Shelley Sailed By Poetry

Don’t try it.

If you try to sail by poetry,

you are lost.

You will wash up on shore 10 days after you drown,

face down with a spavined copy of Keats’ poems

in your back pocket, your heart

a stone

that does not burn,

instead of gliding into a harbor

with the late afternoon sun glinting on the water,

your friend pouring wine

into your glass.


You must

sail by stars

and wind and waves and sun, and leave

poetry for the

earth, where the words rise

and billow the sails of your heart

so that it races across the green hills –

your future is there in the spyglass,

your history caught in the keel that

takes you the long way around,

so that you

arrive when the shadows

are so tall they are nearly

but not quite


your candles yet unlit,

your dreams not yet dreamed.


Shelley’s friend Captain Roberts watched them sail away from a lighthouse and as the storm got worse he began to grow worried. He took a large boat out to sea and offered to take Shelley and Williams on board, but Shelley refused the offer. A sailor said through a speaking-trumpet, “If you will not come on board for God’s sake reef your sails or you are lost.” According to the sailor Williams tried to lower the sails but Shelley grabbed him by the arm and wouldn’t let him. The boat sank in the Gulf of Spezia later that evening.  When Shelley’s body washed up on shore ten days later a copy of Keats’s poems was found in his back pocket. Though he was cremated, his heart did not burn.

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