English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s life was marked with his obsession with demons, ghosts and death, says guest LYNN SHEPHERD

Percy Shelley
Percy Shelley

“This fiend, whose ghastly presence ever
Beside thee like thy shadow hangs…”

Who was Percy Bysshe Shelley?

Percy Bysshe Shelley was many things: a poet, a political radical and pamphleteer, a philosophical thinker, and a faithless husband. He was also – and this may come as a surprise – obsessed with the occult, and this fixation with spirits, demons, and dark inversions of the self was to haunt him to the end of his life.

It was a preoccupation that began very early – Shelley was conjuring a world of spirits and magic and the supernatural to terrorise his younger sisters when he was not much more than 10.

As Elizabeth Shelley later recalled, “we dressed ourselves in strange costumes to personate spirits or fiends, and Bysshe would take a fire-stove and fill it with some flammable liquid…”

He made up ghost stories to scare his sisters, went on mysterious moonlit walks, and drew doodles of devils and monsters in the margins of his copy of Tales of Terror. He devoured the cheap horror novels of the period, and later wrote one of his own, The Nightmare, which has since been lost.

At Eton, at the age of 16, he was discovered one night within a circle of blue flame, trying to raise the devil; Beelzebub apparently did not oblige.

And on another occasion he wrote to a friend arranging to meet him in the holidays, warning him that he might meet on the way “Death-demons, & skeletons dripping with the putrefaction of the grave” and “at the frightful hour of midnight” awake to see “the Hell-Demon lean[ing] over your sleeping form.”

And all the while he was prey to nightmares, and sleepwalking, and strange waking visions in which he could no longer tell reality from hallucination.

His university friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg recalled Shelley telling him that that during one of his midnight walks he’d become convinced he could hear the devil pursuing him, rustling in the grass.

It was only the first of many such ‘following figures’ that were to obsess him until his death. But were any of these spectres real, or were they nothing but the ‘shaping fantasies’ of his own fevered mind?

“the strangest thing is that Mrs Williams saw him. … She was standing one day… at a window that looked on the terrace, with Trelawny….[and] saw, as she thought, Shelley pass by the window, as he often was then, without a coat or jacket ; he passed again.

Now, as he passed both times the same way, and as from the side towards which he went each time there was no way to get back except past the window again (except over a wall 20 feet from the ground), she was struck at her seeing him pass twice thus, and looked out and seeing him no more, she cried, ” Good God, can Shelley have leapt from the wall? Where can he be gone?” “Shelley?” said Trelawny, “no Shelley has passed. What do you mean?”

Trelawny says that she trembled exceedingly when she heard this, and it proved, indeed, that Shelley had never been on the terrace, and was far off at the time she saw him.”

Less than a month later he was dead, drowned with Williams in a sudden storm as he was sailing back from Livorno. That same night his friend Lady Mountcashell dreamt of him, his face pale and melancholy, saying mournfully, “I shall never eat more”. She had no idea then, that he was dead.

It was 10 days before the bodies were found, flung onto the beach near Viareggio. By then Shelley was only identifiable by the clothes he wore, and the book he still carried in his pocket. His face and hands had been completely eaten away.

LYNN SHEPHERD is the author of A Treacherous Likeness, a fictionalisation of the strange and turbulent lives of the Shelleys. The book is a 2013 historical fiction novel of the year for BBC History magazine, and (under its American title) one of the 100 best novels of the year for Kirkus Reviews. Lynn’s website is www.lynn-shepherd.com and her Twitter ID is @Lynn_Shepherd.

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