The Book That Changed My Mind

12 Nov

I’ve been approaching this post with trepidation. Like how you might feel before you ask for someone’s hand in marriage. Even if you’re pretty certain of the nascent appeal of your proposal, you still want to make sure you come off as undismissable (sic) right from the outset.

Let’s try it this way: I’m not a fan of ‘period’ pieces, maybe because I’m an obsessional fan of now (an issue I put down to the myopia of youth & my fathers interest in Ram Dass) it’s also due to a groundless judgement that period pieces are irrelevant to current life.
My faulty thinking led me to believe that because historical biographies (to which I am referring when I say ‘period pieces’) were about the past they had no real ties to the current; the language, the style, the obligations on the authors part to echo past times made me think these books would be boring and unreachable. The truth is, with a greatly written biography of a bygone era, there is a line drawn in the sand and everything thereafter (i.e our current lives) feel somehow different in the light of understanding what has passed.
In short it was ignorance that put me off historical biographies, becuase had I realised that it could be this affecting sooner I would have been head first into some serious historical works. The book that changed my mind is called Young Romantics (Daisy Hay): a collective biography of the second generation of romantic poets in Britain.

Now I’m not a big poetry reader, though I love anything or anyone who manages to shift my docile preoccupation against it; Daisy Hay is one such lady. Hay remonstrates herself in her introduction for making her honeymoon boring by insisting that her new husband accompany her to the graves of dead poets; I’m with her on this one, though I can’t claim I’ve read much poetry I’m all for the people who write them. Leonard Cohen, Philip Larken & Billy Collins are among my private rock stars. Though only one of them is currently dead & when the rest do die, are likely to be buried continents apart, I’d still drag my love to see their tombstones.

Hay holds back from citing the epitaphs of these famous men till the last few pages of the book, for that alone she gets my respect. We all know the words inscribed, they’re in Christmas crackers and on the back of period pads, but what most of us don’t’ know is the sexy, lovely, lonely, philosophically emphatic way these poets lived their lives before their graves were laid.

Hay focuses her narrative on two families, often pulled together and apart by circumstance, politics and feuds throughout the early 1800’s up until their domino deaths in the mid and late 1830’s. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley (his wife and the daughter of famous philosophical and political parents Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin) & Leigh Hunt (the editor of The Examiner;  a champion of creative communities and poetry) are the centrifugal force around which the other, often more well known, characters orbit. Considering the slowed down and often apathetic pace of life nowadays, it’s hard to accommodate how much life was packed into these peoples collective existence, how much brilliance they collectively shared and expressed at ages as young as 18 years old (that’s when Mary Shelley started writing Frankenstein). The cast of characters stretches to include Lord Byron, Clair Clairmount (Mary’s stepsister), the Novello’s (musical geniuses who democratised music by writing it in such a way that people could practice it in their own homes), Keats and the Lamb siblings (Mary & Charles).

Percy Bysshe Shelley

I knew most of these names. I did not know what made them wince, what gave them inspiration, what thoughts they held about free love or poverty. I did not, for example, know that Mary Wollstonecraft had died in childbirth with Mary & that this would set off a paranoid suggestion in Mary that motherhood was beyond her, nor that Shelly was originally married to Harriet, a woman he wronged deeply and irrevocably; or that Byron was such a privileged and mainly unlikable man of means*

The major thrust of Hay’s work, as there have been many works covering the romantic poets prior to hers, is to put right into the light, right under the noses of this current isolated society, how and why Hunt and Shelly so championed the effects of friendship on creative capacity. Sure, they destroyed each other and were assiduous in their malice at times, but at other times they formed around one another like a living organism, a beating heart. Their greatest works so often the result of their love for one another, for the ability to talk things out till the early hours, to walk together, play at finding terrible puns and stand beside each other even when the weather of their lives was at its most stormy. Hay brings these poets back to life. Ghostly and beautiful; Inspirers still, still! After all this time, a bunch of aristocrats and less from the early 19th century are still foremost amongst radical thinkers. They broke the bonds of conditional marriage for unconditional love, they saved their souls not by hoarding material goods but by making work that spoke of their higher thoughts, their distaste for monarchy and political control of free thought. Though their lives were hardened by circumstance theirs is still an inspiration: namely to live in search of a deeper kind of absolution.

Mary Shelley & Lindsay Lohan in various repose

For me, I found it dizzying to enter a word (thanks to Hay, from the first page and seamlessly) that lauded poetry as being able to sway votes, change policy and move hearts. Poets were then what Lindsay Lohan is now; widely known and much talked about. Ah! A time, for all it’s terrible blights and blind spots, it’s hardships and poverty, when the truest wealth was (as exemplified by some, and those being who we remember as greatest): spiritual, intellectual and collective. It defies belief almost, how far we’ve come. What would Shelly think of this society? Of our poets I’m sure he’d be impressed, of their standing amongst the rest of us? Likely he’d be greatly saddened.

So why am I nervous about this review, treating it like a marriage proposal? Because I want you to say yes.

I want you to read this book and tell me you aren’t moved to read every poem written by that crazy, brilliant collective and in turn be moved tenfold to deepen your own output to something vaugely reminiscent of the energy and love that fired theirs.

What do you say?

Current Covers Available

I detest the above covers; they’re super ‘lady centric’ and do not do justice to the content. Though the one on the right is a little better, I chose to go a different route…

Covered in a map of Europe...

*these are weak indications of this books content, I don’t want to give all the good parts away

– Note: a heartfelt thank you to Heidi Tannenbaum for encouraging me to read this in the first place. If it wasn’t for your thoughtful insistence over Hay’s brilliant book I might have cast it aside as ‘just another period piece.’


2 Responses to “The Book That Changed My Mind”

  1. Drus November 17, 2011 at 12:09 pm #


  2. Drus November 17, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

    F yes.

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