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Percy Bysshe Shelley: Tragedy in Italy

In 1818, following the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Percy Shelley's poems The Revolt of Islam and Ozymandias, the family decided to move to Italy. England was a difficult place for a Romantic couple with a decidedly unconventional lifestyle. Also, they were hoping to assist Claire Clairmont, whose relationship with Byron had gone more than sour. After giving birth to his child, Clairmont sent their daughter Allegra to live with Byron, believing that she would have a better life as the daughter of a baron. Instead, Byron deposited the little girl at an Italian convent and refused to allow Claire to see her. The Shelleys, whose friendship with Byron had also gone south, were hoping to persuade him to change his mind. Sadly, Claire never saw her daughter again before Allegra died of fever in 1822 at the age of five.

Their time in Italy turned out to be one of great tragedy for everyone involved. In September 1818, seventeen-month-old Clara Everina contracted dysentery and died. In June of the following year, the couple's three-year-old son William got malaria and died as well. Now the couple had no living children, though Mary was pregnant with her fourth. Mary Shelley was crippled by depression. To make matters more complicated, in December 1818, between the deaths of their two children, a baby girl was born in Naples and registered as Shelley's daughter. The identity of this child is unclear - was she the illegitimate child of Shelley and a woman he had an affair with? Or was she an orphan Shelley adopted to console his grieving wife? Either way, the baby never lived with the Shelleys. She was placed with foster parents and died when she was only seventeen months old.

After William's death, the couple moved to Florence from Ravenna, "anxious for a time to escape a spot associated too intimately with his presence and loss,"13 Mary Shelley wrote. There Mary Shelley gave birth to their fourth child, a son named Percy Florence. He was the only one of their four children to outlive them both.

Shelley penned some of his best-known works around this time, including the poems The Masque of Anarchy and Men of England. In 1820, he wrote the play Prometheus Unbound, an imaginative drama depicting the torture of the mythological figure Prometheus by Zeus. The work was never intended to be produced on stage; Shelley wanted the action to take place in his readers' imaginations. Poetry, love and the imagination were inseparable components of Shelley's concepts of morality. A society without poetry could not be morally good, he argued. "The great secret of morals is love," he wrote in the 1821 tract A Defence of Poetry. "The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause."14 Many of his works during this time were inspired by tragedy. On 23 February 1821 Shelley's dear friend, the poet John Keats, died of tuberculosis at the age of 26. Shelley wrote the poem Adonais as an elegy for him.

On 8 July 1822, one month before his 30th birthday, Percy Bysshe Shelley's schooner was caught in a storm in the Gulf of Spezia while he was sailing from Livorno to Lerici. Shelley, his friend Edward Williams and an 18-year-old boatboy named Charles Vivian all drowned. Shelley's body washed ashore weeks later. He was cremated on the beach in Italy, with Lord Byron and his friend Edward John Trelawny in attendance. In a final coincidence fit for one of Shelley's poems, as the flames consumed Shelley's body his heart remained whole and unburned. (He possibly suffered from a condition that caused calcification of his heart.) Trelawny snatched it from the flames and gave it to Mary Shelley, who, legend has it, kept it pressed between the pages of a book.

Shelley's poetry only became popular in the decades after his death. After a great deal of resistance by Shelley's father, Mary Shelley was finally able to publish an anthology of her late husband's poems in 1839. Since then, Shelley's verse has been a major inspiration to reformers and thinkers as diverse as Gandhi, C. S. Lewis and Karl Marx. Shelley himself couldn't have written a better epitaph.

Life may change, but it may fly not;
Hope may vanish, but can die not;
Truth be veiled, but still it burneth;
Love repulsed, - but it returneth!
Percy Bysshe Shelley, from Hellas15

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