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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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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.

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