By Kim McCann

A child of genius is seldom duly appreciated by the world during his life, least of all by his own kindred. The parents of a man of talent may claim the honour of having given him birth, yet they commonly enjoy but little of his society.

— Thomas J. Hogg, friend of Shelley, on the poet

As a child at his family's Field Place estate, Percy Bysshe Shelley drew horned creatures and devils in the margins of a library copy of Matthew Lewis’s Tales of Terror — a macabre doodling habit that would continue throughout his adult years. “He was known as ‘Mad Shelley’,” writes an Eton classmate when describing the poet’s demeanor as a child, revealing, “... many a cruel torture was practiced upon him for his moody and singular exclusiveness.”

Shelley’s response to bullying was legendary. Instead of submitting, young Bysshe, as he was called by his family, would “utter in his paroxysms of revengeful anger.” His outbursts unfortunately did little to deter the bullying, and a classmate described him as “a girl in boy’s clothes, fighting with open hands, and rolling on the floor when flogged….” Rather than adapt, Shelley continued “on the borders of insanity” and later wrote that it was at school when he first realized that he must work to change the injustices of the world.  

At age 11, Shelley entered Eton, where he stabbed a classmate. The reason for this violent outburst was, again, an act of self-defense. “Nailing,” a popular practice among the boys at Eton, involved selecting a weaker boy from within their class and tossing a muddy football at them as violently as possible. Shelley was frequently the target, and his dramatic outbursts served only to encourage his tormentors. One Etonian recalled that, when nailed, Shelley’s eyes would “flash like a tiger’s, his cheeks grow pale as death, his limbs quiver, and his hair stand on end.”

Shelley disliked the organized authority imposed upon him at Eton and claimed that the cruel cult of social conformity that sprang up among his classmates was due in part to that authority. Still, the young poet refused to conform despite the harsh treatment he endured. David Perkins, in his compendium to English Romantic Poets, aptly captures the impact of Shelley’s Eton phase when he says that, in his later years, Shelley “would identify the bullying he experienced with other forms of hatred and tyranny, and see himself even in school as its victim and dedicated foe, living by a higher ideal than the conforming minions of a cruel system.”

In 1810, Shelley attended Oxford, where he enjoyed a greater degree of freedom but disliked the “quasi-monastic life and intellectual conformism” he felt that the university encouraged. According to Newman White’s two-volume biography on Shelley, he was known to leave Oxford lectures only minutes after they had begun, preferring instead to read alone in his rooms. Within days at the university, Shelley met a kindred spirit in Thomas Jefferson Hogg who would become a lifelong friend. Hogg was struck by the many interests of his friend and described Shelley’s rooms at Oxford as filled with “pistols, linen, crockery, ammunition … an electrical machine, an air-pump, the galvanic trough, a solar microscope, and large glass jars and receivers....”

Theirs was a fast friendship, and over the Christmas holiday, Shelley wrote over 23 letters to Hogg, discussing the then radical political ideas of William Godwin. After break, Shelley and Hogg returned to Oxford where they were both convinced that the type of reform suggested by Godwin could only come through the eradication of religion. In 1811, the duo co-authored and anonymously published a pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism in an attempt to expose the “fraud” of Christianity. The pamphlet was sent to Oxford’s leading officials, and despite the anonymity, it soon became public knowledge that Hogg and Shelley authored Necessity.

Shelley’s intent for the pamphlet was not to incite anarchistic sentiment. Instead, he idealistically viewed the university as an institution dedicated to the open exchange of ideas. If the pamphlet was reasonable and well argued, thought Shelley and Hogg, then readers would be converted or, at least, engage in thoughtful discussion on the topic. If the opposite were true, and if the suggestions were fallacious and unfounded then, surely, the errors would be revealed through counter-argument and shared intellectual criticism. University officials took a starkly different view and summoned the two before the Oxford Master and Fellows for questioning. Both were formally dismissed from Oxford on March 25, 1811, with Shelley having attended the university for only six months.

Joseph Merle, a classmate of Shelley’s at Oxford who later became a reputable English journalist, suggested that the poet was “a dangerous member of society” and that “overstudy had made him mad on religious subjects; and as on all others, his mind was fresh and vigorous, he was in the condition of a monomaniac who is incurable, because his insanity is concentrated in one faculty.”  

Shelley’s father believed that Hogg was largely to blame for his son’s atheistic views and urged Bysshe to renounce the friendship. The poet refused to betray Hogg and without the regimen of school, he set forth to make his living as a writer. His next major manifesto was the Declaration of Rights, which he tucked inside dark green bottles and tossed into the ocean.

Regardless of the censure he faced in nearly all aspects of his life, Shelley would emerge as one of the most important and critically acclaimed English poets of his generation and, perhaps, of the 19th century. In 1821, he wrote: “Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to every-changing melody.”

Kim McCann calls Kentucky home and lives in a self-built cabin on a hill with three dogs and an inferiority complex. She sometimes writes for random publications, but prefers to spend time alone, contemplating misanthropy and drinking bad wine. Sometimes, after all, it just makes sense.

(Image credit: Wikipedia)

KEEP READING: More on History

The Airship
1986: The Year Comic Books Became Literature

Released the same year, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen transformed comic books into graphic novels.

Behind the Lit: Edgar Allan Poe Marries His 13-Year-Old Cousin

179 years ago today, it was OK to marry your underage first cousin — and Poe did exactly that with Virginia Eliza Clemm.

H. G. Wells’s Predictions: The Right, the Wrong and the Ugly

As a founder of science fiction, Wells got a surprising share the future right. He also got some things very, very wrong.