On the 8th July 1822 the great Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley died. At the time of his death he was living in permanent exile in Italy, as a consequence of a series of scandals. He drowned in a boating accident aged just 29 years old. The devastating loss of such a young, promising and dynamic poet seemed unjust as it occurred in the wake of the death of another young poet John Keats.
Shelley dedicated his poem “Adonais” to Keats` memory. It is a beautiful piece of verse in the elegiac tradition. Although Elegy as a form of writing was inherited from the Greek and Roman literary traditions, the spirit of memorialising has always been integral to English culture and an innate part of us as a people.
Our ancestors were hardy people who endured sickness and death and a great deal of inclement weather. In this country we understood and reconciled ourselves to the fact that for most of the year it was cold and dark. This experience has imbued our psyche and inspired a distinctly melancholic aspect.
However the earliest expression of this is in a very old Anglo-Saxon word called “dustsceawung” which means “the contemplation of dust”. It is a word that is unique to our culture, similar to “melancholy” which is of Greek derivation but it is in fact a purely Anglo concept of the inevitability of loss. England is an island nation and the isolation and feelings of foreboding engendered by the sea have been the source of the greatest lamentations in literature.
The anonymous author of “The Wanderer” understood this, as a man meditating on solitude while facing the ceaseless seas. Another poem “The Seafarer” also mines the same seam, the eponymous hero contemplates his life spent at sea and opines that he is alone but that he must endure.
Both poems were preserved in a volume entitled the “Exeter Book” , a manuscript dating back to the tenth century. It is the oldest book of Anglo-Saxon literature which survived the Norman Conquest when attempts to destroy the language and culture of the English people were stepped up in earnest.
However the English culture has survived in spite of the multiple incursions from outside its shores. William Shakespeare is revered all over the world owing to his profound understanding of loss, evinced so eloquently in “Ariel`s Song” a lamentation from his play “The Tempest” . It is therefore apt that Shelley`s grave bears this as an inscription, that,
“Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange”.