Oh, Those Romantics!
Anyone reading this blog knows my somewhat ardent predilection for anecdote. Those small, oftentimes, unassuming stories that are frequently unreliable, no more than heresay, really, yet reveal much of the temperament and times.
Thus, when I learned of a new book “Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation” that explores the intertwining lives of Shelley, Byron, Keats and their cohorts, detailing fascinating periods like the summer of Frankenstein (another day, another post), and the group’s exploits while Hunt was incarcerated in 1813, I was immediately intrigued. Cambridge scribe and author, Daisy Hay, describes the scholastic tome as “a web of lives, within which friendships fade, allegiances shift, and nothing remains static for very long.”
While culture is generally consumed with itself in the “now,” here is a work that details a 19th-century movable feast of interlinked English poets and thinkers that was every bit as fascinating and combustible as our own.
At age 22 Shelley insisted on a diet of bread, butter and “a sort of spurious lemonade” until a friend, Thomas Love Peacock, convinced him to start eating meat again. Shelley’s complexion improved at once.
The writer, John William Polidori, developed a serious crush on 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft and in his romantic exuberance “jumped from a wall in an effort to impress her, spraining his ankle badly.” A few days later, in a tearful exchange, the dear girl expressed that most dreaded of sentiments: she thought of him as little more than a brother.
It is said that the always fascinating Lord Byron enjoyed singing Albanian songs consisting of “strange, wild howls” that reached their most melodic while boating with his pal, Shelley, who engaged in a kind of duel to exacerbate their “contest with the elements.” A curious pastime; I suppose you would have had to have been there.
The little known, but irascibly popular author and critic, Leigh Hunt, once conferred the nickname of “Junkets,” on that most noble and distinguished of poets, John Keats, a soubriquet Keats hated. “What has become of Junkets?” Hunt wondered aloud one day to Charles Cowden Clarke in the summer of 1817. “I suppose Queen Mab has eaten him,” he mused.
Upon his release from Surrey Gaol for libel charges, Leigh Hunt, (a handsome fellow, no?) created for himself a new study “which bore a startling resemblance to his prison bower.” His books, busts, flowers and piano (clearly, it was a minimum security establishment) were all carefully transported from his prison cell. “His new room was lily- rather than rose-themed, but in all other respects it was identical to his prison accommodation.” You can take the boy out of the cell block but …