Snatching Shelley's heart ...
Trelawny, who had emerged in Mary’s story as sort of the stage-director cum producer of the cremation and burial of her husband, wrote—as I’ve said—more than one account of these events, and the details changed. But here’s what he said in what was probably his first description of the cremation. Trelawny races through his description, ignoring conventions of punctuation and even sense. But the details are arresting.
Although we made a tremendous fire—it burnt exceedingly slow; and it was three hours before the body separated—it then fell open across the breast—and the heart, which was now seen, was likewise small. … It was nearly four o’clock before the body was wholly consumed, that part nearest the heart being the last that became ashes—and the heart itself seemed proof against fire, for it was still perfect and the intensity of heat everything now even the sand on which the furnace stood the furnace itself being red hot and fierce fire still kept up the largest bones reduced to white cinders and nothing perfect indistinguishable—but the heart which although bedded in fire—would not burn—and after awaiting an hour continually adding fuel it became late we gave over by mutual conviction of its being unavailing—all exclaiming it will not burn—there was a bright flame round it occasioned by the moisture still flowing from it—and on removing the furnace nearer to the Sea to immerse the iron I took the heart in my hand to examine it—after sprinkling it with water: yet it was still so hot as to burn my hand badly …. There had been—during the whole ceremony—a solitary sea bird crossing and recrossing the fire ….
So, Trelawny snatched Shelley’s heart from the fire, received a bad burn as a result, and then …?
And then Leigh Hunt, Shelley’s friend from England, wanted the relic. This was a time when keeping relics from the deceased was a cherished tradition. People frequently made memorial rings from the hair of their lost loved ones. Or kept clippings of hair. (Such a clipping of Mary’s hair survives.) Byron, according to Trelawny, had asked for Shelley’s skull, but it did not stay intact in the fire. Byron famously had kept another skull earlier in his life (when he was about twenty), one discovered by a gardener, and had it fashioned into a drinking cup—not an unusual practice of the day.
In 1808, Byron wrote “Lines Inscribed upon a Cup Formed from a Skull”; its fourth stanza (of six) was this …
Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,
In aid of others’ let me shine;
And when, alas! our brains are gone,
What nobler substitute than wine?