LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley
Death of Shelley
Family History
Shelley at Eton
Taste for the Gothic
Shelley’s Juvenilia
Queen Mab
Shelley at Oxford
First Marriage
Death of Harriet
Chancery Suit
Switzerland: 1814
Alastor; Geneva: 1816
Byron and Claire
At Marlow: 1817
Italy: 1818
Naples, Rome: 1819
The Cenci
Florence: 1819
Vol I Appendix
Vol II Front Matter
Pisa: 1820
Poets and Poetry
Pisa: 1821
Shelley and Keats
Williams, Hunt, Byron
Shelley and Byron
Poetry and Politics
Byron and his Friends
The Pisan Circle
Casa Magni
‣ Death of Shelley
Lerici: 1822
Burial in Rome
Character of Shelley
Vol II Appendix
Creative Commons License

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Produced by CATH

The weather, which had been for some days calm and sultry, all at once changed from a Sirocco to a Mistral, but Shelley, who had no dread of
his favourite element, and was anxious to return to those he loved, was not to be deterred from his purpose. The sky indeed bore so unpropitious an aspect, that he had been advised to put off his departure, at least till the Bolivar could be got under weigh, to convoy them. His eagerness, however, admitted of no delay, and with a fair but faint wind, they hoisted all sail, and left the port,—an English boy added to the boat’s crew, by name
Charles Vivian.

It is a strange coincidence, that I should have been exposed to the same squall, which proved fatal to two of my oldest and best friends. I embarked on the 5th day of July with a party with whom I was acquainted, on board a merchant vessel we had hired at Naples for the voyage to Genoa; during the first two days, we had very light winds, lying becalmed one whole night off the Pontine Marshes, where some of our passengers were attacked with malaria, but which, though sleeping on deck in my cloak, I escaped. On the fourth day, the tail of the Sirocco brought us
into the gulf of Genoa. That gulf is subject in the summer and autumn, to violent gusts of wind, and our captain, an experienced sailor, as the breeze died away, foresaw that we should not get into port that night. The appearance of the sky was very threatening. Over the Apennines, which encircle Genoa as with an amphitheatre, hung masses on masses up-piled, like those I have seen after the explosion of a mine, of dark clouds, which seemed to confirm his opinion. The squall at length came, the precise time of which I forgot, but it was in the afternoon; and neither in the bay of Biscay, or Bengal, nor between the Tropics, nor on the Line, did I ever witness a severer one; and being accompanied by a heavy rain, it was the more felt. We had, however, close-reefed, and were all snug and in comparatively smooth water, in consequence of the squall blowing right off the shore. We must have been five or six miles from the bay of Spezzia when it burst on us. As I stood with the glass upon deck, only one sail was visible to leeward; its rig differed
from the ordinary one of the Mediterranean, the latine, and from the whiteness of her canvas, and build, we took her for an English pleasure-boat. She was hugging the wind with a press of sail, and our skipper observed, that she would soon have it. As he spoke, a fierce gust drove furiously along, blackening the water, and soon enfolded the small craft in its misty arms; or in
Shelley’s own words,—
Enveloping the ocean like a pall,
It blotted out the vessel from the view.
Then came a lull, and as soon as we looked in the direction of the schooner, no trace of her was visible.

Captain Roberts’s account tallies with this. He watched from the lighthouse of Leghorn, with a glass, the vessel in its homeward track; they were off Via Reggio, at some distance from shore, when a storm was driven over the sea. It enveloped this and several larger vessels in darkness. When the cloud passed onwards, Roberts
looked again, and saw every other vessel sailing on the ocean, except this little schooner, which had vanished.

Little did I suppose, though I had heard from Shelley and Williams at Naples, that they had received the boat, and were settled at Villa Magni; that this schooner, which disappeared, was Shelley’s. That she should have carried so much canvas, for her gaff-topsails were set, might be considered unsailor-like; but it must be remembered, that the coast is very shallow, and full of reefs, which stretch out a considerable distance from land, and that it was necessary to carry all sail in order to keep clear of the surf, that rises very high along the coast. The only chance of their safety would have been to tack or wear, and drive before the wind, and return to Leghorn. But this idea probably never entered into Shelley’s or Williams’s mind, and from my knowledge of both their characters, they would, I am sure, have incurred any risk rather than have given up the voyage. Perhaps they were insenisble to the danger till it was too late.


After tacking about all night, and the best part of the next day, we at length beat into the harbour of Genoa. There was a rumour at the Hotel de l’Europe, that an English schooner had been lost, and two Englishmen drowned in the gale near Lerici, but it never struck me that this schooner was Shelley’s, and that he and Williams were the individuals; and after writing to them at the Villa Magni, I proceeded on my journey to Geneva. There, many days after my arrival, I heard from Mrs. Shelley the melancholy news of her irreparable loss, and without delay recrossed the Alps. At Spezzia the people of the place told me where the bodies of my friends had been cast on shore: they had been thrown on the beach, not together, but several miles apart, and the English boy’s five miles from that of Shelley. The following verses, written in his eighteenth year, recurred to me, which seem entirely out of place where they stand, and as poets sometimes have been inspired by a sort of second-sight, were prophetic that the ocean would be his grave.
To-morrow comes!
Cloud upon cloud with dark and deepening mass
Roll o’er the blackened waters; the deep roar
Of distant thunder mutters awfully;
Tempest unfolds his pinions o’er the gloom
That shrouds the boiling surge; the pitiless fiend
With all his winds and lightnings tracks his prey,
The torn deep yawns—the vessel finds a grave
Beneath its jagged jaws.

I arrived at Pisa some hours later than I could have wished, for Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt and Trelawney, had been engaged since the morning in burying Shelley’s remains. The history of this funeral pyre has been so much misrepresented, that I shall premise it with a few observations. Fourteen days elapsed between the loss of the schooner and the finding of the corpses of my friends, and neither of them were in a state to be removed to consecrated ground; but an obstacle to such removal under any circumstances, was, that by the quarantine laws, their friends were not permitted to have possession of their relics. The laws with respect to everything
cast on land by the sea, being, that it must be burned, in order to prevent the possibility of any remnant bringing the plague into Italy.

A consultation took place between Byron, Hunt and Trelawney, on this subject. It had not only been the oft-repeated wish of Shelley to be buried at Rome, and there rejoin his favourite child William, who lay there, but he had left it as a sacred charge to Lord Byron, whom he had appointed as executor to his will, to fulfil this office of friendship for him. Even had the state of Shelley’s corse admitted of being transported to Rome, they were assured by the authorities that no representation of theirs would have altered the law; and were it not for the kind and unwearied exertions of Mr. Dawkins, our chargé d’affaires at Florence, permission would not have been gained for Mrs. Shelley to receive the ashes, after they had been consumed. I say, I arrived at Pisa too late. True to his engagement, Byron and his friends had gone that day to perform the singular and pious duty of watching his funeral
pyre, in order that the ashes might be sent to the English cemetery at Rome. They came to a spot marked by an old withered pine-tree, and near it, on the beach, stood a solitary ruined hut, covered with thatch. The place was well chosen for a poet’s grave. Some few weeks before, I had ridden with Shelley and Byron to the very spot, which I have since visited in sad pilgrimage. Before them lay a wide expanse of the blue Mediterannean, with the islands of Elba and Gorgona visible in front; Lord Byron’s yacht, the Bolivar, riding at anchor at some distance in the offing. On the other side appeared an almost illimitable sandy wilderness, and uninhabitable, only broken here and there by some stunted shrubs, twisted by the sea-breeze, and stunted by the barrenness and drought of the ground in which they strove to grow. At equidistance, along the coast, rose high square towers, for the double purpose of protecting the coast from smugglers, and enforcing the quarantine regulations. This view was completed by a range of the far-off
Italian Alps, that from their many folded and volcanic character, as well as from their marble summits, gave them the appearance of glittering snow; to finish the picture, and as a foreground, was placed a remarkable group.

Lord Byron with some soldiers of the coast guard, stood about the burning pyre, and Leigh Hunt, whose feelings and nerves could not carry him through the scene of horror, lying back in the carriage; the four post-horses panting with the heat of the noonday sun, and the fierceness of the fire. The solemness of the whole ceremony was the more felt by the shrieks of a solitary curlew, which perhaps attracted by the corpse, wheeled in narrow circles round the pile, so narrow that it might have been struck with the hand. The bird was so fearless, that it could not have been driven away. I am indebted to one of the party present, for the interesting particulars of this scene, but must add to it Leigh Hunt’s account. He says—“The weather was beautifully fine. The Mediterranean, now soft and liquid, kissed
the shore, as if to make peace with it. The yellow sand and blue sky entirely contrasted with one another, marble mountains touched the air with coolness, and the flame of the fire bore towards Heaven its vigorous amplitude, waving and quivering with the brightness of inconceivable beauty. It seemed as if it contained the glassy essence of volatility. One might have expected a sun-bright countenance to look out of it, coming once more before it departed, to thank the friends who had done their duty.”

I have understood that Leigh Hunt was much offended at the account above given respecting the carriage, but why I am at a loss to guess. To what purpose should he have stood for some hours by the side of the scorching furnace, when there were so many others of stronger nerves, and of better health, present? This extreme sensitiveness on his part is much out of place, for neither my informant nor myself had the slightest intention of throwing on him a taunt, or taxing him with the slightest dereliction of duty. His regard for Shelley is not to be ques-
tioned. The very excess of feeling that he displayed, might, in default of other proofs, have best testified it.

But Byron was unable long to withstand the sight, or perhaps the heat, and by way of distraction, swam off to his yacht.

Writing to Mr. Moore, he says,—

“The other day, at Via Reggio,”—he does not specify the day of the burning,—“I thought proper to swim off to my schooner, the Bolivar, in the offing, and thence to shore again, about three miles or better, in all. As it was at midday, under a broiling sun, the consequence has been a feverish attack;” and then he adds, in another paragraph of the same letter, though not connecting the burning with the swimming,—“We have been burning the bodies of Shelley and Williams. You can have no idea what an extraordinary effect such a funeral pyre has on a desert shore, with mountains in the background, and the sea before,—the singular appearance the salt and frankincense give to the flames.”


Much objection has been started to these accessories to the funeral pyre, which have been condemned as bearing the character of a heathen rite; but without them it would not only have been dangerous to have assisted at the ceremony, but from the state of the body it would have been intolerable.

In the evening I saw Lord Byron. He was in a high state of fever, from the excitement of the day, combined with exposure for some hours to the sun, in swimming and floating. He was, indeed, almost amphibious, and I have often thought that he must have possessed, as is sometimes known, a peculiar and natural buoyancy,* for he could remain for hours in the water, as he had done that day. The next morning, save and except some blisters, which he said were not confined to his face, he was pretty well recovered.

* Lord H. tells me that when he was at Venice, he saw a crowd of persons watching a torch moving on the Lagune, and found that it indicated the presence of Lord Byron, who had swum from Lido with one arm, the other lifting the flambeau.


Mrs. Shelley and her son Percy, and Mrs. Williams and her two children, had already arrived at Pisa, and it was a melancholy satisfaction to hear their narrative of this tragedy, that threw for them a shadow over the world. During more than a week, passed with them and Lord Byron, we canvassed the whole sad catastrophe, and I learnt further particulars of the loss of the
fatal and perfidious bark,
Built in the eclipse, and rigged with curses dark,
That laid so low that sacred head.

It would seem that both Shelley and Williams had been alike insensible to the squall, for the boat was seen to go down with all her sails set. They could not, therefore, have anticipated it, and must have kept a very bad look out, as proved afterwards by Roberts’s discovering her, sunk in ten fathoms water,—not capsized, but uninjured; and I may here mention that he possessed himself of her, and decked her, and sailed in her, but found her unseaworthy, and that her
shattered planks now lie rotting on the shore of one of the Ionian Islands, on which she was wrecked. But hoping to be excused this anacronism, I will go on to say, that Williams was an expert swimmer, and had, as the boat was filling, found time partially to undress himself, or might have done so in the water, nor can there be a doubt that he made every effort to save his life—perhaps that of his friend, whilst Shelley, who could never learn to swim, had been reading to the last moment, quite unconscious or heedless of danger, and lost in abstraction like a second
Archimedes; for when found, he had his right hand and arm locked in his waistcoat, where he had in haste thrust a volume of Keats’s Poems, open at the Eve of St. Agnes, a poem which he wonderfully admired, and after the death of his brother poet, carried continually about with him the book. Mrs. Williams painted to me the days and nights of horror herself and Mrs. Shelley had passed during the eight days of suspense that intervened between
the loss of the schooner and some of the wreck being cast on shore.

“Then,” says Mrs. Shelley, “the spell was snapped. It was all over—an interval of agonizing doubt, of days passed in miserable journies to gain tidings,—of hopes that took firmer root even as they were more baseless, were changed to the certainty of the death that eclipsed all happiness for the survivors for evermore.” In the meanwhile, their absence was attributed first to the rough weather, and they consoled themselves with the reflection, that they might have deferred their departure from this circumstance. Then came a letter of enquiry from Trelawney, which soon dissipated that conjecture. He arrived to console them with the thought that Shelley and Williams had taken refuge in one of the islands, Gorgona, or perhaps Sardinia, and their eyes were continually directed seaward, in the hope of descrying the well-known sail. Day followed day,—
The hours for those who watched for him,
With chill forebodings, and with fluttering hearts:
There lay the uniform blank sea, that gave
No certain tidings, but left ample space
For miserable doubt, report, and hope
Beyond all hope.

But the fatal news was at last brought by the discovery, first of one body, and then of the other. In a poem, which I dedicated to Lord Byron, I endeavoured to depict the awful suspense of those days, and under the name of Julian, to idealize Shelley, and describe his funeral pyre. I copy some passages from a rough draft, not having the original, and imperfectly, for the rythm is here and there defective, and the rhymes wanting; but the lines may serve as a transcript of my feelings, are such as all hearts may sympathise in, and may not be considered out of place here.

The storm is up—in haste they reach
A pathway winding from the beach—
That hope-winged speed arrests their tears.
A flash! the curving coast appears,
The isles in front, and all beyond,
A raging sea without a bound.
Where is the boat? no boat is there,
That bay’s lone moanings mock despair!
Where is the boat? they gaze again—
Look they for comfort to the main?
On that wild waste of waves they gaze,
And fancy, in the lightning’s blaze,
Paints every breaker as a sail
In safety riding out the gale;
And once they thought they could descry
A floating form—oh, misery!
And hear a swimmer’s drowning cry.
They gazed, how long they knew not on,
That wilderness,—and yet
They ceased not with the rising sun
To gaze—nor when he set.
They spoke not—stirred not all that day,
None ever passed so slow away;
So cold to feel—so drear to see—
Such doubt was worse than certainty!
Another, and another day!
It ill became, like common clay,
That form so fair to rot;
To bleach upon the dark green sea,
To wandering fish and birds a prey;
Alas! why comes he not?
The faded flower, its scent and hue,
Ah tell me whither are they flown?
Canst thou revive their charms anew?
Will the torn bud expand for you,
The promise of its leaves unblown?
The accents of the broken lyre—
Tell me, too, whither are they gone?
Go! re-unite the parted wire,
Reanimate the spirit fled
Of music, that with magic lure,
Had spells medicinal, to cure
All pangs but love’s—then, only then
Seek life among the dead!
The words were his, but words are vain—
Rash spoken—straight recalled again;
And these, his “ancient comrade Pain,”
Wrung from an overheated brain.
Oh, say not with the spirit fled,
That earth’s affections all are dead,
That in that world of woe or weal,
A world there is, we cease to feel,
Have unforgot to prove,
For those whom we have left below,
As pure, and as intense a glow
Of pity and of love!
Night followed night, day day of woes—
One more, an age, is at its close;
But as the sun’s broad disk declined,
Led by a sea-bird’s scream, they find,
Waif of the ocean, where he lies,
The fairest thing beneath the skies.
Oh! ’twas a piteous sight to see
One they had loved so tenderly,
Cast like a worthless weed away,
The tresses of his profuse hair
Uhdabbled by the ooze or spray,—
He lies like one who mocks decay,
Best fitted for a mermaid’s lair,
Or some cold Nereide’s bridegroom to be,
In the dark caves of the unfathomed sea.
It was the azure time of June!
And now beneath the depth of noon,
So cloudless, that the infantine moon
Broke with her rising horn, the line
Of the snow-fringed Apennine;
A pyre they raise with pious care,
For thus he wished his dust, when driven,
And scattered to the winds of Heaven,
Should to its elements repair;
His parted spirit hovering nigh,
Commingle with the spangled sky,
To be the overhanging day,
The soul of that Elysian isle,
Its breath and life; that he and they,
So loved—in that divinest clime,
Should bask in nature’s genial smile,
And gladden all things thro’ all time;
Transfigurate—transfused, be one
Beneath the universal sun.
And lo! the silver-winged sea-mew!
That round and round the reeking pyre
In ever lessening circles flew,
That bird was now so tame,
Scarce could they scare it from the fire
Of that funereal flame;
For still it shrieked, as in the storm,
A human voice it might be deemed,
So piteous and so wild it screamed,
As loth to leave that lifeless form.
And all who saw the bird, had said,
“It was the spirit of the dead.”

Mr. Galt, in his Life of Byron, has described the conduct of the party who assisted at Shelley’s funeral pyre, as resembling on their return, that of frantic Bacchanals, after tearing limb from limb, Pentheus. It is a pure fiction,—poetical and classical, certainly; but no scene of the sort occurred.


Singularly enough, Shelley, in the Epipsychidion. seems to have foreseen the nature of his funeral.
A radiant death—a fiery sepulchre.