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Percy Bysshe Shelley

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English Literature

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is one of the most prominent Romantic poets, alongside Lord Byron. He is best remembered for his poetry and complicated love life, yet his controversial ideas were ahead of his time. He promoted free thought, free love and human rights. Shelley died tragically young but his work continues to resonate today. Let’s see what kind of life he lived.

Percy Bysshe Shelley: biography

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born into a political family in Sussex. His father planned a career in Parliament (politics) for his son. However, Shelley had other ideas – he was by all accounts a bright, mischievous and imaginative child, and showed an early inclination to write. After a rebellious, unhappy childhood, Shelley got expelled from Oxford for writing and distributing a pamphlet called ‘The Necessity for Atheism’, quarrelled with his father and eloped with Harriet Westbrook.

Harriet was the daughter of a successful tavern owner. They had two children but the marriage was not a happy one. Harriet’s older sister Eliza was living with them, and it seems her presence did not help the situation. The marriage was growing increasingly troubled. Eventually, Shelley came into contact with William Godwin, whom he helped financially, and became a regular visitor to the Godwin household.

Through William Godwin, Shelley met his and Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter – Mary Godwin. While William Godwin was a progressive man, he was more than a little put out when Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin ran away together to Europe, along with Mary’s step-sister (Jane) Claire Clairemont. As he complained to a friend at the time:

I had the utmost confidence in him; I knew him susceptible of the noblest sentiments; he was a married man, who had lived happily with a wife for three years. … On Sunday, June 26, he accompanied Mary, and her sister Jane Clairmont, to the tomb of Mary’s mother..and there it seems the impious idea first occurred to him of seducing her, playing the traitor to me, and deserting his wife.

(William Godwin, Letter to John Taylor, Aug 27, 1814)

Mrs Godwin (Mary’s stepmother) followed the trio as far as Calais and was unsuccessful in her attempt to persuade Mary to return home.

Shelley’s early attempts at poetry proved unsuccessful. He had made himself unpopular with his pamphlets on atheism, free-living, and human rights. He was attempting to break both political and social conventions in a period when Europe was experiencing revolutions and wars.

After Shelley’s grandfather died, financial circumstances improved sufficiently for the Shelleys, and they settled in London for a while. Shelley produced 'Alastor, or Spirit of Solitude' (1816) here, and in the summer of the same year, he and Mary Shelley joined Lord Byron in Switzerland. While staying at Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein (published in 1818) and P. B. Shelley produced two poems:

  • 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty'
  • 'Mont Blanc'

Percy Bysshe Shelley: poems

‘Alastor’ (1816)

‘Alastor’ is a poem about a poet’s journey. At first, the poet is detached from the people around him, but then becomes increasingly restless after a dream. He continues his journey by following a river until he reaches the edge of a mountain and dies alone in a quiet spot.

Shelley explains the poem in a preface. It is meant to warn of the dangers of shutting out love, including love of the individual and love of humanity. He refers to two groups of people:

  • the self-seeking, unimaginative ‘torpid’ ones who shut their minds to love and therefore die spiritually
  • the intellectuals who, although capable of love, shut themselves away from it

Note: 'Alastor' is presented as a poem about the human mind, but might also be partly based on Shelley's own life:

When early youth had past, he leftHis cold fireside and alienated homeTo seek strange truths in undiscovered lands.

(P.B.Shelley, ‘Alastor’, 1816)

The alienated home could refer to his separation from Harriet. His elopement with Mary is set also abroad – in ‘undiscovered lands’.

'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty' (1816)

'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty' contains a reference to a moment in Shelley’s early years when he decides to devote himself to humanity and deliver it from the ‘dark slavery’ of superstition:

Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;

I shriek'd, and clasp'd my hands in ecstasy!

I vow'd that I would dedicate my powers

To thee and thine: have I not kept the vow?

With beating heart and streaming eyes,

even now I call the phantoms of a thousand hours

Each from his voiceless grave:

they have in vision'd bowers

Of studious zeal or love's delight

Outwatch'd with me the envious night:

They know that never joy illum'd my brow

Unlink'd with hope that thou wouldst free

This world from its dark slavery,

(Shelley, excerpt from 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty', 1818)

It seems this moment of decision came after he read William Godwin’s ‘Political Justice’. As Shelley wrote to Godwin:

...it opened to my mind fresh and more extensive views, it materially influenced my character, and I rose from its perusal a wiser and better man.

(Shelley, letter to W. Godwin, Jan 1812)

'Mont Blanc' (1816)

'Mont Blanc' was inspired by a trip to the mountain Shelley took in the summer of 1816. It is one of the most difficult of Shelley’s poems to understand and has been interpreted in many different ways. It is a philosophical poem containing many descriptions of the natural surrounding which clearly made a deep impression on the poet, as he describes it to his friend, Thomas Love Peacock:

Pinnacles of snow, intolerably bright, part of the chain connected with Mont Blanc shone thro the clouds at intervals on high. I never knew I never imagined what mountains were before. The immensity of these aerial summits excited, when they suddenly burst upon the sight, a sentiment of ecstatic wonder, not unallied to madness. And remember this was all one scene. It all pressed home to our regard and our imagination.

(Shelley, Letter to T.L.Peacock, 1816)

The detailed descriptions in the poem act as a distraction from the atheistic message it contains. It opens with the philosophical aspect:

The everlasting universe of things

Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,

Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—

Now lending splendour, where from secret springs

The source of human thought its tribute brings

Of waters—with a sound but half its own,

Such as a feeble brook will oft assume,...

(Shelley. extract from 'Mont Blanc', 1816)

The second part opens with:

Thus thou, Ravine of Arve—dark, deep Ravine—’ and goes on to describe the poet’s response to the ravine. The structure suggests that both parts are meant to be read side by side.

Here’s what Cameron has to say about its interpretation:

In the first section some critics consider the ‘human mind’ to be the basic entity, others, ‘the universe of things’. According to the first group, Shelley is maintaining that the universe is a passive ‘flow’ and the significant element in the mind-matter relationship is added by the mind. The universe is like a ‘feeble brook’ which increases its sound by echoing and blending with the sound of a vast river and other natural objects. According to the second group the human mind is the ‘feeble brook’ and the surrounding scene which it echoes is the universe.

(K.N.Cameron, Shelley:The Golden Years, 1974)

‘Ozymandias’ 1818

In 1818, two important works were published: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Shelley's poem 'Ozymandias’:

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. . . .

Ozymandias is the Ancient Greek name for Ramses II

The Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni was bringing ancient relics from Egypt to the British Museum. All of London was abuzz with talk of their imminent arrival from the Land of the Pharaohs (it actually took Belzoni over a year to transport them). Among the finds was a statue of Rameses II. A fresh interest in Ancient Egypt and its civilisation was growing, and Shelley was no exception.

Towards the end of 1817, the wonder and speculation...prompted a friendly contest between two poets on the theme of Ozymandias.'

(Stanley Mayes, The Great Belzoni, 1961)

Shelley was fascinated by the idea of this colossal statue of Rameses discovered in the sands of Egypt and wrote the poem as part of a competition with Horace Smith. 'Ozymandias' is brief, compact and rich with imagery of an ancient power whose former supremacy still imposes despite the passing of time:

And on the pedestal, these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

(Shelley, extracts from 'Ozymandias', 1818)

'Ode to the West Wind' (1819)

Shelley wrote 'Ode to the West Wind' during a period of intense personal loss. His daughter Clara had died followed by his son William earlier the same year, and Mary Shelley was suffering from depression as a result. The Ode is partly a reflection on this, but it also has social and historical references including one to the end of the French Revolution, which he believes must be followed by a new order:

The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,

Each like a corpse within its grave, until

Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

The poet believes his works will help inspire this new world order with the lines:

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe

Like wither'd leaves to quicken a new birth!

And he closes with a message of hope that the new order will be soon:

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind, If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

(Shelley, 'Ode to the West Wind,' 1819)

‘Adonais’, 1821

I weep for Adonais—he is dead!

Oh, weep for Adonais! though our tears

Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!

In 1821, Keats died in Rome and Shelley composed 'Adonais' in his memory. Adonais is one of his more complex poems. It is an elegy on the death of Keats and refers to the myth of Adonais (or Adonis), killed by a wild boar, and mourned by Urania (Venus). It is also about John Keats, and is an attack on the critic who harshly criticised Keats’ poems shortly before his death. Finally it is also about Shelley, and his shared experience of persecution. Its closing verse contains allusions to ships (‘bark’) and sailing ‘darkly, fearfully, afar’ eerily mirrors Shelley’s own death by drowning the following year:

The breath whose might I have invok'd in song

Descends on me; my spirit's bark is driven,

Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng

Whose sails were never to the tempest given;

The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!

I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;

Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,

The soul of Adonais, like a star,

Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.

(Shelley, extract from 'Adonais', 1821)

Percy Bysshe Shelley's death

1n 1822, inspired by news of the Greek War of Independence against the Turkish empire, Shelley completed a verse play called 'Hellas'. There was support for the Greek War across Europe and America. The Romantics, including Lord Byron and Shelley were staunch supporters and Shelley wrote 'Hellas' as a rallying cry for England to publicly support Greece in its struggle for independence.

In April, the Shelleys moved from Pisa to Lerici, and in August, after a fateful visit to Byron at Livorno, Shelley drowned after his yacht went down in a summer storm. Shelley’s body drifted ashore ten days later and he was cremated on the shore of Viareggio. So ended the tumultuous life of P. B. Shelley, whose radical intellect and fierce sense of justice made him one of the great Romantic intellects who broke with convention in the hope of forging a new and better world.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Painting of the death of Shelley by Edouard Fournier, StudySmarterThe Funeral of Shelley (1889)Louis Édouard Fournier, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Spooky Fact

His last letter to his friend Peacock is from Pisa, dated January 1822. It seems cheerful enough, although he mentions dragging on ‘a sort of life in death’ and ends the letter with ‘adieu’, something he does not do in his previous letters. Later, at Lerici, he claimed to see a phantom child rise from the sea. A few months later he drowned. Did he have a premonition of his own death? What do you think?

Percy Bysshe Shelley - Key takeaways

  • 1792 Shelley is born in Sussex, son on an MP
  • 1811 Shelley elopes with Harriet Westbrook
  • 1814 Shelley elopes to Europe with Mary Godwin
  • 1816 Shelley composes 'Alastor' which wins him acclaim
  • 1816 Harriet drowns herself and Shelley marries Mary Godwin
  • 1816; The Shelleys move to Italy; Shelley writes 'Ode to the West Wind' and 'Mont Blanc'
  • 1818 Shelley’s 'Ozymandias' is published
  • 1822 Shelley completes his verse drama Hellas, and is drowned in the Bay of Lerici

Recommended titles:

Memoirs of Shelley, T.L. Peacock (1977)

The Young Shelley; Genesis of a Radical K.N.Cameron (1973)

Shelley: The Golden Years, K.N.Cameron (1974)

Percy Bysshe Shelley

For his radical political views and unconventional way of life.

Shelley was important for his poetry and radical political intellect.

'Ozymandias', 'Ode to the West Wind.'

Shelley was a Romantic poet who wrote odes, lyrics and sonnets.

Shelley travelled and lived in Europe, settling in Italy.

Final Percy Bysshe Shelley Quiz

Question

Why was Percy Shelley controversial?


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Answer

For his radical political views and unconventional way of life.

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Why was Percy Bysshe Shelley important?


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Answer

For his poetry and political intellect.

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What is Percy Shelley most famous for?


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Answer

Ozymandias, Ode to the West Wind.

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What type of poem is written by P.B. Shelley?


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Answer

Shelley was a Romantic poet who wrote odes, lyrics and sonnets.

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Where did Percy Bysshe Shelley live?


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Shelley travelled and lived in Europe, settling in Italy

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Question

Complete: After a …, unhappy childhood, Shelley got …. from Oxford for writing and distributing a pamphlet called ‘The … for Atheism.’

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After a rebellious, unhappy childhood, Shelley got expelled from Oxford for writing and distributing a pamphlet called ‘The Necessity for Atheism’

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Question

Complete: In 1817 Shelley visited the British … with a friend, Horace Smith and saw a statue of …  which inspired his poem …


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Answer

In 1817 Shelley visited the British Museum with a friend, Horace Smith and saw a statue of Rameses II which inspired his poem ‘Ozymandias.’

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Question

Complete: While staying at Lake … Mary began writing … (published 1818) and Shelley produced two poems: 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty' and '...'



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Answer

While staying at Lake Geneva Mary began writing Frankenstein (published 1818) and Shelley produced two poems:'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty' and 'Mont Blanc'.


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Complete: '... to Intellectual Beauty' contains a reference to a moment in Shelley’s early years when he decided to devote himself to … and deliver it from the ‘dark slavery’ of …


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Answer

'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty' contains a reference to a moment in Shelley’s early years when he decided to devote himself to humanity and deliver it from the ‘dark slavery’ of superstition.

Show question

Question

 ‘... of snow, intolerably …, part of the chain connected with Mont Blanc shone thro the clouds at intervals on high.’


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Answer

‘PInnacles of snow, intolerably bright, part of the chain connected with Mont Blanc shone thro the clouds at intervals on high.’

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Question

True of False? Shelley eloped with Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a successful publisher.

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Answer

False: Shelley eloped with Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a successful taverner.

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12) True of false? Shelley was inspired to write ‘Ozymandias’ after a statue of Nefertiti was exhibited at the British Museum.


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False: Shelley was inspired to write ‘Ozymandias’ after a statue of Rameses II was exhibited at the British Museum.

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True or false?In 1814 Percy and Mary ran away together to Europe, along with Mary’s step-sister (Jane) Claire Clairemont.


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True

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Choose: Shelley drowned after his yacht went down in a summer storm in the Bay of



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Naples


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Choose: In 1816 Shelley wrote 

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Alastor 


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Question

Who wrote 'Ozymandias'?


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Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote ‘Ozymandias' in 1817

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What is 'Ozymandias' about?

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It is about a statue of Ramses II discovered in the desert.

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What does 'Ozymandias' mean?

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It means that time changes all

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What is the main message of the poem Ozymandias?

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However powerful you are, time will change all.

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Who narrates the story of Ozymandias?

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There are 3 narrators: Shelley, the traveller, and Ozymandias. 

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Truse or False? In the winter of 1818 Shelley set himself to write the poem as part of a competition with his friend and fellow poet Horace Smith.


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False: In the winter of 1817 Shelley set himself to write the poem as part of a competition with his friend and fellow poet Horace Smith.

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Question

Complete: The Italian explorer and … Giovanni Belzoni was bringing ancient … from … for the British Museum.

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Answer

The Italian explorer and archaeologist Giovanni Belzoni was bringing ancient relics from Egypt for the British Museum.

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Question

Complete: 1818 was an important year for the world of literature:

… by Mary Shelley was published

… by Percy Bysshe Shelley was published.


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Answer

1818 was an important year for the world of literature:

  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was published
  • 'Ozymandias' by Percy Bysshe Shelley was published.

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 Ozymandias is about



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A traveller

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 True or False? The traveller is the only narrator of Ozymandias.

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False. There are 3 narrators: Shelley, the traveller, and Ozymandias.

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Complete: Despite the immense … this Pharoah clearly once had, all that remains of him now is a … piece of rock in the …. 


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Despite the immense power this Pharoah clearly once had, all that remains of him now is a faceless piece of rock in the desert. 

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In the winter of 1817 the Shelleys were visited by


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A traveller

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Which of Shelley’s poems compare to 'Ode to the West Wind'?

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‘Revolt of Islam’, ‘Prometheus Unbound’,’ To A Skylark’.

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What is the meaning of 'Ode to the West Wind'?


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'Ode to the West Wind' is a message of hope for new beginnings.

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What kind of poem is 'Ode to the West Wind'?


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It is a lyrical poem.

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What is the central idea of the poem 'Ode to the West Wind' by Percy Bysshe Shelley?'

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New beginnings, in particular, a new social order is central to ‘Ode to the West Wind’.

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When did Shelley write 'Ode to the West Wind'?

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Shelley wrote 'Ode to the West Wind' in 1819.

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Complete: Shelley had to make revisions to ‘...’ and change the name to ‘Revolt of Islam’ before it could be printed.

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Answer

Shelley had to make revisions to ‘The Revolution of the Golden City’ and change the name to ‘Revolt of Islam’ before it could be printed.

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True or false? ‘The Ode to a West Wind’ can be read as both personal and sociohistorical.


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Answer

True.

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True or false? Shelley wrote the ‘Ode to the West Wind’ while living in Spain. 

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False: Shelley wrote the ‘Ode to the West Wind’ while living in Italy.

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True or false? ‘Prometheus Unbound’ (1820) is a stage drama in verse that Shelley completed a year before the ‘Ode to the West Wind’.

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False: ‘Prometheus Unbound’ (1820) is a stage drama in verse that Shelley completed in the same year as the Ode.

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Question

In 1818 the Shelleys travelled to Florence where Byron was currently living. 

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False: In 1818 the Shelleys travelled to Venice where Byron was currently living. 

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Choose: In late 1819 the Shelleys moved to 


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Pisa.

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True or False? The ‘Ode to the West Wind’ was written before the Shelleys moved to Florence.

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False: The ‘Ode to the West Wind’ was written soon after the Shelleys moved to Florence.

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Choose: Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind' is as much about … as it is about loss and hope.

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Answer

resolution

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Complete: The ‘Ode to the …. Wind’ has been considered a very … poem.


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Answer

The ‘Ode to the West Wind’ has been considered a very personal poem.

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True or False? According to Pixton, Shelley uses six imperatives which form the pattern of the poem.

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Answer

True.

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