HAPPY BIRTHDAY – Percy Bysshe Shelley, born 4 August 1792
“Man has no right to kill his brother. It is no excuse that he does so in uniform: he only adds the infamy of servitude to the crime of murder.”
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s parents were delighted when their first son was born – he would be heir to his father, Sir Timothy Shelley, and would inherit the lovely family home of Field Place. He was sent to Eton, given every educational opportunity, and then went on to Oxford. But their son’s rebelliousness soon began to show itself, and greatly distressed his parents. He loved strange chemical experiments and refused to submit to ‘fagging’ at school. The boys called him ‘Mad Shelley’ and sent him into furious rages. At university he wrote a pamphlet on The Necessity of Atheism, which got him expelled. He then eloped with 16 year old Harriet Westbrook and married her – his father cut off his allowance. Some years later, after Harriet had given him two children, he fell in love with Mary Godwin, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. He eloped with her and after Harriet’s suicide, they married. Mary gave him four children, though only one survived childhood.
Shelley believed in free love, he was a vegetarian (most unusual in that era), he detested the army, the church the royals, and any sort of authority. His great sonnet Ozymandias is an attack on power, showing how it corrupts, and also how useless it ultimately is. His The Masque of Anarchy is an indictment of the government of his day and the brutal treatment of protesting workers.
Shelley is one of my most loved poets. I’ll be celebrating his birthday by reading some of my favourites of his poems – Ode to the West Wind, To a Skylark, Ozymandias and Adonais.
On 8 July 1822, just before his 30th birthday, Shelley drowned in a sudden storm on the Gulf of Spezia.
Have you read his work? Tell me in the comment area below.
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