This long pursuit, p.22
This Long Pursuit, p.22Richard Holmes
These myths became funereal monuments. A marble tomb commissioned by the Shelley family from Horatio Weekes (1854) was based on an Italian pietà, with the poet’s Christlike body lovingly cradled in Madonna Mary’s arms, and tenderly installed in Christchurch Priory, Dorset. Forty years later another monument by E. Onslow Ford, paid for by the Shelley Society, was piously placed in the quad of University College, Oxford (from where the poet had once been dismissed for atheism). It shows a white, supine Shelley draped like a fallen angel across a green sacrificial altar, with a weeping sea nymph below the plinth. It has now had to be protected by iron bars.
Such mythic echoes are still resonant. Germaine Greer, in her study The Boy (2003), relates Shelley’s death to the tradition of the beautiful vulnerable male, linking him to the classical death of Bion, the erotic drowning of Leander, and the masochistic martyrdom of St Sebastian.
So Shelley’s whole life, in retrospect, seemed to be fleeting, angelic, ephemeral, and doomed. It was a natural extension to suggest that it was also probably suicidally ‘driven’, or contained unmistakable prophecies of his own death. Again, it was Mary who was the first to pick out this theme. She wrote in her ‘Note to the Poems of 1822’ how Shelley had, ‘as it now seems, almost anticipated his own destiny; and, when the mind figures his skiff wrapped from sight by the thunder-storm, as it was last seen upon the purple sea, and then, as the cloud of the tempest passed away, no sign remained of where it had been – who [would not] regard as a prophecy the last stanza of the “Adonais” ?’
The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the Tempest given;
The massy earth and spherèd skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.
The shadow of prophecy, the sense of ‘fatal destiny’, subtly shaped the way Shelley’s work was selected and read. He was a cloud, a skylark, a hectic leaf blown before the wild west wind. Boats and storms become evident everywhere in his poems: from the tiny skiff driven through the ‘boiling torrents’ described in ‘Alastor’ (1816) to the battered vessel swamped by ‘a chaos of stars’ in ‘A Vision of the Sea’ (1820).
The nightmare imagery of his last unfinished poem, The Triumph of Life (1822), seemed to set a seal upon metaphysical despair. An enormous Chariot of Death advances like a huge storm-wave, engulfing the whole of human history, all youth and idealism:
So came a chariot on the silent storm
Of its own rushing splendour, and a Shape
So sate within, as one whom years deform …
From the earliest references to his childhood love of paper boats (often made of large-denomination banknotes) to his last Faustian letters from the unearthly beauty of the bay of Lerici, these intimations of death seem to extend everywhere: ‘My boat is swift and beautiful, and appears quite a vessel … We drive along this delightful bay in the evening wind, under the summer moon, until earth appears another world … If the past and the future could be obliterated, the present would content me so well that I could say with Faust to the passing moment, “Remain thou, thou art so beautiful.”’
Biography is caught and frozen, so to speak, in the glamorous headlights of Shelley’s death. But if we set that death aside, if we switch off its hypnotic dazzle for a moment, maybe quite different patterns and trajectories can emerge from Shelley’s life.
First of all, the circumstances of his drowning can be shown to involve prosaic bad luck, and bad judgement, as much as ill-starred destiny. Despite what Trelawny implied, Shelley had considerable previous experience with sailing boats, from schoolboy expeditions up the Thames to sailing single-handed (or with his ex-Royal Navy friend Edward Williams) down the Arno, the Serchio, and beyond Livorno harbour out to sea.
He had successfully survived perilous incidents on the Rhine (with Mary) in 1814, on Lake Geneva (with Byron) in 1816, and on the Pisan canal (with Williams) in 1821. Mary always recognised his ‘passion’ for boating, encouraged it as exercise, and observed that ‘much of his life was spent on the water’. His courage and coolness afloat was also remarked on by Byron.
It is true, however, that Shelley was a river sailor. The Don Juan was his first ocean-going boat, although it was not the ‘skiff’ or ‘fragile craft’ of legend. It was a heavy twenty-four-foot wooden sailing boat, based, according to Williams, on a scaled-down model of an American schooner (twelve metres reduced to eight). It had a lot of canvas: twin masts carrying main and mizzen sails, and a bowsprit flying three jibs. It was sleek, fast, with little sheer and, most significantly, no decking. Yet because of its unusual spread of sail, it had to be heavily ballasted with ‘two tonnes’ of pig iron. It cost Shelley £80, or about one-tenth of his annual income. The local Italians were impressed with it, and even the experienced Lerici harbourmaster, Signor Maglian, was delighted to sail aboard it with him and Williams, in the open sea as far as Massa, in rough weather conditions.
The Don Juan had been delivered to Lerici on 16 May 1822, ‘a perfect plaything for the summer’. After trials mostly spent racing Italian feluccas (‘she passes the small ones as a comet might pass the dullest planets of the Heavens’) the boat was refitted by its designer Captain Roberts, helped by Williams, in the last days of June. The aim was clearly increased speed through the water, though in fact this largely depends on hull length, which could not be altered. Instead, adaptations included two new topmast sails (gaff topsails), an extended prow and bowsprit, and a false stern. In some accounts Williams also included shelves for Shelley’s books inside the gunwales, a sporting concession.
But unknown to Shelley, the Don Juan had a more fundamental design fault. A twin-masted schooner could not simply be scaled down to a small, undecked open boat. The marine proportions became all wrong. The sail-to-hull ratio was far too high; it was ballasted with too much pig iron; and it floated with too little freeboard. The narrow beam made it ‘very crank’, that is, likely to capsize, and so dangerously unseaworthy in a real squall. The refit, which everyone thought so handsome, appears to have exaggerated all these defects: more sail, more ballast, less clearance, less stability. As it was undecked and carried no buoyancy aids, the Don Juan was now in danger not simply of capsizing, but of foundering. In heavy seas it might fill with water from the stern or leeward side, and go straight down. It had become a nautical death trap.
Shelley set sail for Livorno (approximately forty-five miles south of Lerici) on 1 July 1822. Mary, who was ill and depressed, did not wish him to go. But the trip was neither solitary, nor suicidal in intent. On the contrary, it was full of hope and high spirits. It was made to greet Shelley’s old friend Leigh Hunt, who had just arrived in Italy to found a new literary journal. Four of them (including Captain Roberts) made the outward leg, a smooth swift reach, in perfect weather conditions.
On the return trip there were only three aboard: Shelley, Williams and Charles Vivian, an English boatboy aged eighteen. It was intended as a single fast seven-hour voyage to Lerici, under their full glorious spread of canvas, that would race them home by dusk. Mary and Jane Williams were waiting impatiently on the terrace of the Casa Magni for their men.
But now their luck ran out. After three hours a violent squall came up from the west. They had started too late to outrun it. There was no shipping nearby to come to their aid. Trelawny had intended to accompany them in Byron’s full-size schooner the Bolivar, but at the last moment was prevented by Italian port authorities because of quarantine regulations. Had he been alongside, he would undoubtedly have saved them.
The Don Juan’s final moments are still disputed. Later rumours of a pirate ramming, fostered by Roberts and Trelawny (both carrying an uneasy sen
The unseaworthy Don Juan was engulfed by enormous waves, had its false stern and rudder ripped off, lost both masts, and foundered in ten fathoms of water about fifteen miles off Viareggio. These details became clear when the wreck was salvaged by Italian fishermen two months later. It did not capsize, and was not looted, as books, papers, wine bottles, a telescope (broken), a cash bag, some teaspoons and a sea trunk were all found lying within the open hull when it was pulled from the seabed. They were half entombed in blue mud.
The boat went down so quickly that Williams did not have time to kick off his boots, and Shelley thrust a new copy of Keats’s poems into his jacket pocket so hard that it doubled back and the spine split. This much (but not much else) was clear from the three bodies cast up along the coast ten days later: they could be identified by their clothes, but not by their faces, which had been eaten away by fishes.
There might have been one last chance. Williams had constructed an eight-foot coracle or dinghy, made of reeds and canvas, which was used as the Don Juan’s ‘pram’ or tender, and towed behind the boat. Shelley had frequently used this cockleshell for exploring Lerici bay, and had so often capsized it in the surf that it is difficult to believe he hadn’t at least learned to dog-paddle. This dinghy was the one thing that remained afloat after the shipwreck, and it was soon washed up on Viareggio beach. So the troubling question arises: did Williams (or Vivian) cut it loose? Did they (the good swimmers) attempt to push Shelley onto its upturned hull? Or did Shelley (the weak swimmer) gallantly resign it to them? These questions suggest haunting images of a different kind.
With better luck, or less gallantry, Shelley could well have survived. But did he have reason to survive? He sometimes claimed to have abandoned writing, overwhelmed by Byron’s aristocratic self-confidence and continuing literary success: ‘I do not write – I have lived too long near Lord Byron & the sun has extinguished the glow-worm.’
Actually Shelley had a huge amount of work in hand. He had written over 180 stanzas of The Triumph of Life by the end of June, and its last lines – ‘Then what is Life? I cried’ – herald a continuing vision. He had started a political verse play about Charles I and the struggle for a republican England, featuring Cromwell and Hampden. He had begun an erotic drama, The Indian Enchantress. He was working on major verse translations from Goethe and Calderón. He was writing many beautiful lyrics and songs, though significantly they were addressed to Jane Williams, and not to Mary.
Nor had he abandoned his fundamental radicalism. He still thought of himself as ‘atheist, democrat, philanthropist’ – the provocative self-description he had entered in the hotel registers in Switzerland under ‘occupation’ long ago in 1816. His remarkable but little-known essay ‘A Philosophical View of Reform’, written in 1820 (but not published for a century), promulgates universal suffrage, radical reform of the Houses of Parliament, women’s rights, the disestablishment of the Anglican Church, the formation of trade unions and the reform of marriage laws and conventions (including the promotion of contraception). It was here he first declared that ‘poets and philosophers’ were the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.
He greeted the new liberation movements throughout Europe (in Spain, southern Italy, Greece) with enthusiasm, and celebrated them with ‘Odes to Liberty’. When the Greek War of Independence was declared in 1821, he immediately wrote his verse drama Hellas to salute it. In his Preface he announced triumphantly, ‘We are all Greeks,’ and described his vision of an entire generation of young men, ‘the flower of their youth, returning from the universities of Italy, Germany, and France’, flocking to assist it. The choruses he composed were apocalyptic with hope, not despair:
The world’s great age begins anew,
The golden years return,
The earth doth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn:
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam,
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.
Above all, Shelley now had the scheme for the new journal, The Liberal: Verse and Prose from the South. The original title was Hesperides, and it was set to be the great literary mouthpiece of Romantic opposition. It was to be managed by Leigh Hunt, the leading liberal newspaper editor of the day, and printed in England by his brother John. As editor and printer of the Examiner, both men had previously gone to prison for seditious libel, and were ready for a fight. Leigh Hunt was to be financed by Byron and Shelley, his main contributors, producing a phalanx of literary radicals that was deliberately intended to affront and outrage Tory opinion. Other contributors were to include Mary Shelley and William Hazlitt.
Four issues did eventually appear between October 1822 and July 1823. They carried Shelley’s superb translation from Faust, Byron’s scathing ‘Vision of Judgement’, Mary’s intriguing short story ‘The Bride of Modern Italy’, and one of Hazlitt’s finest essays, ‘My First Acquaintance with Poets’. It was an astonishing constellation of talents, promising a new instalment of Romantic history. It was dissolved only by Shelley’s death.
Such a reflection makes us look into the underlying patterns of his life, or its trajectories. It also raises some subtle questions about the nature of biography itself, and what we can learn from the notion of an alternative biography – or counter-factual history. If Shelley had indeed survived the shipwreck, how might his life have continued?
In 1821 Mary still treasured a dream of going to live with Shelley and their one surviving child (Percy Florence) on a Greek island after the War of Independence: ‘If Greece be free, Shelley and I have vowed to go, perhaps to settle there, in one of those beautiful islands where earth, ocean and sky form the Paradise.’ There is a touching hint of Club Med in this fantasy, but practical and domestic considerations would surely have intervened. They would never have embarked (like the freebooting Trelawny) under Byron’s banner.
It seems inevitable that at some point they would have returned to England, where Shelley fully expected to inherit the family estate in Sussex, and to take up a seat in Parliament. In the event, his father Sir Timothy survived an unconscionable time, although Shelley would surely have become involved with the Great Reform Bill of 1832. After serving modestly on the London Greek Committee, he might have starred in the radical Westminster Review, and sharpened up the young liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. He might have hobnobbed with Coleridge at Highgate (‘A little more laudanum, Bysshe?’), compared notes on their translations of Faust, grown heated about ‘atheism’, and cool again about that damn Laureate Southey. Later still might have come the famous ‘Odes to Electromagnetism’, the seditious verse play about Chartism, the suppressed ‘Essay on the Variety of Sexual Intercourse’. Finally, perhaps, we can imagine him being scandalously elected as the first Professor of Poetry and Politics at the newly founded, and strictly secular, University of London.
Mary too, despite her love of Italy, would eventually have been drawn back to England, with or without (a different counter-factual story) Shelley. In the 1820s she was anyway to become famous in her own right through no fewer than five different stage productions of Frankenstein in London. Her long-awaited third novel, The Last Man (1826), might well – in other circumstances – have been her second masterpiece. Based on another brilliant and prophetic science-fiction idea, she imagined the entire human race relentlessly destroyed by a global plague or pandemic, a conception that has lost none of its sinister power today. But lacking the intellectual stimulation of the lost Shelley–Byron circle, the novel became diffuse, mawkish and nostalgic. It was dominated by wish-fulfilment portraits, rather than the intense psycho-drama of Frankenstein.
In their own way, these novels were also Mary’s version of counter-factual biography. Byron is resu
Of course it is also true that if Shelley had lived, Mary would not have had to spend nearly twenty years editing his papers, and writing fashionable journalism. Instead of sending her son to Harrow, and turning her husband into a posthumous angel, she could have given her mind to developing her fiction. Her novels – The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), Falkner (1837) – might have rivalled Bulwer-Lytton, or at least Harrison Ainsworth.
What do these counter-factual speculations reveal about our implicit assumptions (and delusions) about the nature of biography itself? Perhaps that, for all our sophisticated theories of interpretation, we still have an unconscious hunger for simple explanatory myths, for improving models in the Victorian manner. It is still dangerously easy to wish ‘Lives’ to conform to archetypes, or fables, or even fairy tales. Built out of understandable piety, admiration or regret (but also out of guilt, embarrassment or remorse), such biographical myths are easily formed but difficult to change. They may sometimes require the irreverent shock, the cleansing impiety, of sceptical enquiry, mocking revision, or even inappropriate laughter.
This suggests the constant need to consider alternative versions. For instance, a Shelley who was reckless rather than ineffectual; generous rather than angelic; self-centred rather than suicidal; intellectually isolated rather than politically despairing. A Shelley firework, say, more than a Shelley jelly. Above all, we might consider a Shelley who was a writer of genius still at the outset of his career, rather than at its end. And, with double irony, the same possibility for his wife Mary.
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