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The Tragic Life and Death of Shelley page 3

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Worse still! One day Shelley took Jane and her children for a row, determined to show his lovely friend how well he could scull. He fell into a reverie, from which he awakened presently to say that they could now "solve the great mystery." She knew that in his mind was the thought to upset the boat, so that all would drown. When she had coaxed him to return she told her husband, Williams, that she had escaped the most dreadful fate.

Shelley had had other narrow escapes from death. Because he interfered with some sick sheep, so as to prevent needless suffering, he was attacked at night by the shepherd. When riding with Byron and other Englishmen near Pisa his party was insulted by a mounted soldier. They rode after him, tendered their cards and demanded his name. The soldier, incensed, struck at Shelley with his sword. The poet fell from his horse, and would have been struck again had not a friend warded off the second blow with a cane, which was cut in two. Byron's servant, thinking that his master had been hurt, attacked the soldier with a pitchfork, causing him serious injury.

Once again, when Shelley was being rowed from Leghorn to Pisa in the moonlight, he was in danger. The boat upset and the poet, unable to swim, had to be carried ashore, where he fainted. Byron warned him that those who could not swim should beware of Providence. But Shelley, who was not afraid to flout his fellow-men, had certainly no fear of death, which might bear him:

"... Away, afar,
Without a course, without a star –
But by the instinct of sweet music driven."

Perhaps he had, too, a vision of what would overtake him before he could reach his thirtieth birthday when he wrote:

"Death like sleep might steal on me
And I might feel in the warm air
My cheek grow cold, and hear the sea
Breathe o'er my dying brain its last monotony."

Towards the end Mary and he had visions which disturbed them both. Mary Shelley wrote that during the whole of their stay at Lerici intense presentiment of some evil brooded over the atmosphere and covered the beautiful place with the shadow of coming misery. She vainly struggled against these emotions, but at the hour of separation from her husband, they recurred with renewed violence. She herself did not anticipate danger from them, but a vague expectation shook her to an agony. Not long before, when talking with her husband of presentiments, he had said that the only one he had found infallible was the certainty of some evil fortune when he felt particularly joyous. Yet if ever fate had whispered of coming disasters, said Mary Shelley, such inaudible but not unfelt prognostications hovered round them. The beauty of the place seemed unearthly in its excess; the distance they were from civilisation; the sea at their feet, its murmurings and its roarings ever in their ears - all these led the mind to brood over strange things, lifted it from everyday life and caused it to be familiar with the unreal. Just before that fatal last voyage Shelley wrote gloomily:

"When the lamp is shattered
Its passions will rock thee
As the storms rock the ravens on high;
Bright reason will mock thee
Like the sun from a wintry sky,
From thy roof every rafter
Will rot; and thine eagle home
Leave thee naked to laughter
When leaves fall and cold winds come."

One day Byron said in an awestruck voice that his friends had seen Shelley walk into a little wood at Lerici, at a time when he was actually in another part of Italy. Byron, it must be remembered, was superstitious. He would take off his hat to a magpie as a propitiation against possible evil. Shelley one night had a terrible nightmare. He rose from his bed and ran towards the saloon filling the house with piercing shrieks. He was found gazing on vacancy, and still in a somnambulistic state. He declared that a figure wrapped in a white mantle had come to his bed. Rising, he had followed the figure to see who it was wrapped in the shroud. At the door of the drawing-room the phantom stopped, lifted up the hood of its white mantle, and asked the poet if he was now satisfied. He was, for the shrouded figure now revealed to him was - himself.

About this time he had yet another premonition of the end. One evening, as he walked with Williams, observing the beautiful effects of the moonshine on the Mediterranean, he complained of being unusually nervous. Grasping Williams by the arm, he pointed to the white surf breaking upon the beach at their feet, and exclaimed, "There it is again! There!" The astounded Williams now heard Shelley declare that he had seen a naked child rise from the sea, dap its hands in joy, and smile at him. "It took some time to argue Shelley out of the mood of apprehension produced by the trance. Probably the memory of the dead Harriet floating in the Serpentine, the recent loss of little Allegra, and the growing impression that he was not long for this world, had become fused into this prophetic vision of the manner of his own end.

Shelley and Williams arranged with Trelawney to have a special boat built at Genoa to an English design. When it was launched Shelley was warned that it would require careful handling, for it was fast and tricky. It had been named Don Juan, but because of Allegra's death, Shelley wished to remove everything from him that reminded him of Byron; he changed its name to Ariel. Trelawney, watching its owner's clumsy seamanship, advised Williams to heave overboard Shelley's Greek poets, to cut his hair, and to plunge his arms into a tar-bucket. Otherwise they had no chance of becoming masters of the Mediterranean.

On July 8, 1822, Shelley and Williams left Leghorn in the Ariel to join their wives waiting at their house near Lerici. It was the last journey. Shelley was not such an avowed atheist as formerly; yet he would have been the last man to expect the prayers and the processions of the priests for rain on that sultry day of their embarkation had any prospect of being answered. The atmosphere was still and heavy; the sea was smooth and solid like lead. Presently big drops of rain began to fall. A sudden thunder-squall struck the harbour and blotted out the sea. Twenty minutes later Trelawney looked through the clearing waters for a sign of Shelley's boat among the harbour craft. There was no sign. Assuming that the boat was safe, though out of sight, Trelawney returned to his duties.

There was much rough weather during the rest of that week. The wives of Shelley and Williams, waiting across the harbour, assumed it to be the reason why their husbands had delayed their return. Four days after the Ariel had sailed, Jane expressed a determination to go to Leghorn to find out what the two were doing. Mary Shelley begged her to stay for one more day - the post would then have come in. With it came a letter from Leigh Hunt for Shelley, from which leapt out the startling request, "Please write to tell us how you got home, for they say you had bad weather after you had sailed."

"Then it's all over now," said Jane, as the letter dropped from Mary's nerveless hands. "No, my dear," said Mary "Let's go immediately to Leghorn." The way there was via Pisa, where Byron was still living. The two women arrived there late and Byron, surprised, told them that he knew nothing of the whereabouts of their husbands. He had assumed that they had reached Lerici in safety. Byron observed afterwards that on this terrific evening Mary Shelley looked more like a ghost than a woman - light seemed to emanate from her features, and her face was marble white. She had risen from a bed of sickness to get there, and had been travelling all day. Though it was midnight, they refused to stay with Byron, but pressed on towards Leghorn, not in despair, but with sufficient hope to keep up an agitation of their spirits. It was past two when they got to Leghorn, where they expected to find Trelawney, but were taken to the wrong inn. They waited for daylight, and then discovered the right hotel, but no news of their missing mates, They did not despair. Possibly the Ariel had been driven over to Corsica and had taken shelter none knew where. When they were nearing the harbour the terrible truth began to dawn on them. They heard that a little boat and a water cask had been washed up. It was the cask that frightened Mary Shelley the most; she had recognised it already. As she looked towards the harbour a voice seemed to say within her: "That is his grave."

They reached St. Terenzo and found it illuminated for a fete. "What a scene!" said Mary Shelley. "The waving sea, the sirocco wind, the lights of the town, and our own desolate hearts that coloured all as with a shroud. We landed. Nothing had yet been heard of them. This was Saturday, July 13. We waited until Thursday, July 18, thrown about by hope and fear.

"The people of the country add to our discomforts; they are like wild savages; on festas the men, women and children pass the whole night in dancing on the sands, close to our door, running into the sea and back again, and screaming all the time one perpetual air, the most detestable in the world; then the sirocco perpetually blows and the seas for ever moan their dirge. On Friday I was very ill, but as evening came on I said to Jane, 'If anybody had been found on the coast Trelawney would have returned to let us know. He has not returned, so I hope....'

"About 7 p.m. he did return. All was over, all was quiet now; they had been found - washed ashore."

Byron had warned Shelley that "If you can't swim, beware of Providence." The warning had been forgotten. But the body of the poet had been washed into the shore, the face and hands eaten away by the fish. Still in his vest pocket was a copy of Keats' poems, doubled back as if hastily thrust away. Williams' corpse, much more mutilated, had been found nearby.

The boat was later discovered sunk in ten fathoms of water. It was raised and found to have its gunwale stove in, the bowsprit broken, and the two masts carried away. She may have been run down - purposely, perhaps - by one of the harbour boats during the squall. Later it was rumoured that an elderly seaman, when dying, had confessed that he was on a felucca which had deliberately run the Ariel down in order to get possession of a sum of money believed to be aboard, and thought to belong to Byron the Magnificent. There was money aboard, but no proof of foul play was found. Yet it was just like Shelley's unhappy fortune to be the victim of such an end.

Shelley had desired that his body should be sent to Rome for burial; but that was impossible, for, as the law stood, bodies washed up by the sea had to be interred on the shore to avoid possible contagion from plague. The bodies of the two drowned Englishmen had already been buried in quicklime, but Trelawney now suggested that they be dug up and given burial in the style of ancient Greece. Byron was quick to agree. The skeletons were disinterred and a funeral pyre prepared. "Can that be a human body?" asked Byron as he saw Williams' mangled remains emerge from the sand. "It looks like the carcase of a sheep." Williams was placed on the funeral pyre, and when the heat had abated somewhat, Byron and Leigh Hunt threw frankincense, salt and wine on to the flames. Then it was decided to wait another day before Shelley was given his funeral rites. Turning from the pyre of Williams, Byron suggested that they should swim out and try the strength of the water that had drowned their friends. He was followed into the water by Hunt and Trelawney.

Next day the party returned to say good-bye to the bones of Shelley. A spot was chosen near to an old withered pine-tree and a solitary ruined hut, where not long before Byron and Shelley had stood together. Though the scene of the fire was eerie, the surroundings were beautiful, and the weather glorious. Before them a wide expanse of violet sea, with Elba clearly visible. In the offing, Byron's yacht the Bolivar rode at anchor. Behind them was a sandy wilderness with shrubs and stunted trees twisted by the storms. Beyond the square coastguard towers, which dotted the shore, was a distant range of the Apennines, their marble folds glittering like snow in the July sunshine. Gathering about the pyre were country children, deeply interested in the rites being performed by these mad Englishmen. Leigh Runt waited in his carriage. Byron stood near, pensive, sorrowful.

But the poet could not endure to watch the whole scene. After a little impromptu eulogy of his dead friend, as a man with the will of iron and the most perfect gentleman who had ever crossed a drawing-room, he stripped himself and swam away to his yacht.

The fragments of bones and human ashes were gathered together by Trelawney, placed in an oaken casket, velvet lined, and taken back to Rome. The children, looking on, told each other in awe-struck whispers that when that little urn reached England the great Englishman would step out from it alive. Which was symbolically true; for the news of Shelley's death would take hold of his native country, and his contemporaries would forgive in death what they would not tolerate in life, the man whose dreams of surpassing beauty had raised him to a poet of enormous stature.

Back in Rome an attempt was made to bury Shelley's remains, as he desired, by the side of his boy in the lovely little Protestant Cemetery, which lies on the Appian Way, just outside the city, the way by which St. Paul entered the capital as a prisoner. But even to the last, fate seemed determined to defeat Shelley in his purpose, for it was found impossible to discover the exact site where his son had been buried. They lie in the same cemetery but not together.

The poet's short tempestuous life was over; at the time of his death he was only in his twenty-ninth year. Yet he had reached maturity as a poet, and was unexcelled in the power of his work, in its ideality, and its music, by that of his contemporaries, and by any one who has lived since his time.

In life he would never do the expected, yet given the sincerity of his convictions, he had throughout maintained an unheard-of innocence of spirit. After his death they said of him that his life had been like his poetry - a sort of bright erroneous dream, false in the general principles on which it proceeded, though beautiful and attractive in its details His life had been brief and stormy; his end was:

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