Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The death of Shelley

The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes is a collection of extracts from books. The extracts generally illustrate some amusing or revealing aspect of a writer’s character.

The book contains the original versions of many familiar stories – familiar, that is, if you had an old-fashioned education.

There is, for example, Coleridge’s 1797 account of how, feeling slightly unwell, he fell asleep in his chair. When he awoke he found that his head was filled with what seemed to be a long but complete poem on the theme of Kubla Khan.

Rushing to his desk, he began to scribble out the poem. However, he had only reached a certain point when he was interrupted by the doorbell. It was the famous ‘visitor from Porlock’, who detained him on business matters for the best part of an hour. And when Coleridge finally got rid of the unwelcome caller, he found that the remainder of the poem had entirely vanished from his memory.

Anecdotes also gives us the text of a letter from Thomas Carlyle to his brother, in 1835. This sets out in some detail the appalling story of how Carlyle lent the manuscript of the first volume of his book French Revolution to John Stuart Mill. The latter had unwisely left this pile of paper in a position where it could be mistaken for waste, and an industrious maid had used it to light a fire! Only four sheets remained.

Poor Carlyle had lost five months' work, and there was nothing for it but to sit down and write the whole of the first volume again. (Note for younger readers: In those days they didn’t have word processors, you see, so there was no backup copy.)

The story in the Anecdotes which I found the most interesting was, however, E.J. Trelawney’s account of the death of Shelley in 1822. In that year, Trelawney, Shelley, Byron, and some other friends were summering in Italy. Shelley and a companion went out sailing in a small boat, a violent storm blew up, and both men were drowned.

After more than a week, two bodies were washed up on the shore. The face and hands of the first were by now fleshless, but from the possessions in the pockets Trelawney was able to tell that the body was undoubtedly that of Shelley.

Trelawney arranged for the body to be burnt on the beach. Byron could not watch, and swam out to his own boat. But Trelawney remained as a witness.

In due course the body of the famous poet fell apart in the intense heat of the fire. The brain of Shelley ‘literally seethed, bubbled, and boiled as in a cauldron, for a very long time.’

Oddly enough, the heart remained entire, and Trelawney impulsively snatched it from the fire, severely burning himself in the process.

Trelawney’s account occupies no more than four pages. But it is a remarkably detailed and vivid account, full of telling and graphic detail. Those nineteenth-century guys really knew how to write, and Trelawney was evidently prepared to risk being accused of writing material which was in very poor taste; he preferred to be truthful.

I am not the only one to have been impressed by Trelawney’s account. Tennessee Williams, in his play Camino Real, features a number of characters from history and fiction, including Byron, Casanova, Kilroy (he who was here), and La Dame aux Camelias. Byron has a soliloquy in which he recounts, with evident horror, the story about the brain of Shelley. Though as Byron, in real life, didn’t have the stomach to witness the scene, this is actually a bit of dramatic licence on Williams's part.