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Collected Lightning

Any biographer bold enough to choose as her subject the second generation of Romantic poets—the circle of prodigies centered around Shelley, Byron, and Keats—should anticipate her reviewers’ first question: Why should we read this book again? The Romantics may be in vogue thanks in part to the surprisingly staid Bright Star, but this only makes the question all the more pressing. Still, as Virginia Woolf wrote in a review of a biography of Shelley, we keep creating and readingnew accounts of the poet’s life “not to find out new facts, but to get Shelley more sharply outlined against the shifting image of ourselves.” Daisy Hay does not provide much newscholarship to add to our understanding of the poets. The pleasure of her book lies instead in the opportunity that she grants us to reexamine our own ways of forming communities by reconsidering her subjects through the lens of friendship.

As she traces the “interlinked lives” of the poets and their numerous shared acquaintances, Hay sets out to challenge our notion of the Romantics as isolated visionaries—an idea, it is worth remembering, inherited directly from the men in question. In their own verse, Byron appears as a lonely wanderer, Keats as a solitary youth enchanted by his nightingale’s song. And our enduring image of Shelley perched upon the “mountainous ruins of the Baths of Caracalla” to write Prometheus Unbound, with only nature’s “flowery glades and thickets of odiferous blossoming trees” for company and “the bright blue sky of Rome” for inspiration, comes of course from Shelley himself. His portrait of the artist as the consummate Romantic—pensive, solitary, quite literally supported by the eroded glories of the past—is conspicuously set into his poem’s preface, as blatant and arresting a bit of self-promotion as a modern author’s book jacket photo.

Shelley was acutely conscious of his era’s expectation that poetic genius should be the pure expression of a writer’s original intuitions and imagination, uncontaminated by contact with the thoughts or feelings of others. It is not surprising that he felt it necessary to bolster his autobiographical sketch in the preface of Prometheus Unbound, his most ambitious poem, by defending himself against critics who accused his work of copying his peers’. What is surprising is the defense itself. Admitting that his own poem may be “tinged” by the work of his fellows, Shelley declares that a poet might as well ignore all inspiration from nature “as exclude from his contemplation the beautiful which exists in the writings of a great contemporary.” Tinged, but not tainted: Shelley, it turns out, openly recognized, and even celebrated, the role that mutual influence and shared discourse played in amplifying his and his friends’ individual voices into a “cloud of mind…discharging its collected lightening” on the society they so wished to reform.

This is excellent news for Hay, although she is hardly the first to follow Shelley’s hint. In 1858, John Edward Trelawny, an adventurer who arrived in Pisa seven months before Shelley’s death and shrewdly insinuated himself into Byron’s circle, published his account of their expatriate group. Shown in constant contact with one another, eating at the same table, discussing the same people, arguing over the same books and ideas, the poets in Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron are vital men who come to life through their alliances and their rivalries. Far more recently, Jeffrey N. Cox, in Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School, echoed Shelley’s idea of “collected lightening” by characterizing the Romantics as conscious participants in “a collective poetic practice, a shared cultural project,” though Shelley probably would not have appreciated Cox’s insinuation that his poetry loses much of its radical glow when put in proper perspective.

At the axis of the young Romantics’ project, as Cox and Hay both stress, was Leigh Hunt, editor-in-chief of the liberal weekly The Examiner. An early and steadfast champion of Shelley and Keats, Hunt’s generosity extended not only to the public domain of his paper, where he published work that was subjected to mockery everywhere else, but to the private world of his home, where he introduced the poets to a group of similarly idealistic and politically active intellectuals, including William Hazlitt, Benjamin Haydon, and Mary and Charles Lamb. His efforts had mixed results. By associating with Hunt, his protégés laid themselves open to attack from powerful conservative critics who dismissed the band as aesthetically vulgar and, given its atheistic and democratic leanings, morally depraved. Hunt had an iconoclast’s knack for attracting derision. “His poetry resembles that of a man who has kept company with kept-mistresses,” wrote one critic after the publication of The Story of Rimini, drawing a parallel between Hunt’s take on Dante’s Paolo and Francesca and his own unusually close relationship with his sister-in-law. “If a poet sympathises with and justifies wickedness in his poetry, he is a wicked man.” Such scorn was easily transferred. Keats in particular became depressed by the viciousness of those who targeted him as a member of Hunt’s coterie and increasingly distanced himself from the man who had first publically recognized his talents. Yet Hunt’s patronage offered Shelley a point of contact with like-minded men and women, giving him a means of grounding his utopian theories in an actual community of anti-conformists. 

Hunt was a fiery writer of editorials, but his verse was prone to sentimentality (consider “Abou Ben Adhem,” today Hunt’s best-known poem, a cheery declaration of humanism as a spiritual doctrine). Without much of a poetic legacy to sustain his reputation, he has tended to slip behind his more famous friends in the popular record. Hay’s effort to retrieve him from the wings and reinstate his centrality in modern readers’ minds is one of her book’s more satisfying accomplishments. Hay does not begin her book with Percy and Mary Shelley in Geneva with Byron during the summer of 1816, a period of strenuous creativity famous for sparking Frankenstein, or with Shelley’s fantastical beachside cremation orchestrated by Trelawny—both familiar episodes of Romantic lore that underscore Hay’s emphasis on the importance of friendship. Instead, she chooses to start her narrative in a cell at London’s Surrey Gaol, where Hunt served a prison sentence between 1813 and 1815 for libeling the Prince Regent. Hay’s vivid account of Hunt’s imprisonment, which became a cause célèbre for liberals even as Hunt himself took advantage of his situation to turn his cell into “an unlikely literary salon, and a refuge…from the cares of the world,” is a fitting introduction both to her subjects’ initial convergence and to her own skill as a storyteller. Hay’s closeness with her characters and their world may seem the inevitable fate of anyone who gets to know the Romantics’ personae from their poetry. But her ability to communicate that closeness to her readers achieves the considerably larger feat of making her tale feel fresh and her characters almost of her own invention.

The theme of tangled lives, with all the frenetic messiness that the phrase implies, lets Hay dodge the oversimplification of anti-Huntian critics and avoid freezing her subjects into a confined coterie. Instead she ably maneuvers around canonical figures in order to make room for lesser-known but equally essential stories. Keats gets a reprieve from his recent stint in the spotlight. Byron, with his cynical attitude towards human connection and his habit of backstabbing those who unwittingly considered him trustworthy—“they will mould you into a Frankenstein monster,” he warned Trelawney of the Shelleys—recedes, too. In their place, Hay focuses on Mary Shelley and her stepsister (and mother of Byron’s daughter) Claire Clairmont, rescuing Mary from outdated critiques of shrewishness and Claire from a reputation as nothing more than a hanger-on. Allowed to speak in her own voice through letters and diary entries, Claire in particular is elevated from her habitual role as a minor player in the male poets’ domestic sphere and recast as a complex character who exposes what Hay calls “the dark underside of Romantic living.” “Under the influence of the doctrine and belief of free love I saw the two first poets of England…become monsters of lying, meanness cruelty and treachery,” she wrote in a late diary entry published here for the first time. Claire had spent her youth devoting herself to the inattentive Shelley and had watched her only child die as a result of Byron’s neglect. Her furious testament to the human cost of Romantic ideals has the bite of truth.

Though Hay finds ample evidence for the necessity of friendship to the Romantics’ life and art, she can be burdened by too much of a good thing. She has a tendency to bog down her strongest points by enforcing them with all the subtlety of a hammer pounding on a stubborn nail, and her interpretations of poems are often flattened by her insistence on reading her subjects’ work as reflections on community, to the exclusion of other concerns. Thus Keats’s Endymion “is a meditation on the consequences of isolation” but also “a product of ‘tea and comfortable advice’ ” and Shelley, “inspired to new heights of creativity” by “the presence of friends,” produced Laon and Cythna, later to become The Revolt of Islam, as “proof that great literature did not have to be the work of an isolated genius; that it could also be inspired by conversation and friendship” and the verses that Hunt published in his collection Foliage “all were linked by the theme of friendship.” These repetitive readings are a facet of a larger, more complicated picture that Hay seems to want to keep partially obscured so as not to undermine her central argument.

But that argument, in any case, is strong enough to carry Young Romantics, and our interest in it, because it cuts to the heart of what twenty-first century readers can glean from those fervent young poets who dreamed of reforming a world that has long since vanished. In Hay’s portrait, the intersecting lives of the Romantics figure as works of art on a par with the literature they wrote. To read about such ardent friendships and complex partnerships is to feel roused to search for the same in our own lives, to refuse to be contented with the facile, electronically engineered substitutions that pass too often for real intimacy. “So, as we rode, we talked; and the swift thought/ Winging itself with laughter, lingered not, but flew from brain to brain,—such glee was ours,” Shelley wrote in Julian and Maddalo, a poem based on his own turbulent relationship with Byron. Screen-to-screen is no substitute for brain-to-brain. However hi-speed, there can be no replacement for the intensity of a direct exchange between unhindered souls.

Alexandra Schwartz is a writer currently based in Paris.