Keats, Chatterton, Shelley, Byron, Wollenstone, Burns… they all died in their prime. But what would it have meant, for art and for the world, if they had lived their full three score and ten? Professor Nick Groom offers a counterfactual history of the long-lived Romantics…
What would have happened if John Keats hadn’t died so young? The poet and biographer Andrew Motion offered one potential scenario in his novel The Invention of Dr Cake, published a few years ago by suggesting that he would have become a country doctor – but this is just one of countless plausible speculations. Keats died of tuberculosis in Rome, on his way to stay with Percy and Mary Shelley. Imagine if he had recovered and the three writers had met together: Keats’s convalescence, propped up in bed reading and writing and talking, offers some startling possibilities. Percy Shelley had just got all fired up about the Greek struggle for independence from Turkish occupation, and although neither of these paragons of delicacy could have led a charge across a battlefield, they would certainly have had something to say on the matter. Would Keats and Shelley have collaborated on some sort of modern, political Iliad?
Probably not. Keats was a chippy lower-middle-class medical student who thought that the lounging aristocrat Shelley was a bit of a snob – as well as being jealous of the toff’s promiscuous sex life. So assuming that the Shelleys would not have finished him off with their cranky diets, filthy children, and incessant intellectual chit-chat, Keats would have probably been better off returning to Hampstead, writing his poetry there, and disappearing into frustrated obscurity. His verses, characterized by forebodings of imminent death, only became popular after his own untimely demise, suggesting that the melancholy beauty of Keats’s poetry is as much to do with the fact that he died young as it is with what he actually wrote. Once the story about the cruel end of a sensitive young poet got going, readers flocked to read his poetry.
Dying made Keats immortal and forever young, and intimately bound his fame to his passing. His image doesn’t bear the possibility of him continuing to live and write – which at the very least suggests that our popular image of him is wanting. This evergreen Keats would have become an oddity: at best a hack pitched by his publishers at the genteel female reading public, an embittered silver-fork writer who somehow wished to vie with Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth. It’s pretty ghastly trying to imagine the brimmingly sensitive Keats in middle age, a bookcase of his own pulp fiction behind him, his desk scattered with the papers of thwarted poetic epics, and vilified by the upcoming Pre-Raphaelite rebels. But he might have become something different. His younger brother had already emigrated to America and was eventually elected to the city council of Louisville, Kentucky. Could John Keats have followed him to become the leading poet of this young nation, the laureate of America’s emerging culture, writing odes to the bald eagle?
Of course Keats isn’t the only Romantic poet, let alone writer, with whom this game can be played. The archetypal live-fast, die-young, leave-a-good-looking corpse poet was already Thomas Chatterton, the teenage forger whose myth was crystallized in Henry Wallis’s iconic painting. Malcolm McLaren once said that this postmortem portrait is:
the best fashion pose ever, and Chatterton is the best male model ever, a precursor to all rock’n’roll icons. He is a 19th-century Sid Vicious. He is anti-establishment, a pretty, disenfranchised robber, a gorgeous, poetic thief, cute, romantically dressed, sweet-smelling.
Chatterton died at 17, apparently having committed suicide. This young, neglected, poverty-stricken genius expiring in a garret embodied a myth of squandered potential that inspired the later Romantics and which has appealed to virtually every misunderstood teenage bedroom poet ever since – doubtless Master Vicious among them.
Chatterton was a passionate, sullen, sarcastic, vegetarian, drug-taking teenager; he was also an immensely gifted writer and fervent abolitionist. His prodigious talent was allowed only a couple of fantastically productive years, yet during this time he forged a vast quantity of medieval poetry that scholars argued over for twelve years before it was proved to have been written by Chatterton himself rather than being the works of a fourteenth-century monk. On top of that, he published over fifty fashionable poems and political essays, wrote a burletta performed at Marylebone Gardens, and secured a book contract. Let us suppose for a moment that Chatterton didn’t die in his Chancery Lane garret, but survived his suicide attempt. Would he have had another go at poisoning himself a few days later when the next wave of depression hit him? Perhaps. But suppose his poisoning wasn’t suicide at all: what, if as now seems far more likely, Chatterton had no suicidal tendencies and his death was actually the result of an accidental drugs overdose?
Chatterton was intrigued by drugs and African culture and wanted to see the world as a ship’s surgeon – as if he were some eighteenth-century cross between an adventurer-poet like Sir Walter Raleigh and a hippy. Maybe he’d have returned from exotic foreign parts to find the literary world in tumult over his juvenile forgeries. Chatterton had also made money writing political pieces, had met the popular radical hero John Wilkes, and haboured ambitions to be a pamphleteer. James Macpherson, who had already set the literary world on fire by forging the ancient Celtic epics of Ossian less than a decade earlier, was a political lobbyist and commentator by the time young Thomas arrived in London, and provides a template for the professional writer and intellectual at the time. Macpherson was later awarded a government pension and a comfortable parliamentary seat, and is buried in Westminster Abbey – which is better than dying at 17 and ending up in a pauper’s grave, however posterity might treat you.
Had Chatterton continued a poet, the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti reckoned that he was ‘as great as any English poet whatever, … the only man in England’s theatre of imagination who could have bandied parts with Shakespeare’. Chatterton might have anticipated Wordsworth and Coleridge’s landmark Lyrical Ballads (1798) or Walter Scott’s historical Waverley novels, but it is more likely that the mischievous Chatterton would have forged more subtly, like his contemporary the Welsh forger Iolo Morganwg. Iolo invented medieval Wales: it is to him that we owe phoney traditions such as the Druidical eisteddfods. Chatterton could have done the same with England, fabricating customs, feast days, rituals, legends, and myths to accompany the Gothic Revival, from extravagant tatterdemalion carnivals of minstrels and jesters, beef and beer, to perhaps observing an entirely spurious ‘piked shoe’ day on 20 November, when it would be ‘traditional’ to frolic in pigtails and winklepicker boots in honour of St Edmund, pricked to death by Vikings in sharp shoes. Morris Dancers (for whom Chatterton provided medieval credentials) would be just the beginning: the whole pageantry of a Merrie England that never existed could have been conjured up, in all its pomp and circumstance. And without Chatterton dying young, there would be no ‘marvellous Boy’, no cult of youthful genius, or suicidal passion, or even Romantic teenage rebellion. Instead, the whole country would be a mock-medieval idyll: wyllcomen ye to Britworlde.
Such a frenzy of invention could have happened in Scotland as well. Robert Burns shot to fame in 1786 with his Scottish dialect poems, but was dead a decade later at 37. Wordsworth adored Burns at school, and paid dutiful homage at his touristy cottage and grave: ‘Him who walked in glory and in joy / Behind his plough, upon the mountain-side’. Burns was a simple ploughman poet, singing his songs along the furrow – or so polite society liked to think. In fact, he was a philandering drunkard, and delighted in writing and collecting poems and songs about boozing and shagging, painting a picture of the Highlands of Scotland as a male fantasy land of drinking competitions and lasses of easy virtue. Certainly his passionate, excessive, and inspired addiction to sex and alcohol left its mark on later poets. Burns provided young writers with an immediate justification to drink and fornicate in the name of poetry and art, and as such, his influence from the Decadent movement of the nineteenth century to current bad-boy (and indeed bad-girl) behaviour is impossible to ignore. Where else do you get the liquor, the totty, and the sodden muse? It’s difficult to imagine the drink-driven Lizard King Jim Morrison without Burns, and, despite his attempts to whitewash the Scotsman, Wordsworth did know what Burns was really up to – and occasionally even got up to it himself. While a student, Wordsworth was inspired to get poetically drunk in Milton’s rooms, much as Burns would have done given half a chance and a few drams of whisky, and Wordsworth also managed to get a French girl pregnant, much as Burns would have done with another half a chance and a few more drams of whisky.
But let’s suppose Burns hadn’t died and had instead staggered through another thirty or forty years in a thickening alcoholic haze, sacrificing his genius to his liver and attended by swarms of illegitimate children, would the myth of the brightly burning flame be so tenacious, or would he instead stand (or sway) as a parable warning of the horrors of the bottle, provoking stricter attitudes against the demon drink? The archetypal Scottish poet would be recast as a shambling drunken lecher – less Rabbie B. than Rab C. Nesbitt. If so, at least the emergence of Walter Scott’s sentimental Scottish patriotism would have received a boot up its Caledonian backside from braveheart Burns. No prim invention of tartan and shortbread that so entranced polite Victorian society and kick-started the Scottish tourist industry with Burns maintaining his fierce, pie-eyed loyalty to Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite cause, collecting songs such as ‘Nae Hair On’t’, which describes his vexation at his wife’s pubic depilation. A rather more robust image of Scotland there, I think.
Moreover, before his poems were published, Burns considered emigrating to Jamaica. So let’s say he settled in the West Indies: he could have been an early colonial or post-colonial poet, an activist for the abolition of slavery, a campaigner for liberty – not least because his poems were rapidly published in America. There was clearly an eager market for Scottish culture in the New World that could have been richly capitalized upon if he’d ever crossed the water. But sadly, Mary Campbell, his betrothed, died and he remained in Scotland. If she, rather than Burns, had lived a little longer, he could have been off and away in America, and as international capitalism kicked in we might now be drinking in Scottish rather than Irish theme pubs. Forget St Patrick, we’d be celebrating St Andrew’s Day by singing the old traditional songs written by Mary Burns’s husband.
But it is another Mary, Mary Wollstonecraft, who offers the most compelling case of a female of this period dying prematurely. Social reformer, radical firebrand, feminist icon: the Germaine Greer of the Romantic period. This ‘hyena in petticoats’, as Horace Walpole uncharitably christened her, was an educationalist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft had visited France to see the Revolution at first hand and in London was at the centre of a radical set that included the political novelist William Godwin and the poet, artist, and visionary William Blake. But following her marriage to Godwin, she died of complications following the birth of her daughter, later Mary Shelley and the author of Frankenstein. If she had lived, Wollstonecraft would surely have campaigned for votes for women, advocated during the French Revolution, thereby fast-forwarding history by almost a century. Likewise, she would have established academies for women, bringing forth a generation of female intellectuals and artists – women who instead went to the grave uneducated. Instead, we have in Wollstonecraft a founding feminist martyr to the body.
Whether thirty years of politicking and fervid writing might have accelerated or indeed retarded the feminist cause, Wollstonecraft’s survival would certainly have had a deep effect on her daughter and indeed her writing. Frankenstein is a book about the creation of life and the responsibilities of creators, and is very suggestive to being read as Mary Shelley’s anxiety over her mother’s death after giving birth to her. Mary herself was a survivor, but she married yet another poet doomed to an early grave. Percy Shelley was drowned in Italy just 18 months after Keats died, on a sailing trip returning from a visit to Byron. An unfinished poem ‘The Triumph of Life’ was in his pocket. His body was cremated on the shores of the lake, and his heart was famously snatched from the fire; it was later wrapped in the poem ‘Adonais’ by Mary and kept in her bedside drawer. If Shelley had crossed the bay of Lerici safely, would we today have been denied anything more than this ghoulishly romantic story? And was Shelley’s early death, like Keats’s, a vital spur to his posthumous fame?
Shelley was a radical aristocrat, a vegetarian, a sexual liberationist, and nothing if not controversial. He shared his first wife with his undergraduate friend and co-author Thomas Jefferson Hogg, and attempted to establish communes in Devon and Wales. In Dublin, Shelley addressed the Irish people on independence, he toured through France and Europe in a menage à trois, and summered with Byron on Lake Geneva, where Frankenstein was apparently conceived. Pursued by creditors, Shelley left England in 1818 to live in Italy, from where he wrote political verse attacking the British government, little of which was published. Shelley had premonitions of his own imminent death shortly before he died, and his drowning seems prefigured in the hypnotic images of the sea in ‘The Triumph of Life’. But it is too fanciful to suggest that he gave himself up to the waves as the poem also presents a grim resignation towards old age and disillusionment, and suggests that Shelley may have been changing direction from the self-conscious posturing of his earlier verse. Politically, he was committed to the Greeks’ struggle for independence from Turkish occupation, but it is possible that he might have revived his support for the rising tide of working-class rebellion in Britain – particularly as the Chartists later championed his incendiary poem Queen Mab, a fiery vision that advocated republicanism, atheism, free love, and a vegetable diet.
So, Red Shelley returned to England and led the workers to revolution in 1830 (or, if you prefer, following the publication of Marx and Shelley’s Communist Manifesto in 1848). He exiled the king (or queen), dismantled the church, made all goods and possessions communal, turned farming over to fruit and veg, and encouraged everyone to sleep together. And they all lived happily ever after. Or alternatively, Shelley, gloomy and depressed, can’t be bothered. He’s still liable for his debts and regarded as a dangerous dissident by successive governments, so he wiles away his life in exile, writing increasingly bitter reports on his own failure…. He remains a contrarian even in speculative biography.
Lord Byron, however, would have been a different matter. A notorious sexual adventurer who claimed to have slept with over 200 women during a stay in Venice (he never left the house without a condom in his waistcoat pocket), Byron was also a champion drinker, the best-selling poet of his age, and sat in the House of Lords. He too had travelled extensively on the continent, but had left England in 1816 after an alleged incestuous affair with his own half-sister. Thereafter he crisscrossed Europe, at times with the Shelleys, before joining the Greek cause. He was by this time a legendary figure across the western world and already a hero in Greece, but he died of a fever on campaign with the ‘Byron Brigade’, aged 36. (He too had had a presentiment that he would die – in Greece.) Five years later, in 1829, Greece won its independence; Byron is still celebrated as a hero there today, frequently appearing on sun-bleached posters in Greek tavernas.
William Gibson and Bruce Sterling suggest in The Difference Engine, their counterfactual novel of the nineteenth century, that Byron would have become Prime Minister. He would certainly have meddled in international affairs, and perhaps following his success in Greece would have become an activist overseeing Italian and German unification, influencing the whole course of European history. Byron could have become an itinerant European statesman, still dashing off verses, seducing women, cultivating his legend, and publishing sensational memoirs. In fact, this Byron would never have died – he would instead have become a living myth, the embodiment of the Zeitgeist, solving the diplomatic problems that, under different circumstances, would ultimately lead to the Great War. His commitment, shamelessness, and success might have stiffened Victorian morality against him, but it could also have actually challenged the public to accept politicians as romantic roister-doisters rather than holier-than-thou hypocrites. Of all these cases, Byron’s unfulfilled legacy is the greatest loss.
So let us consider our handful of dead Romantics. Had they all lived, we might have forgotten the has-been Shelley, but instead could be living in a thriving and wholly egalitarian Merrie England, dotted with MacAngus theme pubs, admiring of American culture – and in a more peaceful, less militaristic world.
The Seasons: An Elegy for the Passing of the Year is now available from Atlantic Books.
Follow Nick Groom on Twitter: @Prof_Nick_Groom