Percy commended his grandfather, Sir Bysshe Shelley, for having “acted very well to three wives”; moreover, “he is a complete atheist, and he builds all his hopes on annihilation.”43 Sir Bysshe took his unusual “Christian” name from his grandmother’s maiden name. He had a long pedigree, which (like Byron) he traced back to the Norman Conquest; in that distinguished line one Shelley had been hanged for supporting Richard II, another for plotting to kill Elizabeth I. Sir Bysshe eloped with his second wife, buried her, and eloped with a third, who was descended from Sir Philip Sidney. Her fortune swelled that of her husband, and helped him to a baronetcy in 1806. He lived to be eighty-three, much to the annoyance of his children. The eldest of these was Timothy Shelley, who passed through Oxford and into Parliament, where he voted the mildly liberal Whig line. In 1791 he married Elizabeth Pilfold, a woman of great beauty, considerable temper, and some agnosticism,44 all of which reappeared in her eldest son.
Percy Bysshe Shelley was born on August 4, 1792, at the family property known as Field Place—a spacious home and estate near Horsham in Sussex. Four sisters were born later, and much later a brother. Percy was brought up in close companionship with his sisters; he may have taken from them some habits of tenderness, excitability, and imagination; and for the eldest of them he developed an intense affection.
At Eton he suffered agonies of injured pride from fagging. He shunned most sports except rowing; fatefully he never learned to swim. He was soon proficient in Latin, and changed bullies into friends by helping them with their lessons. His extracurricular reading included many tales of mystery and terror, but also he relished the materialism of Lucretius’ De rerum natura, the science of Pliny’s Natural History, the optimism of Condorcet’s Sketch of a Tableau of the Progress of the Human Mind, and the philosophicalanarchism of Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. This book, he later wrote, “opened my mind to fresh and more extensive views; it materially influenced my character; I rose from its perusal a wiser and better man…. I beheld that I had duties to perform.”45
During vacations he fell in love, aged sixteen, with a cousin, Harriet Grove, who often visited Field Place. They began a correspondence whose ardor raised them in 1809 to mutual pledges of eternal fidelity. But he confessed to her his doubts about God; she showed his agnostic letter to her father, who advised her to set Percy adrift. When, in January, 1811, Harriet transferred her troth to William Helyer, Shelley wrote to his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg a letter worthy of Byron’s wildest heroes: “She is no longer mine, she abhors me as a deist, as what she was before. Oh! Christianity, when I pardon this last, this severest of thy persecutions, may God (if there be a God) blast me! … Is suicide wrong? I slept with a loaded pistol and some poison last night, but did not die.”46
Meanwhile (1810) he had passed from Eton to University College, Oxford. He avoided there, except for an exploratory night or two,47 the sexual riot that seemed to most undergraduates a necessary course to manhood. He listened now and then to lectures by the dons, who kept only a step ahead of him in Latin and Greek; soon he was composing Latin poetry, and he never forgot Aeschylus. His quarters were disordered with scattered books and manuscripts, and the abracadabra of amateur science; in one experiment he nearly blew up his room. He trusted to science to remake the world and man. He did not care for history, having taken the word of Voltaire and Gibbon that it was mainly the record of the crimes and follies of mankind; nevertheless he read these two skeptics fondly. He thought that he had found an answer to the riddle of the universe in Lucretius and the philosophes: it was a choreography of atoms following necessary laws. Then he discovered Spinoza, and interpreted him as a monistic dualist who saw matter and mind as two aspects of one divine substance—a something like mind in all matter, and a something like matter clothing all mind.
He read passionately. His classmate Hogg described him as “having a book in hand at all hours; reading … at table, in bed, and especially during a walk … not only at Oxford … in High Street, but in the most crowded thoroughfares of London…. I never beheld eyes that devoured the pages more voraciously.”48 Eating seemed to him a waste of time, if unaccompanied by reading; and the simplest food was best, if only as least distracting from the digestion of ideas. He was not yet a vegetarian, but bread in one pocket and raisins in another seemed to him a well-balanced meal. However, he had a sweet tooth, savored honey on gingerbread, and liked to adorn his drinking water with wine.49
He is represented to us, in his Oxford days, as a tall, slender, stooping bundle of nerves, theories, and arguments; careless of his dress and hair; shirt collarless and open at the throat; face almost femininely fair; eyes brilliant but restless; manners awkward but courteous. He had a poet’s organism, sensitive at every nerve end, warm with unchecked feelings, receptive to a chaos of ideas, but allergic to history. He had a poet’s moral code, naturally stressing individual liberty and suspicious of social restraints. Wonderful, Hogg reported, were the nights in Shelley’s room, when they read poetry and philosophy to each other, demolished laws and creeds, exchanged certainties till 2 A.M., and agreed on one point above all others—that there was no God.
On that subject the young rebels concocted a collaboration which they entitled The Necessity of Atheism. That term was then proscribed in polite society; gentlemen skeptics called themselves deists, and spoke respectfully of God as an unknowable spirit, inherent in nature as its life and mind. Shelley himself would later come to this view; but, in brave and uncalculating youth, the authors preferred to call themselves atheists as a challenge to a taboo and a call to attention. The argument of the essay was that neither our senses nor reason nor history reveal a God. The senses reveal only matter in motion according to law. Reason rejects the idea of a creator evoking the universe out of nothing. History offers no example of divine action, nor of a divine person appearing on the earth. The authors did not sign their names, but, on the title page, ascribed it to, “Through deficiency of proof, An Atheist.”
The Oxford University and City Herald for February 9, 1811, contained an advertisement for the pamphlet. It appeared on February 13, and Shelley at once placed copies of it in the window or on the counter of an Oxford bookstore. The Reverend John Walker, fellow of New College, saw the display, and called upon the bookseller to destroy all copies of it in his possession; this was done. Meanwhile Shelley had sent copies to many bishops, and to several university dignitaries.50 One of these brought the pamphlet to the master and fellows of University College. These summoned Shelley to appear before them on March 25. He came, was shown the pamphlet, and was asked was he the author. He refused to answer, and made an appeal for freedom of thought and the press. He was told to leave Oxford by the next morning. Hearing of this, Hogg confessed himself co-author, and asked for equal punishment; it was granted. That afternoon a college bulletin announced that Shelley and Hogg were being expelled “for contumacy in refusing to answer certain questions put to them.” Privately the master sent word to Shelley that if it should prove difficult for him to leave at such short notice, a request for a few days’ delay would be granted. The message was ignored. On March 26 Shelley and Hogg proudly left on the top of the coach for London.