Lord Byron pioneered a new form of living to give meaning to his own existence. His poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was an instant best seller, and the crowds loved it, and him. The poem gave Byron a lot of followers, all wanting to be Romantics; dissatisfied with the world, yearning for something else.
His house, his home, his heritage, his lands,The laughing dames in whom he did delight,Whose large blue eyes, fair locks, and snowy hands,
Might shake the saintship of an anchorite,
And long had fed his youthful appetite;
His goblets brimmed with every costly wine,
And all that mote to luxury invite,
Without a sigh he left to cross the brine,
And traverse Paynim shores, and pass earth’s central line.
– Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage 1812
With all his followers, came the proposals, many of which Byron took up (making him one of the first celebrities to have groupies), resulting in a scandal when his marriage fell apart; which Byron fed on, even drawing inspiration from it. But as the scandals grew, public accusations of incest and sodomy, Lord Byron fled from England, never to return. But for the public, Lord Byron had redefined the idea of a poet, making his life a living poem of passion and scandal.
Lord Byron’s life in the public may have made him the first rock star, but did his life of passion have a greater effect on his poetry than John Keats life of brooding or Percy Bysshe Shelley’s life rebelling for liberty? Did Byron find the sublime? He may have redefined the way we view a poet, but his life’s quest for passion and freedom was the real poem.
In Oxford in 1811, an anonymous pamphlet was distributed to every clergy man and the heads of all the colleges. It was called The Necessity of Atheism and in it one of the key points was without proof of God’s existence, how can we believe he exists. The Pamphlet was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley and though he was committing blasphemy and attacking the very existence of civilisation, Shelley was standing up against the authoritarianism of the Church. The result of his pamphlet; expulsion.
With this liberty from the Church, Shelley began a life in pursuit of a new way of living. Shelley was married to Harriet Westbrook but his heart belonged to his lover Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. Shelley wrote to his wife claiming his ‘heart belonged to another’ and ended up running away with Mary, making him one of the pioneers in the ‘Free Love’ movement.
Whilst thou alone, then not regarded,
The … thou alone should be,
To spend years thus, and be rewarded,
As thou, sweet love, requited me
When none were near — Oh! I did wake
From torture for that moment’s sake.
– To Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin
If poetry was the new religion, then the poet would be a god. This idea led Shelley into a dark place, seeing visions of phantoms all around him. He began to question the worth of his own existence, becoming haunted by his own ideas. With death, his poetry will live on in the sublime way that Keats poems did. When Percy Bysshe Shelley died, he was found on the beach with a copy of John Keats poems in his pocket. He was burned on the beach by Byron and other friends, who claimed his heart was not consumed; a final act against the church.
It is interesting that the three most influential Romantics had three entirely different personalities. So how did these personalities help shape and hold up the romantic ideas. Over the next three weeks, I will attempt to discover how this was done.
John Keats was always surrounded by death; even as a young boy, when he lost his mother and brother. This caused Keats to contemplate life and the legacy left, after death. But Keats wasn’t always a poet, he was a trained surgeon. Though he had a real talent in the medical profession, the horrid sights affected him deeply. In the end he “feared that he should never be a poet, & if he was not he would destroy himself”. With the new discovery of empathy, Keats sought to heal the soul with his words; choosing his passion, Art, over the prestige of Science.
Lord Byron despised Keats’ quiet contemplation, calling his style mental masturbation. But Keats life of solitude was his attempt to reach towards meaning. With the experiences of death came depression, but also a more intense love for life.
“How astonishingly does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties upon me! Like poor Falstaff, though I do not “babble,” I think of green fields; I muse with the greatest affection on every flower I have known from my infancy—their shapes and colours are as new to me as if I had just created them with a superhuman fancy.” – 1820
Images of life and death haunted Keats; in 1820 Keats displayed increasingly serious symptoms of tuberculosis. Death terrified Keats; the thought of his poems drifting into obscurity scared him. The thought of immortality plagued him, he wished for his words to live forever.
This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a Young English Poet Who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821
Keats’ memory didn’t dissolve has he had predicted. After his death, his words were read more intensively by his fellow Romantics, as well as people today. Even Shelley thought that Keats’ suffering conveyed the sense of the sublime often sought by the Romantics.
During the birth of the industrial age, the art world draw great inspiration from the changing world, so why were the Romantics focused on Nature? So what made the Romantics so interested in Nature? Their quest for liberty seemed to draw a lot from their natural surroundings. What did Blake, Wordsworth, Lord Byron & Mary Shelley draw from the natural world?
As a boy William Blake dreamed of a different type of world; claiming he had a vision of angels while staring at the sunlight shining through the trees.
To see a world in a grain of sand,And a heaven in a wild flower,Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,And eternity in an hour.Auguries of Innocence (1803)
Blake never forgot his vision and like most Romantics, often drew inspirations from his childhood imagination. While the industrial age was taking a toll on child innocents with the use of child labour, Blake wrote a collection of poems called Songs of Innocence in which he dreamed of a world of innocent children again, included poems like The Chimney Sweeper, in while he hopes to save four and five child chimney sweepers. But his desire for innocents was shattered when he lost his brother, this lead to a new collection of poems called Songs of Experience, which included a darker version of The Chimney Sweeper. William Blake considered the industrial age the works of the devil, having left the city to live on the outskirts to be closer to nature.
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?And did those feet in ancient time (1808)
Wordsworth grew up in the Lake District and was heavenly influenced by this. William Wordsworth had a love/hate relationship with nature. While he loved his childhood growing up in the Lake District, he also lost both parents due to the acts of Nature and had been educated by the natural forces all around him. One night he was stuck in a situation similar to what caused his father’s death, but instead of fear, Wordsworth discovered an awe of the power of nature, it could render him small and insignificant but it also could connect him to the world.
Was blowing on my body, felt withinA correspondent breeze, that gently movedWith quickening virtue, but is now becomeA tempest, a redundant energy,Vexing its own creation. Thanks to bothThe Prelude, Book One (1799)
1816 was known as the year without a summer, as a result of a volcanic winter event. Lord Byron thought this to be the beginning of the apocalypse. While he didn’t spend much time in nature, this fear and respect for nature brought a group of intellectuals together. The fear of darkness and nature brought together a group of new Romantics.
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earthSwung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went -and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolationDarkness (1816)
During the year without summer, Mary Shelley was hidden indoors with Lord Byron, her lover and future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. During these nights they would write poetry and gothic stories and during this time was the birth of one of the greatest horror novels of all time. Frankenstein was a cautionary tale that expresses the dangers of messing with nature and a great source of the romantic ideal. Frankenstein’s message was clear, respect and revere nature.
The Romantics were the first to express a desire for the sublime in nature. Their longing for nature was not just the discovery of beauty but the terror that nature can bring. The key to the sublime was the ability to lose themselves, with no restraints or confinement. Weather they feared or loved nature, or just feared the modern world; nature played a big part of the Romantic Period.
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors–
No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.
Bright Star is a movie based on the last three years of John Keats life and his relationship with his muse Fanny Brawne. Though it was a Hollywood retelling of Keats romance, it was based on the biography ‘Keats’written by Andrew Motion. The highlight of the movie was really the poetry and letters by Keats. It is just nice to get this kind of insight on one of my literary heroes even in it was stylised a bit for the movie.
Lord Byron is probably best known as a poet for the romantic period. widely read and influential, considered one of the greatest English poets of all time.
So I wanted to look more into the personal side of his life. Which is sometimes described as; ‘upper-class living, numerous love affairs, debts, and separations.’ I’m not an expert but this is what I’ve managed to piece together and thought it was very interesting, I could be wrong, so feel free to correct me.
As a teenage he feel for a distant cousin Mary Chaworth, which his mother thought, “He has no indisposition that I know of but love, desperate love, the worst of all maladies in my opinion. In short, the boy is distractedly in love with Miss Chaworth.”
Byron expressed a sense of melancholy;
“Ah! Sure some stronger impulse vibrates here,
Which whispers friendship will be doubly dear
To one, who thus for kindred hearts must roam,
And seek abroad, the love denied at home.”
Later in life he had an affair with Lady Caroline Lamb which involved a lot of obsession from either side. Once the affair ended Lady Caroline became emotionally disturbed and lost a lot of weight, Byron described this as if he was been “haunted by a skeleton”. Lady Caroline Lamb described Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”
Through the rest of his life he still seemed to continue with marriages and affairs, and numerous amount of debt, due to his reckless disregard for money. Later in life he became involved in The Carbonari, which were a secret revolutionary societies whose goals were patriotic and liberal. They played an important role in the Risorgimento and the early years of Italian nationalism. He then went on to fight in the Greek War of Independence, against the Ottoman Empire, which is where he developed sepsis causing him to develop a violent fever and died.
Interestingly enough Byron often described his affairs as ‘violent and passionate’.