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Young Poets in Love

The romance of the Romantics.

Sep 13, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 48 • By SARA LODGE
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Young Romantics

Young Poets in Love

Photo Credit: Corbis

The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s
Greatest Generation
by Daisy Hay
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 384 pp., $27.50

All of us, at some time in our lives, have wanted to be part of a brilliant circle, a club of vivacious and talented people whose conversation is electric, whose parties are unforgettable, whose visionary schemes conjure new possibilities for living. To be part of such a coterie is to rise to the challenge of producing one’s best ideas, to look through a telescope and share the excitement of viewing a new land—The Future—that will, whether in its main thoroughfares or on its wilder margins, bear one’s own name. Of course, like fairy rings, such circles never last. Their members quarrel, or marry. Subunits form and disperse. People age and suffer: Their waistlines expand and their optimism contracts. The sparkling circle becomes a ring of memory, something lost whose magic lies in its irrecoverable energy.

The group that formed around the Romantic writers Leigh Hunt, John Keats, Percy Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and Lord Byron is the epitome of all brilliant circles, a ring—or rather a series of interconnected rings—that has continued to exert such a powerful hold over our collective imagination that it seems we will always be trying to recapture it. Here, Daisy Hay retells the story of how these authors met, inspired, and infuriated one another, loved, lost, and labored to create not only works of genius but also a new kind of society—an experiment that began with their own lifestyles but extended to a radically imagined, less rule-bound, more democratic and uncensored state, the kind of state that Britain in the early 19th century, governed by a bloated and weak regent, and tyrannized by a repressive and corrupt legislature, emphatically was not.

Hay stresses the importance of the group dynamic to the creation of second-generation Romantic writing. Once there was a tendency to view Byron, Keats, and Shelley as solitary stars; over the last 20 years, academic studies have placed a contrary emphasis on the intellectual constellations within which these authors moved and on sociability itself as a form of political resistance to an establishment that often condemned its rebels to actual and virtual forms of imprisonment, isolation, and exclusion. Hay adopts the insights developed by scholars such as Jeffrey Cox, Nicholas Roe, and Greg Kucich, transmitting for a lay audience a narrative of friendship, collaboration, and creative disagreement, in which the links in the chain that connects the Romantic circle are the main point of the story.

Thus she begins with Leigh Hunt and his imprisonment in the Surrey Gaol. Hunt was a campaigning journalist and poet, the son of a loyalist refugee from Philadelphia, who began with his brother John a weekly London journal, The Examiner, that dared to speak truth to power. While establishment newspapers cooed about the appointment of the future George IV (fat, fifty, and financially feckless) as prince regent, The Examiner coolly noted that George was “a violator of his word, a libertine over head and ears in debt and disgrace, a despiser of domestic ties .  .  . a man who has just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country or the respect of posterity.” All of this was indisputably true. But in 1812 it was political suicide to say so. The Examiner had already survived three government-sponsored libel suits; this time Lord Ellenborough was determined that the Hunts were going down. A hand-picked jury condemned both brothers to two years’ imprisonment in separate jails. 

Remarkably, however, the blow intended to kick The Examiner to kingdom come made the Hunts into heroes. Leigh Hunt covered his rooms in Surrey Gaol with wallpaper depicting rose trellises; he imported busts of poets, bookcases, and a piano. He planted a miniature garden. He thumbed his nose at authority by turning his cell into a bohemian salon—and in it he wrote and entertained distinguished visitors from the literary world. The Examiner continued to appear every week of the Hunts’ two-year incarceration.

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