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May 6, 2010

Book Notes - Daisy Hay ("Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

I have always been fascinated by the Romantic poets. Byron, Keats, and Shelley were my first poetic loves, and their lives were equally as interesting as their literary works. In Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation, Daisy Hay explores their lives and interactions of these poets, along with their contemporaries Mary Shelley, Leigh Hunt and others, in a compelling group biography.

Hay faithfully reconstructs these creatives' lives, and offers striking personal portraits that contrast with their literary legacies.

The Guardian wrote of the book:

"None of these stories is new, although they are all rich enough to bear countless retellings. Rather, Hay's real skill lies in taking the founding myths of the second romantic generation and plaiting them into new configurations, allowing fresh emphases to emerge in the process. So instead of dashing stories about handsome poets and their pretty women, she gives us an account that is both more generous in its scope and more quotidian in its focus. Art matters to these young people, of course it does, but so do the cost of baby shoes, the love-hate that binds sisters, and the all-important question of who is coming to dinner."

In her own words, here is Daisy Hay's Book Notes music playlist for her book, Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation:

I didn't listen to a great deal of music as I wrote Young Romantics, since I'm too easily distracted by it, but it does play an important part in my book. For Leigh Hunt and his friends – who included Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and John Keats – shared music-making was one of the ways in which they celebrated their friendship and their democratic, liberal ideals. One of the things I've tried to do in the book is to demonstrate that the canonical Romantic writers were part of an multi-talented group of poets, novelists, artists and musicians, and that all these art forms influenced both their work and their relationships with one another.

'Young Folks' by Peter Bjorn And John

'Young Folks' is a good description of the Romantics, since their youth is one of their essential characteristics. But while 'Young Folks' is partly a song about youth, it's also a song about talking: 'All we care 'bout is talking/ Talking only me and you.' And talking was at the heart of the group's communal life. Leigh Hunt shaped his literary, intellectual and political philosophy around the idea of 'sociability,' and held that conversations between like-minded friends could reform the world. Governments might suspend Habeas Corpus, clamp down on freedom of the press, and send journalists to prison, but Hunt believed that as long as groups of friends continued to talk about radical, oppositional ideals, nothing could prevent their gradual spread. In his prison cell at Surrey Gaol in south London, Hunt and his friends put this idea into practice, and transformed their conversations into political weapons in the pages of his newspaper, The Examiner.

'All You Need Is Love' by The Beatles

'Love, love, love' - it's not a bad catchphrase for a book about a group of Romantics. The story of Percy and Mary Shelley is a story about love, from the heady early stages of first romance, through the trials and joys of co-habitation and young parenthood, to the challenges of hanging onto romance and passion when the reality of life interrupts the dreams of youth. Other partnerships in the group – between Mary's step-sister Claire Clairmont and Byron, or between Hunt and his sister-in-law Bess – were rather more fraught, but they too stemmed from the desire to love and to be loved. And there are other love-stories in my book, which might not fit the mould of romantic love, but which are love stories all the same. One such story is that of Claire and Allegra, her illegitimate daughter by Byron, about whom she wrote, 'I love her with a passion that almost destroys my being'. Leigh Hunt came to feel for Shelley a platonic love which was, in its own way, just as strong as Mary's, and was heartbroken when he died. And Mary herself devoted the rest of her life after Shelley's death to his memory, editing his poems, cultivating his reputation and cherishing his genius. She did so out of love, both for Shelley and for her son, whose future depended on Shelley's reputation. All these stories testify to the power of love, but they also ask whether it's really true that 'love is all you need'.

'You're So Vain' by Carly Simon

A song about dandies in honour of Byron, the most complicated dandy of them all. From the moment that Childe Harold's Pilgrimage appeared in 1812, Byron was a star, a celebrity of the kind never before seen in England. He was mobbed at parties, fans followed his every fad and fashion, and newspapers tracked every twist and turn of his unhappy marriage and separation.

It's been suggested that Carly Simon was singing about Mick Jagger; other candidates include Dustin Hoffman, James Taylor and David Geffen. She probably wasn't singing about Byron, but he nevertheless works brilliantly as the subject of her song.

'Rêveries, passions' from Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz

The Romantic movement didn't have an impact only on literature, or only in England. Berlioz's Symphone Fantastique amply demonstrates this, and his programme notes share many of the ideas and preoccupations of the Romantic poets. 'The composer's intention', Berlioz writes, 'has been to develop... various situations in the life of an artist.' The first movement, 'Rêveries, passions,' makes the project of the larger work explicit, as Berlioz's notes again illustrate. 'The author imagines that a young musician, afflicted with that moral disease that a well-known writer calls the vague des passions, sees for the first time a woman who embodies all the charms of the ideal being he has imagined in his dreams, and he falls desperately in love with her.' Berlioz was moved to write Symphonie Fantastique by his unrequited love for Harriet Smithson, so the work is a musical example of a phenomenon constantly visible at work between the Romantics, in which relationships and the actions of others inspire the group's poets, novelists and essayists to write.

John Keats, 'Ode to a Nightingale', read by Ben Whishaw, from the soundtrack to Bright Star.

You couldn't have a Romantic playlist with no poetry on it. I love this reading of 'Ode to a Nightingale', and Ben Whishaw is a wonderful Keats in Bright Star. He reads this poem with great sensitivity, and Mark Bradshaw's arrangement of the Adagio from Mozart's Serenade No 10 in B Flat Major complements his reading beautifully.

'Everybody's Changing' by Lily Allen

One of the things which struck me most acutely when I came to think about how to structure my book was that the experience of being a Romantic among friends depended very much on one's position in the group: on whether one was a husband, a wife, a mistress, a sister, or a parent. I was also struck by the fact that it was the group's women who tended to pay the price for shared ideals. In particular, Mary Shelley had to grow up extremely quickly. She was always precocious but between her sixteenth and twentieth birthdays she became a published author, a wife and mother, and the mistress of a sizable house. Some of the tensions which crept into her relationship with Shelley centred around this change from passionate, idealistic girl to professional, responsible woman. So in that spirit, here is Lily Allen's cover of Keane's song about the disjunctions change can bring to relationships. 'But everybody's changing/ And I don't feel the same.'

'Absent Friends' by The Divine Comedy

Shelley, Mary and Claire left England in 1818 to take Claire's daughter to Byron in Italy. Their departure fractured the group of friends Hunt had cultivated and celebrated, and meant that both he and Shelley had to find ways of keeping their friendship alive despite the geographical distance between them. They wrote letters, exchanged portraits and poetry, defended one another from attack, and consoled each other during periods of sorrow and adversity. For Shelley, the importance of friendship was at its strongest during this period, as he turned to thoughts of absent friends to inspire poems such as 'Julian and Maddalo' and 'Letter to Maria Gisborne'. Hunt, meanwhile, continued to celebrate the triumphs of his friends in his newspapers, even as figures such as John Keats began to drift away from his orbit. This is also a song which speaks to my own friendships, since it was one great college friend who originally introduced me to the delights of The Divine Comedy, and another who suggested that one of their songs should be included on this list.

'Dream a Little Dream of Me' by The Mamas & the Papas

In the early summer of 1822 the Shelleys moved from Pisa to the Casa Magni, an isolated house overlooking the Gulf of Spezia. It was a strange, unsettling time for all concerned, which started disastrously when Claire learnt that her five-year-old daughter had died in the convent in which Byron had placed her. Mary Shelley suffered a near-fatal miscarriage, and slipped into a disabling depression. She hated the house and its desolate surroundings, and was desperate to leave long before the summer was over. But Shelley loved the place and derived matchless joy from his new boat, in which he spent many happy hours: 'It is swift and beautiful...we drive along this delightful bay in the evening wind, under the summer moon, until earth appears another world.' He was absorbed in the composition of his extraordinary, haunting 'Triumph of Life,' a work filled with the ghostly spectres of the poet's dream. But he was not immune to the house's atmosphere, and experienced visions and hallucinations – of a child rising from the sea, of friends appearing blood-stained and lacerated to tell him that the sea was flooding the house, of strangling Mary. Here then, is a song about dreaming, courtesy of The Mamas & the Papas.

'Brothers In Arms' by Dire Straits

Shelley sailed away from Casa Magni at the beginning of July 1822 to meet Hunt in Pisa. The Hunts had come to Italy so that Shelley, Hunt and Byron could collaborate on a new journal, to be called The Liberal, and Hunt was full of excitement at the prospect of the shared project. But as Shelley sailed back to Casa Magni across the Gulf of Spezia he was drowned in a storm. His death destroyed Hunt's dreams of a new Italian coterie. In the months and years following his pagan funeral on the beach at Viareggio, his shattered circle entered into competition with each other as they fought to claim his poetic legacy for themselves, and as they struggled to shape their future by reworking a shared past. 'Let me bid you farewell', say the lyrics of this song. 'Every man has to die'. 'Brothers In Arms' is also about separation, solidarity, and battle-scarred revolutionary landscapes, all of them Romantic themes. 'But it's written in the starlight/ And every line in your palm/ We're fools to make war/ On our brothers in arms.'

'New Romantic' by Laura Marling

To finish, here is a song by British songwriter Laura Marling about relationships, love and loss. Laura Marling was only eighteen when her first album (and this song) appeared, and her career shows that brilliant young artists – be they writers or musicians – still have plenty to say about romance and Romantic ideas.

Daisy Hay and Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation links:

the author's website

Austenprose review
Austin Chronicle review
Barnes & Noble Review review
Daily Mail review
Guardian review
Irish Times review
Literary Review review
More review
Observer review
Publishers Weekly review
Times Online review
Vogue review

Telegraph profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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