The other night I watched an episode of ‘Lewis’- you know the British detective show that takes place in Oxford. Partly I watch it for the locale, Oxford is stunningly beautiful after all, and the show highlights that very well. Plus the show is a descendant of ‘Inspector Morse’ and I loved that show, mostly because of Morse and the wonderful portrayal of his alcoholic, music loving, beauty yearning self by the actor John Thaw.
But I digress, I’m here to talk about a whole other set of British men. This particular episode was about a group of young students and revolved mostly around two, one autistic and a wildly talented artist and the other a girl who was brilliant at ‘making stuff up’. She was obsessed with the poet Shelley, so I felt an instant affinity with her. After all I make stuff up too, and I have long been in love with the Romantic poets— the big ones— Keats, Shelley and most of all Byron, the original bad boy, the rock star of the early 19th century. The first one maybe— his was the madness of celebrity as we understand it now. At one point in the show Inspector Hathaway refers to the three princes of the Romantic movement as ‘the boys in the band’. I loved the analogy, because it was who they were in many respects— they were the Beatles of their time.
During the writing of my last novel I read a biography of Shelley by the incomparable Richard Holmes, I lived, loved, cried and died a little with Shelley for the space of two weeks. Holmes admitted that he had begun to write cheques with the dates from Shelley’s time rather than his own, during the writing of the book, and that after the book was done he was suicidal for a bit, almost drowning himself because he felt so lost once he could no longer live in Shelley’s world. I understood because even in the reading I had imagined myself so thoroughly into Shelley’s universe that I didn’t want to be in my own. It’s not that their world was some enchanted sphere either, Shelley’s life was very messy, and he was a complicated man, both cruel and incredibly kind, both crazy and perfectly horribly sane. He cleaned up the messes left behind from Byron’s emotional entanglements, but Byron often returned the favour by cleaning up Shelley’s financial woes. They loved each other, they hated each other, they frustrated the hell out of each other, in short they had a real friendship. In that book Shelley rose up whole through the pages and I came to know him as a man, as a failure, as a poet, as a husband who was often careless and absent, as a person so weighed down with grief that death might have seemed a relief, when it came for him that day in the Gulf of Spezia.
Shortly after I read the book, a dear friend and I exchanged e-mails on what we would pack to spend a summer in Italy with Byron and Shelley. I imagined my trunks, leather with brass handles, the carriage I would arrive in, the dresses I would bring, what I could not live without from my own time (I spent some time wondering how to rig up a hot shower and wondering how long it would be before I stopped jonesing for my one can of Diet Coke each day). I imagined in detail what such a summer would be like, how we would roam the Tuscan hills, drinking wine amongst the poppies and sunflowers, eating olives and whether or not bringing a modern toothbrush along would signal to my Romantic men that I was no ordinary woman. But mostly in my daydream (which lasted for a few months), I just listened, listened to their ideas, their words, because these men were the pinnacle of the Romantic movement. They were ahead of their time, and part of a social movement that changed the way we all view the world now.
I wanted to understand what Romanticism was really about, and so I read many definitions of it but this was one that struck me:
…a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective, a search after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals.”
That definition spoke to the heart of Romanticism, at least for me, it explained to me why we are still so fascinated by them and their work so long after. It is because they speak so eloquently, and yet so rawly, to the human condition- unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals. Hence the term hopeless romantic. I should know, I am one, after all.
While in Italy in July, I visited the Keats Shelley House in Rome- it was the house that John Keats spent the final months of his all too brief life. It was a tiny slice of England right there by the Spanish Steps. It ended up being my favourite spot in Italy, despite the glories of Florence and the seductress that is Venice. I had seen the David, Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’, Brunelleschi’s Dome, the hills of Tuscany- but it was the tiny bedroom of a tuberculotic English boy that struck me at my core. What had he not lived to tell us, what words had died with him, or was he only meant for that brief space? For flames that burn high and hot so quickly, must needs die down quickly too. Of course they all died young, and perhaps that is why we still love them so, human nature is odd that way. We don’t quite revere the men who managed a long life and a happy marriage in the same way.
Dead poets, it’s hard to imagine they matter some days in our technological warp-drive world where everyone is looking to the next thing, the next distraction, the next hit of the entertainment drug. But I think they matter more than ever, because they can stop us for a moment and deliver us back to our selves, the selves that we want to be, our better natures, they speak to the yearning that we sometimes think we alone experience. They speak to our souls. Because their words can still stop me now, two hundred and more years later.
My love for these poets is not so rare, women will always have a love for the bad boys—right now half the world seems to be in love with a variety of vampires and werewolves. But me, I’m with the boys in the band.
This isle and house are mine, and I have vow’d
Thee to be lady of the solitude.
And I have fitted up some chambers there
Looking towards the golden Eastern air,
And level with the living winds, which flow
Like waves above the living waves below.
I have sent books and music there, and all
Those instruments with which high Spirits call
The future from its cradle, and the past
Out of its grave, and make the present last
In thoughts and joys which sleep, but cannot die,
Folded within their own eternity.
Our simple life wants little, and true taste
Hires not the pale drudge Luxury to waste
The scene it would adorn, and therefore still,
Nature with all her children haunts the hill.
The ring-dove, in the embowering ivy, yet
Keeps up her love-lament, and the owls flit
Round the evening tower, and the young stars glance
Between the quick bats in their twilight dance;
The spotted deer bask in the fresh moonlight
Before our gate, and the slow, silent night
Is measur’d by the pants of their calm sleep.
Be this our home in life, and when years heap
Their wither’d hours, like leaves, on our decay,
Let us become the overhanging day,
The living soul of this Elysian isle,
Conscious, inseparable, one.