Portrait of Lynn Shepherd

Lynn Shepherd

‘Full fathom five the poet lies’: The death of Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley died on 8th July 1822, at the age of 29, when his boat went down in a sudden storm off the coast of the Gulf of Spezia. A dreadful death, dreadfully young, but was it really just a tragic accident, or something far darker and more disturbing?

Shelley and his wife Mary had moved to a rented house in Lerici three months before, in April 1822, taking with them Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, and their friends Edward and Jane Williams.  It may be a popular tourist destination on the Ligurian coast now, but Lerici was a wild and remote area then, and the house was right on the sea, with the waves surging right up to the terrace. Shelley was initially exhilarated by the landscape, and began writing a new poem called – with bitter irony, as it proved – The Triumph of Life. Mary Shelley, by contrast, hated the place from the start. She had already lost three of her four children in their infancy, and when she had discovered that she was once again expecting a baby she had cursed it as a ‘hateful’ day.  The Shelleys’ marriage was by then in serious trouble, and everyone else in the crowded house was forced to witness as Mary alternated wildly between angry outbursts and cold indifference. Mary herself soon became convinced that some terrible horror threatened to overwhelm them, and it was not long before these dark forebodings appeared to be borne out.

Even before their arrival at Lerici, the household had been stricken by news of the death of Claire’s little daughter by Lord Byron. Allegra Byron had died suddenly of fever in the Italian convent where her father had placed her, at the age of barely five years old, and Claire was inconsolable. And as so often when he was under stress, Shelley’s mental strain began to show itself in violent nightmares and strange ‘waking visions’. Within a week of their arrival at Lerici, Shelley was out one night on the terrace with Williams when he suddenly started and pointed out to sea, saying, “There it is again! There!” He claimed he could see a little naked child rising from the water, and looking smiling towards him, its hands clasped together as if in joy

On June 16th Mary collapsed and suffered a miscarriage so severe that, with no doctor for miles around, she might well have died had Shelley not forced her to sit for seven hours in a bath of ice to stop the bleeding. But the effort of doing so – those long hours spent at her side – took a terrible toll.

A week later the household was woken in the middle of the night by terrifying screaming and Shelley was found in Mary’s room, babbling wildly that he had seen an apparition of the Williams covered in blood and the sea flooding into the house. And then the vision had changed and he’d seen the figure of a man standing over his wife’s bed with his hands about her throat – a figure that had the poet’s own face. One need not be a fully paid-up Freudian to see a deeper significance in such a terrible hallucination, and Shelley had already  been haunted by his doppelgänger a few days earlier, that time in bright sunlight, when he’d seen the same man coming towards him on the terrace, and asking him ‘how much longer he meant to be content’.

At some point during this period Shelley apparently tried to obtain prussic acid – enough for a lethal dose. It’s impossible to know whether he really meant to kill himself, but the episode casts a disquieting shadow over what was soon to follow.

On July 1st Shelley took his boat, the Don Juan, down the coat to Livorno, with Edward Williams aboard. The boat had had additional top-masts and sails fitted to make it faster, so that Shelley could out-pace Byron’s new boat, the Bolivar, when they raced each other in the Bay of Spezia. It’s not entirely clear whether Shelley was aware how dangerous this modification was, and how unstable the Don Juan might prove to be, especially when fully rigged. A week later, on July 8th, Shelley made preparations to return to Lerici, planning to take with him both Williams and an 18-year-old boat-boy called Charles Vivian. There were warnings of bad weather, but despite the fact that Shelley had no particular need to travel that day, he insisted on setting sail. The next time the boat was sighted was several hours later, in the midst of the storm, toiling in heavy seas and carrying a reckless amount of sail in such high winds. The captain of another boat risked the safety of his own crew to go alongside and offer to take Shelley and his companions on board, but Shelley refused, and when the man called to them that they must take in sail or perish, Shelley seized Williams’ arm to prevent him, crying “No!” 

It was ten days before the bodies were found, and by then Shelley was identifiable only by the clothes he wore, and the book of Keats’ poems he had in his pocket. His face and hands had been completely eaten away.

The bodies were buried in the sand where they were found, near Viareggio, to satisfy Italian quarantine regulations. A month later, on August 16th, Shelley’s body was dug up again – and one shudders to think the state it must have been in by then – and burned on a pyre on the beach, in the presence of Lord Byron and Shelley’s friends Edward Trelawney and Leigh Hunt, a scene immortalised in a famous painting by Louis Edouard Fournier:


It seems Shelley’s heart refused to burn, and Trelawney fished it from the ashes and gave it to Hunt. Later, and after a rather unseemly struggle, he surrendered it to Mary, who kept it wrapped in silk in her writing case, until the end of her days.

Shelley’s ashes were buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, and the stone bears the inscription

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

This post was originally written for the www.historyinanhour.com website