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The bicentenary of Shelley’s death

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August 1822 marks 200 years since Shelley breathed his last. Though Percy Bysshe Shelley died at the age of 29 he one of the most widely appreciated poets of all time. He died without much money or recognition. But his posthumous reputation has secured his place in posterity. It is a thing of wonderment that one man can have produced such a treasury of literature. 

Shelley’s verse is renowned for its vivacity and flawlessness. He deftly expressed his sentiments and observations in crystalline language. The sublimity of his oeuvre has given pleasure to countless millions. His artful meter and the musicality of his words are peerless. His enjambment of images is superbly evocative. His creativity and freshness even when he addressed himself to seemingly jaded themes was magnificent. Although he was an avowed atheist, his masterly poems have attained for him a literary immortality. The godlike clarity and perfection of his verses is uncanny. His was a mind teeming with thoughts and ideas. His productivity was staggering. Percy paid such close attention to every last phoneme; ‘A single word even can be the spark of an inextinguishable thought.’

Percy Bysshe succinctly adumbrated why poetry is so invaluable; ‘Poetry is the record of the happiest and best moments of the happiest and best minds.’ His verbiage is so serene. He was blessed with an articulacy best limned in his own words: breathing eloquence That might have soothed a tiger’s rage/ Or thawed the cold heart of a conqueror.

As a poet, Shelley is surely at the very summit of absolute mastery. His name is illumined in eternal resplendence. It is impossible not to rhapsodise about so fabulous a poet. 

The writings of Shelley have had a far greater impact than most people realise. He invented the term ‘a necessary evil’ which is how he described government. His phrase ‘blithe spirit’ gave Evelyn Waugh the title for his novel about bright young things. 

The Romantic Movement was Shelley’s movement. He was one of its most prodigiously talented exponents. He was a prophet of this movement and pent up with passion. Romantics believed that mankind was born good. They celebrated nature and took pleasure in the simplest things. They valued simplicity and scorned falsity. They loathed the artifice of conventional poesy, and they detested the establishment. Romantics believed in being themselves and expressing their sentiments unrestrainedly. Though they were schooled on Latin and Ancient Greek Literature they tended to bear their erudition lightly. They contemned old fashioned writers in English who composed a sort of ‘Latin-in-English’. The romantics prized genuineness and candour. 

Because Shelley was a romantic he celebrated the seemingly unremarkable: There is eloquence in the tongueless wind, and a melody in the flowing brooks and the rustling of the reeds beside them, which by their inconceivable relation to something within the soul, awaken the spirits to a dance of breathless rapture, and bring tears of mysterious tenderness to the eyes, like the … voice of one beloved singing to you alone. 

As an incurably sentimental person, Shelley was a hopeless romantic. He cherished love above all else in the world: All love is sweet, given or received… So uncontrollable were his passions that Percy Bysshe Shelley said I think one is always in love with something or other

Shelley was to express his adoration of nature and solitude thus: ‘away, away from men and towns/ To the wild wood and the downs/ To the silent wilderness/ Where the soul need not repress/ its Music.’ He gloried in nature ‘See then mountains kiss high heaven and the waves grasp one another.’

The frippery and artificiality of mainstream society was loathed by the romantics. None of the romantics wore wigs for example. They shunned staid convention. The romantics abominated the stratified social system.

P B Shelley’s empathy with the oppressed and dispossessed lent a radical political angle to the bulk of his work. His poesy is enjoyed not just by radicali. 

When I was but 8 years of age Mr Black read us Ozymandias aloud.

 My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! 

I was scintillated. Who could have composed such a mysterious and meaningful sonnet? I have re-read that poem perhaps twenty times. So incomparably crafted, so dense with significance: that poem does not have a weak syllable. 

Little did I know the core message of Ozymandias. It is about the ephemeral character of earthly realms. The name came up as a character in Brave New World. 

I took some interest in Shelley in my early adolescence. One afternoon aged 16 I had an idle moment after games. I thumbed through the Oxford Book of English verse. I happened upon The Masque of Anarchy by Shelley. From its first line I was hooked. The magnificence narrative poem was splendidly evocative, and its verve and rhythm enthralled me. I was compelled to read to its volcanic finale. Some stanzas have stayed with me to this because of their sonorous splendour and images seared into my inward eye:

 As flowers beneath May’s footstep waken,
As stars from Night’s loose hair are shaken,
As waves arise when loud winds call,
Thoughts sprung where’er that step did fall

From then on, I devoured all works of Shelley I could find. In MacNaghten’s Library I found heavy leatherbound volumes with a pleasingly musty odour that contained his pamphlets. Trenchant, relentlessly logical and yet amusing, these argumentative pieces engrossed me. I made it my business to read his forgotten sole novel Zastrozzi. It has pace and is captivating in places. For a literary debut it was splendiferous. 

I gazed upon his likeness in Upper School. I identified with his sense of being ectopic and his attachment to unfashionable views. That was despite by rejecting much of his worldview. But a radical of the 1810s could be a conservative of the 1990s. Modern conservatives have accepted many of the most audacious demands of radicals of Shelley’s time. I found him naïve, wrongheaded but an immensely attractive character. His work was awestriking. His heroism in expressing his beliefs was admirable. 

On the wooden panels at Upper School, I saw his name carved characteristically audaciously large. I traced my right index finger through the letters as thought to numinously commune with Shelley; as though there had been some ensoulment in those rough-hewn wooden panels.  

Decades after I first heard the name Shelley, I found his grave at Rome. There I stood over his last resting place in the very walls of the city that had so inspired him. I stood above the soil that his mortal remains nourished. It was poignant to reflect that this was as close to Shelley as I would ever come. Six feet beneath my feet his ashes rest for all eternity. There in the Italian earth there was a richer dust concealed. How can such imperishable genius be reduced to mere loam? How I wish that he could somehow reach out to me from beyond the grave. By standing on the grass that grew from his body perhaps I connected with him at long last. Through perusing his magisterial poesy there can be a meeting of minds. He speaks to me as he has spoken to numberless readers and shall do forevermore. 

Seeing his grave reminds me of Shelley’s own words: ‘Love’s very pain is sweet/ But its reward is in the world divine/ Which if not here it builds beyond the grave.’


Shelley was born in 1792. Today is appears to be providential that this should have been his natal year. It was the year that France proclaimed a republic. Anti-monarchism and the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity were to animate the whole of Shelley’s short life. His parents were very wealthy. Percy’s father Thomas was a Whig Member of Parliament. The Shelley family resided in Sussex which is a county in southern England. The family had lived in New Jersey two generations prior to Percy’s birth. There they had grown very rich. Percy was the eldest of six children. Therefore, he was due to inherit most of the patrimony. His unique middle name ‘Bysshe’ came from his great grandfather. 

The family owned a castle near Horsham. They were very wealthy. As a child, Percy lacked for nothing. But he was not close to his parents or siblings. 

The Shelley family were communicants of the Church of England. This was the church as by law established. Anglicans (members of the Church of England) were the majority of the population. Anyone who was not an Anglican was discriminated against.

From his earliest childhood Percy was transfixed by the world around him. He was irrepressibly inquisitve. As he wrote in the Revolt of Islam: I could not choose but gaze; a fascination
Dwelt in that moon, and sky, and clouds

As a young boy Percy went to Syon House School in Middlesex. This was just outside London. The building whereat he attended school does not stand any longer. 

Though Percy was raised in opulence he was keenly alive to the immiseration of hoi pelloi. He developed a fellow feeling for the downtrodden masses. He saw them ‘weep for hunger and moan for cold’ as he put it. Penurious children wore rags. Percy believed there must be something deeply wrong in a society that had such impecuniosity in a land of fecundity where the rulers lived in a riot of excess and self-indulgence. The frivolity and self-centredness of his fellow patricians nauseated him. Inegalitarianism was the order of the day. Shelley wanted no part of it. He reviled monarchy and thought that aristocracy as absurd and unjust. As he later remarked ‘the rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer.’

Percy saw dank and noisome slums. He knew that the life of the lumpenproletariat was ghastly. He knew that much of this suffering was easily soluble by a more equitable social structure. It grieved him that he dwelt in a world so full of cruelty and injustice. But the priesthood told the victims of the system to offer up their suffering and accept their plight. All would be put right in the next world. He said ‘to be greatly good a man must imagine himself comprehensively and intensely to be in the place of another.’

Much later in Queen Mab Shelley summed up what can be wrong with governors: Deceit with sternness, ignorance with pride

Compassion was to be Percy’s ruling sentiment. He wrote, ‘worse than a bloody hand is a hard heart.’

Eton College was the school that Percy went to. Attendance at chapel was compulsory. It was and is a Church of England establishment. At the school he made it plain that he disbelieved in God. For this he was known as Shelley the atheist. This was a highly unusual attitude at the time. Everyone was required to attend divine worship every day. He was a very eccentric boy and a day dreamer.  He also had a high-pitched voice. The other pupils made fun of this cloud dweller. They mocked him as ‘Mad Shelley’ and ‘Shelley the Atheist.’ He was regularly surrounded by his schoolfellows who imitated him and grabbed his books for him. 

As a pariah, Shelley had to be happy with his own company. He penned;

 A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.

Shelley’s anti-religiosity did not preclude him using the metaphors of God and soul. He said that what was truly moral was to feel no ‘secret deceit’ as he assumed all so-called religious believers felt. He smelt a rat in religion; ‘If God has spoken why is the world not convinced?’

Growing up in a time of seemingly incessant war, Shelley was a peace activist. He wrote: War, waged from whatever motive, extinguishes the sentiment of reason and justice in the mind. He recognised that militarism can be fatal to liberty and independent thought; From the moment that a man is a soldier, he becomes a slave. He is taught obedience; his will is no longer, which is the most sacred prerogative of man, guided by his own judgment. He is taught to despise human life and human suffering; this is the universal distinction of slaves.

Percy loathed bigotry of all kinds. He grew up in an epoch of legal discrimination. Much later he wrote; It’s not a merit to tolerate, but rather a crime to be intolerant

At Eton, Shelley was assured of a sound education. He had been given a solid grounding in classics at his prep school. Much time at Eton was devoted to teaching the brighter boys the craft of composing verses in meter. Such lessons were not wasted on Percy! These lessons fructified in his peerless fertile mind. 

Eton was as hierarchical as the rest of society. Shelley hated its petty snobberies. Others tried to climb up its cursus honorum. 

Though Shelley was a bibliomane, he was not always serious and scholarly. There was a mischievous streak to him. He delighted in playing practical jokes. Shelley the prankster is not the image we have of him. 

Although Shelley was principally interested in the humanities, he was no slouch at science. He experimented with electricity. He was a very sedulous student and reflected ‘the more we study the more we discover our own ignorance.’

God and Caesar were hand in glove and Shelley knew it. He found it disgustful that men who preached the Gospel of humble and gentle Jesus should vociferate for a system of cruelty and oppression. The clerisy upheld gross inequality and preached that thraldom was entirely permissible. They were correct on the later point: the Bible explicitly condoned servitude. Shelley decided that the Good Book was no guide to morality. He regarded it as a pack of lies. The confabulations of the Hebrews and the ravings of the Nazarene who suffered from auditory hallucinations were to be rejected with disdain. 

As a rationalist Percy wanted people to ‘cast aside superstition and habit and strip pomp of its sensuality.’

Percy used to walk along a spit of land beside a stream known as Poet’s Walk. Attendance at many lessons was optional back then. Percy Bysshe Shelley liked to go rowing on the River Thames. This was against school rules because it was dangerous. The Thames was fast flowing at times. Boats sometimes capsized and many boys could not swim. There were whirlpools and eddies. But Shelley defied the ruled.

There is Firework Eyot which lies beside the bridge that connects Eton to Windsor. Shelley and a friend sometimes took a skiff to this islet. 

At Eton Shelley composed some juvenilia. Precious little of his earliest poetic musings have survived. 

Shelley was more given to intellectual than to athletic pursuits. He was often to be found reading for leisure or writing prodigiously. Percy began to pen a novel entitled Zastrozzi. It is a gothic horror set in Italy. The novel is very fast paced. He had the book published before he left school. Using the proceeds of the novel he had a blow-out dinner with his friends.

Upon leaving school P B Shelley went up to Oxford University. Oxford was then divided into about 20 colleges. Shelley matriculated at its oldest college: University College. The curriculum consisted chiefly of classics. He fell in with a crowd of freethinkers. The Napoleonic Wars were on. The Government stamped hard on those who espoused radical nostra. 

At University College (‘Univ’), Shelley found greater acceptance. There was more of a live and let live attitude amongst the undergraduates. Chapel was not mandatory. 

Shelley subscribed to every radical nostrum going. He believed in gender equality when it was regarded as insane even be fellow radicals. He was a pacifist and an anti-racist. This was a time when white supremacy was taken as read.

Percy composed an anonymous tract entitled ‘The Necessity of Atheism‘. In this work Shelley scorned the time squandered on the non-subject of religion: Man would have been too happy, if, limiting himself to the visible objects which interested him, he had employed, to perfect his real sciences, his laws, his morals, his education, one-half the efforts he has put into his researches on the Divinity

 The pamphlet fell into the hands of the college’s dons – i.e. the lecturers and professors. Almost every don was ordained as an Anglican clergyman. They did not look kindly on people who questioned the precept of revealed religion. They were the avowed enemies of free inquiry. Rumour had it that Percy Bysshe had published the said tract. He was questioned about The Necessity of Atheism. It had reached their ears that Shelley was behind the pamphlet. He was asked to confirm or deny it. He declined to answer questions. He also spoke to the dons contumaciously. The undergraduate was told that if he did not answer the question he would be sent down. He maintained his refusal to answer. He was therefore expelled. He has not even survived one academic year.

The Shelley family were distraught when their son was sent down from Oxford. He was offered the chance to be readmitted to the university if he recanted his anti-establishment views. His reply was contumelious.

Percy resolved to live by his quill. He never earned a groat except from writing. No wonder he wrote reams as he did no other work. He began composing poesy almost daily. Poetry was as he said ‘a sword of lighting’

P B Shelley took the quixotic decision to devote himself entirely to expressing the exquisiteness of notions as well as creation. Later he took stock of what he had accomplished in this endeavour:

vow’d that I would dedicate my powers
To thee and thine: have I not kept the vow?
With beating heart and streaming eyes, even now
I call the phantoms of a thousand hours
Each from his voiceless grave: they have in vision’d bowers
Of studious zeal or love’s delight
Outwatch’d with me the envious night:

At the age of 19 Percy met a 16 year old girl named Harriet Westbrook. She was a schoolfriend of Shelley’s sister. Harriet’s elder sister had also encouraged the liaison. Percy and Harriet fell in love. Harriet ran away from boarding school and Percy took her to Scotland. As soon as they crossed the border they got married. In Scotland a couple could get married under the age of 21 without parental permission. In England a person under the age of 21 required a parent’s say so to wed. Having married in Scotland the couple returned to England where their marriage was legally recognised.

Sir Thomas Shelley was the father of Percy. When Sir Thomas found out that his eldest son had married without his permission, he was irate. Sir Thomas had wanted his son to conclude and advantageous with a maiden of a goodly affluent house. Thomas refused to meet Percy and cut his son off without a penny. Harriet’s father was affluent but had once run a pub and Sir Thomas considered that Harriet was an unsuitable bride. She was infra dignitate. He held that Harriet was from a lower station in life. However, Harriet became pregnant as soon as they married, and it was too late for an annulment. Sir Thomas held conventional views about the social pecking order. 

The newlyweds settled in London. Percy attempted to make a living from writing. His views were so contentious that many publishers would not touch him. He borrowed heavily to support his family. The Shelley’s daughter was born. Percy’s pamphlets such as A Defence of Poetry and A Vindication of a Natural Diet sold poorly. The latter was an argument for vegetarianism. He claimed that poets are ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’ in his Defence of Poetry.

The Shelleys got some cats. Percy was fond of these felines. 

Percy soon found Harriet intellectually limited and shallow. He met a woman several years older than himself. She was a teacher with advanced political views. Percy grew close to this woman but assured his wife that his feelings for the other feeling were unromantic. However, Harriet found letters that Percy was writing to the other one and the contents of these letters made her suspicious. In one letter Shelley wrote to this female, ”you are the sister of my soul”. The gloss was coming off the Shelleys’ marriage. People had said that those who married in a hurry when crazily in love soon came to regret it.

Soon Percy was an advocate of free love. His contempt for marriage was scandalous. He wrote; Not even the intercourse of the sexes is exempt from the despotism of positive institution. Law pretends even to govern the indisciplinable wanderings of passion, to put fetters on the clearest deductions of reason, and, by appeals to the will, to subdue the involuntary affects of our nature.

Traveling to Ireland, Percy addressed himself to Catholic Emancipation. He wrote a pamphlet saying that Catholics should have legal equality. He also argued that the Act of Union should be repealed. His pamphlet was priced at five pence. It sold well. But he soon spent the money foolishly. Soon he had to take out new loans to pay off old loans. He was robbing Peter to pay Paul. The compound interest mounted. 

Percy favoured egalitarianism and even primitive communism: Equality in possessions must be the last result of the utmost refinements of civilization; it is one of the conditions of that system of society towards which, with whatever hope of ultimate success, it is our duty to tend. But this did not lead to him giving away his riches. 

The Shelley’s financial situation became precarious. Soon creditors were hammering on the door. In those days debt was a criminal matter. Non-payment of debts was punishable by prison. Some people were sent to prison for life because of their debts. A debtor would only be released when the debt was paid or if the creditor forgave the debtor. As Percy was stressed out about his lack of money, he discovered that Harriet was pregnant with their second child. Another hungry mouth to feed was the last thing they needed. 

The creditors assumed that if push came to shove Sir Thomas would bail Percy out. They could not believe that Sir Thomas would let his son go to prison for debt. 

Despite Percy’s travails he was ever the optimist. ‘Oh wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?’ Percy’s ‘spring’ was to come in the shape of a nubile teenager. 

Percy avoided the vices that wrecked many other artists: opium and alcohol. ‘I have drunk deep of joy and will drink no other wine tonight.’ Had a tipple but rarely.

William Godwin ran a coffee shop frequented by artists, writers, chatterers and radicals of all stripes. Godwin was well known in literary circles. He was the author of a radical book entitled Political Justice.

Percy became a member of Godwin’s social circle. He took a shine to Godwin’s 16 year old daughter Mary. Mary Godwin was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft was the mother of feminism. Mary Wollstonecraft had died shortly after giving birth to her daughter. William Godwin was well aware that Percy was a married man but nonetheless encourage the budding romance between his daughter and the 22 year old writer. William Godwin gave his blessing to the relationship because Percy Bysshe Shelley was from a rich family. Godwin presumed that when Sir Thomas Shelley died his eldest son Percy would inherit the family fortune.

Percy’s relationship with Mary Godwin resulted in her becoming pregnant. He left his wife and moved in with Mary Godwin. Ironically Percy wrote, ‘the greatest moral is love.’

Although Percy was one of history greatest lovers, he was also oddly indifferent to the suffering he wrought. The death of his infant did not faze him. As he himself wrote, 

Poets, the best of them, are a very chameleonic race

It soon became apparent to William Godwin that Percy did not have much money as he thought. Percy’s father showed no sign of dying. Moreover, Sir Thomas Shelley had cut Percy out of his will. When Godwin discovered that Percy was not a man of means he became very cold towards Percy and Mary.

Harriet began a relationship with an army officer who was 16 years older than her. The officer was posted far away. Harriet then moved address. She went back to her old address to ask the landlady if there were letters from her lover. The woman lied and said no. Shelly did not sent a farthing for the upkeep of his wains. It never seems to have troubled his conscience that he had abandoned the fruit of his loins. 

Harriet was heavily gravid and had been abandoned by her lover. She was a penniless single mother of two starving infants. Harriet so distraught that she threw herself into a pond called the Serpentine. She drowned. Percy did not appear to regret causing the suicide of his 19 year old wife and the mother of his two babies.

By his early 20s Shelley knew everyone who was anyone in literary London. He was a boon companion of Lord Byron. He was also a dear friend of John Keats. Shelley was a chum of Leigh Hunt, William Hazlitt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and other luminaries of the Romantic Movement. He was even an acquaintance of William Wordsworth. 

On one occasion Shelley, Leight Hunt, Keats and Coleridge all agreed to compose sonnets on the same theme: The Nile. It was a fruitful competition and the only such one I know of. Shelley’s verse included the line: Beware, O Man – for knowledge must to thee,
Like the great flood to Egypt, ever be

In 1815 the Napoleonic Wars ended. It was safe once more for Britishers to visit the Continent. Percy and his family crossed the English Channel. Once Percy heard that his wife Harriet had taken her own life, he knew that he was free to wed. Therefore, Percy married Mary Godwin who was already the mother of his child. This time he was uxorious. He never lost his belief in free love but did not stray from his goodwife. 

Percy and Mary Godwin went to Germany and Switzerland. They passed by Frankenstein Castle in Germany. That summer in Switzerland the weather was unseasonably foul. To amuse themselves the couple and their friends held a horror story writing competition. This was the genesis of the novel Frankenstein.

The Shelley family travelled to Florence, Italy. There he composed his ineffably sublime Ode to the West Wind. The house where he wrote it still stands.

Shelley liked to visit a stretch of the Tuscan Coast now known as Il Golfo dei Poeti. The exquisiteness of the littoral makes it easy to perceive why Shelley chose to pass his time there. 

In 1819 Percy heard the news of the Peterloo Massacre. This drove him to compose The Masque of Anarchy. In this poem he skewered the British establishment.

As I lay asleep in Italy/ There came to me from over the sea/ A voice that forth led me/ To walk in visions of poesy…I met murder on the way/ He had a mask like Castlereagh/ …

Shelley was alluding to Robert Stewart then Viscount Castlereagh. This Irish cabinet minister was later raised to the marquessate of Londonderry. 

The rest of the cabinet was similarly derided. ‘Eldon big ears had one/ Sidmouth on a crocodile rode by/ Many more destructions played/ In this ghastly masquerade.’

At the end of the poem, Shelley gives us a clarion call to arms. ‘Rise like lions after slumber/ In unconquerable number/ Shake to earth like dew/ The chains which in sleep had fallen on you/ We are many/ They are few.’

Some of his most popular oeuvres were composed in Italy. Queen Mab is about a fairy queen. The Revolt of Islam is not about the subject matter that its title implies. Epipsychidion (‘little soul’) is a turgid and unpopular work. In this poem he seemed to contemplate his own demise: 

The heart that loves, the brain that contemplates,
The life that wears, the spirit that creates
One object, and one form, and builds thereby
A sepulchre for its eternity.

 Ozymandias and Julian and Madolo; a conversation. He was a supremely gifted syllable stringer. His narrative poems are often several thousand words long. He wrote a verse play which is never performed these days. 

Percy had once scorned translation: Hence the vanity of translation; it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its colour and odour, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower—and this is

This did not stop him translating classical poems.

Shelley had some regrets ‘All of us who are worth anything spend our manhood expiating and unlearning the follies and mistakes of our youth.’ It is reassuring to read my idol share my experience. 

In the spring of 1821, Percy learnt that his younger friend John Keats had succumbed to tuberculosis a few weeks earlier. News travelled slowly in those days. Keats was long buried when the melancholy tidings came. 

Percy composed Adonais. This is an elegy to his dear friend Keats who had died aged only 25. This is Percy’s blackest work. Its sable syllables show him to have been an accomplished tragedian. ‘I weep for Adonais: he is dead.’ Adonis was the name for an unutterably beautiful shepherd youth in Greek lore. Percy was disconsolate.  He imagined his friends last fervid and perspiring minutes, ‘I pant, I sink, I tremble, I expire!’ He believed that there was no Elysium awaiting his friend. Percy reflected ‘the sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.’ In the poem he appeared to believe that Keats had defeated mortality:

The leprous corpse, touch’d by this spirit tender,
Exhales itself in flowers of gentle breath;
Like incarnations of the stars, when splendour
Is chang’d to fragrance, they illumine death
And mock the merry worm that wakes beneath;
Nought we know, dies.

It was almost as though he savoured grief: The pleasure that is in sorrow is sweeter than the pleasure of pleasure itself.

In Adonais, Shelley considered the noble tranquillity of graveyards. The death of his younger friend made him acutely conscious of his own mortality: The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.

Shelley seemed to consider Adonais his finest work. It was cathartic for him. He wrote of it:

the only relief I find springs from the composition of poetry, which necessitates contemplations that lift me above the stormy mist of sensations which are my habitual place of abode. I have lately been composing a poem on Keats; it is better than anything I have yet written and worthy both of him and of me

Shelley addressed himself to a classical theme. He wrote about the titian who in Greek mythology had been chained to a mountain to have his liver eaten by a raven every day only for it to regrow overnight so the raven could eat again next day. And so on forever. In Prometheus Unbound the titan comes free. Here here seemed to muse that there might be an afterlife:

Death is the veil which those who live call life;
They sleep, and it is lifted

Curiously in the summer of 1822 Percy Bysshe completed a celebratory poem entitled the Triumph of Life. Did it foreshadow what followed. 

In 1822 Percy went on a small boat off the coast of Livorno (Leghorn). The boat was named Don Juan: by a coincidence it is the name of Byron’s picaresque epic poem. It is probable that a storm caused his boat to tip over. Percy and the two other men (both British) on the boat drowned. His corpse was recovered a few days later and brought to the beach at Viareggio. In his pocket was a volume of poems by Keats. There he was cremated. He was 29. He remains one of the most celebrated writers of all time. 

Shelley’s cinders revealed that his heart would not burn. His heart was recovered and is interred at Cimiterio Accatolico in the walls of Rome. On his headstone are etched words in Latin cor cordium (heart of hearts). There is an English quotation from Ariel’s Song in the Tempest by William Shakespeare 

Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange. 

Beside him lies his dear friend Trelawny. 


By the late 19th century Shelley had been rehabilitated to respectability by the Victorians. Being endorsed by the establishment was the last thing he would have wanted. 

Only one of his children survived to adulthood. Through his son Percy has descendants to this day. 

Decades after his death a Memorial to Shelley was erected at University College – the college that had expelled him.

People shall drink deep of Shelley’s verse for millennia. May he be eulogised forevermore.


The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

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January 11, 2022

Shelley died yesterday. R.I.P Burke.

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