Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Shelley, Percy Bysshe

(bĭsh), 1792–1822, English poet, b. Horsham, Sussex. He is ranked as one of the great English poets of the romantic period.

A Tempestuous Life

The son of a prosperous squire, he entered Oxford in 1810, where readings in philosophy led him toward a study of the empiricists and the modern skeptics, notably William GodwinGodwin, William,
1756–1836, English author and political philosopher. A minister in his youth, he was, however, plagued by religious doubts and gave up preaching in 1783 for a literary career.
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. In 1811 he and his friend Thomas Jefferson HoggHogg, Thomas Jefferson,
1792–1862, friend and biographer of Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was dismissed in 1811 from Oxford for defending Shelley's atheism. Authorized by Mary Shelley to write a life of her husband, Hogg issued (1858) the first two volumes, which were biased,
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 published their pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, which resulted in their immediate expulsion from the university. The same year Shelley eloped with 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook, by whom he eventually had two children, Ianthe and Charles.

Supported reluctantly by their fathers, the young couple traveled through Great Britain. Shelley's life continued to be dominated by his desire for social and political reform, and he was constantly publishing pamphlets. His first important poem, Queen Mab, privately printed in 1813, set forth a radical system of curing social ills by advocating the destruction of various established institutions.

In 1814 Shelley left England for France with Mary Godwin, the daughter of William Godwin. During their first year together they were plagued by social ostracism and financial difficulties. However, in 1815 Shelley's grandfather died and left him an annual income. Laon and Cynthna appeared in 1817 but was withdrawn and reissued the following year as The Revolt of Islam; it is a long poem in Spenserian stanzas that tells of a revolution and illustrates the growth of the human mind aspiring toward perfection.

After Harriet Shelley's suicide in 1816, Shelley and Mary officially married. In 1817 Harriet's parents obtained a decree from the lord chancellor stating that Shelley was unfit to have custody of his children. The following year Shelley and Mary left England and settled in Italy. By this time their household consisted of their own three children and Mary's half-sister Claire Clairmont and her daughter Allegra (whose father was Lord Byron). On July 8, 1822, Shelley drowned while sailing in the Bay of Spezia, near Lerici.


Shelley composed the great body of his poetry in Italy. The Cenci, a tragedy in verse exploring moral deformity, was published in 1819, followed by his masterpiece, Prometheus Unbound (1820). In this lyrical drama Shelley poured forth all his passions and beliefs, which were modeled after the ideas of Plato. Epipsychidion (1821) is a poem addressed to Emilia Viviani, a young woman whom Shelley met in Pisa and with whom he developed a brief but close friendship.

His great elegy, Adonais (1821), written in memory of KeatsKeats, John,
1795–1821, English poet, b. London. He is considered one of the greatest of English poets.

The son of a livery stable keeper, Keats attended school at Enfield, where he became the friend of Charles Cowden Clarke, the headmaster's son, who encouraged his
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, asserts the immortality of beauty. Hellas (1822), a lyrical drama, was inspired by the Greek struggle for independence. His other poems include Alastor (1816) and the shorter poems "Ode to the West Wind," "To a Skylark," "Ozymandias," "The Indian Serenade," and "When the Lamp Is Shattered."


Most of Shelley's poetry reveals his philosophy, a combination of belief in the power of human love and reason, and faith in the perfectibility and ultimate progress of humanity. His verse is at once deeply political, sensuous, and passionate, and his lyric poems are superb in their beauty, grandeur, and mastery of language. Although Matthew ArnoldArnold, Matthew,
1822–88, English poet and critic, son of the educator Dr. Thomas Arnold.

Arnold was educated at Rugby; graduated from Balliol College, Oxford in 1844; and was a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford in 1845.
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 labeled him an "ineffectual angel," later critics have taken Shelley seriously, recognizing his wit, his gifts as a satirist, and his influence as a social and political thinker.


See his complete poetical works, ed. by N. Rogers (2 vol., 1972–74); letters, ed. by F. L. Jones (2 vol., 1964); biographies by E. C. Blunden (rev. ed. 1965), J. O. Fuller (1969), N. I. White (2 vol., 1940; repr. 1972), and R. Holmes (1974, new ed. 2003); studies by N. Rogers (2d ed. 1967), H. Bloom (2d ed. 1969), E. R. Wasserman (1971), K. N. Cameron (1974), C. Tomalin (1980), D. King-Hele (1981), S. M. Sperry (1988), and I. Gilmour (2003); K. N. Cameron and D. H. Reiman, ed., Shelley and His Circle (8 vol., 1961–85); A. Wroe, Being Shelley (2007).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe


Born Aug. 4, 1792, at Field Place, Sussex; died July 8, 1822, in the Gulf of Spezia; buried in Rome. English poet. Son of a baronet.

Shelley studied at the aristocratic school of Eton from 1804 to 1810 and later at Oxford University, from which he was expelled for publishing the treatise The Necessity of Atheism (1811, with T. J. Hogg). His marriage to the daughter of an innkeeper in 1811 caused a break with his father. Shelley’s sociopolitical views developed under the influence of the ideas of the French Revolution and the works of 18th-century French Enlightenment writers, T. Paine, and especially W. Godwin, with whom Shelley became acquainted in 1813. In 1812 in Ireland, Shelley contributed to the propaganda for the political emancipation of the country from Great Britain (An Address to the Irish People, Declaration of Rights). A rebellious mood also characterized Shelley’s first works of literature—the anonymously published Gothic novels Zastrozzi (1810) and St. Irvyne (1811), the collection of poems Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire (1810, with his sister Elizabeth), and his early political poems. In 1814, Shelley met Godwin’s daughter, Mary, with whom he shared his subsequent destiny. Fleeing from persecution and slander, he lived permanently in Italy after 1818. He was drowned in a storm at sea.

In his first significant poetic work, the philosophical narrative poem Queen Mab (1813), Shelley’s revolutionary-democratic credo, borrowed largely from Godwin’s An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, was set forth in the form of medieval visions. From 1818 to 1822 the poet wrote most of his longer works, including the novella in verse Rosalind and Helen (1818, published 1819), with its destructive criticism of the idyllic patriarchal family; the narrative poem Julian and Maddalo (1818, published 1824), born out of debates with Lord Byron about the power of the human spirit; the romantic tragedy The Cenci (1819), which is set in the Italian Middle Ages and which vindicates violence in the struggle with tyranny; the narrative poem The Masque of Anarchy (1819), a reaction to the police’s firing on workers at a meeting in Manchester; the dramatic satire Oedipus Tyrannus, or Swellfoot the Tyrant (1820); the lyric drama Hellas (1821), devoted to a national liberation uprising in Greece; the narrative poem in honor of Keats, Adonais (1821); and the narrative poem The Triumph of Life (1822).

The main theme of Shelley’s philosophical-allegorical narrative poem The Revolt of Islam (1818; originally published as Laon and Cythna, 1817) and the revolutionary lyric drama Prometheus Unbound (1820) is the conflict between despotism and freedom. In these works, as in Queen Mab, Shelley declares the inevitability of the victory of good and justice, when the flourishing of the creative forces of nature and of liberated man will reveal to the world a realm of eternal beauty and harmony. A spirit of mythological antiquity runs through such philosophical poems of Shelley’s as “Hymn of Apollo,” “Hymn of Pan,” and “Song of Proserpine.”

Scenes of nature in Shelley are combined with a subtlety of observation and a sense of pantheism. Shelley the atheist believed in a spirit of nature; everything that was real for him was living (“Arethusa,” 1820, and “Love’s Philosophy,” 1819). Shelley perceived the political emancipation of mankind as consisting in the overcoming of evil in nature, as in “Ode to the West Wind.” The soul of the poet is seen as fused with ever-renewing nature, and it romantically transforms existence (“The Cloud” and “Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills”). Shelley’s lyric love poetry, including “A Bridal Song” and “To Jane,” is humane and joyous, although it frequently contains a sorrowful, tragic note, as in “A Lament,” “To Night,” and “The Sensitive Plant.”

Essentially close to the ideas of socialism, Shelley, a “great prophet” in the words of F. Engels, left many war and agitation poems, for example “To the People of England” (1819). The social purpose of literature and the mission of the revolutionary poet are the central problem of the aesthetic treatise “A Defence of Poetry” (1822, published 1840).

Vivid imagination, melodiousness of verse, and richness of rhythm impart originality to Shelley’s poetry. It has had a vast influence on the poetry of the English-speaking countries and the world. Shelley’s works have been translated into many languages, including Russian.


The Complete Works, vols. 1–10. New York, 1965.
The Letters, vols. 1–2. Oxford, 1964.
Notebooks, vols. 1–3. New York, 1968.
In Russian translation:
Polnoe sobr. soch., vols. 1–3. Translated by K. D. Bal’mont. St. Petersburg, 1903–07.
Izbr. stikhotvoreniia. Moscow, 1937.
Lirika. Moscow, 1957.
Izbrannoe. Moscow, 1962.
Pis’ma, stat’i, fragmenty. Moscow, 1972.


Istoriia angliiskoi literatury, vol. 2, fasc. 1. Moscow, 1953.
Neupokoeva, I. Revoliutsionnyi romantizm Shelli. Moscow, 1959.
Morua, A. Ariel’: Roman iz zhizni Shelli i Bairona. Leningrad-Moscow, 1925.
Nikol’skaia, L. I. Shelli v Rossi. Smolensk, 1972.
Trelawny, E. J. Recollection of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron. London, 1931.
Peck, W. E. Shelley, vols. 1–2. Boston-New York, 1927.
Spender, S. Shelley. London, 1952.
King-Hele, D. G. Shelley: His Thought and Work. London-New York, 1962.
McNiece, G. Shelley and the Revolutionary Idea. Cambridge, Mass., 1969.
Chernaik, J. The Lyrics of Shelley. Cleveland-London, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe

(1792–1822) English poet drowned at 30. [Br. Lit.: Harvey, 748]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.