Dateline:August 4, 2021

Cor Cordium

Comments on Shelley?

Louis Edward Fournier painted the scene of Shelley's cremation 67 years after the fact, adding critical quibbles to the flux of its legacy. Click the image for the popular wisdom.

We may seldom think of Percy Bysshe Shelley, beyond linking his name to Keats, and, on reflection, Byron. Two hundred years ago, Shelley, Keats, and Byron were the second generation of Romantic poets, Englishmen all, but none proud of it.

Ode to the West Wind.

They knew each other. Byron and Shelley were friends. They died young, two by disease, Shelley by drowning, but immortality grips their mortal envois.

In fact, Shelley's death has become the vaporous image of the romantic exit: to die alone on a distant shore, in mysterious circumstances, to be mourned by generations unknown and unknowing.

Tuberculosis doomed Keats. A few years later Byron expired in Missolonghi fighting the Greek revolutionary war, carried off by the same brand of medical incompetence that doomed George Washington two decades earlier. Between the Keats-Byron bookends, Shelley drowned when his poorly scaled yacht, Don Juan, foundered in a storm.

Keats reached his grave intact. The other two arrive in our time with mysteries of the heart, and Shelley is the international champion of wandering body parts.

Byron's Heart of Hearts was removed during autopsy and is yet, by obscure legend, abroad in some undisclosed place. Shelley's heart is more active. It came loose in the telling of his cremation when the chronicler of that enterprise, Edward John Trelawny, an arch pseudologue of Victorian whack, claimed to have "snatched" Shelley's heat-resistant heart from the fires. After some squabbling it was handed over to Shelley's wife, Mary.

Here is what the Poetry Foundation thinks you should know about Shelley.

In spirit, Shelley's heart has enjoyed free range in the Once-Upon-A-Time for two centuries.

During most of the nineteenth century Shelley's heart was authoritatively reported to rest in Rome under a headstone inscribed "Cor Cordium," heart of hearts. Another tradition had it going to ground in Mary Shelley's grave in 1851. Then, on the death of Shelley's son, Percy Florence Shelley, in 1889, it was believed to have been discovered, and buried with him. Popular wisdom, after a long evolution, now has it in the Shelley family vault, St. Peter’s Churchyard, Bournemouth, England. Are any of these stories true? In fact, is the origin of these stories credible, that Shelley's heart survived its cremation?

Truth will be ever elusive, but what we think we know of Shelley's death and burial derives from three gospels.

Trelawny still inspires strong adjectives, long after his last hornswoggle.

Two witnesses to Shelley's 1822 cremation, Edward John Trelawny, and Leigh Hunt, wrote accounts. Shelley's cousin, Thomas Medwin, arrived on scene afterward, and documented what he thought had occurred. Each account was published well after the event, and each was revised several times. Only Trewlany saw Shelley's "heart" escape the flames.

Sifting truth is an exercise in Bayesian heuristics.

Shelley's boat sank and he and his two companions drowned on July 8, 1822. Their bodies washed ashore ten days later, were identified by local police, and buried in quicklime on the beach of Lerici Bay, some five miles south of Shelley's home, Casa Magni. About a month later, Edward John Trelawny, Lord Byron, and Leigh Hunt, friends and business colleagues of Shelley, persuaded authorities to allow removal of the bodies for proper burial. Quarantine restrictions required cremation, and Trelawny had a purpose-built iron furnace hauled onto the sand. Williams' cremation took place on August 15, Shelley's the next day, August 16, 1822.

Trelawny wrote a description of the cremation, and revised it numerous times over the next several decades. Each version claimed he'd seen Shelley's unburned heart in the flames, and "snatched it," out during the cremation. He also asserted recovery of a few bones, the jaw, and the skull, after the cremation. The rest of the ashes he sent with Byron to the Cimitero Acattolico, a private cemetery in Rome containing Keats' grave. Trelawny, meanwhile, dredged up the foundered Don Juan and took charge of its relics. Shelley's ashes, as well as Trelawny himself, were eventually interred near John Keats.

You'll surely want to read Trelawny's account of things, courtesy of LordByronDotOrg.

Hunt and Medwin's often revised accounts of the cremation relied on Trelawny, since neither had witnessed the entire event. Hunt was on the beach but retired to his carriage for most of the Homeric ceremony. Medwin arrived too late to have seen anything. Lord Byron was also overcome by the scene of his friend's cremation, and risked drowning by swimming to his yacht anchored in the bay.

The Hunt and Medwin accounts, as well as Trelawny's, vary from one another, and between revisions (e.g. Trelawny characterized Shelley's heart as "unusually small," which Hunt copied out as, "unusually large.").

Whatever Trelawny pulled from the fire, and called Shelley's heart, some speculate it was his liver, he gave to Shelley's friend, Leigh Hunt. After some wrangling and wrestling, it came into Mary's hands. Shelley's only surviving son, we are told, found it after her death in 1851, and held it until his own death in 1889. The remaining relic coffin dust was allegedly then buried.

Shelley's tombstone in Rome includes the Trelawny directed, Troy-like inscription, "Cor Cordium," Heart of Hearts, which mingled into the unburned heart story, and led to the widely held belief Shelley's heart was buried there. Throughout the nineteenth century that bogus factoid was relayed to tourists by the cemetery guides, and it washed up continually in newspapers and travelogues for over a hundred years.

The heart was also widely reported to have gone into Mary Shelley's grave in 1851. And, inevitably, stories have leaked into the ether about the heart having been purloined away, and put to this or that purpose. In fact, Trelawny's separate collection of artifacts, the jaw and bone fragments, came into the public sphere later and stories of their disposition have been confused with the heart story.


Nineteenth Century author, Richard Henry Stoddard, captured Shelley's story in 1877.

Every now and then, more so since the Internet, someone rediscovers the increasingly macabre story of Mary Shelley harboring her husband's heart. It's always good for a string of Oh-My–Lands caliber comments on Facebook, intermingled with the eyebrow-tilted master-splaining of the usual suspects. In fact, body-part relics of the departed, the heart was a favorite, but hair the most popular, were once almost common.

If you're late to the Shelley party, and most of us are, you'll notice scholarly comments involve allusions to scandal, and notoriety. We should, before closing, cast Shelley in the language of our twenty-first century cultural memes. His parents were well off, and his rebellious teen years recall the agonies of many modern-day parents of means. He blasphemed and deprecated, was tossed out of school, tried instant marriage as a fix, and fell under the spell of the nineteenth-century equivalent of a modern-day celebrity guru, William Godwin, complete with rebellious daughter, Mary (soon to be Mary Shelley).

Mary's mother had died at Mary's birth, leaving another daughter, not by Godwin but some infernal American, also living in Godwin's household. The great man himself had got married to the widow next door. We recognize this life style as the stuff of the better researched supermarket tabloids. Mary, a rebel on her own terms, soon married the rebellious young poet. They eloped, though Shelley's first marriage was still legally intact, and one of the new Mrs. Godwin's children, Claire, ran off with them. Shelley asked his wife to join them, she declined, and then Claire seems to have taken up with Lord Byron with issue of a daughter. Shelley's first wife died, probably suicide. And then Shelley sent some letters to women other than his wife, lamely asserting, "Mary doesn't understand me." In there somewhere, Mary wrote Frankenstein. Plop this plot down in Hollywood, and it's good for a multi-season streaming series.

Mary Shelley speaks to us directly in this medium's account. More body parts discovered.

As happens with most teens (the term teenager wasn't coined for another hundred years), Shelley seems to have mostly outgrown the intellectual extravagances of his teen years, atheism, ego-centric love life, and indifference to his first wife, but owing to his early death, those things weigh heavily into the judgment of history, and in fact give a feeling of evolution to his historical after-life, as a never-ending string of biographers chase after his eternally fleeing spirit. We are two hundred years on, and people are still trying to figure out what it all means. Even Napoleon is less mercurial in his post-corporeal phase.

Shelley's cousin, Thomas Medwin, tells us what he thinks happened.

And, of course, there is no stopping those confounded Shelley's-heart tales. Admittedly, there is an unfathomable symmetry in the idea of Frankenstein's author carrying around her dead husband's heart in a silk kerchief. Still, where is it exactly? Is it in Rome along with Keats' heart, Bournemouth with Mary and son, part of some secret collector's cache, languishing in someone's attic or basement, or perhaps, sifting among the sands of Viareggio beach? There's really little question about it, anymore. Except that it all begins under the pen of one of the most notorious liars of the nineteenth century. Oh well. As the famous American statesperson once said, "At this point, what does it matter?" Indeed.


Hunt's wife made this transcription of her husband, and Trelawny's accounts.
Graham Henderson testifies to Shelley's currency in our time.
You'll want to buy Hermione Lee's book after seeing how Shelley is handled in the first chapter.
Graham Henderson returns with more Shelleyana, or you could just roam around his blog for a never-ending feast.

Back to the Attic

Who in the world cares about Shelley's heart?

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Foreground (left to right): Edward John Trelawny, Leigh Hunt, and Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron). On the pyre: Percy Bysshe Shelley. Background left: Mary Shelley, kneeling, unknown gentleman standing guard. Background center, unknown workmen and onlookers. Original in the Walker Gallery in Liverpool.
Sylvia Norman's unique Shelley biography, studies Shelley's evolution after the cremation in Italy.

The modern curse of the representational artist is to be measured by the camera. No one dismisses a Picasso painting with, "That looks nothing like Guernica," or says of Duchamp, "No nude descending a staircase there." But of Louis Edouard Fournier's 1889 painting, "The Funeral of Shelley," nearly everyone starts off by denying such a scene ever assembled on the beach of Viareggio. It's true.

The day was hot, not overcast and gloomy, Mary Shelley was five miles away at her home, and, while Trelawny, Hunt and Byron were in the area, Hunt was in his carriage, and Byron was swimming out to his yacht. Even Shelley is romanticized, since the body was in pretty rotten shape by that time, after ten days in the water and almost a month in quicklime. Only the unidentified crowd in the background doesn't draw quibbles, since they're obviously nobody, and nobody is always around somewhere.

But if we're in a mood to let the artist do art, allow our impressions to catch up with the lived history of Shelley's legacy, at least as of 1889, we may have one of those moments when the three-dimensional box turns inside out, or the background switches to foreground and the scene shifts to something entirely different. When that happens we have a striking, even prescient picture of the after-life of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Mary Shelley's most wayward child is still causing sleepless nights among the time-on-their-hands crowd.
Shelley's ode "To A Skylark."

Fournier certainly captures how each of the participants lived their experience of Shelley's passing, how they perceived themselves to have adjusted to it. Even Shelley, in this viewing, is spot on with his ancient Greek warrior pyre, and his view toward heaven. Byron gazes into life's abyss romantically, Hunt puzzles and schemes, Trelawny bears a great weight with great difficulty, Mary subordinates herself to Shelley's death and the call of heaven.

Even the silent unknown crowd does exactly what they have done in fact: stare on with a rapt, but puzzled awareness, gently wondering if they have any interest in the proceedings or not. That was pretty much the state of things in 1889 when the world was reawakened to Shelley by the death of his son.

Had Fournier been born sixty years further on, we wouldn't be surprised, after Hollywood had got hold of Mary's most famous manuscript, to see Boris Karloff patrolling near the castle ramparts with a bolt through his neck.

Hear Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" read by Argos MacCallum, poet, actor, director, and all-around stage hand with many theatre companies in Santa Fe; co-founder of Teatro Paragua.

Ode to the West Wind

By Percy Bysshe Shelley

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!


Thou on whose stream, 'mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like Earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,

Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head

Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge

Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre
Vaulted with all thy congregated might

Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: O hear!


Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams,

Beside a pumice isle in Baiae's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,

All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic's level powers

Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!


If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share

The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O Uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be

The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne'er have striven

As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.


Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?