The Death of Shelley: Bicentenary

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Being an account of the Drowning of Percy Shelley

July 8th, 1822

The sticky noontime heat of the month of June moves,
Trails rainbow shimmers glimmering in sommer’s honey’d air,
Baking the clay-caked walls & the rouge-blush’d rooves
Of Leghorn’s sleeping house-huddle, nestle’d seaside fair,
The simple clip-clack of the cart-horses’ hooves
& the fruitsellers fly-whip disturb the dusty square –
Yet see amidst the hazy mist of lazy lethargy,
Down by the docks, a busy lot, lock’d in activity.

Each is a stranger to these sultry lands,
Drawn by th’eternal sommershine gold,
Hunt unravels the main sail, wipes his hands,
Williams disappears into the hold,
& by two local Polizie nobly stands
Trelawney, like some arab hero of old,
“We’re ready to sail!” Shelley shrills in delight –
Above hover seagulls in vulture-like flight.

Trelawney & Hunt are refused this tide
A local lad swells the crew to three,
From steely moorings the ropes are untied,
The boat slips sheepishly into the sea,
Tween th’oak beam’d berth & the stout ship side
Friendly farewells part this good company –
Thus as they go gliding oer wide, rolling realm
Sheely strides proudly to master the helm.

The mainsail puff’d proud, a mountain goat’s chest,
Thro the tall, wall’d docks that serpent-lock the sea,
Past the citadel that rests, maternal lioness,
& the snail-paced, sail-graced fuggazi
They cruise, til alone, two views to digest,
Serene on the green twinkling tranquillity;
The empty nothingness of the nautical line
& the ever dwindling narrowness of Leghorn behind.

The sun blasts vermeil rays as Viareggio passes by,
Beyond stand an ancyent row of volcanic antiques,
A brotherhood of mountain kings to touch the Tuscan sky
Clothed in piny forest robes & crown’d with cloudy peaks
Silent as the nymphean sea where Naiads go to die
Thro the vivid, velvet blue the sailboat ploughs & creaks
Now Shelley’s eyes rest on the wide horizon’s ochre shine,
Where looming black, doom-laden clouds have grimly fill’d the line.

With the might of many armies the storm-swept seas came,
Trumpeted in thunder by Zion’s cymbal crash,
The Ariel pierc’d by slashing arrowheads of rain
As fierce, charging cavalryman’s flashing lances slash,
The crew engaged in battle tho they battle now in vain,
For thro the splint’ring ranks of planks pours the deadly wash –
Cries Williams, “Dear Percy, for sure we all must drown!”
Now words heard in reply, just a curt & curious frown.

A spiral whirlpool flows at he center of the tempest,
What swirling wall of water – into a hand it grows,
Crushes the poor Ariel within its liquid fist,
Each smash’d-up piece of broken boat flies thro the sky like crows,
Into the air, with streaming hair, Shelley spins with a twist,
& leaves behind two helpless cries as the wild wave throws
Him hard into the churning foam of violent, ridg’d expanses
Now Shelley shall find Heaven in just seven lonely stanzas

Lone, all alone with the sublime cold
& the storm-adorn’d view of the jaded lime
The thirsty sea takes its icy hold
So close to the end of a young man’s time
Whose last living moments shall slowly unfold
Forever engraved on a true poet’s mind;
Above the emerald empire, where with a ducking motion
& the expectancy of death he is suck’d into the ocean.

There dwells a special peace ‘neath the underswell skies
No more by the storm-blast batter’d & bruis’d
A whispy green mist overfloweth the eyes,
He swears he sees the shape of his dear, departing muse
So his heart, for the last time, sings to seize a prize
With effervescent energy his essence is enthused
For from this faerie offering the fires of poesy’s blissdom
Fuel the thoughts that crown his short life’s search for truth & wisdom

On the strength of a swan’s dying song he shall draw
Bends his long legs like the strings of a bow
Extends their full length with a kingly roar
Thrusts through the scene as a singing arrow,
Like a champion of war, blood-soak’d & drench’d in gore
He bursts fits first through the Earth;s drifting flow
Thumps’ through the air in triumphant defiance
His lungs drawing deep in an age-old alliance!

In solitude, alive, upon the wave highest,
Viewing a crack in the black, cloudy dome,
Towards him a bright shaft of gold gently flyest,
Starbright sign of the flight of the storm,
As he sinks, inch-by-inch, the sweet heaven sighests,
His curls flow unfurl’d on the crest of the foam,
As into the deep sea, quite calmy, he slips
Dissapearing… arms… wrists… palms… fingertips…

“What is death, but the final gate
That bars the fair path to Paradise,
Unless a life was consumed by hate,
Eternity, then, is not so nice
Still, we all walk to the whims of fate
& time is measured on chessboards of rice!”
Thinks Shelley, now ready for the fond farewell
To life’s precious breath – death, Heaven or Hell!

He drifts forlornly to the deep
Slowly onflowing the serene
Land of slumbers, as asleep,
His spirit shifts into a dream
Death’s pale shadow’s ghastly creep
Man’s soul’s aura’s ghostly sheen
Bright luster fading from the eyes
Then gone, as the one we call Shelley dies.

Upon the twilit, silent surface ropes & timber glide
Flotsam & Jetsam, whose presence bears the proof
Of three romantic sailors taken by the Tuscan side
This day has lost a poet to the dangers of his youth,
Through the dusk descending walks the Dark Knight’s bride
Lady moon enflows her starry dress across the roof
Night draws the seven hues from the air, the land, the sea
Then paints the wider world with such a wonderous ebony!

The River Arno is a gentle thing
As it makes his way from the Florentine
Hills, & is clean & as fresh as Spring,
Being bless’d with a music soft, serene,
Like the chorus of church bells that ring
Out over an evening Pisan scene,
Where sits Lord Byron, sketching the sunset,
In thoughts for a friendship he’d never forget.

As the stars rose above his verandah
He solemnly look’d on the sullen moon,
Allow’d his clouded mind to meander
Upon a poet’s death, all too soon,
Beneath lay the makings of a great stanza,
But quickly he lost this Aeshylean boon,
For dowsed was the muses’ mysterious flame
By a man down the street, running, calling his name.

Twas Leigh Hunt who came on O so fast,
Bringing bad news to below Byron’s window,
“By George, George, we have found him at last,
Wash’d up on the sands of Viareggio,
The anxious waitings of these ten days pass’d,
Bears sad fruit as his fate we now now!”
“Very well,” said his lordship, “We sleep here tonight,
Then tomorrow we rise & ride with first light.”

Onwards, onwards, onwards rides the plot,
Soon all of the players shall be in their place;
Past the hovels of Viareggio two horses trot
As tho’ drawing a hearse at a funeral pace,
They reach the long beach, ever humid & hot,
Today the sands lie like a dead, desert waste,
Then stride to the side of the shimmering sea –
Awaiting with handshakes is grim-faced Trelawney!

In the minute of which a lonely lifetime lasts
The swollen sands are stack’d into a heap,
Hunt stands agape, Byron stands aghast
As Shelley is unslumber’d from his sunken sleep
In horrid exhumation! his life’s light has pass’d,
Leaves a crack’d & blacken’d corpse where rotting flesh-things creep,
“Is – is – that a body?“Byron whispers, bleeding white,
“Aye!” sighs Trelawney, “Tis not a pretty sight!”

With quickening quiet comes the onrushing roar
Of the hush’d seawashes in violences,
Shelley’s featherlite frame two young brutes bore,
Carried to the pyre amidst silences,
& crown’d! Hunt begins to over him pour
Frankincense & other oily essences –
A poet soon burning upon the gutted gyre,
His soul to the stars, his body to the fire.

& so, a poet’s death, a deepfelt, tragic thing,
Enough to rouse Apollo from his dusty throne,
With waking, honour’d horror I am shaking as I sing,
For one dark day this grim event shall be my very own –
& wonder whether my demise inspires a flowering,
Or be a fading epitaph upon a jaded stone?
& what did I learn of my musing on death –
This life is too special to waste precious breath.

Damian Beeson Bullen

Composed 1998 whe he was just 21

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