Bysshe Shelley was an excitable, brilliant young man—inventive and imaginative and susceptible to tales of the supernatural. Throughout his life, boyhood to manhood, there are stories about him getting so excited about a late-night sound or suggestion or scene or story that he—in modern terminology—freaked out.
Let’s look at just one of them. Not long before he died, he and Mary and little Percy and some friends were living in a seaside house, Casa Magni, in Lerici, Italy. (The house still stands (see below)—though a seawall now keeps it dry.) Edward Williams (one of their friends) recorded the following incident in his journal on Monday, May 6, 1822:
After tea while walking with Shelley on the terrace and observing the effect of moonshine on the waters, he complained of being unusually nervous, and stopping short he grasped me violently by the arm and stared steadfastly on the white surf that broke upon the beach under our feet. Observing him sensibly affected I demanded of him if he was in pain—but he only answered, saying “There it is again!—there!”—He recovered after some time and declared that he saw, as plainly as then he saw me a naked child rise from the sea, clap its hands as if in joy and smiling at him. This was a trance that it required some reasoning and philosophy entirely to awaken him from ….
Almost exactly two months later (July 8) Williams would drown in the boating accident that also took the lives of Charles Vivian (a young deck hand) and Bysshe Shelley himself.
Bysshe’s excitability and impulsiveness manifested itself in a variety of ways. As a boy (as we’ve seen) he liked to scare his siblings with frightening tales; he performed electrical experiments that literally shocked some observers; more than once in his later life he decided he was going to adopt someone else’s child. And, of course, there were those sixteen-year-old girls he ran away with.
|Casa Magni (then)|
|Casa Magni, April 23, 1999|