I was wrong

Hello, friends. Last week I mentioned my new and rather frantic interest in Fanny Imlay/Godwin/Wollstonecraft. After Judith Chernaik’s Mab’s Daughters and Janet Todd’s Death and the Maidens, my reading led me to Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation, and I am so glad it did.

I’ll start by confessing that I was never especially enamoured of the Romantic poets. I have limited patience for Wordsworth’s one true subject (himself), and while I was a lot more enthusiastic about the second-generation Romantics (a group that includes Keats, Shelley, and Byron), I wasn’t terribly interested in the personal details of their dramatic and scandalous lives. (Why? What was wrong with me, as a student?) Anyway, Daisy Hay changed all that last week.

Hay’s argument is this: although Romantic poets idealized the poet as a solitary genius, the best work of the poets Shelley, Byron, and Keats grew out of a lively intellectual dialogue within a community of artists. Hay reads their poetry against their lives, revealing friendships, conversations, fallings-out, love affairs, and acts of both courage and cowardice. And I completely buy her argument. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I lapped up this book. When I began it, I was primarily looking for more scraps of detail about Fanny (they are few; Hay relies on Todd’s biography), but instead found myself enthralled by the complexity and sheer vivid energy within this group of extraordinarily talented and clever people.

Highlights:

Journalist and poet Leigh Hunt was one of the anchors of this group for a long time. I had no idea that Leigh Hunt was mixed race! He had West Indian blood on his father’s side of the family and endured racist sneers about his skin colour and features. His persistent political radicalism was incredibly brave at a time when publishers were commonly threatened with imprisonment for criticizing the government (and Hunt did serve time, apparently for calling the Prince Regent “fat”). In Bleak House, Dickens cruelly caricatured Hunt as “Harold Skimpole”, a pretentious journalist who simply must live in luxury while his family starves. It’s good to see that portrait balanced.

I didn’t realize that Shelley’s critical reputation (as a poet) came about largely after his death. I think I conflated his privileged background with Byron’s and assumed that they’d both been early nineteeth-century rock stars. But no: Shelley was largely mocked and unread in his lifetime, and it was only long after his death that Mary Shelley could bring out an official edition of his poetical works.

I have a new appreciation for Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s stepsister and the girl who joined Shelley and Mary on their “elopement”. I had previously dismissed her as a Jane Austenesque demi-villain: a self-dramatizing second-fiddle with poor impulse control. But Hay has a lot of time and respect for Claire, and I find it persuasive. Claire was in (unrequited) love with Shelley and a loving mother to Allegra, her illegitimate daughter by Byron. She survived both Shelley’s and Allegra’s deaths with dignity and had the fortitude to start life over as a governess in Russia.

I had never before heard a single word about the botanist Elizabeth (Bess) Kent, Leigh Hunt’s sister-in-law and intellectual companion. Her first book was Flora Domestica, a delightful-sounding volume about container gardening enriched by quotations from the poetry of her brilliant friends. Hay describes it as far more than a poetic primer on potted plants; instead, it proclaims “a message of democratic luxury” by claiming that “one did not need to be rich enough to travel to experience the pleasures of nature, since nature could be domesticated in a portable garden”.

One question that occurs to me is the matter of radicalism and youth. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley were so painfully young when they eloped, and certainly that youthful idealism informed their writing and their actions. Because so many in the group died fairly young, it would be interesting to trace how their radical politics shifted over time. It’s a commonplace to say that people become more conservative as they age, but that seems borne out in the lives examined here.

But this is me wandering away. Overall, Hay is a fine biographer, striking just the right balance of sympathy and firm judgement. And she’s opened my eyes to the marvels of a group of poets I too-quickly skimmed over as an undergraduate. I was blind, but now I see.

I shall read on.

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4 Responses to “I was wrong”

  1. GEW says:

    This one sounds good! And very interesting about Claire. I have often thought of her as a hanger-on, a third-wheel who was rather desperate and easy to manipulate.

    It seems very easy to tell very different “stories” about the members of this group. Lots to say about this but no time. Thanks once again for sharing!

  2. Ying says:

    You’re welcome, GEW! Hay is so interesting about Claire. I now feel bad for dismissing her unfairly.

  3. Anna says:

    Oh, this is wonderful! I’ve heard of this book but have not yet had the opportunity to pick it up, so your review just bumped it further up the (eternal, never ending, infinite) reading list (READ ALL THE BOOKS!). I studied Lit in my undergrad and I always preferred the second generation Romantics to the first as well; I think I read one part of one poem of Wordsworths that did not bore me to tears (Coleridge was my love; I adored his oh-so-creepy Christabel) but Byron, Keats (especially Keats), and Shelley gave me a renewed appreciation for the Romantic era. And then I met the Victorians and, well, a passionate love affair was born. ;)

  4. Ying says:

    I think you’ll really enjoy it, Anna. And yes, “especially Keats”. :)

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