Who was Shelley?
Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of great English poets, known for his lyrical and epic verse.
He was part of a group of poets and writers – from Lord Byron to his own wife Mary Shelley – whose writing has become part of the English canon. Shelley’s prominence has only grown since his death, and his influence, both literary and political, is evident in writers and thinkers from the Victorians to the 21st century.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) was born in Field Place, the family home in Sussex, and educated at Eton College. He entered University College, Oxford, in 1810, but was expelled in 1811 after publishing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. He then eloped with 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook and for the next three years engaged in radical politics and lived in various parts of Britain. In 1813 he privately distributed his first major poem, Queen Mab. In 1814 he met and eloped with the 16-year-old Mary Godwin, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. They married soon after Harriet’s suicide in 1816.
In 1816 Shelley and Mary spent time with Lord Byron in Geneva and visited the Alps, a visit which inspired Shelley’s poem Mont Blanc. In 1818 Shelley published his longest poem, The Revolt of Islam. Later that year he and Mary left England for good and moved to Italy, living in various cities and towns including Rome, Florence and Pisa, and spending more time with Byron. In Italy Shelley wrote a series of masterpieces including Prometheus Unbound, Julian and Maddalo, Epipsychidion and Adonais; shorter poems such as ‘To a Skylark’ and ‘Ode to the West Wind’; and his greatest prose work, A Defence of Poetry. He drowned off the Italian coast on 8 July 1822.
Oxford may not seem a natural place for Shelley’s works; the poet entered the University of Oxford in 1810, but his undergraduate career lasted fewer than two terms. In March 1811 he and a friend, T J Hogg, were expelled from University College following the publication of their pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. After his death, however, his family decided that his memorial should be built in University College and his papers given to the Bodleian Library; Lady Shelley wrote to the Librarian in 1893, ‘They will become objects of interest to the world at large’, and when his memorial was opened the Master of University College noted that ‘the rebel of eighty years ago’ was ‘the hero of the present century’.
The Bodleian Libraries hold one of the world’s greatest collection of Shelley’s works and manuscripts, as well as those of writers in his family and in his literary circles. For further resources, including further digitized works, please see:
- Shelley’s Ghost: a 2011 Bodleian exhibition bringing together the collections of the Bodleian Libraries and the New York Public Library to explore the lives and work of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.
- The Shelley-Godwin Archive: an online archive bringing together the digitized manuscripts of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Created as a partnership between the New York Public Library and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, in cooperation with Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the S-GA also includes key contributions from the Huntington Library, the British Library and the Houghton Library. In total, these partner libraries contain over 90% of all known relevant manuscripts.
- William Godwin’s Diary: a digital edition of the diary of William Godwin (1756–1836).
Shelley-related collections in the Bodleian Libraries (please note that special permission will be required to access these rare and fragile collections):