Percy Bysshe Shelley: A life in brief

By Darren Sturdy, Special Collections and Archives

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Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelly by Amelia Curran, 1819. (Held in the National Portrait Gallery, London)

July 8, 1822 was the fateful day that the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) drowned in the Bay of Spezia in Italy whilst sailing from Livorno to his home Casa Magni in Lerici on his boat The Don Juan during a violent summer storm. Maynooth University Library holds several books by or about Shelley as well as a wealth of electronic resources about the poet. One publication written by a former Maynooth student, poet, translator and Young Irelander, Denis Florence MacCarthy (1817-82) titled Shelley’s Early Life from Original Sources was published in London in 1872. MacCarthy was an enthusiastic collector of books particularly on Spanish Literature, Ireland and Shelley. The publication was an attempt to redress hostile accounts of Shelley’s visit to Ireland in 1812.

In the historic pre-1850 collections of the Russell Library we find the earliest publication in the collection The Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. This book was published in London in 1847 by Edward Moxon and was edited by his wife Mary Shelley (1797-1851) or Mrs Shelley as noted on the title page. Described as a new edition, the Russell Library copy has an additional engraved title-page. The book comprising 164 pages is beautifully produced. Bound in purple leather, stamped in gold with cream coated endpapers and finished off with gilt edges. There are subsequent publications in the Maynooth catalogue by Mary Shelley dealing with her husband’s poetry collections which shows her determination to bring Shelley’s work to public attention and to extol his creative gift.

Shelley was born on 4 August in 1792. The name Bysshe came from his grandfather Sir Bysshe Shelley, 1st Baronet of Castle Goring, Sussex. Shelley schooled at Eton and Oxford but was expelled from the latter for the publication of a short essay called The Necessity of Atheism with his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1792-1822). In the universities of Cambridge and Oxford students had to adhere to the 39 Articles of Faith of the Church of England. Shelley was married twice, first to Harriet Westbrook (1795-1816) and then Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1797-1851).

Shelley visited Ireland in 1812 from February to April, where he met leading nationalist activists of the day. His interest is outlined in his authorship of two pamphlets published in 1812, An Address to the Irish People and Proposals for an Association of Philanthropists. See: Shelley’s adventure in Irish Politics

Amelia Curran (1775-1847) and her father John Philpot Curran (1750-1817) were familiar with Mary Wollstonecroft Godwin and her father, and had visited them in London. Amelia spent most of her life in Italy especially after her father’s death and became reacquainted with the Shelleys in 1819 where she painted Shelley’s portrait.

Shelley would sign hotel registers as occupation being “atheist, democrat and philanthropist”. It was a famous summer at Lake Geneva in Switzerland in 1816 when due to bad weather the Shelleys along with their friend Lord Byron (1788-1824) invented ghost stories and where Mary Shelley conceived of the idea for the novel Frankenstein.

On that day in July, Percy Bysshe Shelley was returning from visiting a friend of his, Leigh Hunt (1810-1873), in Livorno with the idea of publishing a new journal The Liberal: Verse and Prose from the South. Four issues were published between October 1822 and July 1823. When he was found, he was cremated and buried in The Protestant Cemetery in Rome.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s grave memorial

Shelley believed in the value of experience. In Pisa before his death Shelley told Marianne Hunt, ‘If I die tomorrow, I have lived to be older than my father, I am ninety years of age’.

A film released in 1986 by English film director Ken Russell called Gothic featured Julian Sands as Shelley, Irish actor Gabriel Byrne as Byron and in her film debut Natasha Richardson as Mary.


Oxford Dictionary of Biography

Irish Dictionary of Biography

Irish Times 9 Jan 2020: Shelley’s adventure in Irish Politics by Paul O’Brien

Wikimedia – Creative Commons

One thought on “Percy Bysshe Shelley: A life in brief

  1. Bernadette Mellon July 13, 2020 / 6:21 pm

    Great article Darren


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