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?
Giving Up the Writer’s Ghost
As a writer, it is necessary to channel your emotions into your characters who cannot convincingly exist until you do. As a human being who should value maintaining their sanity, however, you have to recognize when to let go of those insecurities and regrets that are holding you back.
I have spent my fair share of time in bars, enough that I feel at home in them. I’m ok sitting alone at a bar, having a drink by myself. Now, I can’t walk through a grocery store without being terrified of who might be looking at me, but sitting at a bar—not even writing or reading or looking something up, but just having a quiet moment to myself and my pint—I’m comfortable doing.
As a writer, of course, I’m in love with bars and the idea of bars as they relate to writing—and specifically, to the author. There’s the classic image of the author who’s soul is inescapably tied to the words he bleeds onto the page. He sits behind the ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts at the corner booth made of dark wood and ancient, weathered deep burgundy leather; the author’s home away from home, intended not only to allow him to sit back and view the comings and goings and general inebriated happenings but to sit at the center of a spirited evening complete with life-changing drunken philosophical debates on those occasions he is joined by friends or friendly rival authors, and of course the alcohol which is as constant as the notebooks and ceaselessly shuffled and rearranged pages of notes and unfinished plots and tales put on hold until the proper hero or villain or motivation can be discovered.
But that is the idea. It has to be just an idea. That is the romantic side to writing I’m not sure exists anymore (if it ever did) and is not one that can be realistically maintained. And not just because you’re no longer allowed to smoke in bars.
Because what is the reality of that lifestyle? Beyond the ultimate financial impossibility of sustaining it, this lifestyle is cirrhosis, lung cancer, and the inability to walk out into direct sunlight without immediately bursting into flames.
I suppose the same could be said for the average unfulfilling, fluorescent light-drenched cubicle job that’s available today.
There’s also the forgetting.
There are the details you miss and the stories that are gone because you flushed them out of your soul with too many drinks. There is always the lingering feeling that there was a story. At some point that night, you heard a line or a fragment of some recollection, and you were so excited—that is the opening line; that would be the perfect short story; there is the perfect starting point for this character. Perfect. Perfect and it’s gone. Sure, in reality it wasn’t perfect. You were drunk. But it could have been a start. It isn’t even that now.
The forgetting leads to the regret, that two-faced demon of the drunk, the devil on each shoulder that will poke at you and whisper in your ear incessantly for days afterwards. You regret what you’ve forgotten and you regret what you remember, as that comes back to you only in glimpses and flashes with the fuller details you need to survive lost in the fumes.
Perhaps this is the power of that romantic image of the solitary author drinking himself into the shadows. There he is in a corner booth of some ancient tavern, lost behind the smoke and the booze and the stacks of shuffling unfinished lives he is the master of. You don’t see that he is now too scared to send those lives out into the world.
He has bought into this as well. He lets this unattainable standard of “the writer” cloud what could be, instead of trying simply and honestly to live up the standard of what he can be. Instead, he tries to drink away the insecurities, the doubt, and the fear and drown himself in the caricaturist image of what an author should look like.
It doesn’t wash away those anxieties. The false hope of a light buzz after a drink or two will give way to the sloppiness of drinks three through 4 AM, and clouds the careful eye that would make a writer that recorder of human nature he needs to be; it blurs and obscures the unique minuteness of life he prides himself on noticing.
For that he is rewarded with regret for having squandered another opportunity, and with this misstep he deems himself forever unworthy of any rewards, be it the inspiration, the recognition, the camaraderie of achievement.
That is the power of this image. It serves as one more excuse for him to hide behind, one more reason he doesn’t live up to this profession, this calling. He doesn’t sit there to tap into a vein of inspiration or serve as a social focal point, as he tries to so hard to convince himself he does. Instead he sits there to hide behind the regrets he can barely remember but never give up, and fade away into the myth of the great writer that only exists in his egotistical imagination, the myth of his potential.
So rather than take a chance, he’ll take a drink. At least he knows where that will lead.