And it’s the Hunts’ arrival that was the proximate cause of the death of Bysshe Shelley. Or one of the causes, at least. There are so many that precede and then underlie any event in a person’s life. The Shelleys’ decision to move to Italy—the decision to spend the summer of 1822 on the coast at Lerici—the decision, with the aid of their new friend Edward Trelawny, to build a sailboat (and to spend hours every day on it)—the failure of Bysshe to learn how to swim (he’d had near-drowning experiences previously)—and, of course, the arrival of the Hunts in Leghorn (the English name for the town of Livorno).
On July 1, 1822, Bysshe, his friend Edward Williams, and a local teenager (Charles Vivian) who worked on the boat set sail for Leghorn to meet the Hunts.
Mary would never again see her husband alive.
We should talk about the boats a bit. In the 2007 issue of the annual Keats-Shelley Journal is a substantial article by Donald B. Prell. In it, Prell rehearses the story of the building of the craft, the debate about its name, its subsequent history. I’ll be relying on him heavily here.
Let’s start with the name. In addition to their friendship, there was some competition between Byron and Shelley—and not just of the literary sort. Byron, of course, was enormously popular with the reading public, despite (or perhaps because of) his naughty reputation. Shelley had just the naughty reputation. There was also some testosterone-fueled peacockery involved.
Which reminds me: On April 17, 1999, when I visited Byron’s home, Newstead Abbey, near Nottingham, I was walking up the country road that leads to the site when I heard what I thought at first were the cries of distressed humans. Help! I thought I heard. Or maybe even Hell!
But when I arrived, I saw the source: peacocks wandering around the grounds. Very territorial peacocks (and -hens), I should add, who insisted on (and got, from me) a wide berth and profound respect..
Anyway, Shelley could not compete financially with Byron, but he sought to do so. In ways, they were like a couple of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs vying for dominance. And thus … the boats.