Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Percy Bysshe Shelley – The Unconventional Love-Life of one of Britain's Most-Loved Poets

Dover, (c) Janet Cameron
Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley had a short, but intense life. Shelley was a rebel and an eccentric, whose outrageous behaviour shocked society.

When the Dover steam packet was introduced and crossed regularly from Dover to Calais in the 1780s, it proved a great success with the aristocracy, who began writing about their travels, describing them as "Grand Tours."
Soon the Dover cutters were so highly regarded that they were patronised by bankers, politicians, merchants and lawyers, as well as a love-struck poet. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) who had good reason to be glad of Dover's efficient port. The great poet, who is famous for such sublime poetry as "To a Skylark," was already married when he fell in love with sixteen-year-old Mary Godwin, daughter of publisher, William Godwin and women's rights champion, Mary Wollstonecroft.
Born in Horsham in Sussex, Shelley was a rebel and a rabble-rouser, intense, imaginative and unconventional. At school he was known as "Mad Shelley" or the "Eton Atheist."
Percy Shelley's First Elopement – Harriet Westbrook
Harriet was the daughter of the proprietor of a coffee-house, and when she was sixteen, she and Shelley eloped to Scotland and were married in Edinburgh in August 1811. For three years, the two young people led a nomadic existence. Their relationship was far from conventional, as apparently Shelley tried to share her with his friend T.J. Hogg. It's not too clear from literary references whether he was successful in persuading Harriet to comply.
By 1814, the marriage collapsed – which is unsurprising since Shelley disapproved of marriage, along with eating meat, religion and royalty. The couple had two children and the effect of Shelley's abandonment of them had dire effects on the whole family. Harriet became suicidal, making distressing scenes to try to get her husband to remain with her.
Ménage à Trois with Mary Godwin and Jane Clairmont
In 1814, when he was twenty-two, Shelley and Mary decided to elope. But first, Shelley invited along Mary's stepsister, Jane (Claire) Clairmont, who was just fifteen years old. The three of them made for Dover, boarding the first steam packet they could find. The carefree threesome travelled through France to Switzerland, where Shelley wrote to his wife, Harriet Westbrook, naively suggesting she should join them.
Instead, in 1816, Harriet threw herself into the Serpentine in London, leaving her unfaithful husband free to indulge his scandalous ménage à trois. His second wife, Mary Shelley, was the author of Frankenstein, and she began to write her great work in the summer of 1816, by Lake Geneva, where she spent her time with her husband and the poet, Lord Byron. Their ménage à trois continued until Percy Shelley's death in 1822 aged thirty-years.
In his essay "On Love," composed in July, 1818, Shelley says: "What is love? Ask him who lives, what is life; ask him who adores, what is God? The poet concludes: "So soon as this want or power is dead, man becomes the living sepulchre of himself, and what yet survives is the mere husk of what once he was."
  • "On Love," Percy Bysshe Shelley, Romanticism An Anthology, Ed. Duncan Wu, Blackwell, 1994.
  • Oxford Companion to English Literature, Ed. Margaret Drabble, Oxford University Press, 1985.

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