Of Myth and Reality. My Visit to the Beach at Viareggio.

On 8 July 1822 Percy Bysshe Shelley died at sea off the Italian coast in the Ligurian Sea. Days later his badly decomposed corpse washed ashore on the beach a mile or so north of Viareggio. The body was discovered and buried by the local militia. Much later Shelley was exhumed and cremated by an Italian work party under Edward Trelawney's supervision.

 Shelley lived in San Terenzo near La Spezia.  He sailed from Livorno on the 8th and his body was discovered on the beach north of Viareggio.  Livorno to San Terenzo by sea is approximately 60 kilometers by sea. 

Shelley lived in San Terenzo near La Spezia.  He sailed from Livorno on the 8th and his body was discovered on the beach north of Viareggio.  Livorno to San Terenzo by sea is approximately 60 kilometers by sea. 

The circumstances of his death and the actions of his friends and loved ones contributed to a veritable circus of hagiography and myth-making that continues to this day - replete with the development of a trove of "relics" and icons many of which are of dubious provenance - including his heart, allegedly pulled from the flames of the white hot furnace by Edward Trelawney.  It is important to remember that no one saw Trelawney do this.  Trelawney was an inveterate liar, who continually embellished and reworked his version of what happened.  We have only his word to rely upon.  Expert medical opinion tells us that it would have been impossible for the heart to have withstood the flames.  But the myth lives on and has assumed quasi-religious. if not outright religious, overtones. 

 The scene depicted in this famous 1889 painting NEVER HAPPENED.  Byron was not there.  Mary was not there. Hunt was not there. Shelley was cremated in a jury-rigged furnace. His body was badly decomposed.  This painting is a lie.

The scene depicted in this famous 1889 painting NEVER HAPPENED.  Byron was not there.  Mary was not there. Hunt was not there. Shelley was cremated in a jury-rigged furnace. His body was badly decomposed.  This painting is a lie.

Shelley, who was a sophisticated skeptic and one of history’s great atheists, would be appalled. Because Shelley worked with mythological material so much, he is often through of as a "myth-maker".  Harold Bloom must assume much of the blame for creating this idea, and Earl Wasserman for canonizing it.  However, the great Gerald Hogle in his book, Shelley's Process points out that Shelley was almost the opposite of a myth-maker - he was a demythologizer. No less a person that the great Stuart Curran complimented Hogle for reaching "the highest ground ever reached by Shelley criticism." So what Hogle says carries enormous weight.  You can buy it here - but I warn you - it is an incredibly difficult read.

But it also makes common sense. Shelley viewed religion as the "handmaiden of tyranny". Hogle suggests that Shelley saw myth as a "means of social control" in which the values espoused by the myths are "concepts fabricated and disseminated by a hegemonic group...striving to preserve its supremacy and using them to conceal from the public eye an underlying war between classes." [Hogle, 169)  Hogle views Shelley's tactics in his greatest poem Prometheus Unbound as disruptive: as a "dispersion of older mythic patterns" into new iconoclastic versions. So of course Shelley would have the same issues with myth (all myths) as he does with religion - for all religion are founded on myth.

It is for this reason unfortunate that his family and friends together with generations of admirers and biographers created myths about his life and death.  And these myths were used in almost exactly the same way that all myths are used - to create a canonical story that disguises or masks the truth.  In Shelley's case the truth that was masked was his revolutionary political philosophy.  This is exactly what Paul Foot was talking about in his 1981 speech to the London Marxism Conference.  I have written about it and reproduced it here. 

On the anniversary of his death, however, let's put aside the controversies and the mythologies.  In May of this year, I visited the places in and around Viareggio on the Ligurian Sea.  This is where Shelley lived out the last few days of his short life. The video which is at the heart of this post was recorded on the beach at Viareggio.  Somehow standing on that beach made it possible to strip away the accretion of the mythology and to confront the numbing reality of his death.  I found the moment almost overwhelming.

I invite you all to join me on this virtual pilgrimage; and to pause for reflection. Why not read one of his poems in his honour? Tell me which one you picked in the comments. Thank you.

I chose Arethusa. You can learn more about the myth here.

Arethusa arose
From her couch of snows
In the Acroceraunian mountains,---
From cloud and from crag,
With many a jag,
Shepherding her bright fountains.
She leapt down the rocks,
With her rainbow locks
Streaming among the streams;---
Her steps paved with green
The downward ravine
Which slopes to the western gleams;
And gliding and springing
She went, ever singing,
In murmurs as soft as sleep;
The Earth seemed to love her,
And Heaven smiled above her,
As she lingered towards the deep.
II
Then Alpheus bold,
On his glacier cold,
With his trident the mountains strook;
And opened a chasm
In the rocks---with the spasm
All Erymanthus shook.
And the black south wind
It unsealed behind
The urns of the silent snow,
And earthquake and thunder
Did rend in sunder
The bars of the springs below.
And the beard and the hair
Of the River-god were
Seen through the torrent's sweep,
As he followed the light
Of the fleet nymph's flight
To the brink of the Dorian deep.
III
'Oh, save me! Oh, guide me!
And bid the deep hide me,
For he grasps me now by the hair!'
The loud Ocean heard,
To its blue depth stirred,
And divided at her prayer;
And under the water
The Earth's white daughter
Fled like a sunny beam;
Behind her descended
Her billows, unblended
With the brackish Dorian stream:---
Like a gloomy stain
On the emerald main
Alpheus rushed behind,---
As an eagle pursuing
A dove to its ruin
Down the streams of the cloudy wind.
IV
Under the bowers
Where the Ocean Powers
Sit on their pearlèd thrones;
Through the coral woods
Of the weltering floods,
Over heaps of unvalued stones;
Through the dim beams
Which amid the streams
Weave a network of coloured light;
And under the caves,
Where the shadowy waves
Are as green as the forest's night:---
Outspeeding the shark,
And the sword-fish dark,
Under the Ocean's foam,
And up through the rifts
Of the mountain clifts
They passed to their Dorian home.
V
And now from their fountains
In Enna's mountains,
Down one vale where the morning basks,
Like friends once parted
Grown single-hearted,
They ply their watery tasks.
At sunrise they leap
From their cradles steep
In the cave of the shelving hill;
At noontide they flow
Through the woods below
And the meadows of asphodel;
And at night they sleep
In the rocking deep
Beneath the Ortygian shore;---
Like spirits that lie
In the azure sky
When they love but live no more.
 The Casa Magni where Shelley and Mary lived in the Village of San Terenzo - as it might then have looked.

The Casa Magni where Shelley and Mary lived in the Village of San Terenzo - as it might then have looked.