Shelley, Percy Bysshe

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Shelley, Percy Bysshe (1792-1822), English poet, considered by many to be among the greatest, and one of the most influential leaders of the romantic movement. Throughout his life, Shelley lived by a radically nonconformist moral code. His beliefs concerning love, marriage, revolution, and politics caused him to be considered a dangerous immoralist by some.

He was born on August 4, 1792, at Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex, educated at Eton College and, until his expulsion at the end of one year, the University of Oxford. With another student, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Shelley had written and circulated a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism (1811), of which the university authorities disapproved. He had also published a pamphlet of burlesque verse, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson (1810).

Shortly after his expulsion, the 19-year-old Shelley married his first wife, Harriet Westbrook, and moved to the Lake District of England to study and write. Two years later, he published his first long serious work, Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem (1813). The poem was one result of Shelley's friendship with the British philosopher William Godwin, expressing Godwin's freethinking Socialist philosophy. Another result of their friendship was Shelley's relationship with Godwin's daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft. In 1814, after separating from his wife, Shelley briefly toured Europe with Mary.

Returning to England, he produced the verse allegory Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude (1816), which anticipated his later important work. During another brief visit to the Continent in the summer of 1816, Shelley and Mary met the British poet Lord Byron. At this time, Shelley wrote two short poems, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc.” In December 1816, three weeks after the body of his wife, an apparent suicide, was recovered from a lake in a London park, Shelley and Mary were married.

In 1817, Shelley produced Laon and Cythna, a long narrative poem that tells a symbolic tale of revolution. It was later reissued as The Revolt of Islam (1818). At this time, he also wrote revolutionary political tracts signed “The Hermit of Marlow.” Then, early in 1818, he and his new wife left England for the last time.

During the remaining four years of his life, Shelley produced all his major works. Traveling and living in various Italian cities, the Shelleys were friendly with the British poet Leigh Hunt and his family as well as with Byron. Shortly before his 30th birthday, Shelley was drowned (July 8, 1822) in a storm while attempting to sail from Livorno to Le Spezia, Italy. Ten days later, his body was washed ashore.

Many critics regard Shelley as one of the greatest of all English poets. They point especially to his lyrics, including the familiar short odes “To a Skylark” (1820), “To the West Wind” (1819), and “The Cloud” (1820). Also greatly admired are the shorter love lyrics, including “I arise from dreams of thee” and “To Constantia singing”; the sonnet “Ozymandias” (1818); and “Adonais” (1821), an elegy for the British poet John Keats, written in formal Spenserian stanzas. The effortless lyricism of these works is also evident in Shelley's verse dramas, The Cenci (1819) and Prometheus Unbound (1820); these remain, however, profound but unproduceable closet dramas. His prose, including a translation (1818) of The Symposium by Plato and the unfinished critical work A Defence of Poetry (written 1821; published 1840), is equally skillful. Other critics, particularly antiromanticists who object to the prettiness and sentimentality of much of his work, maintain that Shelley was not as influential as the other British romantic poets Byron, Keats, or William Wordsworth.1

1"Shelley, Percy Bysshe."Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2001. © 1993-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

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