“Byron asked me to preserve the skull for him; but remembering that he had formerly used one as a drinking cup, I was determined that Shelley’s should not be so profaned.” This agreeably ghoulish detail of Shelley’s cremation in July 1822 comes down to us by way of Edward John Trelawny (1792–1881), whose concern for the dignity of the poet’s remains did not deter him from plucking out the famously flame-proof heart, and who parlayed his brief friendships with the two bards into one of the oddest, most unlikely careers in English literature.

Trelawny had penetrated the Pisan Circle just six months earlier. Swarthy, raffish, enigmatic, and brimming with piquant anecdotes of his own piracy, he seemed to the suggestible nomads the very incarnation of Byron’s Corsair. After Shelley’s death, Trelawny accompanied Byron to war-torn Greece, where the latter promptly expired as well....

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