Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets
Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets

Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets

Tim Flight - July 18, 2018

Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, England, 1795. Drinking Business

Coleridge’s Opium Habit

The first Romantic Poet with a gossip-worthy private life was Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). The youngest son of a vicar, Coleridge was a fine scholar, but also a temperamental and dreamy child. His degree in Classics at Jesus College, Cambridge, was disrupted by heavy drinking, a tempestuous love affair, and an interest in French revolutionary politics (see below). After joining the army out of despair, Coleridge was bought out of his regiment by his brother on the grounds of insanity, and began writing poems. He met William and Dorothy Wordsworth in 1797, and poetry was never the same again.

Coleridge was a phenomenally talented poet, producing all manner of works from the archaic-pastiche of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to poems lamenting his loss of the creative impulse such as Dejection: An Ode. The writers’ block painfully described in Dejection was largely due to Coleridge’s prodigious consumption of opium, in the form of the tincture known as laudanum. He later claimed in a letter that he began ‘the ACCURSED Habit’ as a treatment for swollen knees, but it swiftly got out of control, and was to have a severe impact on his career as a poet.

Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Khan, was actually the result of an opium dream. Having had his usual dose of laudanum one night in 1797, Coleridge fell asleep reading a passage about the summer palace built by the Emperor of China, Kublai Khan, at Xanadu. He claimed to have composed 300 lines of poetry in his sleep, which hurried to write down upon waking. Unfortunately, ‘a person… from Porlock’ knocked at the door, breaking his concentration, and the poem was never completed. The 54 lines he managed appropriately end, ‘for he on honey-dew hath fed/ and drunk the milk of Paradise.’

The damage wrought on his health by his heavy opium use meant that Coleridge’s finest work all dates from his early years. Of his three most-acclaimed poems – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, Kubla Khan – the latter two were never finished. As well as harming him physically, Coleridge’s opium use also worsened his already nervous disposition, and caused him to lose confidence in his own work, despite a legion of admirers. Wordsworth, who never used laudanum, later became Poet Laureate, whilst Coleridge’s poetic gifts shrivelled up and his drug habit plunged him into crippling depression. Don’t do drugs, kids.

Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets
Portrait of Lord Byron, British poet (1788-1824) by Thomas Phillips, London, 1813. Wikimedia Commons

Byron at Cambridge

Whilst Coleridge’s drug use is really just rather sad, the lives of the two younger Romantic Poets whose exploits will form much of the rest of this list, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, are far more amusing. We begin with George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), whose name has rightly been a byword for promiscuous men since the poet’s own lifetime. In the words of the great literary critic, Harold Bloom, ‘no author before or since has enjoyed and suffered such notoriety, or had a literary or social influence beyond his actual imaginative achievement, considerable as that was.’

Byron’s father was John Byron, a degenerate hell raiser known as ‘Mad Jack’. ‘Mad Jack’ died when his son was but 3 years old, leaving him heir to a depleted fortune and in the care of his mentally unstable and alcoholic mother, Catherine. George became Lord Byron aged 10 when his great-uncle died, by which age he claimed to have been seduced by his governess. He also suffered from the caprices of his mother’s mood swings, alternately brow-beaten and overindulged. His was an unusual childhood, and after attending school at Harrow he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge.

Despite his reputation as a lady-killer, Byron was actually largely homosexual. Byron first had gay relationships at Harrow, which he continued at Trinity. His beau there was John Edleston, a choir boy at Trinity, to whom he addressed the following lines upon leaving Cambridge in 1807: ‘and thou, my Friend! whose gentle love/ yet thrills my bosom’s chords/how much thy friendship was above/description’s power of words!’ (The Adieu, 61-64). Their relationship lasted the full two years of Byron’s attendance at Trinity, during which time he also began to write poetry, publishing his first collection in 1806 before he graduated.

Byron kept a rather unusual pet at Trinity. A lifelong animal lover, Byron was distraught to learn that college rules forbade the keeping of dogs. No mention, however, was made of pet bears, and so he procured himself an ursine companion which he kept in a garret. ‘I have got a new friend, the finest in the world’, he wrote. ‘A tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was, “he should sit for a fellowship”‘. Rules are rules, and so he was allowed to keep the beast.

Although he got his degree, Byron was not an especially hard-working or disciplined student. He attended literally no lectures, noting that ‘nobody here seems to look into an author ancient or modern if they can afford it’. He had a very generous allowance of £500 per year, which he squandered on clothes, alcohol, and trips to London, and had to borrow against his future inheritance. In fact, Byron was so busy doing other things that he was only at Cambridge for 3 of the 9 terms required to be awarded a degree. Aristocratic privilege meant that he graduated, regardless.

Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets
Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, England or Ireland, 1819. Wikimedia Commons

Shelley at Oxford

Byron’s great friend and contemporary, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), also came from an aristocratic background, albeit a fabulously wealthy one. Shelley endured a miserable time at Eton College, where he was subjected to the ritual of ‘Shelley-baiting’ everyday at 12pm, in which he would be surrounded by older boys who teased him and tore at his clothes. His high-pitched shrieks which ended the daily ritual earned him the nickname ‘Mad Shelley’. Lighter moments at Eton included his habit of running a current through his room’s door handle to give unsuspecting tutors an electric shock, and blowing up a tree.

He went to University College, Oxford, in 1810. Slightly more studious than Byron, Shelley apparently attended one lecture during his brief time at University College, and spent almost all of his spare time reading. His first work, a Gothic novel called Zastrozzi, which he wrote in his final year at Eton, was published the year he matriculated. The novel articulated his fervent atheism, and the titular character was described by one reviewer as ‘one of the most savage and improbable demons that ever issued from a diseased brain’, concluding that ‘the author of it cannot be too severely reprobated’.

Zastrozzi had been attributed only to ‘P.B.S.’, allowing Shelley to escape infamy, but this did not last long. In 1811, Shelley published a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism, which he sent to the heads of every Oxford college. ‘Every reflecting mind must acknowledge that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity’, it stated. ‘God is an hypothesis, and, as such, stands in need of proof: the onus probandi rests on the theist.’ The anonymous pamphlet was traced to Shelley, and he was expelled after refusing to confirm or deny his authorship, even after his father’s intervention.

Shelley’s time at Oxford was brief and anarchic, and in many ways set the tone for his short life. Shelley had radical views, and was not afraid to express them, even at great personal cost. His refusal to give up his beliefs, even when under pressure from the authorities, made him one of the most unpopular men in Britain, but such conviction is laudable. There is an amusing footnote to Shelley being sent down for blasphemy: in 1893, University College was given a statue of Shelley by his daughter-in-law, which still stands in memory of the man they once expelled.

Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets
Augusta Leigh by Sir George Hayter, England, c.1800. Magnolia Box

Byron and his Half-Sister

Byron’s promiscuity with both men and women is legendary. Amongst his innumerable conquests, the most notorious by far was his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. After finding fame in 1812 with Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a semi-autobiographical poetic account of his travels around the continent after leaving Cambridge, Byron became a sought-after fixture on the London party scene. However, despite apparently having his pick of the ladies and gentlemen of London Society, possessing as he did the dangerous mixture of an intoxicating personality and great beauty, for one reason or another Byron was chiefly attached to Augusta after meeting her again in 1813.

They were paternal step-siblings, who had first met in around 1802. Though there can be no justification for incest, it is still surprising to learn that Augusta was no great beauty. She had a maternal manner and a simple way of dressing, characteristics of no obvious appeal to a man who had slept with some of the most beautiful men and women in the country, but it was this very quality that made Augusta so irresistible to Byron. In Augusta, he saw the qualities that his own mother did not have, and that his tempestuous childhood sorely needed.

Five years Byron’s senior, Augusta (or ‘Goose’, as he called her) was fond of referring to her half-brother as ‘Baby Byron’, as if including him amongst her own brood of children, whom Byron adored despite publically claiming antipathy to kids. At some point in 1813, their relationship disturbingly turned from maternal to sexual, as Byron himself confessed in a letter to his friend, Tom Moore, on August 22nd: ‘the fact is, I am, at this moment, in a far more serious, and entirely new, scrape than any of the last months, – and that is saying a great deal’.

Rumours circulated about the step-siblings’ incestuous relationship, and when Augusta gave birth to a baby girl, Elizabeth Medora Leigh, it was suspected that Byron was the real father. Eventually, such whispers began to impact Byron’s life, along with his rising debts, and so in 1815 he married Annabella Millbanke, niece of Lady Melbourne. Annabella left Byron a year later, taking their daughter with her, citing Byron’s incest with Augusta as her motivation. Public horror at Byron’s relationship with Augusta reached fever pitch with the separation, and he was forced to leave England for the continent, ostracised and embittered.

Byron was characteristically unremorseful about the affair, later writing to Augusta that, ‘I repent of nothing except that cursed marriage’. At the affair’s height, Byron pretentiously explained to his future wife, Annabella, that ‘the great object of life is Sensation – to feel that we exist – even though in pain – it is this “craving void” which drives us to Gaming – to Battle – to Travel – to intemperate but keenly felt pursuits of every description whose principal attraction is the agitation inseparable from their accomplishment’. There’s something deeply profound in those words, but it’s still gross to have sex with your sister.

Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets

Shelley’s Necromanticism

1811 was a busy time for Shelley. After being sent-down from Oxford, he fell out with his father, and eloped to Scotland with Harriet Westbrook, the 16-year-old daughter of a coffee house proprietor. They married in Edinburgh, though Shelley disapproved of matrimony and religion. The marriage was an unmitigated disaster, despite producing two children, and did extremely well to last until 1814. Shelley immediately eloped to the continent with Mary Wollstonecraft, the intellectual, 16-year-old daughter of the philosopher, William Godwin, and the pioneering feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft. He neglected his children in England, and the heartbroken Harriet drowned herself in 1816.

Mary was a far more suitable companion for Shelley, and they married within weeks of hearing of Harriet’s suicide. However, their relationship was slightly odd, to say the least. Soon after meeting, Mary took Shelley to her mother’s grave at St. Pancras Old Church, London (where the current tube station stands). As well as, presumably, paying their respects to the deceased, the young lovers also had sex on the grave. Mary lost her virginity a few feet above the remains of her dead mother. Interestingly, themes of death and procreation punctuate Mary’s magnum opus, Frankenstein, more on which below.

Abandoning Harriet and their children, culminating in the former’s suicide, meant that Shelley became one of the most hated men of his day: being a heartbreaker, anarchist, and atheist won you few friends in the early nineteenth century. Unsurprisingly, Shelley’s custody battle for his abandoned children was a failure, though he was deeply saddened by it, and wrote several poems detailing his misery. Public opinion thus forced the Shelleys and their own children to settle abroad permanently in 1818, though Mary returned to England after her husband’s death in 1823, and managed to have a successful writing career.

Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets
Portrait of George Gordon (1788-1824) 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale in Albanian Dress by Thomas Phillips, England, 1835, after an original of 1813. Wikimedia Commons

Byron and Ali Pasha

By far the most notorious male acquaintance of Byron’s was Ali Pasha (1740-1822), a vicious warlord known as ‘the Lion of Yannina’ who ruled part of Albania. Byron travelled to Albania, reputed to be a savage and dangerous country, in 1809, on the tour immortalised in Childe Harold. Few were brave enough to cross Albania’s beautiful mountains, but this just made it all the more appealing to Byron, whose aforementioned-philosophy of life was pursuing ‘Sensation – to feel that we exist’. Landing at Prevasa in scarlet uniforms, Byron and his companion, John Cam Hobhouse, did not know what to expect.

Byron and Hobhouse received an introduction to Ali Pasha via William Leake, the British ambassador in Albania. Pasha was keen to meet the young Englishmen, being a keen-minded politician who saw the diplomatic potential of entertaining foreign aristocrats. Byron and Hobhouse were warmly received, and enamoured with the splendour of Pasha’s court and the traditional Albanian dress (see portrait above). Byron claimed that Pasha kept a large harem of both men and women, and thus it is no surprise that they got on like a house on fire, Pasha complimenting Byron on his beauty and generally leering at him.

‘He treated me like a child, sending me almonds & sugared sherbet, fruit & sweetmeats 20 times a day’, remembered Byron. As we saw in the episode with Augusta Leigh, Byron was susceptible to being treated ‘like a child’, but modern Byron-scholars believe it unlikely that Ali Pasha managed to seduce Byron, who preferred younger men, and described his host in unflattering terms in a letter to his mother as ‘very fat and not tall, but with a fine face, light blue eyes and a white beard’. Unquestionably, however, Byron was flattered by the powerful warlord’s advances and compliments.

The other side to Ali Pasha, a man known for impaling and roasting his enemies, was not lost on Byron. In the same letter to Catherine Gordon, he observed that ‘his manner is very kind and at the same time he possesses that dignity which is universal among the Turks. He has the appearance of anything but his real character; for he is a remorseless tyrant, guilty of the most horrible cruelties, very brave, and so good a general that they call him the Mohametan Buonaparte [Islamic Napoleon Bonaparte]’. The visit to Ali Pasha had been a ripping adventure.

Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets
The Villa Diodati, on the shore of Lake Geneva, which hosted Byron, Shelley and their retinue in 1816. Wikimedia Commons

Lake Geneva, 1816

As previously mentioned, Byron and Shelley were great chums, and in 1816 decided to take a holiday together with their entourages. Shelley brought his lover, Mary Godwin, and their son, William, and Byron brought his physician, John Polidori. Also in the retinue was Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, a former lover of both Byron and Shelley (which Mary knew). They chose the Villa Diodati (above) on the shore of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, but the weather that summer was not as expected. In fact, 1816 was known as ‘the year without a summer’, due to the heavy rain and low temperatures.

This was caused by the eruption of Mount Tamboro in Indonesia, the volcanic ash from which was so thick that it obscured the sun, meaning that candles had to be lit even at midday. Reaching Diodati in May, the Shelleys had travelled across the precarious wintry landscape of the Alps, which Mary vividly described in her travelogue, History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany and Holland (1817): ‘never was a scene more awfully desolate. The trees in these regions are incredibly large, and stand in scattered clumps over the white wilderness’.

Thus a dreary atmosphere awaited the Romantic Poets and their retinue at Lake Geneva. The weather was so bad that sightseeing was all but impossible, and so the party instead passed the time with intense philosophical and literary discussions. Simultaneously, Polidori made unreciprocated advances to Mary, and Claire continued to pursue an impervious Byron. Shelley, apparently, was so affected by the atmosphere that he fled the room screaming when Byron read verses from Coleridge’s Christabel by candlelight. One fateful night, Byron suggested that each write a ghost story in the spirit of competition. Literature was never the same again.

The atmosphere was conducive to the creation of fine Gothic horror. Byron gave up on his own tale, but allowed Polidori to adapt it into the novella that was published as The Vampyre, whose protagonist, Lord Ruthven, was a thinly-veiled portrayal of Byron himself. The novel influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and is seen as the very first romantic vampire tale. Meanwhile, Mary Shelley had a nightmare in which she ‘saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion’.

That nightmare was the inspiration for Mary’s most famous work, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. As well as the experience of losing her virginity on her mother’s grave, Mary was also influenced by the dreadful misfortunes of miscarriage and still-birth she had borne since meeting her husband. It is no surprise that the Villa Diodati produced such a harrowing tale, given the general atmosphere and the philosophical discussions undertaken. As Mary remembered, ‘various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered communicated’.

Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets
Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, Paris, 1830. Wikimedia Commons

Romanticism and Politics

Despite the movement’s obsession with the self, Romanticism was closely associated with politics, in particular of the revolutionary kind. Indeed, Romanticism itself was in part formed in response to the political changes of the late 18th century. Political and intellectual movements at the time encouraged the assertion of individual and national rights and thus questioned kings’ and courtiers’ right to rule home and abroad. In particular, the American and French Revolutions were bloody demonstrations of these new views. For the English Romantic Poets, the French Revolution of 1789 and its aftermath was the most influential event in their young lives.

Thus most Romantic Poets were, at least in their youth, political radicals. Even Wordsworth, who later sold-out by becoming Poet Laureate, visited Revolutionary France in 1791, and was deeply impressed. He fell in love with a Frenchwoman and only returned due to tensions between Britain and France and his poor finances. His head was turned from the Revolution, however, by the brutal Reign of Terror. Coleridge was similarly enamored, and when the Napoleonic Wars broke out between the nations, he was decidedly anti-Britain: ‘[I] blessed the paeans of delivered France/ and hung my head and wept at Britain’s name.

Shelley was an anarchist. Following the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, in which 15 protestors against parliamentary oppression died when charged by cavalry, Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy, a poem so controversial that it was not published in his lifetime: ‘rise, like lions after slumber/in unvanquishable number/shake your chains to earth like dew/which in sleep had fallen on you/ye are many—they are few!’. As for Byron, he used his seat in the House of Lords to urge social reform, support the machine-vandalizing Luddites, and argue for the end of established religion, on the grounds that it inhibited personal freedom.

Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets
The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Edward Fournier, Paris, 1889. WordPress

The Death of Shelley

‘It’s better to burn out, than to fade away’, as Neil Young once observed in Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black). Part of the legend of the Romantic Poets comes from several of them dying young, including Byron, Shelley, and their contemporary, John Keats (1795-1821). Shelley died at the age of 29, less than a month before his 30th birthday, sailing his boat in the Gulf of Spezia, Italy. His boat was named the Don Juan after Byron’s famous poem of the same name, and in it Shelley was returning from founding a politically radical journal called The Liberal.

The boat, an open vessel, had been custom-made for Shelley in the famous shipbuilding port of Genoa. Unfortunately, whilst crossing from Livorno to Lerici, the Don Juan met with a sudden and violent storm, which caused it to sink, due to a design fault according to Mary Shelley. Others have blamed the poor navigational skills of Shelley and his companions, a retired naval officer and a boat boy, who also perished. Still others have suggested that Shelley deliberately drowned himself out of depression, though he had just founded a journal of which his works would form a large part.

It took some time for Shelley’s body to wash ashore, and when it did it was hideously disfigured and bloated. Owing to quarantine regulations, he was cremated on the beach where he washed up. Many in England however were not sad to hear of his passing: ‘Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned; now he knows whether there is God or no’, smirked The Courier. But while that particular publication has been forgotten, Shelley’s legacy lives on, and a memorial to him was erected in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, the highest accolade for a British writer.

Scandal, Drugs, and Sonnets: 12 Surprising Details About the Lives of the English Romantic Poets
Lord Byron on his Death-bed by Joseph Denis Odevaere, Netherlands, c.1826. Wikimedia Commons

Byron goes to War (sort of)

True to his revolutionary principles, in 1823 Byron involved himself in the Greek War of Independence, fighting for Greece’s freedom from the Ottoman Empire. Before he set sail, he told Lady Blessingham that, ‘I have a presentiment I shall die in Greece’. After a series of mishaps, Byron’s hired brig, the Hercules, reached Missolonghi in January 1824. Along the way, his deep pockets and spendthrift nature caused widespread squabbling amongst rival Greek factions over which cause he should join. After all, he had personally shelled out £4, 000 to refit the Greek fleet. He eventually allied himself with Alexandros Mavrokordatos.

Farcically, even the enemy got wind of Byron’s wealth, and the garrison meant to be protecting the Ottoman fortress at Navpaktos offered to surrender to him without a fight if he would pay them the wages they claimed to be owed by their employers! Even when the Ottomans executed the mutineers and restocked the fortress with loyal soldiers, Byron still could not launch an attack on Navpaktos because the men he had been assigned kept demanding more money from him, and eventually he sent them all home with the words, ‘they may go to the Turks or the devil!’

Byron sold his remaining property in England for a handsome price, and planned to plunge all of his wealth into the Greek war effort. Byron even paid for his own unit of 30 officers and 200 men, known as ‘Byron’s Brigade’, out of his own pocket. He nevertheless still found the time to fall deeply in love with his Greek page, Lukas Chalandritsanos, upon whom he lavished around £25, 000 in today’s money. His affections were, unusually, not returned. But before Byron saw any serious military action, he developed sepsis, and died in Missolonghi on April 19th 1824.

Fallen ill, Byron had his blood let with field instruments, which is presumed to have caused the lethal infection. The Greeks mourned deeply for Byron, and crowds flocked to see his body as it lay in state in London, but the Deans of both Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral refused to bury his body, and instead he was interred in the Byron family vault in Hucknall Torkard, near Newstead. Although there is now a memorial to him in Westminster Abbey, Byron’s beloved Newfoundland dog, Boatswain, still has a more elaborate memorial than his more famous master at Newstead Abbey.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Blake, William. The Complete Poems. Ed. by Alicia Ostriker. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.

Bloom, Harold, and Lionel Trilling, eds. Romantic Poetry and Prose. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Damrosch, Leopold. Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

Drabble, Margaret, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Holmes, Richard. Shelley: The Pursuit. London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 2013.

MacCarthy, Fiona. Byron: Life and Legend. London: Faber & Faber, 2003.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Wu, Duncan, ed. Romanticism: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.

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