Thursday, June 11, 2009

Shelley, poor sailor, great poet

Percy Shelley, one of the greatest poets of the English language, was plagued by problems regardin water. He was entirely incapable of swimming yet, like so many of his contemporary poets, he had a romantic attraction to water and spent much of his time finding enjoyment and recreation in its mysteries. When he was young he loved to make paper boats and watch them float on rivers and lakes. He would even rip pages out of books if no other paper was at hand to make his folded watercraft. There is one story of him making a boat out of a five-pound note because he could find nothing else to use.

There was one occasion which is often recounted in which Shelley was watching Byron and Trelawney swimming and he so longed to join them in their recreation that he simply dove in the water without even removing his clothing. Being unable to swim and apparently having no natural buoyancy, Shelley simply sunk like a stone to the bottom of the pond without even struggling. His two friends looked on for some moments utterly shocked at what Shelley had just done and waiting for him to bob up to the surface. When he didn’t move from the bottom Trelawney jumped in and rescued him. Shelley simply remarked that if his friends had left him for a few more moments he could have decided on the question of the after-life.

When he moved to Italy Shelley began to take up boating as a serious hobby. His first dangerous experience was with a small canal boat which capsized and Shelley was only saved by his friend Edward Williams. Then when Shelley and his family moved to Lerici he purchased a small coracle which was extremely unstable, causing his wife and friends to constantly worry that he was going to drown at any moment.

Of course, Shelley did eventually drown after he purchased a small, hardly sea-worthy,  sloop. When Leigh Hunt came to Italy on Shelley’s recommendation he sailed his sloop from the Gulf of Spezia to Livorno where he disembarked and spent a couple of days with Byron and Hunt in Piza. Despite the poor weather and warnings from other, more experienced, sailors Shelley set sail for home with his friend Williams and a young Italian sailing mate. Trelawney watched as they sailed into the distance, never to be seen again.

Sometimes I feel like Shelley was lucky. He had produced great poetry, he had loved, been loved, known great writers, seen amazing things. And despite carrying a heavy emotional burden in his outlook on life, it didn’t drag out too long. He didn’t have to contemplate death for a long time, he just sunk beneath the waves and was gone. It was painful and terrible for those he left behind for certain. But for him this difficult experience was over.  

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