Hail, Muse!

Seamus Perry

  • The Making of the Poets: Byron and Shelley in Their Time by Ian Gilmour
    Chatto, 410 pp, £25.00, June 2002, ISBN 0 7011 7110 3
  • Byron and Romanticism by Jerome McGann
    Cambridge, 321 pp, £47.50, August 2002, ISBN 0 521 80958 4

Ian Gilmour’s deft and learned book is concerned with the lives of Byron and Shelley up to the morning on which Byron woke up and found himself famous. The poets weren’t to meet for another four years, so Gilmour isn’t telling the history of their acquaintance but its prehistory; and not the least of his book’s many virtues is the way it makes you realise what an odd combination they made. The obvious comparison is with Coleridge and Wordsworth, who quickly recognised in one another a kindred spirit, even though differences later emerged; but Shelley and Byron were always opposites. One was a devout evangelist for atheism; a passionate metaphysician, who, Polidori records, once talked about idealism ‘till the ladies’ brains whizzed with giddiness’; perhaps the most intuitively abstract poet in the language (‘You might as well go to a ginshop for a leg of mutton, as expect anything human or earthly from me’); and a fervent eulogist of imagination and the ‘unacknowledged legislature’ of poets. The other, plagued by a childhood Calvinism into irrationalist fantasies of doom, was also a natural debunker who, in Gilmour’s words, ‘prided himself on his cynical realism’, who spoke with cheerful contempt of ‘the mazes of Metaphysics’, and with equally cheerful contempt of poetry: ‘Who would write, who had anything better to do?’ Byron exemplifies Barbara Everett’s compelling thesis that English poets thrive on a stubbornly philistine mistrust of the pretensions of art: Shelley reminds us that the thesis does not hold good for all great English poets. Even in their politics, while they are obviously both on the side of progress, the differences are important. Shelley was a Godwin-intoxicated optimist: Byron, a disheartened Foxite Whig.

Extremes meet, as Coleridge would say. But it is striking that Byron and Shelley’s poetic voices never did meet much – certainly not in the way that Coleridge and Wordsworth found themselves speaking the same language. A strong dose of metaphysics temporarily moved Byron to the heady stuff of Childe Harold III, and Shelley took the hint of Byron’s Horatian manner to write the urbane Julian and Maddalo. But, much more important, each brought to fruition in the other a pre-existing style of genius quite opposite to his own. It was Byron’s company, of all things, that seems to have spurred Shelley to write Prometheus Unbound; and it was renewed acquaintance with Shelley, of all people, that moved Byron to set out on Don Juan. (And it was chiefly Shelley’s large-minded conviction of the nobility of the enterprise that persuaded Byron to persist with the poem when everyone else thought it a dreadful mistake.)

As Gilmour makes clear, what enabled this strange chemistry to get going was a mixture of uneasiness and self-assurance about class that the poets recognised and warmed to in each another. Shelley, according to Byron, was ‘as perfect a Gentleman as ever crossed a drawing room’, but his background was only precariously genteel. Grandfather Bysshe twice eloped with heiresses: he grew to be very rich, but so miserly that he refused to occupy Field Place, the big house, where his dismal son Timothy was installed instead. Timothy was dull and self-important, regularly humiliated by his domineering father, and uncomfortably aware of the weakness of his claim to gentility. All this evidently left its mark on Percy, Timothy’s oldest son, who habitually regarded himself as a victim of patriarchal oppression (‘he had a need to feel persecuted,’ Gilmour says), while at the same time being convinced of his own superiority. His outrage at injustice was ardent and noble, but his passion for reform never had much to do with fellow-feeling with the lower orders. The good folk of Keswick struck him as a terrible blot on the scenery, he was appalled by the ‘Irish mob’; and while noisy in his scorn for the ‘imbecility of aristocracy’, he was disdainful of commerce and manufacturing. (Compare the radical poets of the 1790s, many of whose patrons were in enlightened ‘trade’.) Many people found Shelley charming, but the class-sensitive Keats thought him more than a touch patronising.

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