In his snappily titled Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon of 1852 Karl Marx wrote that “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Or to paraphrase, as we do, “History repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” It’s an attractive idea, but what happens when – as can be seen from the history of, say, rock music – it happens again and again. Better, perhaps then, to turn to pioneer performance poet and musician Pete Brown and the title of his song (and the album that it saw the light of day on): Things may come and things may go,
but the Art School Dance goes on forever.
I’ve been reading about the second wave of English Romantic poets in Daisy Hay‘s Young Romantics: the Shelleys, Byron and other tangled lives (Bloomsbury, 2010). It’s an absorbing tale and while she doesn’t seek to unduly disguise its academic genesis Ms Hay’s never dry telling rolls along nicely, it’s a fine read. It has struck me before that there is potential just waiting to be exploited (in the best possible sense of the word) in TV soaps of quality following the unfolding sagas of intellectual coteries such as this dashing bunch, or Samuel Johnson’s mates and hangers-on. After all, it was all happening. For my sins I hardly knew the bare bones of the lives described here. Whether fuller knowledge of what they tried for and the consequences of what went down in their lives would have made a blind bit of difference to – if you’ll excuse the phrase, which rather gives it away – my generation‘s aspirations and actions (or those of some of us) is a moot point, but there would certainly have been forewarning of what was likely to crop up along the way. More Marx, from the same entertaining magazine article quoted at the start of this piece: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Yes, but.
We start with Leigh Hunt’s support group in gaol in London in 1810. The early optimism of the French Revolution has long run it’s course and the first generation of Romantic poets are off being lonely as a cloud on the road to respectability. The publisher of an influential radical magazine and a poet, Hunt is in gaol for ‘libel’; it’s basically government repression, but his brother keeps the mag going and even though in prison Leigh effectively becomes the centre of a focussed radical literary salon, a social movement in microcosm, that continues outside when he’s served his term, theorising and living ideas of free love, atheism, republicanism. With the Napoleonic war’s end the scene moves, for various reasons – ignominy, scandal, economics, health – to Europe: Switzerland, then Italy. Masterpieces are written, stuff happens. Then Keats, Shelley and Byron die and we’re back in London and the aftermath.
Hay successfully blows the Romantic myth that has grown up around the members of the group. “… great literature did not have to be the work of isolated genius […] it could be inspired by conversation and friendship” and she also gives the contributions, concerns and travails of the women of the group due space and credit in the enterprise:
Creativity for the first generation of Romantic poets was inherently solitary, since it stemmed from, and idolised, the genius of the individual spirit. Hunt’s poetry subverted this model of Romantic individualism, and suggested that inspiration was located in communality and in collaborative creative practice. He located inspiration in tangible everyday things: firesides, tea parties and the Hampstead fields. Foliage [a collection of Hunt’s poetry written about his friends] thus presented an avowedly democratic project, since it suggested that anyone could be a poet, as long as he or she understood that poetic inspiration was present in the sights and relationships of ordinary life, and not just in the vistas of the Lake District …
She quotes critic Jeffrey Cox to the effect that Hunt sought “to provoke the reader into new practice, to argue we should adopt what we might see as a counter-cultural lifestyle devoted to free nature, a liberated community and imaginative freedom.” A bunch of hippies? Byron, one of the crew, noted Foliage was in fact addressed to “men of the most opposite habits, tastes and opinions in life and poetry (I believe), that ever had their names in the same volume,” but for Hunt that wasn’t the point. It was:
… a response to critical voices both from within and without his circle […] codifying its activities as philosophically significant for English poetry. Blackwoods had sought to destroy Hunt by imposing a pejorative collective identity on his friends and now Hunt proclaimed that identity in his own writing, wearing his leadership of the ‘Cockney School‘ as a badge of honour. […] in the public imagination figures such as Keats and Hazlitt now became indelibly associated with Hunt. As a result, his circle gained in significance as they came to represent a distinct ‘counter-culture’.
Such cultural significance, however, came at a high cost for the various members of the group, and it did little to shore up some faltering personal relationships.
How strange that appellation of the Cockney School now sounds, but as tactic in the culture wars its appropriation is a nice stroke, one surely familiar to rock and poetry scholars. But note the warning of problems to come in that last sentence.
Then there’s the problem of Don’t believe the hype. In 1822 Edward Trelawny, a Premier League bullshitter with a completely fabricated back story, joins the gang Pisa in 1822 and they are taken in:
Trelawny was himself a Byronic creation. He modelled himself on the hero of The Corsair … which had taken London by storm in 1814. Trelawney was more Byronic than Byron himself, and it was flattering – if a little odd – for a poet to meet a man who had taken on the identity of one of his creations. For the others, the combination of Byron and the personification of his hero was irresistible.
Trelawny was to play up his role in the group for decades later, and help further the Romantic cliché of the poet as lonely individual genius, of which more later.
And then there are the After the Gold Rush moments. A year later, after the death of Shelley and with Byron away liberating Greece, those remaining throw a birthday party for Hunt.
Despite the apparently familiar combination of music, puns, flowers and laughter, the Novello’s party was a fantasy, a bringing together of people who had little more than memories to unite them.
While Hunt was trying to keep the radical ball in the air:
The network which sustained his imagination during his absence turned out now to be a chimera. As far as Hunt’s friends were concerned this was a natural progression, in which the demands of work and family took precedence over youthful ideals of communal living. […] and their individual responsibilities towards parents, husbands, wives and children increased.
He was still banging the gong, though:
‘What is wanted,’ Hunt writes to [poet] John Clare, ‘is a regular supply of unchanging and straightforward spirits, inflexible alike either to misfortune or worldly interest […] We will love deeply; we will not refuse any lighter solace of sociality, that comes; we will have our sprightly songs, as well as our war songs & our marches …
Sound familiar? And he’s right, of course. With that big but … The tragedy and farce and great times that is the Art School Dance that moves things along, of the movers and shakers who Move on up (and in other directions too).
One of the fringe players, Charles Brown, a close friend of Keats, knew only too well that, as Hays says, “posterity would view his relationship with Keats as his greatest achievement.” “His fame … is part of my life,” he readily admitted.
In the years following the deaths of Keats, Shelley and Byron, their old circle discovered the accuracy of this statement, as individual lives were shaped by other people’s fame. Some, such as Haydon and Hogg, found this difficult, while others – chiefly Mary and Hunt – came to realise that the stature of their friends offered them the chance to reshape their own lives according to a particular set of ideals, and that they could use the past to reinvent themselves. What they failed to realise was that, in the process, the memories of friends would be transformed from sources of consolation into sources of conflict, and that separate versions of a shared history would test the allegiances of the remaining members of Keats’s ‘web … of mingled yarn’ to the limit.
You can still see it happening with each artistic and political movement or generation’s shift into heritage, in the memoirs and autobiographies of the survivors and what Hay calls “the battle for ownership of the past.”
I was going to look at Pete Brown‘s autobiography in the light of the pattern of events that Daisy Hay so ably chronicles in Young Romantics, but this post is long enough already. Regrettably Pete suffers like Keats’ mate mentioned above from – shall we call it? – Charles Brown Syndrome. The book goes out, after all, under the title White rooms & Imaginary westerns, referencing songs other people made famous. I’ll give it space another time.