Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Poet Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on this day in 1792, with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father was rich, landed and aristocratic; a baronet born, interestingly enough, in Newark, New Jersey, who'd married two wealthy heiresses in succession. His son Percy was cosseted, rebellious and intellectual. At 18 he was thrown out of Oxford for co-authoring a pamphlet titled "The Necessity of Atheism". At 19 he eloped to Scotland with a 16 year-old girl he'd met in a pub. At 21 he met and fell in love with Mary Wollestonecraft Godwin and eloped with her to the Continent. There, it being a small world, he and Mary quickly met and traveled around with Lord Byron and his coterie.

On a rainy evening in 1816, Byron, Polidori and the Shelleys had a contest to see who could write the most terrifying ghost story. Mary Shelley won with a tale about a man stitched together from body parts borrowed from the deceased. She called her story Frankenstein, and today when you look up "Shelley" you are likely to find her listed first. In their day, however, Shelley was the celebrity. This was the Romantic Era, and he wrote poems that suited the mood. He died, romantically and just short of his 30th birthday, in a boat in a storm off the coast of Italy. He was given a Viking funeral by Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron. The Shelleys appear twice each in A Book of Ages.

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