Percy Shelley was a prolific and socially committed writer. Although his life often attracted more attention than his works, his writing is often concerned with the interconnectedness of experiences, the way human nature changes, and sexual politics. Shelley’s work contains a desire for freedom from assumptions about human nature.
Shelley went to Eton and then to Oxford, though was expelled from Oxford for the publication of “The Necessity of Atheism” in 1811. He eloped with Harriet Westbrook, who was to eventually leave him. He fell in love with Mary Godwin while still married to Harriet, though after she died of consumption he married Mary. Percy Shelley dies in a boating accident at the age of 30 in 1822.
Shelley wrote at a time when only 11,000 men in England were eligible to vote. Women were automatically excluded. After the French Revolution of 1789, there was considerable repression of democratic thought in England, which meant that Shelley’s radical politics were not received well. Shelley was influenced by William Godwin, and was later to marry his daughter, Mary. He wrote one of his major lyrics, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”, at the same time Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.
His works are numerous and include both poetry and prose, though he is best known as a Romantic poet and his poetry is probably most familiar to readers. His work contains emotion and philosophy, metaphor, and literary and cultural allusions. His long poem “Queen Mab” covers various topics including vegetarianism, free love, atheism and republicanism. Much of his poetry is directly political. “England in 1819” and “The Mask of Anarchy” attack the degenerate state of affairs in Britain after the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars. "Ozymandias" is a reflection on the impermanency of earthly power; the ruins the traveller comes across in an "antique land" emptily boast of their creator's power. One of his most enduring works, “Prometheus Unbound” contains Shelley’s thoughts on repressive institutions and class.
Despite Shelley’s engagement in his work with gender issues, feminist critics do not see Shelley as feminist because of his preconceptions about the nature of the feminine. Many feminist critics say his writings show a fear of women. Mary Shelley noted his obsessive desire to understand feminine power and alluded to it in Frankenstein. Shelley inspired a number of modern poets, including W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens. Other poets, like T.S. Eliot, reacted against him and the Romantic tradition.