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The life and works of Percy Bysshe Shelley exemplify Romanticism in both its extremes of joyous ecstasy and brooding despair. The major themes are there in Shelley’s dramatic if short life and in his works, enigmatic, inspiring, and lasting: the restlessness and brooding, the rebellion against authority, the interchange with nature, the power of the visionary imagination and of poetry, the pursuit of ideal love, and the untamed spirit ever in search of freedom—all of these Shelley exemplified in the way he lived his life and live on in the substantial body of work that he left the world after his legendary death by drowning at age twenty-nine. While Shelley shares many basic themes and symbols with his great contemporaries, he has left his peculiar stamp on Romanticism: the creation of powerful symbols in his visionary pursuit of the ideal, at the same time tempered by a deep skepticism. His thought is characterized by an insistence on taking the controversial side of issues, even at the risk of being unpopular and ridiculed. From the very beginning of his career as a published writer at the precocious age of seventeen, throughout his life, and even to the present day the very name of Shelley has evoked either the strongest vehemence or the warmest praise, bordering on worship. More than any other English Romantic writer, with the possible exception of his friend George Gordon, Lord Byron, Shelley’s life and reputation have had a history and life of their own apart from the reputation of his various works.
Born on 4 August 1792—the year of the Terror in France—Percy Bysshe Shelley (the “Bysshe” from his grandfather, a peer of the realm) was the son of Timothy and Elizabeth Shelley. As the elder son among one brother, John, and four sisters, Elizabeth, Mary, Margaret, and Hellen, Percy stood in line not only to inherit his grandfather’s considerable estate but also to sit in Parliament one day. In his position as oldest male child, young Percy was beloved and admired by his sisters, his parents, and even the servants in his early reign as young lord of Field Place, the family home near Horsham, Sussex. Playful and imaginative, he devised games to play with his sisters and told ghost stories to an enrapt and willing-to-be-thrilled audience.
However, the idyllic and receptive world of Field Place did not prepare him for the regimented discipline and the taunting boys of Syon House Academy, which Shelley entered in 1802. Here Shelley was subjected to the usual bullying, made all the worse by his failure to control his temper and his poor skills in fighting. The most positive memories Shelley had of his two years at Syon House were undoubtedly of the imaginative and lively lectures of Adam Walker on science-electricity, astronomy, and chemistry-an interest which Shelley retained throughout his life. In Shelley’s free-ranging mind there was no contradiction between an interest in science and an appetite for trashy Gothic romance thrillers, such as Matthew Gregory Lewis’s popular The Monk (1795).
Shelley’s six years at Eton College, which he entered at age twelve in 1804, are more notable for his early love interests and for his early literary endeavors than for what he learned in the formal curriculum. Shelley often found himself the victim of bullying and fragging, as well as being taunted with epithets such as “Mad Shelley” and “Shelley the atheist,” a situation alleviated sometimes by the intervention of his older cousin, Tom Medwin, who was later to become one of Shelley’s first biographers. The strongest adult influence on Shelley during this time was not one of his masters but Dr. James Lind, the physician to the royal household at nearby Windsor, whom Shelley admired for his knowledge and free spirits and idealized as a kind of substitute father figure. As Newman Ivey White notes, Dr. Lind was the prototype of the benevolent old man who frees Laon from prison in The Revolt of Islam. Shelley’s access to Dr. Lind’s extensive library enabled him to pursue his earlier interests in science and magic as well as to begin a wide range of reading in philosophy and literature. By the end of his career at Eton he was reading widely in Plato, Pliny, and Lucretius, reading Robert Southey enthusiastically and Walter Scott less so, as well as continuing to read many Gothic romances.
While at Eton Shelley began two pursuits that would continue with intense fervor throughout his life: writing and loving, the two often blending together so that the loving becomes the subject matter for the writing. Although Shelley began writing poems while at Eton, some of which were published in 1810 in Original Poetry; by Victor and Cazire and some of which were not published until the 1960s as The Esdaile Notebook, it was perhaps inevitable that his first publication should have been a Gothic novel, Zastrozzi (1810). As is typical of popular Gothic romances at the time, the innocent and virtuous hero and heroine, Verezzi and Julia, and the villains, Matilda and Zastrozzi, are broadly drawn. It is noteworthy that Shelley put his heretical and atheistical opinions into the mouth of the villain Zastrozzi, thereby airing those dangerous opinions without having them ascribed to him as the author or narrator. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Zastrozzi, aside from what it may suggest about Shelley’s psychological makeup at the time, is the fact that it was reviewed twice, one a suspiciously favorable review and the other a predictably vehement attack, the first but not the last to associate the author’s name with “immorality.”
Shelley’s other publication prior to entering Oxford, Original Poetry; by Victor and Cazire—a joint effort by Shelley and his sister Elizabeth—deservedly met the same fate with the critics as Zastrozzi, one reviewer having described the volume as “songs of sentimental nonsense, and very absurd tales of horror.” These early reviews, however justified they may have been concerning his juvenilia, set the tone for his treatment by the critics throughout his career, even for many of his greatest works. Certainly the doggerel verse does not foreshadow Shelley’s mastery of the lyric, but the subject matter of the poems is not only romantic but characteristically Shelleyan: poetry, love, sorrow, hope, nature, and politics. Shelley’s love interest in these poems was his cousin Harriet Grove, but their relationship was discouraged by their families.
When Shelley went up to University College, Oxford, in 1810 he was already a published and reviewed writer and a voracious reader with intellectual interests far beyond the rather narrow scope of the prescribed curriculum. Timothy Shelley, proud of his son and wanting to indulge his apparently harmless interests in literature, could not have foreseen where it might lead when he took Shelley to the booksellers Slatter and Munday and instructed them as follows: “My son here has a literary turn; he is already an author, and do pray indulge him in his printing freaks.”
Shortly after entering Oxford Shelley met another freshman, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, a meeting that was to change both their lives forever after, perhaps Hogg’s even more than Shelley’s. The two young men immediately became fast friends, each stimulating the imagination and intellect of the other in their animated discussions of philosophy, literature, science, magic, religion, and politics. In his biography of Shelley, Hogg recalled the time they spent in Shelley’s rooms, reading, discussing, arguing, and Shelley performing scientific experiments.
During his brief stay at Oxford (less than a year), Shelley undertook three publishing ventures, the first two comparatively harmless attempts at Gothic fiction and poetry, the third a prose pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism (1811), which was to have such a disastrous effect on his relationship with his family and such a dramatic effect on his life. Already having written most of his second Gothic romance, St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian, before he entered Oxford, Shelley published it with Stockdale, whom he assured it would sell well to the circulating libraries, in 1811 under the epithet “a Gentleman of the University of Oxford.” St. Irvyne is notable for the appearance of a prototypical Shelleyan poet figure, but its two plots are hopelessly complicated and confusing, and, in the opinion of many commentators, unfinished. It appears that in the early excitement of college life and other interests, Shelley lost interest in following through on what was to have been a full-blown three-decker romance.
Shelley and Hogg’s joint collection of poems, Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson (1810, the title character taken from “that noted female who attempted the life of the King [George III] in 1786”), was purported to have been found and edited by “John Fitzvictor,” the two authors wisely having decided to place neither of their names on the title page in that age when both author and publisher could easily end up in prison on convictions of treason and sedition. The slender volume includes a mixed bag of poems, including Gothic and melancholy lyrics as well as an antiwar, antimonarchical poem simply titled “War,” notable for being the first appearance of Shelley’s lifelong attack on monarchies and all authority figures.