Others react to the cremations on the beach at Viareggio ...
There are published reactions from others close to the tragedy. Mary herself wrote about it repeatedly. In a very long letter on August 15 to family friend Maria Gisborne (who had known her father back in England), Mary rehearsed all the dire details of her learning of her husband’s death. She tells about how Trelawny had gone to Livorno to make his final check about the fate of those aboard Ariel.
About 7 o’clock P.M. he did return—all was over—all was quiet now, they had been found washed on shore … Today—this day—the sun shining in the sky—they are gone to the desolate sea coast to perform the last offices to their earthly remains. Hunt, L[ord] B[yron] & Trelawny. The quarantine laws would not permit us to remove them sooner—& now only on condition that we burn them to ashes. That I do not dislike …. I have seen the spot where he now lies—the sticks that mark the spot where the sands cover him …. Well, here is my story—the last story I shall have to tell—all that might have been bright in my life is now despoiled—I shall live to improve myself, to take care of my child, & render myself worthy to join him ….
Byron himself referred to the incident in a number of letters. On August 27 he wrote to fellow poet Thomas Moore about the day of the cremation. He first told Moore that, overwhelmed by it all, he went for a long swim from the deck of his vessel (an ironic account, no? the swimmer swims to cope with his grief; the non-swimmer buried in sand, waiting to be cremated). He lost track of time, and a severe sunburn ensued: my whole skin’s coming off, after going through the process of one large continuous blister …. I have suffered much pain, not being able to lie on my back, or even side ….
And then he tells some about the cremation: We have been burning the bodies of Shelley and Williams on the sea-shore …. You can have no idea what an extraordinary effect such a funeral pile has, on a desolate shore, with mountains in the back-ground and the sea before, and the singular appearance the salt and frankincense gave to the flame.
And then the detail that has cascaded down through history: All of Shelley was consumed, except his heart, which would not take the flame, and is now preserved in spirits of wine.
Shelley’s heart would not burn. And so they preserved it, and a grim contest for its possession would ensue.