Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in 1792, into a wealthy Sussex family which eventually attained minor noble rank—the poet’s grandfather, a wealthy businessman, received a baronetcy in 1806. Timothy Shelley, the poet’s father, was a member of Parliament and a country gentleman. The young Shelley entered Eton, a prestigious school for boys, at the age of twelve. While he was there, he discovered the works of a philosopher named William Godwin, which he consumed passionately and in which he became a fervent believer; the young man wholeheartedly embraced the ideals of liberty and equality espoused by the French Revolution, and devoted his considerable passion and persuasive power to convincing others of the rightness of his beliefs. Entering Oxford in 1810, Shelley was expelled the following spring for his part in authoring a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism—atheism being an outrageous idea in religiously conservative nineteenth-century England.
At the age of nineteen, Shelley eloped with Harriet Westbrook, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a tavern keeper, whom he married despite his inherent dislike for the tavern. Not long after, he made the personal acquaintance of William Godwin in London, and promptly fell in love with Godwin’s daughter Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he was eventually able to marry, and who is now remembered primarily as the author of Frankenstein. In 1816, the Shelleys traveled to Switzerland to meet Lord Byron, the most famous, celebrated, and controversial poet of the era; the two men became close friends. After a time, they formed a circle of English expatriates in Pisa, traveling throughout Italy; during this time Shelley wrote most of his finest lyric poetry, including the immortal “Ode to the West Wind” and “To a Skylark.” In 1822, Shelley drowned while sailing in a storm off the Italian coast. He was not yet thirty years old.
Shelley belongs to the younger generation of English Romantic poets, the generation that came to prominence while William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were settling into middle age. Where the older generation was marked by simple ideals and a reverence for nature, the poets of the younger generation (which also included John Keats and the infamous Lord Byron) came to be known for their sensuous aestheticism, their explorations of intense passions, their political radicalism, and their tragically short lives.
Shelley died when he was twenty-nine, Byron when he was thirty-six, and Keats when he was only twenty-six years old. To an extent, the intensity of feeling emphasized by Romanticism meant that the movement was always associated with youth, and because Byron, Keats, and Shelley died young (and never had the opportunity to sink into conservatism and complacency as Wordsworth did), they have attained iconic status as the representative tragic Romantic artists. Shelley’s life and his poetry certainly support such an understanding, but it is important not to indulge in stereotypes to the extent that they obscure a poet’s individual character. Shelley’s joy, his magnanimity, his faith in humanity, and his optimism are unique among the Romantics; his expression of those feelings makes him one of the early nineteenth century’s most significant writers in English.