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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
Percy Bysshe Shelley

Poet of the Romantic movement whose life has often received more attention than his poetry. At the age of 19 he was sent down from Oxford for circulating to the heads of colleges a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. That same year, 1811, he eloped with the 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook and married her in Edinburgh. Three years later, in 1814, he eloped with another 16-year-old, Mary Godwin, and wrote from Switzerland to invite his wife to join them. She declined and in 1816 committed suicide in the Serpentine in Hyde Park, whereupon he immediately married Mary (see Mary *Shelley).

In 1817, after a lengthy law case, he was denied custody of his and Harriet's two children. The following year he and Mary left England for Italy, where they spent the rest of his short life (much of it in the company of *Byron), and where two of their own very young children died. Shelley's death was the final macabre tragedy. He was drowned with two others when sailing his boat, the Don Juan, in a heavy storm in the gulf of Spezia, off the west coast of Italy. His body was washed up ten days later, recognizable only by his clothes; his face had been eaten away. He was cremated on the beach, in a specially built iron furnace, in the presence of Byron.

A radical and utopian passion inspired Shelley's major poetry, dreaming of mankind free from the restrictions of authority and convention. His first long poem, Queen Mab (1813), foresees a future in which the shackles of monarchy, commerce and religion have been cast away by a republican atheist society devoted to free love and vegetarianism. Similar themes of liberation are central to his very complex Prometheus Unbound (1820).

Often he wrote in furious response to distressing news: the *Peterloo massacre prompted The Mask of Anarchy (1819), which includes his famous couplet on *Castlereagh; Adonais (1821) was written in Pisa on hearing that *Keats had died in Rome. The long poems bear powerful witness to Shelley's belief in the high importance of poetry and the poet, but it is his brilliantly easy short lyrics which have been more widely known and loved – in particular *Ozymandias, *Ode to the West Wind and *To a Skylark.

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