The Mysterious Missing Heart of a Romantic Poet.

An engraving of Mary and Percy Shelly by George Stodart, created from Henry Meekes monument in 1953.
An engraving of Mary and Percy Shelly by George Stodart, created from Henry Meekes monument in 1853.

PROFESSOR HATHAWAY adjusted his bow tie, again. It was a nervous habit.

He thought it was a good accompaniment for his corduroy suit. He remembered how his wife had told him she liked the one with the blue stripes better, as he was going out the door that morning. It didn’t matter. He would wear the one with the blue stripes on another day. There were plenty of days.

“So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. That completes our coverage of the life and works of Percy Bysshe Shelly, Romantic poet, in our Survey of British Literature class. We will now consider the matter of his death, at the very young age of twenty-nine on July 8, 1822. Where did this happen, Mr. Carter?” Lionel Hathaway nodded to a young man on the front row of desks.

“In the waters of the Gulf of Spezia near Italy,” James Carter answered.

“And what was his relationship with Byron, fellow Romantic poet, and how did this figure into his death, possibly, James?”

“They were great friends. I suspect there was some friendly competition between them.”

“And why do you say that?”

1879 portrait of Percy Shelly
1879 portrait of Percy Shelly

“Shelly had had the masts of his sailing craft, Don Juan, extended and extra sails put on it, at the top. It was in hopes of out-racing Byron’s new boat, the Bolivar, as they made runs up and down the coast in the Bay of Spezia.”

“Uh huh. This desire might have been the one thing that led to his, undoing, wouldn’t you say?” There was a murmur of ‘yeses’ throughout the classroom. Miss Livingston, can you tell me what happened next?”

“Yes sir. There was a bad storm on the water. It was horrendous. Another boat pulled alongside Don Juan and the captain asked Shelly and his friend Edward Williams, if they would like to come aboard their boat for safety. Shelly refused. The captain of the other boat then urged them to let down the top sails of the Don Juan. ‘Take them down or perish,’ the captain shouted. Percy Shelly ordered, ‘No’ when his friend Edward attempted to do just that.”

“Very good, Miss Livingston. Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, picture this, if you can. Shelly has no reason to take the Don Juan out at all. His return to Lerici could wait until there were calmer seas. It is reckless behavior, foolish. The storm is wreaking havoc on the water, for anything on it. A boat captain risks his own life and crew to plead with Shelly to come aboard his own ship for safety. If he won’t do that, will he at least take down the top sails to make the teetering schooner more stable? No! He won’t. He is a wild-eyed mad man, refusing to let his friend, Edward Williams or his crew do anything sensible. The boat takes on water and they all perish. Their bodies are not found for at least ten days. There are some that feel this was not an accident at all, but a suicide. Why is that Mr. Warren?”

“Because, Shelly had tried to get his hands on what would be a lethal dose of prussic acid during this period. It was a strange time in he and Mary’s life. Shelly had moved them to a rented home in Lerici back in April. The area was remote, the house was so close to the sea that the waves would lap on the terrace. Mary hated it and got bad feelings there. Their marriage was in trouble, and, Mary was having wild mood swings, possibly due to the many miscarriages she endured.”


Portrait of Mary Shelly
Portrait of Mary Shelly

“What do we think of when the name Mary Shelly, comes up, Mr. White? Can you tell me?”

Frankenstein. She wrote it.”

“Right. So here you have two deeply in love artistic types, probably a little high-strung or sensitive, at the time married to each other, foundering around on the sea of life, trying to meld their sensitive natures together, but oft times not succeeding. He packs them off to a remote location on the sea, which she detests. Mary has another miscarriage on June 16th, there are no doctors around, she hemorrhages and lives, only because Percy puts her in a tub of ice cold water to stop the bleeding. On July 1, Shelly takes the Don Juan down the coast to Livorno. And, he was making a return, on the 8th against all common sense and the advice of well-meaning friends. I have left something important out—about their time in Lerici. Can anyone tell me what it is? Go ahead, Mr. Carter.”

“Doppelgangers! Shelly was having screaming fits, nightmares, seeing visions and doppelgangers. In one of his visions, a doppelganger of himself was strangling Mary. In another, his friend Edward Williams dies, in another Shelly died, himself.”

“That’s right. As far as we know it. He got a premonition of his and Edward’s fate. This is what has been reported,” Hathaway agreed. So, poor Shelly’s body washed up on shore near Viareggio. From tossing all that time in the water, there was no longer a face or hands, but he was identified by his clothing and papers found on him.   It was buried there in the sand to satisfy Italian sanitation requirements temporarily. What happens next, Miss Wilcox?”

“After about a month of being buried, Shelly is exhumed from the Sand and burned on a funeral pyre there on the beach. His friends, Byron, Edward Trelawney and Leigh Hunt attended the cremation of what was left of the poet.”

“Yes. There is a famous painting of this exact event by Louis Edouard Fournier. What unusual thing was found in the ashes later? Does anyone know? It was his heart, was it not? Shelly’s heart would not burn completely.   There is a popular tale, presumed truthful by many, that the heart made its way back to Mary, by way of Trelawney and Hunt. She kept it in a silk wrapping in her writing case for the rest of her life. Another version of the tale is that when the heart was found, after Mary’s death, it was wrapped in the pages of Adonis, Shelly’s elegy to Keats. The remains of the heart are said to be buried in a vault at the churchyard of St. Peters, in Bournemouth.”

–The ashes that remained from Shelly’s funeral pyre were buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome. There is a commemorative stone with the inscription:

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

It is from Ariel’s Song from The Tempest, by William Shakespeare.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of The Scavenger’s Song.


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