Friday 8 July 2022


 Today is the bicentenary of the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley. A suicidally reckless swimmer – as was Swinburne, who, despite his puny build, would happily throw himself into the roughest of seas – Shelley died by water, but not in a swimming accident. He 'drowned when the boat he was sailing was caught in a sudden storm, and his body was washed up ten days later at Viareggio, along with his two sailing companions. They were identifiable only by their clothes – and, in Shelley’s case, a volume of Keats [Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems, 1820] that he had crammed into his pocket. With the help of Italian soldiers who were on hand, guarding the bodies, Trelawny [writer, adventurer and friend of poets] built the funeral pyre and set it alight, while his friends Byron and Leigh Hunt looked on. The fierce heat of blazing resinous pine took Trelawny by surprise and drove the onlookers away to a safe distance. As the flames began to die down, Trelawny poured on frankincense and salt, then wine and oil, in the manner of the ancient Greeks, and that was that. The three men then took a long swim out from the shore, and, in one final romantic gesture, Trelawny seized Shelley’s heart from the embers of his pyre. (That heart now resides in the Shelley family vault at St Peter’s, Bournemouth, along with the body of Mary Shelley and the remains of her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, dug up from the churchyard of Old St Pancras.)'
That account of the improvised funeral is from this, hem hem, highly recommended book. There is a fuller account of the much mythologised occasion in Philip Hoare's curiously titled RisingTideFallingStar
To mark the bicentenary, commemorative events are planned at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome (about which I wrote something a few years ago).  

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