The University of Toronto at Scarborough
ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (SpringTerm)
Of many striking aspects of Shelley's life, these four may help to explain why he was, like Byron, a celebrated romantic figure for his life as well as for his poetry.
1. His expulsion as a student from Oxford:
See the Norton introduction for an explanation of his explusion (p. 644). It wasn't for drinking, for cheating, for failing; it was because his radical beliefs about religion were not acceptable to University authorities!
2. His marriages: he eloped first with 16-year old Harriet Westbrook; when their marriage collapsed after 3 years, he eloped with 16-year old Mary Godwin but invited Harriet to live with them as a "sister"; when Harriet drowned herself two years later, he married Mary.
Like Blake, Shelley did not think that love between a man and a woman should be subject to institutional sanctions or controls. Nor did he think that love needed to be restricted to one kind of relationship. Yet he was an idealist in his belief in the transcendent spiritual union achieved through love.
3. His death by drowning, in a sudden violent storm, a month before his 30th birthday
Blake, Keats, Byron and Shelley all died in the 1820s; by that time, Coleridge was no longer writing poetry and Wordsworth had settled into a more conservative and patriotic public life, leading to his eventual appointment as Poet Laureate in 1843. The Romantic Period, intense as it was, was also short-lived.
4. His connections with other writers in the Romantic period
Shelley's second wife was Mary (Godwin) Shelley, the author of Frankenstein; this work apparently grew out of an occasion when their close friend Byron proposed that they should all tell ghost stories; Mary's mother was Mary Wollstonecraft (Godwin), a noted feminist writer; William Blake once illustrated as book of Mary Wollstonecraft's stories for children.
"England in 1819"
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