By Michael Slicker
August 4, 1792, is the birthday of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792), who wrote some of the most popular poems in the English language, including Ozymandias, Ode to the West Wind, and To a Skylark, though his greatest success came after his death.
Scholars say it was Shelley's unorthodox lifestyle that limited the acceptance of his writing to a rather small circle of friends. At Oxford, Shelley wrote two gothic novels and read extensively, though it is said he didn't go to class often.
He wrote a pamphlet with a fellow student defending atheism, earning him the scorn of the college administration when he refused to deny that he wrote it. He and his fellow student, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, were expelled. Shelley's father intervened and won him a chance to reenter Oxford if he would state that what he wrote was untrue. He refused, earning him the scorn of his father.
At 19, Shelley eloped with a 16-year-old student from a boarding school, only to abandon her three years later, when she was pregnant with their second child, to run away to Switzerland with the 16-year-old daughter of a writer friend. Mary Godwin was more Shelley's intellectual equal. Later, Shelley's first wife committed suicide and he and Mary were married.
In 1818, Percy and Mary, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont, lived in Italy, where he wrote the lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound, which was based on a Greek trilogy whose title character steals the secret fire to help mankind progress, only to be punished by Zeus, king of the Olympian gods. Shelley's play was never intended to be performed, only read.
It wasn't until several generations after his death that Shelley became widely accepted. He was admired by the later Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite poets, and by such diverse luminaries as Isadora Duncan, Thomas Hardy, Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Sinclair Lewis, and Oscar Wilde.