About the poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley



Shelly -what Stopped Him? Only death. 'I always go on until I am stopped. And I am never stopped'. Youth - it was not wasted on Shelley. He lived his short life in an ecstasy of being and creating - one and the same thing to him.  He was born in 1792 to Sir Timothy Shelley MP for Horsham in Sussex - a deeply religious man who had high hopes for his brilliant son. Alas, Sir Timothy had bred an immortal never a comfortable position for a father. Shelley's nature was incandescent, febrile, his strange, sublime intelligence hinted almost at madness. At Eton he was indeed known as 'Mad' Shelley. At Oxford he was sent down for writing The Necessity of Atheism with its provocative conclusion: 'Every reflecting mind must allow that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity. QED'.  He could perhaps have put it more subtly - at the time atheism was not only considered blasphemous - it was also considered treacherous. Sir Timothy was horrified and sent his communications to Shelley through legal channels. A furious Shelley disinherited himself by surrendering his claim on the family estate, thereby wounding his father and himself.

He found consolation with the Westbrook family and ran away with their daughter Harriet - aged sixteen with whom he had two children. 'Love’ he wrote ‘seems inclined to stay in prison'. It would escape. Shelley fell madly in love, and this time the phrase is forensically accurate, with Mary Godwin -also aged sixteen - the brilliant daughter of the philosopher William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman - (Mary would later as Mary Shelley write the Gothic masterpiece Frankenstein). Shelley and Mary eloped - accompanied by Mary's half-sister Jane - who finding her name less than alluring changed it to Claire -allurement being the raison d'etre of Claire Clairmont, eventually being Byron's lover for a short time. Tragedy ensued for all concerned.  Poor Harriet drowned herself - her family disputed Shelley's rights to his children who were eventually fostered. Shelley and Mary settled in Italy – alas their daughter Clara died aged one and their son William died the following year aged three. It was appalling for them .Yet all through his short, dramatic and often terrible life, Shelley wrote his poems - poem after poem - many of them amongst of the greatest in the English language.

He wrote fearlessly and with little encouragement from the literary establishment. 'I believe that Homer, Shakespeare and Milton wrote with utter disregard of anonymous censure'. Poets he believed were 'the unacknowledged legislators of the world.' Queen Mab written in 1813 when he was only twenty-one, printed but not published for fear of prosecution was the poem with which he threw down the gauntlet – atheism, vegetarianism, free love- all praised by Shelley. The Revolt of Islam inspired by the French Revolution was savaged by the critics - The Mask of Anarchy - (‘I met Murder on the way-/he had a mask like Castlereagh’) is a powerful, rousing response to the Peterloo massacre - and a Miltonian hymn to freedom. His unforgettable and more reflective Ozymandias - (‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’) was written as a result of a challenge to Shelley and a friend after a visit to British Musuem's Egyptian exhibition. Of the friend's effort we know nothing. Such is genius. His poem 'Julian and Maddalo' is a precursor of Browning's dramatic monologues. Then we have the magnificent odes 'To the West Wind (‘tameless, and swift, and proud’) To a Skylark (‘Our sweetest songs are those that/tell of saddest thought’), plays including Prometheus Unbound - a sacred text to Yeats. It is an awe inspiring body of work. Shelley was in the midst of writing The Triumph of Life - how Dante would have sounded had he written in English according to Harold Bloom - when his own ended in 1822, aged only twenty-nine in a storm in the Bay of Lerici. He'd designed his own boat and named it Don Juan in honour of Byron. When his body was recovered he had a copy of Keats in his pocket. Shelley was cremated on the sands. His heart would not burn. And that's the essence of Shelley. His heart was indeed indestructible. Cor Cordium - heart of hearts - reads his gravestone. Probably literature's most truthful epitaph.


Books by Josephine Hart     The Josephine Hart Poetry Hour

Josephine Hart's books, Catching Life by the Throat and Words That Burn are available to buy in the British Library shop.