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Percy Bysshe Shelley

Few British poets have had so marked an influence on American society as Percy Shelley.  Born August 8, 1792, the English Romantic poet rebelled against English politics and conservative values.  Along with his friend, Lord Byron, Shelley was considered a pariah for his lifestyle.  He drew no distinction between poetry and politics, and his work reflected the radical ideas and revolutionary optimism of the era.  Like many poets of his day, Shelley employed mythological themes and figures from Greek poetry to lend an exalted tone to his visions.

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If winter comes, can spring be far behind?
- from Ode to the West Wind, 1819

Shelley began life at Field Place near Horsham in Sussex, England.  He was born into an aristocratic family and made heir to a rich estate acquired by his grandfather.  His father, Timothy Shelley, was a Sussex squire and a member of Parliament.  Shelley attended Syon House Academy and Eton, and in 1810 he entered Oxford University College.

But his career as a scholar was not destined to last long.  Less than a year after being enrolled, he published The Necessity of Atheism, which he wrote with Thomas Jefferson Hogg.  They sent copies of the pamphlet to the heads of the colleges, as well as to several local bishops.  When the two refused to answer questions about the pamphlet, they were expelled. 

Shelley's father renounced his son's inheritance in favor of a small annuity after his son had eloped with 16-year old Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a London tavern owner.  The odd duo spent the following two years traveling throughout England and Ireland, distributing pamphlets and speaking out against political injustice.  After failing to set up a small alternative community at Lynmouth in Devon, Shelley learned that he was being watched by Home Office spies because of his radical activities and writings. 

Moving to Wales, Shelley was attacked by a shepherd who fired three shots at him at Tanyrallt in Carnarvonshire.  But the affair failed to dampen his taste for radicalism.  He continued his nomadic lifestyle, and in 1813, he published his first important poem, the atheistic Queen Mab.

How wonderful is Death,
Death and his brother sleep!
- from Queen Mab, 1813

Throughout his gypsy-like existence, the poet's marriage grew strained.  In 1814, he sailed abroad with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of philosopher and anarchist William Godwin (1756-1836).  Mary's younger stepsister Jane (Claire) Clairmont, accompanied them.  During their journey, Shelley wrote an unfinished novella, The Assassins (1814).  Upon their return to London, Shelley came into an annual income under his grandfather's will and learned that his wife had drowned herself in the Serpentine in 1816.  Shelley promptly married Mary Wollstonecraft, and his favorite son, William, was born that same year.  William would die tragically in Rome two years later.

The heart that loves, the brain that contemplates,
The life that wears, the spirit that creates
One object, and one form, and builds thereby
A sepulchre for its eternity.
- from To Divide Is Not To Take Away

Shelley and his new wife spent the summer of 1816 with Lord Byron at Lake Geneva, where Byron had an affair with Claire.  While there, Shelley composed Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and Mont Blanc.  Meanwhile, on a dare, Mary set out to write the scariest horror story ever.  It was destined to become a classic--the famous novel, Frankenstein.

In 1817, Shelley published his political pamphlet, The Revolt of Islam, a poem in which the principal characters, originally brother and sister, become lovers.  Cynthna, a maiden, joins forces with revolutionary Laon, and they are burned alive as a sacrifice to the famine and pestilence that follows the people's revolt.  In the poem, Ozymandias (1818), Shelley examined the fleeting nature of fame and power.  Ozymandias is the Greek name for Ramses II of Egypt.  

In 1818, the Shelleys joined Claire and moved to Italy, where Byron was residing.  The following year, they went to Rome and then on to Pisa.  Shelley's works during their Italian travels include Julian and Maddalo, an exploration of his relations with Byron, and Prometheus Unbound, a lyrical drama in four acts drawn from Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound.

Peace is in the grave.
The grave hides all things beautiful and good:
I am a God and cannot find it there.

Shelley next wrote The Cenci, a five-act tragedy based on the history of a 16th-century Roman family, followed by The Mask of Anarchy, a political protest written after the Peterloo massacre, which stemmed from a mob of angry English political reformers.

One by one, and two by two
He tossed them human hearts to chew.

In 1822, the Shelley household, which had come to include Jane and Edward Williams, moved to the Bay of Lerici in La Spezia, Italy.  There Shelley began to write The Triumph of Life.  He also bought a schooner.  The ship was twenty-four feet long with twin masts, and Shelley christened it Don Juan, after the poem by Byron.  He often spent mornings sitting on the boat as it lay anchored in the bay, reading and writing as he bobbed up and down with the waves.

As summer approached, Shelley began taking his boat on short outings.  Although he couldn't swim and never learned to navigate, he looked forward to making longer voyages with his wife that summer.  He wrote in a letter to a friend, "[My boat] is swift and beautiful, and appears quite a vessel.... We drive along this delightful bay in the evening wind, under the summer moon, until earth appears another world."

On July 1, Shelley and Williams sailed to Pisa.  They began their return trip on July 7.  The following day, at Livorno, the two set off on the final leg to La Spezia, a trip of about fifty-five miles.  A storm approached from the southwest, and most of the Italian boats had come into the harbor, but Shelley wanted to make it back that evening.  His friend, Captain Roberts, watched the approaching storm from a lighthouse. 

As the storm worsened, Roberts assembled a crew and took a large boat out to sea to intercept the smaller craft.  He offered to take Shelley and Williams aboard, but Shelley refused.  One sailor with Roberts called through a speaking trumpet, "If you will not come on board, for God's sake reef your sails or you are lost."  According to the sailor, Williams began lowering the canvas, but Shelley grabbed him by the arm and ordered him to stop.  The boat sank in the Gulf of Spezia later that evening.  When Shelley's badly deteriorated body washed up on shore ten days later, a copy of Keats's poems was found in his back pocket.

Although no one knows for sure why Shelley perished, rumors of an old Italian seaman soon surfaced.  The seaman supposedly confessed on his deathbed that he had been a crewmember on a boat that intentionally rammed Shelley's ship in order to steal money they thought the poet had hidden on board.

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