YOUNG ROMANTICS: THE TANGLED LIVES OF ENGLISH POETRY'S GREATEST GENERATION
By Daisy Hay
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.50 364 pages
Consider Daisy Hay's rehash of the interwoven lives of poignant Romantic era poets a pre-Victorian "Desperate Housewives" with a mild dose of incest. Turns out that diabolical combination makes for a great read.
In "Young Romantics," her first book, the British writer chronicles the tangled lives of English Romantic poets, a raucous group that included Leigh Hunt (the unsung godfather), Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, her promiscuous stepsister Claire (Jane) Claremont and the illustrious Lord George Gordon Byron. A brief cameo appearance from the venerable John Keats rounds out the group, and readers are treated to a veritable feast of weird behavior.
The drama around which the group rallies is Hunt's imprisonment for a charge of libel. Hunt had written a number of articles perceived to have slandered the prince regent. Hunt, whose name, Ms. Hay asserts, "does not excite much attention today," earned a good deal of outrage from his supporters, who were angry at the perceived injustice of his imprisonment.
Among the high-spirited rebels at the center of the book, the wiry vegetarian Percy Shelley was particularly put out. Sharing Hunt's outlandish demeanor, the tortured poet found common cause with the troublesome Hunt. Hunt and Shelley both hailed from complicated households and Ms. Hay depicts them as natural allies.
Ms. Hay lavishes a great deal of attention on the two young men, revealing their eccentricities, often in amusing detail. For instance, Hunt, recognizing the inevitability of his imprisonment, transformed his cell (literally) into the Lake District, papering the walls with flowers.
According to Ms. Hay, Shelley was especially bonkers, and she does a particularly good job of depicting his unorthodox - and fraught - relationships with Mary and Jane Godwin, daughters of the renowned philosopher and friend of Shelley, William Godwin. On a whim, Shelley convinces the young women to join him on a journey to Switzerland. Shelley abandons his pregnant wife, Harriet Westbrook, to make the trip.
Hay's strength is recounting this now legendary story with precise detail, capturing the love brewing between Shelley and Mary Godwin and the awkward tension felt by Jane, the proverbial third wheel. Ms. Hay does not directly address the charges made by Jane's contemporaries who claimed that she had an illicit affair with Shelley during this time, instead choosing to leave the relationship ambiguous. Ms. Hay does, however, mention instances when Shelley and Jane would talk late into the night while Mary recovered from frequent illnesses.
Ms. Hay caps the story of this impromptu trip abroad with a narration of the ultimate irony: running dangerously short on funds, Shelley and company turned to none other than Harriet Westbrook for help. She, not surprisingly, declined.
Shelley, as Ms. Hay documents, was undeniably shameless. If Hunt and Shelley are the dons of this tangled web of poets, then Claremont was the consiglieri. Ms. Hay records her progression from the unassuming yet precocious Jane into the teenage damsel completely willing, perhaps begging, to be swept off her feet by some young stud - in this case the eminently available Byron.
In what would be the equivalent of today's "Brangelina" twosome, Ms. Hay asserts that the affair of Byron and Claremont ultimately forged a bond that some would say was inevitable. Byron, however, soon tired of Claremont and eventually refused Claire access to their illegitimate child, Allegra.
Ms. Hay follows Claremont's bitter life after Byron abandoned her. In her memoir, written when she was near the age of 70, Claremont writes that she found Shelley and Byron, the "two first poets of England," became "monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery."
This group of Romantic poets advanced the Romantic era past that which had been dominated by William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. The rustic imagery of the older poets, the men who set the "golden age" of poetry into motion, greatly affected the generation that followed. These earlier writers are often referred to as the "rock stars" of their age. Furthermore, poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge and even William Blake gave England their definition of the modern artist as an isolated yet heroic figure, a transcendent Gulliver amid thrones of Lilliputians.
Ms. Hay writes that in "Young Romantics" she hoped to delve "beyond the image of the isolated poet in order to restore relationships to the center of the Romantic story," and she succeeds. With vivid anecdotes, she illuminates the scandalous behavior of a gifted - and troubled - mixture of immortals.
Sam Bovard, a student at Grove City College, is a summer intern at The Washington Times.
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