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Mary's Husband: Percy Bysshe Shelley


Image of Shelley

"They say thou wert lovely from thy birth,
of glorious parents, thou aspiring Child.
I wonder not-for One then left this earth
whose life was like a setting planet mild,
which clothed thee in the radiance undefiled
of its departing glory: still her fame
shines on thee, through the tempests dark and wild
which shake these latter days, and thou canst claim
The shelter, from thy Sire, of an immortal name." 
        Shelley, To Mary - The Revolt of Islam

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born August 4, 1792. Of all the English Romantic poets, Shelley was the most determinedly professional writer. By the end of his life Shelley had mastered and translated from Italian, Spanish, German, Latin, and Greek. Shelley was always interested in political and philosophic ideas, rather than just aesthetic ones. Throughout his life, his major creative effort was concentrated on producing a series of long poems and poetic dramas aimed at the main political and spiritual problems of his age. Shelley was a writer who moved with a sense of ulterior motive, a sense of greater design, a strong feeling for the historical moment, and overwhelming consciousness of his duty as an artist.

Shelley married Harriet Westbrook on August 28, 1811 in Scotland. Harriet was only 16 and the couple ran off and eloped. This is important in the telling of the story of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley because Percy was still married to Harriet when he ran off with Mary. The marriage was not a particularily happy one. Shelley learned that he could not really endure the company of one woman for very long and Eliza Westerbrook, Harriet's sister came to stay with the couple in order to look after Harriet. Shelley and Harriet had two children.

Shelley was obsessed with the struggle for reform and the idea of the ideal society. In 1811, Shelley found that the works of William Godwin fufilled his vision for his ideals. In January of 1812, Robert Southey reminded Shelley that Willaim Godwin was alive and living in London. Shelley may not have known this. Shelley decided to write his first letter to the philosopher. In the letter, Shelley adopted the Godwinian style of discourse. Godwin, who recognized this tribute to his own manner of writing, wrote back at once, but complained that Shelley's letter was too generalizing in character. Shelley than wrote a second, more autobiographical letter. This letter was a success with Godwin and the pair began a philosophical correspondence. However, Shelley was not completely honest in this letter. He stated that he was no longer ruled by Romantic and Gothic notions but was instead ruled by Reason. Shelley was always ruled by volatile emotions and flights of Gothic fancy. This wild imagination is probably what made him such a successful writer. As Holmes states:

 " His sensitive fundamentally unstable disposition produced a painful state of nerves, 
and nervous attacks. Shelley tried to combat these with laudanum, which would normally
only be taken to kill a specific physiological pain.  The combined effect was to produce
morbid trains of fantasy, suspicions, and fears....
Next appeared an intensification of ghostly talk, the grim Gothic fantasies..
At their most extreme, the fantasies came near to hallucinations, but this was rare, and
Shelley knew when they occured, and distinguished them from reality."

The themes of ghosts and hauntings were constant in his poetry and provided a powerful source of private imagery, which reflected his alienation from the society around him.

In July 1812, Shelley began writing one of his most famous poems Queen Mab . At this time he was concerned with education and was re-educating himself and preparing for his poem by studying a collection of Medical Extracts, Sir Humphrey Davy's Elements of Chemical Philosophy, Mary Wollstonecraft's Rights of Women, and an early psychological thesis, Observations of Man, by David Hartley. Queen Mab, however, was politics disguised as poetry.

Between October 4th and November 13th 1812, the Shelleys were staying in London. On the evening of October 4th a longed-for meeting took place, and the Shelley's dined at the Godwin's on Skinner Street. The evening was a great success. The Godwins were intrigued by Percy and charmed by Harriet. Mary, however, was not present during this first meeting. She was visiting relatives in Scotland. By the end of October, the two families had become close friends, even though the Shelley's found Jane Clairmont to be completely disagreeable, and the Godwin household became Shelley's center of existence in London for the next two years. Fanny Imlay, Mary's half-sister, became infatuated with Shelley, which later resulted in tragic consequences. William Godwin put Percy on a program of study which included matter and spirit, atheism, utility and truth, and clergy. In November, Harriet and Percy returned to Wales, where Percy would continue to study and work on Queen Mab

Queen Mab was published May 1813 and was Shelley's first major production. (He had returned from Wales to settle in England.) Queen Mab was considered subversive and radical. It's main targets were established religion, political tyranny, the destructive force of war and commerce, and the perversion of human love caused by such chains and barriers as the marriage institution and prostitution. Secondary themes were temperance, vegetarianism, and republicanism. What Shelley was preaching came to be understood as a "vision of the good life built on atheism, free love, republicanism, and vegetarianism."

                Even love is sold; the solace of all woe
                Is turned to deadliest agony, old age
                Shivers in selfish beauty's loathing arms,
                And youth's corrupted impulses prepare
                A life of horror from the blighting bane
                Of commerce; whilst the pestilence that springs
                From unenjoying sensualism, has filled
                All human life with hydra-headed woe. (from Canto V)

In June 1814, Mary Godwin first entered Shelley's life. His life was to never be the same. He was completely bewitched by Mary's intellectualism, beauty and youth. (she was almost 17). Shelley also formed a friendship with Jane (Claire) Clairmont, Mary's half-sister. The three developed a triangular relationship. Shelley had many financial problems at this time, as he did throughout most of his life, and the two sisters provided a diversion from his financial concerns. Shelley and the two girls enjoyed going on long walks together and their favorite place to visit was Mary Wollstonecraft's grave at St. Pancras Church Yard. He gave Mary a copy of Queen Mab. From June 19th to the 29th, Shelley visited the Godwin's every day. During this time the feelings between Mary and Shelley exploded into mutual passion. Shelley was swept off his feet by the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and Willaim Godwin, two radical intellectuals. In mid-June Shelley wrote this poem to Mary.

                To sit and curb the soul's mute rage
                  Which preys upon itself alone;
                To curse the life which is the cage
                  Of fettered grief that dares not groan,
                Hiding from many a careless eye
                      The scorned load of agony....

                To spend years thus, and be rewarded,
                  As thou, sweet love, requited me
                When none were near - Oh I did wake
                  From torture for that moment's sake.

                Upon my heart thy accents sweet
                  Of peace and pity fell like dew
                On flowers half dead; - thy lips did meet
                Mine tremblingly; thy darling eyes threw
                Their soft persuasion on my brain,
                Charming away its dream of pain.

For Mary the passion was equally sudden and overwhelming. Shelley was the kind of man that her education had taught her to admire: a poet, an intellectual, a radical, and an activist. Near the end of June, probably the 26th, Mary and Shelley declared their love for each other at the Church Yard and walked back to Skinner Street arm in arm. Mary wrote the following in the copy of Queen Mab that Shelley had given to her:

 "This book is sacred to me and as no other creature shall ever look
into it, I may write what I please. Yet what shall I write? 
That I love the author beyond all power of expression and that I am
parted from him.  Dearest and only love, by that love we have
promised to each other although I may not be yours
I can never be another's."

On June 27th, Shelley revealed their love to Godwin. Godwin was completely appalled. He asked Shelley to visit Skinner Street less often and the regular visits ended after June 29th. Shelley, however, continued to visit untill July 7th. Shelley was torn between his loyalty to Harriet and his love for Mary and even contemplated suicide. On July 13th, Shelley met with Harriet and told her that he loved Mary and only felt a brotherly affection for her. Harriet wrote a letter to Godwin and decided that this was only a passing infatuation for Shelley. She felt that he would realize his obligations to his legal wife, especially since she was now pregnant with their second child. Godwin responded by confining Mary and Jane to the house. On July 28th, Godwin found a letter on the mantle. Mary had run off with Shelley and Jane had gone with them.

The events of two summers later are outlined here. Mary and Shelley were eventually married after Harriet committed suicide. Only one of their children, Percy, survived past childhood. He did not have children and there ended the great Shelley-Godwin-Wollstonecraft line. Shelley and Mary were only together for six years before he died on July 8, 1822, at the age of 30, by drowning. Mary was a widow at the age of 25. She never remarried.

I plan to flesh this out and add more details very soon. If there is any particular question, please email me and I will attempt to answer it for you.

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