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Review: Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation, by Daisy Hay

The funeral of Shelley: The poet's body burning on a pyre. Painting by L.E. Fournier.

Although their group was dubbed the "Cockney School," Keats, Shelley, Byron and Hunt did not constitute a school of anything. Relishing friendship and even notoriety, being politically radical and ardent in love and art, the young Romantics achieved greatness as a community of fellow writers with shared ideals and feelings.

This, certainly, is the view presented by Daisy Hay's communal biography of them. Avoiding stereotypical and sentimental images of frail, sensitive Percy Bysshe Shelley, spiritually wounded John Keats and "mad, bad and dangerous" Lord Byron, her book is a meticulous researcher's triumph, overcoming by its refreshing perspectives of the major women in the poets' lives a compulsive propulsion to make a daisy chain of famous names of the period, with numerous sketches of minor figures.

The motive for this book came to Hay (she reveals in her preface) on her honeymoon, when, as an enthusiastic young academic, she whisked her husband off to view the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, in which lie the remains of Keats and Shelley, and two friends who lie buried, respectively, beside them. Artist Joseph Severn (calling himself "devoted friend and death-bed companion" to Keats) had accompanied the poet to Rome and nursed him during his final illness. Edward Trelawny, a Cornish raconteur, had travelled to Italy to meet Byron, but fell, instead, under Shelley's spell, claiming thereafter an undivided bond with him, even though their friendship lasted less than a year.

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Triangular patterns of intimacy generate much of the juiciest drama

Both these friends romanticized their associations with their poet-heroes, also creating false sentimental myths about them in the process. Hay's book is an antidote to the myths. It is a group biography richly compressed into nine eventful years, 1813 to 1822. At first, it seems overloaded with details, yet somehow lacking a palpable spirit of place. Though she tells us what each major poet did on routine days in England or Italy, Hay does not really evoke the ambience of Lake Geneva, Skinner Street, Albion House, Pisa or the Villa Diodati - sites of some of the major events or incidents in her massive narrative.

It is also difficult to keep up with the huge cast of characters - everyone, it seems, from the major players and their ancestors (William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft et al.) to their numerous women, political enemies and famous supporters or contemporaries such as William Hazlitt, Charles and Mary Lamb, Charles Cowden Clarke, Thomas Love Peacock, Thomas Jefferson Hogg and Benjamin Robert Haydon, for example.Hay's narrative commences in 1813, with journalist and poet Leigh Hunt's imprisonment for two years in Surrey jail for libel against the Prince Regent, whom he described as "a corpulent gentleman … without one single claim on the gratitude of his country."

Mislabelled "King of the Cockneys" by his political enemies, he holds court in prison for visitors and wins the moral and even financial support of other loyal friends such as Shelley and Keats, who then (after his release) evidently subscribe to his belief in sociability as a catalyst for creativity. While often placed in the foreground of the narrative, Hunt gradually yields the focus to the other, greater poets. Hay's method is to roam the communal context, demonstrating interpersonal relationships, conflicts, resolutions and complications, without diminishing her central propagation of Hunt's credo in sociability as an instrument for "binding together individuals with shared ideals."

Triangular patterns of intimacy generate much of the juiciest drama. One such design results from Shelley's affair with Mary Godwin while he is still unhappily married to Harriet, whom he abandons, leaving her to drown herself in the Serpentine, and thereby leaving him free to marry his paramour.

But then Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont, complicates matters further. She causes a great strain in family relationships because of her infatuation with Shelley, and then turns her attention to Byron, with whom she has a brief, unhappy affair, producing an illegitimate daughter as a result. Evidently her devotion to his poetry was quite perfect. If she makes the narrative sound incestuous, it is not solely her fault. Shelley, for his part, believes in "free love," and Byron obviously practises what Shelley propounds.

And all the while, their women suffer. Byron, for instance, decrees that his illegitimate daughter live with him and not her mother, Claire. Mary Shelley suffers miscarriages and loses a son when he is only 3. And Hunt's sister-in-law, Bess Kent, is badly used by Hunt in bed and out of it. Keats, however, escapes such notoriety, despite a brief affair with Fanny Brawne, daughter of his next-door neighbour. He suffers more from vicious Tory reviews and editorials, even though he moves out of Hunt's circle before succumbing to tuberculosis before he is 26.

Though Claire makes Shelley the main target of her offensive later in life, and denounces the males in the group for turning into lying, mean, cruel, treacherous monsters, Daisy Hay's book hardly becomes a feminist's revenge. After Shelley drowns in a stormy sea in Italy in 1822, Mary (celebrated for her Gothic novel Frankenstein) gives selflessly of herself to her surviving son, the Hunt children, and the steadfast rehabilitation of her dead husband's reputation. Perhaps she could never draw herself out of Shelley's shadow, recognizing that his notoriety and fame were both part of her life. So, Hay's book balances its verdict on the young Romantics by acknowledging both the large achievements and the appalling costs of their public and self-indulgent private lives.

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Toronto writer Keith Garebian's most recent book is the poetry collection Children of Ararat.

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