Shelley, Percy Bysshe

Shelley, Percy Bysshe

biographical name


Percy Bysshe Shelley, oil painting by Amelia Curran, 1819; in the National Portrait Gallery, London—Courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery, London

(born Aug. 4, 1792, Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex, Eng.—died July 8, 1822, at sea off Livorno, Tuscany) English Romantic poet. The heir to rich estates, Shelley was a rebellious youth who was expelled from Oxford in 1811 for refusing to admit authorship of The Necessity of Atheism. Later that year he eloped with Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a tavern owner. He gradually channeled his passionate pursuit of personal love and social justice into poetry. His first major poem, Queen Mab (1813), is a utopian political epic revealing his progressive social ideals. In 1814 he eloped to France with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (see Mary Shelley); in 1816, after Harriet drowned herself, they were married. In 1818 the Shelleys moved to Italy. Away from British politics, he became less intent on social reform and more devoted to expressing his ideals in poetry. He composed the verse tragedy The Cenci (1819) and his masterpiece, the lyric drama Prometheus Unbound (1820), which was published with some of his finest shorter poems, including “Ode to the West Wind” and “To a Skylark.” Epipsychidion (1821) is a Dantean fable about the relationship of sexual desire to spiritual love and artistic creation. Adonais (1821) commemorates the death of John Keats. Shelley drowned at age 29 while sailing in a storm off the Italian coast, leaving unfinished his last and possibly greatest visionary poem, The Triumph of Life.

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