On Percy Bysshe Shelley
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
Percy Bysshe Shelley—one can't but ask: whence cometh that peculiar middle name by which the first is linked to the last?
It was, if the family record is to be believed, an inheritance from his patrilineal side. Sir Bysshe Shelley, the author’s distinguished grandfather, was a man as noble as he was unique. In an age of increasing democracy, liberty, and faith, in which suffrage grew to wider widths, and sanctity to deeper depths, he cut somewhat against the grain. He was as aristocratic as he was atheistic, and never suffered the attacks of shyness by which clever men are occasionally rendered mute. As such, being possessed of such a rare combination of traits, it's no surprise that the elder Shelley made quite an impression on his young grandson's heretical heart.
Sir Bysshe, unhampered by the constraints of low breeding, and endowed with a fleetness of mind by which any obstacle could be cleared, was able to accumulate vast wealth during the course of his eight decades of life. He did so by way of two paths, two lucrative roads along which every social climber, in every period before and since, has similarly walked: for one, he received an ample investment from his own, historic family (his pedigree could be traced back to the Norman Conquest, an antique point of honor on which he, like many British patricians, prided himself); and, for another, he married wisely. Better still, he married thrice, with each subsequent commitment adding to his growing fortune, and each wedding attesting to his rising fame.
Perhaps, sad though it may be, conjugal felicity, much less longevity, wasn’t foremost on Sir Bysshe’s mind when he chose to marry as often, and as many, as he did. We must excuse him, however, his lack of durability when it came to matters of nuptial bliss, and forgive him his inability to persist with one woman by his side through the trials of life’s countless storms. Given the incontrovertible gains he made to his estate, and the prominence to which he elevated not only himself, but his growing family, such actions must be deemed blameless. In short, we’ll not bother ourselves with posthumous judgment on so long-forgotten a man.
Percy spoke of his grandfather fondly, not only out of gratitude for the feathery financial cushion onto which, upon entering the rough and revolutionary world of 1792, he so softly landed, but for the irreligious bent and amorous spirit with which, though hardly yet an infant, he was already imbued. In simple terms, Percy commended his marital achievements, acknowledging him to have “acted very well to three wives”—one short of the modest harem of four to which, as things stand, a Muslim man is still legally entitled. Percy went on to applaud his absence of faith, calling him a “complete atheist”, and charging him, approvingly, with having built, “all his hopes on annihilation”. Doubtless, Percy indulged no expectation of reconvening with his beloved grandfather in the lofty attics of the afterlife, an airy heaven to which, should it exist, the two Bysshe boys would surely be among the first denied entrance.
Tragically, Percy only survived his grandfather by seven years. Of course, Sir Bysshe far exceeded the average life expectancy of a man in his era, and Percy—having inherited so many of his grandfather’s finer qualities and controversial attributes—might’ve been expected to do the same. Alas, he hardly tasted the bitter herb of his thirtieth year, the pungent midpoint in the span of one’s life to which the ever-youthful palate never fully adapts. More on this, though, to come.
First, as noted, Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in 1792—the 4th of August, to be precise. If this date rings familiar, it’s due to its proximity to that same year’s September Massacres, four days of gratuitous killings by which the entire civilized world—at least from Russia to America—was violently shook. In less than a week’s time, France, as never before, was ensanguined in innocent blood. In a matter of days, it was shrouded by an odor of indiscriminate death by which every lover of due process, rationality, and justice was choked. Undeterred by the fading power of a feckless king, hordes of Jacobins overwhelmed the prisons of Paris and decapitated their ill-fated (and, in many cases, undeserving) inmates. The counter-revolutionary embers were quenched, and the monarchy was brought yet another step closer to the guillotine.
Percy, having been born at so tempestuous a time in world history, was never far from the Revolution. It intertwined the fibers of his and all his comrades' souls. Nor, for that matter, was he geographically distant from the events by which France was, at that very moment, violently enmeshed. He was born at Sussex, quite near the English Channel, on his family’s rolling estate. It was called, simply, “Field Place”, a somewhat drab, unpoetic name for a house in which so great a Romantic artist was to be raised. Despite the mundaneness of its name, however, Field Place put Shelley into very close contact with all the ineffable virtues of nature, the daily inspirations of beauty, and, most importantly, the intoxicating fumes of Gallic ideas.
Like all British boys endowed with the advantages of an aristocratic surname and a promising intellect, Shelley was sent off to Eton. Outside the academic curriculum, it was not a setting in which Shelley, a deeply sensitive and naturally rebellious boy, thrived (he’d grown up, after all, among four sisters and was, as the first-born male, primus inter pares, and, thus, quite shamelessly pampered). He wasn’t quick to make friends with the other boys, he refused participation in most sports, he intimidated teachers with his superior knowledge, and he recoiled at the degrading practice of fagging (whereby younger pupils would be made to attend to the various and often humiliating needs of the elder classmates to whom they were “assigned”).
Instead, as is the tendency of all excessively studious boys and socially-imperfect people, he sought acquaintances in his books. He made friends of Lucretius, Pliny, Voltaire, Gibbon, the philosophes, and his future father-in-law, William Godwin. The warmth of their writings would never leave him unaccompanied and lonely, and he could always join his burning spirit to theirs. Despite his growing preference for solitude, however, he did manage to fall in love with an attractive cousin, Harriet Grove, to whom he pledged his undying fidelity. Her father, his uncle, disapproved of his daughter’s relationship with this godless lad—an unabashed deist, dare I say, from whom no good could come.
From Eton, Shelley made the transition to Oxford. There, he courted controversy more than he did females, quite at odds with the practice of most undergraduates—both in his and our own day. He refined his Greek, embellished his Latin, and was impacted deeply by the brilliance of Sophocles and Aeschylus. He was enthusiastic about science, but was little moved by the dry prose and academic jargon in which this profound subject was so inelegantly dressed. He was, in every way, a burgeoning poet, a writer aroused by novelty and ideals, and unencumbered by the traditional and mundane. He was fiercely individualistic, decidedly contrarian, and contemptuous of received opinions, whatever their source.
One of those opinions to which he refused to submit was that God exists. Inspired by the alternative position, and feeling, more than ever, the great influence of his infidel grandfather, Sir Bysshe, Shelley joined together with a close friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, and published an essay entitled, The Necessity of Atheism. Like the Virginian scholar after whom he was named, Hogg rejected the idea of a personal, anthropomorphic, superintending god. He thought it improbable that an unspeakably high being would debase himself, if only to indulge his curiosity in the petty affairs and low concerns of man. Shelley’s opinion on the subject was perfectly synchronous, and the two were able to build a formidable, if somewhat youthful, argument against the prevailing Christian religion. In their profane collaboration, they doubtless sought to provoke the wrath of their university dons and, worse, English society at large, into whom they hoped to plunge their heedless nettles. They succeeded on both counts, but the cost was steep.
Atheism was, at that time, an impermissible term. Any gentleman of sophistication and tact, any character of urbanity and class, would be very careful to adorn his skepticism, and appease the church, by calling himself a deist—never an atheist. The former designated a man who acknowledged, if not Abraham’s wrathful Yahweh, or Jesus’ merciful Father, then some kind of disinterested and expressionless God, existing somewhere in the history of the cosmos, by whom the world was put into motion, and from whom life, with its overwhelming abundance and vitality, first issued. The deist conceded that yes—some god, somewhere, exists, but one quite different from that to whom scripture, especially if written by man, gave birth. For him, god was synonymous with nature—imperceptible, but omnipresent, and quite beyond dispute.
In truth, sotto voce, many self-described “deists” completely rejected the idea of the existence of a god. In a word, that which they professed publicly, they denied privately. In this, their sincere but deviant theology, Nature was but a convenient replacement for the grand deity to whom all of man’s loftiest attributes were once ascribed, and by whom one’s salvation was thought to be decided. If they were openly allowed to express their point of view, without fear of recrimination, penalty, or death, they might even say that Nature is untouched by any such numinous force, and that there was nothing mystical nor holy about it. The trouble was, society was unprepared to contend with so heretical and dangerous a point of view. This forced every skeptic to dress himself in the cautious raiment of a deist, if only to save his skeptical skin.
The two undergraduates, heedless of decorum and, worse, thirsty for notoriety, expected their pamphlet to be inhospitably received. Their irreverent stance and bold pronouncements foredoomed them to such a fate. As for their thesis, it was charmingly simple: god is neither tangible to our senses, nor congenial to our reason. God, while allegedly large, has somehow managed to evade our detection. How can he, purportedly ubiquitous, be everywhere at all times, yet remain unseen? How can he manipulate biology, chemistry, and physics, and yet persist beyond the realm of our science? We must, therefore, reject him empirically.
As for our reason, what has revelation to say to that? A world can be conceived without the meddling influence of a creative god, a hidden deity to whom only a vanishingly few, privileged, often illiterate Middle Eastern people are ever privy. Is there not something incongruous in asserting the physical laws of the universe to have been fixed, while admitting the caveat that they can be, at any moment, suspended? Does a claim like this not offend our reason, even while it flatters our faith? Is it irrational to envisage a cosmos independent of a deity, as was the hypothesis of the marquis de Laplace?
Perhaps it was, and so it remains. What’s certain, however, is that Shelley’s and Hogg’s collaboration offended men who wielded great institutional power. It put them quite at odds with the university elders by whom, with all promptitude, they were expelled. They attempted to defend themselves on the sacred grounds of free expression, but their defense, though vigorous, was in vain. The college faculty, a group of pious Oxford dons, ordered the books destroyed and the sophomoric authors dismissed.
The young heretics—now officially personae non grata at the most eminent university in the world—sought a clime more congenial to their radical spirits. Like any good rogue caught in so compromised a state, they opted to travel to London, a city in which, much like today, many outcasts thought it fitting to settle. Shelley’s father, horrified by the consequences of his son’s misbehavior (if not terribly scandalized by his inherited, impious point of view) urged him to renounce his controversial opinions, and, though undoubtedly with little hope of gaining re-admission, apologize at once to the school. Shelley, predictably, was obstinate. He refused to yield to his father’s exhortations, labelling them a wind-bag of unwisdom and a heap of cowardice to which he, now a professed atheist poet, would never deign.
Suddenly unimpeded by classes and exams, Shelley was able to devote his full attention to love. Through his sister, he was introduced to a charming, impressionable girl by the name of Harriet Westbrook. She was smitten (who could blame her?) with Shelley’s comely appearance, his facility with language, his elegance of manner, and his pedigree of birth. She was captivated, likewise, by his shameless deviltry, his exciting insolence, his breadth of learning, his encyclopedic knowledge, and—perhaps more than anything else—his unpredictable passion.
No sooner had they met than she’d become a lover of his person, and an acolyte of his views; there seems to have been a contagious quality about them. He lent her a copy of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique, which may as well have been samizdat under the saintly reign of mad King George III. In owning it, her schoolmates suspected her of a grave impropriety, for which, they convinced themselves, the atheist boy she was dating was ultimately responsible. School girls are never wrong about such things; their sensitivity to scandal is unerring. Soon, despite Westbrook’s and Shelley’s’ effort toward its concealment, their liaison was made public, and the young lady, now debauched by the poet, was dismissed from her school.
Thus, when it came to education, Shelley acted like an abortifacient. Be it directly or indirectly, he caused the premature death of not only his, but Harriet’s formal schooling. Now, free from the halls of learning, and dizzy with the thoughts of love, they sought to consummate their union. Shelley, of course, entertained a somewhat novel perspective of what a “union” might be. He suggested to his betrothed the daring concept of an open relationship, a shockingly loose arrangement by which, yes, her value might be cheapened, but his promiscuity would be slaked. Harriet, not yet fully desensitized to the pangs of custom, and still feeling the checks placed on her by tradition and conscience, was unwilling to go along with Shelley’s radical plan. It was, after all, an idea by which she—as a female enamored of but one man, and no other—stood little to profit. Thus, when asked to participate, she politely declined. Apparently, Harriet was less amenable to polygamy than Shelley had anticipated. Failing to conjure up a better alternative, he settled for what became a boring, mostly monogamous marriage.
Against the wishes of her father, and contrary to the pleas of her friends, Harriet eloped with Shelley. The young couple hastened to Scotland, to which they fled in order to avoid any familial discord, or national barrier. There, in Edinburgh, they married. It was a quiet, unostentatious event to which, as one might suppose, very few were invited. The rites were those of rather the Scottish than the Anglican Church, an institution into which, owing to their recent transgressions, they foresaw little hope of being received. The newlyweds, with vows of permanent fidelity still wet on their lips, and rings of commitment begirding their fingers, departed Edinburgh and settled in York.
It was during this time of tumult and love that Shelley produced his first significant work, Queen Mab. The appended subtitle and preface are revealing. He called the nine-canto work a “Philosophical Poem with Notes”. How startling is his philosophy, and how integral those oft-neglected notes! As for the preface, Shelley borrowed the biting bon mot of his philosophical idol, Voltaire. Just as the trenchant Frenchman urged his readers, Shelley encouraged his audience, écrasez l’infâme!—or, in English, to “crush the infamous” (Voltaire assigned the epithet, “infamous” to the Church). It was a call to action to which, if only as an homage to the venerable Voltaire, the young rebel had long since responded. He hoped that, by way of his updated exhortation, others might do the same. After a brief quotation from Lucretius and Archimedes, and a dedicatory passage to his beloved spouse, Shelley began the work.
If we’re to believe its author, it wasn’t composed with the aim of being read: “It was written by me at the age of eighteen”, said Shelley, and “I daresay in a sufficiently intemperate spirit, but it was not intended for publication”. We must look with an eyebrow raised at every poet by whom such professions of modesty are made. At them, we can’t but look askance, and they rarely merit our full belief. Fame, we know, is too strong an incentive for the artist at work, and humility too heavy a burden. It’s his nature, after all, rather to embellish than to conceal.
The character of Queen Mab, by the time Shelley got a hold of her, was already well-established in English folklore. William Shakespeare seems to have been one of the first to have made her widely famous, and other, lesser writers contributed to her popularity. For better or worse, she was known to have had a nocturnal presence, a tendency to appear when the world was shrouded in night. Throughout those lifeless, dark, crepuscular hours, she would pass the time playing tricks on unassuming sleepers, or aiding them, as would a midwife, in the delivery of their dreams.
In Shelley’s work, Queen Mab descends from her celestial realm and meets the beautiful Ianthe, upon whom she gently alights. She proceeds to detach the girl’s spirit from her clay-encrusted body (“the chains of earth’s immurement fell from her spirit”), to which she promises to return (“Yes! She will awake again…”). Queen Mab, behind the wheel of her aerial chariot, conveys the sleeping beauty to the edge of the universe. There, at this lofty and distant height, Ianthe’s dreams can be examined, her future predicted, and her world explained.
First, though, the fairy queen must recount the past. To do so, she gives a brief history of the earliest, most important empires by which the world has yet been visited. A succession of empires—from Palmyra, to Egypt, to Judea, to Athens, to Sparta, and to Rome—is nostalgically described. The theme of their lost grandeur, and the notion of their impermanence, is both powerful and clear:
“Beside the eternal Nile, the pyramids have risen. Nile shall pursue his changeless way: those pyramids shall fall; Yea! Not a stone shall stand to tell the spot whereon they stood; Their very site shall be forgotten, as is their builder’s name”. One feels the germ of Ozymandias, if not his shattered visage and sneer of cold command, gestating in these pregnant lines.
Shelley, eager to move forward, leaps from his catalogue of the past to his criticism of the present. Through the voice of Queen Mab, he goes on to attack the monarchy, the economy, and organized religion. Man, she laments, is insufficiently mature to reject a king, and, in his absence, adopt that finest of all political institutions—a healthy and an inclusive democracy:
“When man’s maturer nature shall disdain the playthings of its childhood;--kingly glare will lose its power to dazzle; its authority will silently pass by; the gorgeous throne shall stand unnoticed in the regal hall, fast falling to decay”.
As for commerce, she hasn’t a kind word to say:
“Commerce! Beneath whose poison-breathing shade no solitary virtue dares to spring, but poverty and wealth with equal hand scatter their withering curses, and unfold the doors of premature and violent death, to pining famine and full-fed disease”.
The Queen finds the proletariat’s plight completely unacceptable. With an echo of Proudhon, Engels, and Marx, she accuses the leisured class of exploiting the wretched workers, those sufferers of penury and want from whom all dignity has been stripped. In the eyes of an increasingly industrialized world, they are nothing better than slaves, faceless insects enchained to the avarice of a group of indolent drones for whom they receive neither a salary, nor much sympathy. As such, “the harmony and happiness of man yields to the wealth of nations”—a line by which every lover of Adam Smith is, you can be sure, offended.
What, then, of religion? Has not the Queen depleted her anger, and exhausted her efforts, in having confronted these two formidable foes? No—and we soon learn that her invective not only isn’t fully spent, but is quite inextinguishable.
Preferring the “Spirit of Nature” to the Abrahamic God, she calls the former, “all-sufficing Power, Necessity! Thou mother of the world!” Unlike the latter, the “God of human error”, who requires, “no prayers or praises” and is, in her rather low estimation, nothing more than an “almighty fiend whose name usurps his honors”.
Ianthe’s spirit then describes a memorable moment from her infancy, when her mother brought her to see an atheist burned. One might, looking back, question so obvious a lack of paternal discretion and wonder if her exposure to such a scene wasn’t somehow premature. The young girl watched as the “thirsty fire crept round his manly limbs”, and listened as “the insensate mob uttered a cry of triumph”. She, on the contrary, began to weep, perhaps feeling an unspeakable empathy for this scorched and godless man.
Ascending from this bottomless ebb, Queen Mab offers a bit of encouragement for the future. She foresees a world untarnished by prisons, indigence, and greed. She foresees the equality of the sexes (“Woman and man, in confidence and love, equal and free and pure together trod…”), the painlessness of death, and the liberty of the species. She foresees a government stripped of its monarch, and guided by the unfailing prudence of its people. Through roseate, utopian glasses, she sees all of these things, and we, entranced by her view, begin to catch their glimpse as well.
The seventeen subjoined notes are almost as delicious as the original poem. They’re less a small desert, more a second entrée. It’s here that Shelley takes the opportunity to dilate upon his beliefs on materialism, Pantheism, vegetarianism and polyamory. He speaks of the sun not as an identifiable god of Grecian lore, but as a “rayless orb of fire in the midst of a black concave”. And once one can appreciate the immensity of the cosmos, he’ll no longer be in “danger of seduction from the falsehoods of religious systems”. After all, “all that miserable tale of the Devil, and Eve, and an Intercessor, is irreconcilable with the knowledge of the stars”. Devastatingly, the “works of his (God’s) fingers have borne witness against him”.
As for love, should it not be emancipated from the rigid despotism of positive law? “Love is free”, declared Shelley—having but recently committed himself to Harriet, to the exclusion of all others. “To promise for ever to love the same woman, is not less absurd than to promise to believe the same creed: such a vow, in both cases, excludes us from all enquiry”. Perhaps I’m straining for distinctions, but is there not something different between an enquiry that’s carnal, and another that’s theological?: one calls for the head to which the loins gives growth, the other, for that by which the neck is crowned. “From the abolition of marriage”, he concludes, “the fit and natural arrangement of sexual connection would result”.
As for his proto-Nietzschean claim that there “is no God”, he outlines a convincing few paragraphs in its support. He begins, however, with the humble disclaimer that “this negation must be understood solely to affect a creative deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit coeternal with the universe, remains unshaken”. His pantheistic pieties should not go unacknowledged. The imagery he uses when talking of the eternal Spirit is often quite moving and warmly religious. As for God, “he stands in need of proof”, and is undeserving of so reverential a treatment.
As for his belief in the insalubrious effects of meat in one’s diet, and his preference for a strictly vegetarian fare, I’ll return to this theme in a future essay. For your own enjoyment, though, I urge you to read his remarks on this subject, which he sprinkles with his all his usual enthusiasm and style. You’ll not find among modern-day vegans a more persuasive or eloquent treatise on the flaws of this, our standard, “unnatural diet”.
After the publication of Queen Mab, and the birth of his daughter, Ianthe, Shelley’s relationship with Harriot began to sour. Perhaps his infatuation with the idea of free love disquieted his wife. Perhaps his radicalism had become unsettling to a woman now tasked with the conservative role of rearing a child. As for Shelley, he began to consider his wife’s once vigorous intellect suddenly stunted. She no longer flickered with that same brilliance to which, like an unresisting moth, he was so deeply attracted. Her interest in politics waned as her responsibility to her child grew. Her desire to topple the edifices of tradition softened as the joy she found in her daughter strengthened. Shelley was no longer aroused by her conversation, and he sensed no variety in her increasingly narrow points of view.
It was at this time his communication with William Godwin became more frequent. The elder radical was in a state of financial distress, much like the profligate protégée, Shelley, from whom he unwisely sought assistance (imagine—two communist utopians finding it difficult to pay their bills!) On a regular basis, in an effort to plan an escape from their financial straits, Shelley visited Godwin at his home, where he met the seventeen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.
The possession of but one of these names, Wollstonecraft or Godwin, would’ve been enough to impress any layman or scholar. Their combination would utterly astonish. This seems to have been the effect on Shelley, to whom this motherless Mary seemed to be the very image of perfection. She was lovely and intellectual, well-born and worldly, in a way that Harriet had ceased to be. Shelley, unbothered by his prior vow of conjugal fidelity, pursued her with all the energy of his twenty-one years.
Initially, she was resistant to his advances; she sensed in them an underlying impropriety, even while being misled about the nature of Shelley’s outstanding relationship. He lied to Mary, telling her that Harriet, in fact, was the one who’d been unfaithful, and that a lawful breach was imminent. Mary’s father, having spent more time with him, was keener to Shelley’s deviltry, and he stepped in to forbid their marriage.
While his paternal instinct wasn’t misplaced, his efforts to stop the pair were in vain. Mary Godwin joined Shelley as the poet did his best to elude the many angry creditors to whom he owed a mounting debt. Mind you, after his expulsion from Oxford, Shelley’s father dissolved the large inheritance to which his future prospects of solvency were pegged. He thought the move might stimulate an adjustment to his son’s irreverent behavior and, perhaps, cause him to re-evaluate his ways. It did not.
Eventually, Sir Bysshe Shelley, the aged aristocratic who bequeathed, if not a large purse, then a memorable name to the young poet, died. His death left Sir Timothy Shelley an estate valued at eighty thousand pounds. Like a famished Esau yearning for some pottage, Percy eagerly offered to resign his birthright for a sliver of this newfound wealth. His father, happy to prevent his son from fully capitalizing on his deed, consented. Shelley would, for the rest of his short life, receive one thousand pounds a year, of which two hundred were earmarked for Harriet. That was the least he could do for his wife and the mother of his child, whom, at that precise moment, he was in the act of abandoning.
Flanked by Mary, her new son, William, and her beloved step-sister, Claire Clairmont, Shelley set sail for the continent. By way of France, the group was destined for Switzerland—that awe-inspiring, Alpine nation from which Romanticism, in its most vibrant bloom, first sprang.
Once there, the greatest friendship in the history of literature took root. Shelley leased a home in Geneva, and Lord Byron did the same. They were separated by a ten-minute walk, and, frankly, little else. In all the deep and meaningful ways, the two were kindred spirits—radical brothers in art and arms. Both were precocious poets blessed with immense talent, and both were uninhibited by the current mores. Both turned their backs on decorum, and, instead, invited scandal into their hearts.
In a frank comparison of their artistic skill, Byron was superior; it was a decision against which Shelley, in one of his few displays of impartiality, decided to voice no protest. We respect him for arriving at so self-aware and humbling a judgment, from which posterity hasn’t yet strayed. Both courted controversy as liberally as they did women. Byron, of a purer pedigree, ventured into that dangerous wood of incest; such is the tendency of sister-loving nobles. Shelley, slightly lower in his placement among the gentry, opted against consanguineous coitus. He chose instead to sow his oats, simultaneously, among multiple, unrelated women.
Both were matchless in their knowledge of Greek and Latin, and both were contemptuous of the prevailing conception of God. They diverged slightly at the intersection of their politics. Byron, a Lord, and thus a member of that lofty chamber, was somewhat ambivalent about his views. While he defended the desperate actions of the “Luddites”, he would just as soon condemn the rabble. He appreciated the wisdom and stability of an aristocratic government, while he sacrificed his life to Greece’s democratic future. Shelley, on the contrary, was less equivocal. He was suspicious of power, no matter the homely, unintimidating clothes in which it was dressed. He was hostile to monarchs, critical of class privilege, and intolerant of the exclusivity of the vote. He wanted, above all, a reduction in laws, and an increase in equality. He wanted, in a word, less order, and more license.
One summer’s eve, when the four were gathered, Byron suggested a game by which the tone of modern literature would be set. Through the course of their late-night discussions, Byron realized that everyone shared an affinity for ghost stories. Being the greatest poet of his age, he wondered why he (and his similarly literate friends) shouldn’t do their part to contribute to this rising genre. He invited Shelley, Mary, and his friend and personal physician, John Polidori, to join in what was to become an historic competition.
Unexpectedly, after a few days, three-fourths of the players conceded defeat. Polidori, for whom Byron acted not on this occasion as patient, but as creative muse, wrote The Vampyre. It was a short, ghastly tale by which the modern-day Dracula was foreshadowed. It was a strong, but incomplete effort. For greater strength and completion, genius and daring, the group turned its attention to the comely, unassuming teenager named Mary. Mary, aged nineteen, was the only contestant to produce a truly original work. It was eloquent, unexampled, and jarring. Her Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, is as arresting a read today, as it was back then.
Perhaps naively, the gang had hoped it might outrun the unwholesome reputation by which it was chased. Back in England, whence they came, Shelley and Byron were harried by the indignities of sullied names. Now, in the pristine clime of Switzerland, they were dirtied yet again. Local gossip alleged the four to be involved in an unholy union, a promiscuous affair at which even the godless mountain libertine would turn her head and blush. Learning, for once, that the better part of valor is discretion, Byron and Shelley opted to be discrete. Byron broke his relationship with Claire (now impregnated by the real-life Don Juan), and Shelley gathered the girls and his writings for the long journey back to Albion.
En route, Shelley brought the group to Chamonix, a charming Savoyard outpost along the border with France. It stayed a night at the Chartreuse monastery, home to a secluded religious order nestled in the rolling mountains. In the hotel’s register, into which every guest—irrespective of his nation or creed—took the opportunity to etch his name, a space was left open for the listing of one’s occupation. Unhesitatingly, Shelley scribbled the following in Greek: Eimi philanthropos, demokratikos, t’atheos te. “I am”, rendered in English, “a philanthropist, a democrat, and an atheist”. Two-thirds of that statement were, at the very least, unobjectionable in the view of polite eyes. As for the last, though it was a title of which Shelley never tired, it was an offense for which even the enlightened society of his age hadn’t yet developed a tolerance.
Byron, arriving at the same hotel a few weeks later, took a moment to peruse the register’s prior entries. Perhaps out of curiosity, though, more likely, as an exercise of his vanity, he sought to compare the grandness of the other names to which his own, once written, was foredoomed to stoop. Skimming these trivialities of person, distinction, and class, he landed upon a dazzling profanity by which his attention was gripped. He read Shelley’s entry, and responded as might an older brother, or a more experienced friend. With prudence befitting his age, he struck out the word, “atheist”, hoping his redaction would go unnoticed, and Shelley’s obscenity unavenged.
Unfortunately for the godless poet, it did not. Till the time of his death, the epithet would follow Shelley wherever he went.
Thus, was he received in England, to which he returned after his Byronic sojourn in the Alps. Despite the comfortable annuity with which his father had fixed him, Shelley was again in a state of financial distress. He sought, for its assuagement, an increase to his yearly income. He was denied. Fanny Godwin, the daughter of the famous feminist and a one Captain Imlay, had been adopted by Mary’s father—the William Godwin of radical renown. Freshly acquainted with her half-sister and her poet-lover, Fanny sent letters to the pair asking for familial tenderness, and pecuniary relief. Being that it could hardly set food on its own table, the couple was forced to refuse the inclusion of yet another hungry mouth placed within its care. Fanny, maltreated by Godwin’s second wife, and seeing no avenue to a brighter future, committed suicide with a bolus of opium. One can only imagine the woe with which she swallowed that soporific poppy.
Death, it seems, had only just gained familiarity with the peculiar aroma of Shelley’s scent. It would, for the next few years, continue to haunt him, accumulating, in the chase, no shortage of souls. The next of Shelley’s relations to die was Harriet Westbrook—the neglected wife to whom, in accordance with the law, he was still formally wed. As promised, she remained the recipient of his generous, annual monetary contribution, but she never again could excite his love. That, more than a callous stipend, was what she wanted more than anything else. With their beaming child on her lap, Shelley met her, and tried to convince her of the benefits of a lawful separation. He hoped that she might agree to a legitimate break, a proper divorce by which new, amorous avenues might be opened to the restless poet.
Having already suffered countless slights, this was the most painful for Harriet to bear. Now, as thoroughly insulted as injured, she could endure no more. She’d reached the limit of the indignities by which she’d been burdened, of which Shelley, cruelly, was the author. One night, just prior to the Christmas season, she disappeared from her home. The authorities were alerted, and embarked upon a frantic search for the troubled girl. Days later, Harriet, lifeless, was located close to her home. Her body was pulled from the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, in which she drowned herself in a final act of despair.
The poet, Shelley, failed to prophesy that his own end, like that of his late wife, would also come beneath the suffocating plume of a wave. At this hour, however, his mind was elsewhere. Harriet had borne him two children, Ianthe and Charles, around whom, in the premature absence of their mother, the question of guardianship now hovered. Shelley, suddenly overtaken by the force of a paternalistic instinct, sought every measure to gain custody over the children about whom, till this point, he’d been grossly incurious.
Though it was contrary to his polygamous point of view, he hastened to marry Mary. The union was solemnized two weeks after his first wife’s death, leaving him little time to replace his mourning garb for a wedding suit (there’s no indication that a single tear was shed). He then went to court, an uncongenial place for any, but especially this lawless poet. There, he argued for his right of ownership of his daughter and son, for which Harriet’s father and sister also contended.
Unsurprisingly, the latter two presented a stronger case. The poet, they said, was nothing more than an avowed atheist—did he not, after all, proclaim it his occupation at the monastery of Chamonix? Worse, they continued, he was an opponent to legal marriage, a faithless husband, and—perhaps most relevant to the case at hand—a clearly derelict father. It would be malfeasant on the part of the state to commit two fragile, motherless children to what might loosely be termed his fatherly “care”.
Shelley was unequipped to rebuke these disquieting accusations, of which, in all honesty, he knew himself to be guilty. The court sided with the Westbrook family, to whom the children were promptly given over. Shelley’s relationship with his children, henceforth, was reduced to annual payments. He was little more to them than a faceless benefactor sending checks in the mail.
Disappointed by the outcome, but shielded from the threat of mundane, parental duties, Shelley once again took Mary and Claire Clairmont to the continent. He doubtless sensed the opportunity of a new liberation. He sought, among other things, a reunion with his old buddy, George Gordon Byron, by whom Claire had been impregnated, and from whom he hoped to suck a bit more of the sweet nectar of poetic inspiration.
It was during this second trip to Europe that Shelley, not yet thirty, reached the apex of his literary career. He sat atop a summit of poetic mastery to which few other artists, given a lifetime, are ever able to climb. Shelley, however, full of ambition, genius, and vigor, mounted these towering heights at the unripe age of twenty-nine.
While in Venice, he produced a work entitled, Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation. The work, written in heroic couplets, is a dialogue held between the age’s two great poets: Julian being the stand-in for Shelley, and Count Maddalo, for Lord Byron. Of the latter, Shelley said:
“He is a person of the most consummate genius, and capable, if he would direct his energies to such an end, of becoming the redeemer of his degraded country. But it is his weakness to be proud: he derives, from a comparison of his own extraordinary mind with the dwarfish intellects that surround him, an intense apprehension of the nothingness of human life”.
Steeped in nihilism and pride, Maddalo isn’t without a few qualities by which his shocking wickedness might be redeemed. He is “Cheerful, frank, and witty...his more serious conversation is a sort of intoxication; men are held by it as by a spell. He has traveled much; and there is an inexpressible charm in his relation of his adventures in different countries”. What were Byron’s tales, if not for charming relations of adventures in different countries?
As for Julian, the interlocutor depicting Shelley himself, he is “Forever speculating how good may be made superior. He is a complete infidel, and a scoffer at all things reputed holy.”
He certainly sounds like the Shelley with whom, having now gazed upon the poet’s many blemishes and marks of beauty, we’ve come to be acquainted. Yet, in spite of his “heterodox opinions, (Julian) is conjectured by his friends to possess some good qualities”. Shelley’s self-effacement is, in this rare instance, quite disarming.
This work was followed by a much loftier title, Prometheus Unbound. A lyrical drama in four acts, Prometheus Unbound continues the story of which the great Aeschylus has left us but a fragment. Writing in Athens in the fifth century BC, Aeschylus produced his immortal Prometheia, which is the name of the trilogy devoted to that wondrously “foresightful” Titan by whom man, in his groveling, benighted state, was both lifted and illumined. Only a third of Aeschylus’ trilogy is extant, the introductory piece entitled Prometheus Bound. It tells the story of the Titan’s rift with Zeus, his defiance, his commitment to man, and the Jovian king’s merciless retribution.
Shelley picked up the tale where Aeschylus left off, but he wanted to do more than simply imitate the Athenian master. Had he merely framed his story on the Grecian tragedian’s model, he “should have done no more than have attempted to restore the lost drama of Aeschylus”. To be charged with unoriginality would be to suffer a fate worse than death, to be himself chained to an unvisited rock upon which a hungry eagle lands. And so, Shelley opted to adapt the theme, modernize it, and make it his own.
In Shelley’s conception, the tale ought to tell of the contest between Zeus, the lordly Oppressor, and Prometheus, the unjustly Oppressed. Their reconciliation, he decided, would be far from edifying, and, thus, he banished the idea of a happy ending. Endearingly, he imagined Prometheus as a Satanic figure, perhaps cut from a Miltonic cloth. “The only imaginary being resembling in any degree Prometheus”, he explained, “is Satan; and Prometheus is, in my judgment, a more poetical character than Satan, because, in addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandizement”. In a word, he’s far more magnanimous than the selfish “morning star”.
He is, in a word, a charmingly wholesome benefactor of mankind, untainted by ambition for power, and allergic to the enticements of tyranny. Never an apolitical writer, it’s likely that Shelley imagined his own or the French Bourbon king to be Zeus, and the fire-summoning poets to be the Promethean bandits.
Shelley followed this work with a few delightful odes: one to the West Wind, another to Liberty. The former ends with the following line, with which everyone living north of a certain latitude around the time of January comforts himself: “O, wind, if Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” With an assurance tinged with eloquence, Shelley makes clear that “thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow”. We impatiently await her balmy arrival, and the Aeolian embrace of a lovelier spring.
The latter, his Ode to Liberty, begins with a quote from none other than his old pal, Lord Byron. Again, as he did in the numinous journey of Queen Mab, Shelley recounts the story of civilization from its hopeful birth, to its inglorious death. First, the “Sun and the serenest Moon sprang forth”, after which “Man, the imperial shape”, emerged, like clay, out of the dust of the earth. “This human living multitude”, he laments, “was savage, cunning, blind, and rude”. It was not until the emergence of Athens and the erection of Rome that man was freed from dual shackles of ignorance and barbarity, crudeness and vice.
In the process, however, liberty was unlearned and freedom neglected. Under the constant threat of tyrants, and without the protection of allies, she fled from the day and sought the concealment of night. “A thousand years the Earth cried, “Where art thou?”, but Liberty answered not. For a millennium, she remained both unseen and silent, a distant memory upon which the enslaved peoples of the world could do little more than reflect. Perhaps she’s not ready, and the time’s not yet come, when she’ll disclose her location and appear once again. Perhaps, despite the long passage of years, she’s still hesitant to make known her voice and once again solicit the forgotten love of men.
Before touching on the works of prose by which Shelley’s brief but fertile career was capped, two final works of poetry warrant mention. They are, in order of their publication, Epipsychidion and Adonais. The former, written in the form of a couplet, is a moving contemplation on love. Shelley denied that it had anything of an autobiographical quality to it, but—given the source—we mustn’t so readily accept this claim. Shelley was, after all, little known for his chastity, and seldom imitated by those in pursuit of a purely Platonic life. Every ounce of him was amorous, and he was incapable of withholding from print his effusions of love.
On this occasion, he unleashed them on a young, Italian temptress by the name of Emilia Viviani. It must be said, though, if only to avoid besmirching her memory, that she was unintentionally a temptress. She never willfully sought to play the role of femme fatale, and never wanted to be the woman before whom married men—blinded, as they are, by faithless eyes—would prostrate themselves and, like a steamy puddle, melt.
Because of her beauty, and to preserve her virginity, she was sent to a convent in which those two enticing attributes could be, in the case of the former, better supervised, and in that of the latter, more confidently ensured. As celibate as the fresh-fallen snow, she was kept at the convent until a financially suitable partner could be located, and his bank records audited. Shelley, married and far from wealthy (a duo of demerits at which this particular maiden and her father looked askance) was not said man. That didn’t stop him, however, from making Viviani the object of his lustful musings. The subtitle of Epipsychidion attests to this fact, and it reads as follows: “Verses addressed to the noble and unfortunate lady Emilia V--”. Precluded from ever knowing her as he dreamed, the misfortune, really, seems to have been his.
In the poem, when not divinizing Viviani’s angelic beauty, Shelley takes the opportunity to advance his position on free love (of which, given the chance, he continued to be the world’s sincerest and most indefatigable promoter). It was, for him, a hobbyhorse from which he could never fully alight. Despite this preoccupation, Shelley takes the time to write a few arrestingly sensual lines, such as these:
“And we will talk, until thought’s melody become too sweet for utterance, and it die in words, to live again in looks, which dart with thrilling tone into the voiceless heart, harmonizing silence without a sound. Our breath shall intermix, our bosoms bound. And our veins beat together; and our lips with other eloquence than words, eclipse the soul that burns between them”.
Words yield to looks, looks to feelings, and feelings to an embrace by which the soul is awakened, the heartrate quickened, and the generative organs excitedly aroused. Is it all a bit too orgasmic for my taste? Do I not feel my latent libido suddenly overwhelmed by these words? Perhaps, yes, and maybe I do, but not even the most prudish among us would deny Shelley his poem’s claim to beauty—even if it failed to get him his girl.
Adonais is an elegy written on the occasion of John Keats’ death. Like that of Shelley, Keats’ passing was untimely and, for that reason, tragic. He barely lived to see the noontide of his second decade of life, that vital hour at which the sun shines brightest in the flashing heat of day. At the youthful age of twenty-five, he contracted tuberculosis, an ailment through which many people in Europe, regardless of their age, had the terrible misfortune to suffer. The disease then knew of no cure, and he succumbed to it in a matter of months. Shelley, an acquaintance and critic of Keats, if not always an intimate friend, wrote Adonais in honor of a colleague for whom he had, if not love, then a very high degree of professional respect.
A life prematurely shortened is a troubling theme—perhaps the grimmest to which an artist can give voice. Few others have the ability to articulate so much pain, or to adorn sentiments that can be so unmistakably raw. “The bloom,” said Shelley, “whose petals nipped before they blew died on the promise of the fruit, is waste; the broken lily lies—the storm is overpast”. Here, in Keats, we have a young flower—hardly grown enough to be counted a man—blighted in the very bud of life. Upon him, a hasty winter has descended; below him, an unexpected grave has opened.
Shelley, reflecting on his friend, is left to wonder, “Why didst thou leave the trodden paths of men too soon, and with weak hands, though mighty heart, dare the unpastured dragon in his den?”. To this, the universe offers no answer. He then wonders about his own fate, a similarly early demise toward which, unbeknownst to him, he was quickly heading: “Now thou art dead, as if it were a part of thee, my Adonias! I would give all that I am to be as thou now art! But I am chained to Time, and cannot thence depart!”. Shelley, at this point, hadn’t an inkling that those chains of which he spoke weren’t fastened so very tight. Within a year of Keats’ death in 1821, he’d unfetter himself of their iron grip, and join his young countryman in the cool dampness of the grave.
Before that, though, he would produce a few remarkable works of prose. He’s remembered for two pieces, especially: A Philosophical View of Reform and A Defense of Poetry.
His first major prosaic work was also his longest. A Philosophical View of Reform, written in 1820, emerged out of the political strife and economic tumult in which England was, ever since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, engulfed. The introduction with which he opened this powerful essay could be, on its own, a substantial contribution to the political thought of his age.
In it, as is his wont, Shelley withholds none of his vituperation in recounting the history of the Western world, from the dissolution of the Roman empire (“that vast and successful scheme for enslaving the most civilized portion of mankind”), to the growth of the Catholic Church, to the emergence of the Reformation (“that imperfect emancipation of mankind from the yoke of priests and Kings”), to the flowering of republicanism in Italy, and, finally, to the interminable wars in which his nation and Europe were then, as always, engaged.
Despite all the hardships with which his own country was laden, Shelley wrote a brief encomium of America from which, admittedly, I derive no small enjoyment.
America, he said, “holds forth the victorious example of an immensely populous and, as far as the external arts of life are concerned, a highly civilized community administered according to republican forms. It has no king, that is, it has no officer to whom wealth and from whom corruption flows. It has no hereditary oligarchy, that is, it acknowledges no order of men privileged to cheat and insult the rest of the members of the state, and who inherit a right of legislating and judging which the principles of human nature compel them to exercise to their own profit and to the detriment of those not included within their peculiar class. It has no established Church, that is, it has no system of opinions respecting the abstrusest questions which can be topics of human thought, founded in an age of error and fanaticism”.
As an American, and one stubbornly proud of the nation in which he was born, I can’t but be flattered by the enthusiastic homage with which Shelley found it fitting to shower my home. He extols this continental nation, this former British colony across the sea, and sees in her institutions a guarantee to freedom, and a blueprint for progress. In his idealization of my motherland, he makes clear a set of political preferences at which his previous radicalism might’ve scoffed. He states his opposition to monarchy, oligarchy, and a religion compelled by the state. He’s in favor, rather, of equality, freedom of conscience, and true representation.
Beyond this point, he goes no further. He seems to have adjusted his gaze down from the Utopias of his mind, to the real republics of the world. One can sense, in this change of perspective, a maturation in his thought, and a healthy cooling of his youthful passion. He’s happy to admit that “The United States affords an example, compared with the old governments of Europe and Asia, of a free, happy, and strong people”, who owe their superiority to none but themselves. He’s no longer looking into the clouds for inspiration, or to a wild state of nature uninhibited by law.
As is the job of all historians, and the fancy of all poets, Shelley spent a page or two comparing the American with the French Revolution. The latter, while much more idealistic, was far less successful. “The Revolution in France”, he said, “overthrew the hierarchy, the aristocracy, and the monarchy, and the whole of that peculiarly insolent and oppressive system on which they were based”. Undoubtedly, this is something about which to be cheerful, and Shelley applauded the Jacobins for the purity of their ideals, and energy of their efforts. Unfortunately, it only “partially extinguished those passions”, and a reaction took place, by which the old system of oppression was quickly restored. No sooner had the Bastille fallen than the usurpation of Bonaparte, and the restoration of the Bourbons, occurred. In the wake of these two events, “the heart of every lover of liberty was struck as with palsy”.
That’s but a condensed account of the introduction. In the body of the essay itself, Shelley boldly declares that, “A Reform in England is most just and necessary”, before asking the predictable and difficult question, “What ought to be that reform?” Unsurprisingly, he has many ideas. Yet, “Before we aspire after theoretical perfection in the amelioration of our political state”, a few practical goals should first be listed. Among them, Shelley wants to abolish the national debt; disband the standing army; abolish sinecures; abolish tithes; and to make “all religions, all forms of opinion respecting the origin and government of the Universe, equal in the eye of the law”. It’s possible that these aims were colored by his own self-interest; Shelley was, after all, a debtor, a pacifist, and an atheist. All such people would rest easy in the world of his creation.
A liberal, in the classical sense, will see nothing unexceptionable, certainly nothing radical, in the contents of his enlightened agenda. Shelley proceeds to use them, however, as a springboard from which to launch other, slightly less conservative ideas. Among them, he numbers universal suffrage, the retirement of all soldiers from the military, the removal of ballots for voting, and—most frightening of all—the complete equality of possessions and goods. He advocated for socialism, in other words, which “must be the last result of the utmost refinements of civilization; it is one of the conditions of that system of society towards which, with whatever hope of ultimate success, it is our duty to tend”.
Shelley was forever concerned with disparities of wealth, and with the insalubrious effects of pure blood and class privilege. In anticipation of Karl Marx, of whom he was a near contemporary, he viewed society dichotomously: there was, on the one side, the aristocratic oppressors, and the on the other, the proletarian oppressed. He felt as though the latter was exploited by the former, to whom, in its state of wretchedness and toil, it was inescapably enslaved. The capitalist stripped the laborer of his rightful product, ensured his immiseration, and—most inhumanely—diminished his value as a fellow, living, breathing man.
Changing tunes slightly, the last work for which Shelley is famous is A Defence of Poetry. It’s a beautiful, though not completely original work. It immediately elicits a memory of Sir Philip Sidney’s similarly-named piece, The Defense of Poesy, written in 1580. Sidney’s, much like Shelley’s, is an apology in the most elevated sense. “Only the poet”, says Sidney, “disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow, in effect, into another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demi-gods, cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like”. In a word, he not only captures, but embellishes nature, in the same way Sidney, in describing him, beautifies the English language.
Perhaps with Plato in mind, Sidney then places the poet alongside the philosopher: “I say the philosopher teacheth, but he teacheth obscurely, so as the learned only can understand him; that is to say, he teacheth them that are already taught. But the poet is the food for the tenderest stomachs; the poet is indeed the right popular philosopher”. His fare is universally palatable, and thus, always nourishing. None is rejected from his table, and there’s not a single person, irrespective of his learning, to whom this bountiful, tasteful poet can’t speak.
Like Sidney, Shelley speaks to the antiquity of the poetic form, which he calls “connate with the origin of man”. “In the infancy of society”, says Shelley, “every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry”. One imagines, in some atavistic age, far removed from that in which we’re presently set, hearing an author’s crude, inarticulate mutterings, pouring out of a bearded face, by which an unclad, fireside audience is completely enraptured. It was this, a nearly unintelligible attempt to depict nature, that gave poetry its start.
Sidney agrees. Poetry, he says, “Is of all human learnings the most ancient and of most fatherly antiquity, as from whence other learnings have taken their beginnings; since it is so universal that no learned nation doth despise it, nor barbarous nation is without it”.
But man, in Shelley’s opinion, is a less active participant in the crafting of poetry than he might seem. He is an “instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it, by their motion, to ever-changing melody”. He prefaces this by assuring us of the Imagination’s priority over Reason: “Reason is to Imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance”. It appears to be the case, then, that poetry is less a voluntary act, than it is an unexpected afflatus. The poet is, in Shelley’s opinion, not quite the genuine creator fully responsible for his work. No—he’s rather an open vessel through which a generous muse’s inspiration flows.
Unlike Sidney, Shelley sees no close approximation between poets and philosophers. Instead, he thinks them more intimately related to legislators—the crafters of laws by whom nations are ordered. Poets, he says, “Are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance and architecture and statuary and painting; they are the institutors of laws and the founders of civil society”. He pockets this charming, if somewhat ahistorical sentiment, only to re-introduce it at essay’s end. The final line of the piece is one of the most quotable in literature, and I’ll certainly not deny myself the pleasure of restating it here: “Poets”, he declares, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the World”. Shelley, himself a poet, isn’t the least reluctant to acknowledge their worth, and make it more widely known to a public that had become somewhat doubtful of his, and his fellows’ questionable virtue.
Memorable though this line has become, it isn’t wholly original. The great Samuel Johnson, to whom not only Shelley, but every English speaker from the eighteenth century onward owes an immense debt, wrote something similar in his History of Rasselas. At the outset of his famous bildungsroman (written, in part, to fund the funeral costs of Johnson’s deceased mother), the title character’s teacher, Imlac, strays into a dissertation on poetry. Before departing the comfort of the Happy Valley and seeking, in distant climes, novelties to be found abroad, Imlac informs the princely Rasselas that “The poet must write as the interpreter of nature, and the legislator of mankind”. Continuing, he says that the poet must, “Consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations, as being superior to time and place”. Shelley appears to have borrowed the idea.
As to being superior to time, no mortal, so long as he’s encased in flesh, has yet proven himself capable of so transcendent a feat. And time, for Shelley, was running terribly short. With his pregnant wife, he opted to take a holiday in the Italian town of Lerici, a tranquil, verdant hamlet located in the country’s northwest corner. There, the couple leased a small apartment called, Casa Magni, whose name deceived a tenant into thinking it large. In reality, it was a dilapidated little boat house in which only those desirous of obscurity, and disdainful of luxury, might find comfort. On three sides, it was flanked by dense forest, and its backyard was the raging sea.
Shelley, joined by friend Edward Williams, passed his days sailing on the Gulf of La Spezia. Though Williams had spent some time in the Navy, his seafaring skills had long since waned. Still, the pair enjoyed its daily forays into the swirling waters, through which it would launch its humble schooner, Don Juan with reckless abandon and boyish glee. Shelley, kissed by the lips of an aquatic breeze, and caressed by a misty salinity unknown to men on land, was never happier. He relished the chance to be afloat on the waves, and away from a world on which troubles were mounting. He began writing his final poem, The Triumph of Life which remains, owing to circumstances, incomplete. The title of the work may have been perversely prophetic: Shelley’s life was soon to end, without the compensatory glory of any discernable triumph.
Shelley and Williams jumped on their boat and set sail for nearby Livorno (or, in English, Leghorn) at which Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt, and Edward Trelawny just so happened to be vacationing. The group was planning to launch a new journal called, fittingly, The Liberal, to which each, when unoccupied by his other meditations and ventures, was planning to contribute. The Don Juan, as though seeking its namesake,found the port of Livorno safely, and a collegial meeting was held.
The group passed a week together, during which it ironed out the details of its journalistic undertaking. On July 8, the hour of departure was neigh, but the weather was forbidding. The sky had begun to darken, and the clouds were shaded by an inclement hue. Williams, overwhelmed by a desire to return home at once, suggested they sail despite Mother Nature’s warning. A more experienced captain, by whom a ship called the Bolivar was commanded, came close to their vessel and recommended they heed Her message, and immediately disembark. He, with all his nautical wisdom, advised at least a night’s delay. Williams disagreed, and Shelley, with all alacrity, jumped at the chance and fixed himself to the boat.
Later that evening, about an hour before dusk, the storm that had been predicted, the gales about which the shrewd captain had warned, finally arrived. Every boat by which, but minutes ago, the dazzling Gulf of La Spezia was dotted, suddenly sought the protection of their harbors. As well they should, all the ports in the town, only recently emptied, were again populated by ships unwilling to risk their crews and their lives. The only schooner remaining, trucking blindly through the growing wind and rain, was the ill-fated Don Juan, whose modified rigging and unstable structure made it a most unsuitable craft for these hostile conditions.
Alas, as feared, it was overpowered by the elements. Within hours, it was battered by the winds, and swallowed by the waves. It was consumed, full-stop, by the storm-whipped sea, the hungry tide into which it had unwisely plunged, and, more importantly, out of which it never had the chance of emerging unscathed.
Unaware of what happened and, thus, anxiously awaiting word from her husband at home, Mary inquired about Shelley’s wellbeing. No one to whom she spoke could offer a confident answer; the sea is so often reticent to talk of such things. The tides let spill from their lips no gossip, and the poor authoress, unable to translate their silent meaning, sat in her room sleepless and alarmed. She and Jane Williams, the retired midshipman’s young wife, decided to take matters into their own hands. They visited Lord Byron at his home in Livorno, to which, with all caution, they journeyed on land. They hoped that he, Shelley’s dearest friend, might be able to update her on his whereabouts.
Sadly, Lord Byron knew nothing of his younger friend’s fate. As it turns out, he was just as uninformed and distraught as was Mary. The mystery provoked in him a disquiet to which he was utterly helpless, and he yielded to the anxiety by which all were now subsumed. Hopeful of finding his friend, he commissioned Captain Roberts to take his boat, the Bolivar, to scan the waters between Livorno and Lerici. Assuming it sunk, these were the waters in which the Don Juan must’ve been lost. After a few days, however, the search proved fruitless. It wouldn’t be until July 18, ten days after their disappearance, that news of Shelley’s and Williams’ fate would reach the ears of their incredulous friends, and their widowed wives.
Their corpses, bloated, warped, yet somehow recognizable, were found on the shore of nearby Viareggio—a coastal town just 30 miles south of Lerici. The Tuscan natives, probably accustomed to tourists dying at sea, and, worse, gracing their beaches with posthumous visitations, lost no time in burying the mangled bodies. They knew not the celebrated names of the men with whom they now had the occasion to feed the earth; they knew only their fetid stench. It was inscribed in their legal code that no body, once interred, would be permitted exhumation. Upon her arrival in the town, however, Mary pleaded with the public officials and religious elders to grant an exception to this reasonable law. The two sides negotiated, and an agreement was struck. The Tuscans, contrary to tradition, would allow Shelley’s disinterment, on the sole condition that he promptly be burned.
And so, the pyre was set. Shelley’s corpse, not yet dry, was removed from the soil in which it had been placed. The pockets of his jacket were searched and, in them, two indissoluble volumes were found: one by Sophocles, the other by Keats. As if dictated by the cosmos, Shelley was now joining his beloved Adonais to an early Italian grave. Mary, as was the custom at the time, excused herself from the morbid proceeding. It was the norm for English women to absent themselves from their husband’s burning, a practice refreshingly contrary to that of which Indian women partook. Byron, for his part, found the whole scene intolerable; he couldn’t bear to watch his young friend burn. Unable to stifle his sadness, he ran out toward the water, leapt into the waves, and swam till his body ached with exhaustion.
The flames, in their effort to consume Shelley’s corpse, were forced to pace themselves; after a week in the sea, and days in the damp earth, his swollen flesh was logged with so much water, that they were nearly made to relent. After three long hours, however, the poet was almost entirely ashes—with the exception of his singed, yet somehow extant heart. Fittingly, it refused to melt before the heat of the inextinguishable flame. Trelawny, heedless of the fire by which the rest of his dear friend was slowly turned to ash, reached into the pyre and grabbed the vital organ. Charred but intact, it was handed over to Mary, with whom it stayed until the day of her death.
The rest of Shelley, now little more than a weightless pile of dust, was placed in a casket bound for Rome. There, in search of eternal repose, it was brought to a Protestant cemetery, a small, gently-shaded plot of land in which his infant son, William, was already buried. Thus, as none might’ve predicted, the world’s most ardent atheist was interred in the holiest soil. It’s unclear, still to this day, which side of the arrangement—the heretic or the Catholic—was the more offended by this uncomfortable union. Years later, when—at long last—his motherland forgot his crimes and took note of his brilliance, a modest cenotaph was built for him in Westminster Abbey. There, adjoined to Keats, and not far from friend Byron, the immortal name of Percy Bysshe Shelley (with oh-so unique a middle name!) can be found.