Tuesday 8 July 2014

"Grief returns with the revolving year": The Death of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley (Broadbridge Heath, Sussex, West England, 4th August 1792 - Livorno, Italy, 8th  July 1822)

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint, 1819
Percy Bysshe Shelley by Alfred Clint, 1819

Last year, within the first few weeks of the salon doors opening, I told of the life of legendary poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. He experienced joy and despair, huge highs and deep lows and his life was a short one, ending in tragedy. Today is the anniversary of Shelley's death and I wanted to mark the occasion by relating the circumstances of that last day.

By 1822, Shelley and his wife, Mary, had been in Italy for two years . It had been a visit marked by tragedy as two of the couple's children died whilst on the continent yet Shelley had rediscovered the creativity which had begun to desert him during troublesome times in England. Fired by his newly-rediscovered inspiration, he summoned Leigh Hunt to travel to Italy, intending that he, along with Byron, would collaborate with Shelley on a journal called The Liberal. Hunt was swift to answer the call and the journal was established that same year.

The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier, 1889
The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier, 1889

Returning from a meeting regarding The Liberal, Shelley set sail for Lerici on 8th July 1822 in the company of two Englishmen, retired naval officer, Edward Ellerker Williams, and a boatboy named Charles Vivien. The men were destined never to reach their destination and a storm blew up that struck their vessel, recently renamed Ariel, though it had once been called Don Juan, in honour of Lord Byron. When the boat was found drifting it had sustained serious damage to one side, suggesting a collision had occurred.

The decomposed body of the poet washed ashore near Viareggio where it was cremated; according to funereal tradition, Mary was not present. Shelley's ashes were interred in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome, the wanderer having finally reached his rest. He is now memorialised in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey, recognised as a literary legend.


Stephen Barker said...

I think it was Paul Foot giving a lecture on ty on Shelly, who suggested that if Shelly had not died messing about in boats he could have been an inspiration to the revolutionary movement and an inspirational leader to the uprisings in 1848.

This assumes of course that Shelly if he had survived did not become more conservative in his views as he grew older as many men do. William Wordsworth being a contemporary example.

Catherine Curzon said...

I think that's a really interesting theory but you're quite right, would he have maintained his firebrand credentials had he lived? With Shelley I am tempted to say yes but obviously, that's complete conjecture!

Jane Harrington said...

I agree with Stephen. He would have supported that movement. Of course, he might have been in India with Claire Clairmont, too!

Catherine Curzon said...

So many tantalising might have beens!

Diana Wilder said...

I heard they made a hash of the cremation, and Shelley's 'heart' was snatched from the fire to be given to Mary. The conclusion was that it probably wasn't his heart but a piece of calcified something-or-other. Interesting...