The scandalous life of 19th century Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley rivals that of the most shocking celebrities of our modern age. For him, art was all – even if the pursuit of that art meant the sacrifice of his wife, his children, and his reputation.
In 1814, Percy Shelley abandoned his pregnant wife, Harriet, to run away to Switzerland with the daughter of philosopher William Godwin and women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft. A scandal, to be sure, but while living outside the bounds of society – and of marriage – with Mary Godwin, Shelley produced some of his finest work.
On that initial trip to Switzerland, he wrote Alastor; or the Spirit of Solitude, now recognized as his first major achievement in poetry. An excerpt reads:
There was a Poet whose untimely tomb
No human hands with pious reverence reared,
But the charmed eddies of autumnal winds
Built o’er his mouldering bones a pyramid
Of mouldering leaves in the waste wilderness:—
A lovely youth,—no mourning maiden decked
With weeping flowers, or votive cypress wreath,
The lone couch of his everlasting sleep:—
Gentle, and brave, and generous,—no lorn bard
Breathed o’er his dark fate one melodious sigh:
He lived, he died, he sung, in solitude.
Strangers have wept to hear his passionate notes,
And virgins, as unknown he passed, have pined
And wasted for fond love of his wild eyes.
The fire of those soft orbs has ceased to burn,
And Silence, too enamoured of that voice,
Locks its mute music in her rugged cell.
A second trip to Switzerland followed in 1816, this time in the company of Lord Byron and Mary Godwin’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont. The couples took neighboring houses on Lake Geneva. Their months in residence were particularly productive – both in art and in scandal.
Shelley wrote Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and Mont Blanc. Byron was inspired to write his epic poem Don Juan. And Mary Godwin began writing what would become her first novel, Frankenstein. Meanwhile, Claire Clairmont had become pregnant by Lord Byron. She would give birth to their illegitimate daughter, Allegra, in 1817.
Upon Godwin and Shelley’s return to England, Godwin’s elder half-sister, Fanny Imlay (illegitimate daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and rumored to have been in love with Shelley), committed suicide by taking an overdose of Laudanum. As if this were not dramatic enough, two months later, Shelley’s heavily pregnant wife, Harriet, committed suicide by drowning herself in Hyde Park’s Serpentine.
Within three weeks of Harriet’s suicide, Godwin and Shelley were married. Some biographers assert that the haste of the marriage was merely to aid Shelley in gaining custody of the children he had had with Harriet. If this was the case, the ploy failed. He and Harriet’s children were given to foster parents.
Percy Shelley’s marriage to Mary Godwin by no means settled him. He continued to engage in affairs, fathered at least one more illegitimate child, and was known to take laudanum recreationally.
On July 8th, 1822, while sailing his boat, the Don Juan, off the coast of Italy, Percy Shelley was drowned during a sudden storm. He washed up on the shore some time later, badly decomposed, and was subsequently cremated on the beach with Byron and poet Leigh Hunt in attendance.
He was only twenty-nine years old.
Artistic brilliance often stems from dysfunction. As a result, great art is frequently produced by extraordinarily flawed human beings. The very passions that drive them to create a stunning painting, a poignant poem, or a heart-wrenching symphony wreak havoc with their personal affairs. Do we judge their art any less because of their flaws? Or should we separate the art from the artist who creates it? Let me know what you think in the comments below. In the meanwhile, I leave you with one of Shelley’s most famous poems.
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.”
© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews
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