Sunday, July 8, 2012

Gothic - The Life and Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
On July 8 1822 the great English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was drowned near the Italian coast. He was one of the major English Romantic poets and is critically regarded as among the finest lyric poets in the English language. Shelley was famous for his association with John Keats and Lord Byron. And actually he was married with novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of the famous 'Frankenstein'.

Born August 4, 1792, at Field Place, Sussex, England, Percy Shelley was the eldest son of Timothy and Elizabeth Shelley, with one brother and four sisters, he stood in line to inherit not only his grandfather's considerable estate but also a seat in Parliament. He attended Eton College for six years and then went on to Oxford University. He began writing poetry while at Eton, but his first publication was the Gothic novel 'Zastrozzi' in 1810, in which he voiced his own heretical and atheistic opinions through the villain Zastrozzi.

In 1811, Shelley got expelled from Oxford after less than a year's enrollment for the publication of a pamphlet entitled "The Necessity of Atheism." Shelley could have been reinstated with the intervention of his father, but this would have required his disavowing the pamphlet and declaring himself Christian. Shelley refused, which led to a complete break between Shelley and his father. This left him in dire financial straits for the next two years, until he came of age.

Shelley fled to Scotland with the only 16 years old Harriet Westbrook. Once married, they moved to the Lake District of England to study and write. Two years later he published his first long serious work 'Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem'. The poem emerged from Shelley's friendship with the political philosopher William Godwin and by that he also became enamored of Mary, the daughter of Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. In 1814 Shelley abandoned his wife Harriet, now pregnant with their son Charles and (in imitation of the hero of one of Godwin's novels) he eloped to Switzerland with Mary, then also only 16, inviting her stepsister Claire Clairmont (also 16) along because she could speak French. But only after six weeks, out of money, they had to return to England again.

In May 1815 the couple famously spent a summer with Lord Byron, John William Polidori, and Claire Clairmont near Geneva, Switzerland, where Shelley spent a great deal of time together with Lord Byron, sailing on Lake Geneva and discussing poetry and other topics, including ghosts and spirits, into the night. During one of their ghostly "seances," Byron proposed that each person present should write a ghost story. Mary's contribution to the contest became the seminal novel 'Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus'. The 1986 film 'Gothic' by director Ken Russel is referring to this incident at Lake Geneva.

In December 1816 Harriet Shelley apparently committed suicide. Three weeks after her body was recovered from a lake in a London park, Shelley and Mary Godwin officially were married. Then, early in 1818, he and his new wife left England for the last time. During the remaining four years of his life, Shelley produced all his major works, including 'Prometheus Unbound'. On July 8, 1822, shortly before his 30th birthday, Shelley drowned in a storm while attempting to sail from Leghorn to La Spezia, Italy, in his schooner, the Don Juan.

At yovisto you might watch Richard Holmes OBE comparing Mary Shelley's Frankenstein with Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Prometheus Unbound' in his talk at the Institute of English Studies.

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