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PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY (1792-1822)

Shelley was the son of a country squire of large means whose utter inability to comprehend the nature of his son's convictions was an important factor in the latter's history. At Eton mad Shelley' became unpopular with the older boys for heading an insurrection against the school system of 'fagging,' and he had not been long at University College, Oxford, when he was expelled for circulating a revolutionary tract entitled The Necessity of Atheism. He was only nineteen when out of fancied chivalry he married Harriet Westbrooke, a school girl of sixteen, much below him in social station. Angered by the first indiscretion, his father was permanently estranged by the second. These two children set off for Dublin, Shelley writing to a friend, We go to forward as much as we can the Catholic Emancipation.' Before setting out for the scene of destiny he had printed an Address to the Irish People, which he now published by dropping it from windows upon such passers-by as 'looked likely.' Shelley's ingenuous faith that men needed only to be shown the truth in order to follow it was doomed to cruel disillusion. For two or three years he wandered about the British Isles pushing his propaganda of freedom, and prosecuting irregular studies in philosophy and literature. His friend Hogg declared that a splendid library might have been formed out of the books which Shelley left scattered about the three kingdoms. In 1814, he separated from Harriet and, soon after, he fell passionately in love with Mary Godwin, daughter of the author of Political Justice. The feeling was returned and consistently with the tenets of all concerned, except Harriet and Shelley's father, Mary became his mate. Two years later, the wife whom he had abandoned ended her life by drowning. How far Shelley should be held culpable for this unhappy event is a moot point with his biographers. In 1818, he permanently left England for Italy, partially on account of his health and partially out of a fear lest the Lord Chancellor, who had already removed from his custody the children of his first marriage, might pass a similar judgment in regard to those of the second.

In Italy, for more reasons than one can pause to enumerate, Shelley's genius flowered; but only four years of it remained. Setting out in a small sailing boat he was overtaken by a squall in the bay of Lerici. A few days later his body was found imbedded in the sand of the shore. In one pocket of his jacket was a volume of Sophocles and in the other a volume of Keats, 'doubled back as if the reader, in the act of reading, had hastily thrust it away.' A narration of the bare acts of Shelley's life leaves an impression of waywardness which is not altogether misleading. Those who were competent to judge agreed that his impulses were noble and high, that a purer spirit never breathed; but he suffered and made others suffer because he would not bind himself to the code by which society lives. To the common run of his contemporaries he was a fanatical monster; to many since it has seemed that his sufferings and errors were the fault of an irrationally organized world and that he himself belonged to a crowning race' of which he was a noble type, appearing ere the time was ripe.'

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All of Shelley's poetry of importance was written after he met Mary Godwin. Queen Mab (1813) was a frantic poetical drama interesting only for its revolutionary doctrines. His genius first declared itself in Alastor (1815), and passages of great promise are scattered through his enormous revolutionary document, The Revolt of Islam (1817). But in Italy he matured with astonishing rapidity. To the year 1819 belonged Prometheus Unbound, his totally different Cenci which some critics regard as the most distinguished poetical tragedy since the Elizabethans, and numerous fine lyrics, including the Ode to the West Wind. The year 1820 was notable chiefly for its lyrics, To a Skylark among them. In 1821, besides Epipsychidion, Adonais, and Hellas, came some of the most poignant of the short lyrics. The Triumph of Life was uncompleted when Shelley set out to sea on Monday, July 8, 1822.

No one can estimate Shelley for us but ourselves. This is true of all poetry, but preëminently so of Shelley's because it is so preeminently poetical. When it is best it has little intellectual content. We do not, narrowly speaking, learn anything from Shelley; we surrender to an element.

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