Young Romantics Blog


‘LIBERTY’ – Romantics, Radicals, Revolution

Prometheus Unbound Houston

A statue of Prometheus Unbound outside TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston

‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!’ wrote William Wordsworth as the French Revolution took fire in 1789. He was not the only poet to embrace this, the first modern rebellion championing the Rights of Man. ‘Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood’ became the watchwords of a generation which had had enough of the madness of George III, the ludicrous excesses of the Prince Regent, and the repressive dictates of both Church and State.

Revolution followed revolution between 1774, the year the war of American Independence broke out, and 1848, the year in which Europe erupted into the series of revolts that would culminate, eventually, in the Great War. Britain and Portugal joined Spain to fight the Spanish War of Independence against Napoleon. The first revolt of black slaves against their oppressors took place in Haiti. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, begging all kinds of questions about the relationship between the haves and the have nots. And the Romantics responded – with deeds as well as words and images.

Jerusalem. Liberty
'Jerusalem is Liberty', from William Blake's Jerusalem

Lord Byron, captivated by the Greek struggle for Independence, moved to Greece to take up arms and famously met his death at Missolonghi in 1824. But not before he had written his paeon of praise for the Greek cause: ‘The Isles of Greece’:

‘The mountains look on Marathon –
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone
I dreamed that Greece might still be free…’

He ends with the words ‘A land of slaves shall ne’er be mine’

Lord Byron Oath
Ludovico Lipparini's Lord Byron's Oath on the Grave of Marco Botzaris

This was a sentiment echoed by so many of the Romantic poets at this time, of which the most outspoken was surely Percy Bysshe Shelley. The flame of Shelley’s genius may have burned only briefly – eleven years separated his expulsion from Oxford in 1811 (for Atheism) from his death by drowning in the Gulf of Spezia in 1822 – but it burned exceeding bright. It is tempting to see him as just that – a firework flashing with brilliance in a night sky, a composer of glorious lyrics, a blithe spirit, a ravishing angel – and to forget that he was also a political animal, a free-ranging, anarchic and often impossible young rebel. ‘Poets and philosophers’ he declared ‘are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,’ and he set out to make his poems and dramas prove it.

1818 marks the bicentenary of Shelley’s powerful hymn to ‘Liberty’ – ‘Prometheus Unbound’.

Prometheus

Based on the myth of the Titan Prometheus who stole fire from the Gods on Olympus to give it to humankind, Shelley imbues his poem his passionate belief in the rights of man. In the original, Prometheus is eventually reconciled with Jupiter, but Shelley was having none of this – his ‘Prometheus’ is a courageous revolutionary, setting himself up in opposition to an omnipotent force – ‘the highest perfections of moral and intellectual nature,’ according to Shelley, ‘impelled by the purest and truest motives to the best and noblest ends.’

By now Shelley was living in Italy. His expulsion from Oxford was followed by elopement and marriage to Harriet Westbrook, whom he left, in 1814 to elope again with Mary Godwin, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and Shelley’s intellectual mentor, William Godwin. He followed up ‘Prometheus’ with his ‘Ode to Liberty’, written in 1820 in the wake of the Spanish War, in which he charts the progress of Liberty through history. The epigraph at the top, aptly, quotes Byron: ‘Yet, Freedom, yet thy banner torn but flying, Streams like a thunderstorm against the wind.’

‘Prometheus Unbound’ and ‘Ode to Liberty’ were both published in 1820, and together they make up perhaps the most persuasive of all Shelley’s political and poetic works. They spoke to a youthful generation then, just as they would later speak to a nascent hippy community, which, sixty years ago, in San Francisco, celebrated the Summer of Love. That period, too, was politically highly charged – the Vietnam War was raging, the Civil Rights movement had given way to inner-city race riots, and Cold War tensions were running high. So many parallels. No wonder Mick Jagger quoted Shelley’s ‘Adonais’ during a Hyde Park Concert in 1969: twenty years later, Chinese students would chant Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’ in Tiananman Square.

Tiananmen Squarev3
The Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square

‘Freedom is more than a word, more than the base coinage of statesmen, the tyrant’s dishonoured cheque, or the dreamer’s mad, inflated currency. She is mortal…’ So wrote Cecil Day Lewis in ‘The Nabara’ – a poem that arose from an episode during the Spanish Civil War. He was right: Freedom is more than a word. But in the mouth of a poet it can be a very powerful word indeed. We live in turbulent times. How important is ‘liberty’ to us? How can a poet ensure its future? Over to you, poets young and old. Give it all you’ve got.

Sue Bradbury Trustee of Keats-Shelley Memorial Association


Advice for Young Poets - from Matthew Sweeney

Sweeney By Minihan2012

Unashamedly, I always throw a few quotes from Robert Frost at novice poets. For example, 'Poetry is a fresh look and a fresh listen'. In other words, it's important to strive for freshness, and try to say things in a new way, not in a hackneyed or cliched way that everyone knows already.

Here is Frost further on this: 'Cliches and jaded diction carry no insight because they freeze meaning, allowing the mind no new feats of association; an idea has to be a little new to be at all true, and if you say a thing three times it ceases to be so.' And then there is this - 'A poem is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalising vagueness. It finds its thought and succeeds or it doesn't find it and comes to nothing'. In other words, in poetry the unconscious has arguably a greater part to play than the wilful steering of the conscious mind.

Another great dead American poet, Elizabeth Bishop, put the same thing another way, when she was complimented by the poet Frank Bidart on the closing lines of a poem - he recalled her response: 'She said that when she was writing it she hardly knew what she was writing, knew the words were right and (at that she lifted her arms as high, straight above her head as she could) felt ten feet tall.'

Matthew Sweeney

Matthew is an award-winning poet from Lifford, Ireland. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the London Review of Books. His collections include: A Dream of Maps (1981), Blue Shoes (1989), Cacti (1992), The Bridal Suite (1997), A Smell of Fish (2000), Selected Poems (2002), Black Moon (2007), The Night Post: A New Selection (2010), and Inquisition Lane (2015).


Advice for Young Poets - from Other Writers

To begin, begin
William Wordsworth

Poetry: the best words in the best order.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of a void, but out of chaos; the materials must in the first place be afforded; it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself.
Mary Shelley

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Anton Chekhov

Don't say the old lady screamed- bring her on and let her scream.
Mark Twain

I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity—it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance
John Keats

The worst enemy to creativity is self doubt...let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences.
Sylvia Plath

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
Stephen King

I always say to people who want to write: Live life! Don't stand on the rim, don't sit on the sidelines. Make mistakes, make a mess, get it wrong. Read everything, and get out and be in life.
Jeanette Winterson

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.
William Wordsworth

Mere grimness is as easy as grinning; but it requires something to put a handsome face on a story. Narratives become of suspicious merit in proportion as they lean to Newgate-like offenses, particularly of blood and wounds...
Leigh Hunt

A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage.
Sidney Smith

By writing much, one learns to write well.
Robert Southey


The Prometheus Project

A Very Short Story by Lynn Shepherd

2016's Poetry Prize Theme was After Frankenstein. It inspired bestselling novelist Lynn Shepherd to pen this very short story...

Prometheusproject Illustration

“I wanted to thank you. In person.”

Dr Stein didn’t recognise the woman’s face, but there were so many patients, that was hardly surprising.

“Everyone said it was impossible, especially after my husband died. They told us all the embryos we’d had frozen had the same genetic condition and there was no chance of my ever having a healthy baby.”
The woman shifted in the plastic chair, heavy in her pregnancy, “Then I read about this lab – all the pioneering work you’re doing.”

Dr Stein smiled, then turned to her computer screen and typed in the woman’s name, then sat back, scanning down the list of implantations. Only there was nothing. The woman was registered as a client, but that was all. She frowned, “Can you remind me when the baby’s due?”

“Last week actually. They may have to induce me in a couple of days. I came because I wanted to ask – as a favour - ”

“Yes?”

“Would you be present? At the birth? You’re as much a part of this as I am, after all.”

Stein nodded, only half hearing her, staring now at the week in February when this child was conceived. There were no implantations listed, for the very good reason that she had spent all that week finalising her report on the Prometheus Project. Genetic research so radical it might one day eliminate cancer at DNA level, and eradicate the disease in a single generation – research that had necessitated the most stringent controls, and the utmost secrecy. It had been years in the execution, and final success had come at a price. She’d told no-one, and made no reference in her report, but she’d been forced to compromise with the genetic material she used. But she’d had no choice - if she’d conformed with the law she’d never have made the breakthrough at all. Her superiors would have forbidden her to work with her own eggs, and recoiled in horror at the very idea of what she did with them. But she’d told herself it was her own choice – her own body. And in any case it was the technique that was important, and the experimental embryos had been safely destroyed. Hadn’t they?

After the woman left, Stein rang the cryogenic storage facility and asked for the records. And there it was. Eleven embryos destroyed; what had happened to the twelfth, no-one could tell her. But she kept her research completely separate from her fertility work – she was scrupulous about it to the point of paranoia. And even if that missing embryo had somehow survived, she could scarcely conceive how it could have ended up in that woman’s womb, far less made it to the third trimester. She kept telling herself it was a mistake – that she was imagining things - but by the time she stood at the woman’s bedside as they were preparing to induce the birth, the face behind the mask was frozen with fear.

The woman was overjoyed to see her, saying that she planned to call the baby after her if it was a girl – “Victoria, it’s such a pretty name” – but the medical team were soon exchanging anxious glances. The child was too large for the birth canal, and the mother suddenly losing blood. They prepared for an immediate Caesarian, and within moments the nurse was lifting the new life from its mother’s belly. It made no sound as it was laid on the table, and Stein stepped forward at once, her hands sweating in their latex gloves.

“Leave it with me – I’ll deal with it.”

She stood, her back to the clamour in the theatre, looking at what she had created, knowing what it was, and what she must now do. It had uttered no cry, and her heart leapt that it might already be dead, that this hideous abomination of man and beast might never draw breath. But then, as her hands reached towards her child’s neck, she saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open….

Lynn Shepherd
Lynn Shepherd’s 2012 novel, A Treacherous Likeness, is inspired by the lives of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary, author of Frankenstein. It was listed as a BBC History Mag. ‘The Prometheus Project’ was commissioned in 2013 as a piece of ‘flash fiction’ (a story of about 500 words) for an online magazine. Lynn says: ‘In the end the piece never appeared, so it’s very nice to have a chance to share it now, on an even more appropriate site!’ Visit: lynn-shepherd.com


Keats's Grave

Keats Grave

Burying a Protestant in nineteenth-century Rome was a dangerous business. Such was the hostility to non-Catholics that the authorities insisted on their funerals taking place at night; sometimes the mourners had to be protected by soldiers. So it was before dawn on 26th February 1821 that John Keats’s body was taken through the city.

If you visit the “Non-Catholic” Cemetery today, as it is now called, since it includes many people of other religions, you won’t find Keats’s name on his gravestone.

Keats Tombstone

Despairing of recognition for his work, he asked for the simple inscription Here lies one whose name was writ on water – though his friends added a reference to a young English poet and his ill-treatment by his countrymen. You have to turn to the stone beside his, inscribed to Joseph Severn, Devoted friend and deathbed companion of John Keats, for a positive ID.

Shelleygravewilliambellscott
William Bell Scott's painting of Shelley's grave. The nearby Pyramid of Cestius looks on

The grave isn’t even in the best part of the cemetery. While Shelley’s ashes are buried in a quiet, shady spot, Keats lies in an exposed corner with the noise of a main road in the background. But many of those who have visited it over the past two centuries have felt it to be – as Oscar Wilde did – the holiest place in Rome.

And despite Morrissey declaring that Keats wasn't on his side, he seemed adoring enough when he paid a visit.

Moz Keats

They’re still coming. Such is their eagerness to stand on the edge of the grave (though you can read the headstone easily enough from the path) that it has just had to be re-turfed and repaired. The dozen mourners who followed the 25-year-old poet’s coffin early on that February morning can hardly have imagined such a thing.

As for Keats, I wonder if anyone who wrote his own epitaph ever got it more completely wrong. Only, perhaps, Shelley’s Ozymandias.

Anthony Gardner, Keats Shelley Memorial Association