Book Review: In Print

It takes a village: This inquiry into the late-period Romantics debunks the idea of the individual artist as isolated, sui generis, and in torment

In Print

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

by Daisy Hay
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 384 pp.; $27.50

The sentimental interpretation of the Romantic poets as isolated, sui generis, and in torment was popularized by the 19th and 20th centuries' more hagiographic historians (and perpetuated by mopey English majors), but Hay's inquiry into the late-period Romantics (Shelley, Byron, Keats, et al.) proves it was through community, not isolation, that they achieved greatness. After all, it takes two to put into action Shelley's presiding philosophy of free love. More than two, really: In his short life, Shelley cycled through a wife and a mistress, had an intimate, ill-advised relationship with his second wife Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont (who bore Byron's illegitimate child), and regularly wrote odes to other women – most of them married, though one was cooling her heels in a convent.

Shelley is one of two central figures in Hay's study of this heady and prolific period; the poet and political writer Leigh Hunt forms the other dominant force of the book. Dickens may have eternalized Hunt as the impotent Harold Skimpole in Bleak House (Dickens apparently felt so crummy about the rumored character modeling that he printed a defense-cum-denial-cum-apologia in the journal All the Year Round), but Young Romantics shines up Hunt's blackened name. Though penniless and improvident, he was a steadfast friend, an early supporter of Keats and Shelley, and a true-blue believer in the superior creative spark of sociability over solitude. Via "a kaledioscopic series of shifting configurations," this loose collective of radical thinkers would try on all different kinds of experiments in communal living – at the Surrey Gaol, where Hunt was imprisoned for sedition; at Switzerland's Villa Diodati, where Mary Shelley first hatched Frankenstein; and in a final, splintering year at Pisa, which ended with Shelley's drowning.

The work the Romantics produced in these unconventional living arrangements seems evidence enough to call them a triumph ... until Hay begins to inventory the suicides, miscarriages, legal battles, busted hearts, and broken homes. It was the women – deprived of property, progeny, and reputation – who suffered most. Young Romantics is well-researched and rendered in effective if unstirring language, but Hay's prose pulse quickens when she speaks of these abused wives and mistresses, sisters and daughters. They were the ones left to "count the cost of youthful idealism," and as Young Romantics proves, it was a steep price for pretty verse.

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Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Leigh Hunt, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, John Keats

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