The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s
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.
One of Hunt’s visitors was Lord Byron, then in his early twenties and caught in the trammels of a miserable marriage and impossible love affair with his half-sister Augusta. Another of his admirers was the 20-year-old Percy Bysshe
Shelley, a radical antimonarchist who had just been expelled from Oxford for publishing a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, and who impulsively promised £20 to begin a subscription for Hunt’s support. When Hunt was eventually released, an apothecary’s apprentice, the young John Keats, would write a sonnet to celebrate the event. It was Hunt, then, who was initially responsible for drawing into his ambit and his magazine a number of young antiestablishment voices, who would outgrow and outshine him. But the seeds of those friendships were planted in Hunt’s ironic, rose-tinted prison cell.
In the 19th century, prisoners like Hunt could live with their family in jail. Hunt was attended by his wife, Marianne, and their two children. When the elder child became sick, however, and Marianne took them to healthier quarters, Hunt was joined by his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Kent, who became his housekeeper and helped him to host literary parties. Although there is no evidence of an affair, the fact that Hunt lived so intimately with his “sister” would become part of the heap of insulting insinuations about Hunt and his “lascivious” and “vulgar” poetics leveled by the reactionary press.
Daisy Hay is particularly interested in the unacknowledged importance of sisters in the Romantic circle. Bess Kent was a complex character, probably manic-depressive: A sensitive writer herself, she enjoyed a late and well-deserved success with her Flora Domestica, an account of flowers that might be grown in pots and gardens, which is scattered with erudite botanical quotation from Romantic poetry. But her life as second female fiddle in the Hunt household, while it offered opportunities to move in exalted artistic circles, also demanded terrible self-control. A spinster, the object of gossip, she unsuccessfully attempted suicide-by-drowning in Hampstead ponds in 1817—a cry for help that some of the male members of Hunt’s literati were sufficiently callous to find amusing.
As Hay’s story makes clear, women bore much of the emotional cost of the great Romantic experiment in living outside convention. Percy Bysshe Shelley, an odd, pale, thin, high-voiced sprite of a man who could charm women away with him like the king of the fairies, shares center stage here with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Claire Claremont, the two remarkable teenage stepsisters with whom he ran off to France and Italy in 1814, an elopement that would change the course of literary history. Shelley was married, so Mary became his mistress until the suicide of Shelley’s pitiable first wife, Harriet, allowed their union to be legitimized. Meanwhile, Claire, although she did not (or did she?) ever share Shelley’s bed, also put herself beyond the social pale when she entered Shelley’s Dover-bound carriage. There could be no going back to the parental hearth. Claire became part of the Shelley ménage and, in a further act of courage and recklessness, offered herself to Byron. Byron accepted, but quickly became bored, and one of the most poignant and terrible episodes of these years is Claire, heartbroken, ceding her infant daughter Allegra to Byron—fathers had custody in those days—who denied Claire visiting rights and farmed the child out to an Italian convent, where she died, aged five.
It was Claire’s negotiations with Byron that took the Shelleys back to Italy and led to encounters between Percy and Mary Shelley and Byron that would be formative for each of these writers. Hay reminds us that most of the Romantic texts we continue to study (and many we don’t) had their genesis in shared discussions, readings, manuscript copying, translations, and competitions. We see, for example, Byron offering edits on Hunt’s poem The Story of Rimini, a retelling of Dante’s tale of Paolo’s illicit romance with his sister-in-law Francesca, and note that Byron in 1815 was also working on a poem, Parisina, about an incestuous union. We see Shelley exploring, in Julian and Maddalo, his relationship with Byron and the limits of “friendship as a vehicle for philosophical enlightenment.” We also see Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a meditation on the essential value of fraternity to preserve the creative spirit from fatal solipsism.
There is little in Young Romantics that is strictly new or that will come as a surprise to anyone already familiar with the biographies of its principal actors. The sweep of the volume, which chiefly covers the period 1813-24, does not allow for detailed discussion of the literary works these writers produced: If you don’t already have a sense of what Keats’s or Shelley’s poetry is like, and why it matters, you will not make close acquaintance with it here. Indeed, Keats, after he breaks with Hunt, tends to fall off the map. There is some danger, then, that Young Romantics is insufficiently basic to brief the complete amateur and too light to satisfy the Romanticist.
Occasionally, I was also moved to wonder whether there has always been an element of scholarly soap opera to this story: an interest that claims to be intellectual and historical, but is at bottom pruriently personal. Did Claire really sleep with Shelley? Who were the parents of the foundling Elena Shelley, whom the Shelley party abandoned at Naples? And can the greatness of Don Juan and The Triumph of Life ever justify Byron and Shelley’s careless fatherhood, which cost several children their lives?
The story of Young Romantics is, however, indubitably a ripping yarn, and Daisy Hay tells it with both page-turning skill and scholarly care. She evokes characters well: You can feel Shelley’s mercurial, unstable energy; Mary’s cold exterior and livid inner life; Hunt’s odd combination of neediness and generosity, arrogance and warmth. Hay is good at weighing blame, looking squarely at situations from different viewpoints. She has a witty and shrewd turn of phrase, particularly when evoking the misperceptions and dramatic ironies that frequently characterize relations between her leads.
The minor characters in the drama also receive pleasing credit. Thus, we make more than passing acquaintance with Vincent Novello, the musician, publisher, and founder of the London Philharmonic Society, whose democratic views on accessible music-making accorded with Hunt’s; with Thomas Love Peacock, the classicist and satirist who, in Nightmare Abbey, produced a loving spoof of the Shelley ménage; and with Edward Trelawny, a piratical fantasist who egged on Shelley and Byron to boyish escapades with boats and guns that played a part in both men’s ends.
If, then, you want to know how the different territories of Hunt, Byron, the Shelleys, and their friends fit together, this book will complete the jigsaw that connects them. It is a good vacation read, both racy and intelligent. But if you are anything like me, when Shelley’s boat capsizes in 1822 in the Bay of Lerici, you will feel both a terrible literary and emotional loss and experience a pang of relief, as when a whirlwind subsides. Brilliant circles are both irresistible and unbearable. That is why we need to keep conjuring them before consigning them, and their dangerous spell, back to the deep.
Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.