Account of the death and cremation of P B Shelley


This manuscript is in the handwriting of Marianne Hunt, the wife of Leigh Hunt. Leigh Hunt was a poet, critic and the editor of The Examiner, a radical publication of news and criticism in the early 19th century. Hunt was imprisoned for two years for libel against the Prince Regent in 1810, and was visited in prison by many prominent liberal and radical thinkers of the day including Lord Byron, Jeremy Bentham, Charles and Mary Lamb, and William Hazlitt. Hunt was responsible for introducing Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats to a wider reading public with his publication of ‘Young Poets’, an article in The Examiner in December 1816. 

Hunt became friendly with the Shelleys in 1816, Hunt supporting them when Percy Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, took her own life. In July Hunt, with his family, joined the Shelleys at Leghorn (Livorno) to Shelley’s great delight, but a week later Shelley, Edward Elleker Williams and Charles Vivian were drowned when Shelley’s boat capsized off the coast near Pisa. Hunt was present at Shelley’s cremation of Viareggio with Edward Trelawny, and folios 1 to 5 of this manuscript describe Hunt’s time with Shelley, and Hunt’s reaction to the death of his friend.

From f. 7 Marianne Hunt has transcribed Edward Trelawny’s account of the death of Shelley, his friend Edward Williams and Charles Vivian, and the cremation of Williams’s and Shelley’s bodies. 

Edward Trelawny was, through Edward Williams, a friend of Byron and Shelley; modelling himself on Byron’s Corsair, he was too inclined to believe the fictions he created around himself, but was popular because of his practical skills. These, however, included arranging for the construction of the boat in which Williams and Shelley died. Trelawny retold, with variations, the story of the death and cremation of Shelley for many years.

What details does Trelawny’s account give? 

Quarantine laws made it necessary for the bodies of the drowned to be burned, and Trelawny ordered the construction of a ‘furnace of iron’; the bodies having been temporarily interred, it was necessary for the remains to be dug up.

Trelawny gives several details of the finding and state of the bodies and their cremation. On f. 11 he gives the preparations for the cremation, on f. 13 the manner of the loss of the boat, on ff.12-15 the disinterment and cremation of Williams’s body, with frankincense, salt and wine poured on the pyre, as was done for Shelley also. On f. 17 crowds gather to watch the cremation of Shelley’s body, and on f. 18 we have the details of the disinterment and cremation, including the size of Shelley’s heart, Byron’s desire to preserve Shelley’s skull, and the solitary seabird flying over the beach. Overcome by the experience, Byron, as the flames took hold, stripped off and swam out to sea, causing him to miss most of it (f. 20). He had reacted in the same way during the cremation of William’s body (f. 16). 

Do the two accounts of the cremation match up?

On f. 5 Hunt describes the book in Shelley’s pocket as having the words visible on the title-page. On f. 9 Trelawny describes how he knew as Shelley’s the body washed ashore eight days after the loss of the boat: ‘by the dress and stature I knew [it] to be Mr Shelley’, but ‘Mr Keats last volume of poems, “Lamia, Isabella” etc. open in his jacket-pocket confirmed [it] beyond a doubt’. But on f. 18 ‘Mr Keats’s volume of poems which had been buried with him, was destroyed with the exception of the binding.’ In later years Leigh Hunt’s poetry built up the ‘myth of Shelley’ in the works ‘Christianism’ and ‘The Religion of the Heart’.  

What do the photographs show?

The photographs were taken by the playwright John Drinkwater in 1925, and show the house where Shelley stayed in Pisa, the bay and the shore of Via Reggio, where the boat sank and the bodies were washed up and cremated.

Full title:
Account of the death and cremation of Percy Bysshe Shelley, together with a description of his life and character and that of his companion Captain Williams, who was drowned with Shelley in his yacht,
Leigh Hunt, Edward Trelawny
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Ashley MS 915

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