Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Chad Norman writes


Mary chin-deep in the sea;
a small sealed box on a log washed ashore 

What proud music this new home plays,
notes grip the neck,
rude & rhythmic grasp set
to the sky's beat
aborted by the wave,
dark singer of
the sea’s drifting conscience
that sang over his final endless squints:
the heretical gaze you held
before Loss began its strums. 

A fog lifts
& lowers as dusk
joins the hidden horn.
No eye aboard
will mistake my face
for the seal’s,
but beneath the bow
like a tempest in tow
he comes returned seemingly by
the insane tides of being alive,
part of the mist’s aria
given to aid our embraces:
the motive you host
charms Love between its chants. 

So, my Shelley,
The tugs I count must be proof,
touching a dream permits,
or the sly untuned ebb
eager to amuse my torn dress
for one performance,
the buoyant hoax,
in league with grief’s wry lure
sent as a faint sinking mirage
the memory saves:
the undulant hair,
the open mouth,
the muted bubbles. 
 The Funeral of Shelley --Louis Édouard Fournier


  1. Shelley's last abode, the Casa Magni at San Terenzo, on the bay of Lerici, is inscribed in Italian, "Upon this terrace, once protected by the shadow of an ancient oak-tree, in July 1822, Mary Shelley and Jane Williams awaited with weeping anxiety the return of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who, sailing from Livorno in his fragile craft, had come to shore by sudden chance among the silences of the Elysian Isles. - O blessed shores, where Love, Liberty and Dreams have no chains." The oil painting by Fournier is wildly inaccurate in all its details. Though it depicts witnesses swaddled in heavy coats against the cold on a bleak, windswept beach, 18 July 1822 was actually a hot, sunny day. In the painting's background, Mary kneels in prayer, though she was not present. In the foreground, novelist Edward John Trelawny and poets Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron strike dramatic, grieving poses. But Hunt sat out the event in a nearby carriage, while Byron, upset and suffering from the heat, swam out to his own boat, leaving Trelawny alone on the beach. Instead of a peaceful Shelley stretched out on his smoking pyre as if asleep, his badly decomposed body ("the face and hands, and parts of the body not protected by the dress, were fleshless," according to Trelawney, and he was identifiable only by the clothes he wore), the corpse was burned in a metal furnace lugged onto the shore by hired help. Trelawny, who had staged the cremations of Shelley and his companion Edward Williams like a pagan ceremony, with libations of wine, salt, oil, and frankincence, fished Shelley’s carbonized heart from the ashes and gave it to Hunt for safekeeping; earlier in the ceremony, Byron had wanted to preserve his skull. Later, after an unpleasant struggle, Trelawny surrendered it to Mary, who kept it wrapped in silk and a copy of one of her husband's poems in her writing case until until she died in 1851, after tirelessly collecting, editing, praising, and promoting his writings and reputation; it was eventually buried with their son Percy Florence Shelley in 1889, the year that Fournier painted "The Funeral of Shelley." Shelley's ashes were then buried in the same Cimitero Acattolico ("Non-Catholic Cemetery") in Rome where Keats was buried. Some weeks later Trelawny, dissatisfied with the grave's location, bought two adjacent plots, had Shelly's ashes moved to one of them, and six decades later was himself buried in the other. Shelley's stone is inscribed with the Latin "Cor Cordium" (Heart of Hearts) and a few lines of "Ariel's Song" from "The Tempest": "Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange." When Shelley died he left behind over 180 stanzas of "The Triumph of Life," an unfinished verse play about Charles I, the beginning of an erotic drama "The Indian Enchantress," some verse translations of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Pedro Calderón de la Barca, and various lyrics and songs addressed to Jane Williams. A decade earlier, in "Queen Mab," he had written that "The Life of a man of virtue and talent, who should die in his thirtieth year, is -- with regard to his own feelings -- longer than that of a miserable priest-ridden slave, who dreams out a century of dullness... Perhaps the perishing firefly enjoys a longer life than the tortoise." He drowned less than a month shy of his 30th birthday, though he had bragged to Hunt just before his last voyage, "I am 90 years old."

  2. Shelley was an experienced riverine boatman, though he never learned to swim. In April he had moved to the Gulf of Spezia with Mary, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, and their friends retired naval officer Edward Williams and his wife Jane; Williams was also a friend of Byron's and had been instrumental in introducing Trelawny to the circle. Within a week of their arrival at San Terenzo, Shelley pointed out to the sea and urgently told Williams, “There it is again! There!” He claimed he could see a little naked child rising from the water, looking smiling towards him, its hands clasped together as if in joy. (Claire's five-year-old daughter Allegra Byron had just died in the convent where her father had placed her against Claire's objections.) In May, Shelley spent 10% of his income on the "Don Juan," a heavy, custom-built, 24-foot wooden boat with twin masts carrying main and mizzen sails and a bowsprit flying three jibs and no decking, which he then refitted for additional speed with the assistance of Trelawney and Williams. Trelawny named it "Don Juan" after the central character in Byron's 1819 epic, but Shelley changed it to "Ariel," a character in William Shakespeare's "The Tempest;" peeved, Byron insisted on painting "Don Juan" on the mainsail. Designed by Shelley as a scaled down schooner, its sail-to-hull ratio was too high, it was ballasted with too much pig iron, and it floated with too little freeboard, but Shelley enjoyed racing it against Byron's full-size schooner, the "Bolivar." On 16 June Mary suffered a miscarriage so severe that Shelley forced her to sit for seven hours in a bath of ice to stop the bleeding. A few days later he saw a man with Shelley's face walking toward him on the terrace, asking how much longer he meant to be content, and a few days after that he woke the household, screaming that he had seen Williams covered in blood and the sea flooding into the house and then that the vision had changed into the Shelley-faced man standing over Mary's bed with his hands around her throat.

  3. On 1 June he and Williams sailed the 45 miles to Livorno to meet Byron and newly-arrived Hunt to discuss starting a new radical magazine, "The Liberal: Verse and Prose from the South." (Four issues appeared between October 1822 and July 1823, printed by John Hunt and containing Shelley's translation from Goethe's "Faust," Byron's "Vision of Judgement," Mary's short story "The Bride of Modern Italy," and William Hazlitt's essay, "My First Acquaintance with Poets.") Hunt and his brother John had been imprisoned for two years in 1810 for libel against the prince regent in their radical journal, "The Examiner," and had introduced Shelley and Keats to a wider reading public in an essay in that journal in 1816, after supporting the Shelleys when Percy's first wife killed herself. On the 8th, with Williams and one other man, Shelley set out for home despite weather warnings. Trelawny had intended to accompany them in the "Bolivar," but Italian port authorities intervened; if he had been alongside, he may have been able to save Shelley. (Later, perhaps out of a sense of guilt, he suggested that the boat was deliberately rammed in order to assassinate the notorious subversive.) Three hours out, a squall came up from the west, and the "Don Juan" was engulfed, its false stern and rudder were ripped off, it lost both masts, and it foundered in 10 fathoms of water about 15 miles off Viareggio. The storm struck so suddenly that Williams had no time to strip in preparation for swimming, and when his body was recovered his shirt was partly drawn over the head and only one boot was missing, while Shelley thrust Keats's final volume into his jacket pocket so hard that it doubled back and the spine split. The "Don Juan" was sighted, toiling in heavy seas and still carrying a reckless amount of sail, by another sailor, who managed to pull alongside to take Shelley and his companions on board, but Shelley seized Williams’ arm to prevent him from going. An eight-foot coracle made of reeds and canvas, which was used as the boat's tender, was cut loose to serve as a lifeboat, but none of the men aboard the "Don Juan" reached it. Shelley's body washed ashore on 12 July and was buried, but six days later he was disinterred and cremated to comply with health laws. When news reached England, the "Courier" reported his death: “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned, now he knows whether there is a God or not.”

  4. Immediately after his death, Mary wrote, "I was never the Eve of any Paradise, but a human creature blessed by an elemental spirit's company & love - an angel who imprisoned in flesh could not adapt himself to his clay shrine & so has flown and left it." (This was echoed years later by Matthew Arnold, who claimed Shelley was "a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain." Late in the 19th century the Shelley Society installed a monument by Edward Onslow Ford at University College, Oxford, showing a white, supine poet draped like a fallen angel across a green sacrificial altar, with a weeping sea nymph below the plinth.) In her "Note to the Poems of 1822" Mary suggested he "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 prophesy the last stanza of [Shelley's tribute to his dead friend John Keats] the 'Adonais' (1821)?" ("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 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.")


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