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Accident

In response to:

Dredging for Shelley from the April 20, 1967 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of my book, The Mutiny Within [NYR], G. M. Matthews cites conclusions as premises, quotes me (and Shelley) out of context, and refuses to look at the evidenced arguments which, however tedious, are abundantly there. This is a matter of taste and scruple, and hardly of general interest. Matters of fact, however, can be documented. Since they here involve the most sensational of literary deaths, they will hopefully prove amusing—at least to those readers who approach this column as Jimmy Porter did the “posh papers”—“There’s a particularly savage correspondence going on in there about whether Milton wore braces or not. I just want to see who gets shot down this week.”

The “spiritual melodrama” which Mr. Matthews finds in my account of Shelley’s last days is entirely of his own manufacture. Although I suggest, with great caution, that the Taaffe-Trant report is “worth a fresh look,” neither it nor my own hypothesis contains Mr. Matthews’s “treacherous kick” and the “uppercut which…knocked Williams overboard.” Typically, he devotes his penultimate paragraph to exploding Trelawny’s fantasy about Jane Williams, her children, and the dinghy. “Full weight,” your reviewer says, is given to this story in my book. I don’t, in fact, even mention it.

The question whether Shelley’s yacht was decked or open is trivial, but Mr. Matthews’s dismissal of it further illustrates his carelessness. “The boat was undecked,” he pronounces, “as every account affirms.” To what is he referring? The narratives published by Trelawny not only misremember Shelley’s little schooner as a ketch, but also include a drawing of her as a forty-foot yawl. Or perhaps he means the letter to John Murray in which Byron reports (and misdates) Shelley’s death. I’d gladly be disproved on this point—the absence of decks would strengthen my argument that the yacht capsized—but the evidence clearly points the other way. My case rests on three documents:

(1) the contemporary deck plan, which Mr. Matthews dismisses as “obviously one of those anticipatory sketches described by Trelawny in the Recollections, made before the Don Juan was built.” What makes him think that the design (which Williams attributes to Trelawny, and Trelawny to Williams) was abandoned? If he had turned Trelawny’s page, he would have read that at last, despite all protest, “the boat was built according to his [Williams’s] cherished model.”

(2) Captain Roberts’s reference to the forepeak (MS. letter to Mary Shelley, 14 September 1822). This shows that the boat was at least partially covered.

(3) Williams’s journal entry for 16 June (three weeks before the wreck): “Roberts unrigged the Don Juan and got the masts on deck.”

Mr. Matthews’s assertion that “either the disaster was involuntary, or it was murder” restates the psychologically false polarity that I set out to challenge. Such questions simply can’t be resolved so crudely. My authorities for the last days (Williams’s journal, Mary’s letters, and Shelley himself) reliably document the poet’s terminal hallucinations, his request for prussic acid, his nightmare encounters with his doubleganger, his weird reiteration of the formula that Faust said would do him in, and his lifelong obsession with the imagery of drowning. Numerous accounts, from Trelawny’s to Thomas Moore’s—from possible fraud, that is, to probable truth—show that whenever Shelley found himself in danger on the water (with or without shipmates), he simply gave in to the metaphor that concludes Adonais and justifies the question that ends my inquiry: “How unlikely is it that Shelley seized his friend by the arm, ‘as if in anger’?” How unlikely, in other words, that he refused to do anything to avert the disaster and, moreover, restrained his companions from doing so? The traditional verdict (collision with a felucca) rests, I have shown, on a Trelawny forgery and on the widow’s recension of Roberts’s oral—and interested—report to her eight months after salvage. Finally, let me direct your reviewer’s attention to the sentence that ends Trelawny’s original, manuscript account; “Shelley’s boat might have foundered & the damage of her hull done in getting her up—and not by having been run down—“

Mr. Matthews’s final words give the game away:”…it’s Jane’s husband for my money. He probably had a motive.” In 1961-62, Mr. Matthews promoted a phrase in the MS of The Triumph of Life (“Alas I kiss you J[]”) into a thesis that Shelley was, when he died, immersed in a passionate, guilt-ridden affair with Jane Williams. In an answering article, Donald Reiman successfully deciphered the scratched-over name as “Julie” and established the line as a tentative addition to Rousseau’s narrative. “Dredging for Shelley,” indeed! I hope that Mr. Matthews was joking in his allusion to motive. If not, he was of course perfectly free to ride his hobby-horse into the waves. But he had no right to misrepresent my book in doing so.

James Rieger

Department of English

University of California

Berkeley

G. M Matthews replies:

In my review of The Mutiny Within, I said: “full weight is given to the various premonitory stories, including the one” about Jane Williams, her children, and the dinghy. Professor Rieger is right: all the other stories are there, but not the one I picked on to query. This was very stupid and unjust of me, and I apologize.

It is hard to prove anything about Shelley’s boat when so many witnesses, Trelawny, Roberts, Mary Shelley, are discounted as liars, forgers, or quibblers (and now Byron’s accuracy, too, seems to be impugned in anticipation). Trelawny wrote: “Shelley’s was an undecked open boat, schooner rigged…and…being undecked…she would have sunk in two minutes” (letter to The Times, London, 3 January 1876). Byron wrote: “Mr. Shelley and Capt. Williams were lost…in their own open boat” (letter to Murray, 3 August 1822). Mrs. Shelley wrote: “Ours was to be an open boat,” adding that, after salvage, “Roberts…decked her” (Notes to Poems of 1822, 1839). Why should those most familiar with the Don Juan have gone on lying on this scale for fifty years? Williams’s deck-plan is of a boat over thirty feet long, decked aft of the mainmast, i.e. for about a fifth of its length. Trelawny says in his Recollections, apparently of the real Don Juan, that “the forepart was decked for stowage.” Either of these would correctly be called an “undecked open boat.”

Professor Rieger’s argument about Shelley’s death astonishes me more and more. May I give it back to him in parable form? A, longing for death, perhaps depressed by B’s unfunny jokes about Edward Williams, is being driven home by B, with a boy of sixteen in the back. A driverless truck approaches. B moves to avert the disaster, but A restrains him by seizing his arm as if in anger. They hit the truck. A psychologically polarized onlooker shouts: “But that was murder!” “Such questions can’t be resolved so crudely.” A replies, expiring contentedly. “That Light whose smile kindles the Universe beamed on me, and I simply gave in to it.”

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