Percy Bysshe Shelley: We Need Your Voice Today!



A pioneer of non-violent resistance to tyranny

Largely unrecognized during his lifetime, Shelley is today considered to be one of the major English-language poets. Less well known is the fact that he was a pioneer of non-violent resistance to tyranny, whose ideas influenced Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was the eldest legitimate son of Sir Timothy Shelley, Baronet and Whig Member of Parliament. His mother was a wealthy Sussex landowner. Shelley was thus the heir to a baronetcy and a large estate. He had a happy childhood, but was unhappy at Eton College, where he was regularly mobbed because of his strong principles and his refusal to take part in sports.

In 1810, after graduating from Eton, Shelley became a student at Oxford University. Legend has it that he attended only one lecture. However, while at Oxford, he was extremely active as a writer, publishing a series of books: the Gothic novel, “Zastrozzi” (1810), “St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian: A Romance” (dated 1811),  “Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire” (written together with his sister Elizabeth) and a collection of poetry entitled “Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholson” (written in collaboration with Thomas Jefferson Hogg).

Expelled from Oxford

All these books could have been considered subversive by the Oxford authorities, but no action was taken. However, when Shelley anonymously published “The Necessity of Atheism” in 1811, the University authorities threatened to expel him if he did not renounce his authorship. Shelley refused and was expelled. His influential father then intervened, and persuaded the authorities to reinstate his son if he would renounce his authorship as well as the principles expressed in the pamphlet. However, Shelley once again refused. This led to an estrangement between father and son.

Sir Thomas cut off his son’s allowance, and from then on, Shelley’s financial circumstances became precarious. He was still the heir to an estate with an income of 6,000 pounds per year, in those days an enormous sum, and he could (and did) borrow money against his future inheritance, but the amount that he could raise in that way was limited.

Godwin’s disciple

After being expelled from Oxford, Shelley visited the poet Robert Southey, who informed him that William Godwin was still alive. Shelley who had always been an ardent admirer of Godwin’s writing, was greatly excited by the news, and he immediately contacted Godwin, offering himself as a disciple.

At that time, England was going through a period of reaction against the excesses of the French Revolution, and Godwin’s books and articles were no longer popular. Left with two infant daughters to care for after the death of his wife, Godwin had been driven to marry his neighbor, Mary Jane Claremont, a widow who herself had a young daughter. Thus, when Shelley arrived at Godwin’s household he met three attractive young girls, Fanny Imlay, Jane Claremont and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. All three had been educated by Godwin.

Here is Jane Claremont’s description of the household: “All the family worked hard, learning and studying: we all took the liveliest interest in the great questions of the day. Common topics, gossiping, scandal, found no entrance in our circle for we had been taught by Mr. Godwin to think it the greatest misfortune to be fond of the world, or worldly pleasures or of luxury or money; and that there was no greater happiness than to think well of those around us, to love them, and to delight in being useful or pleasing to them”.

“The name of Godwin has been used to excite in me feelings of reverence and admiration”, the 20-year-old Shelley had written in his letter to Godwin. “…I had enrolled your name on the list of the honourable dead. I had felt regret that the glory of your being had passed from this earth of ours. It is not so. You still live, and I firmly believe are still planning the welfare of human kind”.

“I am young”, Shelley wrote, “You have gone before me, I doubt not a veteran to me in the years of persecution. Is it strange that, defying persecution as I have done, I should outstep the limits of custom’s prescription, and endeavour to make my desire useful by friendship with William Godwin?’”

Godwin answered immediately, and in the voluminous correspondence which followed he soon recognized Shelley’s genius.

Inspired by Godwin’s “Political Justice”, Shelley had decided to devote both his life and his fortune to political reform. (The fortune, however, was only a distant future prospect.) In his letters, Godwin advised slow changes through education as the best means of reform but Shelley’s whole temperament rebelled against caution and gradualism.

During the spring of 1812 Shelley wrote “An Address to the Irish People” and travelled to Ireland to work for the cause of Catholic emancipation. He assured the worried Godwin that the pamphlet contained “no religion but benevolence, no cause but virtue, no party but the world”. Shelley soon found himself so surrounded by beggars and government spies that he was forced to leave Ireland.

Shelley’s letters had by this time captured the imagination of the entire Godwin household, and whenever a new one arrived with its familiar handwriting, all three daughters and Mary Jane waited excitedly “on tiptoe” to know the news. Shelley, who dreamed of establishing a utopian community of free and enlightened friends, invited Godwin to come to Devon for a visit and Godwin (who was in the habit of making a small excursion during his summer vacation) did so; but after a terrible journey by boat in stormy weather he arrived at Lynemouth only to find Shelley gone. Alarmed by the arrest of his servant Dan (who had been posting Shelley’s “Declaration of Rights” and his ballad “The Devil’s Walk”), the young poet had left quietly with his entourage before he himself was arrested.

A wild romance

In 1814, Shelley had lodgings in Fleet Street but, between May and July, he lived mainly with the Godwin family. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was at that time sixteen and a half years old and extremely pretty, with long blond hair and her father’s expressive eyes. She had just returned from Scotland, where she had lived for two years with family friends, ostensibly for the sake of her health. Probably the real reason for Mary’s stay in Scotland was friction with her step-mother: Mary’s affection for her father had been enough to excite the jealousy of the new Mrs Godwin.

Shelley was immediately electrified by meeting Mary. As she told him of her daydreams, of her writing, and of the wild Scottish landscapes which she had just experienced, Mary seemed to him to combine the emotional sensitivity of Mary Wollstonecraft with the imagination and mental power of William Godwin. In an ode to Mary, Shelley wrote:

“They say that thou wert lovely from thy birth,
Of glorious parents, thou aspiring Child.
I wonder not, for One then left this earth
Whose life was like a setting planet mild,
Which clothed thee in a radiance undefiled
Of its departing glory, still her fame
Shines on thee through the tempests dark and wild
Which shake these latter days; and thou canst claim
The shelter from thy Sire of an immortal name.”

For her part, Mary was fascinated by the openness, generosity and warmth of the brilliant young writer who was her father’s best-loved disciple. In her copy of Shelley’s revolutionary poem “Queen Mab”, she wrote: “This book is sacred to me… I love the author beyond all power of expression…”

Because of her step-mother’s jealousy, it was uncomfortable for Mary to be at home; and she was in the habit of taking a book to the old St Pancreas churchyard where her mother was buried. Shelley followed her there and under the willow tree beside Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave they declared their love for each other. Meanwhile, Mary’s step-sister Jane, who had stage-managed the meeting, watched from a distant tombstone. Jane was (of course) also in love with Shelley and Fanny, the third sister, was in love with him too.

On 28 July 1814, Godwin awoke to find a note on his dressing table: Shelley had eloped with Mary and, amazingly, he and Mary had taken Jane with them. Mary was 16 years old, Jane 15, and Shelley 21. The fugitives had left at five in the morning and hurried to Dover where they embarked for France in a small boat. After a stormy and dangerous night on the Channel, they arrived at Calais. Meanwhile, Mrs Godwin set off in pursuit, hoping to rescue Jane and with the help of information from the London stables, she traced the runaways to their lodgings in Calais. Jane spent the next night with her mother, but in the morning she decided firmly to continue with Mary and Shelley.

Why had Shelley and Mary taken Jane? For one thing, Jane was the only one of the three who spoke fluent French and she was good at making practical arrangements. Shelley also thought that Jane needed to be rescued from the influence of the new Mrs Godwin. “I am not in the least in love with her”, Shelley is said to have explained, “but she is a nice little girl, and her mother is such a vulgar, commonplace woman, without an idea of philosophy. I do not think she is a proper person to form the mind of a young girl.’”

After arriving in Paris, Shelley, Mary and Jane bought a mule and they set out for Switzerland, sometimes riding the mule but for the most part walking. Switzerland was the country of Rousseau and the setting of Godwin’s novel, “Fleetwood”. They hoped that it would prove to be a land of enlightenment and freedom. After a few weeks in Switzerland, however, Shelley’s financial problems forced them to return to England. Mary later described the journey in her “History of a Six Week’s Tour”.

Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”

Jane now changed her name to one which she considered to be more romantic: Claire. Since she was no longer permitted a share of Shelley, Claire decided to capture a poet of her own and with remarkable resourcefulness and determination she managed to seduce Lord Byron, then at the height of his fame. This was an extraordinary accomplishment since Byron was being pursued by hordes of fashionable and beautiful women, including the famous Lady Caroline Lamb. However, Byron was soon forced to leave England because of scandals resulting from his affairs, especially his relationship with his half-sister Augusta.

On 2 May 1816, Shelley and Mary left England too, planning never to return. Shelley’s financial position had improved following the death of his grandfather in 1815. Shelley and Mary took Claire Clairmont with them. She was already pregnant with Lord Byron’s child, although probably none of them knew it. They headed for Geneva, hoping to meet Lord Byron there. Claire was anxious to show off her catch to Shelley and the two poets were looking forward to meeting each other. Although Shelley was not yet famous as a writer, Byron had read and admired his work

Byron had rented a large house called Villa Diodati, near Lake Geneva, and he was staying there with his personal physician, Dr Polidori. Shelley, Mary and Claire found quarters at the nearby Maison Chapuis, and before long the whole Villa Diodati group had settled into a routine of excursions on the lake or walks along the shore, followed by long evenings of conversation at Villa Diodati. Whenever the weather was bad, as it frequently was that summer, Shelley, Mary and Claire spent the night at Diodati instead of returning to Maison Chapuis.

Because of Byron’s fame, their movements were followed avidly by scandalized English tourists, who spent hours looking at the party through field-glasses and telescopes. Stories of imorality filtered back to England; and the rumors had some foundation, since Byron had resumed his affair with Claire. He looked down on her, but Claire was very pretty, and, as Byron explained, “I could not exactly play the stoic with a woman who has scrambled eight hundred miles to unphilosophize me”.

Byron was writing the third canto of “Childe Harold”, and in the evenings he often read new sections of it to the others. The romantic mood of the poem and the splendor of the distant Alps contributed to the atmosphere of the summer evenings at Diodati.

Byron also retold for his friends the myth of Prometheus Porphyros, which he had translated from Aeschylus at Harrow. In this myth, Prometheus steals the sacred fire of the gods and gives it to mankind. Punished by Zeus, Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasus, while an eagle tears out his vitals. A later version of the myth, Prometheus Plasticator, was popular among the Romans, and in this later version, Prometheus creates or recreates mankind by giving life to a figure of clay.

Both Byron and Shelley recognized the symbolic possibilities of the myth. Prometheus had already been used as a symbol of the creative artist but Shelley, with his interest in science, saw that Prometheus could also stand as a symbol for scientific creativity. Benjamin Franklin had recently performed the famous experiment in which he flew a kite during a thunderstorm, thus drawing down lightning and showing it to be identical with electricity. Franklin, Shelley realized, could be thought of as a modern Prometheus, who defied the thunderbolts of Zeus and brought the sacred fire of the gods down from heaven for the use of mankind.

The weather worsened at Diodati, and for many days, heavy rain and lightning confined the party to the villa. To pass the time, they read aloud to each other from a book of German ghost stories. The storm outside and the strange Gothic stories had a strong effect on Shelley’s imagination, and one night he rushed out of the room with a cry of terror, explaining later that he had seen a vision of a woman with eyes instead of breasts.

“We will each write a ghost story”, Byron said, and his idea was adopted with enthusiasm. Dr Polidori began a tale of a skull-headed woman; and both Byron and Shelley began stories too but, being poets, they soon tired of writing prose. Mary was unable to think of an idea sufficiently horrible to produce terror in a reader. Every morning she was asked whether she had found a theme and she was forced to answer sadly that she had not.

Meanwhile, Byron and Shelley continued to talk of the possibilities of the myth of Prometheus, especially as a symbol for scientific creativity. Perhaps, one day, science might achieve the Promethean feat of creating life. Shelley was especially interested in experiments with electricity, such as the discovery by Galvani that an electrical current could cause the legs of a dismembered frog to move.

“Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley”, Mary wrote later. Finally, well past midnight, Mary went to bed; but she was unable to sleep. Images from the conversation, to which she had been an attentive but almost silent listener, passed uncontrollably through her mind. Later, remembering this half-waking dream, she wrote:

“I saw, with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world”

Mary realized that she had found her theme. In fact, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, not yet 19 years old, had discovered an enduring symbol for science out of control, science pursued without regard for its social consequences. The next day, encouraged by Shelley, she began to write “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus”,

Shelly’s “Ozymandias”

“I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’ ”

The Peterloo Massacre

Shelley wrote his poem “The Masque of Anarchy” in response to the Peterloo Massacre, which took place at St. Peter’s field, Manchester on the 16th of August 1819. Cavalry soldiers of the government charged a crowd of 50,000 citizens who were peacefully assembled to ask for better representation in Parliament. They were suffering from unemployment and from famine produced by the Corn Laws. The cavalry slashed down hundreds of the protesters with their sabres. including women and children. Shelley’s poem advocating non-violent resistance to tyranny was an inspiration to Thoreau, Tolstoy and Gandhi. Here is the poem:

“Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.

“And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there;
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew;
What they like, that let them do.

“With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay,
Till their rage has died away:

“Then they will return with shame,
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek:

“Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many, they are few!”

Percy Bysshe Shelley, major poet, social reformer, pioneer of non-violent resistance to tyranny, we need your voice today!

This article is a chapter of John Avery’s new book “We Need Their Voices Today”. Rest of the chapters can be read HERE

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.  In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004.

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