Study Guide

Percy Bysshe Shelley Biography

  • Biography

    In his life Percy Bysshe Shelley was considered an obscure poet, a wealthy trust-fund baby who lived like a pauper, a married man with a wandering eye who lacked a sense of morals. Yet in the words of friend and fellow poet Lord Byron (another character who drew more than his share of notoriety), Shelley was "a man about whom the world was ill-naturedly and ignorantly and brutally mistaken." Shelley wrote. He never reached his old age, but he loved his fellow beings with all his heart.

  • 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." (Ah, a social experiment of a marriage! It's the dream - right, girls?) Harriet gave birth to their first daughter, Ianthe, on 23 June 1813.

  • Meets Mary Godwin

    In 1813 Shelley self-published his first major work, the long poem Queen Mab. Set in a utopian fairyland with a protagonist named after his daughter Ianthe, the poem was an allegory for Shelley's political ideals. Shelley passionately believed that society was capable of perfecting, or at least bettering, itself. The poem employed various political theories, including atheism, the importance of revolution, and the works of William Godwin, the anarchist political philosopher whom Shelley greatly admired.

    After establishing a correspondence with Godwin, Shelley began spending time in the philosopher's London home. There he met Godwin's 16-year-old daughter Mary, a young woman whose passion and intelligence equaled his own. She was the only child of the philosopher and his wife, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who died giving birth to Mary. Shelley and Mary Godwin fell in love. He explained his feelings to his wife Harriet - now pregnant with their second child - believing that if she shared his ideals and truly loved him, she would want him to follow his heart. He was disappointed to learn that she did not. Shocker. Nonetheless his relationship with Mary squared with his idea of honor. The truth was, he was in love with this person - if those were the facts, then how could it be wrong for them to be together?

    In July 1814, Shelley, Mary Godwin and Godwin's half-sister Claire Clairmont ran off together to the Continent, where they spent six weeks gallivanting through Western Europe. When they returned to England in September, Mary Godwin was pregnant, Shelley was heavily in debt and the reputations of everyone involved were destroyed. Though he was still legally married to Harriet, he and Mary lived as husband and wife. Shelley was forced into hiding for a few months to escape his many creditors. Shortly after their return, Shelley's grandfather died and he came into his full inheritance, the only thing that spared the couple from financial disaster. Tragically the couple's first child was born prematurely and died just weeks after birth. Their second, a son named William, was born 24 January 1816.

    "I never was attached to that great sect," Shelley wrote in his poem Epipsychidion, "Whose doctrine is, that each one should select/ Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,/ And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend/ To cold oblivion, though it is in the code/ Of modern morals." Shelley wrote in his poem "On Fanny Godwin." Just two months later, Harriet Shelley - pregnant with Percy's third child - threw herself in London's Serpentine River and drowned. Shelley was again overcome with grief and guilt. Compounding his pain was the fact that the courts denied him custody of his two children with Harriet, citing his unconventional and allegedly immoral lifestyle. He and Mary married on 30 December 1816. Mary Shelley gave birth to their daughter, Clara Everina, on 14 May 1817.

  • Tragedy in Italy

    In 1818, following the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Percy Shelley's poems The Revolt of Islam and Ozymandias, the family decided to move to Italy. England was a difficult place for a Romantic couple with a decidedly unconventional lifestyle. Also, they were hoping to assist Claire Clairmont, whose relationship with Byron had gone more than sour. After giving birth to his child, Clairmont sent their daughter Allegra to live with Byron, believing that she would have a better life as the daughter of a baron. Instead, Byron deposited the little girl at an Italian convent and refused to allow Claire to see her. (Ugh, parents, am I right?) The Shelleys, whose friendship with Byron had also gone south, were hoping to persuade him to change his mind. Sadly, Claire never saw her daughter again before Allegra died of fever in 1822 at the age of five.

    Their time in Italy turned out to be one of great tragedy for everyone involved. In September 1818, seventeen-month-old Clara Everina contracted dysentery and died. In June of the following year, the couple's three-year-old son William got malaria and died as well. Now the couple had no living children, though Mary was pregnant with her fourth. Mary Shelley was crippled by depression. To make matters even more complicated, in December 1818, between the deaths of their two children, a baby girl was born in Naples and registered as Shelley's daughter. The identity of this child is unclear - was she the illegitimate child of Shelley and a woman he had an affair with? Or was she an orphan Shelley adopted to console his grieving wife? Either way, the baby never lived with the Shelleys. She was placed with foster parents and died when she was only seventeen months old.

    After William's death, the couple moved to Florence from Ravenna, "anxious for a time to escape a spot associated too intimately with his presence and loss,"

  • Family

    Father: Timothy Shelley (1753-1844)
    Mother: Elizabeth Pilfold Shelley (1763-1846)
    Sister: Elizabeth Shelley (?-1831)
    Sister: Mary Shelley (?-?)
    Sister: Hellen Shelley (?-1885)
    Sister: Margaret Shelley (?-1887)
    Sister: Name unknown (died in infancy)
    Brother: John Shelley (1806-1866)

    Wife 1: Harriet Westbrook (1795-1816)
    Daughter: Ianthe Shelley (1813-1876)
    Son: Charles Shelley (1814-1826)

    Wife 2: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley (1797-1851)
    Daughter: Clara Shelley (1813)
    Son: William Shelley (1816-1819)
    Daughter: Clara Everina Shelley (1817-1818)
    Son: Percy Florence Shelley (1819-1888)

  • Education

    Eton College (1804-1810)
    Oxford University (1810-1811)

  • Major Works

    Zastrozzi (1810)
    St. Irvyne (1811)
    The Necessity of Atheism (1811)
    An Address, to the Irish People (1812)
    Queen Mab (1813)
    Alastor (1814)
    The Revolt of Islam (1818)
    Ozymandias (1818)
    The Masque of Anarchy (1819)
    Men of England (1819)
    Rosalind and Helen (1819)
    Prometheus Unbound (1820)
    Adonais (1821)
    Epipsychidion (1821)
    Hellas: A Lyrical Drama (1822)