The romance of the Romantics

by Carl Rollyson
In graduate school at the University of Toronto I had the splendid opportunity to study with Kathleen Coburn, the great Coleridge scholar who was then editing his notebooks. If I had not already committed myself to writing a dissertation about William Faulkner under the guidance of Michael Millgate, I would gladly have turned to a Romantic subject under Coburn’s supervision. Even so, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats have in so many ways informed my work and that of the subjects of my biographies.

Faulkner, to begin with, was entranced with Keats–as anyone can see in the great fourth section of “The Bear” when Cass Edmunds explains to the kinsman, Ike McCaslin, why Ike did not shoot Old Ben, the Moby Dick, you might say, of the hunters’ quest. Cass quotes “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “She cannot fade, though thou hath not thy bliss . . . Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair.” The she for Ike is not a woman but the wilderness itself, which is his first love. But that love, Cass implies, will, in time, recede just as the wilderness recedes in the advance of civilization. Ike’s wilderness experience has been out of time–as he acknowledges when he relinquishes his watch as part of his search for Old Ben. Ike, who fails to adapt to the changing times, becomes irrelevant because he tries to live the poem Cass quotes. Ike, in other words, is beguiled by a dream of perfection, which exists, in truth, only in Keats’s poem. Ike is caught between the ideality of art and the reality of life. Art is permanence and unity; life is change and multiplicity. So much of what Faulkner learned about art and life stems from his reading of the Romantics, as I will explore in my biography of Faulkner, which I have just learned will be published by University of Virginia Press.

As I show in Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography (2013), she was steeped in the Romantics and began her career writing poetry derived from Keats and other Romantics. Her first published book of poetry, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass is, of course, an allusion to Shelley. If Lowell had to break herself from too close of a fealty to Keats’s verse, he nevertheless presides over “The Green Bowl,” included in her first book, which shows her emerging as a modern poet, adapting the formal grandeur of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to a far more relaxed musing on art’s extension of nature’s impact on human consciousness: “A quiet place, still with the sound of birds,/Where, though unseen, is heard the endless song/And murmur of the never resting sea.”

Lowell wrote poems about Keats, she collected Keats, and she ended her life producing a prodigious two-volume biography of the poet. What should still amaze readers is her astounding ambition, which she announces at the outset: “I have attempted to write a biography, a psychological novel, and a book of poetical criticism, all at once, and not let any of these three aspects of my subject override the others.” It is as if Dorothy Richardson, whose novels Lowell loved, and Rebecca West, whose criticism Lowell found bracing, had combined to do justice not only to Keats but to Fanny Brawne, whose presence in the poet’s emotional life had been seriously misunderstood before the advent of Lowell’s work.

Among Keats’s contemporary biographers, only Walter Jackson Bate and Stanley Plumly have acknowledged her pivotal role in Keats biography. She embodied a twentieth century sensibility and married it to a neoclassical style reminiscent of Samuel Johnson writing about Richard Savage–as can be seen in this passage of balanced antitheses:

Insufficiently equipped, uncertain of his way, not even thoroughly aware of his own goal, unwisely guided by his friends, ignorantly and cruelly criticized by his enemies, buffeted by the hurricanes of his own changing ideas, Keats died at the age of twenty-five still unformed in many ways, profoundly discouraged and dissatisfied, but leaving behind him a body of work in his poetry which does not die because of qualities in it even more important to mankind that those which appear on the surface, and in his letters a possibly no less valuable legacy to the student of psychology and a volume of perennial charm to the ordinary reader.

In her day, in 1925, Lowell commanded a wide readership that should be the envy of any poet/biographer writing now. Like Faulkner, she found in Keats, the man and the poet, a powerful harbinger of a modern sensibility but also a spirit beyond not only his time but any time.

There is in Keats, and of course no less in Wordsworth, and in quite a different way in Byron, a kind of therapeutic imagination and art that we simply cannot live without. So Michael Foot put it to me in many conversations we had over a very intense three years while I worked on the biography of his wife, Jill Craigie, and then on my memoir of him, just published as A Private Life of Michael Foot. “We read Byron’s letters there [in Venice] together. Then we were going up in the world, having the bloody government pay for our holidays. . . . Venice revived him [Byron]. It restored him,” Michael insisted to me. And of course Michael was thinking of himself–of not only his opportunities to get away from Cabinet worries during the administrations of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan but also of how through Byron he re-created his love for Jill Craigie on trips that were nothing less than romantic revivals.

During the terrible accident that nearly cost him his life and left him lame, Michael read Byron, telling me “When I went through Don Juan the first time [in hospital], every time I got to a part I wanted to read it to Jill as soon as I got back here [his Hampstead home].” Brought up a strict Methodist, Michael reveled in Byron’s mocking tone about sex and said Jill thought sex was often treated too seriously and should be the subject of satire. She was not, in fact, a great reader of the Romantics, but as Michael would say, she sure knew how to join in the spirit of the thing.
Michael credited the Byron Society with helping him to recover from his disastrous electoral defeat in 1983. “Byron helped me,” Michael said. “He never gave in. The only way to read Don Juan is right through and that’s what I did. I spent the whole of Christmas doing so–leader of the Labour Party I as supposed to be [he laughed] . . . it [Don Juan] put me in a good temper.”

Michael was as possessive of his Byron as the most devoted scholar can be. At a Byron Society meeting he grumbled about Benita Eisler’s Byron biography. “Terrible book.” He grunted through her talk.” Eisler later told a friend of mine that Michael stood up and said, “Worse book ever written.” He was as passionate about his literary likes and dislikes as he was about his politics. On a trip to Bermuda, he considered one of its main points of interest that Byron’s great friend, Thomas Moore, had visited the island. Jill could get quite put out with Michael’s Romantic obsessions. When a friend was visiting, Jill said, “Michael do be quiet. I don’t want to hear you about Byron. I’ve heard it so many times. I want to know what Lizzie has been doing.”

Michael never could believe that anyone could have enough of Byron and wrote a whole book about him. I watched Michael and his nephew Paul, who had written a book about Shelley, go at it. Did Paul think Shelley a greater poet than Byron, I asked Michael. “No,” Michael assured me. “He doesn’t think so at all. He’s converted the other way around in my opinion.” When I laughed, Michael said, “Better ask him.” But then Michael assured me that Paul now realized that Byron had a sharper wit and a better sense of humor than Shelley. Paul would just laugh in such a way as to imply doubt about his conversion.
Given enough time, Michael believed he would win the world to his side. Is there anything more Romantic than that?

Carl RA University of Toronto Ph.D, Rollyson has published more than forty books ranging in subject matter from biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Norman Mailer, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, and Jill Craigie to studies of American culture, genealogy, children’s biography, film, and literary criticism. He has authored more than 500 articles on American and European literature and history.