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Percy Bysshe Shelley

1.1. Family
1.2. Education
1.3. Marriage
1.4. Death
2.1. Style
2.2. Major works
) Ozymandias
) England in 1819
) Hymn to Intellectual
3)Other works
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on August 4, 1792
at Field Place, near Horsham in Sussex, to Sir
Timothy Shelley and Elizabeth Pilfold following
their marriage in October of 1791.
Percy was the eldest of six children; John, Mary,
Elizabeth, Hellen, Margaret. His father was a Whig
member of Parliament, and his grand-father who
became a baronet, had amassed a great fortune.
Shelley's uncle, brother to his mother Elizabeth
Pilfold, was Captain John Pilfold, a famous Naval
Commander who served under Admiral Nelson
during the Battle of Trafalgar.
Shelley, the eldest son, accordingly grew up with
the prospect of becoming a man of wealth and
In 1802, he entered the Syon House
Academy of Brentford, Middlesex.
In 1804, Shelley entered Eton College,
where he fared poorly, and was subjected
to an almost daily mob torment at around
noon by older boys, who aptly called these
incidents "Shelley-baits". Surrounded, the
young Shelley would have his books torn
from his hands and his clothes pulled at
and torn until he cried out madly in his
high-pitched "cracked soprano" of a voice.
This daily misery could be attributed to
Shelley's refusal to take part in fagging and
his indifference towards games and other
youthful activities. Because of these
peculiarities he acquired the nickname
"Mad Shelley".
Shelley possessed a keen interest
in science at Eton, which he would
often apply to cause a surprising
amount of mischief for a boy
considered to be so sensible.
Shelley would often use a frictional
electric machine to charge the
door handle of his room, much to
the amusement of his friends. His
friends were particularly amused
when his gentlemanly tutor, Mr
Bethell, in attempting to enter his
room, was alarmed at the noise of
the electric shocks, despite
Shelley's dutiful protestations
On 10 April 1810, he matriculated
at University College, Oxford.
Four months after being expelled from Oxford, on 28 August 1811, the 19-year-
old Shelley eloped to Scotland with the 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook, a pupil at
the same boarding school as Shelley's sisters, whom his father had forbidden
him to see.
Harriet Westbrook had been writing Shelley passionate letters threatening to kill
herself because of her unhappiness at the school and at home. Shelley,
heartbroken after the failure of his romance with his cousin, Harriet Grove, cut
off from his mother and sisters, and convinced he had not long to live,
impulsively decided to rescue Harriet Westbrook and make her his beneficiary.
Shelley was increasingly unhappy in his marriage to Harriet and particularly
resented the influence of her older sister Eliza, who discouraged Harriet from
breastfeeding their baby daughter (Elizabeth Ianthe Shelley [181376]). Shelley
accused Harriet of having married him for his money.
Craving more intellectual female companionship, he began spending more time
away from home, among other things, studying Italian with Cornelia Turner and
visiting the home and bookshop of William Godwin. Eliza and Harriet moved
Shelley's mentor Godwin had three highly educated
daughters, two of whom, Fanny Imlay and Claire Clairmont,
were his adopted step-daughters. Godwin's first wife, the
celebrated feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A
Vindication of the Rights of Woman, had died giving birth to
Godwin's biological daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin,
named after her mother.
The brilliant Mary was being educated in Scotland when
Shelley first became acquainted with the Godwin family. When
she returned, Shelley fell madly in love with her, repeatedly
threatening to commit suicide if she didn't return his
On 28 July 1814, Shelley abandoned Harriet, now pregnant
with their son Charles (November 1814 1826) and (in
imitation of the hero of one of Godwin's novels) he ran away to
Switzerland with Mary, then 16, inviting her stepsister Claire
Clairmont (also 16) along because she could speak French.
The older sister Fanny was left behind, to her great dismay, for
she, too, had fallen in love with Shelley. The three sailed to
Europe, and made their way across France to Switzerland on
foot, reading aloud from the works of Rousseau, Shakespeare,
and Mary's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (an account of their
On July 8, 1822, shortly before his
thirtieth birthday, Shelley was drowned
in a storm while attempting to sail
from Leghorn to La Spezia, Italy, in his
schooner, the Don Juan.
Some believed his death was not
accidental, that Shelley was depressed
and wanted to die; others suggest he
simply did not know how to navigate.
More fantastical theories, including the
possibility of pirates mistaking the
boat for Byron's, also circulated.
There is a small amount of material,
though scattered and contradictory,
suggesting that Shelley may have
been murdered for political reasons.
Shelley's body was washed ashore and later, in keeping with quarantine regulations, was
cremated on the beach near Viareggio. In Shelley's pocket was a small book of Keats'
poetry. Upon hearing this, Byron (never one to give compliments) said of Shelley "I never
met a man who wasn't a beast in comparison to him" .
The day after the news of his death reached England, the Tory newspaper The Courier
gloated: "Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned; now he knows
whether there is God or no."[36] A reclining statue of Shelley's body, depicted as washed
up on the shore, created by sculptor Edward Onslow Ford at the behest of Shelley's
daughter-in-law, Jane, Lady Shelley, is the centrepiece of the Shelley Memorial at
University College, Oxford.
Known for his lyrical and long-form verse, Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of the most
highly regarded English Romantic poets of the 19th century.
He began writing poetry while at Eton, but his first publication was a Gothic novel,
Zastrozzi (1810), in which he voiced his own heretical and atheistic opinions through
the villain Zastrozzi.
That same year, Shelley and another student, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, published a
pamphlet of burlesque verse, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson,"
and with his sister Elizabeth, Shelley published Original Poetry; by Victor and Cazire,
and, while at Oxford, he issued a collection of verses (ostensibly burlesque but quite
subversive), Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson.
In 1811, Shelley continued this prolific outpouring with more publications, including
another pamphlet that he wrote and circulated with Hogg titled The Necessity of
Atheism," which got him expelled from Oxford after less than a years enrollment.
Once married, Shelley 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.
The poem emerged from Shelleys friendship with the British philosopher William
Godwin, and it expressed Godwins freethinking Socialist philosophy.
In 1817, Shelley produced Laon and
Cythna, a long narrative poem that,
because it contained references to incest
as well as attacks on religion, was
withdrawn after only a few copies were
published. It was later edited and
reissued as The Revolt of Islam (1818).
At this time, he also wrote revolutionary
political tracts signed The Hermit of
Marlow. During the remaining four
years of his life, Shelley produced all his
major works, including Prometheus
Unbound (1820).
Traveling and living in various Italian
cities, the Shelleys were friendly with the
British poet Leigh Hunt and his family as
well as with Lord Byron and George
The central thematic concerns of Shelley's poetry are largely the same themes that defined
Romanticism, especially among the younger English poets of Shelley's era: beauty, the passions,
nature, political liberty, creativity, and the sanctity of the imagination. What makes Shelley's
treatment of these themes unique is his philosophical relationship to his subject matterwhich was
better developed and articulated than that of any other Romantic poet with the possible exception
of Wordsworthand his temperament, which was extraordinarily sensitive and responsive even for
a Romantic poet, and which possessed an extraordinary capacity for joy, love, and hope.
Shelley fervently believed in the possibility of realizing an ideal of human happiness as based on
beauty, and his moments of darkness and despair (he had many, particularly in book-length poems
such as the monumental Queen Mab) almost always stem from his disappointment at seeing that
ideal sacrificed to human weakness.
Shelley's intense feelings about beauty and expression are documented in poems such as "Ode to
the West Wind" and "To a Skylark," in which he invokes metaphors from nature to characterize
his relationship to his art.
The centre of his aesthetic philosophy can be found in his important essay A Defence of Poetry,
in which he argues that poetry brings about moral good. Poetry, Shelley argues, exercises and
expands the imagination, and the imagination is the source of sympathy, compassion, and love,
which rest on the ability to project oneself into the position of another person.
This sonnet from 1817 is probably Shelley's most famous and
most anthologized poem--which is somewhat strange,
considering that it is in many ways an atypical poem for Shelley,
and that it touches little upon the most important themes in his
oeuvre at large (beauty, expression, love, imagination). Still,
"Ozymandias" is a masterful sonnet. Essentially it is devoted to
a single metaphor: the shattered, ruined statue in the desert
wasteland, with its arrogant, passionate face and monomaniacal
inscription ("Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!").
Ozymandias is first and foremost a metaphor for the ephemeral
nature of political power, and in that sense the poem is Shelley's
most outstanding political sonnet, trading the specific rage of a
poem like "England in 1819" for the crushing impersonal
metaphor of the statue. But Ozymandias symbolizes not only
political power--the statue can be a metaphor for the pride and
hubris of all of humanity, in any of its manifestations. It is
significant that all that remains of Ozymandias is a work of art
and a group of words; as Shakespeare does in the sonnets,
Shelley demonstrates that art and language long outlast the
other legacies of power.
Of course, it is Shelley's brilliant poetic rendering of the story, and not the
subject of the story itself, which makes the poem so memorable. Framing the
sonnet as a story told to the speaker by "a traveller from an antique land"
enables Shelley to add another level of obscurity to Ozymandias's position with
regard to the reader - rather than seeing the statue with our own eyes, so to
speak, we hear about it from someone who heard about it from someone who
has seen it.
Thus the ancient king is rendered even less commanding; the distancing of the
narrative serves to undermine his power over us just as completely as has the
passage of time. Shelley's description of the statue works to reconstruct,
gradually, the figure of the "king of kings": first we see merely the "shattered
visage," then the face itself, with its "frown / And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold
command"; then we are introduced to the figure of the sculptor, and are able to
imagine the living man sculpting the living king, whose face wore the expression
of the passions now inferable; then we are introduced to the king's people in the
line, "the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed."
The kingdom is now imaginatively complete, and we are introduced to the
extraordinary, prideful boast of the king: "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and
despair!" With that, the poet demolishes our imaginary picture of the king, and
interposes centuries of ruin between it and us: "'Look on my works, ye Mighty,
and despair!' / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal
wreck, boundless and bare, / The lone and level sands stretch far away."
England in 1819
For all his commitment to romantic ideals of love
and beauty, Shelley was also concerned with the
real world: he was a fierce denouncer of political
power and a passionate advocate for liberty. The
result of his political commitment was a series of
angry political poems condemning the arrogance
of power, including "Ozymandias" and "England in
Like Wordsworth's "London, 1802," "England in
1819" bitterly lists the flaws in England's social
fabric: in order, King George is "old, mad, blind,
despised, and dying"; the nobility ("princes") are
insensible leeches draining their country dry; the
people are oppressed, hungry, and hopeless, their
fields untilled; the army is corrupt and dangerous
to its own people; the laws are useless, religion
has become morally degenerate, and Parliament
("A Senate") is "Time's worst statute unrepealed."
The furious, violent metaphors Shelley employs
throughout this list (nobles as leeches in muddy
water, the army as a two-edged sword, religion
as a sealed book, Parliament as an unjust law)
leave no doubt about his feelings on the state of
his nation. Then, surprisingly, the final couplet
concludes with a note of passionate Shelleyean
optimism: from these "graves" a "glorious
Phantom" may "burst to illumine our
tempestuous day."
What this Phantom might be is not specified in
the poem, but it seems to hint simultaneously at
the Spirit of the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty"
and at the possibility of liberty won through
revolution, as it was won in France. (It also recalls
Wordsworth's invocation of the spirit of John
Milton to save England in the older poet's poem,
though that connection may be unintentional on
Shelley's part; both Wordsworth and Shelley long
for an apocalyptic deus ex machina to save their
country, but Shelley is certainly not summoning
Hymn to Intellectual Beauty
This lyric hymn, written in 1816, is
Shelley's earliest focused attempt to
incorporate the Romantic ideal of
communion with nature into his own
aesthetic philosophy.
The "Intellectual Beauty" of the
poem's title does not refer to the
beauty of the mind or of the working
intellect, but rather to the intellectual
idea of beauty, abstracted in this
poem to the "Spirit of Beauty," whose
shadow comes and goes over human
The poem is the poet's exploration
both of the qualities of beauty (here it
always resides in nature, for example),
and of the qualities of the human
Other Works
The Necessity of Atheism (1811)
Declaration of Rights (1812)
A Letter to Lord Ellenborough (1812)
A Defence of Poetry
A Vindication of Natural Diet (1813)
On the Vegetable System of Diet (18141815; published 1929)
On Love (1818)
On Life (1819)
On a Future State (1815)
On The Punishment of Death
Speculations on Metaphysics (1814)
Speculations on Morals (1817)
On Christianity (incomplete, probably 1817; published 1859)
On the Literature, the Arts and the Manners of the Athenians
OnThe Symposium, or Preface toThe BanquetOf Plato
On Friendship
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