More about the drownings, the cremations. Viareggio, 1822.
But let’s back up a little. Trelawny had become Mary’s intermediary with government officials—and with any number of others. She was naturally devastated by the news of the drownings, and she and Jane Williams, a fresh widow from the same disaster, became fast friends—though that would change (as we will see).
So Trelawny met with local officials, learned the ordinances, made the arrangements for the temporary burials in the sand, the exhumations, the cremations. Trelawny, the great fabulist, told numerous versions of the story throughout the years—often elevating his importance, his closeness with Shelley and Byron. Many years later (1858) he would write an entire book about it—Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron. And twenty years after that (and thus more than a half-century after the deaths in 1822) he would write another version—Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author (1878).
In Livorno, he says, he purchased a machine of iron five feet long, two broad, with a proportionate rim entirely round it supported by legs of two feet high—to burn the body in—and to remove the ashes. … I then procured incense, honey, wine, salt, and sugar to burn with the body.
He then delivers a grim description of Bysshe’s body—noting that the quicklime had been inferior and had not done any further damage to the corpse than the sea and its inhabitants had done. But the damage was considerable. The squeamish should definitely not read on:
… the body was in a state of putridity and very offensive. Both the legs were separated at the knee joint—the thigh bones bared and the flesh hanging loosely about them—the hands were off and the arm bones protruding—the skull black and no flesh or features of the face remaining. The clothes had in some degree protected the body—the flesh was of a dingy blue.
He tells us, as well, that the volume of Keats found on his body—Lamia, Isabella & The Eve of St. Agnes—was incomplete, only the leather cover remaining. Published in 1820, the volume contained some of Keats’ greatest works, including “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode on Melancholy.”
In several ways I love that image. Shelley dying with Keats’ poems in his coat pocket, the pages—the words of Keats—lost in the Gulf of Spezia, floating into the future. The two poets, by the way, had met, had corresponded, exchanged poems. And in 1820, Shelley, learning of Keats’ tuberculosis, invited Keats to stay with him and Mary. Whether you remain in England, or journey to Italy, he wrote on July 27, believe that you carry with you my anxious wishes for your health happiness & success ….
Replying on August 16, Keats politely declined, ending with this: I must express once more my deep sense of your kindness, adding my sincere thanks and respects for Mrs. Shelley.
The two were never close. There was a class difference between them. And class was something Shelley could not hide. Nor did he really want to.
And in the summer of 1822, on the beach at Viareggio, Keats had been dead for more than a year, and now Shelley had joined him. They would end up together in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.