Less than a month before his 30th birthday, Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in the Gulf of Spezia. A summer storm overtook his sailboat, and the poet never made it from Livorno, where he had been visiting Lord Byron and Leigh Hunt, to Lerici, where his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, waited. Shelley’s body washed ashore weeks later, ravaged by the sea and scarcely recognizable. The bright beauty of Edward Onslow Ford’s marble monument for the poet, completed in 1892, did its best to obscure this ravaging. Fixed in irenic composure, Shelley now rests on a bronze plinth above a weeping muse flanked by two winged lions at University College Oxford. His cold marble eyes are forever closed; his right arm stretches across his slender, supine body to meet his left; one of his sublunary legs is folded beneath the other. The monument became one of the high altars of the cult that developed around the Romantic. Rival accounts of Shelley’s shipwreck and drowning circulated for decades, including one persistent legend that his heart resisted crematory fire, only to be removed and preserved by a friend.
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