I didn’t know much about Shelley before I read Poetic Lives: Shelley by Daniel Hahn. This biography gives brief details of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s short but extraordinary life, from his birth in 1792 to his early death in 1822, shortly before his thirtieth birthday.
The opening paragraph caught my immediate attention in pointing out that Shelley was not that far away from the present day. Although he was born during the reign of mad King George III when there were struggles for independence in Europe – the French Revolution and then Napoleon’s rise to power, his granddaughter saw the sinking of the Titanic, the First World War and the Great Depression.
Shelley was an unhappy child, an unconventional teenager, an atheist and a radical reformer. He was expelled from Oxford University before he could complete his degree and was at odds with his father. He eloped with the daughter of a coffee-shop owner in 1811 but after three years the marriage was over when he met Mary Godwin. He was constantly in poor health and for much of the rest of his life they lived a nomadic existence travelling around Italy and France.
Hahn also quotes extracts from Shelley’s poems and prose. He also uses various sources such as Shelley’s friend Thomas Hogg, who wrote his Life of Shelley in 1857, Shelley’s cousin Tom Medwin who published a memoir of Shelley and a two-volume Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1847 and another friend, Edward Trelawney who wrote Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron in 1858.
I found parts of the book moving, Shelley’s reaction to John Keats’s death for example and the events of his own death, but on the whole it is a prosaic account of Shelley’s life. Hahn’s repetitive use of the word “would” was irritating. It has interested me enough to want to read more about Shelley and his poems. I have started reading Ann Wroe’s book Being Shelley: the Poet’s Search for Himself, which promises to be a much fuller account and also more about him as a poet. More about that book another time.
I received Poetic Lives:Shelley from the publishers via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers’ Programme.