Shelley’s short, restless life, like that of Byron’s, seems to epitomize the Romantic free spirit, searching for a better world. His rejection of social and moral constraints made him a social outcast in his day and an icon of Romantic discontent and rebellion for successive generations. The most politically radical and outspoken of the Romantic poets, much of his poetry deals with his personal ideas on liberty, democracy and free love. He expressed his beliefs in a wide variety of poetic forms which ranged from long narrative works to short, intense lyrics. On the whole, though, he is most admired for shorter poems like Ode to the West Wind, To a Sky-Lark or his elegy on the death of Keats, Adonais, where he skilfully combined poetic technique and dazzling imagery in his treatment of the theme of human perfectibility.
Shelley was born into a wealthy family of the Sussex gentry. However, from an early age he showed a rebellious spirit ad when he went to Oxford in 1810, he quickly achieved notoriety for The Necessity of Atheism (1811). This pamphlet, challenging belief in God, led to his expulsion and an irreparable break with his father.
Despite his frenetic life, Shelley was prolific in this period, producing a series of long poems particularly inspired by his radical political views. In the summer of 1822, returning from Livorno, Shelley’s small boat was caught in a sudden storm and the poet and his friend Edward Williams were both drowned. His body was recovered later and cremated on the beach; his ashes were buried in the new Protestant Cemetery in Rome. His wife Mary kept his memory alive with the publication of Posthumous Poems (1824) and Works (1839), which included many of the great poems written during his self- imposed exile in Italy.
Shelley’s poetry can be divided into longer and shorter works. His longer works often deal with the subject of rebellion against tyranny and the constraints of custom. His radical political stance was expressed in Queen Mab (1813) which attacked the monarchy, war, commerce, marriage and religion and contained a vision of a new social, moral and economic order, The Revolt of Islam (1818), a long narrative poem describing a revolution against an eastern tyrant, was, in fact, a response to social and political problems in England. The greatest of the longer works is widely held to be his lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound (1820). Here Shelley draws on the rebellion of the Titan Prometheus against the new Olympian gods, described by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus. The work is particularly interesting because it also reveals Shelley’s originality as a thinker, especially the suggestion that tyranny is a product of the human imagination. Many of his greatest shorter works were written during the four years he spent in Italy. They include his great song of natural change and human growth Ode to the West Wind (1819), Adonais (1821), his elegy on the death of the poet Keats, and lyrics like To a Sky-Lark (1820), about the difficulty of maintaining the poet’s prophetic role. He also produced more personal lyric poetry such as Stanzas written in Dejection – December 1818, Near Naples (1824), and a number of overtly political poems, especially England 1819 and Ozymandias, both in sonnet form. Shelley’s classical studies gave him a grat understanding of poetical and dramatic form and he was at ease in a variety of metres: sonnets, poems in Spenserian stanzas, terza rima, blank verse, rhyming couplets. His versatility found expression in a wide variety of poetic forms: the ode, the lyric, the pastoral elegy, the narrative poem, lyrical drama and even a five-act tragedy. Shelley also made an important contribution to literary criticism with his unfinished essay A Defence of Poetry (1821), which argued for the importance of poetry in an increasingly material world. In it, he advanced the view that poets were essential because they alone could rise above the fragmented knowledge of an increasingly material world and see a pattern that is inherent in the future.