Tuesday, July 8, 2014

July 8, 1822, and the Burning, Reckless Heart of Shelley

It is to-day a hundred years since that sultry afternoon when Edward John Trelawny, aboard Byron’s schooner-yacht Bolivar, fretted anxiously in Leghorn Harbour and watched the threatening sky. The thunderstorm that broke about half-past six lasted only twenty minutes, but it was long enough to drown both Shelley and his friend Williams. . . .
  Christopher Morley The Powder of Sympathy


One of my favorite finds from a used book store is Christopher Morley's The Powder of Sympathy, a 1923 collection of essays from this true man of letters, and the godfather of bloggers.

The title of one essay is simply "July 8, 1822," the date that Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned off the coast of Tuscany. Morley was struck that 1922 was 100 years hence, and decided to commemorate the date of the great Romantic poet's death by copying out part of Edward John Trelawny's description of the cremation of Shelley's body on the Italian coast from his indispensable Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron. And so I follow suit, on our July 8, 2014.  It is quite a graphic description, so let's  pick it up with

Byron could not face the scene; he withdrew to the beach and swam off to the Bolivar. Leigh Hunt remained in the carriage. The fire was so fierce as to produce a white heat on the iron, and to redue its contents to grey ashes. The only portions that were not consumed were some framents of bones, the jaw, and the skull, but what surprised us all, was that the heart remained entire. In snatching this relic from the fiery furnace, my hand was severely burnt. 

Morely in 1922 was able to say “There are those still living who have shaken the hard, quick hand that snatched Shelley’s heart from the coals.”

We in 2014 can make no claim. Trelawny gave the heart to Mary Shelley, and it was found among her things when she died and buried with her at St. Peter's Church, Bournemouth. So while Shelley ashes are over in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, his heart is in England.

Morley's other personal commemoration was to reread Francis Thompson’s essay entitled “Shelley,” “which remains in our memory as a prismatic dazzle of metaphor.” That’s one thing to call it. Francis Thompson is an odd, ascetic figure on the literary landscape whom I wrote about because he is on the list of Jack the Ripper suspects. His Shelley essay is here [God bless the Gutenberg Project and all who partake.]  It is dense, baroque, almost insanely passionate, and brilliant.

Shelley’s work has, of course, inspired great passion from the actual greats. Here is Yeats: “I have re-read Prometheus Unbound, which I had hoped my fellow-students would have studied as a sacred book, and it seems to me to have an even more certain place than I had thought among the sacred books of the world.”


Morely muses upon a weekend meditation on Shelley and "what he still means to us."  A fair question in 1922, even moreso in 2014. What Morely did not have in his day was epic television. Yeats was brought into the pop culture consciousness through The Sopranos and A.J. studying "The Second Coming" at college. And Shelley's "Ozymandias" had a huge resurgence because Moira Walley-Beckett built season 5, episode 14 of Breaking Bad around it. These guys were cultural rebels, I think they would have liked this eschalon of TV, breathing new life and generations into their work.

But on this 192nd anniversary of Shelley's death by drowning, "Ozymandias" and its decay is not the voice to listen to. It's Morley himself, in his closing thought about the poet and what he brings into our lives:

"Though lulled long ago by the blue Mediterranean, that burning, reckless heart survives to us little corrupted by time--survives as a symbol of poetic energy superior to the common routines of life."

And we'll follow Yeats into Prometheus Unbound to see that burning, feverish heart for a momentary break from our daily routine:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

(Top image: Famous, but factually flawed painting of The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier; my picture of Shelley's grave in Rome. Updated from an earlier post.)

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