“I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love,” said Darcy.
“Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”
— Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
A surfeit of anything, be it lampreys or love, can be a bad thing.
This notion was well-known to Austen heroines like darling Lizzie and beloved Anne. Indeed, during the Regency, the rise of Romanticism in art was viewed with some alarm because it unleashed longing, passionate love. If it could be confined to the landscape of nature and politics, then all should be well.
And then along came Keats.
Despised “above all” by Byron, John Keats (1795 – 1821) remains the most enduring poet to inform us on Regency love. And, as Mr. Darcy pointed out in that discerning way of his, poetry is so necessary to love that the latter could not exist without it.
Keats felt the same way.
Long before he was known for his love poetry, his friends knew him as a man of love. Keats was, they said, a loveable as opposed to an amiable man. The painter Joseph Severn said “there was a strong bias of the beautiful side of humanity in every thing he did.”
However, Keats struggled to translate his sympathy for all things loving onto paper. When he managed to produce something, his work was subject to vicious criticism. Some said his verse was the vulgar product of a “Cockney poetaster,” that his writings shall have “our very footmen composing tragedies” and turn the heads of “farm-servants and unmarried ladies.”
He corresponded with Wordsworth and lived with Leigh Hunt, but the way these men wrote poetry seemed particularly unsuited to Keats’ desire for expression. His inspiration was Shakespeare, whose Twelfth Night mentioned death caused by a surfeit of music. Like the Bard, Keats needed to explore love in its full expression, with all its “World of Pains.”
And then along came Fanny Brawne:
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,And so live ever—or else swoon to death.– Bright Star by John Keats
The passionate Bright Star, considered to be his love verse to Fanny, burst forth like a comet, the glorious Hyperion and Ode to a Grecian Urn in its blazing wake. These works have risen above all other poems of the Regency and indeed, higher than any other, of the nineteenth century.
Keats died young, suffering from the great love he bore his bright muse. His poetry is still the food of love today, and is one of Regency love’s greatest legacies.
“.. Though I don’t suppose he could be as villainous as Count Ugolino. No one could be.”
“Oh, no, he isn’t villainous at all–at least, I shouldn’t think he would be, but I’m not even acquainted with him! I only chose him for Ugolino because of the way his eyebrows slant, which makes him look just like a villain. And also, of course, because of his crested air–which made me long to give him a setdown!”
– Sylvester, or, The Wicked Uncle by Georgette Heyer
In Northanger Abbey, the heroine, fresh from reading Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, didn’t immediately perceive General Tilney to be a “bad man.” Jane Austen had made him a handsome, vigorous man “of commanding aspect.”
Catherine’s opinion changed dramatically once she stayed at Northanger Abbey. Henry Tilney’s father became stern and menacing, scrupulously avoiding all mention of his dead wife. Catherine disliked him every bit as much as darling Phoebe did the Duke of Salford.
Moreover, the general was a busy man:
‘I have many pamphlets to finish,’ said he to Catherine, ‘before I can close my eyes, and perhaps may be poring over the affairs of the nation for hours after you are asleep. Can either of us be more meetly employed? My eyes will be blinding for the good of others, and yours preparing by rest for future mischief.’ — Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
You and your “stupid” pamphlets.
Stupid or not, General Tilney’s reading was probably an obsessive affair:
“…we should also assume that the General is actually worried about how his country was doing in its war against France, at a time when Napoleon was emerging as the seemingly invincible military genius of the day.” Parents against children: General Tilney as Gothic Monster, John Dussinger, PhD for JASNA.ORG
Staying up all night, reading and watching for spies in the neighborhood, can make a fellow downright surly. And when one has seen war, it’s not impossible to imagine how its re-emergence might throw a character’s personality in disorder:
Where some wrecked army from the Conquerors might
Speed their disastrous flight,
With thee fierce Genius! let me trace their way,
And hear at times the deep-heart groan
Of some poor sufferer left to die alone,
His sore wounds smarting with the winds of night;
And we will pause, where, on the wild,
The Mother to her frozen breast
On the heap’d snows reclining clasps her child
And with him sleeps, chill’d to eternal rest!
– To Horror by Robert Southey
William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) is the Romantic poet who once said he wrote to “shew that men who did not wear fine clothes can feel deeply.”
Austen must have known of his poetry when she wrote Sense and Sensibility. She does not mention the poet in her work, least of all in connection with the slightly awkward Edward Ferrars.
I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air…
What connection can one possibly fathom between pedestrian Ferrars and the highflown language of Wordsworth? Besides, it was Willoughby who recited that passage.
Well, I’ll tell you…
A strong theme in Sense and Sensibility is the promotion of honesty, particularly in Christian marriage. Austen was the daughter of a cleric and strongly invested with the ideals of the good old C of E:
In particular, for Austen, the marriage of men and women who have been transformed through “naked self-disclosure”, who have acknowledged their mistakes and who are now “poised to be active forces for good in their spheres, from village to town to nation to world.” — The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in William Wordsworth and Jane Austen, by Laura Dabundo from a book review by Friar Paul Byrd, to be read in its full content here
Willoughby may have read Wordsworth’s words, but he was a dishonest character and we cannot suppose he felt “sense sublime” at all honestly. Edward Ferrars, on the other hand, was the honest character that Elinor Dashwood needed in a life-long companion. He revealed his mistake in engaging himself to Lucy Steele, yet remained faithful to it, without sentimentality attendant on thwarted love.
Once released, he turned his full devotion to the one he would best love, who was best suited to helping him be fully devoted to the ideal of Sense, versus Sensibility.
Recall how Edward read Cowper, and rather poorly in Marianne’s eyes. He did not fully engage in the feelings of overwrought nature:
“I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees…I have more pleasure in a farm-house than a watch-tower.”
He preferred the honesty of “nature put into practice” — a pleasure taken in nature, yet glorifying the utility it is put to. Any other “romanticizing” of nature is simply that–a useless ornament.
Like love that idles dormant.
“Cut down an avenue? What a pity! Does that not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’ “
— Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
Fanny Price, like Austen, was very fond of William Cowper, a poet of the eighteenth century. He was not a Romantic poet, but his brooding, melancholy, emotional writing had great influence over poets of the Regency, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. Cowper suffered bouts of insanity and deep depression–he wrote various hymns preserved today in the Sacred Harp (think O Brother, Where Art Thou?) but it was his poetry, encouraged by various women in his life, that gave him a much-needed outlet for his despair.
In Nature he sought solace:
Who loves a garden loves a greenhouse too.
Unconscious of a less propitious clime,
There blooms exotic beauty, warm and snug,
While the winds whistle and the snows descend.
The spiry myrtle with unwithering leaf
Shines there, and flourishes.
– The Task, Book III, The Garden
But humanity, like nature, eventually dies:
I was a stricken deer, that left the herd
Long since: with many an arrow deep infix’d
My panting side was charged, when I withdrew,
To seek a tranquil death in distant shades.
What does it mean to have a Regency-era character who adores Cowper? He might be depressed and perhaps thinking of his own death. She might look upon the trees in the park, and find comfort from the stress of every day living, as Fanny does in Mansfield Park:
“Here’s harmony! Here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe. Here’s what may tranquilize every care, and lift the heart to rapture!”
Speaking of Downton Abbey, Violet’s character is so very rich, is it not? Her remarks are cleverly acid and yet illuminating as well. Certainly we know what her ladyship thinks of Byron. We probably can guess what she thinks of Regency poetry in general, with its idealism and “sensibility:”
Edith: “..am I to be the maiden aunt? Isn’t this what they do? Arrange presents for their prettier relations?”
The Dowager Countess: “Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s terribly middle-class.”
No pining about and no nonsense.
I like to speculate what poets my favorite Regency-set characters favor. As dear Anne from Austen’s Persuasion famously says, “We are living through a great age for poetry, I think.” In the next few posts, this blog will consider some characters from Regency fiction and what poets they might find appealing.
Which of the following would Heyer’s Kitty Charing like?
“..Shelley’s ‘silver music,’ Coleridge’s ‘wings of healing,’ Wordsworth’s ‘wild unpeopled hills’ and above all..Keats.”
from Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life by Edna O’Brien
Hang on–wasn’t it Anne who advised caution against too much poetry? Her companion, Captain Benwick, was:
“..intimately acquainted with all the tenderest songs of the one poet (Walter Scott), and all the impassioned descriptions of hopeless agony of the other [Lord Byron]; he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read poetry.”
– Persuasion by Jane Austen (as presented by Janet Aikens Yount in Eighteenth Century Life, Winter 2010)
It must be recalled, however, that Anne Elliot is a masterfully drawn character. She is so nuanced in her beloved, practical way that it is a beautiful serendipity to find in her a great capacity for the “sensibility” vital to Romantic poetry. That capacity was hidden, in a:
“..heart large and expansive, this seat of deep, kind, honest and benevolent feelings–a bosom capacious of universal love, but through which there flowed a deeper stream…” — The Retrospective Review, Vol. 7 Part 1 (1823)
Still waters run deep, as they say.
It turns out the Earl of Grantham might be a poet.
When a family must be evicted, one that has held their tenancy at Downton for many generations, Lord Grantham gropes for a reason to let them stay:
“If we don’t respect the past,” he says, “we’ll find it harder to build our future.”
“Where did you read that?” asks the Dowager Countess.
“I made it up.”
“It’s too good,” she admonishes. “One thing we don’t want is a poet in the family. The only poet peer I am familiar with is Lord Byron and I presume we all know how that ended.”
A teasing remark a mother might make to her prosing son.
Still, the Dowager Countess must have been keenly aware that Byron’s finances, like the earl’s, were a mess. Moreover, the great Romantic owned an abbey, which had to be got rid of to pay his debts.
Clearly there exists some parallels between Baron Byron and the Earl of Grantham.
And they are just too appalling to contemplate.
Dr. Roget had not even begun his famous Thesaurus when he heard a terrible crash upstairs in his uncle’s house. Sprinting up the stairs, he found the man who had raised him like a son bespattered with blood. He gathered his uncle in his arms, appalled that such a nurturing figure had quite deliberately slashed his own throat.
Why had he committed suicide?
Sir Samuel Romilly’s (1757-1818) last words were a fragment, scribbled down before he succumbed:
“My dear, I wish…”
Romilly had been distraught over the death of his wife some days before. The news of her passing came to her husband at Cowes Castle, on the Isle of Wight. It was thought that removal to his town residence at 21 Russell Square might revive him. His daughter Sophia attended him there, but she had, alas, for a moment, left him alone.
He died, as they said, of an excess of sensibility. He died of an excess of love.
Regency society was in shock. Romilly had been a beloved barrister, a tireless opponent of the slave trade, a champion of the criminal defendant at bar. It struggled to condemn him, for such cases generally provoked disapproval. In previous years, as reported by The Times in the case of one Mr. Green: “..to be inconsolable over one’s wife, and to follow her to the grave–is madness.“
There was much prevarication in those first reports. Donna Andrews’ Aristocratic Vice: The Attack on Duelling, Suicide, Adultery, and Gambling in Eighteenth-Century England is instructive. Surely Romilly had committed his act in “mental delirium” and “under instant paroxysm of the brain.” Indeed, he had been working tirelessly for the good of a Nation. He cannot be blamed for a physical manifestation that had little to do with lack of character. Other writings were not so charitable. Remember how stoic Princess Charlotte’s husband had been in the wake of Her Highness’ death?
These illustrations seemed wretchedly unsatisfactory. More writings, including poetry, continued to pour forth, as the Regency struggled to reconcile the Act with the Man. From much hand-wringing emerged the most soothing explanation, which became widely adopted. Here was a man who had defended the least among us, they said, with such devotion that he surely suffered from “an excess of feeling, or rather than by sentiment, which is the most binding one in our social system.”
Had he been less feeling, less sensitive to the tragic death of his wife, he would still be living.
In a watershed moment, Society allowed itself to salute what Byron once reviled (see Castlereagh.) In leaving this world, as Lady’s Magazine beautifully related, Romilly was both weak and wise, delicate and great, showing “human nature in a point of view, which commands at one and the same time our utmost love and veneration.”We cannot judge those who love and lose. We must only imagine their pain, and perhaps hope that we have had occasion to experience such exquisite joy.”
“To lose Lady Romilly, after an attachment so formed, and after years flown away in the tranquility of domestic joy, disturbed only by the pursuits of a splendid ambition, synonymous with virtue, was one of those shocks which must be left, undefined, to the imagination of such as know what it is to feel.” The New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 10, 1818