It was on this day in 1822 that poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned (books by this author). He had spent the past four years traveling around Italy with his wife, and it was during this period that he wrote almost all of his most famous poems, including Prometheus Unbound (1820). He was living in La Spezia, on the west coast of Italy, at the time of his death.
Shelley had just bought a schooner two months earlier. The boat was twenty-four feet long, with twin masts, and it was called Don Juan, after the poem by his friend Lord Byron. He often spent mornings sitting on the boat as it lay anchored in the bay, reading and writing as he bobbed up and down with the waves. He worked on his last poem, “The Triumph of Life,” which begins:
As in that trance of wonderous thought I lay
This was the tenour of my waking dream.
Methought I sate beside a public way
Thick strewn with summer dust, & a great stream
Of people there was hurrying to & fro
Numerous as gnats upon the evening gleam,
All hastening onward, yet none seemed to know
Whither he went, or whence he came, or why…
When the weather was nice, Shelley started taking his boat on short outings, and he was looking forward to making a few longer trips with his wife during the summer. He wrote in a letter to a friend, “[My boat] is swift and beautiful, and appears quite a vessel. . . . We drive along this delightful bay in the evening wind, under the summer moon, until earth appears another world.”
On July 1, Shelley and his friend Edward Williams left from La Spezia to Pisa. They started their return trip on July 7, and on this day, July 8, 1822, Shelley set off from Livorno to La Spezia, a trip of about fifty-five miles. There was a storm approaching from the southwest, and most of the Italian boats came into the harbor, but Shelley wanted to make it back that evening.
Shelley’s friend Captain Roberts watched them sail away from a lighthouse, and as the storm got worse he began to grow worried. He took a large boat out to sea and offered to take Shelley and Williams on board, but Shelley refused the offer. A sailor said through a speaking trumpet, “If you will not come on board for God’s sake reef your sails or you are lost.” According to the sailor, Williams tried to lower the sails but Shelley grabbed him by the arm and wouldn’t let him. The boat sank in the Gulf of Spezia later that evening. When Shelley’s body washed up on shore ten days later, a copy of Keats’s poems was found in his back pocket.