Thursday, June 20, 2013

Percy's pyre

English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) had a complicated life, but his death was even more so. He drowned off the coast of Italy while sailing with two others in his custom-designed boat, which was called either the "Don Juan" or the "Ariel." The boat capsized due to a sudden storm, a design flaw, poor seamanship, attack by pirates, suicidal tendencies, or being rammed by larger vessel. While said to have sunk, the boat was found 10 mi (16 km) out to sea. Shelley's body washed ashore and his intact limp figure was sculpted by British artist Edward Onslow Ford, although a witness later recorded that the poet's face, hands, and other parts not protected by clothing were fleshless. Because of quarantine regulations, Shelley's friends cremated his remains on the beach. The act was later commemorated by French artist Louis Édouard Fournier in the painting (IMAGE ABOVE) known variously as "The Funeral of Shelley" or "The Cremation of Shelley." Shelley's widow is shown kneeling at the left, although – as was the custom of the day – she declined to attend. At the center of the painting stand Shelley's friends Edward John Trelawny, Leigh Hunt, and Lord Byron. In fact, according to Trelawny, Hunt had remained in his carriage and Lord Byron had withdrawn, unable to face the gory scene. Shelly's ashes were interred (and then reinterred) at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, but he is also memorialized at Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey and the Shelley Memorial at University College, London, where the Ford sculpture lies. And in yet another strange twist, more of Shelley's ashes were found in the possession of his daughter-in-law when she died. Said to be the ashes of the poet's heart, the story conflicts with accounts that Trelawney had saved not just ashes but the entire heart from the fire. Whether the ashes were entombed with Shelley's daughter-in-law in 1899 or the entire organ had been buried with his son 10 years earlier, these remains lie in the family vault at St. Peter's Church, Bournemouth in Dorset, U.K. Got all that?


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