Two hundred years ago this summer, the maddeningly reckless poet Percy Bysshe Shelley rode a double masted sailboat straight into the maw of a storm off the coast of Italy. He drowned, as did the two other men on board when the ship went down 10 miles from shore in the Gulf of La Spezia. This was the definitive end to Percy’s life, but, as often happens in literature, only the beginning of his story.
For days after he disappeared, Percy’s family and friends held out hope that perhaps he was alive and convalescing somewhere along the coastline. Eventually, his body washed ashore near the town of Viareggio, dashing all hopes. According to one account, he was only identifiable because of a book of Keats poems in his jacket. Percy had wanted to be buried in Rome, but the manner of his death made this wish difficult to fulfill. Italian law dictated that anything washed ashore by the sea must be burned to prevent the spread of plague. Percy’s body was buried in the sand for weeks until a small group could perform a beachside cremation. The party entrusted to this gruesome duty included Lord Byron, Europe’s most famous poet and one of Percy’s closest friends. Byron later wrote of Percy, “He was the best and least selfish man I knew.”
In his 29 years, Percy published a smattering of poems, a play, and a pair of pretty bad novels; gentlefolk and members of the establishment knew him in life more for his godless behavior than the lilting cadence of his lines. From the vantage of the gatekeepers of literature, on the day his ashes were interred in a cemetery in Rome, Percy Bysshe Shelley seemed destined to be forgotten. Lucky for us, they were very wrong.
In the decades after his death, Percy gained a literary reputation as “a sweet angel,” beautiful in art if ineffectual in life. This view is a misreading on two fronts, of the nature of angels (who are bearers of havoc) and of the particular man in question.
Percy Shelley was born into a family with a hereditary title that was destined to be his as firstborn son; this, plus the wealth of his paternal grandfather, should have guaranteed him an easy stride through life. But young Percy didn’t make anything easy on himself. He was 18 when he got himself kicked out of Oxford for being an atheist and an anarchist. He was hardly the only unbeliever on campus, but he was the kind that went so far as to write and distribute a hard-to-ignore pamphlet entitled “The Necessity of Atheism.”
After Oxford, he married a tavern owner’s daughter and together they traveled to Dublin. Percy wanted to find a printer to distribute a tract that he wrote urging the Irish to agitate for better rights. He paid for the printing of 1,500 copies of a diatribe that urged a nonviolent rebellion (but rebellion nonetheless) against British rule. Distribution of his seditious tract proved a challenge so he tied copies to balloons and tucked them into toy boats and sent them down the Liffey. His words failed to stir Irish hearts, which was perhaps to his advantage as it meant he escaped the rebuke of the crown, and after two months he pulled up stakes and returned to England.
As the son of a baronet, Percy had none of the bourgeoisie’s how-will-I-pay-my-bills motivation to curtail his provocative behavior—that is, until his father Sir Timothy cut him off in 1814. His father had put up with all manner of antics but he could no longer look the other way after Percy abandoned his wife and children and ran away to France with 16-year-old Mary Godwin, the daughter of one of Percy’s nonconformist heroes. (Let the record show, this wasn’t the first time that Percy had run away with a 16-year-old, as he’d eloped with his first wife Harriet when she was the same age. He’d been 18 then; he was 22 now—old enough to know better and to realize he was breaking a vow, albeit one he’d never really believed in.)
In his letters Percy often sounds quite mystified by Harriet’s sustained shock at his desertion. From Percy’s point of view, the question was not whether he was loyal to a father or a wife or fellow subjects of the crown. He had to follow the starry commands of Love, Justice, Truth. Marriage was a mere human invention, and his allegiance was to a higher power. His love for Mary Godwin was furious, primal, transcendent; he did not, would not resist. None of this was proper behavior then—and, to be fair, it would be considered poor form now. You can make excuses because of his genius—and he was a lyrical genius—but Percy the truthsayer was likely rather hard to bear as a person.
In all areas of life, large and small, petty and consequential, profane and sacred, Percy was annoyingly insistent on acting in opposition to what was expected or accepted. He would not adhere to rules if he believed the rules were wrong. He repeatedly elevated ideas over emotions. He saw himself as a conduit for the electricity of the universe. On subjects that mattered he could brook no compromise. Allegedly he was gentle and shy in person, but in correspondence he sounds like someone dangerously convinced of the total redeeming power of his own good intentions. I don’t think he thought himself as a man out of step with the world—he saw the world as out of step with its own ideal self.
Unmarried but inseparable, Percy and Mary lived in open defiance of social propriety for more than a year in London. Percy never divorced Harriet, but he also almost never visited her, barely acknowledged her in writing, and likely rarely thought of her. Before long Mary became pregnant with his child. A girl was born early and lived only long enough to leave them both stricken with grief when she died. Within months, Mary was pregnant again. A boy, this time. She would have four children with Percy over the course of their life together; all but one of them died before Percy did.
In addition to his insistence on living with a woman who was not his wife, Percy harbored many scandalous ideals for the time: freethinking, polyamory, women’s suffrage, vegetarianism. He remained politically motivated but he was no longer sending tracts aloft on hot air balloons. Activism was one more thing that he had tried and failed, along with being a novelist. He labored over a long, nameless poem about the dark, relentless forces of creativity, a poem that eventually found publication as “Alastor,” which showed some promise as a poem but failed to strike fire with readers. He was a particular kind of failure: the wow-you-are-so-talented-it-hurts-to-say-no, the oh-this-would-be-great-from-someone-else kind of failed writer. Talent isn’t the sine non qua of success in publishing.
Sometime near the start of 1816, Percy became convinced that he was dying of tuberculosis. He is often characterized in Mary’s journals as “unwell” or “very unwell,” “feverish and fatigued” or taking to bed. He had always presented a fragile constitution, but he seemed worse than usual that spring. The decision to flee England with Mary and their baby boy William was in part a gamble to see if fairer climates would reinvigorate his health. It also, rather obviously, got them away from the judging eyes of almost everyone they knew.
Once again with Percy, a step forward occurs only in response to some adversity; he cannot go out into the world unless his house has burst into flames, or he has become certain that some pox is upon it. Convinced he was dying, pledged into deep debts, shunned by proper society, and now in foreign exile—not the moment, by most lights, to produce a life altering masterpiece. But that’s what happened in the weeks and months Percy spent abroad. All the adversity of his life to date had led to this.
In Geneva, Percy’s and Mary’s daily routine narrowed to their books, their child, and each other. They even found a partial relief from Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who relied on them emotionally and financially. Claire was obsessed with Lord Byron, who was also renting (far more palatial) rooms on the lake, too. She was the one to introduce Percy to Lord Byron, in fact, and therefore deserves at least some of the credit for the deeply consequential friendship that formed between the two poets.
All through their stay in Geneva, they wrote—all of them, not just Percy but also Mary, Lord Byron, even Lord Byron’s personal physician. They wrote letters, diary entries, short stories, poems, novel drafts. And Percy wrote his first real masterpiece. “Mont Blanc” is, of all Percy’s poems, the one that best balances tone and topic, concrete images and abstract ideas, universal setting and personal import, and it sticks the landing with beautiful turns of phrase. Straight out of the opening gate the poem thunders with words as forceful in their flow as the Alpine mountain they evoke:
The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
Percy had written lovely lines before, and wrote lovely lines many times over in the years after he wrote “Mont Blanc.” But I am given pause when reading this poem because in addition to sibilance and beauty it also offers a dialogue between views, like separate factions of a single, fascinating mind.
In the third section of the poem, Percy offers lyrical awe about the steeps and caverns of Mont Blanc and then with little more than a literal dash he vaults into a new, equally dramatic dialogue about himself and the nature of reality, the truth or untruth of all he sees:
Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep, that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live.—I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurl’d
The veil of life and death? or do I lie
In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
Spread far around and inaccessibly
In the span of a few dozen lines of blank verse, the voice of the poet traverses from “Look at this amazing mountain!” to “Is this mountain even real?” to “Am I real?” and “Are any of us really real?” For the reader, all this fancy footwork can be hard to see at first. It’s even harder to point out as an essayist sampling a few lines. This is because “Mont Blanc” accumulates more than it presents at any moment. I can pick and choose from the stanzas and offer great lines, but the real force is one that you get by ascending from start to finish, like, well, a mountain climber.
In the calm darkness of the moonless nights,
In the lone glare of day, the snows descend
Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there,
Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun,
Or the star-beams dart through them.
Where does it all come from? How did Percy pour out this new work over the course of a few weeks in and around Geneva? Such heady writing is only possible for a person who has developed a practiced ease with abstractions, who sees the real world and the world of forms as interchangeable. For Percy, this deliberative skill took shape over all his adult life, but it advanced in an important, dramatic way during the time he spent that summer in constant dialogue with his new friend, Lord Byron.
Byron had a quickening effect on Percy’s imagination. Years before the two men met in person, Percy noted in a journal: “Mary read to me some passages from Lord Byron’s poems. I was not before so clearly aware how much of the colouring our own feelings throw upon the liveliest delineations of other minds; our own perceptions are the world to us.” Now, in Geneva, the pair traded back and forth ideas on galvanism, animal spirits, witchcraft, the cult of Bonaparte, if ghosts are real, alchemy, the divine right of kings, the keep of dreams: Percy and Lord Byron were opposites in temperament but they shared a relentless interest in the fringe of the ordinary world.
Each day they talked and talked till late into the night, pickaxing at the hill of human interests. If weather permitted, they spent their days sailing on the lake. Indeed, for a man who could not swim, Percy Shelley spent a remarkable amount of time on boats. During a three week period, Mary notes nine separate times that Shelley (as she calls him in her diary) “goes out on the boat” on Lake Geneva, usually with Lord Byron. Eventually, the poets circumnavigated the lake on a long trip. They spent much of the time rereading Rousseau’s novel Julie. They were morbidly elated by the parallels to art when they almost drowned in a gale in the same waters where Rousseau’s characters had brushes with death. According to Byron’s letters and journals, in the course of the trip, he drafted a new canto for “Childe Harold,” the poem that made him world-famous, and Percy sketched out material that he would later turn into another long poem, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.”
This idyllic Geneven interlude lasted only four months. But it altered Percy’s life, and as a result his poetry and English poetry as a whole. The friendship with Lord Byron would last for years, although it would never thrive as it did this summer, and never elicit this kind of compact, concise mastery (although, to be sure, there were many more great poems to flow from Percy’s pen).
Byron, Percy, and Mary spent time together again in Italy a few years later, but much had changed by then. In his letters at the time Percy spoke with far more apprehension about his more famous friend. Percy sometimes made mention of what he saw as Lord Byron’s wasted potential. Byron in his poetry did not engage with grand ideals as Percy did. To be fair, not many people anywhere did or could engage with their ideals like Percy did. Byron mostly wanted to have fun.
In the end, after Percy drowned, it was Lord Byron who led the party to cremate his old friend’s body. Although even in that Lord Byron was never quite as dedicated as one might have wished. The funeral pyre on the beach that burned Percy’s body took hours to do its work, likely due to the saturation by seawater, and Byron became more and more agitated as they waited. He was acutely bothered by the spectators who gathered nearby on the beach to watch him. Byron was a celebrity in a very modern sense, and like many modern celebrities, he was agitated by the constant surveillance. Eventually he walked into the sea and swam away, paddling far out to where his valet waited in a boat. The rest of Percy’s small group of friends would finish the job without him.
In a Google contest, Mary Shelley beats Percy Shelley by a country mile: a search query for her right now produces 12 million results; Percy gets around 2.5 million. It wasn’t always this way. For over more than a century, the results were even more lopsided but in the other direction: if there were a steam-powered Google in the Victorian era, its results pages would favor Percy by perhaps 100 to one. But seeing these two as either a winner or a runner-up is to miss the truth of their entangled lives.
In the daily journal that she kept while they lodged at Lake Geneva, Mary writes about sharing a story she has written with Percy. It’s a short thing, only a few pages; from our vantage we know it is the first glimmerings of what will eventually become Frankenstein. But she had no idea at the time. Later, she will admit that she might have given up on this strange little idea except for Percy’s reaction: Keep writing, he told her. She continued, writing her own words but with his steady encouragement.
Two years later, Frankenstein was published anonymously with a foreword by Percy. As word spread that its author was Percy’s companion, his not-actually-wife-but-she-acts-like-it, a mere girl of 18 (Byron’s words), let’s just say there were skeptics. Percy must have actually written it, some people theorized. That would explain the godlessness behind the book’s central idea: mortal men playing God, making life. Percy’s denials of authorship weren’t very helpful. He had already played peekaboo with the reading public more than once: his 1810 gothic novel St. Irvyne was published anonymously, and that same year he also published a poetry collection that he claimed came from the pen of a woman who attempted to assassinate George III.
His and Mary’s decision to keep coy about her authorship of Frankenstein was also in keeping with literary tradition. Daniel DeFoe a century earlier had claimed Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe were real figures, and another 100 years before that, Jonathan Swift published the travels of one Lemuel Gulliver as if they were true. In each case, the authors were attempting to give their fictions the respectability of the truth. Were they lying? Sort of. But also sort of no. In this earlier era before photographs, recorded audio, or captured video, you were what you claimed you were; you were what you presented yourself as, unless someone objected; and if someone claimed you were someone different, well, what proof could they have other than their own word or someone else’s?
Four years after the publication of Frankenstein’s first edition, Percy’s sailboat went under the waves off the coast of Italy. Mary spent the rest of her life extolling him as a sweet and gentle soul. In a letter written just months after his drowning she casts him in the metaphor that would define him for ages: “an angel whom imprisoned in flesh could not adapt himself to his clay shrine.” Much if not all of the rehabilitation of his image and his poetry is due to her tireless craftwork and her decision to continue to publish posthumous poems and prose from his papers for years. Their life together lasted 2,903 days. Mary would live another 10,435, until 1851.
About his writing, she was right to insist that scholars take a closer look. But what about his life, his nature, which she claims was so sensitive, so gentle? Is she to be believed? Taken from the vantage of modernity: Is Percy the man the equal of Percy the writer? Or do the flaws of the latter strike out the contribution of the former? Are these questions even worth asking? To understand Percy, you have to understand this as the context for his life and his art. Percy and Mary made Mary and Percy by fiat: their personas, their literary ghosts only exist because they struggled against all adversity to make them so with their lives and even their deaths.
So, what do we do with Percy? We’ve got his poems, and if you care to read them, you should.; But mostly, he’s forgotten now except as an inside joke. His name comes up mostly in connection with his famous broken sonnet, “Ozymandias.” The poem serves as the title for an episode of one of the greatest TV shows of our time (see Breaking Bad) and as the name of a key character in one of the greatest graphic novels of our time (Watchmen). Ironically, Percy published “Ozymandias” under a pseudonym. Think of it: a poem about how even mighty names lose their power over time is the best remembered poem by a poet who is mostly forgotten and who wrote the poem using a name other than his real name.
Even among poets I find that I get some blank looks whenever I bring up his name. Then again, I had almost no interest in Percy Shelley’s life back when I was a 19-year old poet-in-training, too. Everything that I learned about Percy’s life in my survey class on English Poetry could be summed up in five words: He’s the Romantic that drowned. But then at the end of college, I read his play, The Cenci. Believe it or not I really liked it, I wrote in an email to a friend. Around the same time, I read Frankenstein for a class and learned more about Mary Shelley and her life and her doomed beloved. Suddenly, Percy and his poems got more interesting. Or maybe I got a little older, encountered my own adversities in life, and found something relatable in him. He never got more likable. He still struck me as unreasonable, even a bit galling. He was privileged in a way that is grotesque by modern standards. But in his best work he sank a hook into something that still has pull to it.
Earlier this year, I visited the Butler library at Columbia University while on a mission to gather material for an essay on Mary Shelley. Alone in a long row of books I found myself confronted with the fact that critical writing about her and her famous novel is dwarfed by analysis devoted to Percy. A complete copy of all 19 volumes of Shelley and His Circle alone takes up significant space. Yet in the world of modern readers the exact opposite is true: it’s all Mary, almost no Percy. I pulled down books and tried to understand once and for all the appeal of the man. I read some of the letters from Percy during their famous stay at Geneva and my first thought was, My God, they were just kids, all of them, no older than I was when I moved to New York City after college. Younger, in Mary’s case.
In his lifetime, Percy never had the fame that Lord Byron had, although he was no less good-looking, no less erudite, and far more formally innovative. (And Lord Byron was no moral beacon, either: divorced, famously unfaithful, and suspected of sleeping with his half sister.) Yet Byron was still so swarmed with admirers when he arrived in Geneva that he had to abandon his hotel rooms and rent a house outside of town. Meanwhile, Percy sat in his rooms downhill working on his great poem—perhaps the greatest poem of his era—in uninterrupted obscurity. Why? Why not him? Why not me?
Percy’s failures, his fears and his foibles add depth and meaning to his poems, to his otherwise dated lyrical accomplishments. The fact that not too many people really read or cared for his writing while he was alive makes his life all the more compelling to me despite the distance of two centuries, as I am a writer who also sometimes feels like he’s writing into a void, too. There is in Percy’s voice a familiar melancholy, sometimes elusive, sometimes explicit, as when he wrote without self-pity near the end of his life in a short poem: “for I am one / whom men love not.”
Laboring alone in a small rented house at the bottom of the hill on Lake Geneva is where I need him. Or in the boat beside the famous Lord Byron, lost in thoughts that almost no one in his lifetime will care about. Gathered around the fire listening to German ghost stories being read aloud. Percy is a great poet whose life might be more useful than his work is now: because there is in everything about him this desire to rise, and not because he likes the sound of his voice but because he longs to tell everyone what he sees from his vantage.
The fact of his persistence—no, not just his persistence, his amplification in the face of adversity, it is a reminder that there is no obligation to quit, to give up, to be polite; you do not owe the world acquiescence, or acceptance, or allegiance; you owe it nothing but the singing of the song that you find in your own head. Percy’s life taught me that, teaches me that still now as his lantern fades into the night. Was he disruptive, profoundly flawed as a man, limited by shortcomings both conscious and unconscious? Yes, and probably more. But what kind of angel brings news only of the status quo? What kind of poet speaks only the words you want to hear?