Monday, November 22, 2010

Daisy Hay writes a compelling literary biography of a generation of poets and writers.

I got the feeling that Daisy Hay’s study of the second generation of Romantic poets might read like a novel, and it surely does. It is richly informative, to be sure; but it is also simply a good read!

Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation

In Young Romantics (384 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27.50), Daisy Hay gathers material from various sources, some well-known and some relatively new, to tell a familiar story from an inspired perspective, and the results are successful. Hay describes her inspiration: on her honeymoon she visited the English cemetery in Rome, where she encountered the graves of Keats and Shelley. When she noticed that both graves have what seem like companion graves in which friends are buried (Joseph Severn in the case of Keats and Edward John Trelawny in the case of Shelley), Hay became fascinated with the notion of friendships among the Romantics, and this book is the result of her research.

The book does many things that make it worth reading. For one thing, it brings out vividly the central place of Leigh Hunt in any discussion of these poets in context. Hunt was the sometime friend to Byron, Shelley, and Keats, and he encouraged all three men in their attempts to write poetry and find voices of their own. He also set a political agenda that for a time each of these poets subscribed to. Unlike the earlier generation of Wordsworth and Coleridge, who were influenced by the French revolution, Hay argues, this generation was influenced by Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and the resulting restrictions placed on individual liberties throughout Europe and in England especially. Hunt protested (and was prosecuted for doing do) in his periodical, The Examiner, and he drew literary friends of all kinds into a circle of committed and politically aware young men and women.

Hay tells this story compellingly, and she also tells how Hunt therefore became the avatar of what became known in conservative literary circles as the Cockney School of poetry. Poets like Shelley and Keats were grateful for Hunt’s support, but they also worried when it became a liability. Some of this tension animates the tale that Hay has to tell.

Another much-discussed feature of this group that Hay approaches directly is that of their sexual irregularity. Hay talks about the role of “free love” as part of the political agenda of this group, most famously articulated by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his poetry and other writing. Hay looks at the women who became involved with these men: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin ran off with Shelley while he was still married to his first wife; Claire Clairmont accompanied this couple because of her own devotion to Shelley, only later to become involved with (and discarded by) Byron; Marianne and her sister Bess seemed to share the affection (if not the bed) of Marianne’s husband Leigh Hunt, and this threesome was the cause of public gossip as well as private consternation. Hay tells all these stories with careful attention to the actual feelings of these women. Without mocking the notion of free love, she also shows what kinds of pain it caused.

The great accomplishment of this book is its creation of the sense of a community of poets and writers. As careers go in different directions and several members of the group die at tragically young ages, tensions develop that eventually manage to pull things apart. But Hay creates a vivid sense of what these writers shared and how they derived strength from one another as much as from the ideal of poetic isolation. Hay uses a line of Keats as an epigraph. He described Hunt’s circle like this: “The web of our Life is of tangled yarn.” Hay does a lot to untangle these complicated lives and explain to us something about the true singularity of that poetic moment.

This is a book for students and scholars of the Romantic period, but it is also for anyone else who likes a great story about a great generation.

Daisy Hay

Get a copy of Young Romantics at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

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