Rebel poet with ro­mance at his heart

His­to­rian DON­ALD STAN­LEY looks at the life of poet Percy Bysshe Shel­ley and his con­nec­tions to Buck­ing­hamshire

Buckinghamshire Advertiser - - NOSTALGIA -

IN 1817 the poet, Percy Bysshe Shel­ley, made his home in Al­bion House, Mar­low.

Af­ter be­ing ed­u­cated at Eton, he at­tended Ox­ford where he ab­sented him­self from lec­tures but read ex­ten­sively. He was ex­pelled when he re­fused to re­pu­di­ate a pam­phlet with the ti­tle ‘The Ne­ces­sity of Athe­ism’.

A school friend of his sis­ter was Har­riet West­brook. En­cour­aged by her father and older sis­ter, El­iza, the six­teen year-old Har­riet eloped to Scot­land to marry Shel­ley who was then aged nine­teen.

They duly re­mar­ried in a Lon­don church to le­git­imise un­der English law both their mar­riage and their baby daugh­ter.

De­spite Har­riet be­ing well ed­u­cated and in­volv­ing her­self in Shel­ley’s lit­er­ary and po­lit­i­cal projects their mar­riage was not a suc­cess.

Shel­ley found con­so­la­tion with Mary God­win, the daugh­ter of a po­lit­i­cal philoso­pher of whom he be­came a fol­lower. Shel­ley and Mary eloped. They and Mary’s step­sis­ter, Claire Clair­mont, vis­ited Switzer­land where they stayed with By­ron and his per­sonal physi­cian, John Poli­dori who was also a writer as­so­ci­ated with the Ro­man­tic Move­ment.

For amuse­ment one evening the party read aloud a col­lec­tion of Ger­man hor­ror sto­ries which prompted each to write a ghost story.

The first mod­ern vam­pire story in English, The Vam­pire, was Poli­dori’s con­tri­bu­tion al­though it was er­ro­neously at­trib­uted to By­ron whose own com­po­si­tion was not pub­lished. Mary com­menced her novel Franken­stein. By­ron is be­lieved to have been the father of Claire’s child.

Mean­while, Har­riet had taken a lover, by whom she be­came preg­nant. She drowned her­self in the Ser­pen­tine thus en­abling her hus­band and Mary to marry, shortly af­ter which they moved to Mar­low where she com­pleted Franken- stein. Ro­man­ti­cism em­braced a range of de­vel­op­ments in art, lit­er­a­ture, music and phi­los­o­phy in the late 18th and early 19th cen­turies. In Eng­land it chal­lenged the es­tab­lish­ment stress­ing the im­por­tance of ex­press­ing au­then­tic per­sonal feel­ings and hold­ing that peo­ple should fol­low ideals rather than im­posed con­ven­tions and rules.

The awe­some­ness of the world should be viewed from the per­spec­tive of an in­no­cent child.

The Ro­man­tics in­cluded Shel­ley, By­ron, Wordsworth, Co­leridge, Blake and Keats. It was their hope that their po­etry would help bring about such changes al­though they re­pu­di­ated the vi­o­lence that ac­com­pa­nied it else­where as in the French Revolution.

Shel­ley was ex­press­ing the faith he and his fel­low Ro­man­tics had in the in­flu­ence of po­etry when he wrote, “Po­ets are the un­ac­knowl­edged leg­is­la­tors of the world”.

July 1822: ‘The Burn­ing of Shel­ley’ painted by Louis Ed­ward Fournser show­ing Lord Ge­orge By­ron, Ed­ward Trelawney and Leigh Hunt burn­ing the drowned body of Percy Bysshe Shel­ley on a fu­neral pyre PHOTO: HULTON AR­CHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

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