Thursday, July 8, 2010
Deathday: Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792-1822 English Romantic Poet
Percy Bysshe Shelley (4 August 1792 – 8 July 1822; pronounced /ˈpɜrsi ˈbɪʃ ˈʃɛli/ was one of the major English Romantic poets and is critically regarded among the finest lyric poets in the English language. Shelley was famous for his association with John Keats and Lord Byron. The novelist Mary Shelley was his second wife.
He is most famous for such classic anthology verse works as Ozymandias, Ode to the West Wind, To a Skylark, and The Masque of Anarchy, which are among the most popular and critically acclaimed poems in the English language. His major works, however, are long visionary poems which included Alastor, Adonaïs, The Revolt of Islam, and the unfinished work The Triumph of Life. The Cenci (1819) and Prometheus Unbound (1820) were dramatic plays in five and four acts respectively. He wrote the Gothic novels Zastrozzi (1810) and St. Irvyne (1811) and the short works The Assassins (1814) and The Coliseum (1817).
Shelley's unconventional life and uncompromising idealism, combined with his strong disapproving voice, made him an authoritative and much-denigrated figure during his life and afterward. Shelley never lived to see the extent of his success and influence. Some of his works were published, but they were often suppressed upon publication. Up until his death, with approximately 50 readers as his audience, it is said he made no more than 40 pounds from his writings.
He became an idol of the next three or even four generations of poets, including the important Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite poets. He was admired by Karl Marx, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, Isadora Duncan and Jiddu Krishnamurti ("Shelley is as sacred as the Bible.") Henry David Thoreau's civil disobedience and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's passive resistance were influenced and inspired by Shelley's nonviolence in protest and political action.
On 8 July 1822, less than a month before his 30th birthday, Shelley drowned in a sudden storm while sailing back from Livorno to Lerici in his schooner, Don Juan. Shelley claimed to have met his Doppelgänger, foreboding his own death. He was returning from having set up The Liberal with the newly arrived Leigh Hunt. The name "Don Juan," a compliment to Byron, was chosen by Edward John Trelawny, a member of the Shelley-Byron Pisan circle. However, according to Mary Shelley's testimony, Shelley changed it to "Ariel." This annoyed Byron, who forced the painting of the words "Don Juan" on the mainsail. This offended the Shelleys, who felt that the boat was made to look much like a coal barge. The vessel, an open boat, was custom-built in Genoa for Shelley. It did not capsize but sank; Mary Shelley declared in her "Note on Poems of 1822" (1839) that the design had a defect and that the boat was never seaworthy. In fact the boat was seaworthy; the sinking was due to the storm and poor seamanship of the three on board.
There were those who believed his death was not accidental. Some said that Shelley was depressed in those days and that he wanted to die; others say that he did not know how to navigate; others believed that some pirates mistook the boat for Byron's and attacked him, and others have even more fantastical stories. There is a mass of evidence, though scattered and contradictory, that Shelley may have been murdered for political reasons. Previously, at his cottage in Tann-yr-allt in Wales, he had been surprised and apparently attacked by a man who may have been an intelligence agent.
In the days before he died, he was almost shot on two separate occasions. A British consul defended the shooter from the first of these two incidents, keeping him from all legal consequence.
Two other Englishmen were with Shelley on the boat. One was a retired Navy officer, Edward Ellerker Williams; the other was a boatboy, Charles Vivien. The boat was found ten miles (16 km) offshore, and it was suggested that one side of the boat had been rammed and staved in by a much stronger vessel. However, the liferaft was unused and still attached to the boat. The bodies were found completely clothed, including boots.
In his 'Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron,' Trelawny noted that the shirt that Williams's body was clad in was 'partly drawn over the head, as if the wearer had been in the act of taking it off [...] and [he was missing] one boot, indicating also that he had attempted to strip.' Trelawny also relates a supposed deathbed confession by an Italian fisherman who claimed to have rammed Shelley's boat in order to rob him, a plan confounded by the rapid sinking of the vessel.
Shelley's body washed ashore and later, in keeping with quarantine regulations, was cremated on the beach near Viareggio. The day after the news of his death reached England the Tory newspaper The Courier gloated: "Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is a God or not." A reclining statue of Shelley's body, depicting him washed up onto the shore, created by sculptor Edward Onslow Ford at the behest of Shelley's daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Shelley, is the centerpiece of the Shelley Memorial at University College, Oxford. An 1889 painting by Louis Edouard Fournier, The Funeral of Shelley (also known as The Cremation of Shelley), contains inaccuracies. In pre-Victorian times it was English custom that women not attend funerals for health reasons. Mary Shelley did not attend but was featured in the painting, kneeling at the left-hand side. Leigh Hunt stayed in the carriage during the ceremony but is also pictured. Also, Trelawney, in his account of the recovery of Shelley's body, records that "the face and hands, and parts of the body not protected by the dress, were fleshless," and by the time that the party returned to the beach for the cremation, the body was even further decomposed. In his graphic account of the cremation, he writes of Byron being unable to face the scene, and withdrawing to the beach.
Shelley's heart was snatched from the funeral pyre by Edward Trelawny; Mary Shelley kept it for the rest of her life, and it was later buried with the body of Sir Percy Florence Shelley, their son. Shelley's ashes were interred in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome under an ancient pyramid in the city walls. His grave bears the Latin inscription, Cor Cordium ("Heart of Hearts"), and, in reference to his death at sea, a few lines of "Ariel's Song" from Shakespeare's The Tempest: "Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange." The grave site is the second in the cemetery. Some weeks after Shelley had been put to rest, Trelawny had come to Rome, had not liked his friend's position among a number of other graves, and had purchased what seemed to him a better plot near the old wall. The ashes were exhumed and moved to their present location. Trelawny had purchased the adjacent plot, and over sixty years later his remains were placed there.
Shelley was eventually memorialized at the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, along with his old friends, Lord Byron and John Keats.