Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in 1792, the eldest son of a baronet, though he never lived to inherit the title. He was, from the first, an exceptionally intelligent child, but he was clearly both disturbed and disturbing. Even when very young, Shelley was prey to fits of sleepwalking and strange waking visions of events that he clearly believed had actually happened, but others said ”vanished under the touch of investigation”, which gained him a reputation as either a liar or a fantasist (or both). He had a violent temper, especially when crossed – at school he was known as ‘Mad Shelley’ and once impaled another child’s hand to a desk, though it’s worth noting this was in response to a perceived injustice: Shelley’s political radicalism started very early.
He was fascinated by science from a young age, both chemistry and physics. He inadvertently swallowed arsenic in one experiment, blew up part of his school playground with gunpowder in another, and sent a local cat up in a kite in an electrical storm. As his sister later recalled
His own hands and clothes were constantly stained and corroded with acids, and it only seemed too probable that some day the house would be burned down, or some serious mischief happen to himself or others from the explosion of combustibles.
Quoted in Percy Bysshe Shelley, by John Addington Symonds (1878)
The schoolboy Shelley was also – somewhat contradictorily – obsessed with the occult. He read (and wrote) horror stories and ‘tales of terror’, and sat up one night in a charnel house hoping to see ghosts rising from the old bones. At Eton, at the age of 16, he was discovered one night within a circle of blue flame, trying to raise the devil; Beelzebub apparently did not oblige. Even at Oxford, a university friend recalled Shelley saying that during one of his midnight walks he had become convinced he could hear the devil pursuing him, rustling in the grass. It was only the first of many such ‘following figures’ that were to obsess him until his death.
So the 19-year-old who entered University College, Oxford, in 1810 was politically radical and personally volatile, with what W.M. Rossetti later called a ‘white-hot intellectual passion’. He certainly got himself into very hot water.
Early in his first Michaelmas Term, Shelley met a fellow student called Thomas Jefferson Hogg, who was to become his friend, fellow conspirator, and biographer. Here’s how Hogg described Shelley that term:
His figure was slight and fragile, and yet his bones and joints were large and strong. He was tall, but he stooped so much that he seemed of a low stature. His clothes were expensive, and made according to the most approved mode of the day, but they were tumbled, rumpled, unbrushed. His gestures were abrupt, and sometimes violent, occasionally even awkward, yet more frequently gentle and graceful. His complexion was delicate and almost feminine, of the purest red and white…. His features, his whole face, and particularly his head, were, in fact, unusually small; yet the last appeared of a remarkable bulk, for his hair was long and bushy, and …he often rubbed it fiercely with his hands…[his features] breathed an animation, a fire, an enthusiasm, a vivid and preternatural intelligence, that I never met with in any other countenance…. But there was one physical blemish that threatened to neutralise all his excellence. “This is a fine, clever fellow!” I said to myself, “but I can never bear his society; I shall never be able to endure his voice; it would kill me. What a pity it is!” I am very sensible of imperfections, and especially of painful sounds, and the voice of the stranger was excruciating. It was intolerably shrill, harsh and discordant”
Shelley at Oxford, included in The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1858)
Shelley was, in short, “a sum of many contradictions”.
At Univ, Shelley pursued his eclectic mix of interests, and was, in essence, a law unto himself, often reading for sixteen hours a day and conducting his scientific experiments at night. He avoided dining in Hall, grew his hair unfashionably long, and sported extravagant striped waistcoats. Another contemporary later described him as living on “arsenic, acqua-fortis [and] half-an-hours sleep in the night”.
Despite the lack of sleep – or perhaps because of it – by the end of that term Shelley had written and published a lurid Gothic horror novella called St Irvyne (it was his second, and just as atrocious as the first). He had also filled his rooms with all the paraphernalia of his scientific experiments, including an air-pump, a galvanic trough, and a solar microscope. Hogg described the room as a jumble of “Books, boots, papers, shoes, philosophical instruments, clothes, pistols, linen, crockery, ammunition and phials innumerable, with money, stockings, prints, crucibles, bags and boxes”. It wasn’t just the clutter – the floor, furniture and carpet were all covered in scorch marks. One can only sympathise with the scout tasked with cleaning all that up. All the more so since at one point Shelley attempted to practice electricity on the scout’s ten-year-old son, James. According to Hogg, the poor child “roared aloud with ludicrous and stupid terror’ (perhaps not so ludicrous, given Shelley’s track record).
But beyond the scope it gave him to indulge his private obsessions, Shelley found Oxford both politically and intellectually stifling. There was virtually no formal tuition, and hardly any need to do any academic work at all – all Shelley had to do was see his tutor once a term, translate an article from the Spectator into Latin once a week, and go to chapel once a day. He found the latter by far the most problematic.
Over their first Christmas vac, Hogg and Shelley collaborated on a short pamphlet, inspired by the writings of John Locke, and entitled The Necessity of Atheism. It’s difficult to overstate how incendiary such a work would have been at the time. All the same, the Oxford bookseller Slatter and Munday (perhaps naively) agreed to sell it, and it appeared, anonymously, on or around the 15th February 1811, displayed in their shop on the corner of Carfax, where a branch of Lloyd’s Bank is now.
But it wasn’t there long. Within the hour, a Fellow of New College came in, read it, and ordered all the copies be burnt there and then, at the back of the shop. Meanwhile Shelley was busy pouring oil on the (metaphorical) fire by posting copies of the pamphlet to all the heads of colleges, adding in the entire congregation of bishops for good measure. And it didn’t end there. Never one to know when to stop digging, even when in a hole, Shelley then immediately published an equally incendiary poem entitled A Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things. It was priced at two shillings; by the time the only surviving copy was acquired by the Bodleian Library as its twelve-millionth book in 2015 it was worth a good deal more.
In the face of such flagrant defiance, University College could no longer sit on their hands. On 25th March, Shelley was summoned to appear before a meeting of the Master and Fellows (all clergymen at the time, of course). They confronted him with the pamphlet, demanding that he confirm he was the author. He refused, a foolish decision, since his authorship was common knowledge. And it was this, rather than the arguments put forward in the pamphlet per se, which was his undoing: the University College Register recorded that he was sent down for “contumaciously refusing to answer questions proposed to [him], and for also repeatedly declining to disavow a publication entitled The Necessity of Atheism”. This outcome cannot, surely, have come as a surprise, but Shelley seems to have been very shaken all the same: he rushed at once to Hogg’s room and threw himself on the sofa, trembling and repeating “Expelled! Expelled!”
Shelley’s spirits obviously rallied in fairly short order, however: one of the Univ Fellows, C. J. Ridley, commented that he and Hogg (likewise expelled) “made themselves as conspicuous as possible by great singularity of dress and by walking up and down the centre of the quadrangle, as if proud of their anticipated fate”. He also noted that Shelley’s departure from the college was not much regretted, as “there were few, if any, who were not afraid of [his] strange and fantastic pranks.”
Shelley borrowed £12 from the hapless Slatter (which he was still trying to get back, ten years later), and, as Hogg later described it, with the benefit of hindsight and some rose-tinted spectacles
The next morning at eight o’clock Shelley and his friend set out together for London on the top of a coach; and with his final departure from the University these reminiscences of his life at Oxford terminate. The narrative of the injurious effects of this cruel, precipitate, unjust and illegal expulsion upon the entire course of his subsequent life would not be wanting in interest or instruction, when the scene was changed from the quiet seclusion of academic groves and gardens, and the calm valley of our silvery Isis, to the stormy ocean of that vast and shoreless world, to the utmost violence of which he was, at an early age, suddenly and unnaturally abandoned.
Within a week Shelley was to write to his despairing father insisting “I hope it will alleviate your sorrow to know that I am perfectly indifferent to the late tyrannical violent proceedings of Oxford”.
Univ may have been glad to see the back of him at the time, but Shelley has since become a usefully illustrious alumnus, with one of the most lavish memorials of any in the University. Though this was not, to be fair, of their doing. The formidable Lady Jane Shelley, wife of Shelley’s youngest child Percy Florence, never met her long-dead father-in-law but became the self-appointed keeper of his flame in the later nineteenth century. She commissioned the statue from Edward Onslow, who reputedly used a female model for the Romantically drowned and naked poet (who was, in fact, fully dressed when he was washed ashore, and no longer had a face, but Lady Shelley was only ever interested in the ideal Shelley, not the real one).
The piece was originally intended for the cemetery in Rome where Shelley’s ashes had been laid, but it proved to be too big, so Lady Shelley ‘offered’ it to Univ, who, after some hesitation (and a substantial donation to build somewhere to put it) agreed. In the century or more since then it’s become both a place of pilgrimage for ardent Shelleyans and an irresistible temptation for what my former tutor always used to call ‘undergraduate high spirits’. Over the years, poor old Shelley has been flooded and filled with goldfish, had his toenails painted, and been adorned with lipstick and a wig, and those are just the family-friendly examples. So much so that these days he’s behind a stern and rather forbidding iron grille: the fantastic prankster now needs ‘tyrannical proceedings’ to protect him from pranks. There’s a rather delicious irony in that.
This post originally appeared on the Wordsworth Trust blog
Richard Holmes, Shelley: The Pursuit (1974)