Remembering Percy Bysshe Shelley
On 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.
After 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?