Arts & Entertainment

Percy Bysshe and Mary Godwin Shelley: Literary Anarchists

By Keith Preston

The influence of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is astounding, particularly given the brevity of his life. Although he died shortly before his thirtieth birthday, Shelley in many ways helped to set the tone for the waves of political, economic, and cultural radicalism that would develop over the next two centuries. Born in 1792, and passing away in 1822, Shelley’s legacy serves as that of a figure who symbolized the transition from the period of the Enlightenment into modernity. That he was part of what could reasonably be considered the first family of English radicalism during his time is highly significant. He was the son-in-law of the early anarchist William Godwin, and the husband of Godwin’s daughter Mary, the author of the classic Frankenstein novel, whose mother had been the pioneer feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. The literary and poetic works of Shelley, and the radical ideas favored by the family into which he married, and which Shelley espoused, provided a definitive framework through which subsequent generations of radical political and cultural thinkers evolved.

Shelley’s Prolific Literary Legacy

Shelley’s legacy is demonstrated by the long list of luminaries that have expressed admiration for his work and claimed him as an influence. During his own time, Shelley was associated with a circle of writers that would subsequently come to be regarded as visionaries. Among these were Thomas Love Peacock, Leigh Hunt, John Keats, Lord Byron, and his wife, Mary Godwin Shelley. It was through his work as a poet that Shelley wielded his greatest influence. His major poetic works included “The Cloud,” “Music, When Soft Voices Die,” “Ode to the West Wind,” “To a Skylark,” and “Ozymandias.” The Masque of Anarchy was a poem written in 1819 following the Peterloo Massacre that has since come to be known as one of the first modern expositions on the concept of non-violent resistance.

Shelley produced various influential poetic works of a lengthier, philosophical nature. The period between 1819 and his death in 1822 was particularly productive. During this time, Shelley generated such works as The Cenci, Daemon of the World, Adonais, The Revolt of Islam, Alastor, Hellas, and The Triumph of Life. Perhaps the most influential work that Shelly produced during this period was Prometheus Unbound, which is widely considered to be the best of any of his writings. During his lifetime, Shelley received very little personal recognition for his work. It was only posthumously that his influence and reputation would be enlarged. Indeed, publishers and literary journals frequently refused to publish Shelley’s work because of his controversial views on politics, religion, and social matters. Shelley was very much an underground writer during his time.

Shelley’s Far-Reaching Influence

The influence of Shelley both as a writer and poet, and as a radical, can hardly be understated. Shelley exercised an influence on the early movements of the English working class of the early to middle nineteenth century, such as the Chartists. Karl Marx cited Shelley’s writings on economic justice as an influence on his own thinking. Shelley’s espousal of non-violent resistance exercised a far-reaching influence on figures such as Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. A vast range of political thinkers and cultural figures have claimed Shelley as an influence including poets such as Gabriel Dante Rossetti and Robert Browning, and literary exemplars such as George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy, W.B Yeats, and Isadora Duncan. The philosopher Bertrand Russell expressed his admiration for Shelley, whose radicalism in many ways foreshadowed his own.

The Early Life of a Non-Conformist

Percy Bysshe Shelley was the son of a parliamentarian, the Whig politician Sir Timothy Shelley. He was the oldest child of six children, and received his early education from a cleric who served the family as a tutor.  When he ventured in the world of formal education at the age of ten by attending Syon House Academy and then Eton College, Shelly found that he was in constant conflict with other pupils due to his unwillingness to become involved in the games pursued by the students, and his refusal to submit to the pecking order that expected younger students to function as de facto servants to their older colleagues. Shelley also became known at Eton for his mischievous ways, such as blowing up a tree with gunpowder and electrically charging the door handle to his room.

Although Shelley enrolled in Oxford at the age of eighteen, he frequently skipped lectures and instead devoted himself to private reading. It was during this time that he published his first written work, a gothic novel titled Gastrozzi, which explored Shelley’s atheism and disdain for the religious authorities of the time. Shelley was remarkably prolific from an early age onward. Other early works of Shelley included St. Irvine; or, The Rosicrucian: A Romance, Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire , Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson, with  some of these works resulting from his collaborations with his sister Elizabeth or his friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg. In 1811, Shelley published the work “The Necessity of Atheism” which led to his expulsion from Oxford. Although his father intervened on his behalf, and the Oxford authorities agreed to reinstate Shelley if he renounced his previous views, he refused the offer leading to estrangement from his family. Another work that was produced by Shelley during this time was not discovered until 2006. “Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things” was a statement of Shelley’s criticisms of imperialist wars being waged by the British Empire and his objections to the British monarchy.

Shelley married for the first time at the age of nineteen, when he eloped with sixteen-year-old Harriet Westbrook. Shelley’s marriage once again won him the disapproval of his family, as Harriet’s family was beneath the Shelleys in the English class hierarchy. Harriet’s father was a tavern owner, and Shelley’s father refused to provide him with any further allowance or to allow the couple to visit the family. Instead, Percy and Harriet formed a collective household with Harriet’s sister Eliza and his friend, Hogg. However, the arrangement did not endure as Shelley and Eliza frequently quarreled, and Hogg began making advances of his own toward Harriet. During this time, Shelley also became involved with a female schoolteacher who was nine years older than him, although it is believed that the relationship was likely platonic.

The Godwins

It was through his friend the poet Robert Southey that Shelley first became acquainted with William Godwin. After receiving a letter from Shelley, Godwin was impressed that Shelley came from a well-to-do family as Godwin was in dire need of financial assistance given that he had a large family but only limited income. Understanding that Shelley’s ability to help his family was dependent to a large degree on Shelley’s relationship with his father, Godwin began to advise Shelley to pursue reconciliation with his own family. Shelley’s radical views were beginning to attract the attention of the British government during this time as well, particularly after he published a work in Ireland calling for both Catholic Emancipation and Irish independence. As Shelley’s marriage to Harriet began to fail, due largely their intellectual incompatibility and Eliza’s interference in the relationship, Shelley began to spend more time in the company of Godwin and his circle.

Although Harriet was now pregnant with their son Charles, Shelley became enamored with Godwin’s daughter, Mary, whose mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had died shortly after her birth. Harriet and Eliza returned to live with her parents while Shelly, Mary Godwin, and her stepsister Claire ventured to Switzerland, and returned to England six weeks later due to a lack of money with which to continue the trip. It was during this time that Alastor was written.  In 1816, Shelley and Mary Godwin once again traveled to Switzerland for the purpose of meeting Lord Byron, with whom they had become acquainted through Claire. Upon meeting in person, Shelley and Byron began to exchange ideas and encourage each other in their writing. It was in part because of Shelley’s influence that Byron produced the epic poem, Don Juan. After Shelley and Mary returned to England in 1817, tragedy struck as both Mary’s sister Fanny and Shelley’s wife Harriet committed suicide over a relatively short period of time. Shelley and Mary subsequently married so that he could claim custody of his children with Harriet, his son Charles and his daughter Ianthe. However, the English courts refused to grant custody to Shelley on the grounds of his having abandoned Harriet and his atheism. The children were placed with foster parents instead.

Mary Godwin Shelley: Science Fiction Pioneer

During the period that followed, Shelley would become increasingly prolific, and produced some of his most well-known works. For a time, the Shelleys lived among a circle of writers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire that included Thomas Love Peacock and John Keats. Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City and The Revolt of Islam were written during this period, along several political tracts that Shelley published anonymously. It was also during this period that Mary’s novel, Frankenstein, was first published in 1818. The initial publication was anonymous, and it was often assumed that Shelley was the author as he had written he preface, and the novel was dedicated to William Godwin. Frankenstein contains the story of a scientist that invents an artificial life form with human characteristics that becomes a destructive monster. Mary began writing the story in 1816 when the Shelleys were visiting with Byron in Switzerland. The impetus for the novel began with a contest among the friends to determine who could write the best ghost story.

Frankenstein is considered to be a classic work of science fiction and overlaps with other genres such as Gothic horror and horror fiction. In fact, the novel has been characterized as the first modern work of science fiction, and has exercised an extraordinary influence in the genre. Mary’s original idea for the novel was based on a dream she had about a scientist who had the ability to create life but was horrified by the results that he produced. Contemporary critics have noted that Frankenstein contributed to the creation of science fiction as a modern genre because of its departure from the themes that were found in previous works of fantasy. Prior literary efforts would involve incidents of fantastic occurrences that seemingly happened on their own, but Frankenstein was the first work involving a story where humans use science of the purpose of manipulating their environment toward a particular end.

Two centuries after its publication, Frankenstein continues to be a timeless and prescient exploration of the relationship between humans and nature, and how human interference with nature can potentially produce undesirable ends. Written at the dawn of modernity, the novel ironically foreshadows the scientism that would come to dominate the modern world. Many contemporary technological innovations in the fields of genetic engineering, robotics, and artificial intelligence were non-existent concepts when Frankenstein was first published. However, many of the themes that are explored in Frankenstein are now more relevant than ever given the advancements in technology that have taken place.

A Tragic Family

In was in March of 1818 that the Shelleys left England for Italy, along with Mary’s sister Claire, where Percy would spend the remaining few years of his life. These years were a period that included enormous personal productivity in terms of Shelley’s literary output combined with severe personal tragedy. During their marriage, Percy and Mary produced four children, but only one of their offspring would survive into adulthood. In 1815, three years before their move to Italy, Mary had given birth to a daughter, Clara, who died in infancy at the age of 13 days.  Their son, William, was born in 1816, and died in Italy in 1819 shortly before his third birthday. Another daughter, also named Clara, had been born in England in 1817 but died in Italy the following year. While in Italy, Shelley also fathered a child, a daughter named Elena, with a woman who used the pseudonym “Marina Padura,” but whose actual identity is unknown. It has been suspected that the mother of Elena may have been the Shelley’s nursemaid, Elise Fogg, or perhaps Mary’s sister, Claire. Elena died at the age of 17 months. The only child of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Godwin that would survive into adulthood was their son, Percy Florence Shelley, who was also born in Italy in 1818. Of Shelley’s two children with his previous wife, Harriet, only one would survive to become an adult as well. His daughter Ianthe lived into her sixties. However, his son Charles would die when he was struck by lightning at the age of twelve.

During their time in Italy, the Shelleys lived in multiple cities, including Florence, Rome, and Pisa. It was during this period that Shelley produced Prometheus Unbound, The Cenci, The Masque of Anarchy, Men of England, and The Philosophical View of Reform.  The death of his friend and fellow Romance poet John Keats prompted Shelley to write Adonais.  Shelley also became enamored with a woman named Jane Williams, who was married to a British naval officer, and she was his inspiration for poems such as With a Guitar, To Jane and One Word is Too Often Profaned. In 1822, Shelley began making plans with Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron for the creation of political journal called the Liberal, a project that never came into fruition due to Shelley’s untimely death a short time later.

Death at Sea

Percy Bysshe Shelley died on July 8, 1822 while sailing in the Gulf of LaSpezia. The boat in which he was traveling sank during a storm. All three passengers on the boat drowned, including Shelley, Jane Williams’ husband Edward Ellerker Williams, and the boat boy Charles Vivien. The bodies of each of the three men later washed ashore. A range of theories later developed concerning the circumstances surrounding Shelley’s death. Among these were claims that a suicidal Shelley had deliberately caused the accident, that Shelley had been murdered for political reasons, or that the boat had sunk during an attack by pirates. However, Mary later claimed that the boat in which Percy was travelling had been custom-built, and was likely incapable of withstanding strong ocean currents and heavy storms. This factor, combined with the inept navigation of Shelley and the other passengers, provides the most plausible explanation for the tragedy.

The long-lasting influence of the Shelleys, their family, and their circle of friends and associates has been rather remarkable. William Godwin’s anarchism and Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminism served as prototypes for radical social and political movements that would subsequently develop in the nineteenth century. Companions of the Shelleys, such as Byron and Keats, were definitive literary figures during the Romantic period. Mary Godwin Shelley’s contribution to the establishment of science fiction as a modern literary and artistic genre with her novel Frankenstein secured her place in literary history as a writer of landmark literature. The influence of Percy Bysshe Shelley touches upon many of the political, cultural, economic, and artistic developments of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Mahatma Gandhi would frequently quote The Masque of Anarchy. Shelley wrote in favor of vegetarianism as a means of reducing cruelty to animals. Shelley also exercised an influence on major Victorian poets, and pre-Raphaelite artists. While unappreciated and dismissed as an infidel and degenerate during his time, Shelley’s work later come to command the respect of figures as diverse as C. S. Lewis, Karl Marx, Gabriele d’Annunzio, Aleister Crowley, and W. B. Yeats. Numerous prominent composers have created musical works based on the poetry of Shelley. At times, Shelley’s legacy continues to provoke the same conservative outrage that it did during his time. For example, Paul Johnson’s widely read work Intellectuals lambasts Shelley as a financial delinquent and seducer of young women. Yet, Shelley’s contributions to the Western literary canon cannot be disputed nor can the far-reaching and enduring nature of his intellectual legacy. Percy Bysshe Shelley continues to stand out as a primary figure among a family and a circle of geniuses that came to define critical elements of cultural evolution as it has taken place in the modern era.



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