The Death of Shelley

by Edwin Watts Chubb

In the Protestant cemetery at Rome one can find in an obscure place a plain stone bearing record of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and these lines from Shakspere's Tempest:

Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

And this is the story of how Shelley happens to have a memorial in the Roman cemetery:

Shelley was a revolutionist in religion and politics, and revolutionists are seldom popular at home. Shelley's lyric poetry is unsurpassed, but his theories in some respects will never meet with the approval of common-sense humanity. England proved uncomfortable and so he left his country to live in other lands. In 1822 we find him with his family and a Mr. and Mrs. Williams in Casa Magni, a Roman villa in a cove on the bay of Spezzia. Here the poet and his friends became very fond of sailing in a boat which had been made for them. The boat, which they called the Ariel, was twenty-eight feet long and eight feet broad, and this with the assistance of a lad they learned to manage fairly well. To Shelley, whose health had been failing, the out-of-door life gave renewed vigor.

On the eighth of July, Shelley and Williams, accompanied by a sailor-lad, left the harbor of Leghorn to go home to their wives, from whom they had been absent for several days. They had gone to Pisa to welcome Leigh Hunt to Italy, to meet other friends (among the number was Byron), and to do some business. Neither Shelley, Williams, nor the lad, was ever seen alive after that day. As we are indebted to Hogg for the best pen-pictures of the boy Shelley, so we are indebted to Trelawney for the best description of the closing scene. So we shall follow Trelawney's account in the main.

Trelawney was in Leghorn and intended to accompany his friends out of the harbor in a separate boat, but owing to the refusal of the health officer of the harbor he was not allowed to go. As from his own vessel he watched the Ariel, containing the small party happy in the thought that in seven short hours they should be at home with their loved ones, his Genoese mate turned to him and said: "They are standing too much in-shore; the current will set them there." "They will soon have the land-breeze," replied Trelawney. "Maybe," said the mate, "she will soon have too much breeze; that gaff topsail is foolish in a boat with no deck and no sailor on board." Then he added as he pointed to the southwest, "Look at those black lines and dirty rags hanging on them out of the sky; look at the smoke on the water; the devil is brewing mischief."

"Although the sun was obscured by mists," Trelawney writes, "it was oppressively sultry. There was not a breath of air in the harbor. The heaviness of the atmosphere and an unwonted stillness benumbed my senses. I went down into the cabin and sank into a slumber. I was roused up by a noise overhead, and went on deck. The men were getting up another chain-cable to let go another anchor. There was a general stir amongst the shipping; shifting berths, getting down yards and masts, veering out cables, hauling in of hawsers, letting go anchors, hailing from the ships and quays, boats sculling rapidly to and fro. It was almost dusk, although only half-past six o'clock. The sea was of the color and looked as solid and smooth as a sheet of lead, and covered with an oily scum. Gusts of wind swept over without ruffling it, and big drops of rain fell on its surface, rebounding, as if they could not penetrate it. There was a commotion in the air, made up of many threatening sounds, coming upon us from the sea. Fishing craft and coasting vessels, under bare poles, rushed by us in shoals, running foul of the ships in the harbor. As yet the din and hubbub was that made by men, but their shrill pipings were suddenly silenced by the crashing voice of a thunder-squall that burst right over our heads. For some time no other sounds were to be heard than the thunder, wind, and rain. When the fury of the storm, which did not last for more than twenty minutes, had abated and the horizon was in some degree cleared, I looked to sea anxiously, in the hope of descrying Shelley's boat amongst the many small craft scattered about. I watched every speck that loomed on the horizon, thinking that they would have borne up on their return to the port, as all the other boats that had gone out in the same direction had done."

Then followed a period of painful suspense. Were they safe or had they gone down? On the third day Trelawney went to Pisa to ascertain whether any one had heard anything of Shelley. "I told my fears to Hunt," he writes, "and then went upstairs to Byron. When I told him his lip quivered, and his voice faltered as he questioned me."

And what of the wives at Casa Magni awaiting the return of their husbands? Let one of the two tell the story. Mary is the wife of Shelley, and Jane is Mrs. Williams.

"Yet I thought when he, when my Shelley returns, I shall be happy—he will comfort me; if my boy be ill, he will restore him and encourage me.... Thus a week passed. On Monday, 8th, Jane had a letter from Edward dated Saturday; he said that he waited at Leghorn for Shelley, who was at Pisa; that Shelley's return was certain; 'but,' he continued, 'if I should not come by Monday, I will come in a felucca, and you may expect me on Thursday evening at furthest.'

"This was Monday, the fatal Monday, but with us it was stormy all day, and we did not at all suppose that they could put to sea. At twelve at night we had a thunder-storm. Tuesday it rained all day and was calm—the sky wept on their graves. On Wednesday, the wind was fair from Leghorn, and in the evening several feluccas arrived thence. One brought word they had sailed Monday, but we did not believe them. Thursday was another day of fair wind, and when twelve at night came, and we did not see the tall sails of the little boat double the promontory before us, we began to fear, not the truth, but some illness, some disagreeable news for their detention."

"Jane got so uneasy that she determined to proceed the next day to Leghorn in a boat to see what was the matter. Friday came and with it a heavy sea and bad wind. Jane, however, resolved to be rowed to Leghorn, since no boat could sail, and busied herself in preparation. I wished her to wait for letters, since Friday was letter-day. She would not, but the sea detained her; the swell rose so that no boat would endure out. At twelve at noon our letters came; there was one from Hunt to Shelley; it said, 'Pray write to tell us how you got home, for they say that you had bad weather after you sailed on Monday and we are anxious.' The paper fell from me. I trembled all over. Jane read it. 'Then it is all over,' she said. 'No, my dear Jane,' I cried, 'it is not all over, but this suspense is dreadful. Come with me—we will go to Leghorn, we will post, to be swift and learn our fate.'

"We crossed to Lerici ... we posted to Pisa. It must have been fearful to see us—two poor, wild, aghast creatures, driving (like Matilda) towards the sea to learn if we were to be forever doomed to misery. I knew that Hunt was at Pisa, at Lord Byron's house, but I thought that Lord Byron was at Leghorn. I settled that we should drive to Casa Lanfranchi, that I should get out and ask the fearful question of Hunt, 'Do you know anything of Shelley?' On entering Pisa, the idea of seeing Hunt for the first time for four years under such circumstances and asking him such a question was so terrific to me that it was with difficulty that I prevented myself from going into convulsions. My struggles were dreadful. They knocked at the door and some one called out, 'Chi e?' It was the Guiccioli's maid. Lord Byron was in Pisa. Hunt was in bed, so I was to see Lord Byron instead of him. This was a great relief to me. I staggered upstairs; the Guicciola came to meet me smiling, while I could hardly say, 'Where is he—Sapete alcuna cosa di Shelley?' They knew nothing; he had left Pisa on Sunday; on Monday he had sailed; there had been bad weather Monday afternoon; more they knew not."