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Biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the younger generation of the Romantic Poets.

When and Where was he Born?

4th August 1792, Field Place, Warnham, near Horsham, West Sussex, England.

Family Background:

Percy Bysshe Shelley was the eldest son of Timothy Shelley, M.P and Elizabeth (nee) Pinfold and the eldest grandson Bysshe Shelley, a wealthy landowner and member of the minor gentry.

Education:

Syon House Academy. Eton College. University College, Oxford. (Sent down for his contribution to the pamphlet “The Necessity of Atheism”).

Timeline of Percy Bysshe Shelley:

1798: Shelley begins his education with a local clergyman, the Reverend Evan Edwards.

1802: He goes to Syon House Academy in Isleworth (now in Hounslow, London).

1804: He moves on to Eton College.

1806: Probably his first ever poem is written in the The Esdaile Notebook. His Grandfather Bysshe is made a Baronet.

1808: He begins a romantic correspondence with Harriet Grove his cousin in Wiltshire.

1810: Shelley goes up to Oxford University and soon after meets Thomas Jefferson Hogg. He breaks off his love affair with Harriet.

1811: He meets Harriet Westbrook in January. He is sent down from Oxford for refusing to answer questions about his contribution to the pamphlet “The Necessity of Atheism” which he co-writes with Thomas Jefferson Hogg. He quarrels with his father. He runs off to Edinburgh to marry Harriet Westbrook on 29th August. The couple move to York in October and Hogg tries to seduce Harriet. In November they move on to Keswick where he becomes friends with Robert Southey.

1812: He begins correspondence with William Godwin. The Shelleys travel to Dublin in February where he publishes two pamphlets, “Address to the Irish People” and “Proposals for an Association of . . .Philanthropists“. In June Shelley and Harriet settle at Lynmouth in North Devon as they are taken by the views. They stay at Mrs Hooper’s lodgings known as Woodbine Cottage (Now the Shelley hotel). Here Shelley wrote the poem “Queen Mab” and a seditious paper “The Declaration of Rights”. He put copies of this into bottles and tossed them into the sea off Lynmouth and also put some in boxes and launched them in small hot air balloons from the beach. Government spies were everywhere at this time as this was the year that the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated and revolution was in the air. The Town Clerk of Barnstaple reported Shelley to the Home Secretary as a couple of the bottles had been picked up from the sea by the excise men. There was no printer or author’s names on the pamphlet so he could not be prosecuted. Undeterred Shelley sent his servant Dan Healy to Barnstaple to post pamphlets on the walls. Healy was arrested and put in gaol. Shelley did not have the money to get him released but gave fifteen shillings a week to improve his lodgings. The Shelleys borrowed money from their landlady and her neighbours and bribed a boatman to take them across the Bristol Channel to Tremadoc in Wales to escape. They travel with Elizabeth Hitchener. On the 4th October Shelley meets William Godwin in London.

Shelley Hotel, Lynmouth
Woodbine Cottages where Harriet and Shelley stayed in Lynmouth, Devon. Now a hotel. (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1813: Percy Shelley and Harriet go to Ireland to recover the manuscript of “The Esdaile Notebook” from the printer, then return to London in February. Birth of Daughter Ianthe on the 23rd June.

1814: He leaves England with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Claire Clairmont, her step sister, on the 6th April and travels on the continent to Switzerland. He returns to London after a journey down the Rhine river in September. Harriet gives birth to his son Charles on the 30th November.

1815: Death of Grandfather Sir Bysshe Shelley on the 6th January. Shelley negotiates with his father for some money from the will to pay off his debts, not least to Godwin. He also has an income of £1,000 of which 200 is earmarked for Harriet and the children. Shelley is a believer in free love and engages in an open experiment with Mary Wollstonecraft, Claire Clairmont and Hogg. In April Mary’s first child dies prematurely and in June the group settle at Bishopsgate in London.

1816: Birth of his son William on 24th January. Shelley travels to Switzerland with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Claire Clairmont arriving in Geneva in May. He meets Lord Byron through Claire and travels with him on Lake Leman. It was during one summer evening that at Lord Byron’s rented house, the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva, that those present decided to tell horror stories which famously gave rise to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. The Shelleys return to England in September and they settle in Bath. Harriet Shelley commits suicide by drowning in the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park, London and her body is found on the 10th December. Shelley marries Mary on 30th December at St. Mildred’s Church, Bread Street, London (now demolished). Her father William Godwin and his second wife Mary Jane attend.

Hotel D'Angleterre
Hotel D’Angleterre in Geneva on the lake shore where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1817: Birth of Claire’s daughter Allegra by Byron on the 12th January in Bath. Shelley meets John Keats and at supper with Leigh Hunt. In February he goes to live at Marlow eventually lodging in Albion House. In March Chancery Court denies him custody of his children (by Harriet) Ianthe and Charles. Mary gives birth to his daughter Clara on the 2nd September.

1818: In January Shelley goes across Alps to Italy with Mary, Claire, the children and two female servants. They reach Milan on the 4th April and tour the Italian lakes. Allegra is sent to Byron in Venice on the 28th April. The Shelleys move to Bagni di Lucca, where he translates Plato’s Symposium. In June Shelley and Claire depart for Venice hoping to convince Byron to allow Claire to see Allegra.In August Shelley summons Mary and the children to join them and he takes up residence in the Town of Este near Padua. Death of Clara his daughter in August. In October they travel to Naples and visit Vesuvius and the Ancient Greek remains of Paestum and then move on to Rome. Birth of daughter Elena on the 27th December.

1819: Death of William Shelley in Rome in June and the couple then move to Livorno. On 16th August Shelley hears about the Peterloo Massacre and writes “The Mask of Anarchy” in response. In September the Shelleys go to Florence. Birth of son Percy on 12th November.

Shelley Plaque, Rome
Plaque at 375, via del Corso, Rome denoting that Shelley lived here in 1819 
and wrote “Prometheus Unbound” and “The Cenci” there (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1820: The Shelleys settle in Pisa in January and then move to the house of an English couple in Livorno called the Gisbournes who were friends of William Godwin. Death of Elena in June. She was registered as Percy’s but no one knew the child’s parentage for sure. Claire Clairmont moves to Florence in August and in October the Shelleys move to Pisa to escape the floods.

1821: In January the Shelleys meet Edward and Jane Williams who have recently arrived in Pisa. In April the Williamses move to Pugnano and the Shelleys to Bagni di San Giuliano, both on the banks of the River Serchio. Later in the year Shelley visits Byron at Ravenna and Byron visits Shelley at Pisa.

Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Piazza dei Miracoli, Pisa with leaning bell tower which Shelley would have climbed (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1822: Edward John Trelawny arrives in Pisa in January and a Pisan Circle develops around Byron and Shelley plan theatricals. Death of Allegra Byron on the 19th April. On the 20th April the Shelleys and Williamses move to San Terenzo, on Bay of Lerici. A boat that Shelley ordered called the Don Juan arrives. Mary has a near fatal miscarriage. Shelley sails to Leghorn with Williams to meet Leigh-Hunt on the 16th June. He sees Byron. On the 1st July they begin the return journey but are caught up in a storm and both men are drowned. On the 8th July Trelawny identifies two bodies, one near Via Reggio and the other three miles down the shore at Lericcio. He confirms they are Edward Williams and Percy Shelley. After some bureaucratic problems the bodies are temporarily buried on the 19th July. Shelley’s body is eventually cremated on the beach at Livorno on the 13th August. Mary returns to England in September.

(1823): Mary Shelley publishes an edition of her husband’s “Posthumous Poems”.

(1824): Posthumous Poems are suppressed by Sir Timothy Shelley.

When and Where did he Die?

8th July 1822, drowned in a boat at sea off Livorno, Tuscany, Italy.

Age at Death:

30.

Written Works:

1810: “Zastrozzi” – A gothic novel. “Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson”. “St. Irvyne” – A gothic novel. “Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire”.
1811: “The Necessity of Atheism”.  A Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things”.
1812: “An Address to the Irish People”. “Declaration of Rights”. “Proposals for an Association of Philanthropists for Ireland”.
1813: “A Vindication of Natural Diet”. “Queen Mab”.
1814: “A Refutation of Deism”.
1815: “Guy Mannering”.
1816: “Alastor and other Poems”.” Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”. “Mont Blanc”.
1817: “Proposal for Putting Reform to the Vote”. “Essays on Christianity”. “Address to the People on the Death of Princess Charlotte”. “Laon and Cythna, or The Revolution of the Golden City”. “History of a Six Weeks Tour”.
1818: “The Revolt of Islam”. “On Love”. “Euganean Hills”. “Julian and Maddalo.”
1819: “Rosalind and Helen”, “The Cenci” (Verse Drama). “The Mask of Anarchy”. “West Wind”. “Peter Bell the Third.”
1820: “Sensitive Plant”. “Ode to Liberty”. “Sky-lark”. “Letter to Maria Gisborne”. “Oedipus Tyrannus”. “Prometheus Unbound”. “Witch of Atlas”. “Ode to Naples”. “Swellfoot the Tyrant”. 
1821: “A Defence of Poetry”. “Adonais”. “Epipsychidion”.
1822: “Hellas”. “The Triumph of Life”.
(1823): “Poetical Pieces”.
(1824): “Posthumous Poems”.
(1832): “The Masque of Anarchy”.
(1833): “Chilly Papers”.

Marriages:

  1. 1811: 29th August to Harriet Westbrook, Edinburgh, Scotland.
  2. 30th December 1816 Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft at St. Mildred’s Church, Bread Street, London. Her father William Godwin and his wife attend.

Site of Grave:

His body was cremated at Viareggio and his ashes taken to Rome. His heart only was buried at St. Peter’s Churchyard, Bournemouth, Dorset, England from where it was re-interred from the English Protestant Cemetery, Rome, Italy.

Places of Interest:

CUMBRIA:

Dove Cottage and Museum, Grasmere, LA22 9SH. (Wordsworth Trust).

DEVON:

Lynmouth. (Picturesque fishing port where Shelley threw political tracts in bottles into the sea. The Shelleys had to leave their lodgings quickly after arousing local suspicion by Government Officers).

Lynmouth Harbour
View of Lynmouth Harbour from above where Shelley distributed his pamphlets in bottles into the sea. (copyright  Anthony Blagg)
Valley of the rocks
Valley of Rocks above Lynton, North Devon. Coleridge and Wordsworth were to walk here many times with other notables such as Southey and Davy. Shelley also found it fascinating. (copyright Anthony Blagg)

LONDON:

National Portrait Gallery.

OXFORD:

Bodleian Library. (Holds Boscombe manuscripts and letters).

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