Sunday, September 26, 2010


Robert Graves, that great epigrammatical balladeer of twentieth century English poetry, once critically summarised Percy Bysshe Shelly (1792-1822) with “voice is too shrill”. Certainly, while Shelley and his friends Keats and Byron have often been referred to as the rock stars of nineteenth century Romantic poetry, one would not fairly refer to Shelley as a Meatloaf, but more of a John Lennon. 

Born into the family of a baronet, the young social campaigner, pamphleteer, and voice for the oppressed Irish, inevitably found himself in conflict with the powers that be, was “sent down” from Oxford after the distribution of an atheist pamphlet, and cut off virtually without funds. 
He left his teenage wife Harriet Westbrook - who subsequently drowned herself in the Serpentine - to elope with Mary Godwin, the daughter of libertarian thinker William Godwin and pioneer feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. While Shelley went on - despite any perceived shrillness of poetic voice, to become one of the greatest poets of the Romantic era, if not in all of English literature - during a sojourn on Lake Geneva in 1818 Mary wrote an all-time literary classic, the gothic novel Frankenstein

But the latter years of the Shelleys in self-imposed exile in northern Italy were dogged by financial woes, the heartbreak of infant death, and eventually by Shelley’s own. 

He loved the sea, and was sailing with two friends from Livorno to his home in Lerici when their boat was swamped in a storm, and all three men drowned. There was an outbreak of disease in Italy at the time, and local authorities insisted the bodies be cremated without delay on the beach. 

Stories abound about that day, including that Shelley had raged on to his tempestuous doom under full sail in the storm - and that Mary kept his heart. She is said to have reached into his chest as it was burning on the funeral pyre, plucked out his heart and kept it, sleeping with it under her pillow for the rest of her life. 
He was certainly never far from her thoughts, and she spent her own remaining decades editing and collecting his poems and plays, and ensuring major publication. Although he died a minor poet, by the time she died, 33 years later, his name was set to become one of the greatest in English poetry. Ozymandias remains one of the best known works of his enormous poetic legacy, along with his Adonais, his elegy to Keats, composed at his friend’s graveside in Rome. 

Shelley even made it back to Oxford, where his guitar and a lock of his hair are displayed. Not even Jimi Henrix, Jim Morrison or John Lennon got that kind of treatment. Like them, he too died before he got old. He was 29.

          People can die of mere imagination.
                                                                  - Chaucer 

From my book "Dead Famous: Deaths of the Famous and Famous Deaths".

My music film clip of Ozymandias


  1. But they haven't made a movie of them, like they have with Keats. That I know of...

  2. I did see one in the 80s, Rae... about Byron and Shelley and Mary... can't remember the title but it was pretty crook from memory.