The BARS ‘On This Day’ Blog series celebrates the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events of the Romantic period, and our ‘Archive Spotlight’ series showcases research projects based in archives and heritage institutions and showcases work with physical or digital manuscripts. Want to contribute a future post? Get in touch.
As we approach the 200th anniversary of the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley on 8 July 1822, we bring you a special Archive Spotlight/On This Day crossover from Laura Blunsden, who explores the relationship between text an images in Percy Shelley’s notebooks held at the Bodleian Library, focusing on the sketch of a sailing boat in his pocket notebook, its relationship with the texts that surround it, and its haunting foreshadowing of Shelley’s upcoming death.
Between translated lines of Goethe’s Faust and his lyrical poem ‘With a Guitar. To Jane’, a sketch of a sailing boat emerging from around a bend in the river Arno fills an entire page of Shelley’s pocket notebook. The sails are filled with an invisible breeze which ripples the water’s surface with thin, wave-like lines, and sways the curly loops of foliage that cover the sloping river banks. Even the tree, which frames the top left corner of the page, seems to lean over the little boat as it passes. The rough, short strokes and inky smudges suggest that the sketch was made quickly, in the open air. It is known that Shelley enjoyed composing his poetry outside; perhaps he sat on the embankment and sketched the boat as it drifted towards him. Below, the stern of the same boat is studied from several angles, each layered one on top of the next, as it floated past Shelley and continued down the river.
Yet the sketch is in a relatively finished state compared to many of the other doodles that appear in his notebooks: Shelley took his time to add shading and detail as he enjoyed a moment’s peace in the Italian sunshine. Edward Trelawny would later recall that he found Shelley in this state of ‘bardish reverie’, gazing into the river from the lee of a fallen pine, deep in the forest of the Cascine, one spring afternoon in 1822. A copy of Shakespeare lay nearby, and Shelley’s thoughts still lingered in the atmosphere of The Tempest when he declared to Trelawny that
“In those three pines the weird sisters are imprisoned, and this,” pointing to the water, “is their cauldron of black broth. The Pythian priestesses uttered their oracles from below—now they are muttered from above. Listen to the solemn music in the pine-tops—don’t you hear the mournful murmurings of the sea? Sometimes they rave and roar, shriek and howl, like a rabble of priests. In a tempest, when a ship sinks, they catch the despairing groans of the drowning mariners. Their chorus is the eternal wailing of wretched men.”
Perhaps Trelawny’s memory of the scene was coloured by his knowledge of what was to come, but this vision of impending doom seems to foretell the confusion and chaos into which Shelley’s life would descend in the months following this brief period of relative stability. It creates a striking contrast with the tranquillity of the setting, which is not unlike the one depicted in the boat-sketch. The ‘weird sisters’ imprisoned in the pines, recalling Macbeth’s Three Witches, animate the trees and water as agents of evil. The priestesses’ ominous utterances prophesise Shelley’s drowning in the wreck of his own boat, the Don Juan (which he had preferred to call Ariel), and the lines from ‘Ariel’s Song’ which would be inscribed on his gravestone.
But The Tempest had even more immediate significance: on the very next page after the boat-sketch, ‘With a guitar. To Jane’ figures Shelley as the spirit Ariel, and Jane and Edward Williams as the reincarnations of Miranda and Ferdinand. As these lines seem to have been drafted in the same brown ink as the sketch, they can be dated to the early spring, when Shelley was forming his plan to gift a Pisan guitar to Jane. Along with the guitar, he gave the poem to her, written neatly on a sheet of paper that he had folded into a little booklet, so that he might deliver it into her hands himself, out of Mary’s sight. The series of passionate lyric poems he secretly wrote for her in the months before his death suggest that Shelley’s feelings for Jane had been strengthening since January 1822. He admired her beauty and musical talents, and she offered him affection and comfort, while Mary was struggling with depression following the death of their toddler William. If it had been discovered, their affair could have destroyed their marriages and the peace of their household in Villa Magni, where the couples stayed during the summer.
But for now, sailing on the river and canals surrounding Pisa was Shelley’s favourite way to spend his afternoons. It offered him an emotional, as well as literal, escape from the grief and distress back on the shore. His desire to remain in the present moment, to efface all that has passed and is to come, became more insistent in the last months of his life. In a letter dated 18th June 1822, two hundred years ago today, he wrote to John Gisborne:
[My boat] is swift and beautiful, and appears quite a vessel. Williams is captain, and we drive along this delightful bay in the evening wind, under the summer moon, until earth appears another world. Jane brings her guitar, and if the past and the future could be obliterated, the present would content me so well that I could say with Faust to the passing moment, “Remain, thou, thou art so beautiful”
The Faust quote is significant: it is addressed to the moment of transcendence that Faust has been granted by Mephistopheles in exchange for his instant death and an eternity in Hell. The line must have felt particularly poignant for Shelley, who, like Faust, stands ‘upon a precipice, which I have ascended with great, and cannot descend without greater, peril’. Even as it grasps at the present, the line ebbs into the past and manifests anxieties about the future.
The lines of Goethe’s Faust drafted on the page before the boat-sketches express the same fantasy:
Through the mossy sods & stones
River & streamlet hurry down
a flood of song, a rushing throng
Beneath the vault of Heaven is blown
Sweet notes of love, the speaking tones
Of this day of Paradise
Resound around beneath above
All we hope and all we love
Finds a voice in the sweet strain
Which wakens hill & wood & vale
And which echo like the tale
Of old times repeats again(Scene II, lines 51-6, 58-61, 63-4)
Mephistopheles and Faust chant these lines in chorus by as they traverse the desolate Hartz Mountain. The water, the wind, the hill and wood and vale, are all animated by a voice: not the mutters and shrieks of priests and priestesses described to Trelawny, but the stilted repetitions and echoes of unseen witches, whose song ‘Streams the whole mountain along’ (Scene II, line 149).
If the suggested dates are correct, the sketch was made as Shelley’s translation of Faust was nearing completion, and therefore predates little Allegra’s death in May and Mary’s miscarriage in June. The little boats represent a ‘day of Paradise’, which hovered between years of accumulated disappointment and disillusionment, and his remaining few months, marked by despair and deteriorating health. Several sheets before and after the sketch are torn out, but Shelley preserved the leaf with the sketch on it because it accomplished something that the Goethe lines and the Jane lyric could not. For all the movement that is evoked in the drawing, by the sails full of wind and the water rippling into small waves, the sketch halts and holds time in a way that verse cannot. A line of poetry, though it may exclaim against the future, must necessarily move forward onto the next; but the little boat is stilled forever in the pages of Shelley’s notebook.
Laura Blunsden (@blunsden_laura) is a doctoral candidate at the University of Liverpool. She researches mentoring relationships – between authors of, and represented within – eighteenth-century prose fiction. She is also interested in the life and works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and assists the Shelley200 organisers with their upcoming conference in July 2022
 The Faust Draft Notebook: Bodleian SM adds. e. 18, p. 207.
 Edward Trelawny, Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron (1858; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 71.
 The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. F.L. Jones, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), II, pp. 435-6.
 Letters, II, p. 436.
 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Scenes from the Faust of Goethe’ in The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Thomas Hutchinson (1905; revised edition Geoffrey Matthews, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 748-762 (p. 753 and p. 755).
Barker-Benfield, B.C., Shelley’s Guitar: An Exhibition of Manuscripts, First Editions and Relics, to Mark the Bicentenary of the Birth of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 179–1992 (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1992).
Holmes, Richard, Shelley: The Pursuit (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974).
The Faust Draft Notebook: adds. e. 18, The Bodleian Shelley Manuscripts, gen. ed. Donald H. Reiman, 23 vols (New York: Garland, 1986-2002) xix, ed. Nora Crook and Timothy Webb (1997).
The Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Geoffrey Matthews and Kelvin Everest, 4 vols to date (London: Longman, 1989-2020) i.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe, The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Thomas Hutchinson (1905; revised edition Geoffrey Matthews, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).
The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. F.L. Jones, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964).
Trelawny, Edward, Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron (1858; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).