Tag Archives: Romanticism

Pantisocracy: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey & the search for utopia

Today (21 October) marks the anniversary of the birth of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was born in Devon, England in 1772. A leader of the British Romantic movement, his best known poems are: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, and Kubla Khan. His idealism is best exemplified perhaps by his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to establish a utopian community with friend and fellow poet Robert Southey.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

By 1793, Southey aged nineteen and a student at Oxford University, had grown disillusioned with the lack of reform that characterised the aftermath of the French Revolution, and by the persistence of inequality in his native England. As a result, his thoughts turned to a simpler life in America, a new world untainted by the evils of established society.

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Robert Southey

In 1794, Southey was introduced to Coleridge, a student at Cambridge University. They founded a firm friendship on their common commitment to social justice and civil liberty, and formulated a plan to move to America, where they would establish Pantisocracy. This new word was derived from ‘Pan-socratia’, the Greek word for governance by all. They considered ‘Aspheterism’, the holding of property in common ownership, as a key principle. Southey envisaged Pantisocracy as a society:

…where the common ground was cultivated by common toil, and its produce laid in common granaries, where none are rich because none should be poor, where every motive for vice should be annihilated and every motive for virtue strengthened.

Underpinning their scheme was a melange of ideas garnered from the writings of Plato, Paine, Priestley, Hartley, Godwin, and Dyer. This new utopia would, they believed, arise from a commitment to benevolence and civil liberty, a concern for human rights, and an awareness of the perfectibility of mankind. As Southey saw it:

Their wants would be simple and natural; their toil need not be such as the slaves of luxury endure; where possessions were held in common, each would work for all; in their cottages the best books would have a place; literature and science, bathed anew in the invigorating stream of life and nature, could not but rise reanimated and purified.

Women had a place in this idyll too, albeit a subordinate one. As Southey explained:

Each young man should take to himself a mild and lovely woman for his wife; it would be her part to prepare their innocent food, and tend their hardy and beautiful race.

Southey had a clear vision for how he and his fellow-idealist would spend their days, writing:

When Coleridge and I are sawing down a tree, we shall discuss metaphysics; criticize poetry when hunting a buffalo; and write sonnets whilst following the plough. Our society will be of the most polished order.

Originally, they thought of settling in Kentucky, but they shifted their sights to the Susquehanna Valley in Pennsylvania. The plan was to invite ten like-minded men and their families to join them. Initially, wealthier members would support the less well off until they became self-sufficient. They were certain that this would be the first of many such communes.

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Susquehanna Valley, Pennsylvania

Although the pair planned to travel to the new world in 1795, they were woefully underprepared. As a result of having studied the misleading promotional accounts that were reaching England from America, they underestimated the physical labour required to set up a new community. For some reason, they assumed that only four hours a day need be dedicated to work, the rest being available for contemplation.

Funding was also an issue. The original plan was that Southey’s wealthy aunt, Elizabeth Tyler, would put up capital. However, when she learned of his plans, and worse still his intention to marry seamstress Edith Fricker, she disinherited him and ejected him from her house into a violent rainstorm. As a result, Southey scaled back the plan. He began to talk of settling on a farm in Wales, of hiring servants to do the bulk of the manual labour, and of retaining private ownership of land with the exception of a small plot to be held communally.

Coleridge was incensed and condemned Southey as a traitor. Since he too had believed he would need a wife to accompany him to America, he had married Edith’s sister Sarah, but theirs was an unhappy union. He never returned to Cambridge but began his career as a writer instead. Having spent some time collaborating with William Wordsworth, he dedicated the next two decades to composing poetry, lecturing on literature and philosophy, and publishing tracts on religious and political theory. Although he lived off grants and donations for the most part, he did spend two years on the Island of Malta working as Acting Public Secretary of Malta under the Civil Commissioner, Alexander Ball, a post he had accepted in an effort to overcome poor health and a calamitous addiction to opium.

Unable to break his dependence on opium,Coleridge moved to London in 1816, to live in the home of his physician, James Gillman. Although his behaviour was erratic, and he developed a conviction that the world was about to end, he continued to produce wonderful work, including Biographia Literaria, a volume of his finest literary criticism; Sibylline Leaves; Aids to Reflection; and Church and State.

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Coleridge died in London on July 25, 1834. The cause of death was recorded as heart failure compounded by a lung disorder that may have resulted from his opium addiction. He was sixty-one and had lived separately from his family for two decades by then.

You can find the modern day Pantisocracy, an excellent cabaret of conversation presided over by Dr Panti Bliss at this link here.


Coleridge has absolutely nothing to do with Oscar Wilde or Wilde’s Women, but you might like to read it anyway.



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Julia Constance Fletcher

In 1876, when she was eighteen, Julia Constance Fletcher, an American-born author who was living in Venice at the time, published A Nile Novel, or Kismet under her pseudonym, George Fleming. It was a huge success and is considered a minor American classic to this day. Months after its publication, Julia bumped into Oscar Wilde, who was holidaying in Rome with friends.

Wilde found Julia absolutely fascinating, particularly when he learned of her brief, tempestuous affair with Byron’s grandson Ralph Gordon Noel Milbanke, thirteenth Baron Wentworth and second Earl Lovelace. The son of the brilliant Ada Lovelace, who had died when he was thirteen,  he was, by then, two decades older than Julia. There were scandalous whispers of a broken engagement, prompted apparently by Lovelace’s discovery that Julia’s parents were divorced. Afterwards, Lovelace engaged in several desperate but futile attempts to retrieve letters and keepsakes that had belonged to his celebrated grandfather.


There are no confirmed photographs of Julia Constance Fletcher but she is thought to be the woman in the middle

On returning to Oxford, Wilde begged a mutual friend to supply Julia’s address ‘immediately’. Her reply to the letter he sent so delighted him that he told his friend she wrote ‘as cleverly as she talks,’ adding, ‘I am much attracted by her in every way’.[i]

When Wilde won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for his poem Ravenna, he dedicated the published version:




Their friendship endured. A decade later, when he was editor of The Woman’s World, Wilde serialised Julia’s novel The Truth about Clement Ker. In 1894, the year before he was imprisoned, he attended the first night of Mrs. Lessingham, a dramatic exploration of female solidarity that Julia staged in collaboration with pioneering actress Elizabeth Robins.

Julia Constance Fletcher outlived Oscar Wilde by almost four decades. Although she never married, and devoted the latter half of her life to the care of her ailing mother, she had several affairs including one with Siegfried Sassoon’s father, Alfred, who subsidised the publication of her novel Andromeda, published in 1885, and introduced her to his wife Theresa in Venice in 1888.  Alfred moved out of the family home in 1891, but did not move in with Fletcher, choosing to remain in Britain instead. In The Old Century, Sassoon writes very movingly about his father leaving, but makes no mention of an affair.*

When war broke out in 1914, Julia worked tirelessly as a volunteer nurse in the military hospitals of Venice. Her wartime services to her adopted nation earned her the Croce de Guerra, the Campaign Ribbon with two stars, the medal for epidemics, the Duke of Aosta’s medal of the Tirza Armata, and the silver medal of military merit. An obituary in The Times of 11 July 1938, lamented the loss of, ‘her brilliant personality and exceedingly witty talk’.[ii]

She is deservedly one of Wilde’s Women.


* My thanks to carolenoakes.co.uk for this information.
[i] Letter to William Ward, July 1877, Complete Letters, p.58
[ii] ‘“George Fleming” novelist and dramatist’, The Times, 11 June 1938, p.14

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BARS Blog – On This Day in 1816: Introducing ‘The Year Without a Summer’ Part II

Below is part II of my blog post for the brilliant and very highly regarded British Association for Romantic Studies. Part one of ‘The Year Without a Summer’, which kicked off their commemoration of the events of 1816, appeared here. Part II can also be found here. Do please visit the blog and comment if you have anything to add.


We are very pleased to welcome Eleanor Fitzsimons (winner of the 2013 Keats-Shelley Prize and author of Wilde’s Women) to the BARS blog. This post, part of the ‘On This Day’ series, presents Part II of her essay ‘Every Cloud: How Art and Literature Benefited from a Year Without Summer’. Eleanor’s essay looks at 1816 as the year of no summer and examines the impact that catastrophic weather patterns had on the work of writers and painters such as Turner, Austen and the Shelleys. Part II is to follow.

We think you’ll all agree that this is a great way to introduce 1816 in 2016, a year in which we will be celebrating the bicentenaries of many important Romantic events. If you want to contribute to the ‘On This Day’ series with a post on literary/historical events in 1816, please contact Anna Mercer (anna.mercer@york.ac.uk). 


Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810. National Portrait Gallery

Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen (c) 1810, National Portrait Gallery

The English novelist Jane Austen spent the summer of 1816 in the village of Chawton in Hampshire, where she shared a cottage with her sister Cassandra, her chronically ill mother and an assortment of nieces and nephews. In a letter to her niece Anna, written on June 23, 1816, Austen described how their neighbor Mrs. Digweed had been soaked to the skin by a rain shower she characterized as ‘beyond everything’. The appalling weather kept the author indoors: ‘Oh! It rains again; it beats against the window’, she told her nephew Edward, adding, ‘such weather gives one little temptation to be out. It is really too bad, and it has been for a long time, much worse that anybody can bear and I begin to think it will never be fine again’. On July 9, Austen, accompanied by her niece Mary Jane, attempted a jaunt to nearby Farringdon in the family’s donkey cart: ‘we were obliged to turn back before we got there’, she told Edward, ‘but not soon enough to avoid a Pelter all the way home’.

At the time, Austen was working on The Elliots, which she later renamed Persuasion. Although she had thought the book finished in July, as she sat indoors watching rain cascade down her windowpanes, she decided that she was dissatisfied with its ending and spent a further three weeks rewriting the final two chapters. By autumn, Austen’s health had deteriorated dramatically. Her back ached continuously and she felt unable to walk even a short distance. Although she blamed her wretchedness on rheumatism brought on by the unusually damp weather, her symptoms were indicative of something far more serious, possibly Addison’s disease, a tubercular disease of the kidneys. By winter she was housebound, but she remained stoic: ‘Air and exercise is what I want’ she assured her family. In May 1817, Jane Austen was taken by carriage in the pouring rain to Winchester Hospital where she died in the arms of her sister Cassandra on July 18, 1817.

The world had been forecast to end precisely twelve months earlier, on July 18, 1816. Seeking an explanation for the bizarre weather, a superstitious populace had concluded that such weird portents could only indicate an impending apocalypse. This supernatural thinking was forgivable. News of the eruption of Mount Tambora did not reach Europe for many months and, even if it had, the link between volcanic eruptions and unseasonal weather was not recognized until 1913, when William Jackson Humphreys, an American physicist and atmospheric researcher with the U. S. Weather Bureau, presented evidence to the Cleveland meeting of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America. However, in the absence of a sound scientific explanation, news of the planet’s imminent demise was widely accepted. Such fear mongering prompted opium-addled poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to remark ‘this end of the World Weather is sadly against me by preventing all exercise’. At the time, Coleridge had left his home in the Lake District and was living in London as a patient and houseguest of Dr. James Gillman, who had prescribed daily walks as an integral part of his treatment regime.

Attempts were made to calm the situation. While newspapers carried soothing editorials, clerics held public prayer services and recommended mass demonstrations of piety, but apocalyptic fear was fuelled by a series of sunspots, visible to the naked eye, which were interpreted as proof of the disintegration of the sun. Keen to strike a lighter note in the face of mass hysteria, English satirist William Hone published ‘Napoleon and the Spots on the Sun or the Regents Waltz’, a satirical ditty in which he claimed that Napoleon had escaped from the Island of St. Helena and invaded the sun in revenge for his defeat at Waterloo. The solution proposed by Hone involved catapulting the Prince of Wales, then Prince Regent, into space where he would engage in hand-to-hand combat with Britain’s nemesis.

The citizens of Europe had every reason to feel aggrieved with their rulers. During the early years of the nineteenth century, the entire continent had been ravaged by a serious of ruinous wars that left its populace ill-equipped to withstand the destruction wrought by devastating weather patterns. Bands of unemployed veterans recently returned from the grueling Napoleonic campaign now faced rocketing food prices, destitution and disease. They had surely had their fill of wet weather too. It had poured with rain on June 18, 1815, the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, turning the battlefield into a quagmire and compounding the horror of the occasion. By 1816, these battle-weary men were back in Britain, feeling abandoned by their rulers. In response to the lack of gratitude for the loyalty they had shown to the Crown, these men took to rioting in the streets, looting everything they could get their hands on and considering it no more than their due.

Widespread unrest culminated in the ‘Bread or Blood’ riots that erupted in East Anglia, home to painter John Constable who lived in the Suffolk village of East Bergholt. Constable, a committed Tory who had lost two cousins at Waterloo, had little patience with the band of armed veterans and laborers that marched on the cathedral town of Ely in protest at food shortages, holding the town’s magistrates hostage and fighting a running battle against the militia. Rather than incorporate the inclement weather into his work, as Turner had, Constable did precisely the opposite, painting idyllic representations of bucolic Albion as a reaction to this social and climactic upheaval; The Wheatfield and Flatford Mill, both painted in 1816, are examples of this.

As ever, enterprising folk found opportunity in a crisis. When the German oat crop failed, leaving people unable to feed their horses, the entrepreneurial Baron Karl Christian Ludwig von Drais de Sauerbrun enjoyed a sudden upsurge of interest in his latest invention, the bicycle. There were cultural benefits too: the spectacular sunsets and ominous sulphurous skies that lit the skies with bilious yellow and orange tints, found their way into the paintings of J.M.W. Turner and recent scientific analysis demonstrates that the works he completed in the years immediately following major volcanic eruptions contain significantly higher levels of red pigmentation in his extravagant sunsets. His Chichester Canal, which is included in the Tate Britain collection, captures the distinctive sepia hue so characteristic of refracted sunlight.

Turner paid a high price for accessing such beauty. He was dogged by bad weather all summer long and left Yorkshire to travel throughout continental Europe where conditions were, if anything, even worse than those he had endured at home. This caused him to exclaim:

Rain, Rain, Rain, day after day. Italy deluged, Switzerland a wash-pot, Neufchatel, Bienne and Morat Lakes all in one. All chance of getting over the Simplon or any of the passes now vanished like the morning mist.

Switzerland in particular was battered. Prodigious rainfall filled Lake Geneva, adding two meters to the water level and flooding low-lying districts for miles around. Homes were destroyed, livelihoods lost and livestock drowned, their bloated corpses found floating across the brimming lake. Turner arrived just in time to witness the disastrous wheat harvest that resulted in a serious flour shortage and inflated the price of a loaf of bread to the extent that Swiss dinner guests were asked, politely, to bring their own.

Eighteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who called herself Mary Shelley by then, had been in Switzerland since June 1816. Along with her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her stepsister, Claire Claremont, she was renting the modest Maison Chapuis on the southern shore of Lake Geneva, close to the opulent Villa Diodati that was occupied by Lord Byron and his entourage. Unremitting rain put paid to any plans for alpine walks, boating trips and sightseeing excursions. In her journal, Mary recorded: ‘it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house’. When Byron and Shelley embarked on a sailing trip to the medieval fortress of Château de Chillon, torrential rain delayed their return, obliging them to take refuge for two days in the Hôtel de L’Ancre in the lakeside resort of Ouchy. It was during this enforced hiatus that Byron wrote his narrative poem The Prisoner of Chillon.

Confined to Byron’s rented villa, the party huddled by the fireside, recounting chilling tales of the supernatural as lightning cleft the skies above and thunder reverberated off the mountains that surrounded them. Byron found the weather frustrating and complained of the ‘stupid mists, fogs and perpetual density’, but enforced confinement allowed him to complete several works including his autobiographical ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, which includes a vivid description of the storms that raged across the lake as the ‘big rain comes dancing to the earth’. His apocalyptic poem ‘Darkness’, which describes an ‘icy Earth’ presided over by an ‘extinguished sun’, was written, by his own account, on ‘a celebrated dark day, on which fowls went to roost at noon, and the candles were lighted as at midnight’. It contains the line: Morn came and went, and came, and brought no day’.

In late July, in defiance of the weather, the Shelleys set out to visit Mer de Glace, a vast glacier that nestled in the Chamonix Valley at the base of Mont Blanc, but a dense white mist descended and Mary recorded that ‘the rain continued in torrents’. Shelley incorporated the rain-swollen torrent of the River Arve into his poem ‘Mont Blanc: Lines written in the Vale of Chamouni’, and he used that image to denote great power. Although the weather curtailed their activities, all were enthralled by the frequent and frenetic thunderstorms that reverberated off the mountains, imbuing the landscape with a supernatural light. Mary described these tempests as ‘grander and more terrific than I have ever seen before’, and described in her journal how, as each discharge of lightning rent the clouds, the landscape was: ‘illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the darkness’.

Safe indoors, they would read aloud from Fantasmagoriana, a collection of ghost stories. In Shelley’s preface to Frankenstein, he described how hearing these stories ‘excited in us a playful desire of imitation’. Byron issued a challenge to those present that they should write a story ‘founded on some supernatural occurrence’; he started immediately on ‘A Fragment’, which is recognized as one of the first stories to feature a vampire and hailed as a key inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, oil on canvas, 1819. National Portrait Gallery

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curren 1819, National Portrait Gallery

Lord Byron by Richard Westall, oil on canvas, 1813. National Portrait Gallery

Lord Byron by Richard Westall, 1813, National Portrait Gallery

Although Mary struggled to settle on a theme, she found inspiration in a conversation between Byron and Shelley concerning the reanimation of a corpse. In her preface to the third edition of Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus, she described how her gothic tale of rejection and revenge was informed by a ‘waking dream’ that she experienced later that night, when the ‘bright and shining moon’ hanging over Lake Geneva shone through the shutters into the bedroom she shared with Shelley. This preface also mentions the ‘incessant rain’ that beat against the windows of the Villa Diodati, keeping them all indoors. Percussive rain accompanied the creation of Frankenstein and found its way into her story; ‘rain pattered dismally against the panes’ as the eponymous scientist gave life to his monster.

Mary punctuated her narrative with the thunderstorms that raged above. In one instance, Victor Frankenstein describes a storm that ‘advanced from behind the mountains of Jura’:

The thunder burst at once with frightful loudness from various quarters of the heavens. I remained, while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbands of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed.

Later, he is described watching a terrifying storm from the same lakeside spot where Mary herself stood. His words echo almost exactly the entry Mary made in her journal on June 1, 1816:

…the darkness and storm increased every minute, and the thunder burst with a terrific crash over my head. It was echoed from Saleve, the Juras, and the Alps of Savoy; vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire; then for an instant everything seemed of a pitchy darkness, until the eye recovered itself from the preceding flash. The storm, as is often the case in Switzerland, appeared at once in various parts of the heavens.

Weather is inescapable in the works of the Romantics, and never before had they experienced the conditions that characterized the ‘year without summer’. Yet, had a benign Swiss summer encouraged Byron and the Shelleys to abandon their fireside tales and embark on Alpine walks instead, we might not have Frankenstein, or at a stretch, Dracula. Had clement weather permitted Jane Austen to leave her cottage in Chawton, her wonderful Persuasion might have a different, less satisfying ending. The incessant downpour that prevented J.M.W. Turner from entering Weathercote Cave swelled the Ure, the Washburn and the Wharfe, and filled the high glacial Malham Tarn, providing him with dramatic subjects at every turn. At Malham Cove, Turner painted the arc of a rainbow. He sketched children as they gazed down on the raging torrent at Cotter Force and he captured the torrential descent of the Aysgarth waterfalls. He even hired a guide to take him underground so that he could sketch Dow Cave by candlelight, keeping one ear to the roar of the swollen river. The old adage reminds us that every cloud has a silver lining. Certainly, there was no shortage of clouds during the bleak summer of 1816 and the dramatic weather that prevailed permeates some of our best loved art and literature.

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Wilde about Keats

I’m so proud to be a contributor to the wonderful Romanticism Blog – it’s a really brilliant source of information on the Eighteenth Century and the Romantic poets. My latest post for them is a tie-in with my book Wilde’s Women.


It can be read here or below:


In July 1877, subscribers to the Irish Monthly, a publication subtitled ‘A Magazine of General Literature’, were treated to an entertaining and scholarly article headed ‘The Tomb of John Keats’. The author, a 22-year-old Dubliner, was an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was reading Literae Humaniores, the university’s undergraduate course in Classics. This was his first published prose article and his name was Oscar Wilde.

In this moving tribute to the young poet, which can be read here, Wilde, an avid fan, introduced Keats as ‘one who walks with Spenser, and Shakespeare, and Byron, and Shelley, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the great procession of the sweet singers of England’. While allowing that the resting place of ‘this divine boy’, which he had visited earlier that year, was surrounded by beauty, Wilde insisted that Keats’ brief but extraordinary life was not honoured fittingly by the ‘mean grave’ that held his remains.

Describing the emotions that came over him as he stood by Keats’ graveside, Wilde paid florid homage to his hero: ‘I thought of him as of a Priest of Beauty slain before his time; and the vision of Guido’s St. Sebastian came before my eyes as I saw him at Genoa’. He was moved to compose a poem:

HEU MISERANDE PUER (Later renamed THE GRAVE OF KEATS and included in Poems, 1881)

Rid of the world’s injustice and its pain,
He rests at last beneath God’s veil of blue;
Taken from life while life and love were new
The youngest of the martyrs here is lain,
Fair as Sebastian and as foully slain.
No cypress shades his grave, nor funeral yew,
But red-lipped daisies, violets drenched with dew,
And sleepy poppies, catch the evening rain.

O proudest heart that broke for misery!
O saddest poet that the world hath seen!
O sweetest singer of the English land!
Thy name was writ in water on the sand,
But our tears shall keep thy memory green,
And make it flourish like a Basil-tree.

Ever the self publicist, Wilde sent his poem to the eminent poet, patron and politician Lord Haughton, editor of Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848). Inviting Haughton to comment on his tribute, Wilde also petitioned his support for a campaign to replace an ‘extremely ugly’ bas relief of Keats’ head, which had been erected close to his grave, with something befitting ‘a lovely Sebastian killed by the arrows of a lying and unjust tongue’.

Wilde could be fiercely proprietorial in his devotion; he chose ‘Keats House’ as the name for the Chelsea home he shared with artist Frank Miles and suggested that only those who shared Keats’ genius were worthy of copying his distinctive style. Certainly, his own early work resonates with echoes of his predecessor, a similarity that was apparent to his critics. One anonymous and damning review of Poems, published in The Athenaeum, asserted that Wilde’s derivative style grew ‘out of a misunderstanding worship of Keats’, and concluded ‘in spite of some element of grace and beauty’, his poems had ‘no element of endurance’. This proved to be the case.

Keats was a pioneer of aestheticism: ‘What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth’, he declared in a letter to his great friend Benjamin Bailey, written in November 1817. Little wonder Wilde insisted: ‘It is in Keats that one discerns the beginning of the artistic renaissance of England’. Again and again, he invoked his hero as a touchstone for the admirable or the unworthy.

Wilde was scathing in ‘Two Biographies of Keats’, a review piece he wrote for the Pall Mall Gazette in September 1887. While he favoured Sidney Colvin’s evaluation over William Rossetti’s ‘great failure’, he chastised the former for drawing attention to Bailey’s toned-down characterisation of Keats as a man of ‘commonsense and gentleness’, insisting ‘we prefer the real Keats, with his passionate wilfulness, his fantastic moods and his fine inconsistence’.

Although The Athenaeum derided it, the depth of Wilde’s devotion was recognised by Keats’ niece Emma Speed, daughter of his brother George who had moved to America in 1818 and settled in Louisville in 1819. Mrs. Speed, described by Wilde as ‘a lady of middle age, with a sweet gentle manner and a most musical voice’, sought him out after he cited her uncle’s poem ‘Answer to a sonnet by J.H. Reynolds’ during a lecture he delivered at the Masonic Temple in Louisville on Tuesday, 21 February 1882. Wilde accepted her invitation to call on her the following day in order to examine the Keats manuscripts in her possession; he recalled this experience in ‘Keats’ Sonnet on Blue’, an erudite article he wrote for the July 1886 issue of The Century Guild Hobby Horse:

I spent most of the next day with her, reading the letters of Keats to her father, some of which were at that time unpublished, poring over torn yellow leaves and faded scraps of paper, and wondering at the little Dante in which Keats had written those marvellous notes on Milton.

Shortly afterwards, in an act of overwhelming generosity, Emma Speed sent him the original manuscript of ‘Answer to a sonnet by J.H. Reynolds’, prompting him to write in response:

What you have given me is more golden than gold, more precious than any treasure this great country could yield me, though the land be a network of railways, and each city a harbour for the galleys of the world.

It is a sonnet I have loved always, and indeed who but the supreme and perfect artist could have got from a mere colour a motive so full of marvel: and now I am half enamoured of the paper that touched his hand, and the ink that did his bidding, grown fond of the sweet comeliness of his character, for since my boyhood I have loved none better than your marvellous kinsman, that godlike boy, the real Adonis of our age…. In my heaven he walks eternally with Shakespeare and the Greeks…

Three years later, on 2 March 1885, Wilde attended a contentious auction in London at which thirty-five of Keats’s love letters to Fanny Brawne were being sold by her son Herbert Lindon. He expressed his disquiet in ‘On the sale by auction of Keats’s love letters’.

These are the letters which Endymion wrote
To one he loved in secret, and apart.
And now the brawlers of the auction mart
Bargain and bid for each poor blotted note,
Ay! for each separate pulse of passion quote
The merchant’s price. I think they love not art
Who break the crystal of a poet’s heart
That small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat.

Is it not said that many years ago,
In a far Eastern town, some soldiers ran
With torches through the midnight, and began
To wrangle for mean raiment, and to throw
Dice for the garments of a wretched man,
Not knowing the God’s wonder, or His woe?

Yet, despite his apparent distaste, Wilde reportedly spent eighteen pounds on one of these letters. Perhaps he regarded himself as a worthy keeper of the flame. In truth, he was.

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Harriet Shelley's engagement ring

Harriet Shelley’s engagement ring

I was delighted to be asked to write a post for the excellent new Romanticism Blog, hosted on the http://www.wordsworth.org.uk site. My contribution concerns the short and tragic life of Harriet Shelley, first wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and is reproduced below. It can also be found on the Wordsworth Trust Blog here:

On Thursday, December 12, 1816, a short but intriguing report was carried on page two of The London Times. It read:
“On Tuesday a respectable female, far advanced in pregnancy, was taken out of the Serpentine River and brought to her residence in Queen Street, Brompton, having been missed for nearly six weeks. She had a valuable ring on her finger. A want of honour in her own conduct is supposed to have led to this fatal catastrophe, her husband being abroad”.

Five days earlier, on the evening of Saturday, December 7, 1816, the day that was almost certainly her last, Harriet Shelley, aged twenty-one, wrote a rambling letter filled with self-recrimination. Sometime later, she walked the short distance to Hyde Park and entered the icy waters of the Serpentine. At the time of her death, Harriet had lived apart from her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley – father to their two young children – for more than two years, and the child she carried was almost certainly not his.

During the inquest that was held the following day in the nearby Fox Alehouse, Harriet’s identity and the grim details of her lonely death were obscured, although coroner, John Gell did attempt to close off speculation that she might have been murdered by releasing a statement confirming: ‘The said Harriet Smith had no marks of violence appearing on her body, but how or by what means she became dead, no evidence thereof does appear to the jurors’. An inconclusive verdict of, ‘Found dead in the Serpentine River’ was returned and no mention was made of her obvious pregnancy. She was buried as ‘Harriett Smith’.

Almost six years earlier, on the bitterly cold January day when she first met eighteen-year-old Percy Bysshe Shelley, Harriet Westbrook had been a strikingly pretty, fifteen-year-old pupil at Mrs. Fenning’s boarding school in Clapham; he was brother to two of her schoolmates, Mary and Hellen. Although the fiery young poet unsettled her with his radical notions of atheism, it was to him she turned, after just six months of friendship, when her father was insisting that she remain on at school even though, at sixteen, she would be older than any other girl there.

Although Shelley was keen to help Harriet, he had absolutely no intention of proposing marriage, and assured his good friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, ‘if I know anything about love, I am NOT in love’. His rash suggestion that they elope to Edinburgh was prompted by a letter from Harriet containing a credible threat of suicide; later, he confided in his friend Elizabeth Hitchiner that, ‘suicide was with her a favourite theme’. After they were married under Scots Law on August 29, 1811, Harriet and Shelley spent three chaotic years criss-crossing England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in pursuit of his ill-fated notions of social revolution and communal utopia. As their disapproving families had cut off all funds, they struggled to stay out of reach of their creditors.

On 23 June, 1813, Harriet gave birth to a daughter, Eliza Ianthe, known always by her middle name. Parenthood brought fresh anxieties, and their chaotic finances, compounded by Harriet’s reluctance to breastfeed, fuelled fierce arguments. By Christmas, they were spending long periods of time apart. Ironically, it was during this turbulent period that the couple remarried under English law in an attempt to regularise the legality of their relationship. They must have maintained some degree of cordiality, as Harriet became pregnant with their second child that same month. Nevertheless, the marriage was effectively over, and Shelley told Hogg that he, ‘felt as if a dead and living body had been linked together in loathsome and horrible communion’.

The final blow was delivered when Shelley became besotted with sixteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. He fled abroad with her, and implored his wife to support this new relationship. He even invited her to join them in Switzerland. Harriet was distraught. She returned to her father’s house and gave birth to baby Charles. For two years, she led a life of quiet desperation, pestered for money by her errant husband and deprived of her infant children, who were sent to the countryside for their health. By spring, 1816, although she engaged little with society, Harriet was pregnant for a third time. The names of several candidates have emerged over the years, but the identity of the father has never been established.

In the decades that followed her death, Harriet Shelley was viciously slandered by supporters of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and strenuous attempts were made to erase all trace of her from Shelley’s life. The notion that Shelley had been tricked into marriage gained currency among those who regarded her as an unequal partner for him. Yet her supporters defended her staunchly, and perhaps the most vehement, though least likely of these was Mark Twain in his persuasive essay, In Defense of Harriet Shelley.

By mining the archives, we can uncover a clear sense of Harriet’s character, and her significance. She was beautiful, clever, witty and kind; fluent in French and competent in Latin; fascinated by history and au fait with current affairs. Yet as a woman of her time, she was afforded no outlet for these accomplishments. There are many recorded instances of her laughing with her husband and teasing him playfully. Yet she was prone to debilitating bouts of depression and, in her blackest moods, contemplated suicide.

The stability that Harriet offered Shelley during their short marriage allowed him to push the boundaries and develop the strong political sensibilities that characterise his work. Although life with him was chaotic, she was unwavering in her support: she accompanied him to Ireland to preach revolution; facilitated his attempts to establish a utopian commune; cared for him when he seemed utterly demented; and bore him children, one of whom would continue his line. The novelist and poet Thomas Love Peacock, who was a good friend to both, described how Harriet, ‘accommodated herself in every way to his tastes. If they mixed in society, she adorned it; if they lived in retirement, she was satisfied; if they travelled, she enjoyed the change of scene.’

Harriet inspired Shelley’s early poems and haunted his later work. He dedicated his masterful, Queen Mab to her, writing: ‘Thou wert the inspiration of my song’. He was haunted by the part he played in her dreadful, lonely death, and confessed to Byron, ‘I know not how I have survived’. His friend and fellow writer Leigh Hunt believed that it: ‘tore his being to pieces’. Perhaps the best testament to Harriet’s lasting influence is the fact that Shelley countered enquiries about the frequent low moods that blighted the remainder of his short life with the words, ‘I was thinking of Harriet’.

Eleanor Fitzsimons is a freelance journalist and researcher. Her work has appeared in publications including, The Irish Times,The Sunday TimesHistory Ireland and The Guardian, and she has researched documentaries for the Irish national broadcaster, RTÉ. She has an MA in Women, Gender and Society from University College Dublin. In 2013, she won the Keats-Shelley Prize and was runner-up for the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize with ‘A Want of Honour’, her proposed biography of Harriet Shelley. She is represented by the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency.



April 27, 2014 · 9:09 am