Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 137 lessons | 10 flashcard sets
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Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.
Percy Shelley was kind of like Jimi Hendrix, Hugh Hefner and Michael Moore all rolled into one and put into tights (or whatever they wore back then). Like Jimi Hendrix, he's this really highly creative artist and he goes his own way. People think he's one of the greatest Romantic poets, even though his influence - parallel with Hendrix - grows a lot more after his death. He died young, too - only the good die young.
Like Hefner, he was a believer in free love and he followed his passions, regardless of whether he was in a relationship or married at the time, he just did what he wanted. He loved many women, young and old. He was a lover of the female form, I guess one could say. And like Michael Moore in some ways, he had these progressive and controversial opinions that often rubbed people the wrong way, earning him very vocal detractors and also passionate admirers. Unlike Michael Moore, he was maybe a little bit less abrasive with some of his opinions. That might be a matter of reference.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on August 4, 1792. His father was Sir Timothy Shelley, who served in Parliament, as did his grandfather. His grandfather, Bysshe Shelley (that's where that Bysshe comes from, and also the name of one of my fish), was a baron, and he earned that in 1806. He passed that on to Timothy Shelley when he died in 1815. Since Percy was the oldest child in his family, he totally could have inherited the title and a seat in Parliament. That's the whole 'House of Lords' thing that they've got going on in England. The fact that I said 'could have' might tip you off to the fact that he didn't.
Before we get to that, he had a happy childhood, but things took a turn when he went off to school. He started at Eton College in 1804. He was bullied relentlessly by his classmates every day - not unlike sensitive poets in our day. Not the manliest profession, but clearly he'd get a lot of women later on. They referred to their torments of him as 'Shelley-baits'; it involved encircling him, knocking his books down and tearing at his clothes. Pretty much everything short of dumping him in a trash can, which I don't even know if they had back then. They'd let him go, and then they'd do the same thing the next day. Again, it's sort of like bullying that happens today; it's just like that.
In 1810, he starts to study at Oxford University. I should note it's 'study' and not 'go to class,' because he apparently never went to class. To be fair, nowadays they have this wacky tutorial system over there, so there hardly is any class. I went there for a term, and I only had to go to class twice a week. I spent the rest of the time drinking hard cider from 2-liter bottles and wondering why all the vegetables came in shrink wrap. I still don't understand that; it's a mystery of England to me!
Shelley was doing productive stuff; he had his whole life to get used to the horror of the British grocery store. It was 1810, so he couldn't spend his days watching illegal streaming of Top Chef; he had to do more important things than that. He'd basically sit up in his room for anywhere up to 16 hours a day and write and read. That's what he got up to. He was an empiricist, which basically means that he believed knowledge should come from sensory experience and that evidence determines truth. He channels this belief, which blossoms along with his atheism (makes sense: you're looking for evidence and when you don't find it for God, you become an atheist), into an 1811 pamphlet called 'The Necessity of Atheism'. He basically claims that there's no proof that God exists, and until someone proves otherwise, God can't exist. This got him expelled from Oxford. It also caused some difficulties with his father.
Within a few months of leaving Oxford, he elopes to Scotland with a 16-year-old named Harriet Westbrook, who's the daughter of a local pub owner. This further enrages Shelley's father, because Harriet's from a lower social standing than someone whose grandfather was a baron. Some people think that Shelley's dad disinherited him over the atheism pamphlet and the marriage. Other people say that Shelley disinherited himself over all this. Either way, Percy Shelley did not get to be a Sir. But he was 19, and he was in love, so it was clearly all worth it - maybe.
At this point, you can see that Shelley is good at annoying people, which is, again, that Michael Moore streak in him. He goes to Ireland, and as though he can't help himself, he tries to incite the peasants to revolt. Even with his young wife, he kind of has this love-hate relationship. They end up having two children together, but Shelley resents the fact that Harriet lets her sister live with them, who Shelley can't stand. It sounds like the plot of a modern sitcom to me, but apparently was not very funny at the time.
But Shelley's writing at least. He also develops this intense but maybe platonic relationship with a woman named Elizabeth Hitchener, who is a 28-year-old unmarried schoolteacher. She becomes his muse to his first long, serious poem: 'Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem'. This work was also influenced by William Godwin, who was a freethinker who espoused socialism and kind of an anarchist of his day.
Shelley idolizes Godwin and he reaches out to him, seeking him as a mentor. There aren't a lot of wealthy anarchists, as you might imagine because they're not into government. Godwin was not the exception to this rule, he was also poor. He recognized that Shelley comes from money and could maybe help stabilize his own situation. So, he was like 'Sure, come to my house and hang out. I'll be your mentor.' So Shelley does this.
Meanwhile he and his wife, Harriet, were on the outs. Harriet and her sister moved back to their parents' house, and it seems like maybe this is going to not work out. Shelley's looking for greener pastures. He finds them in William Godwin's house. William Godwin has a young daughter named Mary, who is his daughter with Mary Wollstonecraft, who died in childbirth giving birth to Mary. Like Harriet had been, Mary was only 16 when Shelley fell madly in love with her. This is becoming a pattern, and is now a little bit creepier since Shelley is a little older than 19.
It was 1814. Harriet, his wife, is pregnant, and Shelley runs off with another 16-year-old, Mary Godwin, to Switzerland. He takes along one of Mary's two stepsisters. He takes along Claire, who was also 16, because she spoke French and they had to cross France on foot to reach Switzerland. Apparently, they needed her for that. He didn't bring along the other, who was distraught because she had fallen in love with Shelley. That sister's name is Fanny, and she would kill herself over Shelley. So, he was really a lady killer, literally. He must've been really something, is all I can say.
They're in Switzerland, and Shelley and Mary are struggling with money. So, they go and they hang out with another Romantic poet named Lord Byron. These people were all kind of in with each other. They would sail around on Lake Geneva and tell ghost stories. One of these would actually become Mary's famous novel, Frankenstein. This would go on to become a cultural icon for going 'uhhh,' and would eventually become Kim Kardashian's husband, Chris Humphreys. Yeah, she's that' Mary Shelley, after she marries Shelley.
We learned a lot about his life. We're going to get into more of his major works and when he writes them. Six weeks after they're hanging around with Byron, the money runs out. Shelley returns to England, and in 1815, he writes Alastor, or, the Spirit of Solitude: And Other Poems. The title poem was largely dismissed at the time, but it's since earned regard as Shelley's first major poem.
The next year, the couple returns to Switzerland at the urging of Mary's stepsister, Claire. She and Byron had a little fling, so she wants to go back and rekindle that. Byron had gotten tired of Claire, though their second meeting did actually lead to a daughter named Allegra. But Byron and Shelley had become good friends at this point, and Byron encouraged Shelley to write, and this is when Shelley really starts to pick up his pace on poetry production.
His first major work after Alastor was called 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty'. The poem is all about the idea of feeling beauty through imagination. It includes nature imagery and spirits, all the things that are associated with Romanticism. But, Shelley was a little bit different in saying that beauty maybe shouldn't be sought in nature but in the imagination. It can be reflected in nature, but it's all up here.
December of 1816, Shelley's wife, Harriet, is actually found dead (and very pregnant), drowned in London. It was actually soon after Mary's half-sister, Fanny, killed herself because Shelley wouldn't pay any attention to her. It seems that Harriet might have been pregnant by another guy, who was a lover she'd taken after Shelley. She drowned herself in the river because she thought she was abandoned by the new lover. It's a lot of tragedy following Shelley around. But, with every suicide there's a silver lining, because Shelley then marries Mary, who becomes Mary Shelley. He's finally allowed to do it after his wife has killed herself. It's not quite as cold and calculating as it seems; Shelley was hoping that the marriage would help him get custody of his children, though that didn't work (they went to foster parents anyway). That's awful, but it did actually help repair his relationship with William Godwin, Mary's dad, who wasn't too happy when they ran off together.
Not long after that, in 1817, Shelley completed a book-length narrative poem that's called Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century. It has so much punctuation in it; try submitting that to your English teacher and see all the X's that come back on it. It's a controversial work for two reasons: one, it attacks religion (a trope that Shelley does all along), and two, it features an incestuous relationship between the title characters, Laon and Cythna, who were two revolutionaries. It was republished in 1818 as The Revolt of Islam (though it has nothing to do with Islam at all), and in the new version, the two characters are no longer siblings. It also lost all of those colons and semicolons, which makes me sad. That was clearly the best part.
Around the same time, Shelley and his friend, Horace Smith, challenge each other to write a poem called 'Ozymandias'. Shelley's was awesome. It's so great that we have a whole lesson on it. We don't have many lessons on Horace Smith at all, so you can probably guess how the contest turned out.
Once again, he's helping out Claire, Mary's sister, as she pursues Lord Byron across Europe. The Shelleys and Claire are headed to Italy again in 1818. Tragedy strikes when two of Shelley's children die, including an infant daughter. Meanwhile, a girl born in late December of 1818 was apparently Shelley's child. There's debate about the mother, some people think it was Claire. We don't really know. It's also unusual that we don't really know who the mom is. That's kind of the opposite of the way things usually work.
All the while, Shelley was writing at a prolific pace. He's inspired by Lord Byron, and he completes Prometheus Unbound and it's published in 1820. It's a play, but he didn't write it to be performed. It's called a 'closet drama'; that's the official term. Thinking like a Romantic, he wants the play to be staged in the reader's imagination.
He also writes some other famous poems during this time, 'To a Skylark', 'Ode to the West Wind' and 'The Cloud'. These were included with Prometheus Unbound in the publication. We'll focus on 'Ode to the West Wind' in a separate lesson. He was very political while he was in Italy, and this is reflected in that poem. Shelley was really fond of fellow Romantic poet, John Keats, although, Keats found Shelley a little overbearing. When Keats died tragically young in 1821, Shelley wrote a poem called 'Adonaïs,' which is an elegy for his friend. It was a spiritual poem that suggests that Keats is now one with nature and free from the critics who despised him. Actually, Mick Jagger read a part of this poem at the memorial for Rolling Stones' guitarist Brian Jones after he died. Again, the rock star connection with Shelley continues.
Only one year later, though, in 1822 (Shelley's 29), he dies when his boat sank off the coast of Italy. It's kind of like Keats dying young. Romantic poets just aren't long for this world. There are rumors that he was killed for political reasons. There are rumors that he committed suicide. No one really knows for sure. It was probably just an accident, a storm came and sank the boat. His body was eventually found and cremated, and that's the end of Percy Shelley.
To sum him up a little bit, he's really one of the Romantic poetry movement's really most acclaimed figures. He was a revolutionary, an opponent of religion, and a liver of life to the fullest during his brief 29 years. He had many women. His major works include 'Ozymandias', 'Ode to the West Wind' and Prometheus Unbound. These are the big ones that you really ought to remember. So, that's Percy Shelley.
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Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 137 lessons | 10 flashcard sets