Shelley at Sea

A sketch of Shelley's double-masted Don Juan and Byron's schooner Bolivar, part of an exhibition at the New York Public Library.

I love a certain kind of macabre /fetishistic museum show, like “Shelley’s Ghost,” currently on at the New York Public Library. In conjunction with the Oxford University, curators have gathered together ephemera and relics from the poet’s life—his coral and gold baby-rattle, a copy of his first poem, about a cat, as well as many objects that document his last days.

As you may remember, Percy Shelley was lost at sea while sailing off the Italian coast in the summer of 1822, as described in Encyclopedia of the Exquisite‘s entry on Tempests. “The day before the sea closed over mine own Shelley he said … ‘If I die tomorrow I have lived to be older than my father, I am ninety years of age,’” Mary Shelley wrote after his death. He was obsessed with boats and couldn’t stay away from the water, daring, even, to go out during a storm. (I know, you Maine sailors out there, not ‘daring’—more like ‘dumb.’)

The exhibition includes sketches of the boats Shelley and Lord Byron had built in Genoa—the Don Juan and Bolivar, respectively, as well as Shelley’s own sketches of sailboats, and items recovered from the boat’s wreckage, a spy glass, a notebook, and a water-damaged volume of Sophocles.

One question, though—who sails with a copy of Sophocles? Time to upgrade our ship-board library.

A piece of Shelley's telescope, found in the wreckage and on display in the show.