Cut off in the prime, 1822
Those in peril…
It was on the 8th instant, about four or five in the evening, they guess. A fisherman says he saw the boat a few minutes before it went down…
Today, 8th July 1822, is the bicentenary of the death of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), who famously drowned off the coast of Italy, near Livorno, less than a month before he would have turned 30. The story has been told many times, so I’m not going to go into every detail1 – I have been searching, however, for accounts of the events as close as possible to when they happened.
It was 10 days before Shelley’s body – and that of his sailing companion Edward Williams – was washed ashore at Viareggio, about 25 miles to the north. He was identified by his friend Edward Trelawny, a writer and adventurer who was friends with Shelley and Byron, and whose account of Shelley’s death,2 and the funeral he organised on the beach in August, became the main source people have drawn upon – although Trelawny somewhat embellished it over time.
The first newspaper report of the death was on 4th August 1822 in The Examiner, a paper founded by Shelley’s friend Leigh Hunt and his brother John back in 1808. That first report – presumably penned by Leigh Hunt himself – read:
Those who know a great mind when they meet with it, and who have been delighted with the noble things in the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, will be shocked to hear that he has been cut off in the prime of his life and genius. He perished at sea, in a storm, with his friend Captain Williams, of the Fusileers [sic], on the evening of the 8th ult., somewhere off Via Reggia, on the coast of Italy, between Leghorn [Livorno] and the Gulf of Spezia. He had been to Pisa, to do a kind action; and he was returning to his country abode at Lerici to do another. Such was the whole course of his life. Let those who have known such hearts, and have lost them, judge of the grief of his friends. Both he and Captain Williams have left wives and children. Captain Williams was also in the prime of life, and a most amiable man, beloved like his friend. The greatest thing we can say in honour of his memory (and we are sure he would think so), is, that he was worthy to live with his friend, and to die with him.
Hunt himself had arrived in Italy to join them only a week beforehand – he, Shelley and Byron were plotting a new quarterly journal, The Liberal, which did launch in October 1822, but only lasted four issues, without, of course, Shelley’s contributions. Hunt actually drafted an essay about Shelley’s death for the publication, too, but it was not published.3 But we have an earlier account anyway, in the form of a letter Hunt wrote to his friend and fellow writer Horace Smith from Pisa on 25th July, and here it is, succinct but heartfelt…
I trust that the first news of the dreadful calamity which has befallen us here will have been broken to you by report, otherwise I shall come upon you with a most painful abruptness; but Shelley, my divine-minded friend, your friend, the friend of the universe, he has perished at sea. He was in a boat with his friend Captain Williams, going from Leghorn to Lerici, when a storm arose, and it is supposed the boat must have foundered.
It was on the 8th instant, about four or five in the evening, they guess. A fisherman says he saw the boat a few minutes before it went down: he looked again and it was gone. He saw the boy they had with them aloft furling one of the sails. We hope his story is true, as their passage from life to death will then have been short; and what adds to the hope is, that in S’s pocket (for the bodies were both thrown on shore some days afterwards,—conceive our horrible certainty, after trying all we could to hope!) a copy of Keats’s last volume,4 which he had borrowed of me to read on his passage, was found open and doubled back as if it had been thrust in, in the hurry of a surprise.
God bless him! I cannot help thinking of him as if he were alive as much as ever, so unearthly he always appeared to me, and so seraphical a thing of the elements; and this is what all his friends say. But what we all feel, your own heart will tell you.
I am only just stronger enough than Mrs. S. at present to write you this letter; but shall do very well. Our first numbers [of The Liberal, presumably] will shortly appear; though this, like everything else, however important to us, looks like an impertinence just now. God bless Mrs. H. sends her best remembrances to you and Mrs. Smith, and so does your obliged and sincere friend,
[There is then an addendum…]
It has been often feared that Shelley and Captain Williams would meet with some accident, they were so hazardous; but when they set out on the 8th, in the morning it was fine. Our dear friend was passionately fond of the sea, and has been heard to say he should like it to be his death-bed.
I think Mrs. S. told me yesterday that she should like to be informed of anything you may happen to know respecting his affairs. I can spare you a morsel of a lock of his hair, if you have none.
Shelley’s previous wife Harriet (née Westbrook, b.1795) had drowned herself in 1816, pregnant and alone as the poet had already left her for Mary (née Godwin) in 1814, and some have speculated that Shelley himself sought to end his life – although he doesn’t really seem to have been quite ready for that watery death-bed. Meanwhile Mary herself kept a journal, but on Shelley’s death she abandoned it until 2nd October 1822, when she restarted it thus:5
On the Eighth of July finished my journal. This is a curious coincidence — The date still remains, the fatal 8th — a monument to shew that all ended then. And begin again?—oh, never! But several motives induce me, when the day has gone down, and all is silent around me, steeped in sleep, to pen, as occasion wills, my reflexions & feelings. First; I have now no friend. For eight years my soul I communicated with unlimited freedom with one whose genius, far transcending mine, awakened & guided my thoughts; I conversed with him; rectified my errors of judgement, obtained new lights from him, & my mind was satisfied. Now I am alone! Oh, how alone! The stars may behold my tears, & the winds drink my sighs but my thoughts are a sealed treasure which I can confide to none. White paper — wilt thou be my confident? I will trust thee fully, for none shall see what I write. But can l express all I feel? Have I the talent to give words to thoughts & feelings that as a tempest hurry me along?
Mary’s own talents are clear enough of course, from Frankenstein (1818) to The Last Man (1826) and beyond. (You can read her own account of Shelley’s death, written in 1839 as a preface to an edition of his poems, here.) And perhaps we should visit her journals further another time – so much for ‘none shall see what I write’ for any of the Romantics and their circle.
Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron (1858).
Dating from late 1822 or early 1823, it was only published fully in The Keats-Shelley Review in January 1992 (‘Religion of the Heart: Leigh Hunt’s Unpublished Tribute to Shelley’ by Timothy Webb); you can also see the original transcription by Leigh’s wife Marianne online here.
This was Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, published in 1820; Keats himself died in February 1821.