of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein is "The Modern Prometheus."

Edward John Trelawny, Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron (1858)
The adventurer E. J. Trelawny befriended Byron and Shelley a few years before Shelley died. He wrote two different memoirs of his times with the poets. There is some dispute over the accuracy of his accounts, given that he wrote the memoirs several decades after the events took place. Also, Shelley comes out looking a lot better than Lord Byron, whom Trelawny disliked.

Ian Gilmour, The Making of the Poets: Byron and Shelley in Their Time (2003)
Percy Bysshe Shelley and his friend Lord Byron were the twin stars of English Romanticism. Though Byron's fame overshadowed Shelley's during their lifetimes, today scholars examine the two poets side by side.

Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (1975)
Biographer Richard Holmes gathered possibly every known fact about Shelley for this doorstop of a book. Holmes, an accomplished biographer of poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, traveled for years to recreate every step of Shelley's life that he could. He published The Pursuit when he was only 29 years old.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)
Why should you read Frankenstein, the novel by Shelley's wife Mary? It's the first modern horror novel, inspiring generations of scary stories and science fiction. This book made Mary Shelley famous enough that she didn't even need to publish her name on future books - just "The Author of Frankenstein."

Music

Rosa Ponselle, Love's Sorrow
The American opera singer Rosa Ponselle recorded a soprano version of Shelley's poem "Love's Sorrow" in the 1920s. Her lovely voice does justice to his verse.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Love's Philosophy
This poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley is often performed to music. Here, the lovely Maddy G. sings it for her senior voice recital at the Bridges Academy of Fine Arts. Way to go, Maddy!

Percy Florence Shelley, Hymn of Pan
Percy Florence Shelley was the only one of Percy and Mary Shelley's four children to outlive his parents. He dabbled in music and composed the song "Hymn of Pan" in 1864, when he was 45 years old.

Vaughan Williams, Prometheus Unbound
Vaughan Williams was an English composer of the early twentieth century. He was inspired by the English Romantic poets, including Percy Bysshe Shelley. He wrote a symphony movement inspired by Shelley's poem "Prometheus Unbound."

Allan Jaffe, The Mary Shelley Opera
Composer Allan Jaffe created this opera based on the life of Percy Shelley's wife Mary. The first act looks at her life from the time she meets Shelley to the writing of Frankenstein. The second covers the dramatic, tragic twists in her personal life following Shelley's death.

Images

Percy Bysshe Shelley
An 1819 portrait of the poet.

Queen Mab
Shelley's edits (and doodles) on a printed copy of his poem.

The Mask of Anarchy
A manuscript page in Shelley's handwriting.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Shelley's wife in an 1840 portrait by Richard Rothwell.

The Funeral of Shelley
Fournier's painting of Shelley's cremation.

Shelley's Grave
The site where Shelley's ashes are buried in Rome.

Monument to Shelley
A memorial sculpture of Shelley by Edward Onslow Ford. It is on display at University College, Oxford.

Movies & TV

The Romantics (2006)
This British TV miniseries looks at the lives of the Romantic writers, a group that includes Shelley and his wife along with such literary luminaries as Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
The 1931 film version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was so successful that the studio made a sequel four years later called The Bride of Frankenstein. The movie begins with a bizarre prologue in which Lord Byron attempts to seduce Mary Shelley as Percy Shelley looks on haplessly. Then it gets into the monsters.

Gothic (1986)
A freaky movie that imagines what it was like at the house in Lake Geneva where the Shelleys summered with Lord Byron in 1816. If this film is to be believed, Shelley spent most of the time in a drug-like trance while Lord Byron skulked about acting creepy as hell. Very disturbing - but then again, we weren't there and can't say for sure it wasn't like this.

Haunted Summer (1988)
A slightly less creepy movie about that same summer of 1816. Though we don't know for sure how the summer went down, it's possible that a house full of attractive young practitioners of free love did get a little weird at times. All we know is that by the end of the summer, residents of the house had created both Frankenstein and the basic plot of every vampire movie written since.

Byron (2003)
Few lives were as drama-filled as that of George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, also known as Lord Byron. He became deeply entangled in the Shelleys' lives, trading poetic rivalries with Percy Bysshe Shelley and impregnating Mary's half-sister. This made for television biopic sums up the sexual escapades, literary triumphs and shady dealings of this curious creature.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)
Kenneth Branaugh directed this film adaptation of the book, and even credits Mary Shelley as a screenwriter. It is the latest in a line of hundreds of Frankenstein films made since the first in 1910. Robert de Niro plays the monster, though he's still not as scary as he was in Taxi Driver.

Websites

The Academy of American Poets: Percy Bysshe Shelley
This website contains an eloquent biography of Shelley's brief life, along with a bibliography and links to Shelley's poems. It also has links to other sites about Shelley and the Romantics.

BBC Historic Figures: Percy Bysshe Shelley
This website has a succinct biography of Shelley. You can also click on a timeline of British poetry, as well as on links to archived BBC stories pertaining to the poet.

Royal Berkshire History
Though he associated himself with the outcast and downtrodden, Shelley was born into British nobility. His father, Timothy Shelley, was a member of Parliament, and Shelley came into a handsome inheritance when he was in his twenties. This website has Shelley's biographies, along with those of hundreds of notables born in the Berkshires.

The Keats-Shelley House
The Keats-Shelley House is a house in Rome near a spot frequented by Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and other Romantic poets. Today the house is a museum dedicated to the work of the Romantics. Its website has biographies of the Romantics, including Shelley.

Romantic Circles
This website from the University of Maryland is a great introduction to Romantic literature. Many of the Romantic poets lived together, worked together and hooked up with each other. You can't study one without getting caught up in the others.

Romanticism
Lilia Melani at Brooklyn College has put together this straightforward guide to Romanticism. If all you have is three minutes, a read of this page is your best introduction to the movement.

Video & Audio

Ozymandias
Shelley's poem, performed by the excellent Ben Kingsley.

The Cloud
A reading of Shelley's poem.

A Defense of Poetry
A reading of Shelley's essay on poetry.

Ode to the West Wind
A reading of Shelley's poem.

Ozymandias
A lovely animated version of the poem.

The Grave of Shelley
A reading of Oscar Wilde's poem about Shelley's resting place.

Gothic
A scene from the film about Shelley and Byron.

Primary Sources

The Complete Poetical Works
The 1901 edition of Shelley's collected poems.

Poem Notes by Mary Shelley
The introductory notes to selected Shelley poems that his widow Mary wrote after his death.

Ozymandias
Text of Shelley's poem.

The Necessity of Atheism
The essay that got Shelley booted from Oxford.

A Vindication of Natural Diet
Shelley's pro-vegetarianism treatise.

Shelley at Oxford
A memoir of Shelley's short student days by his friend Thomas Hogg.

The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley
A biography by Thomas Hogg.

Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron
The controversial memoir by E. J. Trelawny.

Frankenstein
Text of the horror novel by Shelley's wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

History of a Six Weeks' Tour
Mary Shelley's account of the Shelleys' 1814 elopement to Europe.