“I solemnly vow that I shall never, through silence, align myself with egotistical and influential individuals; I pledge to dedicate my existence to the pursuit of beauty.”
– André Moloyer, “Biography of Shelley”
In the year 1811, on the 25th of March, a young Shelley faced expulsion from Oxford University due to his dissemination of the pamphlet titled “The Inevitability of Atheism,” which ardently advocated for materialism. Consequently, his father, a devout Christian, promptly disowned and evicted him from their familial abode. This transpired when Shelley had barely reached the tender age of 18.
Shelley, undoubtedly the most familiar Romantic poet to the Chinese populace, gifted us with the now-famous adage, “Winter is coming, can spring be far behind?” Throughout his lifetime, Shelley remained a contentious figure due to his dissenting views on age-old traditions, such as his opposition to the institution of marriage and his disdain for divinity. Engels, recognizing his extraordinary insight, hailed him as a “prophetic genius,” while British critics dubbed him a “demonic poet.”
Now, let us delve into the origins of his notoriety and gain insight into the essence of his character.
First and foremost, we encounter an atheist who emerged from a religious scholastic upbringing.
Shelley, hailing from an aristocratic lineage, gained entry into England’s preeminent religious institution, Eton, at the tender age of 12. However, his experiences within this esteemed establishment eventually molded him into a staunch materialist.
According to Shelley’s cousin, Medivh, he possessed a “fragile physique and an angelic countenance.” His seniors, perceiving him as feeble, subjected him to their oppressive dominance, coercing Shelley into servitude. Although he valiantly resisted, he was met with repeated thrashings. The headmaster of the school, a devout Christian named Kit, turned a blind eye to Shelley’s torment, even though he himself held disdain for Shelley’s more feminine attire.
The harsh realities of his existence compelled Shelley to seek solace within the realms of literature. After every encounter with bullying, Shelley would retrieve discarded volumes of poetry and philosophy from the mire, cast aside by his classmates, and seek refuge by the riverside, where he engrossed himself in solitary reading. The works of Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Diderot resonated deeply within his soul, fueling his audacious challenge against religious authority and the concept of God. Coupled with the anguish he endured at Eton College, Shelley became an unyielding materialist, defying all forms of authority, divine or otherwise.
His contemplation of religion ultimately proved to be his undoing. Merely a year after his admission to Oxford University, Shelley distributed his provocative booklet, “The Inevitability of Atheism,” among his fellow students. The audacious title swiftly captivated the attention of the entire institution, leading to Shelley’s expulsion as Oxford aimed to avoid ecclesiastical reproach. In addition, Shelley’s father disinherited him and severed all familial ties.
Secondly, we encounter a captive of love ensnared within the abyss of matrimony.
Shelley once proclaimed to his first love, Harriet, that “marriage is the sepulcher of love.” The devout Harriet could not tolerate Shelley’s skepticism concerning the sanctity of this institution, thus gradually alienating herself from him.
Little did Shelley envision that this jest would not only shatter his first romance but also foreshadow the tragic love affairs that awaited him.
Cast out from his ancestral home by his father due to their disputed inheritance, Shelley roamed aimlessly, relying on the support of distant relatives. During his six-month sojourn in a humble Welsh inn, he encountered another Harriet, the daughter of the innkeeper, sharing the same name as his former beloved. Upon learning of her plight, enduring domestic violence at the hands of her father, Shelley resolved to elope with her.
Despite a passionate honeymoon period, fissures swiftly emerged within their relationship. Perhaps Shelley’s intentions toward Harriet were merely rooted in sympathy or an idealized notion of first love, for it became evident that Harriet had genuinely fallen for him. Their union was inherently imbalanced: Shelley, a nobleman, and Harriet, a simple country girl, lacked the intellectual rapport that Shelley envisioned in an ideal partner, someone capable of engaging in profound discussions on poetry and philosophy.
In Shelley’s eyes, his wife’s soul appeared vacant and insipid, prompting him to abandon Harriet and abscond shortly after she became pregnant. Overwhelmed by the betrayal of her lover, Harriet succumbed to despair, taking her own life by drowning in a lake.
By this time, Shelley had already found solace in the arms of another. A mere fortnight after Harriet’s demise, he exchanged vows with Mary Godwin in a sacred ceremony. Mary, thedaughter of renowned feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and political philosopher William Godwin, possessed an intellect that matched Shelley’s own. Their union, founded on mutual admiration for each other’s intellectual prowess, laid the groundwork for a profound and enduring love.
Shelley’s relationship with Mary proved to be the most significant of his life. Together, they embarked on a journey of intellectual exploration, engaging in deep conversations on philosophy, literature, and social reform. It was during a rainy summer spent with Mary and their close friend Lord Byron in Switzerland that Shelley penned his magnum opus, “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.” This seminal work, born out of a ghost story competition among the group, went on to become one of the most renowned and influential novels in literary history.
Tragically, Shelley’s life was cut short at the age of 29. On July 8, 1822, while sailing his schooner, the Don Juan, off the coast of Italy, a sudden storm engulfed the vessel, leading to its demise. Shelley’s body was found washed ashore, and his remains were cremated on the beach, as he had requested. His ashes were interred in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, where his tombstone bears the famous epitaph: “Cor Cordium” (Heart of Hearts).
Despite his untimely death, Shelley’s legacy endures. His poetry, characterized by its lyrical beauty and radical ideas, continues to inspire generations of readers. Shelley’s unwavering commitment to individuality, social justice, and freedom of thought remains a beacon of hope and inspiration for those who challenge the status quo. His words, filled with passion and idealism, continue to resonate with readers around the world, reminding us of the power of poetry to provoke thought and ignite change.
In conclusion, Percy Bysshe Shelley was a complex and controversial figure, shaped by his experiences, beliefs, and relationships. As an atheist and materialist, he fiercely challenged religious authority and advocated for intellectual freedom. His tumultuous love affairs and tragic personal life added layers of depth and emotion to his poetry. Despite his early demise, Shelley’s contributions to literature and his unwavering pursuit of beauty ensure that his influence will endure for generations to come.