The son of a prosperous squire, he entered Oxford in 1810, where readings in philosophy led him toward a study of the empiricists and the modern skeptics, notably William Godwin. In 1811 he and his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg published their pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, which resulted in their immediate expulsion from the university. The same year Shelley eloped with 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook, by whom he eventually had two children, Ianthe and Charles.
Supported reluctantly by their fathers, the young couple traveled through Great Britain. Shelley's life continued to be dominated by his desire for social and political reform, and he was constantly publishing pamphlets. His first important poem, Queen Mab, privately printed in 1813, set forth a radical system of curing social ills by advocating the destruction of various established institutions.
In 1814 Shelley left England for France with Mary Godwin, the daughter of William Godwin. During their first year together they were plagued by social ostracism and financial difficulties. However, in 1815 Shelley's grandfather died and left him an annual income. Laon and Cynthna appeared in 1817 but was withdrawn and reissued the following year as The Revolt of Islam; it is a long poem in Spenserian stanzas that tells of a revolution and illustrates the growth of the human mind aspiring toward perfection.
After Harriet Shelley's suicide in 1816, Shelley and Mary officially married. In 1817 Harriet's parents obtained a decree from the lord chancellor stating that Shelley was unfit to have custody of his children. The following year Shelley and Mary left England and settled in Italy. By this time their household consisted of their own three children and Mary's half-sister Claire Clairmont and her daughter Allegra (whose father was Lord Byron). On July 8, 1822, Shelley drowned while sailing in the Bay of Spezia, near Lerici.
Shelley composed the great body of his poetry in Italy. The Cenci, a tragedy in verse exploring moral deformity, was published in 1819, followed by his masterpiece, Prometheus Unbound (1820). In this lyrical drama Shelley poured forth all his passions and beliefs, which were modeled after the ideas of Plato. Epipsychidion (1821) is a poem addressed to Emilia Viviani, a young woman whom Shelley met in Pisa and with whom he developed a brief but close friendship.
His great elegy, Adonais (1821), written in memory of Keats, asserts the immortality of beauty. Hellas (1822), a lyrical drama, was inspired by the Greek struggle for independence. His other poems include Alastor (1816) and the shorter poems "Ode to the West Wind," "To a Skylark," "Ozymandias," "The Indian Serenade," and "When the Lamp Is Shattered."
Most of Shelley's poetry reveals his philosophy, a combination of belief in the power of human love and reason, and faith in the perfectibility and ultimate progress of humanity. His verse is at once deeply political, sensuous, and passionate, and his lyric poems are superb in their beauty, grandeur, and mastery of language. Although Matthew Arnold labeled him an "ineffectual angel," later critics have taken Shelley seriously, recognizing his wit, his gifts as a satirist, and his influence as a social and political thinker.
See his complete poetical works, ed. by N. Rogers (2 vol., 1972-74); letters, ed. by F. L. Jones (2 vol., 1964); biographies by E. C. Blunden (rev. ed. 1965), J. O. Fuller (1969), N. I. White (2 vol., 1940; repr. 1972), and R. Holmes (1974, new ed. 2003); studies by N. Rogers (2d ed. 1967), H. Bloom (2d ed. 1969), E. R. Wasserman (1971), K. N. Cameron (1974), C. Tomalin (1980), D. King-Hele (1981), S. M. Sperry (1988), and I. Gilmour (2003); K. N. Cameron and D. H. Reiman, ed., Shelley and His Circle (8 vol., 1961-85); A. Wroe, Being Shelley (2007).
Shelley's unconventional life and uncompromising idealism, combined with his strong skeptical voice, made him an authoritative and much-denigrated figure during his life and afterward. He became an idol of the next two or three generations of poets, including the major Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite poets Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, as well as William Butler Yeats and poets in other languages such as Jan Kasprowicz, Jibanananda Das and Subramanya Bharathy.
On April 10, 1810, he matriculated at University College, Oxford. Legend has it that Shelley attended only one lecture while at Oxford, but frequently read sixteen hours a day. By all accounts, he was unpopular with both students and dons. His first publication was a Gothic novel, Zastrozzi (1810), in which he vented his atheistic worldview through the villain Zastrozzi. In the same year, Shelley, together with his sister Elizabeth, published Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire. While at Oxford, he issued a collection of verses (perhaps ostensibly burlesque but quite subversive), Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, with Thomas Jefferson Hogg.
In 1811, Shelley published a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism. This gained the attention of the university administration and he was called to appear before the College's fellows. His refusal to repudiate the authorship of the pamphlet resulted in his being expelled from Oxford on March 25, 1811, along with Hogg. The rediscovery in mid-2006 of Shelley's long-lost 'Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things', a long, strident anti-monarchical poem printed in Oxford, gives a new dimension to the expulsion, reinforcing Hogg's implication of political motives ('an affair of party'). Shelley was given the choice to be reinstated after his father intervened, on the condition that he would have had to recant his avowed views. His refusal to do so led to a falling-out with his father. His mother died at a young age just as he did.
Unhappy in his nearly three-year-old marriage, Shelley often left his wife and child (Ianthe Shelley, 1813-76) alone, first to study Italian with a certain Cornelia Turner, and eventually to visit William Godwin's home and bookshop in London. He also visited many brothels. It was at such a brothel where he met Godwin's daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later known as Mary Shelley. Mary was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women.
On July 28, 1814, Shelley abandoned his pregnant wife and child when he ran away with Mary, also inviting her stepsister Jane (later Claire) Clairmont along for company. The three sailed to Europe, crossed France, and settled in Switzerland, an account of which was subsequently published by the Shelleys. After six weeks, homesick and destitute, the three young people returned to England. In the autumn of 1815, while living close to London with Mary and avoiding creditors, he wrote Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude. It attracted little attention at the time, but has now come to be recognized as his first major achievement. At this point in his writing career, Shelley was deeply influenced by Wordsworth's poetry and English language.
The Shelleys took up residence in the village of Marlow, Buckinghamshire, where a friend of Percy's, Thomas Love Peacock, lived. Shelley took part in the literary circle that surrounded Leigh Hunt, and during this period he met John Keats. Shelley's major production during this time was Laon and Cythna, a long narrative poem in which he attacked religion and featured a pair of incestuous lovers. It was hastily withdrawn after only a few copies were published. It was later edited and reissued as The Revolt of Islam in 1818. Shelley also wrote two revolutionary political tracts under the nom de plume, "The Hermit of Marlowe."
A daughter, Elena Adelaide Shelley, was born December 27, 1818 in Naples, Italy and registered there as the daughter of Shelley and a woman named Marina Padurin. However, the identity of the mother is an unsolved mystery. Some scholars speculate that her true mother was actually Claire Clairmont or Elise Foggi, a nursemaid for the Shelley family. Other scholars postulate that she was a foundling Shelley adopted in hopes of distracting Mary after the deaths of William and Clara. Shelley referred to Elena in letters as his "Neapolitan ward". However, Elena was placed with foster parents a few days after her birth and the Shelley family moved on to yet another Italian city, leaving her behind. Elena died 17 months later, on June 10, 1820.
The Shelleys moved around various Italian cities during these years. In later 1818 they were living in a pensione on the Via Valfonde (which now runs alongside Florence train station. The pensione was destroyed in World War II but there is a plaque on the building which replaced it.) when they received two visitors, a Miss Sophia Stacey and her much older travelling companion, Miss Corbet Parry-Jones (to be described by Mary as 'an ignorant little Welshwoman'). Sophia had for three years in her youth been ward of the poet's aunt and uncle. Hitting it off the pair moved into the same pensione and stayed for about two months. During this period Mary gave birth to her son and Sophia is credited with suggestng that he be named after the city of his birth, so he became Percy Florence Shelley, later Sir Percy. Shelley also wrote his 'Ode to Sophia Stacey' now in all complete collections of his work.
Shelley completed Prometheus Unbound in Rome, and he spent the summer of 1819 writing a tragedy, The Cenci, in Livorno. In this year, prompted among other causes by the Peterloo massacre, he wrote his best-known political poems: The Masque of Anarchy and Men of England. These were most likely his most-remembered works during the 19th century. Around this time period, he wrote the essay The Philosophical View of Reform, which was his most thorough exposition of his political views to that date.
In 1820, hearing of John Keats' illness from a friend, Shelley wrote him a letter inviting him to join him at his residence at Pisa. Keats replied with hopes of seeing him, but instead, arrangements were made for Keats to travel to Rome with the artist Joseph Severn. Inspired by the death of Keats, in 1821 Shelley wrote the elegy Adonais. The text of this famous poem can be found at
In 1822, Shelley arranged for Leigh Hunt, the British poet and editor who had been one of his chief supporters in England, to come to Italy with his family. He meant for the three of them — himself, Byron and Hunt — to create a journal, which would be called The Liberal. With Hunt as editor, their controversial writings would be disseminated, and the journal would act as a counter-blast to conservative periodicals such as Blackwood's Magazine and The Quarterly Review.
On July 8, 1822, less than a month before his 30th birthday, Shelley drowned in a sudden storm while sailing back from Livorno to Lerici in his schooner, Don Juan. Shelley claimed to have met his Doppelgänger, foreboding his own death. He was returning from having set up The Liberal with the newly-arrived Leigh Hunt. The name "Don Juan", a compliment to Byron, was chosen by Edward John Trelawny, a member of the Shelley-Byron Pisan circle. However, according to Mary Shelley's testimony, Shelley changed it to "Ariel". This annoyed Byron, who forced the painting of the words "Don Juan" on the mainsail. This offended the Shelleys, who felt that the boat was made to look much like a coal barge. The vessel, an open boat designed from a Royal Dockyards model, was custom-built in Genoa for Shelley. It did not capsize but sank; Mary Shelley declared in her "Note on Poems of 1822" (1839) that the design had a defect and that the boat was never seaworthy.
Many believe his death was not accidental. Some say that Shelley was depressed in those days and that he wanted to die; others that he did not know how to navigate; others believe that some pirates mistook the boat for Byron's and attacked him, and others have even more fantastical stories. There is a mass of evidence, though scattered and contradictory, that Shelley may have been murdered for political reasons. Previously, at his cottage in Tann-yr-allt in Wales, he had been surprised and apparently attacked by a man who may have been an intelligence agent.
In the days before he died, he was almost shot on two separate occasions. A British consul defended the shooter from the first of these two incidents, keeping him from all legal consequence. Two other Englishmen were with him on the boat. One was a retired Navy officer, Edward Ellerker Williams; the other was a boatboy, Charles Vivien, who should have known how to navigate to the nearby coast at Livorno. The boat was found ten miles (16 km) offshore, and it was suggested that one side of the boat had been rammed and staved in by a much stronger vessel. However, the liferaft was unused and still attached to the boat. The bodies were found completely clothed, including boots.
In his 'Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron', Trelawny noted that the shirt that Williams's body was clad in was 'partly drawn over the head, as if the wearer had been in the act of taking it off [...] and [he was missing] one boot, indicating also that he had attempted to strip.' Trelawny also relates a supposed deathbed confession by an Italian fisherman who claimed to have rammed Shelley's boat in order to rob him, a plan confounded by the rapid sinking of the vessel. The day after Shelley's death, the Tory newspaper The Courier gloated: "Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is a God or not.
Shelley's body washed ashore and later, in keeping with quarantine regulations, was cremated on the beach near Viareggio. A reclining statue, of Shelley's body washed up onto the shore, created by sculptor Edward Onslow Ford at the behest of Shelley's daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Shelley, is the centerpiece of the Shelley Memorial at University College, Oxford. An 1889 painting by Louis Eduard Fournier, The Funeral of Shelley (also known as The Cremation of Shelley), contains inaccuracies. In pre-Victorian times it was English custom that women not attend funerals, for health reasons. Mary Shelley did not attend but was featured in the painting, kneeling at the left-hand side. Leigh Hunt stayed in the carriage during the ceremony but is also pictured. Also, Trelawney, in his account of the recovery of Shelley's body, records that "the face and hands, and parts of the body not protected by the dress, were fleshless," and by the time that the party returned to the beach for the cremation, the body was even further decomposed. In his graphic account of the cremation, he writes of Byron being unable to face the scene, and withdrawing to the beach.
Shelley's heart was snatched from the funeral pyre by Edward Trelawny; Mary Shelley kept it for the rest of her life, and it was interred next to her grave at St. Peter's Church in Bournemouth. Shelley's ashes were interred in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome under an ancient pyramid in the city walls with the Latin inscription, Cor Cordium ("Heart of Hearts"), and a few lines from Shakespeare's The Tempest. The grave site is the second in the cemetery. Some weeks after Shelley had been put to rest, Trelawny had come to Rome, had not liked his friend's position among a number of other graves, and had purchased what seemed to him a better plot near the old wall. The ashes had been exhumed and moved to their present location. Trelawny had purchased the adjacent plot, and over sixty years later his remains were placed there.
He also makes an appearance in Jude Morgan's 2005 novel Passion, along with Byron, Keats, Coleridge, Leigh Hunt, and a wealth of other English Romantic figures, though the novel's main focus is the lives of the women behind the famous poets: Lady Caroline Lamb, Augusta Leigh, Mary Shelley, and Fanny Brawne. Mary and Percy Shelley also appears in a 2006 novel AngelMonster, by Veronica Bennet. This book is a fictional version of Mary's and Percy's elopement and the series of depressing events.
Shelley appears in Frankenstein Unbound by Brian Aldiss. The book is a time travel romance featuring Mary Shelley. There was also a movie made, based on the novel, directed by Roger Corman and starring John Hurt and Bridget Fonda, in 1990. He makes an appearance in the alternative history novel The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Only referenced in passing by another character, in the novel's story he does not drown in Italy, but lives to become a fierce critic (and perhaps saboteur) of Lord Byron's pro-industrial 'Radical party' government, for which he is arrested, declared insane, and placed in a madhouse.
Events in Shelley's and Byron's relationship at the house on Lake Geneva in 1816 have been fictionalized in film three times. He plays minor roles in: a 1986 British production, Gothic, directed by Ken Russell, and starring Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, and Natasha Richardson; and a 1988 Spanish production, Rowing with the Wind (Remando al viento), starring Lizzie McInnerny as Mary Shelley and Hugh Grant as Lord Byron. Both these movies deal mostly with Mary Shelley's creation of the Frankenstein novel, while Percy tends to be quite a minor character in both films.
Shelley is, however, the main character in a movie entitled Haunted Summer, made in 1988, starring Laura Dern and Eric Stoltz. It is set in the same time frame as Rowing with the Wind. Though somewhat sensationalistic in some scenes, Haunted Summer's strength has been called its three-dimensional characterization of Shelley, Mary Shelley and Lord Byron. The psychology of these three is quite accurate, realistic and vivid, and the movie uses words for its dialogue that the three actually said during their lives. The movie also does a good job of recreating Switzerland in 1816, where the four exiles lived.
Howard Brenton's play, Bloody Poetry, first performed at the Haymarket Theater in Leicester in 1984, concerns itself with the complex relationships and rivalries between Shelley, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, and Byron. Shelley's cremation at Viareggio and the removal of his heart by Trelawny are described in Tennessee Williams' play Camino Real by a fictionalized Lord Byron.
Percy, Mary and her sister Claire are some of the main characters in the novel, The Vampyre: The Secret History of Lord Byron, by Tom Holland (1995). The story concerns Lord Byron, poet and friend of Percy Shelley. Their meeting and the growth of their friendship are described, along with a hypothetical account of the time the foursome shared in Switzerland. Holland provides a fictional conclusion to the mysteries that surround Shelley's death.
Shelley's strange death and his claims of having met a Doppelganger served as inspiration for the 1978 short story "Paper Boat", written by Tanith Lee. Shelley is also the main character in Bulgarian poet Pencho Slaveykov's philosophical poem, Heart of Hearts. A quote from Shelley's Prometheus Unbound is said by Captain Jean Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, in the episode "Skin of Evil". "A great poet once said, All spirits are enslaved that serve things evil."
Shelley, in heartfelt dedication to sentient beings, wrote: "If the use of animal food be, in consequence, subversive to the peace of human society, how unwarrantable is the injustice and the barbarity which is exercised toward these miserable victims. They are called into existence by human artifice that they may drag out a short and miserable existence of slavery and disease, that their bodies may be mutilated, their social feelings outraged. It were much better that a sentient being should never have existed, than that it should have existed only to endure unmitigated misery"; "Never again may blood of bird or beast/ Stain with its venomous stream a human feast,/ To the pure skies in accusation steaming"; and "It is only by softening and disguising dead flesh by culinary preparation that it is rendered susceptible of mastication or digestion, and that the sight of its bloody juices and raw horror does not excite intolerable loathing and disgust."
Shelley was a strong advocate for social justice for the 'lower classes'. He witnessed many of the same mistreatments occurring in the domestication and slaughtering of animals, and he became a fighter for the rights of all living creatures that he saw being treated unjustly. How he reconciled his views with his lack of responsibility for Harriet and his offspring, both inside and outside of marriage, is a matter of some debate.
Elizabeth was a great-granddaughter of Hugh the younger Despenser by his second son Edward Despenser of Buckland (d. September 30, 1342). Her parents were Sir Edward Despenser, 1st Lord Despenser (March 24, 1336 – November 11, 1375) and Elizabeth Burghersh (d. July 26, 1409).
The eldest son of Elizabeth by Baron Maltravers was John Fitzalan, 13th Earl of Arundel. Their third son was Sir Thomas Fitzalan of Beechwood. His own daughter Eleanor Fitzalan was married to Sir Thomas Browne of Beechworth Castle. They had four sons and one daughter, Katherine Browne, who in 1471 married Humphrey Sackville of Buckhurst (1426 – January 24, 1488).
Their oldest son Richard Sackville of Buckhurst (1472 – July 18, 1524) was married in 1492 to Isabel Dyggs. Their oldest son Sir John Sackville of Buckhurst (1492 – October 5, 1557) was married to Margaret Boleyn. Margaret was a sister to Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire. His younger brother Richard Sackville had a less prominent marriage which resulted in the birth of Anne Sackville. Anne herself was later married to Henry Shelley.
Henry became father to a younger Henry Shelley. This younger Henry had at least three sons. The youngest of them Richard Shelley was later married to Joan Fuste, daughter of John Fuste from Ichingfield. Their grandson John Shelley of Fen Place was married himself to Helen Bysshe, daughter of Roger Bysshe. Their son Timothy Shelley of Fen Place (born c. 1700) married widow Johanna Plum from New York City. Timothy and Johanna were the great-grandparents of Percy.
He was the eldest of seven children. His younger siblings were:
Ianthe Eliza Shelley was married in 1837 to Edward Jeffries Esdaile. The marriage resulted in the birth of two sons and a daughter. Ianthe died in 1876.
Shelley's son Percy Florence Shelley, and his wife Jane, adopted Jane's niece Bessie Florence Gibson. Bessie married Leopold James Yorke Campbell Scarlett, and so the Scarletts (later the Scarlett/Abingers after their son, Shelley Leopold Laurence Scarlett, succeeded his second cousin to become the fifth Baron Abinger in 1903) became heirs to the Shelleys. Several members of the Scarlett family were born at Percy Florence's seaside home 'Boscombe Manor', in Bournemouth. The 1891 census shows Lady Shelley living at Boscombe Manor with several great nephews.
Karl Marx, Henry Salt, Mahatma Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, Alfred Nobel, Upton Sinclair, and William Butler Yeats were admirers of his works. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Roger Quilter, John Vanderslice and Samuel Barber composed music based on his poems.
Critics such as Matthew Arnold endeavoured to rewrite Shelley's legacy to make him seem a lyricist and a dilettante who had no serious intellectual position and whose longer poems were not worth study. Matthew Arnold famously described Shelley as a 'beautiful but ineffectual angel'. This position contrasted strongly with the judgement of the previous generation who knew Shelley as a skeptic and radical.
Many of Shelley's works remained unpublished or little known after his death, with longer pieces such as A Philosophical View of Reform existing only in manuscript till the 1920s. This contributed to the Victorian idea of him as a minor lyricist. With the inception of formal literary studies in the early twentieth century and the slow rediscovery and re-evaluation of his oeuvre by scholars such as K.N. Cameron, Donald H. Reiman and Harold Bloom, the modern idea of Shelley could not be more different.
Paul Foot, in his Red Shelley, has documented the pivotal role Shelley's works, especially Queen Mab, have played in the genesis of British radicalism. Although Shelley's works were banned from respectable Victorian households, his political writings were pirated by men such as Richard Carlile who regularly went to jail for printing 'seditious and blasphemous libel' (ie material proscribed by the government) and these cheap pirate editions reached hundreds of activists and workers throughout the nineteenth century.
In other countries such as India, Shelley's works both in the original and in translation have influenced poets such as Rabindranath Tagore and Jibanananda Das. A pirated copy of Prometheus Unbound dated 1835 is said to have been seized in that year by customs at Bombay.
In 2005 the University of Delaware Press published an extensive two-volume biography by James Bieri. In 2008 the Johns Hopkins University Press published Bieri's 856-page one-volume biography, Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography.