The Tangled Lives of English Poetry’s Greatest Generation
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A prosopography of Keats, Shelley, Byron and others.

Successful biographers must balance density of detail with narrative flow. Cambridge-educated Hay adds the further challenge of documenting not one life, but those of several friends and acquaintances within the admittedly narrow social milieu of the so-called “Young Romantics.” Her thesis concerns the impact of a close circle of friends upon the work that these young talents produced. True to the group’s reputation, their lives involved enough wild abandon, steamy liaisons, elopements, intrigue, incest, love triangles, illegitimate children and passionate death to fill the pages of several novels. Though familiar and less-familiar characters move in and out of the chronological narrative, Hay spends the most time on the exploits of Shelley and Mary Godwin, whom the reckless poet whisked away in scandal while he was still married to another woman, and their entourage. This approach suggests that an artist’s leisure-class coterie—particularly in the early 19th century, when sociability was discussed and pursued as an art in itself—influenced, nurtured and challenged his or her work in significant ways. The author devotes few pages to analyses of the individual works; instead, she weaves a complex background of what was going on when many of these works were written and how those personal events worked their way into the poetry. Some of Shelley’s most beloved poems, for instance, weren’t penned on a bleak promontory but during spirited sonnet contests with his quill-wielding cronies. Though marketed to a general readership, the book hardly seems suitable for anyone but avid readers of literary history or students of Romantic poetry. For that audience, though, Hay offers an engaging model for biographical study, enabling heretofore unacknowledged players in the drama of the Young Romantic poets’ lives to have their say.

Intelligent and intricate, though occasionally dull.

Pub Date: May 4th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-374-12375-8
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2010


NonfictionMR. AND MRS. DISRAELI by Daisy Hay
by Daisy Hay