On the Merits of Literature

By Peter Halstead

Shelley drowned with a copy of Keats’ Lamia folded in his pocket

When Shelley died because of Keats,
Drowned by the latter’s poetic feats,
Weighed down by Keats’ mighty iamb,
His muse become his mausoleum,
In his cloak a weighty sheet
Of verse in retrospect concrete
(As a heavy poet drowns
Even from the slightest nouns),
A slew of Byronesque conceits
The sole remains of life’s receipts,
As bound in death by lifeless lines
As books are bound by human spines,
The poet washed up in his coat,
Killed as Keats was by a quote
(Byron grieved that critics’ betters
Should let themselves be lynched by letters),
Pulled from his skiff the Ariel,
His way of life in fact his burial
(He might himself have stayed afloat
But for what a poet wrote,
The last word in self-sacrifice—
Martyred by a rival’s merchandise),
One poet’s moistened throat
Silenced by another’s anecdote,
All problems finalized for him
By a purely random whim
(He might have capsized none the worse
Had he chosen lighter verse)—
A warning to us all to skip
The idle poet’s flippant quip:
To drown because of reading Donne
Is fine, but just imagine Chesterton!
A watery grave is such a waste
When the epitaph is badly phrased…

When Shelley died at 29,
A copy of another boat his shrine,
The Ariel after all not airy,
Shakespeare’s sprite his cemetery,
Trelawny dug him up again
Upon a beach in Darien:
The book was gone, the spine remained:
Even now by rhyme constrained;
Nothing left behind to keep:
It might as well have been a sheep.
Will all of us end up so stiff?
Of everything, the handkerchief
Survived, passion’s passing flag
Represented by a single rag.

Real are the dreams of made-up gods:
But for mortals, lesser odds.
Trelawny had the ashes Grecian urned;
Byron, after swimming, got sunburned.
Leigh Hunt took off the pyre
Shelley’s heart, immune to fire.

The wrecked beach bore the scars
Of shovels, sprinkled with the evening stars.
What wreaths for Lamia and for him?
The heart, the handkerchief, Byron’s swim,
The ride to Pisa, a miserable drink—
All to nothingness did sink.
Who would be by bindings ruled
Would by books be ridiculed:
He who over journals hovers
Often ends between their covers—
Would his fame have been so definite
If his jacket had a hammer in it?

The scrolling sea itself completes
Its hidden goal when it retreats,
Taking so much hard-won sand
Far away from nearby land
And building up another base
In some harsh and unfamiliar place:

So of all of Shelley’s narratives
From that distant summer’s sieves
Just the poem that killed him lives.

Tippet Alley
April 14th, 1998

July 14th, 2023


For the full story of Shelley's death and the sinking of the Don Juan, watch Peter Halstead's talk "The Death of Shelley."


Directed by Matthew Thompson.

"On the Merits of Literature," from Sea Sun.