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6 July 2022

The last days of Percy Bysshe Shelley

Two hundred years after he drowned, Shelley's poems of tyranny and freedom speak to our own darkening age.

By Frances Wilson

Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it. Percy Bysshe Shelley, clothed in black, lies on the branches of the funeral pyre; his pale face might be sleeping, his hair is swept back, his hand has fallen to his side. He still has on his leather shoes. Like the “blithe spirit” in “To a Skylark”, he is ready to transcend his physical form. Smoke billows across the barren wastes of Viareggio, Italy, the sky is autumnal and overcast and the sea in which he drowned is a blade of silver on the horizon. To the left we see a watch tower, a waiting carriage, a bare and solitary tree and, in the foreground, three Heathcliffian figures: Lord Byron, his necktie blowing raffishly in the wind, Byron’s “bulldog” Edward John Trelawny, and the poet and journalist Leigh Hunt, clutching a white handkerchief. Behind them the poet’s widow, Mary Shelley, kneels in prayer. The scene might be a mockery of the central tableau in her novel Frankenstein, where the creature the scientist has pieced together is stretched along the bench, waiting to be jolted into life.

Shelley did a great deal to mythologise himself, but the public’s myth of Shelley, which began with his funeral, and Louis Édouard Fournier’s 1889 painting – copies of which, said WB Yeats, hung on the wall of every art class – bears little relation to the reality of the event. When Byron died fighting for Greek independence in 1824, England collapsed into the kind of mourning we would not see again until the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, but Shelley’s death aged 29 in July 1822, like that of Keats in 1821, was not at first regarded as a national tragedy. Before he was sanctified Shelley was dismissed – if he was spoken of at all – as an atheistic, anti-establishment, vegetarian anarchist who believed that a poem was a radical instrument. “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned,” reported The Courier when the news reached England. “Now he knows whether there is a God or not.”

Setting sail from Livorno on 8 July, Shelley’s sailing boat got caught in a squall off the Bay of Spezia. When he washed ashore on 18 July his hands and face had been eaten by dogfish; he was identified by the edition of Keats in his pocket. The decomposing body was buried in the sand before being dug up for the cremation, which took place on 16 August. Rather than being a blustery day, the combined heat of the sun and the fire, wrote Trelawny in his Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron, “was so intense that the atmosphere was tremulous and wavy”.

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Trelawny, who was prone to exaggerate, described how the corpse, doused in more wine than Shelley had consumed in his lifetime, “fell open and the heart was laid bare. The frontal bone of the skull… fell off; and as the back of the head rested on the red-hot bottom bars of the furnace, the brains literally seethed, bubbled and boiled as if in a cauldron, for a very long time.” “Is this a human body?” Byron apparently declaimed. “Why, it’s more like the carcass of a sheep.” Women were excluded from funerals and so Mary Shelley stayed at home while Hunt, the last person to see his friend alive, was too distraught to leave the carriage. So it was only Byron and Trelawny who watched Shelley burn. When it was over, Byron went for a swim and Trelawny grabbed the heart from the flames and passed it on to Hunt, who reluctantly gave it to Mary. She kept it on her writing desk for the rest of her life.

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It suits Shelley’s self-image to see him as a lonely sailor in a storm, but he was not alone when his boat went down; he was accompanied by his friend Edward Williams, whose own body was cremated the day before. The two men had been to visit Hunt who had just arrived in Italy with the aim of starting a journal called The Liberal. Williams and his common-law wife Jane had been living with the Shelleys in a former boathouse called Casa Magni in Lerici, where the sea came up to the front door.

The previous month Mary, having already buried three of her four children, nearly bled to death during a miscarriage. “No words can tell you how I hated our house & the country about it,” she recalled of that time. Casa Magni had become a personality to be feared and Shelley, addicted to laudanum and infatuated with Jane Williams, had started to hallucinate. In one vision he saw a naked child rising from the water, his hands clasped in joy. “There it is again!” he told Edward Williams, pointing to the sea. “There!” In another vision he saw Jane and Edward covered in blood, and in another a man with his own face was strangling Mary. He would be happiest, Shelley told a friend, if the past and future could be obliterated and he, Jane and her guitar could simply float away in a boat.

During Shelley’s lifetime, it was Byron – flash, cynical, and satirical – who was in the ascendance. The Corsair – dashed off, Byron bragged, between dinners – sold 10,000 copies on the day it was published, while Shelley’s print-runs never exceeded 250. The transformation from infidel poet to “ineffectual angel” (the term is Matthew Arnold’s) began with the publication of Leigh Hunt’s Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries (1828) and Trelawny’s Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron (1858). Hunt, the first critic to recognise the genius of Shelley and Keats, reminded the reader that not only was Shelley “a baronet’s son” with the taste and manners of his rank, he was also too fine for this world.

By the 1860s Walter Bagehot would describe Byron’s verse as “a metrical species of the sensation novel” and Shelley’s “as a serious and deep thing”. If Byron was a melancholy dandy, Shelley was an instrument of spontaneity. “Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is,” Shelley wrote in “Ode to the West Wind”. A self-playing instrument, the lyre (whence “lyric”) is the quintessential metaphor for Romantic inspiration, and “for the poet to yield himself to and be borrowed by the wind”, as Merle Rubin puts it, “is almost the Shelleyan stance”. So when Will Ladislaw (the idealist modelled on Shelley) explained in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871) that a poet was a recipient of external and internal impressions, he was singing from Shelley’s songbook:

To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern, that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with a finely ordered variety on the chords of emotion – a soul in which knowledge passes instantly into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge.

In 1891 Shelley was fictionalised again as Angel Clare in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and in 1893 Edward Onslow Ford’s lavish marble reclining sculpture The Drowned Man was put on display in University College, Oxford, the alma mater from which the poet had been expelled 80 years earlier for publishing a pamphlet called The Necessity of Atheism.

What would have happened to Shelley’s reputation had he died an old man in Surrey rather than a young man in the Tyrrhenian sea? If dying young was proof of sensibility, doing so in the Mediterranean was a guarantee of deification. Was Shelley’s best work behind him in 1822? Now recognised as the heir to Dante and Milton, Shelley gave us some of the loveliest lyrical poems in the language (“To a Skylark”, “Ode to the West Wind”, “Ozymandias”); “Adonais”, the elegy to Keats read by Mick Jagger in the concert at Hyde Park after the death of Brian Jones; the dramas, “The Cenci” and “Prometheus Unbound”; the conversational poem “Julian and Maddalo” and the sublime “Epipsychidion”. But it is “The Masque of Anarchy”, written in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre in August 1819 when cavalry charged at campaigners for parliamentary reform in Manchester’s St Peter’s Field, for which he is best remembered.

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Paul Foot, whose book Red Shelley (1981) turned the poet from a representative of the Romantic imagination to a mascot of the left, could recite the whole of “The Masque of Anarchy”, as could his uncle, Michael Foot, and his three sons. Jeremy Corbyn did recite it – or at least its final stanza – in front of a crowd of 120,000 at Glastonbury Festival in 2017:

Rise like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number –

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you –

Ye are many – they are few.

The same lines were chanted in Tiananmen Square in 1989, in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution in 2011, and at the Poll Tax marches; “The Masque of Anarchy” is not only the greatest protest poem in English but in any language. 

What would have happened to Mary Shelley had her husband been around for the next 50 years? She had more peace as a widow than as a wife. “We have now lived five years together,” she wrote in 1819, “and if all the events of the five years were blotted out, I might be happy.” Before Shelley fell in love with Jane Williams there had been Sophia Stacy, and before that there was Emilia Viviani, and Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont. Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, was 15 when she met him, 16 when she married him, 18, and pregnant with her second child, when he abandoned her for Mary, and 21 when, pregnant with her third child, she drowned herself in the Serpentine in December 1816. Two months earlier, Mary’s half-sister, Fanny Imlay, also in love with Shelley, had swallowed a fatal dose of laudanum. Loving Shelley was lethal because Shelley idealised love. The notes to “Queen Mab” outlined his philosophy: “Love withers under constraint… Love is free: to promise for ever to love the same woman, is not less absurd than to promise to believe the same creed.”

Shelley learned his doctrine of free-love from the radical philosophy of Mary’s parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Godwin’s anti-marriage, anti-ownership treatise, the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, paved the way for the Romantic experiment in communal living, and Mary Wollstonecraft, who had died giving birth to Mary Godwin, took on for her daughter and her generation a legendary status. When Shelley and the 16-year-old scion of these two extraordinary figures ran away together in 1814, they assumed they would win Godwin’s approval; he had, after all, raised his daughter to be “a philosopher” and “a cynic”. But in the time-worn fashion of fathers, Godwin was appalled by what he saw as the poet’s seduction of his daughter. It was not Shelley, however, who had seduced Mary, but Godwin who had seduced Shelley. Poor Harriet Shelley realised this straight away: “The very great evil that book has done is not to be told,” she said of Political Justice. Meanwhile, Harriet saw that Mary had “heated [Shelley’s] imagination by talking of her mother [and] going to the grave with him every day”. Despite being disowned by Godwin, Mary and Shelley scoured the pages of his writing for guidance on how to lead their future lives, which were to be spent in voluntary exile in Italy with no home, no income, no certainty.

Two hundred years after his death, Shelley is no longer stigmatised, mythologised, or even, beyond being chanted at protests, much read or understood. He was a revolutionary poet, but his sense of revolution involved an expansion of the concept of love which came from deep inward reflection. “We want,” he explained, “the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life.”

Perhaps he will be cancelled and disappear from the university curriculum, and future generations will not hear what Shelley had to tell us about tyranny and freedom and how best to live. Or perhaps he will be read again, closely and carefully, in his full complexity. Shelley was “emphatically”, as William Rossetti put it, “the poet of the future” and it is to Shelley’s sonnet, “England in 1819”, that we might turn when we consider the “old, mad, blind, despised and dying” Vladimir Putin:

Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,

But leechlike to their fainting country cling

Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.

Frances Wilson’s books include “The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth” (Faber & Faber) and “Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence” (Bloomsbury Circus)

[See also: How TS Eliot found happiness]

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This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson