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Shelley’s Last Days

The final months of Shelley’s life, his elegy to John Keats, and his sudden death by drowning

‘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 to Maria Gisborne, 1822

The Shelleys’ last home was the Villa Magni, a house right by the sea in a remote village near Lerici. They shared it with Claire Clairmont and their friends Edward and Jane Williams. At night Shelley was troubled, Mary remembered, by ‘nervous sensations and visions’. During the day he drafted his final, enigmatic poem, ‘The Triumph of Life', and went sailing with Edward Williams in his boat, the Don Juan. In July 1822, while Shelley and Williams were sailing back to the Villa Magni, a sudden storm blew up and they were drowned. Their bodies were washed ashore some days later.

 'During the whole of our stay at Lerici', Mary Shelley wrote years afterwards, 'an intense presentiment of coming evil brooded over my mind, and covered this beautiful place and genial summer with the shadow of coming misery.' At the Villa Magni she suffered a near fatal miscarriage, and late in life she could still vividly recall the remoteness of the place, the 'savage' local inhabitants, and the terrible sense of dread she had experienced when Shelley and Williams failed to return home.

In 1821 Shelley had written Adonais, an elegy to his fellow-poet John Keats, who had died in Rome aged just twenty-five. After Shelley's own early death Mary wrote: 'The world will surely one day feel what it has lost when this bright child of song deserted her – Is not Adonais his own Elegy'.

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Bodleian Libraries

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Oxford

OX1 3BG