Remembering Percy Bysshe Shelley

img_6112On July 8, 1882, less than a month shy of his 30th birthday, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned with two companions when his small sailboat encountered a storm off the Northwest coast of Italy.

His wife, Mary Shelley, would claim years later that the custom built boat had a defect in its construction and was not seaworthy, however most experts believe that despite her assertion and other theories involving pirates and assassination plots, a death wish on Shelley’s part, and even an alleged deathbed confession involving a local fisherman claiming to have rammed Shelley’s boat in order to rob him, that it was simply poor seamanship and the severe storm that was responsible for the vessel’s destruction.

Due to his extreme politics for the time, both socially and religiously, and his reckless behavior, Shelley did not find fame or even the widespread publication of his poetry during his lifetime. Fearing charges of blasphemy or sedition for his political and religious views, many publishers refused his work and what was published was done anonymously or for private distribution. His popularity was limited to other poets and literary circles for decades after his death, many of the Romantic, Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite schools, and including the poets Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who are featured prominently in Matthew Pearl’s recent novel, The Dante Chamber.

In 2008, “The Original Frankenstein” was published with Percy Shelley credited as coauthor, given the extensive alterations and contributions he is alleged to have made to Mary Shelley’s story. Some believe the couple conspired to give Mary sole credit for the work despite the bulk of the novel having been written by Percy, however much of the evidence to the support that is dismissed as anecdotal or coincidental.

img_6123After his drowning on July 8, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s body washed ashore and later, according to quarantine regulations, was cremated on the beach near Viareggio. The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Édouard Fournier depicts the cremation of Shelley on the beach with Edward John Trelawny, Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron in the foreground, and Mary Shelley kneeling behind them; despite Mary not being allowed to attend, Hunt remaining in his carriage and Byron leaving early, unable to bear the entire process. Based on the graphic description Trelawny offered later of the condition Shelley’s body was recovered in, this reaction on Byron’s part is not surprising.

Byron later said of his friend, “I never met a man who wasn’t a beast in comparison to him”. This was a more sentimental reaction than the English newspaper The Courier offered when announcing the avowed atheist’s death, “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned; now he knows whether there is God or no,” because what good is a newspaper if not to have the last word on a man’s tragic death?

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Remembering Nathaniel Hawthorne

Born on July 4, 1804, Nathaniel Hawthorne was known for writing the novels the Scarlet Letter, the House of Seven Gables, the Blithedale Romance and, in his later years, growing an epic mustache that led many to confuse him for a walrus.

Nathaniel Hawthorne with epic moustacheAs a young man, Hawthorne attended school with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and future president that no one remembers, Franklin Pierce. It was after college that he changed the spelling of his name from Hathorne, to match its pronunciation, although some will say it was to distance himself from July he Hathorne, his great-great-grandfather who served as a judge during the Salem Witch Trials.

While his writing is typically described as dark romanticism and part of the Romantic movement, he was good friends with Transcendentalist writers, Thoreau and Emerson, who would serve as a pall bearer at Hawthorne’s funeral in 1864.

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Listening to Remade in America

Having been a guest on former Federal prosecutor Preet Bharara’s podcast, “Stay Tuned With Preet,” Bassem Youseff decided that if Preet could get a show from Cafe, so could he.

ReMade in America with Bassem YoussefBassem was a surgeon in Egypt who, during the Arab Spring, started a YouTube series to show what was really happening on the front lines of the protests. This grew in popularity until he was offered a TV show, and that grew in popularity until he was hitting 14 million viewers a week and being called the Egyptian Jon Stewart.  And until the government decided his humor and honesty was dangerous and tried to arrest him. He tells a hilarious story while speaking with Preet about being brought in for questioning by the authorities, and as much as I laughed at this, I can’t believe someone in the government  or a member of the pro-Islamist faction that also hated him, didn’t find some reason to execute him.

That’s the shorter, less funny version of how Bassem essentially had to flee to America, so definitely go and listen to his appearance on “Stay Tuned” when Preet went live at the Apollo theater, and then check out his new podcast, “ReMade in America.”

It’s the second episode of his show that made me stop what I was doing and really listen, as it seemed to be a convergence of multiple ideas and stories that had been circling me recently. In this episode, Bassem  speaks with Baratunde Thurston about controlling your own story, your narrative, and how the United States was essentially built on destroying an entire race’s ability to do just that. As George Orwell said, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

As Baratunde begins to talk about that, about the history of slavery and the systemic, institutional racism that is the inoperable cancer of our nation, I was reminded of a passage by James Weldon Johnson that I came across the other day, that I believe comes from his book “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man”.

“…but if the Negro is so distinctly inferior, it is a strange thing to me that it takes such tremendous effort on the part of the white man to make him realize it, and to keep him in the same place into which inferior men naturally fall.” 

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