||The Spirit's Knife
'Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit's knife
Every poet is posthumous.
"Green green green green..." Or "be kind be kind be kind be kind..." The staccato chatter of dolphins makes it impossible to know exactly what they might be saying, but not so hard to guess. "Go home go home go home go home..." A school of them surrounded our tour boat in the salt-water bay off Sanibel Island, on Florida's Gulf Coast, looked at us for a while, then swam away.
Playful or sad? There was no other poet on board with whom I could discuss the nature of these creatures, or the vicissitudes of sailing on the ocean. "Don't worry about this trip," the tour guide told us as the waves started to lap against the side of the boat. "In the unlikely event that we start to sink, the captain will just steer us toward a shallow part of the bay, and we'll walk ashore."
How do you catch a dolphin, anyway? A few days later, I saw a pair of them shooting up and down in the tanks of huge underground aquariums, defying every notion I had about the impossibility of wingless flight, leaving only a skein of bubbles in their wake. "They move," as Shelley once wrote of the dead, "like winds of light..."
This is Shelley's catalog of the animals in his friend George Byron's travelling menagerie: "ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow and a falcon... five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian crane..." No dolphins, but then Byron, an avid sailor, swam like a fish himself. In fact, while Shelley's body was burning on a pyre next to the sea, Byron unexpectedly abandoned the gathering of mourners, swam three miles out in the Mediterranean to his anchored sailboat, the Bolivar,and then back to shore.
Edmund Blunden is sure that Shelley would have understood "what undefined thoughts made Byron turn away from the company..." (Perhaps he was thinking of Shelley's lines about Keats, who had died recently: "From the contagion of the world's slow stain / He is secure, and now can never mourn / A heart grown cold, a head grown gray in vain...") Over the years of their friendship, the two poets had exchanged warnings to each other about the dangers of sailing and other reckless pursuits. It is said that Byron, who had the bigger boat, enjoyed verbalizing scenarios in which he would dramatically search for and rescue the hapless Shelley, born on an island, and also a sailor, who had nonetheless never learned to swim. In at least one poem, Shelley fired back admonitions about Byron's lack of caution on the sea.
There was a lot more behind Shelley's almost playful warning to his friend than a simple wish to have Byron take more care when he was out on the ocean. Blunden writes that "Shelley had moments when he saw Byron's character, apart from his mental glories, as a dark menace..." Byron lived on the edge, constantly tempting fate. Unfortunately close friends like Shelley often had to pick up the pieces of the other lives Byron managed to shatter during escapades. Byron's heedless way of life made him a menace, to be sure, and an undependable patron, despite his abiding interest in poetry and his wealth. The sixth Baron Byron was too often caught up in political intrigue or litigation to pay any attention to the promises he had made to his friends.
Shelley, on the other hand, crisscrossed the continent of Europe trying to hold together an intimate network of family, friends and fellow writers. Many of them hoped he would provide food and housing, as well as moral and professional support. "Of all the complicated lives of which we have word," Blunden writes, "Shelley's was the most complicated." A bestseller like Frankenstein would have been of immeasurable help to the Shelleys, who lived on a small pension from his parents until he could inherit their estate, and on what he could borrow from Byron. But that novel, written by his second wife, Mary, made little or no impact on the world until well after Shelley was dead.
While Mary was alive, she wanted to spend the summers with her daughter and husband at a nice villa on the beach, and poor Shelley did his best to find one for them on the Mediterranean. Because the only easy access was by sea, a fellow Englishman built a trim little sailboat for them, which Byron named the Don Juan (Shelley wanted to call it the Ariel). Shelley and two of his friends sailed in it one morning for Leghorn, the nearby Italian town where Byron was staying with his Italian mistress. Shelley wanted to pick up provisions and money, and finalize a scheme to start a literary magazine. The journal's expenses would be paid by Byron and it would be edited by Leigh Hunt, an indigent poet friend with a growing family who desperately needed the work.
At this time in his life, Byron wasn't seeking further literary fame or fortune; he was looking for a war. (In 1824, two years after Shelley's death, Byron sailed to Greece to help in the nationalist revolt against Turkish rule, caught a fever and died.) Shelley had to fight through the maze of his friend's passion and belligerence in order to get him to focus his attention once again on literature, a battle which included minor combat on Shelley's part with a party of military men in the neighborhood of Byron's villa. When Shelley finally completed his mission, on a summer day in July of 1822, he packed his boat full of supplies for his isolated family and borrowed a copy of Keats' poems from Hunt (Keats had died the year before in Rome of tuberculosis, and Shelley wanted to write an appreciation of his work). He then withdrew a considerable sum from Byron's bank, and sailed for home.
There was a threat of rain in the air. Experienced sailors, including the captain of Byron's boat, advised Shelley to wait until the next day to leave. But Shelley disregarded their advice, and sailed out of the harbor, followed closely, according to some observers, by an Italian boat full of ne'er-do-wells. Byron's captain attempted to follow his English friends, but was prevented from leaving by suspicious officials who were watching Byron and his associates carefully. Instead he could only wave farewell to Shelley, who was sitting comfortably in the stern of the Don Juan, reading Keats. It was the last time anyone who knew him saw the poet alive.
The thread-worn facts about what happened next are these: the region of the Mediterranean Sea that Shelley was sailing in was hit by a fierce summer storm that day, and several days later a peaceful looking corpse that was identified as Shelley's washed ashore on the coast of Italy. But around this seemingly straight-forward core, generations of writers have wrapped a complex net of hearsay and speculation that still makes for fascinating reading.
Anything Shelley had ever written about death has been closely examined, to see if it would illuminate the final hours of his life. Nothing has been discovered to indicate that Shelley was contemplating suicide -- but many hints have been uncovered that he might have welcomed death if it came to him naturally or heroically, as relief from his burdensome life on earth.
Much has been made of the fact that when Shelley's body floated ashore, it "was still dressed in his double-breasted jacket of mixed cloth, nankeen trousers from Malta, and a pair of boots with white silk socks underneath..." (His friend Edward Williams had thrown off his coat and at least one of his boots during a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to swim ashore.) If Shelley had been reading Keats when the storm struck, he had had the presence of mind to replace the book in one coat pocket (a small edition of Sophocles was found in the other) before he was swept from his boat. The image is a powerful one: the poet sighing at Nature's overpowering wrath, closing the book and putting it safely away before folding his arms across his chest, and slipping without protest into the roiling water. Perhaps he thought the book by his favorite poet, however slender it was, would provide enough buoyancy to save him.
As is often the case after tragedies at sea, the Don Juan was also recovered. It showed evidence of having been rammed. Of course that could have happened on the rocky shoreline, but a story also surfaced that the Italian sailors who followed Shelley out of Leghorn, with pillage of the seemingly wealthy Englishmen on their minds, punched a hole in the side of Shelley's boat while they attempted to board it in the storm, and then callously left it and its three occupants to founder.
In "Lycidas," a justly famous lament for Edward King, drowned in the Irish Sea off the coast of Wales in 1637, John Milton blames the whole awful event on an eclipse, and suggests that his friend's boat was "rigged with curses dark..." I remind myself that in Milton's time, Neptune, the vengeful, untrustworthy god of the sea in Greek mythology, was still a household name. Milton wouldn't have seen anything remiss about addressing the bad boy of the sea in his poem, or asking him what he was thinking when he allowed someone as fine as his friend King to drown. But by the time of the death of Shelley, the sea had taken on a natural life of its own, on a different plane than that of mythology. And as anyone who has been out in the ocean in an open boat can attest, when the wind comes up it's not necessarily a benign or benevolent or romantic place to be. It's an indication of Shelley's modernity that none of the children of Zeus appeared to him in a vision during the night before he sailed for home, or warned him about his impending doom. By 1822, the poets were on their own.
However, in spite of all this self-reliance (and the little good it did him, because it hadn't been backed up with swimming lessons), Percy Bysshe Shelley was fated nonetheless to reenact the unhappy part of an undeservedly obscure story from Greek literature. The poet Arion, who lived about 700 BC, and who for my purposes here might as well have been a god, had sailed from Sicily to the port of Corinth, where he took part in a music contest. "He was a master of the lyre," according to Edith Hamilton, "and he won the prize." On the trip home, a few sailors grew enamoured of Arion's prize, and made plans to kill him for it, just as the Italian sailors might have schemed to plunder Shelley's boat. Arion begged the brigands on his ship for the opportunity to play his beloved instrument one last time. When he had lulled them all into a false sense of complacency with his masterful playing, and, by the way, attracted a school of dolphins to the side of the boat to listen to his music, Arion jumped overboard, and was carried safely back to Corinth on the back of a fellow mammal.
In my century, poets are still born on islands, still sail, swim or can't swim, or fall under the spell of Neptune. And now they can fly, with the attendant risk and insouciance implied by that. But I don't read about my fellow poets being saved by dolphins, travelling with exotic menageries, reading Keats in the face of certain death. The transcendent power of nature, literature and music has been muted, or relegated to an academic background. The life force that always accompanies the poetry that is most meaningful to me has become endangered or is rarely invoked.
What hasn't changed, though, is the pain of losing someone to whom you have grown close. Shelley loved the poetic power of Keats' mind, and when Keats died, there was concomitant suffering in his mind that he was able to transcend and turn into poetry. It's what Shelley was referring to in the epigraph about the spirit's knife, which is only a small selection from the poem he wrote for Keats. Today the telephone, that brutal instrument of the devil, rings and rings and rings, and when it's picked up to announce that someone has drowned, been run over by a car, or blown up in the street, the spirit's knife is still what the hand that isn't holding the headset reaches for.
And then the spirit's knife is waved, just as Shelley suggests, at the same "invulnerable nothings." Depending on point of view, they are either the lucky ones who are no longer able to feel any pain, which is the way Shelley looked at it, or in a more modern way, those dictators, homicidal maniacs, terrorists, or concentration camp commandants, who seem, somehow, less invulnerable than frighteningly beyond the comprehensive or normal parameters of humanity.
Some of us, I know, deep in the shadow cast by the passing of a loved one, still look backwards for consolation, to the words of the poets, the music of the masters, the incontestable power of nature. We revisit the famous graves, the elegies, the symphonies or sonatas. These masterpieces, proven by the passage of time, are also and truly invulnerable. They can reflect pain sideways or out of the path of self-harm, like the finest polished marble, granite, crystal or meteor. Like arrowheads, pieces of the past that still somehow presage the future.
In my part of the world, in times of duress, the native inhabitants would visit the remains of a great meteor that had landed in or been pushed by a glacier to a clearing above the Willamette River. The Grand Ronde would drink the water that had collected in its hollows, or rub it on each other, or make poultices from the moss that grew there, and so find solace, or relief from pain. One important person in the tribe was made responsible for remembering the formulas, the rituals, the incantations, and for maintaining the integrity of the sacred rock. Without this rock (the Willamette meteor now rests high and dry in a museum in New York City), without the dolphins or the attainable solitude or infinite possibilities of a real frontier, modern souls in trouble, in transition, are reduced to the imagined depths of a "mad trance" like Shelley's, where they must "keep / With phantoms an unprofitable strife..." I think that's as good a definition as any of twentieth century life.
The spirit's knife, always sharp, always cuts to the bone. Byron swam three miles out into the past and three miles back to intolerable modernity, and still the pain of Shelley's premature death would not go away. I wonder: Did Byron finally find peace on the dusty plains of Greece? I fear he did not. I wonder what happened to his books and menagerie? And I wonder who among my soul mates will be listening for the angels while I swim with the dolphins and weep? You, my reader, my hope, you.
for Emma Howell (1981 -- 2001)