Percy Bysshe Shelley - A Romantic Rebel
Percy Bysshe Shelley's short and dramatic life stands as a symbol of the revolutionary ideas and strong emotions of the Romantic period.
Jan-Louis Nagel (CC BY-SA) Last updated 06/01/2018
The Romantic era was not only idyllic pastorals and longing for the simple and natural; it was also a time of revolution and protest. The "old ways" of society were challenged by a generation of angry young men and women. In pamphlets and articles they attacked the established values and institutions. The Church, Christianity, the educational system, the legal system, and not least the aristocracy and Royalty were all the targets of a harsh and defiant criticism from these radical writers.
Shelley seems to have been rebellious by nature. He was a highly intelligent boy and was interested in science and literature; he was particularly fascinated by the Gothic tradition which was popular at the time. But his school career was to be a line of disciplinary reproaches from day one at Sion House Academy in Sussex until he was expelled from Oxford in his freshman year for "contumaciously refusing to answer questions." At Eton, he had picked up on radical literature and was reading the works of philosophers like Hume and Voltaire. He also developed a skepticism towards Christianity, and at Oxford he wrote and published a pamphlet called "The Necessity of Atheism," which was a contributory factor for his expulsion from Oxford.
Love and Morality
In London, Shelley met Harriet Westbrook, who probably was his inferior intellectually — but she was madly in love with him. Shelley was flattered and entered a relationship with Harriet, possibly as some sort of a fling. But as she was disgraced by her parents for being associated with an atheist and a rebel, he was provoked into marrying her. He was nineteen and she sixteen; and entering a marriage on such premises would, not surprisingly, prove to be a mistake. The young couple travelled in Scotland and in Ireland, where Shelley wrote and gave speeches to encourage the work for political reforms. He and Harriet had two children together, but their marriage was withering, and when he, in 1814, met 17-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Goodwin, he was lost; their mutual attraction was electric. They eloped to Switzerland for the summer, and when they came back, Harriet drowned herself in Hyde Park in London. A few years previously, Shelley had published his first important poem, "The Queen Mab," expressing his socialist criticism of society and his denunciation of Christianity. This, in combination with his somewhat infamous conduct of life, was the reason why his appeal for custody of his children was turned down by the authorities; he was seen as "morally unfit," they proclaimed in the verdict.
Percy and Mary moved to Italy in 1818, both because of his bad health and because he felt exiled by the verdict. In Italy they socialised with other English expatriates, like Lord Byron and Edward Trelawny. During his stay in Italy, his writing became richer and more poignant due to influential friends and circumstances that moved him emotionally, for example the death of his little daughter Clara. Percy and Mary had a son when they lived in Florence, which brought some happiness into their lives. Still, Shelley was often depressed and felt anger and pity for "the ways of mankind and the wrongs of the world." But all this inspired his writing. One of his best love poems, "Emilia," was inspired by a beautiful Italian woman (with whom Shelley probably was in love) who was locked up in a convent because she refused to marry the old nobleman her parents had promised her to. The death of his friend, John Keats, in 1821, also moved Shelley to produce some of the finest poetry in English literature. Mary was also active writing, and her famous Frankenstein was written during their stay in Italy.
The Death of a Poet
Shelley died in 1822, 30 years old, and the circumstances around his death and cremation were truly befitting a romantic rebel. After a meeting with colleagues in connection with the launching of a new periodical, The Liberal, Shelley and a friend were sailing homewards along the Italian coast. A violent storm broke, and they capsized and drowned; their bodies were found washed up on the shore two weeks later. Italian law required cremation, so the friends who had gathered (Lord Byron was one of them) decided to burn the bodies on the beach. As the flames picked up, and Shelley's body slowly decomposed, Edward Trelawny stepped out and snatched his heart out of the flames, and presented it to Mary; a strong symbolic act resembling the dramatic scene in Frankenstein, where the monster rips the heart out of Elizabeth's bosom. Another mystic element of Shelley's death was his own forewarning of the way he died; in one of his latest works, "Adonais," which was "a vindication of all poets and their immortality," there are several passages that give a detailed description of death by drowning.
There are many examples of how poets and writers live their literature, or become what they write. Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of them; his short life and dramatic death certainly became a true analogy of the rebellious and ardent ideas that characterized the romantic era.
- Follow the link and read the two poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley—"Song to the Men of England" and "England in 1819"—and see how these lines express Shelley's political views. List some key issues that Shelley addresses in these poems. Two Critical Poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- Shelley's radicalism and rebellious nature may not seem so outrageous from today's viewpoint. But in the early 19th century, things were different. What do society's reactions to Shelley's protests tell us about the virtues and values of pre-Victorian England?
- There is an ongoing literary debate as to what extent the writer's socio-cultural and personal background is important for the understanding of his work. Discuss how this issue is particularly intriguing regarding a writer like Shelley. If you want more information about this issue you may follow this link: Literature in Theory
- Can you come up with other examples of writers who "lived their literature"?
- Some say that all artists are self-centred narcissists wrapped up in themselves. In what respect can that be true about Shelley? Does his life also indicate that he had empathy and a social conscience?
Percy Bysshe Shelley had a rich production of poetry that includes some of the finest poems in English literature.
Jan-Louis Nagel (CC BY-SA) Last updated 06/01/2018
Although Shelley had a rebellious nature and, by the standards of his time, a scandalous lifestyle, he was a burning idealist who wanted to stand up for injustice and what he saw as political misrule. Of his radical writing, these two poems stand out as his most poignant.
Song to the Men of England
Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?
Wherefore feed, and clothe, and save,
From the cradle to the grave,
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat – nay, drink your blood?
Wherefore, bees of England, forge
Many weapon, chain and scourge,
That these stingless drones may spoil
The forced produce of your toil?
Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,
Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?
Or what is ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?
The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robes ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears.
Sow seed, - but let no tyrant reap;
Find wealth, - but let no imposter heap;
Weave robes, - let no idle wear;
Forge arms, - in your defence to bear.
Shrink to your cellars, holes and cells;
In halls ye deck, another dwells.
Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see
The steel ye tempered glance on ye.
With plough and spade, and hoe and loom,
Trace your grave, and build your tomb,
And weave your winding-sheet, till fair
England be your sepulchre.
England in 1819
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king, -
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public storm – mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers, who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow;
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field, -
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield -
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay, -
Religion Christless, Godless – a book sealed;
A Senate, - Time's worst statue unrepealed, -
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illuminate our tempestuous day.
A Closer Look at the Poems
1. Song to the Men of England
- Give some examples of the strong visual imagery in the poem.
- It is fairly clear where Shelley's sympathy lies; what metaphors does he use about the ruling class and the exploited workers?
- What is Shelley's dismal conclusion?
2. England in 1819
- Point out a line or two that you think sum up Shelley's message in this poem.
- Which metaphors does Shelley use to describe the Church, the Parliament, the Army, England?
- Comment on the two last lines of the poem.
- Shelley was a radical poet who criticised his home country from his exile in Italy. Search the net for information about what may lie behind Shelley's harsh criticism of England. Key words: Industrial Revolution, poverty, working class, political situation (why 1819?), expanding British Empire. Make a presentation based on your research and the two poems.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley was a rebel and led a dramatic and short life. He was married to Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and he died in 1822 only thirty years old. Follow the link below and read about Shelley's dramatic life and how he died "the death of a poet."
Percy Bysshe Shelley - A Romantic Rebel (right click to open in new tab)