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Percy Bysshe Shelley

AKA: Percy Shelley

About Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was an English poet and a major figure in the Romantic movement. He was married to Mary Shelley, friends with Lord Byron, and acquainted with John Keats (he actually invited Keats to come live with him in Italy when he heard Keats was sick, but Keats unfortunately never made it to visit Shelley before he died).

In his lifetime, Shelley was moderately famous, but extremely controversial. His poems, such as Queen Mab, garnered him a great deal of notoriety and he was part of the targeted criticism that John Keats was also caught up in. However, even though public reception of Shelley was mixed, his contemporaries held him in high-regard. Even the egotistical Wordsworth commented (roughly – this quote is often rendered in different forms): “Shelley is the greatest artist of us all; with regard to poetic form, I mean.”

Shelley belongs to the younger generation of English Romantic poets that came to prominence while William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were entering middle age, losing the vital edge of youth and sinking into complacency. The older generation was characterised by simple ideals and a reverence for nature, the younger generation by their sensuous aestheticism, the intensity of their passions, their political radicalism, and their tragically short lives.

Shelley died when he was twenty-nine, Byron when he was thirty-six, and Keats when he was twenty-six, so Romanticism tends to be associated with youth and the tragedy of extraordinary talent cut short. But each poet was a distinctive character. Shelley is distinguished by his joy, generosity and optimism — at least until the depression and negativity that marks his last year before his death.

Keats’s death inspired Shelley to write Adonais, an elegy to Keats, which is now considered one of Shelley’s greatest pieces. Shelley died a little over a year after Keats, drowning in a boat he built, and his death was possibly a suicide. His body was found with a copy of Keats’s poems in his pocket.

Shelley’s critical reception has gone through some rough spots in the span of almost two centuries that has passed. Poets immediately took up Shelley as an idol, recognizing his brilliance shortly after his death, but his popularity was still somewhat limited. T.S. Eliot was somewhat negative towards Shelley and Matthew Arnold described him as “a beautiful and ineffectual angel” in his critical essays that argued Shelley’s longer pieces were not worthy of study.

C. S. Lewis wrote a famous response to T. S. Eliot’s criticism of Shelley (entitled “Dryden, Shelley, and Mr. Eliot” and a part of C. S. Lewis’s Selected Essays).

Despite the ebb and flow of his reception for years, today Shelley is (for the most part) highly regarded and taught in classrooms across the world.

Intellectual Background

In order to best understand Shelley’s poetry it is useful to identify the philosophical foundations on which much of it is based. There were two main subjects on which intellectuals of the time focused;

— the limits and legitimacy of the authority of the state
— the extent of man’s faculty of reason

Within these two broad subjects the important philosophers of the day discussed, among other issues, the relationship of the mind and the material world; the possibility of ‘proving’ the existence of God; the social nature of man.

The mind’s relationship to the material world is evident in many of his poems. For example ‘To a Skylark’ and ‘Ode to the West Wind’.

‘England in 1918’, explores his other principle concern, the issue of the state’s authority over ordinary people.

These subjects are too complex to discuss here, but it is worth a brief look at John Lock, David Hume; Thomas Hobbes and jean-Jacques Rousseau. Also the Greek philosopher Plato.

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