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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Friday, 15 June 2012

Mythmaking as tidying up: the cremation of Shelley


There is a marked disparity in the versions of Byron’s words at the site of the cremation of Shelley as they appear in the writings of Edward Trelawny and Leigh Hunt. Shelley, along with Edward Williams and Charles Vivian, a young sailor, drowned when their boat sank in a sudden squall off the Italian coast in July 1822.

The sparsely punctuated manuscript of Trelawny’s handwritten account of the cremations is in the British Library. The much-disfigured body of Edward Williams had been washed ashore and buried in a shallow grave - after some days in the water, not much remained of the outer parts of the unclothed parts of the body; in fact Trelawny relates that the hands were ‘wanting’. When the body and some pieces of cloth were retrieved from the grave in the sand prior to cremation, according to Trelawny in this manuscript (Ms Add 35251) Byron looked at the ‘livid mass of flesh and blood’ and said ‘are we all to resemble that – why it might be the carcass of a sheep for all I can see – and pointing to the black handkerchief – said an old rag retains its form longer than a dead body’.

The account by Leigh Hunt is from the same year, but written in the hand of his wife Marianne (Ms Ashley 915), with corrections and additions in his own hand. It contains a version of Trelawny’s text, substantially the same, but with a few alterations, such as Williams’ hands being ‘fleshless’ rather than missing. In this manuscript Byron says: ‘What is a human body! Why it might be the rotten carcase of a sheep for all I can distinguish,’ and further continued, pointing to the black handkerchief ‘Look an old rag retains its form longer than he who wore it. What an humbling & degrading thought that we shall one day resemble this!’

Intriguingly, Byron identified the body of Williams by his teeth, as he had earlier asserted he would be able to (Trelawny Manuscript): ‘the moment he saw the teeth he exclaimed that is him’. Trelawny is quoted in Hunt’s version as identifying Shelley’s body by ‘the dress and stature; Mr Keats’ last volume of poems ‘Lamia & Isabella’ open in his jacket-pocket confirmed it beyond a doubt.’ Trelawny’s version of this is ‘The poems of Lamia & Isabella which had been found in Shelley’s jacket Pockett and had been buried with him I was anxious to have but we could find nothing of it remaining but the leather binding’.

Trelawny was criticised for tidying up and augmenting the story several times over the years, but the immediacy of his description in his 1822 manuscript gives a context to the pouring of wine, oil and spices over what was left of Shelley’s body as they cremated it, a need to mark the passing in a way that is in marked contrast to the expediency of the on-the-spot cremation. The version of the text as relayed by Hunt shows tidying and elaborating happening at this stage. Another detail shows Byron in a better light as the story goes through Hunt’s hands: Hunt states that Byron ‘wished the skull [of Shelley] to be preserved’. Trelawny’s direct version states ‘Lord Byron wished to have the skull, which I endeavoured to preserve …’

Do we find this apparent souvenir taking disappointing, perhaps distasteful?  Remembering the skull of Sir Thomas Browne, exhumed and kept in a  museum for 80 years, it is perhaps fortunate that, in Trelawny’s words, as he tried to retrieve Shelley's skull ‘it almost instantly fell to pieces’.

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