Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
Percy Bysshe Shelley, born 1792, was the eldest child of a rich Whig MP. He was bullied at Eton – ‘Shelley-baiting’, as it was known – and expelled from Oxford – for atheism. At nineteen he eloped with Harriet Westbrook – the first of two unhappy marriages. A few years later he met Mary Godwin, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, and together they eloped to the continent. Harriet committed suicide in 1816. A month later Shelley and Mary were married. The couple left England for Italy in 1818, where Shelley produced the best of his poetry and prose – prose philosophical and political. Unheralded in his own lifetime, he was taken up as the angel of the pre-Raphaelites and the free-loving comrade of the twentieth and twenty-first-century left. He drowned in the Bay of Spezia in 1822 – aged 29.
My opinion of love is that it acts upon the human heart precisely as a nutmeg grater acts upon a nutmeg.
Shelley sent his Declaration of Rights across the Bristol Channel in bottles. And over it: the poem ‘To a Balloon, Laden with Knowledge’ refers to the bundle of pamphlets he suspended from a patchwork silk balloon.
‘Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry has been drowned’, said the London Courier on Shelley’s death, ‘now he knows whether there is a God or no.’