Shelley at Oxford
Byron’s great friend and contemporary, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), also came from an aristocratic background, albeit a fabulously wealthy one. Shelley endured a miserable time at Eton College, where he was subjected to the ritual of âShelley-baiting’ everyday at 12pm, in which he would be surrounded by older boys who teased him and tore at his clothes. His high-pitched shrieks which ended the daily ritual earned him the nickname âMad Shelley’. Lighter moments at Eton included his habit of running a current through his room’s door handle to give unsuspecting tutors an electric shock, and blowing up a tree.
He went to University College, Oxford, in 1810. Slightly more studious than Byron, Shelley apparently attended one lecture during his brief time at University College, and spent almost all of his spare time reading. His first work, a Gothic novel called Zastrozzi, which he wrote in his final year at Eton, was published the year he matriculated. The novel articulated his fervent atheism, and the titular character was described by one reviewer as âone of the most savage and improbable demons that ever issued from a diseased brain’, concluding that âthe author of it cannot be too severely reprobated’.
Zastrozzi had been attributed only to âP.B.S.’, allowing Shelley to escape infamy, but this did not last long. In 1811, Shelley published a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism, which he sent to the heads of every Oxford college. âEvery reflecting mind must acknowledge that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity’, it stated. âGod is an hypothesis, and, as such, stands in need of proof: the onus probandi rests on the theist.’ The anonymous pamphlet was traced to Shelley, and he was expelled after refusing to confirm or deny his authorship, even after his father’s intervention.
Shelley’s time at Oxford was brief and anarchic, and in many ways set the tone for his short life. Shelley had radical views, and was not afraid to express them, even at great personal cost. His refusal to give up his beliefs, even when under pressure from the authorities, made him one of the most unpopular men in Britain, but such conviction is laudable. There is an amusing footnote to Shelley being sent down for blasphemy: in 1893, University College was given a statue of Shelley by his daughter-in-law, which still stands in memory of the man they once expelled.