Percy Bysshe Shelley
When the body of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was washed up on the beach in Viareggio, Italy, just over 200 years ago, there was a copy of poems by his fellow Romantic, John Keates, in his pocket. The boat which sank and caused his death was the Don Juan, an inadvertent nod to his friend Lord Byron. His funeral was a Classical affair; the mourners cremated him there on a pyre on 16th August, 1822, with frankincense and salt thrown into the fire, wine and oil over the body. His friends sought to honour him as a Greek hero, and he was steeped in the Classical tradition. He was sadly a non-believer and had been expelled from Oxford for refusing to retract his pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism. A privileged background, though bullied at Eton, meant he could afford to travel and live like a libertine. He eloped at the age of 19 with Harriet Westbrook, a schoolfriend’s sister three years his junior; they married in Edinburgh. After two children with her, he moved on to Mary, daughter of the of the philosopher William Godwin, in 1814, when she was 16. They fled to Switzerland (Mary went on to write Frankenstein), travelled about with Byron, and eventually settled in Italy and married (Harriet having drowned herself in 1816). He was keen on the doctrines of free love and sexual equality, anti-authoritarian, and even more radical than his Whig MP father.
Adonais, his lament for the dead Keats, is a long poem but technically assured and with flashes of Dante (‘That Light whose smile kindles the Universe, / That Beauty in which all things work and move’) also varies the Spenserian pentameter with a line such as ‘Why linger, why turn back, why shrink, my Heart?’ (note the positioned stress on ‘shrink’). His death at 29 was tragic and cut short the promise of his talent which could have tempered his atheism and politics, and even nurtured religious faith which had some kindling in this piece.
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-colour’d glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.—Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!
Follow where all is fled!—Rome’s azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.
The breath whose might I have invok’d 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 sphered 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.