Percy Shelley: Rebel and Lover
A rebel in his own right, Percy Bysshe Shelley seemed destined for his life in the limelight as an author, poet, radical, lover, and so on. Born into wealth, Shelley was always sent to the best schools, but early on found himself in trouble at these prestigious academies. In his stay at Eton, Shelley instantly questioned and challenged the “tyrannical system of ‘fagging,’ whereby upperclassmen had the privilege of abusing their juniors” (Damrosch 869). His next stop, at Oxford, found him in even more adversity. Here Shelley got himself expelled for his The Necessity of Atheism pamphlet, which in return outraged his father and eventually was the downfall of their relationship (“Percy Shelley” 1).
Even with his questioning of authority and power at an early age, Shelley was also quite the lover. After the fallout with his father, Shelley moved to London and wed the young and beautiful Harriet Westbrook. Harriet bore two children of Shelley’s, but before the birth of the second, Percy had already bored and moved on to another woman who he had fallen for. That being, none other than the intelligent daughter Mary, born of Shelley’s role models William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. After a brief scandal about Shelley and Mary’s relationship due to Shelley’s previous one with Harriet, they married in 1814. Ever the proponent of free love Shelley was, however, and their relationship together was not the smoothest throughout. At times experimenting with free love, and eventually with Shelley falling in love and becoming infatuated with yet another woman (Jane Williams), it’s safe to say their marriage was not the typical marriage (Damrosch 869-870).
Percy Shelley, whether people agreed with them or not, did incorporate his way of life and his views into his writings. This is no more prevalent than in his poem The Mask of Anarchy. In this, Shelley brings together his rebellion of unfair treatment and authority, his call for equality, and his passion for love into one. Describing the events of the now infamous “Peterloo Massacre,” Shelley calls for the people to let the tyrants “Slash and stab and maim and hew,-/What they like, that let them do” (888). In return, though, he tells the people to simultaneously “With folded arms and steady eyes,/And little fear and less surprise,/Look upon them as they slay/Till their rage has died away” (888). Shelley clearly wants the people to rebel, question, and to act upon the tragic events of the massacre, but in a pacified way. The best way, for Shelley, was to fight violence with nonviolent resistance, until the tyrants “…return with shame/To the place from which they came/And the blood thus shed will speak/In hot blushes on their cheek” (888). While Shelley was adamantly calling out the government on their flaws, he preached to the people to love one another, and to resist in a ‘loving’ way.
Many people questioned Shelley’s ideals and morals, and did not agree with his rebelliousness and adherence to free love. Yet, considered today as a staple of the Romantic period, Shelley’s works have lived long past his early death, and inspired many other authors following him.
Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2010. 868-870, 879-888. Print.
“Percy Bysshe Shelley : The Poetry Foundation.” Poetry Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Oct. 2013. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/percy-bysshe-shelley>.