Sunday 4 August 2013

"I have drunken deep of Joy": Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley (Broadbridge Heath, West Sussex, England, 4th August 1792 - Livorno, Italy, 8th  July 1822)

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint, 1819
Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint, 1819

We've met a few monarchs, revolutionaries and politicians of late as well as a musical lady, so today I thought we would look at a man of letters. Like all the Gilflurt girls I've a weakness for a well-crafted stanza and Shelley certainly composed a few of those in his too-short life.

He was born to privilege, the son of a Whig Member of Parliament and landowner and spent a miserable few years at Eton College before moving to study at Oxford University  in 1810. Within a year he had published several works including a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. Called to account by the university, Shelley refused to apologise for the pamphlet and was expelled in March 1811, much to his father's horror.  He would compound that initial disappointment within months, eloping to Scotland with 16 year old Harriet Westbrook, who had threatened suicide if she could not escape the boarding school where she studied alongside the poet's sisters. With a failed romance with Harriet Grove already behind him and increasingly despondent, Shelley impulsively whisked the girl away and made her his wife. At this his father finally cut off his son, refusing to acknowledge the union or the bride. The marriage would end in tragedy but for now, the young couple were happy in one another's company.

Portrait of William Godwin by Henry William Pickersgill
William Godwin by Henry William Pickersgill

Shelley had long been an admirer of William Godwin and, with his time at university prematurely ended, he wrote to Godwin and eventually became an adoring disciple to the writer, beginning an intense friendship with Godwin's daughter, Mary. On 28th July 1814, Shelley abandoned his heavily pregnant wife and fled to Switzerland with 16 year old Mary and her French-speaking stepsister, Claire Clairmont. The trio travelled across Europe for less than two months before they returned to England and a furious Godwin, who refused to take them back into his home and they lived together in London until Clair, wishing to visit her former lover, Lord Byron, asked Mary and Shelley to accompany her to Lake Geneva in 1816.

Portrait of Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, 1840
Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, 1840

The visit and the creature it spawned have become legendary and Mary and her literary monster are too important for a mere line or two here; indeed, the Guide shall be paying proper tribute to her later. Shelley found the trip to Geneva inspirational, forming a close bond with Byron that inspired him to some of his greatest poems including the existential Mont Blanc. His continued affair with Mary was devastating to her half-sister Fanny Imlay, who had formed a strong attachment to Shelley and in 1816 she killed herself, just two months before his estranged wife was found drowned in the Serpentine. With Shelley now widowed, he and Mary were free to marry and Godwin, miraculously, thawed immediately once they were legally bound.

Though Shelley continued to write following the marriage it would take another adventure with Byron to inspire him back to full creativity and the Shelleys visited the poet in Venice. During this visit to the continent Shelley was to face a double tragedy when two of his children died, as well as a third child whose parentage has never been satisfactorily established. For two years the couple moved around Italy and Shelley continued to write, producing among others The Masque of Anarchy, Ode to Sophia Stacey (in honour of a daughter born during the tour) and the now-legendary Prometheus Unbound. He was gripped by a new creativity whilst in Italy, fired by his friendship with Byron and continued correspondence with other members of his literary circle that fired him to write pamphlets, poetry and criticism.

The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier, 1889
The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier, 1889

On 8th July, Shelley set sail for Lerici with two companions, but they were never to arrive at their destination; encountering a sudden, severe storm the boat was lost with all hands. The poet's decomposed body eventually washed ashore near Viareggio where it was cremated, an occasion at which Mary was not present. His ashes were interred in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome, the wanderer having finally come to rest. With Byron and Keats, he is memorialised in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey.

In life Shelley was a strange, somewhat surreal figure and his now awesome reputation was not easily won in death, nor was he instantly elevated to the post-mortem status of genius. It took years for his work to slowly gain an appreciative audience yet to the generations who followed, he became a legend.

Shelley's bibliography can be found here.


Gem Twitcher said...

A tale well told,Madame. Thank you,as ever.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you, sir!

Carol Hedges said...

He was such a b***d! ... Serial eloper, made his women revolve their lives about him,..he caused the death of Mary Shelley's half-sister Claire's child by refusing to allow her to bring it from Italy when it was sickly. He and Byron are classic cases of 'bad boys' ... very few redeeming features other than their verse. Brings to the fore the old paradox of how much we judge a writer/celeb by their actions rather than their work. If he lived today, Shelley would never be out of the Daily Mail!

Catherine Curzon said...

Ha, the sidebar of shame! His life would make a cracking drama, though...

Lizanne Lloyd said...

And yet women hovered round him like a moth round a candle. It must have been his Leo charisma!

Catherine Curzon said...

Certainly not his charm!