Slight Arms ’Round the Cypress Bough

Share Button

In January, 2010, The Guardian asked former UK poet laureate Andrew Motion, “Why are we all still so hung up on the Romantics?” It may at first seem an odd question: a galley of dead white male authors writing in classical modes, in a modern era decried for its obsession with Theory and political correctness? But a quick survey of the variety of new biographies and critical volumes over the past few years, as well as the recent biopic on Keats, Bright Star, all lend credence to the premise — not a question of whether we are obsessed, but why? The fact of it seems undeniable; our fascination with this circle of young writers began with the death of Lord Byron in 1824 and has scarcely abated since.

The Romantics exist as much in our collective consciousness as the do in history, and for many people they are a sort of totem for all poetics. The very term Romantic is constantly being renewed and re-applied, as if it were a certain badge of honor that all readers of poetry immediately recognize. Contemporary poets as disparate as Ted Hughes and John Ashbery have somehow — and, somehow, quite rightfully — worn the label. In the course of his response in The Guardian, the former poet laureate asserts that, “every generation are the last Romantics, because what every generation has to do is make a negotiation with this idea of the self that they embody.” Romanticism is more than a historical moment in literature and culture, tied to a certain time and place: it is the manifestation of a sea-change in human self-conception.

Rooted in the humanist revolution of the Enlightenment, and more immediately in the writing of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the powers of artistic creation were, for the first time, wholly internalized during the Romantic era. They were conceived as the operations of imagination, intellect, emotion, and perception. Inspiration was no longer the result of a higher power, the deific muse of Homer, King David, Caedmon, and Milton; nor was it just the spontaneous overflow of emotion, or the arid intellect at play. The Romantics reflected upon their work without arbiter, as articulations of a single discreet and mutable self, artist and thinker alike; they were fully human and truly modern, as Motion asserts, and engaged with this shifting sense of the self in their verse.

This modern self-awareness has become the lens through which all aspects of the Romantic movement are viewed, for better and for worse. Solitary figures of brooding conscience and tortured imagination abound in the shorthand of schoolbooks and popular culture. It is a stereotype of the Romantic artist run amok. Daisy Hay sets out to debunk this myth in Young Romantics, a collective history of the Cockney Circle, that second wave of Romantic poets which included among its members Keats, Shelley, and Byron. Her goal is to emphasize the social over the solitary; she examines the way these poets explored that modern sense of the self through, and were directly inspired by, each other. “This book looks beyond the image of the isolated poet,” she writes in the Introduction, “in order to restore relationships to the centre of the Romantics story.”

To begin the book with any canonical poet of the group, such as Shelley who wears the Romantic mystique like too much cologne, would give lie to Hay’s very premise. Instead, she begins with two brothers who are usually mere footnotes, but whose centrality to the Romantic age was solidified by the relationships that they fostered: John and Leigh Hunt were publisher and editor, respectively, of The Examiner, a London weekly whose inflammatory motto — “Party is the Madness of the Many for the Gain of a Few,” still meaningful today — sums up well their independent reformist stance. John was the pragmatic businessman and printer of the journal, a steadying, committed, though subdued force. Leigh, on the other hand, was the personality of the journal and its signature pen.

“On February 3, 1813,” Hay begins, “Leigh Hunt began a two year prison sentence . . . His crime was libel; his victim the Prince Regent.” John Hunt served a parallel sentence for the same. Over the course of those two years — once his wife Marianne, two children, and sister-in-law Bess came to live with and care for him in the prison’s cramped quarters — The Examiner’s editor received a steady stream of sympathetic letters and visitors: literary journalist William Hazlitt; authors Charles and Mary Lamb; Charles Cowden Clarke, son of a radical reformer; the painter Benjamin Hayden; and, most importantly, the young poet Lord Byron, author of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Byron and Hunt became friends over the course of the sentence. They admired each other’s talents, intellect, and principles in equal measure: Hunt “viewed [Byron] as a potential protégé, whose character he could help to form,” while “Byron found much to admire in Hunt, and was perhaps even a little envious: it was hard to avoid the fact that the individuals who gathered around Hunt did so out of real friendship, rather than a fascination with celebrity which brought crowds to the Regency parties at which Byron made an appearance.”

These real friends who convened in Hunt’s cell to discuss politics and the arts also helped to keep The Examiner alive while its proprietors were locked away. Lending assistance to the journal was more than a show of idealistic support. It was a galvanizing enterprise for the burgeoning circle. Hay writes:

This cooperative endeavor had far reaching consequences. The act of keeping the paper going provided a focus for a group who were united in sympathy with Hunt and in opposition to his oppressors, and who could now announce their allegiance to him and the causes of free speech and liberty that he espoused in the pages of his journal . . . it demonstrated that a group of friends could constitute their friendship and support of each other as an act of political resistance.

By dint of this “unlikely literary salon” and the shared task of the journal’s persistence, Hunt’s prison term would advent his decade-long fixture at the volatile center of this Romantic circle. To him came not only the friendship of Lord Byron, but letters of support and introduction from twenty-year-old Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was full of radical idealism and obvious literary talent (and who was, though married, preparing to elope with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her sister Claire). From a greater remove, a apothecary and poet named John Keats would be moved to write, without having met or written to the editor, a sonnet for the occasion of Hunt’s release, “Written on the Day that Mr. Leigh Hunt Left Prison:”

What though, for showing truth to flatter’d state,
Kind Hunt was shut in prison, yet has he,
In his immortal spirit, been as free
As the sky-searching lark, and as elate.
Minion of grandeur! think you he did wait?
Think you he nought but prison-walls did see,
Till, so unwilling, thou unturn’dst the key?
Ah, no! far happier, nobler was his fate!
In Spenser’s halls he stray’d, and bowers fair,
Culling enchanted flowers; and he flew
With daring Milton through the fields of air:
To regions of his own his genius true
Took happy flights. Who shall his fame impair
When thou art dead, and all thy wretched crew?

Hunt’s imprisonment marks the beginning of one of the most eventful and accomplished decades in literary history. The figures of Leigh Hunt, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley would become guide wires around which this “web of mingled yarn,” to paraphrase Keats’ oft-quoted phrase, would cohere.

Drawing from extensive research, Hay convincingly makes her case that these Romantics were not the isolated geniuses of popular imagination. They bonded together as artists, political activists, and radical thinkers, who lived and work in close communion with one another and drew inspiration from solitude and society alike. “Some of the greatest works in the English canon,” writes Hay, “ — FrankensteinAlastor, ‘Julian and Maddalo,’ Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage — owed their genesis and their development to conversation and sociability.” Hay draws strong connections between biographical details, letters, and contemporary compositions to reveal the way that, for example, “Julian and Maddalo” was inspired by a visit to Byron from Shelley in the summer of 1818, and shows that some of Shelley’s and Keats’ finest short works were composed during sonnet-writing contests with Hunt.

It is an admirable interpretation of historical documents and literary works, bearing fruitful lines of argument and proof. But there is an outstanding weakness in Hay’s critical project. No matter the evidence at hand, revealing the inner workings of artists is always grounded in enormous conjecture and supposition. It is an attempt to draw meaning from the mercury of a living mind rather than the solidity of a page. Inspiration is, at best, difficult to ascertain from third-hand documents such as letters and memoirs, which are full of hindsight and revision. Journals too can be misleading, poets not necessarily being transparent to their selves.

The influence of peers and companions is always a powerful operator, and there is no question Hay has proven that here. The exploration of that influence can be useful; but, there are limitations. In a number of Hay’s readings, as in the case of “Julian and Maddalo,” she appears to be groping for the type of criticism that as been offered for decades by Harold Bloom on the effects of literary influence. Clearly the work here diverges from Bloom in showing the effects of the inter-personal rather than the inter-textual; still, the parallel inquest reveals another of the limitations in Hay’s project. Showing that interpersonal influences were key to the production of certain texts seems little more than an academic exercise, and rarely offers us insight into the meanings of a text. It contextualizes the work, but does not deepen our readings as Bloom’s work often does.

Unsurprisingly, what strikes one about this book is not Hay’s critical mission, neither the explication of mutual companionship and its influence nor the somewhat obvious idea that “friendship can be the making of the man.” A volume dedicated to the pursuit of such proofs would offer intellectual pleasure too narrow, no matter how well-composed. No, Hay has constructed a much rarer treat: a biography of this group “in complex and ever-shifting configurations” that is gripping, enjoyable, and human.

Each life in the web seems to have been destined, as a result of their political beliefs and the age in which the individuals lived, as well as their own enormous flaws of character and temperament, to be difficult and painful. One could reasonably go so far as to deem them classically tragic, their flaws undoing each. Hunt may have been an inspiration, but he was also by turns “strong-willed and emotionally fragile, egotistical and selfless,” and would draw currency (as well as, eventually, alienation and scorn) from his relationship with superior poets all his life. Shelley was talented, energetic, and idealistic, but he abandoned his first young family for the pursuit of “free love” (or another bride), and could never muster the emotional support or empathy that Mary’s torturous life with him required. Byron may have been a wealthy prodigy, but he abused and abandoned his first wife and then bore a child with Mary’s sister, Claire, disposing of the mother as a nuisance after adopting their illegitimate daughter. Only Keats, whose connection to the group was short-lived and relatively peripheral — and perhaps too lightly covered in this volume — comes through with character unscathed.

Hay arranges the volume both chronologically and thematically, treating the history by period and linking each period with a key relationship: husbands, sisters, children, corsairs, exiles, the future, the past. In alternating narrative layers, Hay follows each family through their regularly intersecting and interconnected courses. She balances the variety of characters and competing stories with relative ease, rarely lingering on any anecdote or back-story too long while generating momentum from the drama and conflicts natural to any tight-knit group of strong personalities. She is also, and rightfully so, amusingly defensive of the state and treatment of the women in this group. Of the crossing to Europe of Shelley and his two runaway brides, Hay writes:

The crossing was dangerously rough and water poured in over the travelers. Mary [Wollstonecraft Shelley] was extremely seasick, which [Percy Bysshe] Shelley found romantic. “She lay in my arms thro the night,” he wrote in their joint diary, “the little strength which remained to my own exhausted frame was all expended in keeping her head in rest on my bosom.” Mary did not start making entries in the diary for some days, which suggests that she may have found the experience less than exhilarating[.]

Here as throughout the book, Hay’s dry humor accentuates the irony between the idealized version of events that a male memory produced, and their far less romantic realities — realities that were usually faced by the women alone. However, the truly appalling hardships of women in this circle are never undermined by any amount of humor, particularly in the cases of Claire, Mary Shelley’s sister, and Leigh Hunt’s sister-in-law, Bess.

Bess Kent was the short-tempered, demanding sister of Marianne Hunt, who claimed intellectual equality with the men who surrounded her. Her place in this circle, Hay writes, “was predicated on her ability to offer [Leigh Hunt] the intellectual companionship absent from his relationship with Marianne.” Bess fell victim to propriety when Hunt published The Story of Rimini: its incestuous themes gave weight to the rumor of Hunt’s “unnatural” relationship with both Kent sisters. After opening her to the barbs of polite society, Hunt subsequently displaced Bess in his life with Shelley and Mary, whom Hunt considered his brilliant peers and, eventually, among his closest friends. Bess was heartbroken and lonely, relegated to a miserable, domestic existence in the household, and even attempted to drown herself. When the Hunt family left England for Italy in 1821, she remained behind in order to salvage what was left of her damaged reputation.

However, Bess would make her own mark on the world. After the death of Shelley and Byron, she authored Flora Domestica, a book on domestic gardens that included “folk traditions, the genesis of plant names, Linnean categorisations and discussions of the literary and historical significance of flowers.” It was a marvelous success, went into several printings, and, by her sampling of their poetry in the volume, helped build the reputations of her fellows Shelley and Keats. It was a redemptive turn in a life otherwise dominated by the bitter judgments of society.

Jane Godwin, who changed her name to Claire Clairmont, was another case entirely. Where Bess stood on level intellectual footing with the male Romantics, Claire’s relationship to the circle was never as stable. When Shelley eloped away with Mary to Europe, Claire accompanied them, with no sure answer as to why. Hay offers plausible reasons: that she was “caught up in her step-sister’s adventure;” that she “never liked to be excluded;” or that “Shelley encouraged her to come, and that he anticipated a relationship between the three of them rather more fluid than Mary envisaged.” Regardless of the explanations, it was a foolish choice for a young girl of little means whose connection to Shelley and Mary was, to put it charitably, uncertain. It left her stranded: the third wheel of a couple very much in love, unable to retreat to her parent’s home.

“In the early Spring of 1816,” Hay writes, “Claire Clairmont did something extraordinary. Out of the blue, she wrote Lord Byron a letter, in which she offered herself to him fully and freely.” Claire’s sad fate was sealed when she became pregnant in 1818 with Allegra, the illegitimate daughter of Lord Byron. No matter how much Mary wished for a life “in absentia Clairae,” it was now practically impossible: Claire was bound to the Shelley family by her consort with Byron, his inevitable rejection of her, and her devotion to their daughter who lived in Byron’s care — Shelley was the only mediator who would or could make contact with Byron on Claire’s behalf.

Byron wanted nothing to do with the erratic and unstable Claire. She was exiled, literally and figuratively, to the furthest edges of the Romantic circle in Italy, alienated from Mary and Shelley by her plight and their own troubles — Mary would lose three children before age twenty five — yet dependent on them for a connection with her daughter. And then, in the spring of 1822, Claire was untethered in the most horrific way: the child Allegra became ill and died, away from both her parents at a convent school. Her “first, desperate grief” was followed by “the certainty that she would never see Allega again,” which was, in its way, “easier to deal with than the limbo she had been in for four years.” After the death of Allegra, followed by that of Shelley and Byron, Claire relocated to Russia, to the great shock of her sister and friends, to work as a nanny. The rest of her days would be spent in the shadow of a younger self, little more than the living memory of this circle of star-crossed poets.

It is these narratives that make Young Romantics so worthwhile. The stories of Claire and Bess, more even than the fate of those more famous poets, illustrate Hay’s assertion in some skewed sense: there existed real lives giving sustenance to the poetry, there lived people who were as much affected by the work as it was inspired by them. The stark relief of their lives is more human and more profound than either the anxieties of Bloomish criticism or the mythical image of the isolated poet. The poetry grew out of and through these tangled lives — “Winding its slight arms ’round the cypress bough, / And, as in female trust, seemed there to grow, / Like woman’s love midst sorrow flourishing,” as Bess quotes from Barry Cornwall in Flora Domestic. No greater body of verse was ever produced “midst sorrow flourishing” than this — perhaps that truth, intimated by readers, might be the gravity that draws us back, again and again, even centuries later, to their work.

Share Button

About Daniel Pritchard

Daniel Evans Pritchard is the founding editor of The Critical Flame. His poetry, translations, and criticism can also be found at Harvard Review online, Slush Pile Magazine, Drunken Boat, Prodigal, Little Star, Rain Taxi, The Battersea Review, The Quarterly Conversation, The Buenos Aires Review, and elsewhere.