Monday 8 July 2024

'The writer of some infidel poetry'

 This day in 1822 was the date of the most archetypically, even iconically, romantic of all the Romantic poets' deaths – that of Percy Bysshe Shelley, drowned in the Ligurian sea, and cremated on the beach by his friends. Unmoved, the London newspaper The Courier marked his death thus: 'Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned; now he knows whether there is a God or not.' 
  The famous littoral cremation did not go entirely smoothly. I tell the story in my book, The Mother of Beauty (still available on Amazon or direct from me), writing of
'Shelley’s dramatically informal ‘pagan’ cremation on the beach at Viareggio, an event stage-managed and later much mythologised by the writer and adventurer Edward Trelawny. Shelley 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 that he had crammed into his pocket. With the help of Italian soldiers who were on hand, guarding the bodies, Trelawny 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).'
The volume of Keats was Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and other poems (1819). There is some doubt over whether the unburnt remnant snatched from the pyre was actually Shelley's heart or some other organ, perhaps his liver. Either way, Trelawny gave it to Leigh Hunt, who for some while refused to hand it over to Mary Shelley, but finally relented. There is doubt too about the final resting place of the presumed heart, which might be at Christchurch Priory rather than St Peter's, Bournemouth. A piece of jawbone, also retrieved from the pyre, was eventually donated to the Keats-Shelley Memorial in Rome.  

No comments:

Post a Comment