Percy Shelley was a poet, essayist, and the spouse of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. But he was more, too: an animal rights activist, a teenage malcontent with a penchant for sorcery, a naive college dropout, a swinger, and maybe even a victim of piracy. Here’s five surprising facts that you might not have known about the great poet.
Celebrity Vegetarian and Animal Rights Activist
Shelley was a committed vegetarian and animal rights advocate, and like many of today’s celebrities, he wasn’t above using his fame to promote these causes. Today, we know him best for his poetry, but had you been an avid reader in 1813, you might have also read his essay “A Vindication of Natural Diet,” an emotional plea to readers to abandon their eat-meeting ways. The topic was explored again in other philosophical works, among them “A Refutation of Deism,” and “On the Vegetable System of Diet.”
Shelley objected to the consumption of meat on ethical grounds, and the belief that it polluted the body, leading to disease and immorality. He shared these beliefs with his wife, Mary. Readers of Frankenstein may recall that the Creature itself claimed to be a vegetarian: “My food is not that of man. I do not destroy the lamb and kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment.”
High School Reject
Shelley attended Eton College, a well-known English preparatory school. In Shelley’s day, young students were expected to attend to the needs, domestic and otherwise, of the school’s upperclassmen. Shelley refused to participate, and suffered for it. This, along with his poor aptitude for sports and interest in unusual topics like natural philosophy and witchcraft, made Shelley the school outcast.
He was the frequent target of emotional and physical abuse, and struck back when and where he could. He once attacked one of his tormentors with a fork, and claimed later in life to have impaled another bully’s hand on his desk with a pen knife. Shelley was also fond of fire and explosives. He blew one tree on campus to bits with a store of gunpowder, and set others aflame with magnifying glasses.
Clearly, Shelley could be dangerous when provoked, but a classmate, W. H. Merle, pinned the blame for his behavior on his persecutors. Merle shared his memories of Shelley in an 1848 issue of The Athenaeum, a journal of the arts:
“…poor Shelley’s anguish and excitement bordered on the sublime. Conscious of his own superiority—of being the reverse of what the many deemed him—stung by the injustice of imputed madness, by the cruelty…his rage became boundless. Like Tasso’s Jailer, his heartless tyrants all but raised up the demon which they said was in him. I have seen him surrounded, hooted, baited like a maddened bull,—and at this distance of time I seem to hear ringing in my ears the cry which Shelley was wont to utter in his paroxysm of revengeful anger.”
Atheist and Naive College Kid
It will undoubtedly come as no surprise that Shelley was as skeptical about religion as he was education and the makings of a proper diet. In 1811, he and a classmate at Oxford University, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, anonymously published and distributed a short pamphlet titled “The Necessity of Atheism.”
Shelley based his atheism on what he perceived as a lack of empirical evidence for the existence of a deity. He remained open to the arguments of believers, though, and encouraged them to respond to his brochure in kind:
“As a love of truth is the only motive which actuates the Author of this little tract, he earnestly entreats that those of his readers who may discover any deficiency in his reasoning, or may be in possession of proofs which his mind could never obtain, would offer them, together with their objections to the Public, as briefly, as methodically, as plainly as he has taken the liberty of doing.”
Apparently, this kind of open-minded inquiry wasn’t to the liking of Oxford’s great minds. Shelley and Hogg were confronted and expelled after refusing to neither confirm, nor deny, that they were involved in the tract’s production. Shelley was a student at Oxford for less than a year, and his expulsion infuriated his father, who withdrew financial support for his son. Shelley is thought to have attended only one class during his time at the university.
Shelley and Hogg remained friends after their Oxford misadventure, in spite of the wishes of their parents. Hogg’s family blamed Shelley for not only their son’s atheism, but also his vegetarianism. It turned out that they shared another thing in common..
Free Lover and Romantic Radical
Shelley was skeptical of marriage and a proponent of “free love:” the idea that sexual and romantic relationships between adults shouldn’t be infringed upon by church or state. Despite that, he married twice. The first time in 1811 to Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a coffee shop owner, and the second in 1816 to Mary Wollstonecraft, the future author of Frankenstein.
Shelley deserted Harriet after only a few short years into their marriage, leaving her for the young Mary, whom he had started seeing when she was only sixteen years old. Westbrook committed suicide in 1816, freeing Shelley to promptly marry his young paramour.
Shelley’s old friend Hogg had the hots for Harriet, who rebuffed his advances many times over. Evidently, Hogg and Shelley had very similar taste in women, as he confessed the same feelings for Mary years later. It didn’t bother Shelley, who is said to have fooled around with Mary’s stepsister, Claire. Shelley encouraged them to have an affair. Mary declined.
The exact nature of Shelley’s sexuality has been a matter of some debate. Some believe him to have been attracted to both men and women, and that he might have been romantically involved with Hogg, and later, Lord Byron, one of the hosts of the famous 1816 gathering at Villa Diodati that produced Frankenstein.
A Mysterious Death and a Wandering Heart
Percy Shelley was a sailor and owned a custom-made sailboat known as the Don Juan. On July 8, 1822, a storm struck while Shelley and two crewmen were sailing across the Gulf of Spezia. The ship sank and all three men drowned. Mary Shelley maintained that the boat was never seaworthy, and that the men aboard were poor sailors. Some suspected foul play: that the men were the victims of pirates, or even foreign spies. Others even thought that Shelley wanted to die and that the trip was one that he never intended on returning from. There’s no real evidence to support either claim.
Shelley’s body washed ashore and was cremated on the beach near the city of Viareggio, Italy. In 1889, Louis Édouard Fournier depicted the scene in his painting The Funeral of Shelley. It’s a wonderful piece, but not especially accurate. The day was bright and sunny, not overcast, and Mary Shelley did not attend the cremation, as depicted in the painting. Lord Byron, also depicted as standing beside the pyre, had cavalierly requested that the skull be preserved for him to use as a drinking cup, only to be so repulsed by Shelley’s remains that he abandoned the pyre and went for a swim.
There’s one darkly romantic rumor about Shelley’s death that is absolutely true. The poet’s heart resisted the flames of the funeral pyre. The poet’s organ was plucked from the ashes and given to his widow, Mary. After her death, the heart was discovered wrapped in the pages of one of his last poems, Adonais.