Shelley’s Jawbone

Insight into the events after Percy Shelley’s funeral from Gavin Murdoch

via email on the C18-L list 12/5/01

According to the biographer of Edward Trelawny, William St. Clair, the bodies of Williams and a boy were buried immediately in quicklime on 17 July, 1822, by health authorities. Shelley’s body was found by Tralawny and identified by the clothes and a copy of Keats’s poems washed ashore further up the coast. His body, though in better condition than the other two, was given the same required treatment. On the 15th of August, Williams was exhumed and cremated under supervision and Shelley was given a more elaborate ceremony conducted by Tralawny the next day. The ashes seem to have been in limbo until they were buried by Christian priests in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, ‘confusedly mingled in a heap with five of six common vagabonds,’ according to EJT. He had Shelley buried yet again the next spring, as Tom Hothem notes, by the old city wall of Rome. EJT also secured a plot for himself beside PBS which he did not make use ! of for another 50 years.

St Clair suggests that ‘Shelley the great pagan had a great pagan funeral. No priest was near. No prayers were said’ (p. 82). He did, however, praise Trelawny for providing Shelley with ‘an unforgettable drama.’ Two summers before his biography was published, I discovered a letter written to William Michael Rossetti, the Shelley expert of his day, to EJT, who was nearing the end of his life. He asked WMR what he should do with Shelley’s jaw bone, not wanting it to become lost in a BM drawer. He didn’t mention the heart of Shelley which he presented to Mary, at her request, and at the risk of having himself placed in quarantine; but he did mention the praise he received from Byron for his funeral oration. ‘I knew you were a pagan [said Byron] but I did not know that you were a pagan priest.’

This letter is among the Angeli-Dennis Papers located at the University of British Columbia. I was working, at the time, on a summer research project in quest of biographical bits related to the Rossetti circle and supported by the Canada Counsel. For a graduate student who was to begin Ph. D. studies that fall, the project occasioned a memorable experience with lengthy visits to the URC in Austin followed by the glorious Huntington.

I love these little bits that surface from time to time. Research is a good thing.