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Shelley's Death, Part 10 to the Life & Works of
Percy Bysshe Shelley

Summer was coming, and as usual, the Shelleys sought a new place to live, a place with cool sea breezes, a place where Shelley might be inspired to write his poetry. Such a place was found and the household moved to San Terenzo, on the Bay of Spezzia. The house was called the Casa Magni.59 It stood alone on the edge of the sea under steep and wooded slopes. There were only two ways, then, to get to Casa Magni: by sea which came to the front steps or by paths that led in from Lerici on the south and from the north where there was a small fishing village, San Terenzo. The views in all directions were beautiful, however, Mary, as spectacular as it surely was, was uncomfortable with the surroundings. Claire was with them just as she mostly was from the very start. So, too, were Edward and Jane Williams. The Williamses and the Shelleys had became fast friends earlier in the year, indeed, they occupied the ground floor of where the Shelleys had lived at Pisa, Tre Palazzi. It was just shortly after they had moved into Casa Magni that news had come that the five year old Allegra, Claire's child by Byron, had died at the convent in which Byron had eventually placed her. This news had set a very sombre mood for the household.

The weeks passed at Casa Magni. Williams who had been in the navy taught Shelley how to sail.60 During this time, in June of 1822, Shelley worked on what must have been the last of his works, The Triumph. On June 15th, the Hunt family arrived in Italy, touching first at Genoa. A message had been gotten through to Shelley that his friend had, at long last, arrived. It was expected that they should soon be at Leghorn. On July 1st, Shelley and Williams set sail at Casa Magni. After a seven and half hour sail, covering a distance of approximately fifty miles going south along the coast, Shelley and Williams arrive in the Don Juan at Leghorn. The next day Shelley met Leigh Hunt. Shelley wanted to see that his literary friend with his wife and children were comfortably settled at Pisa where Byron had offered the downstairs floor of his palace for their use. Shelley could not stay long with the Hunts at Pisa. Mary had not been well and he wanted to return to her as soon as possible. On July 8th, having returned to Leghorn, Shelley set out for the return sail up the coast to Casa Magni. Trelawny was just then at Leghorn taking care of Byron's sailboat, the Bolivar. It was not Trelawny's intention to sail all the way to Casa Magni; he was, however, ready for a short sail in the larger Bolivar and to accompany the Don Juan out into the bay.61 Having sailed alongside for a period of time the crew of the Bolivar waived goodby to the Don Juan, and, coming about, made for port. Arriving back at Leghorn, Trelawny tied the Bolivar up. We now turn to Trelawny, who, in stirring prose, explained the scene and the anxiferous events thereafter.

"Although the sun was obscured by mists 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 a 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 dark, although only half past six. 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 seaward anxiously, in the hope of descrying Shelley's boat amongst the many small crafts 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.
I sent our Genoese mate on board some of the returning crafts to make inquiries, but they all professed not to have seen the English boat.... During the night it was gusty and showery, and the lightning flashed along the coast; at daylight I returned on board and resumed my examinations of the crews of the various boats which had returned to the port during the night. They either knew nothing or would say nothing. My Genoese, with the quick eye of a sailor, pointed out on board a fishing-boat an English-made oar that he thought he had seen in Shelley's boat, but the entire crew swore by all the saints in the calendar that this was not so. Another day was passed in horrid suspense. On the morning of the third day I rode to Pisa. Byron had returned to the Lanfranchi Palace. I hoped to find a letter from the Villa Magni; there was none. I told my fears to Hunt, and then went upstairs to Byron. When I told him his lip quivered, and his voice faltered as he questioned me."62
Mary had no way of knowing, on the 8th, that Shelley had set sail. The days passed and the concern of the three woman at Casa Magni turned into worry. (There at Casa Magni waiting for the return of the boat was Mary; her half-sister, Claire; Jane Williams; and, of course the only surviving child of Mary and Shelley, the two and a half year old Percy Florence Shelley.) A letter had come in from Pisa; it was from Hunt. It sat there on the table for a day or two before Mary determine to open it up. Hunt enquired whether the trip back home went well. The worry of the women now turned into great panic. In the meantime Trelawny was searching the coast. He was aware of the storm that likely overtook Shelley and Williams, maybe they were stranded, maybe blown over to Corsica. Then Trelawny got the news. There was debris found. Then, on July 18th, accounts came in of bodies being found on the shore. The bodies that the sea had cast up were separated from one another by a number of miles. Of the body found at Viareggio, on it being described, Trelawny was of no doubt that it was that, of Shelley's. It was the body of a tall person of slight figure and in one pocket of the jacket worn was a volume of Aeschylus (the classic Greek poet) and in the other a copy of Keats's poems. Trelawny went and broke the news to the two widows who had been going back and forth through these days, from Lerici to Pisa (where Byron and Hunt were headquartered) -- hoping against hope.

The bodies had been buried, which under the law, the local authorities were required to do, in the sand where they had been found. Decomposing bodies are a hazard to public health; and so the ground was opened up and quicklime thrown in with the bodies. What Jane Williams wanted was for her husband's remains to be sent back to England. Mary Shelley wanted Shelley's remains to be buried at Rome in the English (Protestant) burying ground where their three and a half year old son, William had been buried in 1819. The health laws were such that bodies could not be moved. Principally through the efforts of Trelawny, who took charge of the entire matter, permission was obtained from the authorities to burn them. On August 15th, in a specially constructed furnace, Williams's body was dug out of the sand at the mouth of the Serchio and burned. Three days later, in the company of Byron and Hunt63, on August 18th, the badly decomposed body of Shelley was dealt with in the same manner. Wine, oil and salt were thrown on the pile, and with them the volume of Keats which Shelley had last consulted: all except for some white ashes went up in smoke.64

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2011