A review of Young Romantics: The Tangled lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation, by Daisy Hay

The phrase "inheritors of unfulfilled renown" is Percy Bysshe Shelley's, in his Adonais (1821), an elegy for John Keats, and could be applied to all three of the major poets portrayed in Young Romantics: Keats, who died of tuberculosis in Rome at the age of 25; Shelley, who drowned a year later, one month before his 29th birthday, in the storm that sunk his sailboat off the coast of Liguria; and George Gordon, Lord Byron, who died in 1824, 36 years old, of fever and bungled medical treatment at Missolonghi, where he had gone to join the fight for Greek independence. One of Daisy Hay's purposes in her first book is to show how and why Shelley, Keats, and Byron were canonized for 19th-century readers after their early deaths. Published subsequently in paperback as Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and other Tangled Lives, her collective biography is both narrower and more extensive than its original title suggests. It is a meticulous, well-documented, and well-presented account of the ways in which the works and lives of Shelley, Byron, and Keats affected each other between 1813 and 1822—from just after Byron "woke one morning to find [himself] famous" on the publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812), to the drowning of Shelley and his friend Edward Williams on July 8, 1822, and their subsequent cremation on the beach near Viareggio.

Hay handles the poets' works and days over these ten years chronologically but discontinuously, switching her narrative adeptly from one writer to another. Shelley, who shared life and conversations with Byron in Geneva (summer 1816), Venice (late August 1818), and Pisa (November 1821 to early July 1822), is at the center of the book. Indeed, the book's three parts correspond to Shelley's life before, during, and after his extended residence in Italy: "Creating a Coterie" (1813-1818), "Italy and England" (1818-1822), and "After the Storm," which ends with the self-orchestrated burial in 1881 of Shelley's acquaintance Edward John Trelawny next to the poet's remains in Rome's Protestant Cemetery, where Keats and his friend Joseph Severn are also buried side by side.

Keats, whose literary and personal connection with Byron was insignificant and with Shelley subdued, is given less attention than other members of Shelley's and Byron's extended circles. In fact, for a life study of influential writers whose works have endured, Young Romantics deals scantily with those works, providing brief accounts of the provenance of some of them. Shelley's most important poem, Prometheus Unbound, is referred to only in passing, Byron's Don Juan is merely identified as his masterpiece, and Keats's odes are not even mentioned. Hay's narrative draws heavily throughout upon the voluminous letters of the poets as well as the correspondence, diaries, and memoirs of their close acquaintances and other writers. With a few exceptions the material presented, including the letters, is derived from previous scholarly biographies like the massive lives of Shelley by Richard Holmes (1974) and James Bieri (2005). Hay's insistent claim that the poets' works are social artifacts, not simply creations of individual genius, is fully demonstrated in those biographies. But she is skillful in weaving her subjects' stories together and in entering their minds, and the result is a fascinating group study of the great Romantic poets who succeeded Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, and died before them.

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The lives of Byron and Shelley are the stuff of which dreams, nightmares, and melodramas are made—as well as great literature—and Young Romantics covers briefly but well the crucial events: Shelley's expulsion from Oxford, rejection by his conservative father, elopement with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and desertion of his first wife, and subsequent nomadic life as a radical poet and thinker; alongside Byron's disastrous marriage, incestuous relations with his half-sister Augusta, permanent self-exile from England, and shabbily heroic death in Greece. Hay shows how the havoc and coruscations accompanying the two great writers were enabled by others whose lives are equally important. Working against a stereotype cultivated by the poets' own self-representations and encouraged by Romantic and post-Romantic accounts of their greatness, Hay "looks beyond the image of the isolated poet in order to restore relationships to the centre of the Romantic story." Those relationships, involving family members or friends many of whom were also writers, are showcased by Hay's chapter titles (e.g., "Husbands," "Wives and Mistresses," "Counts and Cockneys," "Exiles"). It is Hay's account of these "other tangled lives" that gives her book its distinctive purpose, scope, and tone.

Chief among them is Leigh Hunt, another young poet as well as a leading journalist and political essayist. Hay begins her story with Hunt's conviction for seditious libel and two-year imprisonment, beginning in February 1813, in Surrey Gaol. As editor of the Examiner, a weekly reform-minded newspaper published by his older brother John, Hunt had directly attacked the prince regent (the future George IV) for corruption and immorality. Hunt's extensive, well-decorated prison lodgings became the nerve center of a wide-ranging association of writers and artists critical of the repressive Tory ministry of Lord Liverpool as well as of the Regent. Hunt, a poet himself, was visited regularly by Lord Byron, supported financially and morally by young Shelley, and celebrated by Keats in one of his earliest sonnets. By the time of Hunt's release from prison, the influence and prestige of the Examiner had actually grown, and he had become the nucleus of a circle of writers, artists, and young professionals that he hoped would transform English literature, culture, and politics in progressive directions. His December 1816 Examiner article on "Young Poets" introduced the work of Keats, Shelley, and John Hamilton Reynolds, all members of his circle, to a larger audience; Foliage, Hunt's own collection of March 1818, with poems addressed to, inspired by, or representing his relationship to other members of the circle, celebrated friendship as a social, aesthetic, moral, and political ideal. The volume constituted a kind of manifesto for those ideals, which were attacked and satirized by such pillars of the establishment as Blackwood's and the Quarterly Review. At its height, the Hunt Circle included more than a dozen figures whose work now defines the second generation of Romantic writers, including William Hazlitt, Charles and Mary Lamb, and Thomas Love Peacock. In 1819, Hunt brought out a second weekly journal of essays, reviews, and original literature, the Indicator, and eventually rejoined Shelley and Byron in Pisa, just one week before Shelley's drowning, to co-edit a third journal, the Liberal, that would combine Romantic literature with support for European independence movements and political reform in England. By this time, Shelley had become the central and indispensable figure in the association of Romantic writers first forged by Hunt's Examiner. In the wake of Shelley's death and Byron's departure for Greece a year later, the Liberal expired after four issues, and its demise also brought to an end what was left of the circle. As Hay notes near the end of the book:

The shattered group who united to piece The Liberal together—Hunt, Byron, and Mary [Shelley], in Genoa; Charles Brown in Pisa; [Thomas] Hogg, Hazlitt, and John Hunt in London—was held together only by fragile and unstable allegiances, and by memories of a shared past.


In part three of Young Romantics, Hay shows how forward-looking literary collaboration gave way to struggles to memorialize the past by those who had survived it, and to the canonization of Keats, Shelley, and Byron by former friends and associates. Those who presented unflattering or self-serving accounts (like Hogg, in his memoirs of Shelley's time at Oxford, or Hunt himself in Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries) were subject to an ostracism from which their reputations never recovered. As Hay traces the lives of the writers and friends who first recognized and then sanctified the work of the three preeminent poets of their generation, she shows how literary reputation may confound the expectations of writers and their contemporaries: Keats's self-chosen epitaph for his tombstone in Rome reads, "Here lies one whose name was writ in water," but it is Leigh Hunt who is nearly forgotten today.

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Mary Shelley, who saw her husband's nomadic lifestyle contribute to the deaths of two of their children in Italy and who suffered miscarriages near the beginning and end of their marriage, is the hero of part three, and perhaps of Young Romantics as a whole. Returning to London with their only surviving child one year after her husband's death, the 26-year-old widow was surprised to find an adaptation of her Frankenstein thriving at the Lyceum Theatre, as well as a new edition of the novel in print. As the daughter of the pioneering English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the eminent radical political philosopher William Godwin, and a successful novelist in her own right, Mary's intellectual pedigree and resources were as formidable as her husband's. But she directed much of her energy—and redirected her grief and any recriminations—into collecting and publishing his Posthumous Poems (1824), and then ensuring his immortality in her four-volume Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1839). The Shelley that was to inspire and to be canonized by the Victorians was thereby rendered an idealized and depoliticized solitary lyric genius, purged of the personal failings that his wife and editor had forgiven (or forgotten), and quite different from the political radical whose prose works and early poetical fantasy Queen Mab would become a Bible of English political radicals and proto-socialists.

Writing just after Keats's death and shortly before his own, Shelley indulged in what at the time would have been a hope rather than a plausible claim for either of them, in a late stanza of Adonais:


The splendours of the firmament of time

May be eclipsed, but are extinguished not;

Like stars to their appointed height they climb,

And death is a low mist which cannot blot

The brightness it may veil. When lofty thought

Lifts a young heart above its mortal lair,

And love and life contend in it for what

Shall be its earthly doom, the dead live there

And move like winds of light on dark and stormy air.


Shelley's eloquent wish came true, as it were, in the Victorian Age and thereafter in writers like Browning, Tennyson, and Yeats, whose imaginations were haunted and energized by the "lofty thought" of Keats and his elegist. Even more readers and imaginations have been haunted by Frankenstein, perhaps the greatest myth created by any of the English Romantics, the work of a 20-year-old writer, supported and encouraged by her husband and Lord Byron. Hay provides a very readable, dispassionate account of how these "young hearts" achieved their stellar renown.