Thursday, July 8, 2010

Shelley on the shore

July 8: On this day in 1822, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in a sudden storm while sailing in his schooner, Don Juan, less than a month before his 30th birthday. The incident was surrounded by mysterious circumstances: The boat may or may not have been sabotaged; Shelley may or may not have been murdered; Shelley was despondent and may or may not have committed suicide.

The day following his death, the Tory newspaper The Courier reported: "Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is a God or not."

Shelley's body washed ashore and later, in keeping with quarantine regulations, was cremated on the beach near Viareggio. An 1889 painting by Louis Eduard Fournier, The Cremation of Shelley (shown here), is inaccurate. For one thing, in pre-Victorian times it was English custom that women not attend funerals, but Mary Shelley is depicted in the painting, kneeling at the left-hand side.

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 interred next to her grave at St. Peter's Church in Bournemouth. Shelley's ashes were interred in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome under an ancient pyramid in the city walls with the Latin inscription, Cor Cordium ("Heart of Hearts"), and a few lines from Shakespeare's The Tempest.