He Never Learned to Swim

Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned at sea,
not yet thirty, off the coast of Italy.
He had learned political poems wouldn’t change
the world, but sailing a stormy sea,
his schooner sank. He never learned to swim.

Percy Bysshe Shelley had been living in Lerici, Italy for about four years. Leaving England, he also left his radical political poetry behind and turned to a more Romantic idealism. He was sailing home from Livorno when they encountered a storm and the boat was swamped. Percy could not swim and drowned along with the crew of three. Shelley’s badly decomposed body washed ashore at Viareggio ten days later and was identified by his clothing and a copy of Keats’s “Lamia” in a jacket pocket.

The conservative London newspaper The Courier, reported, “Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned: now he knows whether there is a God or no.” But his friends and admirers, including his second wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein, set about to create a Romantic legacy for him. His body was cremated on the beach in a kind of pagan ceremony. Shelley’s heart, which had not burned, was retrieved from the pyre. Mary kept it for the rest of her life, wrapped in a copy of his poem “Adonais” which is an elegy on the death of John Keats, Here is how that poem ends:

The breath whose might I have invoked in song
Descends on me; my spirit’s bark is driven,
Far from the shore, far from the trembling throng
Whose sails were never to the Tempest given;
The massy earth and sphered skies are riven!
I am borne darkly, fearfully, afar;
Whilst, burning through the inmost veil of Heaven,
The soul of Adonais, like a star,
Beacons from the abode where the Eternal are.

The rest of his ashes were interred at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome with a monument inscribed with the words Cor Cordium — “heart of hearts” — and lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
“Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.”

Elizabeth and Robert Eloped

A secret year, of courting and mailing,
Browning tells Barrett he loves her poems.
He loves her and so they marry,
and escape to Italy. All that love
put into many sonnets. Count the ways.



Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning eloped in 1846 after courting in secret for a year and a half through the mail, unbeknownst to her father. It all started with a fan letter by Robert to poet Elizabeth.

They did finally meet face to face but Barrett’s father didn’t know about the courtship and didn’t like Browning. They married without family and Elizabeth returned to her father’s house where she stayed for one more week before she ran off to Italy with Browning. She never saw her father again.

Elizabeth gave her new husband a collection of poems she’d written during their courtship. It was published in 1850 as Sonnets from the Portuguese.


Many of the poems on this site are available to listen to as podcasts on most popular platforms.

A Lock of Emily Dickinson’s Hair

is for sale on eBay for $450,000.
Perhaps stolen by James Merrill, perhaps found
in an envelope, addressed to sister-in-law Susan,
found in a volume of her poems.
Please buy it and bury it properly.


Photos: Yale University.

I saw this story online about the sale of what is thought to be a lock of Emily Dickinson’s hair. I realize that author mementos are common, sought after, and collected, but this just felt very wrong to me.

Maybe it was the interesting fact that the first collector was a poet, James Merrill, and it was then passed on to poet J.D. McClatchy, who had been one of Merrill’s literary executors, that bothers me. Shouldn’t poets be more respectful of other poets? Or was owning and taking care of this small piece of Emily’s DNA a way of showing respect?  Both poets are dead now and the lock of hair went up for sale.

If Emily did give this to Susan Dickinson, perhaps it should be with Susan’s possessions. Then again, perhaps Susan’s things have been sold by now too. I know her letters have been made available to the public.

I also know that keeping a lock of hair was once a common thing to do. My mother saved a lock of my baby hair in a photo album.

I wrote on another site about a recent auction of objects belonging to Sylvia Plath. Sylvia’s family authorized the sale. Plath’s deck of tarot cards sold for $200,000.

The article points out that “The only bona fide lock of Dickinson’s hair, which has been described as red or auburn, is kept at Amherst College.” The gift from descendants of Emily Fowler Ford, a friend of Emily Dickinson, included this note Emily included when she gave it to her friend.

“I said when the Barber came, I would save you a little ringlet,
and fulfilling my promise, I send you one today.
I shall never give you anything again that will be half so full of sunshine
as this wee lock of hair, but I wish no hue more sombre might ever fall to you.”