Dear Mr Shelley,
I apologise for the late hour. Much to my horror, time has escaped its cage yet again and runaway. Since our children are away in Sydney at their grandparents, my husband and I went out for a Mexican feast. After locking myself away inside my cave for many weeks with so many engrossing poets, I needed to spent the night with him before he thought he no longer has a wife.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
Shelley: To A Skylark
Coincidentally, as I thought about the To A Skylark, The Cloud and your sailing death at sea, my husband and I walked beside the beach. Voluminous clouds hovered like ghostly galleons out at sea. Serene and subdued, the ocean breathed in and out uneventfully. Indeed, I could almost forget the storm, which ravaged these shores, holding me hostage in my tin can, battered by the hail in the car park. Anyone else, would have known those menacing, dark purple clouds were trouble but I was only thinking with my lens. The storm engulfed me, before I could escape.
You were not so lucky. The storm consumed you, devouring the Don Juan and all onboard like a snack. Your watch stopped, along with your heart while a book of Keats’ poems was hastily shoved in your pocket. Your remains were swept up on the beach.
Somehow, you became larger in death than in life. As poet Matthew Arnold wrote: “a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.”
Fishing through the many myths and legends, I am struggling to find you… you the man. The man stripped bare. There are so many, many half-spun truths that I almost wonder if there was anyone there.
While the jury is out on whether your death was an accident or suicide, I wonder if you have regrets? As much as I have loved the thrill of being under sail as the whole yacht tilts in a strong wind, was it worth it? Is dying doing something you love, very much like having your heart broken and as Tennyson wrote:
“’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
-Alfred Lord Tennyson
Is it better to have adventures and push ourselves way beyond our capabilities to have fun, test our mettle and find out that we’re made of stronger stuff? Is that this thing I keep hearing about called “resilience” or did you take too many risks?
After all, you were only 29 years old.
I don’t know why I even ask. The jury’s been out on this case for a long time and how am I ever going to unearth the truth when I am only passing through.
So, instead I’ll return to the clouds. Or, to be precise, your poem: The Cloud. I decided to illustrate it with some of my own photos. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to see what is possible these days with colour photography.
I hope you enjoy it.
I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noonday dreams.
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
The sweet buds every one,
When rocked to rest on their mother’s breast,
As she dances about the sun.
I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder.
I sift the snow on the mountains below,
And their great pines groan aghast;
And all the night ’tis my pillow white,
While I sleep in the arms of the blast.
Sublime on the towers of my skiey bowers,
Lightning my pilot sits;
In a cavern under is fettered the thunder,
It struggles and howls at fits;
Over earth and ocean, with gentle motion,
This pilot is guiding me,
Lured by the love of the genii that move
In the depths of the purple sea;
Over the rills, and the crags, and the hills,
Over the lakes and the plains,
Wherever he dream, under mountain or stream,
The Spirit he loves remains;
And I all the while bask in Heaven’s blue smile,
Whilst he is dissolving in rains.
The sanguine Sunrise, with his meteor eyes,
And his burning plumes outspread,
Leaps on the back of my sailing rack,
When the morning star shines dead;
As on the jag of a mountain crag,
Which an earthquake rocks and swings,
An eagle alit one moment may sit
In the light of its golden wings.
And when Sunset may breathe, from the lit sea beneath,
Its ardours of rest and of love,
And the crimson pall of eve may fall
From the depth of Heaven above,
With wings folded I rest, on mine aëry nest,
As still as a brooding dove.
That orbèd maiden with white fire laden,
Whom mortals call the Moon,
Glides glimmering o’er my fleece-like floor,
By the midnight breezes strewn;
And wherever the beat of her unseen feet,
Which only the angels hear,
May have broken the woof of my tent’s thin roof,
The stars peep behind her and peer;
And I laugh to see them whirl and flee,
Like a swarm of golden bees,
When I widen the rent in my wind-built tent,
Till calm the rivers, lakes, and seas,
Like strips of the sky fallen through me on high,
Are each paved with the moon and these.
I bind the Sun’s throne with a burning zone,
And the Moon’s with a girdle of pearl;
The volcanoes are dim, and the stars reel and swim,
When the whirlwinds my banner unfurl.
From cape to cape, with a bridge-like shape,
Over a torrent sea,
Sunbeam-proof, I hang like a roof,
The mountains its columns be.
The triumphal arch through which I march
With hurricane, fire, and snow,
When the Powers of the air are chained to my chair,
Is the million-coloured bow;
The sphere-fire above its soft colours wove,
While the moist Earth was laughing below.
I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.
By Percy Bysshe Shelley