Young Romantics: Leigh Hunt, Shelley et al
When I was 12 years old my mother gave me a book of essays by William Hazlitt as a Christmas present. I am not sure what she had in mind, or what appeal it might have for an 12-year-old whose reading, up till that point, had consisted mainly of Enid Blyton and the Biggles books. As I wandered around the neighbourhood on foot, by bicycle or on horseback I tried to be observant in looking for clues of possible criminal activity, in emulation of the Secret Seven. To think a child with such preoccupations would be interested in reading Hazlitt’s essays seems to be stretching things too far. To a 12-year-old, most of the references and allusions were not just obscure, but incomprehensible.
Even when I finally took it down from the shelf and began to read it 45 years later I found it heavy going.
But now, after reading Young Romantics, I feel ready to tackle Hazlitt again, because it puts his writing into context — not only what he was writing about, but whom he was writing for (and against).
It was also when I was twelve years old that I first began to like Keats’s poetry. The first few lines of Endymion, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” gripped me, and I put my own interpretation on them, and made no connection between Keats and Hazlitt. Perhaps that is why my mother gave me Hazlitt’s essays, but it’s too late to ask her now.
But when I began reading this book I began to feel a bit like Keats felt on first looking into Chapman’s Homer. Literary figures that I has seen as quite separate began to make sense because of their interactions with each other. Keats and Shelley have always been among my favourite poets, and I found it very interesting reading, in part because they formed a kind of literary circle similar to the Bloombury Group and the Inklings in the 20th century..
One of the circle, Leigh Hunt, who was imprisoned for libelling the Prince Regent, managed to conduct business and even enjoy married life and the society of his friends from his prison cell, and continued to edit his paper The Examiner from prison. His paper promoted radical political reform and poetry, but being in prison also taught him the value of friendship and “sociability”.
The result was that by the end of his prison sentence Hunt had established ‘sociability’ as an important ideological principle. He did so in an experiment in living which elevated the rituals of friendship — communal dining, music making, letter writing, shared reading — so that in Hunt’s rooms in the old infirmary these rituals took on a cooperative, oppositional significance. In The Examiner such activities were given a public outlet, as conversations over dinner were rewritten in the collaborative ‘Table Talk’ columns, letters from friends were published and discussed in editorials, and as different members of Hunt’s circle contributed theatrical and literary reviews which reflected the group’s diversity as well as its coherence.
As I read on it seemed that in the period 1814-1816 they were a bunch of aristocratic hippie dropouts, similar in many ways to the middle-class Beat Generation and hippie dropouts of of the 1950s and 1960s. And they happened to write good poetry.
Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac’s On the road trip of 1948 seems
positively tame compared with Shelley’s teenage elopement through war-torn Europe with Mary Godwin and her stepsister, in the pause between Napoleon’s incarceration on and escape from Elba and his final defeat at Waterloo. It was definitely a period when Brit tourists were not welcome in Europe. And as they had no money, they went much of the way on foot. They belived in anarcy and free love, but at the root of it was a kind of selfishness.
Shelley eventually married Mary Godwin, after his first wife’s suicide but it seems that the so-called “free love” often turned out to be neither. Mary’s father, William Godwin, wrote the book on it, but when his children and stepchildren began to practise what he preached, he turned them out of the house and would not speak to them. Some hippie communes of the late 1960s and early 1970s were based on similar ideals, though others were not. There’s a kind of balance between sociability and selfishness that seems to be missing in all
Eventually the literary circle around Leigh Hunt began to disintegrate, and at that point the book does too. The book follows Percy and Mary Shelley, and the other members of the group only make appearances when their lives touch those of the Shelleys. Byron, Keats and Hunt flit in and out. Keats’s death is noted, because he had arrived in Italy at Shelley’s invitation, though he never got to visit they Shelleys. Shelley’s death is described in detail, but Byron’s is mentioned merely in passing. We read about what happened to each of Shelley’s children, but Hunt’s disappear into obscurity.
The “sociability” that had originally drawn the group together eventually becomes the subject of varying interpretations. As Hay (2011:283)
All these women had learnt of the reality of free love back in the 1810s, when their unorthodox living arrangements, and the ideals of Shelley and Hunt, had variously exposed their lives to public scrutiny and, in the case of Mary and Claire, their bodies to illegitimate pregnancy. This was also true for Jane Williams, whose chikren were born outside of wedlock and who had lost her male protector. Now that the men of the group were dead, or living abroad, the women were left behind to count the cost of youthful idealism: damaged reputations, limited earning capacity, and exclusion from polite society.
Leigh Hunt, who had gone to Italy to join his wealthier friends Shelley and Byron in the hope of earning a living in a joint publishing venture, a periodical called The Liberal, was left stranded by their deaths, and discovered much the same when he returned to England
Hunt’s homecoming was thus, in many ways, disappointing. The network which sustained his imagination during his absence turned out to be a chimera. As far as Hunt’s friends were concerned, this was a natural progression in which the demands of work and family took precedence over youthful ideals of communal living. They recognised that their intense, clasustrophobic, clubbable circle of the 1810s belonged to a different era. Its public and private significance has faded as British politics entered the calmer waters of the 1820s, and their individual responsibilities towards parents, husbands, wives and children increased.
And I wonder if that is not perhaps a good description of the fate of many of the hippie communes of my youth.
A question the book raises for me is the nature and conception of liberalism. The group that gathered around Hunt, Shelley & Co described themselves and saw themselves as liberals, but it seems to me that they might better be described as libertarians and libertines. Their notion of the need to destroy social institutions such as marriage, because they saw them as oppressive and enslaving seems to contrast with their desire for sociability. Perhaps as a result of that the ideal of sociability was never realised, and the lives of the dead members of the circle were reinvented as lives of extreme individualism.