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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.
Undeterred, Shelley continued to put his radical ideas on love and personal liberty into practice. In 1811, aged 19, he ran away with his sisters’ friend, the sixteen-year- old Harriet Westbrook, whom Shelley proposed to release from the tyranny of an unhappy life at home and school. After their marriage, they visited Ireland, where Shelley took up the cause of Catholic emancipation, writing a pamphlet and addressing a crowd on the issue. On his return to England, he settled in London and entered the circle of the well-Known radical William Godwin. He soon fell in love with Godwin’s daughter, Mary, and in 1814 the pair ran away to Switzerland, leaving Harriet behind them. Shelley briefly returned to England in 1815 and became financially independent thanks to an inheritance following his grandfather’s death. In 1816, he returned to Switzerland, staying in Geneva with Mary, his friend Polidori and the Gothic novelist’ Monk’ Gibbon, companions who added greatly to his notoriety in England. Harriet’s suicide in 1816 and his marriage to Mary in the same year turned public opinion further against him. After an unsuccessful legal battle for his two children by Harriet, Shelley left England forever, in the company of Mary and his two children by her. His home now became Italy, where he spent time travelling between Venice, Pisa and Naples.
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.
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