How the poet became famous after his death
200 years ago the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned at sea at the age of 29. At the time, his life and works were considered scandalous, in part because of his reputation as a sexually liberated vegetarian atheist, living in a threesome. He did not achieve literary fame during his lifetime, but he is now one of Britain’s most famous poets.
Shelley was writing during what is now called the Romantic period, which lasted from about 1780 to 1840. It was a time of innovative thought and new ideas that took place in science, industry, the arts and especially in literature. Other romantic writers include William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth, and Shelley’s friend Lord Byron.
Shelley’s notoriety began when he was publicly expelled from Oxford University for publishing an atheist pamphlet. Four years later, he courted scandal again, when he abandoned his pregnant wife and flee with 16-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later the famous author of Frankenstein) with his half-sister, Claire Clairmont. His poetry reflects his personal notoriety. In particular, the poem ‘Laon and Cythna‘ has been criticized for its attacks on religion and descriptions of an incestuous brother-sister relationship.
With Mary and Claire, Shelley lived a nomadic existence, moving across the UK and across Europe, before settling in Italy. It was here that Shelley wrote some of his most beloved poems, including Adonais, and began his last unfinished poem, “The Triumph of Life”. This is also where Shelley died. His sailboat, the Don Juan, sank near the Gulf of Spezia. The three passengers drowned and beached a few days later.
angel in death
The response to Shelley’s death has been phenomenal. A leading conservative newspaper, the Mail, published an obituary which read, “Shelley, the author of faithless poetry, has been drowned: now he knows whether there is a God or not.” His death became a growing romantic myth and his poetry became increasingly popular. His wife, Mary, started this Shelleyan legacy, describing him as an “angel”, a description that lasted throughout the 19th century.
In 1889 the continued fascination around Shelley’s death meant that his cremation became the subject of a painting; by Louis Edouard FournierShelley’s funeral‘. The painting depicts a remarkably preserved corpse on a pyre, surrounded by his friends, including Lord Byron (who actually went swimming in the sea at his funeral) and Mary Shelley kneeling in the background (she did not attend the funeral at all).
Shelley’s heart celebrates did not burn and was given to Mary. Modern doctors believe it may have calcified following an attack of tuberculosis. Apparently he was found wrapped in foil of Shelley’s poetry after Mary’s own death in 1851 and was buried at Bournemouth alongside her.
During the Victorian period Shelley became an inspiration to other literary figures including Robert Browning, George Eliot, Edgar Allan Poe and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Shelley’s reputation has been sanitized to such an extent that even her former college in Oxford has forgiven her rebellious past and erected a monument dedicated to her in 1893. Sculpted by Edward Onslow Ford, a graceful and angelic Shelley rests on a sacrificial altar, guarded by a weeping woman.
Shelley’s romantic reputation today
Interest in Shelley waned in the early 1900s, and it was not until the second half of the century that his writings became respected because of the wide-ranging and varied concerns therein. His complex and fascinating personal life has also been the subject of many biographies and an endless source of fascination.
Perhaps his greatest fame today is his marriage to the “mother” of science fiction, Mary Shelley. Shelley is known to have helped his wife with her Frankenstein manuscript and the two had a collaborative literary relationship. This work, alongside the recent popular the last manare certainly more widely read than Shelley’s poetry, which is often limited to educational settings.
In popular culture, it is primarily through Shelley’s relationship with Mary and other romantic characters that he is remembered primarily. The 2017 movie, Mary Shelley, with Douglas Booth as the poet. As the title suggests, Shelley’s role is portrayed as secondary to that of his wife, whose life is central to the story. Doctor Whothe the most popular UK sci-fi show, included Percy and Mary in their 2020 episode’The haunting of Villa Diodati‘. Again, the focus was on the genesis of Frankenstein. Even the popular comedy series drunk storyit is The 2016 segment on Shelley identified his relationship with his wife and friend, Lord Byron, as central to his appeal.
But the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s death is an important literary bicentenary. International events have occurred over the past year to mark key moments in his life, including #Shelley200. Exhibitions, in particular at Horsham Museum and the Shelley Conference in London, which will take place this weekend, demonstrate the enduring appeal and continued interest in his works. For many, Shelley’s legacy lives on.