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Biography of Percy Shelley

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  • 0:05 Introduction
  • 1:25 Early Life
  • 4:23 A Marriage and Two Elopements
  • 8:24 Major Works, English Style
  • 11:43 Major Works, Italian Style
  • 14:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

If Percy Shelley were around today, you might find him at a Wall Street protest, buying quinoa at Whole Foods or falling in love with your sister. In this lesson, you'll learn more about this major Romantic poet, who followed his heart and ideals, no matter the outcome.

Introduction to Percy Shelley

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.

Early Life

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.

A Marriage and Two Elopements

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.

Major Works, English Style

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.

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