XV. IMMOLATION: SHELLEY, 1822

Only some poetic trance could have chosen so lonely a place, or so wild an environment, for a vacation. Casa Magni was large enough for two families, but it was unfurnished, and was approaching disintegration. It was surrounded on three sides by forest, and in front by the sea, whose waves sometimes reached the door. “Gales and squalls hailed our first arrival,” Mary Shelley later recalled, and “the natives were wilder than the place. Had we been wrecked on an island of the South Seas we could scarcely have felt ourselves farther from civilization and comfort.”142

On May 12 the Ariel arrived from Genoa. Williams, who had been in the Navy, and Shelley, still unable to swim, were delighted with the boat, and spent many an afternoon or evening sailing along the coast. Seldom had Shelley been so happy or so well. Sometimes the women joined them; but Mary was pregnant again, frequently ill, and unhappy because her husband would not let her see her father’s plaintive letters.143

In the house or on the boat Shelley wrote his final poem, “The Triumph of Life,” which was cut short at line 544 by his final voyage. There is no triumph in it, for it describes a procession of various human types, all failures and decayed, hurrying to death. At line 82 the shade of Rousseau rises to explain the stupidity of civilization; he shows history’s famous figures—Plato, Caesar, Constantine, Voltaire, Napoleon—caught in the same mad rush for wealth or power; and recommends, as the only escape, a return to a simple and natural life.

Not yet thirty, Shelley, after thought of suicide on June 18, 1822, wrote to Trelawny:

Should you meet with any scientific persons capable of preparing the Prussic acid, or essential oil of bitter almonds, I should regard it as a great kindness if you would procure me a small quantity…. I would give any price for this medicine…. I need not tell you I have no intention of suicide at present, but I confess it would be a comfort to me to hold in my possession that golden key to the chamber of perpetual rest.144

Perhaps to help his sick wife, Shelley had invited Claire Clairmont to come from Florence and spend the summer at Casa Magni. She came early in June, in time to help Mary through an almost fatal miscarriage. On June 22 Shelley, nearing a nervous breakdown, suffered a nightmare so terrifying that he ran from his room to Mary screaming.

On July 1 news reached them that Leigh Hunt and family had reached Genoa, and were preparing to leave it by a local transport vessel to join Byron at Leghorn. Shelley, anxious to welcome his faithful friend, to ease Byron’s reception of him, and to strengthen his partner’s fading interest in their new magazine, decided to sail at once in the Ariel with Williams for Leghorn. Mary had premonitions of disaster. “I called Shelley back two or three times…. I cried bitterly when he went away.”145

The Ariel left Casa Magni at noon July 1, and reached Leghorn safely at nine that evening. Shelley greeted Hunt joyfully, but was depressed to learn that the Tuscan authorities had ordered the Gambas to leave their territory at once, and that Byron, resolved to follow Teresa, was planning to leave Leghorn soon to join her in Genoa. Nevertheless Byron agreed to honor his agreement with Hunt, and to have the Hunts occupy rooms in the Casa Lanfranchi at Pisa. Shelley accompanied them to Pisa, saw them settled, and drove back to Leghorn on July 7.

He spent the morning of Monday, July 8, shopping for the family at Casa Magni. Williams urged him to hurry, to catch the favorable wind then blowing toward Lerici. Captain Roberts of the Bolivar predicted a storm for that afternoon, and advised a day’s delay; Williams urged immediate departure; Shelley agreed; and about half past one that afternoon the Ariel sailed from Leghorn with Shelley, Williams, and a young sailor, Charles Vivian.

About six-thirty that evening a heavy storm, with thunder, wind, and rain, fell upon the Bay of Spezia, and hundreds of vessels hurried into harbor. At Casa Magni the storm was so severe that the three women waiting anxiously there comforted themselves with the conclusion that the two husbands had waited out the storm at Leghorn. Then Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday passed. “The real anguish of these moments,” Mary later wrote, “transcends all the fictions that the most glowing imagination ever portrayed. Our seclusion, the savage nature of the inhabitants of the neighboring village, and our immediate vicinity to the troubled sea, combined to imbue with strange horror our days of uncertainty.”146 On Friday a letter came from Hunt to Shelley, including lines that brought terror to the waiting women: “Pray tell us how you got home, for they say you had bad weather after you sailed on Monday, and we are anxious.” Jane Williams and Mary rode all day to Pisa. By midnight they reached Casa Lanfranchi, found Byron and Hunt there, and were assured that Shelley and Williams had left Leghorn on Monday. They rode on through the night, and reached Leghorn at two o’clock on the morning of Saturday, July 13. There Trelawny and Roberts tried to calm them with the possibility that the Ariel had been blown to Corsica or Elba. Byron commissioned Roberts to use the Bolivar to search the sea and shore between Leghorn and Lerici. Trelawny accompanied Mary and Jane on a futile search along the coast for signs or news of the missing men. He stayed with the mourning women at Casa Magni till July 18, and then left to make further inquiries. On July 19 he returned to them, and revealed to them, as gently as he could, that the corpses of their husbands had been found washed upon the shore near Viareggio on July 17 or 18. (About July 30 the mutilated body of Charles Vivian was found four miles farther north, and was buried on the shore.) He took Mary and Jane to Pisa, where Byron offered them rooms in the Casa Lanfranchi, but they took quarters nearby. Mary wrote to a friend: “Lord Byron is very kind to me, and comes with the Guiccioli to see us often.”147

The bodies had already been buried in the sands by natives. Tuscan law forbade such buried corpses to be exhumed or reburied; but Trelawny knew that Mrs. Shelley wished Shelley’s remains to be interred near those of their son William in Rome. He persuaded the Tuscan authorities to allow exhumation, on condition that the remains be burned on the shore. The bodies had been mutilated or consumed almost beyond recognition; but in one jacket a volume of Sophocles was found in one pocket and a volume of Keats in the other.148

On August 15 Byron, Hunt, and Trelawny, with a quarantine official and an English officer, Captain Shenley, stood by as a squad of soldiers burned the remains of Williams. The next day, at a spot across from Elba, the remains of Shelley were exhumed and burned in the presence of Byron, Hunt, Trelawny, and some neighboring villagers. Into the flames Trelawny threw incense, wine, and oil, and pronounced incantations consigning the ashes to “the Nature which he worshipped.”149 Byron, unable to bear the spectacle to the end, swam off to the Bolivar. After three hours nearly all of the body had fallen away except the heart. Trelawny, at the cost of a burned hand, snatched the heart from the fire. A casket containing the ashes was taken to Rome, and was buried in a new cemetery close by the old Protestant cemetery that held the remains of child William. Shelley’s heart was given by Trelawny to Hunt, and by him to Mary. At her death in 1851 the ashes of the heart were found in her copy of Adonais.

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