The Thames at Marlow
In 1792 Wordsworth and Coleridge were young radicals. Tom Paine was travelling the country giving speeches to local revolutionary societies. He published the second part of his Rights Of Man. Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley's future mother in law, published her Vindication Of The Rights Of Women. In France the Revolution was turning nasty, showing the dark side of this tide of change. Britain declared war on France the following year.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born into this turbulent world on 4th August 1792 at Field Place in Sussex. His family was wealthy. Shelley's grandfather, born in modest circumstances in New Jersey, made his fortune after travelling to England and eloping with two heiresses. Five sisters followed Shelley, and for the rest of his life he liked to surround himself with women. At age ten Shelley had to leave his sisters and go away to school, the Syon House Academy, Brentford. This was a tough place, and the delicate Shelley with his feminine appearance was never going to fit in. He took refuge in gothic romances and solitude. However, he did enjoy a visit by Dr Adam Walker, who came to talk about scientific advances of the day. Walker's talk was on telescopes, electricity and magnetism. Shelley was very impressed, and returning home he tried to persuade his sisters to help with experiments to cure chilblains by passing an electric current through them.
Eton College Chapel
After Syon House Academy Shelley went to Eton, which was to be the longest residence of his life, from 1804 to 1810. As at his previous school Shelley suffered at the hands of other boys, and once stabbed a school mate with a fork during a fight. The curriculum, limited almost entirely to reading Latin and Greek, and composing verse in those languages, offered no compensations. Shelley was much more interested in chemistry. Rather than denying the mystical possibilities of life, science was a source of mysticism to Shelley. He might have been a scientist, but lacked the temperament for patient experiment. Instead he lost himself in fantasies involving balloon trips over Africa, or living in a world transformed by electricity. With his head away on these science fiction adventures he would forget to do the every day things, such as tying his shoe laces. He soon became known as "mad Shelley".
In his last two years at Eton, Shelley found sympathetic guidance with Dr James Lind, who was physician to George III. Lind had a background in the sciences that so fascinated Shelley. He had been connected with the Lunar Society, a group of scientists and engineers which had been centred on Soho House in 1780s Birmingham. Under Lind's guidance Shelley began to learn modern languages, and read seriously, enjoying anti-religious writers such as Lucretious and Condorcet. William Godwin's ideas about the end of government also had a great influence on Shelley. By his final year he was able to publish a gothic novel, and have a banquet for eight of his friends on the proceeds. Just before moving to Oxford he published a volume of terrible poetry, which included one poem plagiarised from another writer, Monk Lewis. When his publisher realised the plagiarism Shelley panicked and demanded that all copies of his poems be destroyed. It wasn't a promising start.
At Oxford Shelley's interest in science continued. His friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg wrote the following description of his room at University College, which was turned into a kind of mad laboratory:
"Books, boots, papers, shoes, philosophical instruments, clothes, pistols, linen, ammunition, and phials innumerable, with money, stockings, prints, crucibles, bags and boxes scattered on the floor and in every place... The tables, and especially the carpet, were already stained with large spots of various hues, which frequently proclaimed the agency of fire. An electrical machine, an air pump, the galvanic trough, a solar microscope and large glass jars and receivers, were conspicuous among the matter." (Quoted in Shelley and his World by Claire Tomalin)
Shelley wrote more dreadful poetry and gothic prose. His cousin Medwin looked at all this carry on, and was moved to say that "insanity hung as by a hair over the head of Shelley". The university authorities also took a dim view of Shelley's state of mind, particularly when he published a pamphlet arguing that free enquiry should be encouraged into religious belief. This pamphlet, which he called The Necessity Of Atheism was sent to bishops and heads of colleges, and to the professor of poetry. As a result, on 25th March 1811 Shelley, and his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, were expelled from the university. Hogg described Shelley as being in a state of acute excitement and distress. Following bitter rows with his father, it was agreed that Shelley would have £200 a year, and permission to leave home and live wherever he wished. In the midst of this confusion he fell in love with Harriet Westbrook, a friend of his sisters. Although Shelley had always been suspicious of marriage, youthful rebelliousness was aroused when his father announced that he would finance any number of illegitimate children, but would not put up with an unsuitable marriage. These double standards, typical of the times, appalled Shelley, and he planned his protest against them. On 25th August 1811 he married Harriet Westbrook. He was nineteen, Harriet sixteen. The £200 allowance was immediately stopped. Undaunted Shelley took his new wife, and a small entourage - which consisted of Hogg, Harriet's sister, and a woman named Elizabeth Hitchener - off to the Lake District, where they lived at Chestnut Cottage near Keswick. This followed an upset in York where Hogg tried to seduce Harriet. Shelley, with his modern free loving ideas, didn't mind, but Harriet did.
After a trip to Ireland to engage in some radical pamphlet writing, the Shelley group moved in 1812 to Lynmouth in north Devon. Here he worked on his poem Queen Mab, and continued to work on radical leaflets. Rowing out from Lynmouth he sent leaflets out into the world in bottles and on home made boats. They would also be launched from the hill top at dusk suspended from fire balloons....
Bright ball of flame that through the gloom of even
Silently takest thine aetherial way,
And with surpassing glory dimn'st each ray
Twinkling amid the blue depths of Heaven
(Sonnet To A Balloon Laden With Knowledge)
Shelley's Hotel, Lynmouth - Click here for more information, guest reviews, room availability and bookings.
A servant named Dan was sent to distribute pamphlets in nearby Barnstable, where the poor man was arrested and sentenced to six months imprisonment. Failing to obtain Dan's release, Shelley did what he could by paying fifteen shillings a week to ease prison conditions for his servant. Sending off pamphlets in fire balloons seemed like good fun, but Shelley was playing a dangerous game. 1812 saw conflict reaching its height on the continent. Wellington marched into Madrid in August, and Napoleon's invasion of Russia reached Moscow in September. The authorities were not in a liberal mood. Shelley himself was lucky to escape prison. On top of the risk his political views posed, hopeless finances meant that arrest for debt was a constant possibility. Fortunately Shelley's Lynmouth landlady was so taken with him that she lent him money, and had a whip round amongst neighbours for her fascinating young resident. Mrs Hooper's Lodgings where the group stayed still exists, and is now known as Shelley's Hotel.
The next move was to "a village exactly calculated to appeal to his interest in man's ability to reconstruct the world on a better plan than God's" ( Shelley And His World by Claire Tomalin). This village was Tremadoc in north Wales, a model village built on an area of reclaimed sea marshes. Money for the project was running out, and rather touchingly a penniless Shelley promised to help Tremadoc's founder William Madocks MP. Typically, coolness then followed enthusiasm: Shelley decided to leave Tremadoc after an "attack" on his house, which may have been a real attack, a hallucination - Shelley took laudanum regularly - or a fabrication designed to give an excuse to leave. A similar "attack" had taken place in Keswick. Moving to London the group awaited the birth of Harriet's first child.
The birth of Shelley and Harriet's daughter, Eliza Ianthe, coincided with a deterioration in their marriage. After a move to Bracknell in Berkshire, Shelley had a crisis that changed the course of his life. 1814 was to see him leave Harriet and run off with sixteen year old Mary Godwin. Mary was the daughter of William Godwin, and the women's rights campaigner Mary Wollstonecraft, who had published her best known book in the year of Shelley's birth. Shelley had met Mary Godwin during a trip to London trying to gain support for Tremadoc. In running off with Mary all hope of reconciliation between Shelley and his family ended. A supportive friendship with William Godwin was also finished. Perhaps it was the idea that Mary Godwin was daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft that was the real attraction. Young idealistic Shelley was a great admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft. The idea of living with the great woman's daughter seemed exciting enough for him to take a step that had such huge consequences. On 26th June 1814 the couple proclaimed their love beside Mary Wollstonecraft's grave in Old St Pancreas churchyard - she had died giving birth to her daughter. In July Shelley asked permission to marry but was refused. A night time elopement followed on 28th of July.
The adventure that followed had its undeniably bizarre elements. The couple made their way to Dover, with Mary's sister Jane making up a little entourage of women which was Shelley's preferred living arrangement. Mrs Godwin, William's second wife, gave chase, but returned home when the girls refused to come back with her. A small boat took the group to Calais, from where they travelled to Switzerland, deciding to stay for six months, but only managing two days before running out of money and heading back to England again. The first stop back in London was the lodgings of Shelley's former wife Harriet. Mary and Jane sat outside for two hours in a coach, while Shelley tried to persuade Harriet, of all people, to pay their fares! Shelley was now penniless, with one daughter, and two more babies on the way, one with Harriet, and one with Mary. Shelley was not popular with anyone, except of course young women, who generally thought he was dreamy. All of William Godwin's daughters seemed to be in love with him.
For the next year or so, Shelley's group lived in Bishopsgate, London. As might be expected, events had that special, almost comic, Shelley chaos. Hogg came back and flirted with Mary. Shelley became close to Jane - Mary's sister - who then fell out of favour, and started calling herself Claire for some reason. Shelley saw a doctor who told him he was dying of tuberculosis. A good, active holiday rowing on the Thames and camping on its banks seemed to cure him, if he was actually ill in the first place. Shelley loved the Thames. Marlow on Thames was a favourite place. The group would also relax "under the oak shades" of Windsor Great Park. Mary reports that this was the time when Shelley gave up hope of changing the world through political agitation. Instead he settled down to writing poetry. The Thames riverside landscape was the setting for Alastor, which describes a young poet who dreams of an ideal love only to wake to disillusion and death.
Chateau de Chillon - on the shores of Lake Geneva - photo by Julian Jones
Another trip to Europe was undertaken in 1816, and it was on this trip that Shelley met Lord Byron. Shelley's group already had a link to Byron through Mary's sister Jane - now called Claire remember - who had written to him for advice on becoming an actress. Byron didn't seem to offer any advice, but he did find time to seduce Claire and make her pregnant. In his famously caddish way, Byron soon tired of Claire and had no interest in the baby. Nevertheless Claire remained obsessed with the charismatic lord. She pursued him in Europe, and it was Claire who introduced Shelley to Byron outside the Hotel d'Angleterre on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The two poets, and their respective entourages, got on well. Through the wet, cold summer of 1816, as the world sat under a volcanic cloud from the Tambora eruption, there would be meandering nights of drinking and talking in rented lakeside houses. During one of these evening sessions, the group all agreed to write a ghost story. Mary's effort would become Frankenstein. Interestingly this story harks back to Shelley's early interest in science. Mary's ghost story idea followed a conversation about science, religious doctrine, and an attempt by Erasmus Darwin to create life in the laboratory. Shelley, meanwhile, returned to his poetry, and wrote his first great poem Hymn To Intellectual Beauty. He then wrote his famous poem about Mont Blanc, after visiting the mountain on the journey back to England.
Shelley's Cottage in West Street, Marlow
Back in England, on 15th December 1816, Shelley received news that Harriet had committed suicide. Her body had been found in the Serpentine. Depression had followed the break with Shelley, and the failure of a love affair with an army officer. In the shadow of this tragedy Shelley and Mary married at St Mildred's Church in London's Bread Street on 30th December. Living at Albion House in Marlow, Mary finished Frankenstein, while Shelley worked on a rather obscure epic poem called Laon and Cyntheia. After the trauma of Harriet's suicide, Shelley seemed to find a moment of peace. Marlow on Thames was a lovely place, and through the summer of 1817 much writing was done on the Thames, or beside it. When he wasn't writing Shelley was trying to arrange poor relief in Marlow. His well-to-do neighbours thought he was mad. The cottage where the Shelleys lived in Marlow survives in West Street, which runs off Marlow's main square. A large plaque identifies it.
By autumn of 1817 the peace was over. Shelley convinced himself that he was suffering from elephantiasis, after sitting next to a woman with fat legs. Mary's next child, Clara, was born. Then Shelley was arrested for debt, and lived in lodgings off the Euston Road. Mary and Claire came to visit him alternately, while the other stayed in Marlow with the children. All this upset spurred another escape from Britain. Shelley, Mary, Claire, two maids, and baby Clara travelled to Europe, the other children being left with guardians. But if Shelley was looking for peace, all he found by running away to Europe was the usual chaos. Claire had had a daughter by Byron, named Allegra, and Byron bizarrely insisted on possession of Allegra as a condition of paying for her, even though he had no interest in the little girl. Since Byron showed no inclination to return from his own European wanderings to collect Allegra, Shelley's party decided to take her to Byron. Claire was devastated at losing Allegra to Byron. It is then thought that Shelley, while consoling Claire over the loss of her daughter, made Claire pregnant. There was more trauma to come: Shelley took Claire on a trip to Venice, which like making her pregnant, was planned as a way of distracting her from Allegra's loss. They took baby Clara with them. In Venice, following a short illness the baby died. Mary was furious and deeply distressed.
In a subsequent period of depression Shelley wrote some of his finest poetry. Whilst living in Naples in December 1818 Shelley wrote Stanzas Written In Dejection Near Naples. Then after moving to Rome, he wrote perhaps his greatest poem Prometheus Unbound, writing much of it at the Baths of Caracalla. The tragedy continued when in June 1819 Shelley's son William died. Misery continued to fuel Shelley's best work. In October 1819 he wrote Ode To The West Wind in Florence, and the final part of Prometheus Unbound. After moving to Pisa he met Emilia Vivien, who inspired Episychidion, Shelley's passionate attempt to reconcile free love with the ideals of romance and loyalty.
Tragedy was to be unremitting from now until Shelley's approaching death. In May 1821 news reached Shelley of the death of fellow poet and friend John Keats. April 1822 saw the death of Allegra. Shelley was now in an unstable state of mind, reflected in the dark Triumph Of Life. Sailing seemed to help his mood, and in May 1822 he took delivery of the Don Juan, a boat he had commissioned. He set off in Don Juan, intending to sail from Pisa to Leghorn where he was to meet his publisher Leigh Hunt. Shelley was not a competent sailor, and neither were the two men he was with. A storm blew up, and there is a story of an Italian captain offering to take the Don Juan's incompetent little crew to safety. When they turned down the offer of help, the Italian captain advised them to at least take down their sails. The Don Juan sank with all its sails up ten miles off Viareggio. Ten days later three bodies were washed up on the beach. Shelley was identified by his clothes, and a copy of Keats' poems in his jacket pocket. Friends then arranged a funeral pyre on the beach. Shelley's ashes were placed in the protestant cemetery in Rome, where his son William, and Keats also lay.
This was a chaotic end to a chaotic life which careered in a crazy pursuit of fulfillment. In his poem Prometheus Unbound Shelley wrote of a poet who in the end does not find anything, inspite of all the searching. There are no final "mortal blisses". Travelling in pursuit of Shelley in Britain, from Marlow, to Windsor, to the sunshine of Lynmouth, I got a sense of his wandering life. He had seen many things but did not know what they amounted to. In some ways of course this is a sad conclusion: in other ways it is not a conclusion at all. Things do not finally work themselves out, and in the endlessness of things there is the continual promise of something more. Disappointments are "nurslings of immortality".
On a poet's lips I slept
Dreaming like a love-adept
In the sound his breathing kept;
Nor seeks nor finds he mortal blisses,
But feeds on aerial kisses
Of shapes that haunt thought's wildernesses
He will watch from dawn to gloom
The lake reflected sun illume
The yellow bees, the ivy bloom,
Nor heed nor see, what things they be;
But from these create he can
Forms more real than living man,
Nurslings of immortality!
One of these awakened me
And I sped to succour thee
(737 - 750)