Saturday, 4 April 2009

Sailing into the sublime

I thought that three days in Mallorca would yield material for a blog post. Given that the island is home to many of the boatyards that still build in wood and that various lateen rigged llaüts sail the waters. Yet I barely saw a boat, let alone an interesting one that I could photograph despite a 100km search of the coastline.

Back in my hotel room, however, I found a piece about the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) in Jonathan Raban’s excellent book ‘Passage to Juneau’ —the story of the author’s sailing journey from Seattle to the Alaskan capital. Raban is a master at seamlessly weaving apparently disparate subjects into his narrative. He links in the Shelley passage with the contention that descriptions of the Pacific Northwest that reached Europe through the explorers Cook, La Pérouse, Vancouver and the fur trade captains inspired the Romantic poets who, questing the sublime, were beginning to find the Lake District and the Alps overrun with tourists. In the landscape of the Pacific Northwest they found unblighted nature on such a scale as to ensure the intensity of experience necessary to encounter the sublime. The ‘ethereal cliffs’, ‘boiling torrents’, ‘crags’, ‘and black flood on whirlpool driven’ that abounded in the Northwest filtered into Shelley’s work.

But what arrested my attention was a description of Shelley’s boat. Sailing and mountaineering were products of the Romantic Era and Shelley had sailed, mainly on rivers, since his days at Eton. In 1822, at Lord Byron’s insistence Shelley moved to Lirici on the Gulf of Spezia in Italy with his family. Byron already had a boat, a schooner called Bolivar, large enough to mount canon, and Shelley ordered his own scaled down schooner from the same builder. From the information given by Raban—sleek, fast, minimal sheer, low freeboard and only 24 feet long—the boat sounds audacious and not dissimilar to Bolger’s light schooner. (But Raban suggests that 24 feet was more probably the waterline length.) Shelley wanted to call the schooner Ariel but Bryron, with characteristic force of ego, insisted it be named Don Juan. The boat was built for speed but Shelley, wanting more, added topsails and staysails. Then, having to compensate for the extra top-hamper, he loaded the bilges with 29 pigs of cast-iron ballast. William St Clair (biographer of Edward Trelawny, Shelley’s friend who oversaw the design and construction) described it as, ‘one of the most unseaworthy vessels ever constructed.’

It was a difficult summer for Shelley. Wife Mary had miscarried, her half sister Clair Clairmont had lost her young daughter Allegra. (Though thought to be by Byron Shelley had reason to suppose that he himself might be the father.) And, like many writers, Shelley was battling bouts of depression. But the boat was a wonderful escape and probably where he was happiest. Writing to a friend he said, ‘It is swift and beautiful.’ And ‘…we drive along this delightful bay in the evening wind under the summer moon until the earth appears another world….if the past and future could be obliterated, the present would content me so well that I could say with Faust to the passing moment, “Remain thou, thou art so beautiful.”’ He had taken books and wine aboard and begun his last important poem, ‘The Triumph of Life’.

On 1st July Shelley sailed south to Livorno (Leghorn) with two companions, Edward Williams and Charles Vivian. Having consorted with Byron and Leigh Hunt in Pisa he returned to Livorno on the 7th and, the wind being fair, set sail for Lerici. They were 20 miles south of their destination and ten miles offshore when storm clouds appeared.

July can be a stormy month in the Mediterranean. Great gathering purple-bottomed cumulonimbi can gatecrash the calmest summer afternoon. They tower over the sea, trading ranging volleys of lightning. Then the wind arrives in a sudden breath-taking barrage, closely followed by deafening thunder, strafing hail and steep waves. Stabs of lightning pierce the bruised sky and the surface of the sea rages in boiling turmoil. There is violence enough to provoke the required extreme emotion—the yawning chasm between love and death—that was the source of aesthetic experience at the heart of the Romantic Movement.

A fishing boat returning to harbour closed with the over-pressed Don Juan and the Italian captain offered to take the crew aboard. Shelley refused and the captain urged him to shorten sail. The Don Juan charged on. Given that Shelley was one of the great Romantic poets it is tempting to read a romantic death wish into his actions. However, it seems more likely that a reckless desire to see just how fast the Don Juan could go led him to spurn assistance. But Shelley had limited experience on the sea and was unaware of how dangerous the boat really was. The schooner foundered.

The bodies washed up at Viareggio days later. Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt and Trelawny burnt Shelley’s body on the beach.

I find the idea of the poet on the sea, caught between the pragmatism of good seamanship and a poetic desire to abandon himself to the elements, compelling. Don’t we all skirt the edges of that dilemma, to a greater or lesser degree, at times on the sea? It is not only fear in the face of danger that captivates but also the fear caused by experiencing the desire to let go.

But I’m out of my depth, in danger of foundering in philosophical waters and Shelley is helming the Don Juan. The sea is up, the following wind howling in the rigging, the canvas stretched to taut, urgent curves, the bow flinging packets of water back along the decks. The helm is heavy as the waves lift the stern, the boat wants to broach but shoots forward on the wave, foam crackling down its sides…


Gavin Atkin said...

Gorblimey Ben... The story of Shelley's end may be fairly well known, but it still gives me the shivers. Please everyone, take every care out there - and that includes you Ben!

Ben said...

Yes, the Shelley story is one that comes around now and then. But don’t worry Gav, It’s one thing to get all romantic in front of the screen, quite another to go gooey at sea.