In This Article Percy Bysshe Shelley

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Biographies
  • General Studies
  • Shelley in General Studies of the Romantic Period
  • Collections of Essays
  • Poetics and Process
  • Politics
  • Philosophy
  • Religion
  • Sexuality, Feminism, and Gender
  • Some Influences on Shelley
  • Contemporaries, Readers, and Reputation

British and Irish Literature Percy Bysshe Shelley
by
Andrew Lacey
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0155

Introduction

Percy Bysshe Shelley (b. 1792–d. 1822) is now recognized as a major writer, chiefly a poet, of the Romantic period. His life was short, peripatetic, and frequently dogged by scandal. Treated badly in the reviews, he never knew great literary success in his lifetime. From privileged beginnings, Shelley quickly ran into trouble at Oxford: he was expelled in his second term, in 1811, for refusing to deny the authorship of the pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. By the time of the private publication of his long “Philosophical Poem” Queen Mab (1813), Shelley had been married, increasingly unhappily, for nearly two years to Harriet Westbrook, who would later commit suicide in 1816. Having eloped with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in 1814, Shelley published his first major volume Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude: and Other Poems in early 1816, and the pair spent the summer of that year with Byron on the Continent, during which time Shelley wrote his famous lyrics “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc.” Shelley and Mary married in late 1816. Never secure in his finances, and feeling generally disillusioned with life in England, Shelley left for good in 1818, moving with Mary to Italy, where Byron, a firm influence, was residing. There, the Shelleys, Byron, and their circle lived as exiles, Shelley writing and publishing some of his finest poems, including Prometheus Unbound (1820), Epipsychidion, and Adonais (both 1821), all in spite of difficult personal circumstances: in his final years, Shelley endured grief (the deaths of his children Clara and William), anxiety (increasing strain in his relationship with Mary), and bouts of ill health (nephritis and ophthalmia). Before reaching the age of thirty, Shelley drowned in the Bay of Spezia, his boat, the Don Juan, having gone down in a storm. The twenty-four-year-old Mary, in the midst of a fresh bereavement, heroically took on the task of saving and copying Shelley’s manuscripts, publishing his Posthumous Poems in 1824; further (highly admirable, but flawed) editions of Shelley’s poetry and prose, also edited by Mary, followed (1839/40). Since his death, critical opinion on Shelley has varied wildly, and his reputation has been checkered. Famously, Matthew Arnold defined Shelley as “a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain,” T. S. Eliot lamented that “the ideas of Shelley seem to me always to be ideas of adolescence,” and F. R. Leavis judged that he had “a weak grasp on the actual.” Since the 1950s in North America (later in Britain), Shelley’s status as an important writer, and his place on university syllabuses, has become more secure. This article will present, selectively, some of the most important sources on Shelley, concentrating primarily on post-1950s scholarship.

General Overviews

The references cited in this section fall into three main categories: shorter introductions, longer works of criticism (although suitable for newer students of Shelley), and collections of essays. The shorter introductions are best approached first: Ferber 1993 and Hodgart 1985, then Reiman 1989, and, lastly, Hamilton 2000. Baker 1948, although dated, is one of the seminal works of modern Shelley studies, the current richness of which is plainly evident from a glance at the contents pages of Morton 2006 and (especially) the landmark work by O’Neill and Howe 2013. More advanced students of Shelley will find these latter two volumes most useful; the suggestions for further reading in O’Neill and Howe 2013, listed at the end of each essay, are particularly helpful. O’Neill 1989 offers essential grounding in the external influences that shaped Shelley’s writing life. Taken together, the sources in this section shed light not only on Shelley the man and his work, but also on the literary, historical, social, political, and philosophical contexts of his times.

  • Baker, Carlos. Shelley’s Major Poetry: The Fabric of a Vision. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1948.

    E-mail Citation »

    This important early study, written in a clear and accessible style, traces in a roughly chronological way the development of Shelley’s thought over the decade 1812–1822. Contains substantial readings of Queen Mab, Alastor, The Revolt of Islam, Prometheus Unbound, Epipsychidion, Adonais, and “The Triumph of Life.”

  • Ferber, Michael. The Poetry of Shelley. London: Penguin, 1993.

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    Explicitly aimed at new readers of Shelley, Ferber offers concise critical analyses of thirteen of the major poems and covers much ground in doing so. Chapter 6, on “Ode to the West Wind,” offers a particularly good, close reading. With a short appendix of quotations about Shelley.

  • Hamilton, Paul. Percy Bysshe Shelley. Tavistock, UK: Northcote, 2000.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv5qdhz4E-mail Citation »

    Produced for the “Writers and Their Work” series, this short, densely argued book primarily explores the materialistic and revolutionary orientations of Shelley’s writing. Best approached later, after Ferber 1993, Hodgart 1985, and Reiman 1989.

  • Hodgart, Patricia. A Preface to Shelley. London: Longman, 1985.

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    A lucid, concise account of Shelley’s life, works, and times, containing sections on Shelley’s early biographers, his philosophical attitudes, and the historical background to his writing. Contains brief but illuminating discussions of several of his major works, including parts of Alastor, Prometheus Unbound, and Hellas. With family trees and a chronological table.

  • Morton, Timothy, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Shelley. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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    A collection of ten essays by leading Shelleyans including Jack Donovan, Jerrold E. Hogle, and William Keach. Part 2, which explores Shelley’s work as a lyricist, dramatist, storyteller, translator, and political poet in five essays, is particularly rich. Also contains a useful chronology by Theresa Kelley.

  • O’Neill, Michael. Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Literary Life. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1989.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-20294-2E-mail Citation »

    An engaging literary life, interweaving critical insights from one of Shelley’s best modern readers with quotations from Shelley’s writing, chiefly his prose. Not designed to offer sustained literary criticism of the poems; intended more as an exploration of Shelley’s writing life in its literary, sociopolitical, and ideological contexts.

  • O’Neill, Michael, and Anthony Howe, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    E-mail Citation »

    A weighty, recent collection of forty-two essays, many by the foremost Shelleyans in the field today. Explores, in five well-conceived parts, Shelley’s biography and relationships; prose; poetry; culture, traditions, and influences; and afterlives. A thorough and valuable assessment of the state of Shelley studies in the early 21st century.

  • Reiman, Donald H. Percy Bysshe Shelley. Updated ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

    E-mail Citation »

    Following on from the first edition of 1969, this edition provides an updated chronology, notes, and bibliography, as well as a new preface. A sensitive introductory study of Shelley’s poetry and prose, presented chronologically, with each chapter usefully subdivided.

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