Percy Bysshe Shelley (Horsham, August 4, 1792 – Viareggio, July 8, 1822) was a British poet, one of the most famous romantic lyricists.
He is famous for writing such anthology works as Ozymandias, Ode to the West Wind, To a Skylark, and The Masque of Anarchy, but what are considered his masterpieces were visionary narrative poems such as Prometheus Unbound and Adonis. Shelley”s nonconformist life and absolute idealism made him a notorious figure and an object of denigration throughout his life. He became, however, the idol of the next two to three generations of poets (including the great Victorians, Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Swinburne, and William Butler Yeats); Shelley was also appreciated by Karl Marx.
Belonging to the second generation of English Romanticism, he also became famous for his friendship with contemporaries John Keats and Lord Byron and, like them, for his premature death at a young age. Shelley, in fact, after a wandering, tragic and adventurous life, drowned in the sea in front of Lerici, Italy, at the age of about thirty years. The sea returned his body to the beach of Viareggio on July 18, 1822, ten days after the sinking of his schooner. Shelley is also known to have been the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (the author of the novel Frankenstein), daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, an anarchist philosopher, who greatly influenced the libertarian political ideas of the poet.
Born at Field Place, Horsham, West Sussex, Percy was a seventeenth-generation descendant of Richard Fitzalan, tenth Baron of Arundel and Lancaster through his son John Fitzalan. He was the son of Sir Timothy Shelley (September 7, 1753 – April 24, 1844) and his wife Elizabeth Pilfold, the result of their marriage in October 1791. The father was the son and heir of Sir Bysshe Shelley, first Baronet of Goring Castle (21 June 1731 – 6 January, 1815) which he inherited from his wife Mary Catherine Michell (died 7 November, 1760). His mother was the daughter of Charles Pilfold of Effingham. Through his paternal grandmother Percy was the great-grandson of the Reverend Theobald Mitchell of Horsham, and the eldest of six brothers. His younger siblings were:
Education and early works
Having therefore been born into a very influential family of rural Sussex aristocracy, Percy became the sole heir to the second baronetcy of Castle Goring in 1815. He received his first education in the family from the Reverend Thomas Edwards of Horsham. In 1802, he entered Syon House Academy in Brentford. In 1804, Percy was admitted to Eton College, here he was nicknamed “mad Shelley” because of his eccentricity. On April 10, 1810, Percy went to the University of Oxford (at University College). Although he distinguished himself for his remarkable ability to learn, these years represent for the soul of the young poet a real hell: intolerant of educational programs, he prefers solitary walks in the countryside and studies on electricity, magnetism and chemistry. In those same years he read The Enquiry Concerning Political Justice by the anarchist William Godwin, whose libertarian philosophy immediately influenced his cultural formation. His first published work was a gothic novel, Zastrozzi (1810), in which he vented his atheistic vision of the world through the mouth of the evil Zastrozzi. In the same year Shelley and his sister Elizabeth published Original Poems by Victor and Cazire. In 1811 he published his second novel, St. Irvina or the Rosicrucian, which tells of Wolfstein, who after the death of his beloved, approaches the theories of a Rosicrucian, who offers him eternal life with an alchemical potion if he will renounce his faith and after his refusal in the Abbey of St. Irvina, the two meet death as electrocuted. In the same year Shelley, in collaboration with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, published a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, which caused their expulsion from Oxford on March 25, 1811. He could have been readmitted thanks to the intervention of his father, if he had repudiated the beliefs declared in his writings, but Shelley refused, which led to a total break between him and his father. After being expelled from Oxford, published a collection of poems apparently burlesque but actually revolutionary traits, the Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, which probably collaborated Thomas Jefferson Hogg, friend and college friend, who will then become the main biographer.
The years of the first marriage
Four months after his deportation, the nineteen-year-old Shelley secretly fled to Scotland with a young student, Harriet Westbrook, daughter of John Westbrook, the owner of a London café, and married her on August 28, 1811; by her he would have two children. Shelley invited his friend Hogg to share his home, including his wife, as his ideals of free love dictated, but following Harriet”s refusal he had to abandon his plans for an open marriage. He went to the Lake District with the intention of writing, but, distracted by political events, he moved soon after to Ireland, taking an active interest in the plight of Dublin”s workers and becoming a political propagandist. These activities earned him the hostile attentions of the English government. From the marriage was born shortly after the daughter Ianthe.
Shelley and Mary
Over the next two years, Shelley wrote and published The Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem. This poem shows the influence of the English philosopher William Godwin, and in it is expressed much of the latter”s radical philosophy. Suffering since 1812 of nervous attacks, calmed with doses of laudanum, began to go through phases characterized by real hallucinations. Undertook in this period a series of travels, among which is significant that in Ireland, where Shelley began propaganda against both the English rule and against Catholicism. Back in England, the marriage with Harriet began to deteriorate: Shelley often left alone his wife and his two children, staying at Godwin”s house and in his library in London. It was here that he met, and fell in love with (though still married to Harriet), Mary, the cultured and intelligent daughter of Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, once known as a teacher and feminist writer who had died at Mary”s birth. Mary and Percy first met during the period between the young woman”s two trips to Scotland. Her second return home was on March 30, 1814: Percy Shelley was by now, together with his wife Harriet Westbrook, Godwin”s regular guest, whom he helped to pay off his debts. The radicalism of Percy Shelley, and especially his economic ideas learned through the reading of the treatise Political Justice (1793) by Godwin, were the cause of his estrangement from his aristocratic family: they wanted Percy to continue to follow the traditional model of the landed aristocracy, while he preferred to use most of the family fortune to help the needy. Because of this project of “Political Justice” Percy Shelley found himself having considerable difficulty in accessing the family fortune; because of this, after several months of promises, Shelley announced to Godwin, who was still in financial difficulty, that he could not and would not pay off all his debts. Because of this, Godwin became angry and felt betrayed by the disciple.
Mary and Percy met secretly a few times at Mary Wollstonecraft”s grave in St. Pancras Cemetery, where they confided their love (Muriel Spark in her biography of Mary Shelley speculates that it was June 27). Much to Mary”s discouragement, Godwin disapproved of this union and tried to thwart it to save his daughter”s “immaculate reputation.” At about the same time, Godwin received word of Shelley”s inability to pay off the loans she had given him. Mary, who later wrote of her “excessive and romantic attachment” to her father, felt confused. She saw Percy Shelley as an embodiment of her parents” 1790s reformist and liberal ideas, particularly Godwin”s idea of marriage as a “repressive monopoly,” an idea he had argued in his 1793 edition of Political Justice but would later revise. On June 28, 1814, the couple secretly fled to France, taking with them Mary”s half-sister, Claire Clairmont. Godwin”s comment was, “They have both failed me.” The three embarked for Europe, crossing France and then going to live in Switzerland. The Shelleys would later publish an account of the adventure.
After convincing Jane, known since then as Claire, who had chased them to Calais, of their intention not to return home, the trio traveled to Paris and then, on the backs of mules or donkeys or in carts, crossed France, recently torn apart by war, until they reached Switzerland. “It was like acting out a novel, becoming a living novel,” Mary wrote remembering in 1826. As they traveled, Mary and Percy read the works of Mary Wollstonecraft and other authors such as Abbot Barruel, kept a joint journal, and continued their own writing. In Lucerne, however, they decided to turn back because of the shortage of money. They sailed along the Rhine reaching by land the port of Maassluis (where Mary wrote the outline of a story never finished entitled Hate), then arrived in Gravesend, in the English county of Kent, on September 13, 1814. Three years later, in 1817, the diary of their voyage was adapted for publication as a work of fiction entitled History of Six Weeks” Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, with Letters Descriptive of a Sail round the Lake of Geneva, and of the Glaciers of Chamouni, to which Percy made a small contribution.
After six weeks, homesick and penniless, the three young people returned to England. There they found that Godwin, who had once advocated free love and lived according to his principles, refused to speak to Mary and Shelley, and so it was for a few years. In reality, the philosopher feared for the consequences on the family image, as he will demonstrate on other occasions, since the conservatives always took advantage of it to denigrate him, until they brought him to the brink of bankruptcy, boycotting his literary and publishing activities. In the autumn of 1815, having settled in London with Mary but evading creditors, Shelley produced the allegory in verse entitled Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude. Although it did not attract much attention at the time, today this work is considered his first great poem. The situation in England was fraught with complications, many of which Mary had not anticipated. During, or after, their trip, Mary had in fact become pregnant. They also found themselves without money again and, to Mary”s surprise, her father refused to have the slightest contact with them, although he accepted money from Percy without too much trouble. The couple found accommodation together with Claire near Somers Town and then in Nelson Square. They lived this period maintaining their busy reading schedule, reading Godwin”s Caleb Williams and writing, receiving Percy Shelley”s friends, such as Thomas Jefferson Hogg and the writer Thomas Love Peacock. At times Percy left home to escape his many creditors, sometimes risking jail time. The letters exchanged by the two lovers during this period reveal their sorrow at the forced separation.
Pregnant and often ill, Mary Godwin had to cope with Shelley”s joy at the birth of Charles, the poet”s and Harriet”s son, and her increasingly difficult relationship with Claire, who began to attract the couple”s attention because she felt neglected. Mary found partial comfort in Hogg, who at first she did not find very sympathetic but with time began to consider a friend. Percy pushed the two to become lovers in the name of the ideal of free love; it is assumed that Mary did not despise the idea, sharing the same ideals, but there is no certain evidence of the implementation of such a relationship. The only evidence are the affectionate exchanges of letters between Mary and Hogg, which however do not clarify exactly the situation. In practice, however, Mary continued to love Percy and never doubted her love for him, as she clearly states in a letter to Hogg: “I know how much you love me and how tenderly, and I like to think that I can make you happy. (…) but our even greater happiness will be in Shelley – whom I love so tenderly and entirely, my life is in the light of his eyes and my whole soul is completely absorbed by him”.On February 22, 1815 Mary gave birth to a premature two-month-old baby girl, Clara, who died about two weeks later. Following the death of the little girl, Mary contacted Hogg through a letter, which at that juncture proved to be a good friend.
The loss of her daughter plunged Mary into a deep depression, often obsessed by the vision of the child, but soon recovered and by the summer she was well again. Following the recovery of Percy”s finances – following the death of his grandfather, Sir Bysshe Shelley – the couple spent a vacation period in Torquay and then rented a two-storey house in Bishopsgate, near Windsor Park. Little is known about this period, as Mary”s diary spanning May 1815 to July 1816 has been lost; Percy wrote his poem Alastor; and on January 24, 1816, Mary and Percy”s second child was born, named William in honor of Godwin and nicknamed “Willmouse” by the couple.
Knowledge of Byron
In the summer of 1816 (the “year without summer”) the Shelleys made a second trip to Switzerland. The opportunity came from Mary Shelley”s half-sister, Claire Clairmont, who had linked up with Lord Byron the previous April, shortly before he exiled himself to the continent. Byron had lost interest in Claire, but she used the opportunity to meet the Shelleys as bait to get him to come to Geneva. Byron and the Shelleys rented houses adjacent to each other on the shores of Lake Geneva, and the frequent conversations with Byron had a very stimulating effect on Shelley”s poetry. A boat ride undertaken by the two prompted Shelley to write Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, his first major work since Alastor. A tour of Chamonix in the French Alps inspired Mont Blanc (Mont Blanc), a complex poem in which Shelley reflects on the inevitability of events in history and the relationship between the human mind and the nature around us. In turn, Shelley influenced Byron”s poetry. This influence can be seen in the third part of Childe Harold”s Pilgrimage, which Byron was working on, and in Manfredi (Manfred), which he wrote in the fall of that year. In that same time Mary found the inspiration to start writing Frankenstein, and began reading Pliny the Younger”s Epistolary planning to travel to Lake Como and Lierna, where the Villa Commedia was located. In the late summer of that year, Claire and the Shelleys returned to England. Claire was pregnant with Byron”s daughter, a fact that was destined to have significant consequences on the future of Shelley.
Personal Tragedies and Second Marriage
In May 1816 Mary and Percy headed with their son to Geneva, accompanied by Claire Clairmont. They planned to spend the summer with the poet Lord Byron, who had recently begun a relationship with Claire, who had become pregnant. The purpose of this meeting was in fact to make decisions about what to do about the creature that was coming into the world. The group reached Geneva on May 14, 1816, renting a house called Maison Chapuis near the villa in which Byron resided, Villa Diodati, near the village of Cologny; Mary in that period began to call herself “Mrs. Shelley”. Byron, accompanied by doctor John William Polidori, met the group on May 25; they spent their days writing, boating and talking late into the night.
“But it was a rainy and ungentlemanly summer,” Mary recalled in 1831. “the incessant rain often forced us indoors for days at a time.” During these days various topics were discussed by the company: the experiments conducted in the 18th century by Erasmus Darwin (Charles”s grandfather), who claimed to have succeeded in reanimating dead matter, galvanism, and the possibility of recomposing and reanimating the parts of a living being, knowledge that Shelley and Mary had deepened by discussing with a friend of theirs, the Italian physician Andrea Vaccà Berlinghieri, who studied corpses and electricity, and perhaps even by witnessing some of his experiments. Sitting in front of the fire at Byron”s villa, the company enjoyed reading German ghost stories (such as the Fantasmagoriana). Byron then proposed a game: each person was to write a ghost and scary story; a short time later Mary in her sleep had the idea, which became the novel Frankenstein.
Mary began writing the story in the form of a short story. However, Percy, after seeing the first draft, encouraged her to continue and expand the story into what would become Mary”s debut novel, Frankenstein; aka the modern Prometheus. Mary later described the Swiss period as “the moment when I passed from adolescence into adulthood.”
After their return to London in September, Mary and Percy took up residence in Bath, always accompanied by Claire, who took up residence near them. While they were still in Cologny, Mary received letters from her sister Fanny Imlay who complained of her “unhappy life”. Fanny wrote an “alarming letter” shortly afterwards, which prompted Percy to run to her, but it was too late. On 10 October Fanny was found dead in a room in Swansea with a small bottle of laudanum and a suicide note:
He had removed his signature from it, probably out of respect for the Godwin name. The suicide was kept secret; Godwin spread the word that Fanny had died of illness in Ireland and prevented Mary from visiting her. Fanny”s reputation was thus saved. Shelley wrote in her memory the poem To Fanny Godwin. Shortly after this was added another misfortune: December 10, in fact, Harriet, wife of Percy, was found drowned in the Serpentine, a pond in Hyde Park in London, according to some pregnant.
As it happened for Fanny”s suicide, also this one was kept hidden, to avoid legal problems for the family and Shelley. Harriet”s family, however, opposed Percy”s attempt (also supported by Mary) to obtain custody of the two children she had given him. Percy”s lawyers, in order to favour the custody, advised him to get married; so he and Mary, pregnant again, got married on December 30, 1816 in St. Mildred”s church, in Bread Street (London), in the presence of Godwin, William and his second wife Mary Jane Clairmont, the mother of Claire, Charles and William jr.
On January 13, 1817 was born the daughter of Claire, Alba, renamed by Byron Allegra in 1818. In March of the same year Percy was declared morally unfit to obtain the guardianship of the children, who were so entrusted to the family of a clergyman of Kent. In the same period the Shelleys, with Claire and Alba, moved to a house in Albion, near Marlow, Buckinghamshire, on the banks of the Thames. Here on September 2 was born the third daughter of Mary, Clara Everina. In Marlow met Marianne and Leigh Hunt, worked on their works and often discussed politics.In May 1817 Mary finished writing Frankenstein, which was published anonymously in 1818 with a preface written by Percy. Critics and readers claimed that Percy Shelley was the real author, probably because the work was dedicated to William Godwin. It was in Marlow that Mary arranged the papers of the 1814 journey, adding notes written in Switzerland in 1816 and Percy”s poem Mont Blanc, thus publishing in 1817 History of a six-week journey. That fall Percy frequently wandered away from London to escape creditors. The creditors” threat of imprisonment, his weak health and the continuous fear of losing even the custody of the children he had with Mary pushed the couple to leave England forever to reach Italy. On March 12, 1818 they left, taking with them also Claire and Alba.
The journey to Italy and death
After a series of ups and downs literary and personal, in 1818, broken all relations with the family and in a state of poor health, the poet, with his entourage (his wife, two children, his sister-in-law Jane and his daughter Allegra) moved to Italy, where, within four years, he stayed in Venice, Livorno, Lucca, Este, Rome, Naples, Florence and Pisa. His last residence was at Villa Magni in San Terenzo, a seaside village in the municipality of Lerici (La Spezia).
One of the first commitments the group had once they reached Italy was to take Alba to her father Byron, who lived in Venice. Byron agreed to raise and educate his daughter, on the condition that Claire stayed away from him; he wanted nothing more to do with her. So they began their journey to Italy, visiting many cities without ever staying too long in one place. Along the way they made new friends and acquaintances, often traveling together with their new group of friends. The couple devoted their time to writing, reading, visiting cities, learning the language, and socializing. The Italian adventure was marked by the death of both of Mary”s children: Clara died of dysentery in Venice in February 1818, William died of malaria in Rome in June 1819. These losses plunged Mary into a deep depression that distanced her from Percy.
For a while Mary found her only solace in writing. The birth in Florence of another son, Percy Florence, on November 12, 1819, helped her to recover, although Mary cherished the memory of her children until the end of her life.
Italy allowed the Shelleys, Byron, and other exiles a political freedom unattainable in their homeland. Despite personal losses, it became for Mary “a country in which memory is painted as paradise” The Italian years were both intellectually and creatively intense for both Shelleys. While Percy composed most of his poems, Mary wrote the semi-autobiographical novella Matilda, the historical novel Valperga, and the plays Proserpina and Midas.Mary wrote Valperga to help her father”s financial situation, as Percy refused to assist him further. During this time she was often ill and easily fell into depression.She was also forced to deal with Percy”s interest in other women, such as Sophia Stacey, Emilia Viviani, and Jane Williams. Since Mary shared Percy”s view of the non-exclusivity of marriage, she decided to redirect her emotions by strengthening the bonds between the men and women within their circle and in particular became attached to Prince Alexander Mavrocordato, a Greek revolutionary, Jane and Edward Ellerker Williams.
In December 1818 the Shelleys headed to Naples, where they stayed three months, receiving as a guest only one visitor, a doctor. Just in Naples Mary drew inspiration for the realization of the apocalyptic novel The Last Man. In 1820 they faced accusations and threats from Paolo and Elise Foggi, former servants whom Percy had fired in Naples after the Foggi couple had married. The two had discovered that on February 27, 1819, in Naples, Percy had registered as his and Mary”s child a two-month-old girl named Elena Adelaide Shelley, further claiming that the real mother was not Mary, but Claire. Biographers have offered various interpretations of this affair: that Shelley had decided to adopt a local child to ease Mary”s grief after the loss of her daughter, that the child was his and Elise”s, or Claire”s or another woman”s, or even that the child was born of an affair of Elise”s with Byron. Mary Shelley stated several times that if Claire had been pregnant she would certainly have known, but in reality it is not very clear what Mary actually knew about the situation. The events in Naples, a city that Mary later defined as a “paradise inhabited by demons” (but to which Shelley dedicated some lyrics), remain shrouded in mystery. The only thing certain was that Mary was not the mother of the child. Elena Adelaide Shelley died in Naples on June 9, 1820. It is still unclear the story of the child, born and died very small, registered as the natural daughter of Shelley and the presumed biological mother, but in fact it seems that she was not related either to Mary or to Percy (it was also said that she was the daughter of Shelley”s servants).
In the summer of 1822 Percy and Mary (pregnant again) went, together with Claire and Williams, to Villa Magni, in San Terenzo, in the bay of Lerici, what will be called the “poets” gulf”. Once settled in the new home, the climate of tranquility was broken by the announcement of the death of Allegra, Claire”s daughter, died of typhus in the convent of Bagnacavallo where Byron had wanted to educate her. This event threw both Claire and Mary into a deep depression. Mary Shelley was distracted and unhappy in the restricted and remote Villa Magni, in which she felt like in prison. On June 16 she had a miscarriage and almost died. Percy promptly intervened, immersing Mary in a tub of ice to slow down the bleeding before the doctor arrived, thus saving her life. Mary and Percy”s relationship did not improve during the summer, however, and Percy spent much more time with Jane Williams than with his debilitated wife. Most of the poems Percy wrote were addressed to Jane and not to Mary.
Proximity to the sea gave Shelley and Edward E. Williams an opportunity to enjoy sailing their new boat, the schooner “Ariel” (also called “Don Juan,” in homage to a Byron play). The boat had been designed by Daniel Roberts and Edward Trelawny, an admirer of Byron who had joined the group in January 1822.
On June 1, 1822, Percy, Edward E. Williams, and Captain Daniel Roberts set sail for the coast of Livorno. There Percy was to discuss with Byron and Leigh Hunt the possibility of starting a radical magazine called The Liberal.On July 8, 1822, just under a month shy of his thirtieth birthday, Percy and Edward set sail again, accompanied by the sailor Charles Vivian, to return to Villa Magni. They never reached their destination.
At Villa Magni arrived a letter from Hunt to Percy, dated July 8, in which Hunt asked how they had managed to return home given the bad weather on the day of their departure. Mary and Jane Williams left immediately for Livorno and then to Pisa, hoping to find their husbands safe. From the reconstruction of the facts it was clear that, immediately after the departure, Shelley had been surprised by a sudden storm while, on board his new boat, he was sailing with friends to San Terenzo, returning from Pisa and Livorno. He had just founded The Liberal with Hunt, whom he had met with Byron. The boat, an open vessel built in Genoa specifically for Shelley in imitation of a model of the English Navy, did not capsize, but sank in the sea in front of Viareggio; Mary Shelley stated in his Note to the poems of 1822 (1839) that there was a flaw in the design and that the schooner was not suitable for sailing. Several romantic legends arose around the incident, including an attack by pirates, or Percy”s desire to die by suicide at sea (again a victim of depression at that time), although it was probably a simple shipwreck..
Ten days after the departure the three bodies were found near the coast of Viareggio. Trelawny, Byron and Hunt cremated the body of Shelley on the beach of the discovery, as required by the law of the time. After a temporary burial in the sand, always on the same beach, the cremation ceremony took place in the same place, a few weeks later. According to Mary”s will, during the burning, perfumes, incenses and aromatic oils provided by Byron himself were poured on Percy”s body, as it happened during the funeral of Miseno described in the sixth book of the Aeneid. An anecdote tells that Trelawny managed to take away from the flames Percy”s heart that was not burning and gave it to Mary in a wooden box. The heart was actually extracted almost intact from the pyre, as we will see later, and kept by Mary Shelley until the day of her death, when it was buried in the same place (the cemetery of Bornemouth, where the bodies of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin were also moved, by order of Percy Florence); the ashes were buried in the non-Catholic cemetery (or cemetery of the English) in Rome, together with his son William, where the tomb is still, not far from that of John Keats. The epigraph, with reference to his death at sea, takes up three lines of Ariel”s song (in memory of the schooner) from Shakespeare”s Tempest: “Nothing of him that doth fade but doth suffer a sea change into something rich and strange”. The people of Viareggio did not like what in their eyes was a “pagan rite” (at that time the Church forbade cremation), especially for a foreigner and non-believer.
In 1892, in the centenary of his birth, a committee born in 1890 (already constituted a first time in 1874), to which had adhered Algernon Swinburne, Domenico Menotti Garibaldi, Felice Cavallotti, Edmondo De Amicis, Mario Rapisardi and William Ewart Gladstone, obtained to erect a bust to Shelley, near the place where his body was cremated. In 1922, to celebrate the centenary of the death of the English poet and his bond with Italy, Lorenzo Viani was commissioned by the Committee for the Honours to commemorate the event in Viareggio. Viani, for the occasion, edited the publication of the single issue “P.B. Shelley”, to which Alceste De Ambris and Gabriele D”Annunzio collaborated. Since then, several dedications and commemorations have been organized both in England and in Italy, especially in Lerici, Viareggio and Bagni di Lucca.
In the years following his death, the city of Viareggio, has dedicated a square in his honor, in the city center in front of the current classical high school. In fact, it is believed that the square rises in the place where the cremation of the poet himself took place and this has been further remembered with a statue in his memory placed in the center of the square itself.
From his first wife Harriet Westbrook (London, August 1, 1795 – London, December 12, 1816) he had:
From his second wife Mary Godwin (London, August 30, 1797 – London, February 1, 1851) he had:
He was survived by only three children out of seven: Ianthe and Charles, respectively the daughter and son had by Harriet, and Percy Florence, the son had by Mary. Charles, already ill with tuberculosis, died of his injuries after being struck by lightning during a thunderstorm in 1826. Percy Florence, who later inherited the title of baronet in 1844, died childless (the title passed upon Percy Florence”s death in 1889) to one of Shelley”s cousins, Edward. The poet”s intimate direct descendants are therefore Ianthe”s children. Ianthe Shelley married in 1837 with Edward Jeffreis Esdailes. From the marriage were born two sons and a daughter. Ianthe died in 1876. Her descendants are still living to this day.
Although he declares his open atheism and materialism, Shelley is in reality a pantheist and an epicurean who dreams of a pagan Eden where there is no sin but only joy and pleasure (impetuous loves, brief but overwhelming passions marked his path as a “Nordic genius with a Latin heart”); according to his thought God is all of nature and the world itself, the one and the whole reunited in the memory of the species, a God on the march with humanity: it is up to poets to pick up where others have finished in the writing of the universal poem that is the search for the invisible through beauty, intuition, and inspiration.
From his classical education, the study of Greek and Latin, comes a passion for myths, which in his poetry are often taken up and expanded.
In Prometheus Unleashed and in the essay In Defense of Poetry, Shelley exhorts poets to search for the transfiguring word that can guess the invisible and to enter the world of mystery that can be revealed by a word that has never been spoken: therefore, he is not an enlightener like his inspirer Godwin, he is not a scientist who experiments, but a medium who discovers the innermost truth through language.
Shelley is a contradictory poet: in his works it is necessary to distinguish the poetry fruit of eloquent emotion from that composed of ideological and sometimes rhetorical verses, starting from those conditioned by his positions in favor of free love and any transgression of current principles, against organized labor in factories, against the establishment of a mercantile and colonialist society.
Shelley is not committed to building a posthumous immortality through writing or deeds (as happened to Byron or D”Annunzio), but is afflicted by the mortality of man, tempered at times only by the idea that one can rejoin the Absolute through contemplation and with the help of philosophy one can strive for the One.
Defense of vegetarianism
Both Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley were staunch defenders of vegetarianism. Shelley wrote several essays in which he defended the vegetarian diet, including Vindication of the Natural Diet and On the System of the Vegetarian Diet.
Shelley wrote, taking up the sensism and pre-animalism of Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Diderot, in the second of these two works: “The slaughter of harmless animals cannot fail to produce much of that spirit of insane and frightful exult at the victory gained at the price of the slaughter of a hundred thousand men. If the use of animal food subverts the tranquility of human society, how undesirable is the injustice and barbarism exercised towards these poor victims! They are called to life by human artifice only for the purpose of living a brief and unhappy existence of disease and slavery, so that their bodies are mutilated and their affections violated. Far better that a being capable of feeling should never have existed, than that he should have lived only to endure a painful existence without any relief.”
Pacifism and Nonviolence in Shelley
Henry David Thoreau”s civil disobedience and Mahatma Gandhi”s nonviolent resistance were also influenced and inspired by Shelley”s nonviolent attitude in protests and political actions. Gandhi often quoted excerpts from Shelley”s The Mask of Anarchy (in which anarchy is understood in the traditional meaning of chaos, and not as freedom from tyrants), a work that has been called “perhaps the first modern formulation of the principle of nonviolent resistance”. The pacifist inspiration, also evident in other works such as The Revolt of Islam, is considered evident, and leads Shelley to theorize a revolt without any violence.
Shelley did not gain popularity in the generation that immediately followed his death, unlike Lord Byron, who was famous among the upper classes during his lifetime despite his radical thinking. For decades after his death, Shelley was only appreciated by the great Victorian poets such as Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, Algernon Swinburne or William Butler Yeats or read only by cultured figures such as Giacomo Leopardi (Giacomo Zanella, translator and literary scholar, noted this influence, even if minor compared to that of Byron, on the poet of Recanati) and Giuseppe Mazzini (but expressed interest also Pre-Raphaelites, socialists and the labor movement – he counted Karl Marx among his admirers – and of course the anarchists, who considered him the first true anarchist artist of history. It was only in the second part of the 19th century that Shelley”s work, or rather the more “innocent” and less revolutionary part of it, became famous – thanks to the popular work of scholars like Henry Salt, whose much acclaimed biography, Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Pioneer, was first published in 1896. In the same period edited works on Shelley the Italian poets Giosuè Carducci and Gabriele D”Annunzio.Shelley”s death is remembered by Virginia Woolf in her diary, on May 12, 1933. The writer was in Pisa at the Neptune Hotel and writes “Shelley”s house waiting by the sea, and Shelley not arriving, and Mary and Mrs. Williams watching from the terrace, and then Trelawney arriving from Pisa and the corpse burned on the beach: that”s what I think of”. Admiration for Shelley was also expressed by Bertrand Russell, Rabindranath Tagore, C. S. Lewis. In the period between the First World War and the middle of the twentieth century, an age dominated by the criticism of T. S. Eliot, Shelley”s poetry was treated with sussiness by the establishment of critics – also because of Eliot”s reaction (who also appreciated the compositional technique) to the militant atheism of the poet. In the late 1950s, thanks to the push of Harold Bloom, Shelley began to regain a reputation. After the Victorians, were inspired by Shelley (as happened with Coleridge and Blake), the rebellious poets of later generations, from decadents to intellectuals of the sixties: Shelley was an example for the vegetarian movement, libertarians, psychedelia, the admiration for Shelley (often extended to Mary, Keats and Byron), his poetry and life outside the box, sometimes represented more excessive than it was, made him become one of the very symbols of the Romantic period.
English language editions of Shelley”s works
Italian language editions of Shelley”s works