Friday, March 29, 2013

Percy Bysshe Shelly (for Percy Bysshe Shelley)

In honor of her birthday on Monday, I blogged about the writer Flannery O'Connor, who was a devout Catholic. To balance it out, here's another "March 25" story about another famous author, this one an infamous atheist...

On March 25, 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from the University of Oxford for publishing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. Shelley, who had been practically friendless while at Eton and was rumored to have attended but a single lecture at Oxford (choosing instead to spend up to sixteen hours a day reading), seemed destined to become a poet of great renown and enduring influence, if only posthumously. One can also see the roots of his political worldview in his personal upbringing. At public school, he had been the victim of sustained bullying attempts (dubbed "Shelley-baits" by his peers) for his refusal to participate in "fagging" (which isn't exactly what it sounds like, but may in fact be related to the homophobic slur we know today), and surely ("Don't call me Shirley!") just for being the sensitive bookworm that he was. Shelley was a Romantic in every sense of the word. After getting kicked out of Oxford (aka "rusticated") in his first year for writing that godless screed (and then refusing to be readmitted contingent on recanting, causing his father to disinherit him), he ran off with and married a young friend, mostly because she was miserable at home. But by this time, Shelley was already well-known and admired (by some) for a number of things: his nonviolent anti-war activism (Thoreau was inspired by him in the writing of Civil Disobedience); his fervent vegetarianism and belief in the rights of animals; and his support of the poor and defense of the world's exploited, disenfranchised, and misunderstood. (Perhaps the most misunderstood of all 19th-century creations, Frankenstein, was invented by Shelley's second wife, Mary.) We found 30 examples of today's typo in OhioLINK, and 324 in WorldCat. You could widen your search a bit by omitting the "Bysshe" (which is a little iffy in and of itself), but that might increase the number of false positives you get.

P.S. (those initials, you'll note, can also stand for Percy Shelley) needed to "drop out" from time to time, and so do I. I have been falling further and further behind on this blog, and am going to try and play catch-up now by cutting back to once or twice a week for the remainder of the year. (Actually, I'll be predating these, and posting nearly every day, but they will all be new entries.) By 2014, I hope to have rounded up a few robust volunteers—at which point we'll come roaring back, better and and more diverse than ever!

(Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint, 1819, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Carol Reid

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