Death by Drowning

When I was about to graduate from college—having only at the last moment more or less become a teacher candidate, taken my education courses and the basic other requirements (like American History and a science class—Genetics for me, since fundamental astronomy was discontinued for that summer session in 1974)—I only had a few requirements to fulfill my last semester. I had taken more than full loads all semesters I was in school, always at least 18 hours and one summer-school session of 15 or 18 hours as well. I was fully qualified with two full, complete majors—English and Theatre Arts—and my teaching certification (which obviously required far less preparation in those fine old days than now; no one today could decide late in the junior year to become a teacher and still graduate within four years).

I had to take a Philosophy of Education course, one more theatre credit, and Senior Seminar for English (which in 1975 was on Romanticism, taught by department chair Dr. Vern Panzer). I also discovered that I had a swimming requirement that most freshman fulfilled during the first week or so of school; I however had to swim my laps just two days before graduation. Otherwise, I still had another nine hours of whatever interested me (and the three I had to take held much interest).

For the Romanticism Seminar, I had to complete a senior thesis on one of the poets we studied. Although I put off finishing the project for far too long, writing the paper itself in the only all-night session I put in during college (using two different typewriters, as the IBM Selectric my father had brought home from work for me to use had to go back with him the next morning), I did have a glorious time that semester learning much about Percy Bysshe Shelley and his verse. I spent whole days in the IWC Chadwick Library looting through the stacks, lounging in a study room or at a carol, reading and reading. That activity was my first immersion into secondary sources, and I devoured probably a hundred books on Romanticism and Shelley, some of which I have hunted down since for my own collection. I felt immersed in poems I hadn’t even read but had read all about. My interest and Shelley’s influence have lingered with me until now. It was Shelley (but also Joyce) who taught me about villanelles and (in his never-completed “The Triumph of Life”) terza rima.

Shelley was a genuine free spirit, wild and deliberately unconstrained—the archetypal Romantic (although others would have that be the far more popular and successful Byron). As a youth, he was sent down of Oxford for his theological views (actually for the publication of his pamphlet On the Necessity of Atheism, legendarily for posting a sign, pointing up a blind and garbage-filled alley, saying “To Heaven”). A pacifist, vegetarian idealist, he fought for workers’ rights; wrote visionary verse that also attacked the effete, uncaring, elite promoters of the evil status quo; developed a reputation for wild living second only to Byron’s; and promoted free love, which he also sought to practice frequently. He was an adolescent’s dream (or leastwise this one’s—see what I meant by how little this contemporary me would resemble my youthful vision of myself).

When he ran off from his first wife with the daughter of radical (even anarchist) William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft and when later that unfortunate first wife killed herself, Shelley and his new bride escaped from scandal to Europe (where he would meet Lord Byron, also in exile for his lifestyle, and she would soon write Frankenstein). Later, living in Italy in a most amazing ménage of romantic complications imaginable—tangled up with Byron and his intricate affairs—Shelley wrote some of his most stunning poetry until his untimely death. Ultimately, Shelley set out in a small boat on July 8, 1822, with two friends. The tiny craft foundered in a storm, drowning all three men, and much debate has tempest-tossed the question of Shelley’s death since. The poet was not quite thirty when he died.

I wrote this poem in 1980, reflecting—pretty much out of the blue—on Shelley’s death by drowning.


Water Under the Bridge

Poor skylark, Shelley, had to die:
those poems could not protect him―
the west wind slapped the salt waves high,
and PBS said, “Things look grim!”

Up and down and round and round
the tiny boat was dashed about.
The screaming storm, an endless sound,
told English poets to turn trout.

Painting of Shelley’s funeral by Louis Edouard Fournier

That heart which burned with gemlike flame
was quenched with foaming brine;
the mouth which scorched all those to blame
got drenched below the waterline.

“Italian storms can be quite rough,”
mused Percy, down for number seven.
He guessed that he’d had full enough
and found at last the way To Heaven.

30 October 1980

The poem, possibly emulating some of T.S. Eliot’s early verse, is rather coldly classical in tone and structure, marking a contrast with the enthusiastic and visionary Shelley. Several phrases echo bits of Shelley’s poetry. The ending of course refers with irony to the legend of his expulsion from Oxford (where now the Shelley Memorial resides at University College) and also to commentary at the time of his death. I think now that the title (since his death at sea permitted no bridges), besides being casually callous, makes a hint at the watery end of the poet’s first wife, the much-mistreated Harriet Westbrook.

I think I may have first met that Shelley-out-of-Oxford legend in my favorite of E.M. Forster’s stories, “The Celestial Omnibus.” Since the story is wonderful reading in a very Shelleyan perspective (even though the key poem in it is by John Keats, third of the great English Romantic trio), you can download it here.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

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