1814: The Fairy Vessel Performed its Little Voyage


The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley loved paper boats:

Shelley’s walks, when not determined elsewhere, often tended in the direction of a pond at no great distance from Primrose Hill, very proper for the delectable amusement of sailing paper boats; or in that of the Serpentine or the Surrey Canal, where the same pleasure could be pursued with a more daring spirit of adventure….Shelley’s happiness in this pastime of sailing paper boats had in it something vital and deep-seated; for it outlasted some passions that looked more serious….Sometimes before he started on his walk a tiny fleet would have been constructed by Mary’s fingers; sometimes by edge of pond or river Shelley would himself enact the naval architect. “He twisted a morsel of paper,” says Hogg, “into a form that a lively fancy might consider a likeness of a boat, and committing it to the water, he anxiously watched the frail bark, which, if it was not soon swamped by the faint winds and miniature waves, gradually imbibed water through its porous sides, and sank. Sometimes, however, the fairy vessel performed its little voyage, and reached the opposite shore of the puny ocean in safety. It is astonishing with what ken delight he engaged in this singular pursuit. It was not easy for an uninitiated spectator to bear with tolerable patience the vast delay, on the brink of a wretched pond upon a bleak common, and in the face of a cutting north-east wind, on returning to dinner from a long walk at sunset on a cold winter’s day; nor was it easy to be so harsh as to interfere with a harmless gratification, that was evidently exquisite….So long as his paper lasted, he remained riveted to the spot, fascinated by this peculiar amusement; all waste paper was rapidly consumed, then the covers of letters, next letters of little value; the most precious contributions of the most esteemed correspondent, although eyed wistfully many times, and often returned to the pocket, were sure to be sent at last in pursuit of the former squadrons. Of the portable volumes which were the companions of his rambles—and he seldom went without a book—the fly-leaves were commonly wanting; he had applied them as our ancestor Noah applied gopher-wood. But learning was so sacred in his eyes, that he never trespassed further upon the integrity of the copy ; the work itself was always respected.” “The best spot he ever found for this amusement,” says Peacock, was “a large pool of transparent water, on a heath above Bracknell, with determined borders free from weeds, which admitted of launching the miniature craft on the windward, and running round to receive it on the leeward side. On the Serpentine, he would sometimes launch a boat constructed with more than usual care and freighted with halfpence. He delighted to do this in the presence of boys, who would run round to meet it, and when it landed in safety and the boys scrambled for their prize, he had difficulty in restraining himself from shouting as loudly as they did.”

—Edward Dowden: The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1886)

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