Friday, July 8, 2011

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Today Percy Shelley is known for being one of the key figures in Romantic poetry, author of "Ozymandias", "Ode to the West Wind", "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," "To a Skylark", "Adonaïs", and Prometheus Unbound. In his day, he was as much known for his tumultuous and controversial life as for his written works.

Son of an MP, he was tormented at Eton and returned the favor to polite society as an adult. Legend says that at Oxford he attended only one lecture but spent sixteen hours a day reading. He was also writing just as furiously, publishing two novels, two poetry collections, and a pamphlet on atheism. It was the later that got him kicked out of Oxford.

Four months later, the nineteen year old Shelley eloped with sixteen year old Harriet Westbrook. Three years later he left his pregnant wife for another sixteen year old, the daughter of philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the future author of Frankenstein. Harriet committed suicide a few weeks before they married.

After 1818, the Shelleys lived in Italy. They found it freer, politically and intellectually, and it attracted a lot of fellow travelers like their friend, the poet Lord Byron. In 1822, he had built a "perfect plaything for the summer", a small sailing boat. Initially dubbed the Don Juan, after one of Byron's poems, Shelley rechristened it the Ariel. A defiant Byron painted "Don Juan" on the mast; the Shelleys thought it made the boat look like a coal barge.

On July 8, 1822, Shelley, retired British Navy lieutenant Edward Ellerker Williams, and boat boy Charles Vivien were sailing from Livorno to Lerici when they were caught in a severe storm. What happened that night has been much speculated upon. Mary Shelley later wrote that the boat was never seaworthy. It's generally thought the seamanship of the three men was not equal to the task of riding out the storm. More fanciful theories include a politically motivated assassination or an attack by pirates. Whatever happened, ten days later, three bodies washed ashore at Viareggio. In Shelley's pocket was a volume of poems by John Keats, the fellow Romantic poet whose early death at 25 Shelley celebrated in "Adonaïs", still open to the page he had been reading. Shelley had been one month away from 30.

Byron and others in their circle cremated Shelley's body on the beach. The ashes were buried in a cemetery in Rome. A crass Tory newspaper crowed: "Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is God or no." Accounts differ on what exactly became of his heart, but many say that it was plucked from the flames intact and kept by Mary Shelley for the rest of her life.

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