Regency Critics: A Christmas Tale

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834) wrote Zapolya in 1817. He was imitating Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, he claimed, hoping:

“I will be well content if my readers will take it up, read it and judge it, as a Christmas tale.”

Coleridge by Allston

Coleridge by Allston

There is little in the work itself that is decidedly Christmas apart from a mother fleeing with her infant. Instead, there are thrones usurped, sunken caves and werewolves(!) Despite these dramatic motifs, gaining Shakespeare’s lofty status proved elusive.

Writing a good drama was (and still is) hard–even for Coleridge, that “giant among dwarves.”

Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review, Volume 80, was unstinting in its review:

1) Don’t be boring.

“In its present shape, we conceive (Zapolya) has about it that indescribable something, which, if not the dead weight of mediocrity will sink it, will ensure a speedy neglect from the bulk of readers.”

2) Convoluted plots are right out!

“To understand its plot and keep in view its progress, the reader must take some pains, and this is what no reader will ever do.”

3) Show. Don’t Tell.

“Much of the most striking parts of his story is related, and not acted…Enforce these with the exact sentiment which is to body them forth…pushing on the story, that purpose of dramatic action..”

4) Kill the darlings. Kill them.

Zapolya, then, as a drama, will never succeed. Nor, as a tale, is there anything in it to captivate. It must exist as a poem; and even in that case, we think it is decidedly too long.”

A Christmas gift to writers, if you will.



The Lake District of England, where Coleridge resided among other "giants" of English literature, all of whom were uniformly disparaged by the Edinburgh Review as the "Lake Poets."

The Lake District of England, where Coleridge resided among other “giants” of English literature, all of whom were uniformly disparaged by the Edinburgh Review as the “Lake Poets.”

John Keats: Mr. Darcy

“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

One of a surfeit of sequels, I daresay.

One of a surfeit of sequels, I daresay.

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
Bright Star

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.