Trelawny staged the cremations almost like a theatrical production. He constructed a sort of makeshift furnace in which he burned the remains of Edward Williams on August 13; the next day was for Shelley.
There are three very famous images of the death of Shelley. One is a statue, housed at University College, Oxford (where Bysshe had had a brief sojourn as a student—as we’ve seen). Created by sculptor Edward Onslow Ford in 1892, it shows Bysshe dead, lying on his side, as nude as Nature had wrought him.
On April 16, 1999, I arrived in Oxford and could not wait to see the sculpture. I went to the University College gate, where I learned that the Shelley Memorial was closed for the nonce and would not be open again soon. I muttered a blasphemy, the sort of thing that would have gotten me expelled with Bysshe back in the day. (I didn’t get to see it.)
There is another sculpture in Christchurch Priory, Dorset. It’s a lovely thing in white marble, showing Mary cradling in her arms the limp body of her lost husband. Fashioned by Henry Weekes (at the request of Percy Florence Shelley, Mary’s son), it was ready in 1854, three years after Mary’s death. (I didn’t get to see it.)
The third is a painting, The Funeral of Shelley, by Louis Edouard Fournier in 1889. It shows a group gathered around the pyre (Bysshe is lying on a pile of firewood—not in a furnace), and kneeling at the far left is the grieving Mary. You can see it in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. (I didn’t get to see it.)
All three works have tremendous emotional power—and all three are fraught with error. The Oxford sculpture shows an idealized corpse—lovely and untouched by the time Bysshe spent with some hungry fish in the Gulf of Spezia—and in quicklime. Both the statue of Mary holding her husband and the painting of the cremation on the beach at Viareggio have the same problem: Mary was not present. She did not hold his body in her arms; she did not attend his cremation.
Oh well. Ars langa, vita brevis (a saying I learned in Latin I, Hiram High School, fall of 1958).
But Mary did have a problem following the cremation. It involved her late husband’s heart. No metaphor: his actual heart.