Percy Bysshe Shelley, English nobleman, poet, libertine and outcast found a haven in Italy… and spent his last years on the coast of Tuscany with his wife Mary, and friend Lord Byron. We post excerpts of the Wikipedia article on his life – and untimely death – in Italy:
“Early in 1818, the Shelleys and Claire left England to take Claire’s daughter, Allegra, to her father Byron, who had taken up residence in Venice. Contact with the older and more established poet encouraged Shelley to write once again. During the latter part of the year, he wrote Julian and Maddalo, a lightly disguised rendering of his boat trips and conversations with Byron in Venice, finishing with a visit to a madhouse. This poem marked the appearance of Shelley’s “urbane style”. He then began the long verse drama Prometheus Unbound, a re-writing of the lost play by the ancient Greek poet Aeschylus, which features talking mountains and a petulant spirit who overthrows Jupiter. Tragedy struck in 1818 and 1819, when Shelley’s son Will died of fever in Rome, and his infant daughter Clara Everina died during yet another household move.
A baby girl, Elena Adelaide Shelley, was born on 27 December 1818 in Naples, Italy and registered there as the daughter of Shelley and a woman named “Marina Padurin”. However, the identity of the mother is an unsolved mystery. Some scholars speculate that her true mother was actually Claire Clairmont or Elise Foggi, a nursemaid for the Shelley family. Other scholars postulate that she was a foundling Shelley adopted in hopes of distracting Mary after the deaths of William and Clara. Shelley referred to Elena in letters as his “Neapolitan ward”. However, Elena was placed with foster parents a few days after her birth and the Shelley family moved on to yet another Italian city, leaving her behind. Elena died 17 months later, on 10 June 1820.
The Shelleys moved between various Italian cities during these years; in later 1818 they were living in Florence, in a pensione on the Via Valfonda. This street now runs alongside Florence’s railway station and the building now on the site, the original having been destroyed in World War II, carries a plaque recording the poet’s stay. Here they received two visitors, a Miss Sophia Stacey and her much older travelling companion, Miss Corbet Parry-Jones (to be described by Mary as “an ignorant little Welshwoman”). Sophia had for three years in her youth been ward of the poet’s aunt and uncle. The pair moved into the same pensione and stayed for about two months. During this period Mary gave birth to another son; Sophia is credited with suggesting that he be named after the city of his birth, so he became Percy Florence Shelley, later Sir Percy. Shelley also wrote his “Ode to Sophia Stacey” during this time. They then moved to Pisa, largely at the suggestion of its resident Margaret King, who, as a former pupil of Mary Wollstonecraft, took a maternal interest in the younger Mary and her companions. This “no nonsense grande dame“ and her common-law husbandGeorge William Tighe inspired the poet with “a new-found sense of radicalism”. Tighe was an agricultural theorist, and provided the younger man with a great deal of material on chemistry, biology and statistics.
Shelley completed Prometheus Unbound in Rome, and he spent mid-1819 writing a tragedy, The Cenci, in Leghorn (Livorno). In this year, prompted among other causes by the Peterloo massacre, he wrote his best-known political poems: The Masque of Anarchy and Men of England. These were probably his best-remembered works during the 19th century. Around this time period, he wrote the essay The Philosophical View of Reform, which was his most thorough exposition of his political views to that date.
In 1820, hearing of John Keats‘ illness from a friend, Shelley wrote him a letter inviting him to join him at his residence at Pisa. Keats replied with hopes of seeing him, but instead, arrangements were made for Keats to travel to Rome with the artist Joseph Severn. Inspired by the death of Keats, in 1821 Shelley wrote the elegy Adonais.
In 1821, Shelley met Edward Ellerker Williams, a British naval officer, and his wife Jane Williams. Shelley developed a very strong affection towards Jane and addressed a number of poems to her. In the poems addressed to Jane, such as With a Guitar, To Jane and One Word is Too Often Profaned, he elevates her to an exalted position worthy of worship.
In 1822, Shelley arranged for Leigh Hunt, the British poet and editor who had been one of his chief supporters in England, to come to Italy with his family. He meant for the three of them — himself, Byron and Hunt — to create a journal, which would be called The Liberal. With Hunt as editor, their controversial writings would be disseminated, and the journal would act as a counter-blast to conservative periodicals such as Blackwood’s Magazine and The Quarterly Review.
Leigh Hunt’s son, the editor Thornton Leigh Hunt, when later asked whether he preferred Shelley or Byron as a man, replied:-
- “On one occasion I had to fetch or take to Byron some copy for the paper which my father, himself and Shelley, jointly conducted. I found him seated on a lounge feasting himself from a drum of figs. He asked me if I would like a fig. Now, in that, Leno, consists the difference, Shelley would have handed me the drum and allowed me to help myself.”
On 8 July 1822, less than a month before his 30th birthday, Shelley drowned in a sudden storm while sailing back from Leghorn (Livorno) to Lerici in his schooner,Don Juan. He was returning from having set up The Liberal with the newly arrived Leigh Hunt. The name “Don Juan”, a compliment to Byron, was chosen byEdward John Trelawny, a member of the Shelley–Byron Pisan circle. However, according to Mary Shelley’s testimony, Shelley changed it to “Ariel“. This annoyed Byron, who forced the painting of the words “Don Juan” on the mainsail. This offended the Shelleys, who felt that the boat was made to look much like a coal barge. The vessel, an open boat, was custom-built in Genoa for Shelley. It did not capsize but sank; Mary Shelley declared in her “Note on Poems of 1822” (1839) that the design had a defect and that the boat was never seaworthy. In fact the Don Juan was seaworthy; the sinking was due to a severe storm and poor seamanship of the three men on board.
There were those who believed his death was not accidental. Some said that Shelley was depressed in those days and that he wanted to die; others say that he did not know how to navigate; others believed that some pirates mistook the boat for Byron’s and attacked him, and others have even more fantastical stories. There is a small amount of material, though scattered and contradictory, describing that Shelley may have been murdered for political reasons. Previously, at Plas Tan-Yr-Allt, the Regency house he rented at Tremadog, near Porthmadog, north-west Wales, from 1812 to 1813, he had allegedly been surprised and apparently attacked during the night by a man who may have been, according to some later writers, an intelligence agent. Shelley, who was in financial difficulties, left forthwith leaving rent unpaid and without contributing to the fund to support the house owner, William Madocks; this may provide another, more plausible explanation for this story.
Two other Englishmen were with Shelley on the boat. One was a retired Navy officer, Edward Ellerker Williams; the other was a boatboy, Charles Vivien. The boat was found ten miles (16 km) offshore, and it was suggested that one side of the boat had been rammed and staved in by a much stronger vessel. However, the liferaft was unused and still attached to the boat. The bodies were found completely clothed, including boots.”
Read the rest of the Wikipedia article, linked here.