P.B. Shelley was born in 1792 in Sussex. His father, a baronet, was a conservative and narrow-minded man. At Eton College where he was sent in 1804, Shelley was disliked by the teachers for his independent thinking and opposition to fagging.
He studied at Eton College, then Oxford. In 1840 Shelley entered Oxford, where he soon came to sharp conflict with the conservatism and dogmatism of contemporary university life. In 1811 Shelley wrote an anti-religious pamphlet 'The Necessity of Atheism' for which he was expelled from the University and disowned. Shelley went on a tour over England. The year 1812 found him in Ireland, whose people exploited both by the Irish nobility and English bourgeoisie, openly revolted against their oppression. Shelley's proclamations 'An Address to the Irish People' and 'Declarations of Rights' were intended to encourage the Irish people to stand up for their rights. On his return to England Shelley published his first poem of note 'Queen Mab' (1813). 'Queen Mab' makes it clear that Shelley is a utopian socialist in his views. He believes that a happy society of the future can be brought about by peaceful means. The strong point of 'Queen Mab' is
materialistic philosophy which underlies the poem. The idea of God is rejected by the author. Shelley contrasts knowledge and science to religion.
In 1814-1816 Shelley traveled abroad. During his visit to Switzerland he met Byron and a warm friendship sprang up between them. During 1812-1818 Shelley produced a number of works which testify to a development of his progressive views. One of the most significant of Shelley's early work is 'The Revolt of Islam' (1818). Though being romantic and abstract the poem, however, is revolutionary in its essence, for the French revolution of the 18th century is implied in its plot. The poem is permeated with the idea of future liberation of mankind and directed against all systems of oppression and exploitation.
However, in their struggle for freedom the heroes of the poem pin their hopes only on the power of conviction. That testifies to the fact that in the first period of his work Shelley had not yet come to realize the necessity of armed struggle for a better future.
The tragedy is full of dramatic action and the characters are drawn with great realistic force. 'The Cenci' marks a definite progress in Shelley's revolutionary outlook. Here the poet for the first time recognizes the necessity of violence as a means of struggle against despotism and evil.
Though far from England, Shelley never ceased to be interested in the affairs of his native country. In August 1819 news reached him that the English government had sent a detachment of soldiers against a demonstration of Manchester workers. This stirred Shelley to devote his poetic genius to political writing. Shelley became a singer of the proletariat at the period of its first mass actions against capitalist exploitation. In the same year Shelley wrote a great lyric 'Song of the Men of England'. During the Chartist demonstrations the workers marched singing Shelley's songs.
In 1820 Shelley wrote his masterpiece 'Prometheus Unbound', a lyrical drama.
Shelley is also known as the author of many lyrical poems devoted to nature and love. Shelley worships nature believing it to be the source of an undying strength, ever capable of re-creation. His philosophical optimism proceeds from his conviction that the world and nature are ever on change ever developing to higher forms. He sings of a love that enables man's soul and demands all his spiritual strength, his whole life.
Unexpected death cut short Shelley's life. On July 8, 1822, while he was sailing across the bay of Spezzia, a sudden tempest struck his boat and he was drowned. His body was cremated and buried in Rome. The inscription on his tomb-stone reads
Percy Bysche Shelley,
(The Heart of Hearts)
Shelley as well as Byron has always been loved and esteemed by the English common people, whose aspirations for freedom and happiness inspired their poetic talent.