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by Ann Wroe

Pub Date: Aug. 14th, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-375-42493-9
Publisher: Pantheon

From Economist editor and biographer Wroe (The Perfect Prince, 2003, etc.), a dreamy, decidedly unorthodox biography of the Romantic poet.

Wroe hastily dispatches the biographical facts, then subsequently jumps around, dropping names and dates she assumes the reader is familiar with. Born in Sussex in 1792 to a landowner and MP against whom he violently rebelled, Shelley attended Eton and Oxford, from which he was expelled in 1811 for an incendiary pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism. He capped off an epistolary romance by eloping with 16-year-old Harriet Westbrook, whom he abandoned within two years. In 1814, he ran off with Mary Godwin, the daughter of philosopher William Godwin (who had been Shelley’s mentor) and pioneering feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. In Pisa and Florence, Mary and Percy wrote, lived beyond their means, maintained friendships with Byron and others, then grew estranged as Shelley flirted with their neighbor, Jane Williams. He drowned while sailing with her husband in 1822. For Wroe, these facts are far less important than Shelley’s intense devotion to beauty and to the poet’s role as seer. He dedicated his life to those ideals, probably under a heavy addiction to laudanum. Essential here are the author’s profound readings of and sympathy for Shelley’s poetry, from Queen Mab, The Revolt of Islam and Prometheus Unbound to A Defence of Poetry. She also nicely documents Shelley’s sense of social justice on the one hand, his flagrant egoism on the other.

Hallucinatory and quite mad (Shelley would approve): helpful in deciphering his work but hardly his life.