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2 September 2014
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Percy Bysshe Shelley

He caused scandal with his views on religion and his love life, but Shelley's work was hard-hitting and politically motivated.

Shelley - Fact File

  • 1792: Born in Sussex
  • 1811: Marries Harriet Westbrook
  • 1811: Publishes Necessity of Atheism
  • 1814: Elopes with Mary WolstenCraft Godwin
  • 1816: Befriends Lord Byron
  • 1822: Dies in Italy

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on August 4 1792 to an aristocratic family in Horsham, Sussex. After attending Eton he moved on to study at Oxford University in 1810.

His reputation as a rebel against English politics and the conservative values of the day began early in his career. After just one year at university he wrote The Necessity of Atheism with Thomas Jefferson Hogg. No sooner had the book hit the shelves than the Church ordered a ban and Shelley was expelled from university.

His family reacted badly, cutting his inheritance. The scandal continued as Shelley eloped to Scotland with Harriet Westbrook, the 16-year-old daughter of a well-off coffee house owner.

The pair travelled through England and Ireland whilst Shelley continued with his political activism and pamphleteering.

They had a child, but the marriage did not last as Shelley fell in love with Mary Wolstencraft Godwin, the daughter of philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wolstencraft. The couple fled to mainland Europe in 1814 with Mary's half-sister Claire Claremont, again a scandalous act in the eyes of conservative England at the time.

Shelley's friendship with Lord Byron began through Claire Claremont, a lover of Byron's who bore one of his children. The group spent the summer of 1816 together at Byron's house in Lake Geneva where it is thought the idea for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was born.

Percy and Mary eventually married in 1817 after the suicide of Harriet Westbrook and moved to Italy with their own three children.

It is here that Shelley began to publish most of his work including Prometheus Unbound in 1820 and Epipsychidion in 1821. Adonais, his elegy to John Keats who Shelley much admired, was written following Keats' death in 1821.

On July 8, 1822, Shelley drowned while sailing in the Bay of Spezia, near Lerici, Italy. It is said that when his body washed up on the shore 10 days later his friends, including Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, burned his body on the beach. His heart, plucked from the flames intact, was preserved and wrapped in the manuscript for Adonais.

Image: National Portrait Gallery, London

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