In the summer of 1822, the Courier, a leading Tory newspaper in London, carried a brief obituary that began: “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned: now he knows whether there is a God or no.” From this moment on, the dramatic death of Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Gulf of Spezia was set to become one of the most powerful of all Romantic legends. And also perhaps the most misleading.
Shelley drowned in his own sailing boat, the Don Juan, while returning from Livorno to Lerici, in the late afternoon of July 8 1822, during a violent summer storm. He was a month short of his 30th birthday. Like Keats’s death in Rome the year before, or Byron’s death at Missolonghi two years later, this sudden tragedy set a kind of sacred (or profane) seal upon his reputation as a youthful, sacrificial genius. But far more comprehensively than theirs, Shelley’s death was used to define an entire life, to frame a complete biography. It produced not hagiography, but thanatography.
Through an astonishing array of pictures, poems, inscriptions, memoirs and Victorian monuments, this death spun a particular image of Shelley’s character more effectively than any modern PR campaign. It projected a writer who was unearthly, impractical and doomed. In Matthew Arnold’s notorious summation, Shelley was “a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain”. Shelley could always fly, but he could never swim.
The legend of his death transformed his life almost beyond recovery. Here for instance is what was inscribed (in Italian) on the wall of his last house, the skull-like Casa Magni, with its five gaping white arches and open terrace, gazing out to sea at San Terenzo, on the bay of Lerici. “Upon this terrace, once protected by the shadow of an ancient oak-tree, in July 1822, Mary Shelley and Jane Williams awaited with weeping anxiety the return of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who, sailing from Livorno in his fragile craft, had come to shore by sudden chance among the silences of the Elysian Isles. – O blessed shores, where Love, Liberty and Dreams have no chains.”
This unearthly legend had been built up steadily throughout the 19th century. Shelley’s wife Mary herself launched it, writing immediately after his death: “I was never the Eve of any Paradise, but a human creature blessed by an elemental spirit’s company & love – an angel who imprisoned in flesh could not adapt himself to his clay shrine & so has flown and left it.”
Shelley’s friend and champion, the incorrigible myth-making Edward John Trelawny, set the metamorphosis literally in stone. His inscription for the tablet above Shelley’s ashes in the Protestant Cemetery at Rome was taken from The Tempest : “Nothing of him that doth fade/ But doth suffer a sea change/ Into something rich and strange.”
This inscription gathered its own irony. In his journal for 1822, Trelawny had written a simple graphic description of the seasonal storm that had overwhelmed Shelley’s boat, and the cremation of Shelley’s body on the beach at Viareggio, which Trelawny had brilliantly stage-managed as a pagan ceremony, with libations of wine, oil and spices.
But he obsessively re-wrote his account nearly a dozen times over the next 50 years, accumulating more and more baroque details, like some sinister biographical coral-reef. He raised the possibility that Shelley’s boat had been rammed, or alternately, that Shelley had been suicidally unseamanlike. “Death’s demon,” he intoned delphically in his Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author , a final version published in 1878, “always attended the Poet upon the water.”
By 1889 Louis Fournier’s celebrated painting “The Cremation of Shelley”, showed a miraculously undamaged corpse offered up to Heaven on a martyr’s pyre, with Trelawny and Byron striking solemn Romantic poses (actually they went swimming), and a pious Mary kneeling on the wind-swept beach in floods of tears (although in fact she was never there at all).
The myths became funereal monuments. A marble tomb commissioned by the Shelley family from Horatio Weekes (1854) was based on an Italian pietà, with Shelley’s Christlike body lovingly cradled in Madonna Mary’s arms. Forty years later, another monument by E Onslow Ford, paid for by the Shelley Society, was installed in University College, Oxford. It shows a white, supine Shelley draped like a fallen angel across a green sacrificial altar, with a weeping sea nymph below the plinth. It is now protected by iron bars.
Such mythic echoes are still resonant. Germaine Greer in her recent study The Boy (2003), relates Shelley’s death to the tradition of the beautiful vulnerable male, linking him to the classical death of Bion, the erotic drowning of Leander, and the masochistic martyrdom of St Sebastian.
So Shelley’s whole life, in retrospect, seemed to be fleeting, angelic, ephemeral, and doomed. It was a natural extension to suggest that it was also probably suicidal, or contained unmistakable prophesies of his own death. Again it was Mary who was the first to pick out this theme. She wrote in her “Note to the Poems of 1822” of how Shelley had, “as it now seems, almost anticipated his own destiny; and, when the mind figures his skiff wrapped from sight by the thunder-storm, as it was last seen upon the purple sea, and then, as the cloud of the tempest passed away, no sign remained of where it had been – who [would not] regard as a prophesy the last stanza of the ‘Adonais’ (1821)?”
The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the Tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.
The shadow of prophesy, the sense of “fatal destiny” subtly shaped the way his work was selected and read. He was a cloud, a skylark, a hectic leaf blown before the wild west wind. Boats and storms become evident everywhere in his poems: from the tiny skiff driven through the “boiling torrents” described in “Alastor” (1816), to the battered vessel swamped by “a chaos of stars” in “A Vision of the Sea” (1820).
The nightmare imagery of his last unfinished poem, “The Triumph of Life” (1822), seemed to set a seal upon metaphysical despair. An enormous Chariot of Death advances like a huge storm-wave, engulfing the whole of human history, all youth and idealism: “So came a chariot on the silent storm / Of its own rushing splendour, and a Shape / So sate within, as one whom years deform …”
From the earliest references to his childhood love of paper boats (often made of large denomination banknotes), to his last Faustian letters from the unearthly beauty of the bay of Lerici, these intimations of death seem to extend everywhere. “My boat is swift and beautiful, and appears quite a vessel … We drive along this delightful bay in the evening wind, under the summer moon, until earth appears another world … If the past and the future could be obliterated, the present would content me so well that I could say with Faust to the passing moment, ‘Remain thou, thou art so beautiful’.”
Biography is caught and frozen, so to speak, in the glamorous headlights of Shelley’s death. But if we set that death aside, if we switch off its hypnotic dazzle for a moment, maybe quite different patterns and trajectories can emerge from Shelley’s life.
First of all, the circumstances of his drowning can be shown to involve prosaic bad luck, and bad judgment, as much as ill-starred destiny. Despite what Trelawny implied, Shelley had considerable previous experience with sailing boats, from schoolboy expeditions up the Thames, to sailing single-handed (or with his ex-Royal Navy friend, Edward Williams) down the Arno, the Serchio, and beyond Livorno harbour out to sea.
He had successfully survived perilous incidents on the Rhine (with Mary) in 1814, on Lake Geneva (with Byron) in 1816, and on the Pisan Canal (with Williams) in 1821. Mary always recognised his “passion” for boating, encouraged it as exercise, and observed that “much of his life was spent on the water”. His courage and coolness afloat was also remarked on by Byron.
It was true, however, that Shelley was a river sailor. The Don Juan was his first ocean-going boat, although it was not the “skiff” or “fragile craft” of legend. It was a heavy 24-foot wooden sailing boat, based, according to Williams, on a scaled-down model of an American schooner (12 metres reduced to eight). It had a lot of canvas: twin masts carrying main and mizzen sails, and a bowsprit flying three jibs. It was sleek, fast, with little sheer and, most significantly, no decking. Yet because of its unusual weight of sail, it had to be heavily ballasted with “two tonnes” of pig iron. It cost Shelley £80, or about one-tenth of his annual income. The local Italians were impressed with it, and even the Lerici harbourmaster, Signor Maglian, sailed with them in the open sea as far as Massa, in rough weather conditions.
The Don Juan had been delivered to Lerici on May 16 1822, “a perfect plaything for the summer”. After trials mostly spent racing Italian feluccas (“she passes the small ones as a comet might pass the dullest planets of the Heavens”), the boat was refitted by its designer Captain Roberts, helped by Williams, in the last days of June. The aim was clearly speed. Adaptations included two new topmast sails (gaff topsails), an extended prow and bowsprit, and a false-stern. In some accounts Williams also included shelves for Shelley’s books inside the gunwales, a sporting concession.
But unknown to Shelley, the Don Juan had a fundamental design-fault. A twin-masted schooner could not simply be scaled-down to a small, undecked, open boat. The sail to hull ratio was far too high; it was ballasted with too much pig iron, and it floated with too little freeboard. It was “very crank”, and dangerously unseaworthy. The refit, which they all thought so handsome, appears to have exaggerated all these defects: more sail, more ballast, less clearance.
As it was undecked and carried no buoyancy aids, the Don Juan was now in danger, not simply of capsizing, but of foundering. In heavy seas it might fill with water from the stern or leeward side, and go straight down. It had become a nautical death trap.
Shelley set sail for Livorno (approximately 45 miles south) on July 1 1822. Mary, who was ill and depressed, did not wish him to go. But the trip was neither solitary, nor suicidal in intent. On the contrary, it was full of hope and high spirits. It was made to greet his old friend Leigh Hunt, who had just arrived in Italy to found a new literary journal. Four of them (including Captain Roberts) made the outward leg, very fast, in perfect weather conditions.
On the return trip, there were only three aboard: Shelley, Williams and Charles Vivian, an English boatboy aged 18. It was intended as a single fast seven-hour reach to Lerici, under their full glorious spread of canvas, to race them home by dusk. Mary and Jane Williams were waiting impatiently at the Casa Magni for their men.
But now their luck ran out. After three hours a violent squall came up from the west. They had started too late to outdistance it. Trelawny had intended to accompany them in Byron’s full-size schooner, the Bolivar, but at the last moment was prevented by Italian port authorities. Had he been alongside, he would undoubtedly have saved them.
The Don Juan’s final moments are still disputed. Later rumours of a pirate ramming, fostered by Roberts and Trelawny (both carrying an uneasy sense of blame) evaporate on examination. But there are persistent reports of a failure to take down the new gaff topsails (which required Vivian to climb the masts), or to reef the mainsails in time. They were clearly undermanned, but still attempting to run for home.
The unseaworthy Don Juan was engulfed in enormous waves, had its false stern and rudder ripped off, lost both masts, and foundered in 10 fathoms of water about 15 miles off Viareggio. These details became clear when the wreck was salvaged by Italian fishermen two months later. It did not capsize, and was not looted, as books, papers, wine bottles, a telescope (broken), a cash bag, some tea spoons, and a sea trunk, were all found lying within the open hull when it was pulled from the sea-bed. They were half entombed in blue mud.
The boat went down so quickly that Williams did not have time to kick off his boots, and Shelley thrust a new copy of Keats’s poems into his jacket pocket, so hard that it doubled-back and the spine split. This much was clear (but not much else) from the three bodies cast up along the coast 10 days later: they could be identified by their clothes, but not by their faces.
There might have been one last chance. Williams had constructed an eight-foot coracle or dinghy, made of reeds and canvas, which was used as the Don Juan’s “pram” or tender, and towed behind the boat. Shelley had frequently used this cockleshell for exploring Lerici bay, and had so often capsized it in the surf that it is difficult to believe he hadn’t at least learned to doggy paddle. This dinghy was the one thing that remained afloat after the shipwreck, and was soon washed up on Viareggio beach. So the troubling question arises: did Williams (or Vivian) cut it loose? Did they (the good swimmers) attempt to push Shelley on to its upturned hull? Or did Shelley (the bad swimmer) gallantly resign it to them?
These are a haunting images of a different kind.
So with better luck, or less gallantry, Shelley could well have survived. But did he also have reason to survive? He sometimes claimed to have abandoned writing, overwhelmed by Byron’s aristocratic self-confidence and continuing literary success. “I do not write – I have lived too long near Lord Byron & the sun has extinguished the glow-worm.”
But actually Shelley had a huge amount of work in hand. He had written over 180 stanzas of “The Triumph of Life” by the end of June, and its last lines – “Then what is Life? I cried” – herald a continuing vision. He had started a political verse play about Charles I and the struggle for a republican England, featuring both Cromwell and Hampden. He had begun an erotic drama, The Indian Enchantress . He was working on major verse translations from Goethe and Calderón. He was writing many beautiful lyrics and songs, though significantly they were addressed to Jane Williams, and not to Mary.
Nor had he abandoned his fundamental radicalism. He still thought of himself as “atheist, democrat, philanthropist” – the provocative self-description he had entered in the hotel registers in Switzerland under “occupation” long ago in 1816. His remarkable but little-known essay, “A Philosophical View of Reform”, written in 1820 (but not published for a century), promulgates universal suffrage, radical reform of the Houses of Parliament, women’s rights, disestablishment of the Anglican Church, formation of trade unions, and reform of marriage laws and conventions (including the promotion of contraception). It was here he first declared that “poets and philosophers” were the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.
He greeted the new liberation movements throughout Europe (in Spain, southern Italy, Greece) with enthusiasm and celebrated them with “Odes to Liberty”. When the Greek war of independence was declared in 1821, he immediately wrote his verse drama Hellas to salute it. In his Preface he announced triumphantly, “We are all Greeks”, and described his vision of an entire generation of young men, “the flower of their youth, returning from the universities of Italy, Germany, and France”, flocking to assist it. The choruses he composed were apocalyptic with hope, not despair:
The world’s great age begins anew,
The golden years return,
The earth doth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn:
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam,
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.”
Above all, Shelley now had the scheme for the new journal, The Liberal: Verse and Prose from the South. The original title was Hesperides, and it was set to be the great literary mouthpiece of Romantic opposition. It was to be managed by Leigh Hunt, the leading liberal newspaper editor of the day, and printed in England by his brother John Hunt. As editor and printer of the Examiner, both men had gone to prison for seditious libel, and were ready for a fight. Hunt was to be financed by Byron and Shelley, his main contributors, producing a combination of talents that was deliberately intended to outrage Tory opinion. Other contributors were to include Mary Shelley and William Hazlitt. Four issues did eventually appear between October 1822 and July 1823.
They carried Shelley’s superb translation from Faust , Byron’s scathing “Vision of Judgement”, Mary’s intriguing short story “The Bride of Modern Italy”, and one of Hazlitt’s finest essays, “My First Acquaintance with Poets”. It was an astonishing constellation of talents, promising a new instalment of Romantic history. It was dissolved only by Shelley’s death.
Such a reflection makes us look into the underlying patterns of his life, or its trajectories. It also raises some subtle questions about the nature of biography itself, and what we can learn from the notion of an alternative biography – or counter-factual history. If Shelley had indeed survived the shipwreck, how might his life have continued?
In 1821 Mary still treasured a dream of going to live with Shelley and their one surviving child (Percy Florence) on a Greek island, after the war of independence. “If Greece be free, Shelley and I have vowed to go, perhaps to settle there, in one of those beautiful islands where earth, ocean and sky form the Paradise.” There is a touching hint of Club Med in this fantasy, but practical and domestic considerations would surely have intervened. Certainly they would never have embarked (like the freebooting Trelawny) under Byron’s banner.
It seems inevitable that at some point they would have returned to England, where Shelley fully expected to inherit the family estate in Sussex, and to take up a seat in Parliament. In the event, his father Sir Timothy survived an unconscionable time, but Shelley would surely have become involved with the Great Reform Bill of 1832. After serving modestly on the London Greek committee, he might have starred in the radical Westminster Review, and sharpened up the young liberal philosopher JS Mill. He might have hobnobbed with Coleridge at Highgate (“a little more laudanum, Bysshe?”), compared notes on their translations of Faust , grown heated about “atheism”, and cool again about that damn Laureate Southey. Later still might have come the famous “Odes to Electromagnetism”, the seditious verse play about Chartism, the suppressed “Essay on the Variety of Sexual Intercourse”. Finally perhaps, we can imagine him being scandalously elected as the first Professor of Poetry and Politics at the newly founded, and strictly secular, University of London.
Mary too, despite her love of Italy, would surely have been drawn back to England, with or without (a different counter-factual story) Shelley. In the 1820s she was anyway to become famous in her own right through no less than five different stage productions of Frankenstein in London. Her long-awaited third novel, The Last Man (1826), might well – in other circumstances – have been her second masterpiece. Based on another brilliant and prophetic science-fiction idea, she imagined the entire human race relentlessly destroyed by plague. But lacking the intellectual stimulation of the lost Shelley-Byron circle, the novel became diffuse, mawkish and nostalgic. It was dominated by wish-fulfilment portraits, rather than the intense psycho-drama of Frankenstein .
In their own way, these were also Mary’s version of counter-factual lives. Byron is resurrected as the glamorous Lord Raymond, the commander of a liberated Constantinople; Shelley as the withdrawn but altruistic Adrian, the protector of a republican England (a real legislative office); and Mary herself changes sex to become the intrepid Verney, the eponymous Last Man, a born survivor and solitary wanderer, who returns undaunted to a deserted Rome. In the penultimate chapter, the most powerful of the entire novel, Mary restages the wreck of the Don Juan, in agonisingly re-imagined detail.
Of course it is also true that if Shelley had lived, Mary would not have had to spend nearly 20 years editing his papers, and writing fashionable journalism. Instead of sending her son to Harrow, and turning her husband into a posthumous angel, she could have really given her mind to developing her fiction. Her novels – The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), Falkner (1837) – might have rivalled Bulwer-Lytton, or at least Harrison Ainsworth.
What do these counter-factual speculations say about the nature of biography itself? First, that we have an unconscious hunger for explanatory myths. We like our “lives” to conform to archetypes, or fables, or even fairy tales. Built out of understandable piety, admiration and regret (but also out of guilt, embarrassment or remorse), myths are easily formed but difficult to change. They may even require the shock, the impiety of laughter.
Second, we need to consider alternative versions. For instance, a Shelley who was reckless, rather than ineffectual; generous, rather than angelic; self-centred, rather than suicidal; intellectually isolated, rather than politically despairing. A Shelley firework, say, more than a Shelley jelly. Above all, we need to consider a Shelley who was a writer of genius still at the outset of his career, rather than at its end. And, with double irony, the same possibility for his wife Mary.
Third, we need to face the crucial difference between chance and destiny, in biographical narrative. The underlying trajectory of a life is always hard to gauge. Mary herself came to reflect on this, puzzling over why she and Shelley ended up at Casa Magni at all. “But for our fears on account of our child, I believe we should have wandered over the world, both being passionately fond of travelling. But human life, besides its great unalterable necessities, is ruled by a thousand Lilliputian ties that shackle at the time, although it is difficult to account afterwards for their influence over our destiny.”
Finally, we always need to re-examine the role of time in biography. What is “a life-time”? What is “the time of death”? (Shelley’s watch, now preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, is stopped at precisely 16 minutes past five.) Is human time different from historical time? Writing in Orlando , her sprightly satire on conventional biography, Virginia Woolf observed: “It’s a difficult business, this time-keeping. The true length of a person’s life, whatever the DNB may say, is always a matter of dispute.” The 29-year old Shelley remarked to Hunt at Livorno, just before he died, that he felt he had lived to be older than his grandfather – “I am 90 years old”.
Shelley’s theory (based on the philosophy of Hume) was that human time is not experienced uniformly, but is controlled by speed and intensity of impressions and ideas. As he had written 10 years earlier, in “Queen Mab”, “The Life of a man of virtue and talent, who should die in his thirtieth year, is – with regard to his own feelings – longer than that of a miserable priest-ridden slave, who dreams out a century of dullness … Perhaps the perishing firefly enjoys a longer life than the tortoise”.
Certainly human time is not divided into equal chapters. Nor is the “death scene” the true end of any significant human story. We need to be aware that many lives change their shape as we look back on them. The dead may always have more life, more time, to give us. Shelley may always be “unextinguished”, undrowned.
Biographer Richard Holmes lectures on Shelley’s drowning at the launch of the National Portrait Gallery’s Interrupted Lives lecture series on January 29 at 7pm. Information and tickets 020 7306 0055. An accompanying book will be published in the autumn. A new series of classic biographies, edited by Richard Holmes, is launched by HarperPerennial in May.”
—FROM RICHARD HOLMES:
Image Source: Sketch of a Sailboat by Percy B. Shelley, Bodleian Library, Oxford