The life of Percy Bysshe Shelley is one which has given rise to a great deal of controversy, and which cannot, for a long time to come, fail to be regarded with very diverse sentiments. His extreme opinions on questions of religion and morals, and the great latitude which he allowed himself in acting according to his own opinions, however widely they might depart from the law of the land and of society, could not but produce this result. In his own time he was generally accounted an outrageous and shameful offender. At the present date many persons entertain essentially the same view, although softened by lapse of years, and by respect for his standing as a poet: others regard him as a conspicuous reformer. Some take a medium course, and consider him to have been sincere, and so far laudable; but rash and reckless of consequences, and so far censurable. His poetry also has been subject to very different constructions. During his lifetime it obtained little notice save for purposes of disparagement and denunciation. Now it is viewed with extreme enthusiasm by many, and is generally admitted to hold a permanent rank in English literature, though faulty (as some opine) through vague idealism and want of backbone. These are all points on which I shall here offer no personal opinion. I shall confine myself to tracing the chief outlines of Shelley’s life, and (very briefly) the sequence of his literary work.
Percy Bysshe Shelley came of a junior and comparatively undistinguished branch of a very old and noted family. His branch was termed the Worminghurst Shelleys; and it is only quite lately that the affiliation of this branch to the more eminent and senior stock of the Michelgrove Shelleys has passed from the condition of a probable and obvious surmise into that of an established fact. The family traces up to Sir William Shelley, Judge of the Common Pleas under Henry VII, thence to a Member of Parliament in 1415, and to the reign of Edward I, or even to the Norman Conquest. The Worminghurst Shelleys start with Henry Shelley, who died in 1623. It will be sufficient here to begin with the poet’s grandfather, Bysshe Shelley. He was born at Christ Church, Newark, North America, and raised to a noticeable height, chiefly by two wealthy marriages, the fortunes of the junior branch. Handsome, keen-minded, and adventurous, he eloped with Mary Catherine, heiress of the Rev. Theobald Michell, of Horsham; after her death he eloped with Elizabeth Jane, heiress of Mr. Perry, of Penshurst. By this second wife he had a family, now represented, by the Baron de l’Isle and Dudley: by his first wife he had (besides a daughter) a son Timothy, who was the poet’s father, and who became in due course Sir Timothy Shelley, Bart., M.P. His baronetcy was inherited from his father Bysshe—on whom it had been conferred, in 1806, chiefly through the interest of the Duke of Norfolk, the head of the Whig party in the county of Sussex, to whose politics the new baronet had adhered.