Most famous for his poems Prometheus Unbound, Cenci and Adonis, Percy Bysshe Shelley is widely regarded as a pioneer of the English Romantic movement. It is a place in literary history he shares with his friends and colleagues Lord Byron, John Keats and George Gordon. All four poets died young, within only a few years of one another, but it's the circumstances surrounding the earthly remains of Percy Shelley that are most intriguing.
The fact that his wife, Mary Shelley, kept his withered heart wrapped in silk and pressed in her leather bound copy of Adonis for over 30 years does seem odd - even for the author of Frankenstein. But the truth is that the preservation of her morbid memento is actually the least remarkable part of this true tale especially when one considers the serendipity and obsession involved in securing the heart of Percy after life.
On July 8, 1822 Percy set sail from Leghorn to Lerci in his refurbished boat, The Ariel. It was actually a trip home as the Shelleys had been living in Lerci, Italy for several years. The voyage was only fifty miles across the Gulf of Spezia. However, Percy and his two crewmen were never seen alive again.
At some point, The Ariel was forced under by a squall and all aboard her were drowned. For several days no bodies were found and the story would have ended there if Percy had not met an adventurous seaman by the name of Captain Edward John Trelawny six months earlier.
Percy and Captian Trelawny had become very fast friends in a very short period of time. Trelawny's affection for Percy was so rich that he personally trolled the coast for 10 days until he heard of three bodies that washed ashore.
The bodies had washed ashore in the jurisdiction of three different governments, as Italy was not unified at this time, and so Trelawny had to negotiate with the Lucca, Florence and Pisa governments to access and identify the bodies. Paying bribes out of pocket to circumvent quarantines Trelawny discovered that, in all three locations, law dictated that all bodies washed in from the sea were to be buried immediately. Further, the bodies were to be covered in quicklime to hasten their decomposition for fear of disease.
To rescue the body of his dear friend, Captain Trelawny struck upon the idea of cremating the remains. Believing that the fire would purify the remains of any contagion, the authorities were won over. The only problem was that the cremations would need to occur at the site of the impromptu burials. Undeterred, Trelawny had a portable crematorium built at great personal expense along with a satin lined walnut box embellished with brass plates. He also personally made arrangements to secure the proper bureaucrats, health officials, constabulary and labourers to complete the job succinctly.
This all took several weeks but on August 16th Trelawny finally managed to locate the remains of Percy Shelley. It took over an hour of digging, and one of the laborers accidentally cracked open the skull of the corpse, but the body was finally exhumed and cremated. It was at this point that Trelawny, according to his memoirs, took a gristly souvenir:
“The fire was so fierce as to produce a white heat on the iron, and to reduce its contents to grey ashes. The only portions that were not consumed were some fragments of bones, the jaw, and the skull, but what surprised us all was that the heart remained entire. In snatching this relic from the fiery furnace my hand was severely burnt.”
Trelawny had always intended to return Percy's ashes to Mary, but the heart he intended to keep for himself.
Mary wished to inter her husband's remains in Rome next to their son William. Unable to do so herself, Mary asked Trelawny to do it. Trelawney himself was indisposed at the time, and so the cremated remains were held in a wine cellar for six months and eventually Trelawny entrusted an English consult to do the deed. The deed was done, but not to Trelawny's liking. He commissioned the construction of two tombs and had Percy's remains reburied in one under a tombstone ironically engraved with the Latin motto cor cordium (Heart of Hearts).
The heart of Percy wasn't even given directly to Mary Shelley. Instead Trelawny gifted it, under great pressure, to poet Leigh Hunt. It was Hunt who then gifted the heart to Mary which she kept, as previously described, until her passing in 1855. In 1889 the heart of Percy Shelly was finally interred with the body of their only surviving son, Percy Florence Shelley, in the tomb he had built for himself and his mother.
But what about the second tomb built by Trelawny in Rome? The one build directly beside Percy? Well, in 1881 a box containing the ashes of Captain Trelawny himself was interred there. Yes, the good Captain Trelawny was permanently put to rest beside the friend he had known for less than six months.
How is that for bizarre?
Caveat: Many historians and medical experts theorize that the 'heart' was actually a liver. However the point is that an organ was cherished for decades and – regardless of what it actually was - both Mary and Trelawny believed it was the heart of Percy Shelly.
Who are we to argue and does it really matter?
More on the odd Captain Trelawny here.
(Title image credit: Lightspring/Shutterstock)
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