The Words of the Moffitt Family

What Percy Shelley Taught Me About Being Remembered

Larry Moffitt
February 12, 2010

On 8 July 1822, less than a month before his 30th birthday, Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in a sudden storm while sailing off the northwest coast of Italy in his schooner. Shelley, who could be morose even on a good day, may even have wanted it that way. His body washed up on the shore with much of the skin eaten away, his clothing nearly gone and a boot missing.

That's all that was left of the Percy Shelley who wrote "Ozymandias." Shelley, the philosopher-poet and husband of the author of Frankenstein. What was left of Shelley is what's left of all of us.

Shelly, who had a beautiful mind but whose poems are sometimes long, long run-on sentences, can make you pass out while reading aloud, trying to find a place to breathe. His writing style conveys the sense he was one very intense lad. Not someone whose order you would want to get wrong at the Lamb and Flag.

There tends to be a lot of tomb, and sepulture and moldering leaves kind of language in his poetry that can leave you in a brown study. After reading Shelley, I need a hug.

The sculptor Edward Ford created a memorial statue of Shelley. It wasn't a rendering of the poet in a coffee house with goose quill in hand or sitting at the hearth being urbane with Lord Byron and Keats. Instead, Ford sculpted a likeness of Shelley's soggy, lifeless, naked body, a cleaned up version of the way he looked laying on the beach where they cremated him.

Shelley was kicked out of Oxford 200 years ago for being an outspoken atheist. But after Oxford itself became atheist, they built a special nook for Shelley's drowned rat statue with inset mood lights capturing snippets of his poetry on the surrounding walls. It's there today, sitting on a pedestal composed of the requisite bare-bosomed lass and a couple of winged creatures from someone's nightmare.

The statue is highly acclaimed as a work of art, but this is the best-known memorial of Shelley and I wonder what the poet himself thinks as he haunts Oxford's University College. It seems unfair, but isn't history mostly unfair?

Isadora Duncan, the great American dancer who died in 1927, is remembered with more dignity than Shelley, although her exit from life was more interesting. While standing in the passenger seat of a convertible, she ostentatiously threw the long flowing scarf for which she was famous, around her neck as she shouted a flamboyant "Je vais à l'amour" ("I'm off to love.") to her friends. The scarf hung outside the roadster, where it was picked up by the back tire and wrapped as the car sped away. Ms. Duncan was unceremoniously yanked out of the car, her neck snapped.

But don't look for that in a statue. Paintings and renderings of her, including statuary, rightly depict the woman for the poised and dynamic barrier-breaker she was in life.

There are lessons galore in death's circumstances. Nelson Rockefeller died of a heart attack, tongues wag, while atop the lovely Megan. History remembers, even if only with a mention. Whenever I receive an invitation to an orgy, I always think what if I choke on a chicken bone while I'm there? What would my statue at Oxford look like? The imagination boils.

But in truth my final minutes are not as worrisome for me as my final two or three decades. That will be where the big summing up comes for me and most others as well. Sometimes one's stains can be big enough to erase every other act of good that person accomplished in their entire life. A stain big enough and public enough, like say, that acquired by someone in a Judas role, lives on in footnote after footnote after footnote.

Conversely, one can redeem oneself so spectacularly in the final years of an otherwise misspent life, as to eradicate the years of debauchery and selfishness that went before. Although it's rare, and often requires death in the doing of it, it is even possible for a person to reverse their destiny in one extraordinarily sacrificial moment. And history will never forget.

Nobody gets out of here without regrets. And truthfully, without stains either. Shelley wrote, "Life, like a dome of many-colored glass, stains the white radiance of Eternity." What is eternity? "Eternity is really long," Woody Allen said, "especially near the end." 

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