by Daisy Hay
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
In Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation, author and academic Daisy Hay embarks on an exploration of the personal and social lives of Byron, Shelley and Keats – lives, as Keats once put it, intertwined like a “web…of mingled Yarn.” Hay’s thesis (which it very much is, by the way, constantly supported and defended in a solid but often distractingly conventional fashion) rests on an alternative vision of these men and their work: one that sees the heroic, solitary, melancholy figure so often associated with the Romantics as a construction of their adopted poetic voices, personae and posthumously engineered reputations. The reality, convincingly presented in Hay’s multi-subject biography, is that all three poets’ work and ideas were indelibly shaped by sociability and friendship.
Drawing upon a vast assortment of letters, journals and literary writings by both the principal poets and (to spice things up a bit) their wives, friends, parents, illegitimate children, mistresses and a few potentially incestuous sisters-in-law, Hay spins a surprisingly juicy, intimate and dramatic tale which, despite its academic tone, sucks you in like a supermarket tabloid. She can’t resist the urge to remind us of her thesis at every turn – a habit that makes for convincing academic writing but patchy narrative tone – and the result is jumbled. It’s as if (particularly towards the end of the book) bits and pieces of her doctorate thesis found their way into the pages of her biographical text. Still, Hay knows how to turn endless research into a fascinating story, and her drier passages are more than made up for by the funny, sexy, melodramatic chapters that, like a 19th century version of US Weekly or an episode of “The Hills,” mesmerizes us with sordid details, secrets and other stuff we probably shouldn’t yet can’t help but hunger to know.
The difference, of course, is that by getting our gossip fix via Young Romantics, we’re also learning a whole bunch of stuff about relationships, philosophy, history, early Victorian sociology, politics and, of course, poetry. (Maybe Hay is in fact a cultural revolutionary, trying to seduce our rapidly deteriorating imaginations with the stuff of reality television so we don’t notice that we’re – gasp! – actually gaining real knowledge in the process). For example: by the time Shelley’s youthful experiments in free love, vegetarianism and extreme budget travel give way to more serious literary and familial obligations, we’re hooked on his charming persona and devouring details of his life like he’s the latest hot young thing out of Hollywood. As it turns out, the ties between Shelley’s poetry and the constant moves, marital troubles, Italian adventures and beleaguered friendships that consumed his short life are so clearly defined in its progression that we bump into a poetry lesson without really noticing. This, particularly when juxtaposed with the rote treatment of Romantic poetry most of us probably endured in high school or undergrad, is a very pleasant surprise indeed.
Throughout Young Romantics, Hay brings to life a mixed bag of famous figures (such as Shelley’s mistress-turned-wife and author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley) and lesser-known characters who read, write, befriend, backstab and fornicate with and around the titular poets, more than proving in their communal existence the validity of Hay’s thesis. With this kind of action available in an academic text, professors would do well to slap Young Romantics onto a few English department syllabi: students would not only be hard pressed to find anything yawn-worthy in Hay’s book, but they just might also find, in the story of Shelley and Byron’s revolutionary politics and anti-establishment behaviors, a surprising empathy for the wild and crazy men – no, veritable commune, actually – behind Romantic poetry.