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Famous English Poet: Percy Bysshe Shelley

by Hamilton Wright Mabie

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born near Horsham, in the county of Sussex, England, on August 4, 1792. He was the eldest son of Sir Timothy Shelley.

At the age of eleven he was sent to school at Eton. There he had a hard time. He resisted the “fagging” system,—a system under which the young boys must act as servants to the older ones,—and he would not work at his lessons. He was gentle natured and retiring; but when provoked he showed a very violent temper. So he was known as “Mad Shelley” by his schoolmates.

In 1810 Shelley entered Oxford. But he did not stay there long; for he and a friend, named Thomas Jefferson Hogg, became atheists, and Shelley wrote a little pamphlet on atheism, which he sent to the different heads of the colleges, asking them to notify him at once of their conversion to atheism. This they declined to do; but instead summoned both Shelley and Hogg and expelled them. Shelley and his friends complained at what they termed the injustice of the expulsion; but his father would have nothing to do with him. So Shelley went to London, where he wrote the poem “Queen Mab.” This was not published until later.

When he was in London his sisters sent him money by means of Harriet Westbrook, one of their friends. Shelley converted her to atheism, and married her in August, 1811, because she did not wish to go back to school. This marriage turned out to be very unhappy, and they separated by mutual consent in 1813.

The next year Shelley, accompanied by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, the daughter of William Godwin, the speculative philosopher, and Claire Clairmont, a friend of the poet Lord Byron, visited Europe. In 1815 Shelley’s grandfather died, and the poet was assured of a regular income of $5,000 a year. In 1816 he visited Europe again, and in November of the same year his wife Harriet drowned herself. Shelley’s two children were committed to the care of their grandfather Westbrook.

Shelley married Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and in 1818 they left England, never to return, going to Italy, where he wrote many of his greatest poems.

His second wife was a talented woman and a writer of ability. Under the name of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley she wrote that famous grewsome tale, “Frankenstein.”

In July, 1822, Shelley set sail in a small boat to return to his summer home at Spezia. The boat was overtaken by a sudden squall and disappeared. Two weeks later Shelley’s body was washed ashore with a copy of Keats’ poems open in one of his pockets. The Tuscan quarantine regulations at that time required that whatever came ashore from the sea should be burned. Accordingly Shelley’s body was placed on a pyre and reduced to ashes in the presence of Leigh Hunt, E. J. Trelawney, and Lord Byron. His ashes were collected and buried in the Protestant cemetery at Rome, near the grave of his friend Keats.