Young Romantics by Daisy Hay

Daisy Hay, Young Romantics (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2010). £20.00 hardback ISBN 978 07475 8627 2

Napoleon said that to understand the man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty, and the shadow of Napoleon’s own defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 is cast over the intellectual landscape in which Daisy Hay’s biography of young Romantics is set.  Hay neatly encapsulates the political backdrop which, she postulates, fuelled and influenced what these writers would write. She is probably correct: ex nihilo nihil fit, and even genius is not born in a vacuum, though what elements of nature and nurture create, enable and sustain it remains a mystery. Blake would have proclaimed that “Genius is always above the age”, although Blake rarely acknowledged any influence without qualification or repudiation in order to exert his own dominant individuality. It is true that these second generation Romantics – the Shelleys, Byron, Keats, Leigh Hunt, et al – found each other mutually enriching, yet it is also true that articulated individual consciousness was stimulated by the solitary reflection ideal for poetic composition; in which the “intuitive, visionary conception of nature” is precisely an aspect of their enterprise, proffering truth not as scientific fact but as internal revelation, the solitary consciousness both coloured by and suffusing the multifarious, sometimes numinous, kingdom of creation, where imagination and nature act as lamp and mirror to one another. Hay is nevertheless right to explode the myth of the poetic genius as some kind of eremite. These men and women were spurred by intellectual wrangling between themselves, by scientific and political renovations, and other less definable aerials of the zeitgeist.

“The web of our life is of mingled yarn” stands as this book’s epigraph. Hay cites Keats rather than Shakespeare as the author of this line clearly because it is more apposite to cite Keats: he is a colourful thread in the midst of the mingled yarn she is unravelling and interweaving. The line is cited from a letter Keats wrote to Benjamin Bailey on 8th October 1817, and Hay uses it fittingly to denote not only the weft and warp of individual existence itself but also because it suits her particular slant of composite biography: these lives, she wishes to illustrate, are inextricably woven together by mutual influence and consequence and bound by their contemporary social history. I was riveted to this biographical tale, as I was to the ‘The Friendship’ by Adam Sisman which telescoped in on the erstwhile collaborative acquaintance of Wordsworth and Coleridge. I read this book not as an expert who discriminates between accounts of their lives and yearns for the pearl of some new discovery, but as one who knows and loves the Romantics by their poetry, which is, after all, how they intended themselves to be known.  Hay is to be praised for the pattern she finds in, or imposes upon, the random motley of criss-crossing existences whom she has lived with and whom she clearly regards with empathy, though her needle is kept sharply objective.  To say that she makes them alive, almost visceral, is to pay the biographer a high compliment. The lives and loves enmesh in complex and enriching configurations, and the drama of their story is interspersed (as it should be) with illuminating sprinklings of their poetry.

It is interesting to find that Keats’s work – even after the publication of the great odes of 1819 – was lampooned in a bitter and biased fashion (Byron himself ridiculed the Cockney poet as “Johnny Piss-a-bed”, saying that his poetry was no more than “mental masturbation” produced by “a diet of raw pork and opium”). Leigh Hunt impressed upon Keats the practice of composing verse which was ‘occasional, spontaneous and celebratory and in which simultaneous composition was a tool for literary experimentation’. One remembers Keats having said that if poetry does not come as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all. There may well have been something Mozartian or Shakespearian in his genius for composition. Indeed, if I recollect rightly, he fancied himself animated by the spirit of Shakespeare. Keats’ work was certainly celebratory: this most sensuous of English poets, even when he entreated his own annihilation among the shades, was exalted by the ‘high requiem’ of a nightingale’s song. Shelley indulged in spontaneous composition also, and the famous sonnet “Ozymandias” – apparently written in twenty minutes and which, if true, was an act of startling prodigy – was the result of sonnet-writing rivalry between Shelley, Keats and Hunt. Shelley’s own work, along with that of his contemporaries, would receive a damning fulmination in “The Four Ages of Poetry”, written by his sometime friend Thomas Love Peacock:

A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilised community. He lives in the days that are past. His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarian manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions. The march of his intellect is like that of the crab, backward. The brighter the light diffused around him by the progress of reason, the thicker is the darkness of antiquated barbarism, in which he buries himself like a mole.”

This denunciation provoked a riposte from Shelley, culminating in his famous claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

The lives behind the literature were dramatic to the hilt. Shelley had fought for the custody of his two children, who had lost their mother to suicide, whereas Byron in Italy, sampling the local cuisine and the local women, paid only a nonchalant and cursory interest in his new daughter whom he had conceived with the subsequently jilted and impecunious Claire Clairemont. This spurned woman of no means was assisted financially by the opulent aristocrat scarcely at all.

The death of Shelley has passed into legend. When news spread of the days-long storms at sea, Mary, knowing how her husband had become a keen sailor, was in a state of hysteria until she established for certain his whereabouts and physical condition. When Shelley set out that morning he was in “one of those extravagant fits of good spirits in which you have sometimes seen him,” wrote his friend Daniel Roberts. Roberts told Mary how Shelley and two friends had gone out sailing in the Don Juan as a violent storm gathered out at sea; of how Roberts had trained his telescope on the horizon when the storm had subsided, “but there was no boat on the sea”. Mary would later recall the ensuing week as “a universe of pain”. When the corpses were recovered they had been partially devoured by fish.  Shelley was identified by the volumes of Sophocles and Keats on his person. The strange ceremony of Shelley’s cremation, which took place on the shore of Lake Geneva, was permeated by the ammonia of incinerating flesh. Leigh Hunt, overwhelmed with emotion, remained seated in his carriage. Byron, unable to watch, swam out to the solace of his yacht. Only the wild sea-faring Trelawney, who had attached himself fervently to Shelley during the last year of his life, remained to perform rituals of his own invention. He later recorded:

After the fire was well kindled we repeated the ceremony of the previous day; and more wine was poured over Shelley’s dead body than he had consumed during his life.  This with the oil and salt made the yellow flames glisten and quiver. The heat from the sun and fire was so intense that the atmosphere was tremulous and wavy. The corpse fell open and the heart was laid bare. The frontal bone of the skull, where it had been struck with the mattock, fell off; and, as the back of the head rested on the red-hot bottom bars of the furnace, the brains literally seethed, bubbled, and boiled as in a cauldron, for a very long time.”

The plight of Claire Clairemont, also related in an unforgettably graphic way, is perhaps the saddest of all. Forced to surrender her daughter to Byron, the mother and child bond was pulled apart, inevitably yielding to the privileges of blue blood with the prospect of reunion indefinite, although Claire always regarded the separation as temporary. “I have sent you my child because I love her too well to keep her,” she wrote resignedly to Byron. “I love her with a passion that almost destroys my being [that] she goes from me”. Shelley, who kept correspondence with her, was neutral and diplomatic when responding. He did not want to be seen to be taking sides or to risk alienating Byron; so, although instrumental as an intermediary and catalyst, his sympathy for Claire’s plight and the upbringing of Allegra, Byron’s daughter, was genuine. Byron was callous in the face of Claire’s pleas and complaints and did not respond to her letters. He intended to put Allegra in a convent, out of the reach of the Shelleys’ radical politics and atheistic philosophy.

After a long and acrimonious dispute with Byron over the custody and siring of their daughter, Claire was refused any chance to see her. She did not see her for years.  Exacerbated, she finally made a headstrong resolve to visit the child before leaving Italy, but before she could do so Allegra contracted typhus and died, aged five. Claire, aged twenty-four, having spent most of her adult life in Italy, recorded: “how hopelessly I had lingered on the Italian soil for five years, waiting ever for a favourable change instead of which I was now leaving it, having buried there everything I loved”.

When those who remained alive reassembled they were conscious of the rupture between reality and memory. Mary found it painful to converse with Byron, because his voice reminded her of conversations with Shelley. Byron would always be associated with her drowned husband: “When [Byron] speaks & Shelley does not answer it is as thunder without rain, the form of the sun without heat or light, as any familiar object might be shorn of its dearest & best attribute.” Byron was to die of a fever at the age of thirty-six which he caught while training Greek soldiers in the war for independence. He was returned to England for a hero’s funeral, despite his reputation in his native land being tarnished by rumours of incest and sodomy:

Claire was scathing about the reverential solemnity with which his ornate funeral possession was greeted in London. ‘Pray think of the modest funeral of our Shelley,’ she wrote to [a friend], ‘and then of the one given to Lord Byron, and ask yourself, if anyone with a soul can condescend to interest themselves in human affairs’.”

Mary confided to her diary: “What do I do here? Why am I doomed to live on seeing all expire before me? …A new race is springing about me – At the age of twenty-six I am in the condition of an aged person – all my old friends are gone.” She would survive to the age of fifty-three, dying of a brain tumour in 1851. Leigh Hunt died eight years later, outliving his wife Marianne by two years, whose final years were blighted by alcoholism.

Daisy Hay’s biography is thoroughly absorbing, full of dramatic tensions, premature deaths, suicides, exotic excursions, artistic vigour and campaigns for political reform. The author is something of a young romantic herself, in the amorous if not the artistic sense, since in her Introduction she tells of how her long-suffering but sympathetic groom accompanied her on their honeymoon (not, mercifully, what Byron acerbically referred to as his “treaclemoon”) around the libraries and museums of England and Italy, voraciously hunting for sinters and shards of evidence for her material.  In the Pforzheimer Collection, now held in New York Public Library, a hitherto unpublished fragment of a memoir left by a conscientious and enraged Claire Clairemont was discovered. In it she speaks of “what evil passion free love assured, what tenderness it dissolves; how it abused affections that should be the solace and the balm of life […] how the worshippers of free love not only preyed upon one another, but preyed equally upon their own individual selves…”. Never before have we heard quite this note of frank accusation from Clairemont, an integral character in this story and who suffered as severely as anyone from the consequences of what was intended as a creed of liberty: “Under the influence of the doctrine and belief of free love I saw the two first poets of England…become monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery”.  Byron, she wrote, became a “human tyger slaking his thirst for inflicting pain upon defenceless women…”

It was not old age that wasted John Keats’s generation but a medley of calamities.  Daisy Hay’s book gives a characterful account of what successes alighted upon and what tragedies befell this coterie of ambitious literary companions. Such presences, brought potently back to life in these engaging pages, can at times seem to make the living appear mere ghosts by comparison. 

Jim Newcombe, 2010