Shelley drowned with a copy of Keat's "Lamia" folded in his pocket

ON THE MERITS OF LITERATURE

When Shelley died at the hands of Keats, 

Drowned by the latter's poetic feats,

Weighed down by Keats's mighty iamb,

His muse become his mausoleum,

In his cloak an airy sheet

Of verse in retrospect concrete

(No Romantic poet drowns

Without the help of heavy nouns),

A slew of Byronesque conceits

The sole remains of life's receipts,

As bound in death by other's 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 Byron's boat Don Juan,

His way of life in fact his ruin

(He might himself have stayed afloat

But for what a poet wrote,

The last word in self-sacrifice

And for a rival's merchandise),

One poet's moistened throat

Silenced by another's anecdote,

All problems finalized for him

By a reader's 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 tonbstone's in bad taste;

When Shelley died at 29,

Drowned by Keats's valentine,

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 be 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 sausage in it?

The scrolling sea itself completes

Its hidden goal when it retreats,

Taking so much hard-won sand 

Far away from nearby lanf

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.

 

April 14th, 1998

Tippet Alley