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Before Reading Meet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1823)


An idealist and a nonconformist, Percy Bysshe Shelley passionately opposed all injustice and dreamed of changing the world through poetry. He wrote with the fervent conviction that poetry nourishes the imagination, and the imagination—by enabling empathy for others—brings about social change.

Turbulent Early YearsBorn into an aristocratic family, Shelley enjoyed a happy early childhood. At school at Eton, however, the shy and eccentric adolescent suffered constant bullying, an experience that fueled a lifelong hatred of tyranny and conformity. Although Shelley enjoyed greater acceptance at Oxford University, he was soon expelled from the school for circulating an essay defending atheism. His refusal to renounce his views, coupled with his elopement in 1811 with the 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook, caused a permanent rupture with his conservative father.

Poet and ActivistIn 1812, Shelley moved to Dublin, where his work on behalf of Catholic emancipation and independence for Ireland brought him under the scrutiny of the British government. In his first major poem, Queen Mab (1813), he continued to attack social institutions such as marriage, the monarchy, and the church. In 1814, Shelley met and fell in love with another radical thinker, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of the philosopher William Godwin and the feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft. Abandoning Harriet, who was then expecting their second child, Shelley eloped to France with Mary, returning to England several weeks later.

FYI Did you know that Percy Bysshe Shelley . . . • published two gothic novels while in his teens? • wrote and circulated many controversial political pamphlets? • supported vegetarianism? • was not popular in his own day because of his radical views?
Social OutcastShelley’s scandalous behavior drew severe censure from British society, and he soon found himself an outcast. In 1816, Shelley fled with Mary to Geneva, Switzerland, where his stimulating conversations with the poet Lord Byron invigorated his thinking and writing. Two years later, following the suicide of Harriet, Shelley finally married Mary Godwin, and the couple settled permanently in Italy. In 1819, despite his grief over the recent deaths of his two infant children, Shelley produced many of his greatest poems, including Ode to the West Wind and the verse drama Prometheus Unbound.

A Tragic DeathBetween 1820 and 1822, Shelley enjoyed a period of relative stability in Pisa, during which he composed many fine lyrics, including Adonais, an elegy in memory of John Keats. On July 8, 1822, Shelley and a friend drowned when their boat capsized in a sudden storm. Shelley’s ashes were buried in Rome, near the graves of John Keats and Shelley’s son William.


While Reading

Date: 2016-03-03; view: 590

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