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