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Known for his lyrical and long-form verse, Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of the most highly regarded English Romantic poets of the 19th century. His works include The Masque of Anarchy and Queen Mab.
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Although Shelley’s relationship with Harriet remained troubled, the young couple had two children together. Their daughter, Elizabeth Ianthe, was born in June of 1813, when Shelley was 21. Before their second child was born, Shelley abandoned his wife and immediately took up with another young woman. Well-educated and precocious, his new love interest was named Mary, the daughter of Shelley’s beloved mentor, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous feminist author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. To Shelley’s surprise, Godwin was not in favor of Shelley dating his daughter. In fact, Godwin so disapproved that he would not speak with Mary for the next three years. Shelley and Mary fled to Paris, taking Mary’s sister, Jane, with them. They departed London by ship and, mostly traveling by foot, toured France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland, often reading aloud to each other from the works of Shakespeare and Rousseau.
When the three finally returned home, Mary was pregnant. So was Shelley’s wife, Harriet. The news of Mary’s pregnancy brought Harriet to her wit’s end. She requested a divorce and sued Shelley for alimony and full custody of their children. Harriet’s second child with Shelley, Charles, was born in November of 1814. Three months later, Mary gave birth to a girl. The infant died just a few weeks later. In 1816, Mary gave birth to their son, William.
A dedicated vegetarian, Shelley authored several works on the diet and spiritual practice, including "A Vindication of Natural Diet" (1813). In 1815, Shelley wrote Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude, a 720-line poem, now recognized as his first great work. That same year, Shelley’s grandfather passed away and left him an annual allowance of 1,000 British pounds.
In 1816, Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont, invited Shelley and Mary to join her on a trip to Switzerland. Claire had begun dating the Romantic poet Lord Byron and wished to show him off to her sister. By the time they commenced the trip, Lord Byron was less interested in Claire. Nevertheless, the three stayed in Switzerland all summer. Shelley rented a house on Lake Geneva very near to Lord Bryon’s and the two men became fast friends. Shelley wrote incessantly during his visit. After a long day of boating with Byron, Shelley returned home and wrote Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. After a trip through the French Alps with Byron, he was inspired to write Mont Blanc, a pondering on the relationship between man and nature.
In the fall of 1816, Shelley and Mary returned to England to find that Mary’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, had committed suicide. In December of that year it was discovered that Harriet had also committed suicide. She was found drowned in the Serpentine River in Hyde Park, London. A few weeks later, Shelley and Mary finally married. Mary’s father, William Godwin, was delighted by the news and accepted his daughter back into the family fold.
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