Tuesday 9th July 2013 - by Kyl Chhatwal
In 1822, the famed essayist William Hazlitt wrote of the poets John Keats and Percy Byssche Shelley: “These are two poets, patriots and friends who have visited Italy within a few years, both of whom have been soon hurried to more distant shores.”
The “more distant shores” Hazlitt refers to, of course, are the shores of the River Styx—or to put it less poetically, death.
Percy Shelley and John Keats both wrote Romantic poetry, and both died in Italy within a year of each other. These two facts have made their legacies dovetail to a certain extent. But Shelley and Keats couldn’t possibly have been more different men.
Keats was descended from poverty and obscurity, while Shelley was a baron-in-waiting who could trace his ancestry back to the Normans of 1066. Keats had a fiercely independent artistic spirit, while Shelley depended heavily on others (particularly women) for his inspiration and creative output. Other details have contributed to the poets being lumped together in the popular imagination. First, Shelley was a great admirer of Keats, and wrote a famous elegy after his death, called Adonais. Second, after Shelley drowned off the coast of Livorno, his body was found 10 days later with a dog-eared volume of Keats’s poetry in the breast pocket of his shirt.
While Keats came to Italy expressely to live out his final days, Shelley arrived in relatively good health, searching not for death but life. First he lived in Lucca with his wife, the writer Mary Shelley, and their children, before moving on to Venice.
For the next four years the Shelleys would move often—to Florence, Pisa—and part of the reason they were so restless was because Shelley had a constant need of stimulation. For instance, they originally moved to Venice from Lucca to be closer to the older and more famous poet Lord Byron, who was living in Venice at the time. (Thanks to Byron’s influence, Shelley would write some of his most powerful work, including the lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound.) But Shelley’s restlessness had its consequences. In 1818, largely because of Shelley’s impatience to join Byron, Shelley’s infant daughter Clara caught sick and died mid-move. A year later, Shelley’s son William also died, a fact for which Mary would never fully forgive Shelley.
In 1822, when the drowned Shelley washed up on a beach near Viareggio, Italian quarantine regulations required that the body be cremated on the spot. According to popular legend, Shelley’s heart would not burn, and was plucked from the flames by a friend, Edward Trelawny, and delivered to Mary wrapped in a page from Adonais. Less fantastic accounts suggest simply that ashes from Shelley’s heart were recovered by Trelawny, and later buried in England, at Shelley’s ancestral seat in Bournemouth.
Mary Shelley, of course, would go on to be remembered in her own right, as the author of one of the most influential and enduring novels of the 19th century, Frankenstein. Although she wrote her entire life, she deliberately subordinated herself and her work to promote the posthumous reputation of her husband. Years after Percy Shelley’s death, before a trip back to Lake Como, Mary would reflect wistfully on what Italy had come to mean to her: “There [in Italy] is left the mortal remains of those beloved—my husband and children, whose loss changed my whole existence, substituting, for happy peace and the interchange of deep-rooted affection, years of desolate solitude, and a hard struggle with the world…”