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Death and destiny
Trivia About Reel Verse: Poems No trivia or quizzes yet. Welcome back. It produced not hagiography, but thanatography. Through an astonishing array of pictures, poems, inscriptions, memoirs and Victorian monuments, this death spun a particular image of Shelley's character more effectively than any modern PR campaign. It projected a writer who was unearthly, impractical and doomed. In Matthew Arnold's notorious summation, Shelley was "a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain". Shelley could always fly, but he could never swim.
The legend of his death transformed his life almost beyond recovery. Here for instance is what was inscribed in Italian on the wall of his last house, the skull-like Casa Magni, with its five gaping white arches and open terrace, gazing out to sea at San Terenzo, on the bay of Lerici. This unearthly legend had been built up steadily throughout the 19th century.
Shelley's friend and champion, the incorrigible myth-making Edward John Trelawny, set the metamorphosis literally in stone. This inscription gathered its own irony. In his journal for , Trelawny had written a simple graphic description of the seasonal storm that had overwhelmed Shelley's boat, and the cremation of Shelley's body on the beach at Viareggio, which Trelawny had brilliantly stage-managed as a pagan ceremony, with libations of wine, oil and spices.
But he obsessively re-wrote his account nearly a dozen times over the next 50 years, accumulating more and more baroque details, like some sinister biographical coral-reef. He raised the possibility that Shelley's boat had been rammed, or alternately, that Shelley had been suicidally unseamanlike.
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By Louis Fournier's celebrated painting "The Cremation of Shelley", showed a miraculously undamaged corpse offered up to Heaven on a martyr's pyre, with Trelawny and Byron striking solemn Romantic poses actually they went swimming , and a pious Mary kneeling on the wind-swept beach in floods of tears although in fact she was never there at all. The myths became funereal monuments. It shows a white, supine Shelley draped like a fallen angel across a green sacrificial altar, with a weeping sea nymph below the plinth.
It is now protected by iron bars. Such mythic echoes are still resonant. Germaine Greer in her recent study The Boy , relates Shelley's death to the tradition of the beautiful vulnerable male, linking him to the classical death of Bion, the erotic drowning of Leander, and the masochistic martyrdom of St Sebastian. So Shelley's whole life, in retrospect, seemed to be fleeting, angelic, ephemeral, and doomed.
It was a natural extension to suggest that it was also probably suicidal, or contained unmistakable prophesies of his own death. Again it was Mary who was the first to pick out this theme. She wrote in her "Note to the Poems of " of how Shelley had, "as it now seems, almost anticipated his own destiny; and, when the mind figures his skiff wrapped from sight by the thunder-storm, as it was last seen upon the purple sea, and then, as the cloud of the tempest passed away, no sign remained of where it had been - who [would not] regard as a prophesy the last stanza of the 'Adonais' ?
The shadow of prophesy, the sense of "fatal destiny" subtly shaped the way his work was selected and read. He was a cloud, a skylark, a hectic leaf blown before the wild west wind. Boats and storms become evident everywhere in his poems: from the tiny skiff driven through the "boiling torrents" described in "Alastor" , to the battered vessel swamped by "a chaos of stars" in "A Vision of the Sea" The nightmare imagery of his last unfinished poem, "The Triumph of Life" , seemed to set a seal upon metaphysical despair.
From the earliest references to his childhood love of paper boats often made of large denomination banknotes , to his last Faustian letters from the unearthly beauty of the bay of Lerici, these intimations of death seem to extend everywhere. We drive along this delightful bay in the evening wind, under the summer moon, until earth appears another world If the past and the future could be obliterated, the present would content me so well that I could say with Faust to the passing moment, 'Remain thou, thou art so beautiful'.
Biography is caught and frozen, so to speak, in the glamorous headlights of Shelley's death. But if we set that death aside, if we switch off its hypnotic dazzle for a moment, maybe quite different patterns and trajectories can emerge from Shelley's life. First of all, the circumstances of his drowning can be shown to involve prosaic bad luck, and bad judgment, as much as ill-starred destiny. Despite what Trelawny implied, Shelley had considerable previous experience with sailing boats, from schoolboy expeditions up the Thames, to sailing single-handed or with his ex-Royal Navy friend, Edward Williams down the Arno, the Serchio, and beyond Livorno harbour out to sea.
He had successfully survived perilous incidents on the Rhine with Mary in , on Lake Geneva with Byron in , and on the Pisan Canal with Williams in Mary always recognised his "passion" for boating, encouraged it as exercise, and observed that "much of his life was spent on the water".
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His courage and coolness afloat was also remarked on by Byron. It was true, however, that Shelley was a river sailor.
The Don Juan was his first ocean-going boat, although it was not the "skiff" or "fragile craft" of legend. It was a heavy foot wooden sailing boat, based, according to Williams, on a scaled-down model of an American schooner 12 metres reduced to eight. It had a lot of canvas: twin masts carrying main and mizzen sails, and a bowsprit flying three jibs.
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It was sleek, fast, with little sheer and, most significantly, no decking. Yet because of its unusual weight of sail, it had to be heavily ballasted with "two tonnes" of pig iron. The local Italians were impressed with it, and even the Lerici harbourmaster, Signor Maglian, sailed with them in the open sea as far as Massa, in rough weather conditions. The Don Juan had been delivered to Lerici on May 16 , "a perfect plaything for the summer". After trials mostly spent racing Italian feluccas "she passes the small ones as a comet might pass the dullest planets of the Heavens" , the boat was refitted by its designer Captain Roberts, helped by Williams, in the last days of June.
The aim was clearly speed.
Adaptations included two new topmast sails gaff topsails , an extended prow and bowsprit, and a false-stern. In some accounts Williams also included shelves for Shelley's books inside the gunwales, a sporting concession. But unknown to Shelley, the Don Juan had a fundamental design-fault. A twin-masted schooner could not simply be scaled-down to a small, undecked, open boat. The sail to hull ratio was far too high; it was ballasted with too much pig iron, and it floated with too little freeboard.
It was "very crank", and dangerously unseaworthy. The refit, which they all thought so handsome, appears to have exaggerated all these defects: more sail, more ballast, less clearance. As it was undecked and carried no buoyancy aids, the Don Juan was now in danger, not simply of capsizing, but of foundering. In heavy seas it might fill with water from the stern or leeward side, and go straight down. It had become a nautical death trap. Shelley set sail for Livorno approximately 45 miles south on July 1 Mary, who was ill and depressed, did not wish him to go. But the trip was neither solitary, nor suicidal in intent.
On the contrary, it was full of hope and high spirits. It was made to greet his old friend Leigh Hunt, who had just arrived in Italy to found a new literary journal. Four of them including Captain Roberts made the outward leg, very fast, in perfect weather conditions. On the return trip, there were only three aboard: Shelley, Williams and Charles Vivian, an English boatboy aged It was intended as a single fast seven-hour reach to Lerici, under their full glorious spread of canvas, to race them home by dusk.
Mary and Jane Williams were waiting impatiently at the Casa Magni for their men. But now their luck ran out. After three hours a violent squall came up from the west. They had started too late to outdistance it. Trelawny had intended to accompany them in Byron's full-size schooner, the Bolivar, but at the last moment was prevented by Italian port authorities. Had he been alongside, he would undoubtedly have saved them.
The Don Juan's final moments are still disputed. Later rumours of a pirate ramming, fostered by Roberts and Trelawny both carrying an uneasy sense of blame evaporate on examination. But there are persistent reports of a failure to take down the new gaff topsails which required Vivian to climb the masts , or to reef the mainsails in time. They were clearly undermanned, but still attempting to run for home.
The unseaworthy Don Juan was engulfed in enormous waves, had its false stern and rudder ripped off, lost both masts, and foundered in 10 fathoms of water about 15 miles off Viareggio. These details became clear when the wreck was salvaged by Italian fishermen two months later. It did not capsize, and was not looted, as books, papers, wine bottles, a telescope broken , a cash bag, some tea spoons, and a sea trunk, were all found lying within the open hull when it was pulled from the sea-bed.
They were half entombed in blue mud. The boat went down so quickly that Williams did not have time to kick off his boots, and Shelley thrust a new copy of Keats's poems into his jacket pocket, so hard that it doubled-back and the spine split. This much was clear but not much else from the three bodies cast up along the coast 10 days later: they could be identified by their clothes, but not by their faces.
There might have been one last chance. Williams had constructed an eight-foot coracle or dinghy, made of reeds and canvas, which was used as the Don Juan's "pram" or tender, and towed behind the boat. Shelley had frequently used this cockleshell for exploring Lerici bay, and had so often capsized it in the surf that it is difficult to believe he hadn't at least learned to doggy paddle. This dinghy was the one thing that remained afloat after the shipwreck, and was soon washed up on Viareggio beach.
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So the troubling question arises: did Williams or Vivian cut it loose? Did they the good swimmers attempt to push Shelley on to its upturned hull? Or did Shelley the bad swimmer gallantly resign it to them? So with better luck, or less gallantry, Shelley could well have survived.