Two Weeks to Go!!

A little over two weeks to go before I ‘slip’ out of Vancouver and follow in Goethe, Shelley and Byron’s footsteps with my own Italian Journey 2012. I am re-reading Goethe’s travelogue, and I am experiencing the same anticipation and excitement he wrote about on the 3rd of Sept.,1786. Where he travelled from Carlsbad to the Alps of the Tyrol on his way south to Italy in anticipation of warmth and fresh figs, I too will be leaving the brooding yet spectacular peaks of British Columbia for sunny Italian skies and vine ripened fruit. My bags are half packed; my Teva sandals rest against my backpack waiting for departure date, May 11th.

Some things to note in Goethe’s Italian Journey:

1. Goethe is as much a ‘scientist’ as he is poet, playwright or artist. This is what he shares with Shelley (who is a generation later).
2. He has interesting ‘cosmological theories’ (p. 30-31) and is very interested in the power of “electrical forces”. He writes as novel, Elective Affinities, on this theme and you can see his ideas at work with Mary Shelley in Frankenstein.
3. As a traveler (like us) he is interested in the impact of his “sense impressions” as he takes in new things. (p. 38) See his note about a traveler being close to a “state of nature” and ponder the link with Rousseau (p. 42)
4. His response to the Roman Amphitheatre in Verona is interesting (p. 52) – ‘the power of the population seeing itself’.
5. The purpose of his trip (p. 57) “To discover myself in the objects I see”!
6. Speculations on time, clocks, nature (p. 58-9)
7. Goethe on the theory of evolution – a century before Darwin (p. 71)
8. Being alone in a crowd (p. 74) – check later if this works for you.
9. Getting lost in Venice (p. 79) – would be worth a try.


Young Romantics

A Review of ‘Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lived’ by Daisy Hay

Is there anything new to be said about the lives of the Romantic poets? I’m not sure, and doubtless some scholars will complain loudly that there is nothing original or revelatory to be found in Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics. But to do so is to miss the point. For the non-scholar, Hay’s group biography of the Shelleys, Byron and their circle is complete bliss: a feat of concision and clear thinking that will remind you why, all those years ago, when you were young and foolish, you were so thrilled by these writers, by their unruly credos and marvellous verse-making, by their frilled shirts and luxuriant hair. Truly, it’s delicious.

For the reader, her strategy is a little like being at a good party: should you grow weary of one guest, over his or her shoulder someone more interesting will always be coming into view. Even better, its pace and sweep induces you to investigate nooks and crannies into which Hay is able to shine a torch only briefly, to take down from your shelves books you haven’t touched in two decades. In my own case, this year’s holiday reading is going to look mighty strange by the pool.

It is Hay’s contention – though it is somewhat counter-intuitive, as she readily admits – that Shelley, Keats and Byron were in some sense built by their friendships. Far from being the solitaries of popular mythology, their associations with one another, sometimes ecstatically happy, sometimes painfully fraught, were vitally important, to their daily lives and to their work.

So she weaves their stories into a single narrative, a long and incestuous tale that begins with Leigh Hunt, the journalist and radical, holding court in his prison cell (he was incarcerated for two years in Surrey jail, Horsemonger Lane, for libelling the Prince Regent) and ends with the premature passing of the generation he so generously championed in his journals (Hunt, of course, outlived them all). This approach is challenging, and occasionally throws an odd emphasis on things. The death of Keats, for instance, is dispatched in a single paragraph, and long before the book’s end. But in the case of more minor characters, and particularly the women, it works a treat; it is a kind of levelling, one that restores them to their rightful place at the table.

If the book has a presiding spirit, it is, perhaps, Mary Wollstonecraft, for all that she is already cold in her grave when Young Romantics begins. Her terrifying (for the times) unconventionality, her feminism, and her suicidal impulses lived on in both her daughters, Fanny Imlay and Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley), and, more strikingly, in their stepsister, Claire Clairmont (Claire’s mother married Wollstonecraft’s widower, William Godwin, after Mary’s early death); and it is one of these three, Claire, whose near constant presence in the narrative comes to seem to the reader most significant. Sometimes, Claire appears to be mad, even monstrous; you feel, as Mary often did, that you would like to escape her neediness and her strange reinventions. But at others, she is sympathetic, being more sinned against than sinning, yet another casual victim of the Shelleys, whose self-absorption could be devastating. Either way, without her, the story would have been very different.

Claire had a brief and unhappy affair with Byron, a liaison she conjured out of thin air, having conceived a delirious crush on him, one based solely on her reading of his poetry; later, they had a daughter, Allegra, who died young. I would not describe Claire as human glue, though she had the tenacity of a limpet when necessary. But she was both witness and catalyst. It was Claire who introduced her future brother-in-law, Shelley, to Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva, and it was because of Claire’s daughter that Shelley travelled in 1818 to Italy, where he wrote many of his greatest poems. (Byron, always on the move, had decreed that the child would live with him; Claire, Mary and Shelley decided to deliver her personally.)

Then there was Claire’s relationship with her stepsister, the author of Frankenstein. For both of them, the question – burden – of reputation was problematic from the start. Their connection to Wollstonecraft gave them a notoriety even before they left home, and when they did exit Godwin’s Skinner Street household, it was as moral fugitives.

Mary eloped with Shelley, a married man (they were only able to marry when his abandoned wife, Harriet, drowned herself in the Serpentine), and Claire accompanied them on their ill-planned trip to the continent. This arrangement further isolated her both from society and from her family – even William Godwin, the famous radical, disapproved of it – and without even the consolation of love.

Why did she do it? Hay suggests that Claire, too, was infatuated with Shelley, and her diligent charting of the course of her complex and often secretive relationship with the poet, not to mention the intense stress this placed on the bond with her stepsister, is one of the great pleasures of her book. Like some white-coated ward doctor, she takes the pulse of this non-couple at regular intervals, and her medical notes are always fascinating. Claire outlived her stepsister, Mary, by 28 years, and Shelley by 57, a passage of time that afforded her a sense of perspective rare in an age where so many died young.

Hay has published for the first time a fragment of autobiography written by Claire, discovered in 1998. It makes for stunning reading. In it, she launches an excoriating attack on Byron and Shelley’s belief in “free love”, a conviction that did poor Claire no good at all (after their deaths, forced to work as a governess in Russia, she lived in fear of discovery of her association with them). Free love, she writes, “dissolves” tenderness, abusing affections “that should be the solace and balm of life”. She goes on to assert that it turned even the poets’ own lives into a “perfect hell”.

It would be worth devouring Young Romantics for Claire’s story alone. But if it’s the men you’re after, they’re all here, too. Byron’s scandalous doings are retold with verve, from the disaster of his marriage to Annabella Milbanke (the rot set in on their honeymoon, which Byron thereafter referred to as his “treaclemoon”) to the infamous summer he spent in Switzerland with the Shelleys and Claire, in the course of which Mary first conceived Frankenstein (one local hotelier did a brisk trade in sailing trips on Lake Geneva, during which appalled English tourists inspected the washing drying outside Byron’s villa for evidence of female inhabitants).

Personally, I did not take to Leigh Hunt, on whom Hay lavishes great attention. But his relationship with his sister-in-law, Bess Kent, is intriguing. She is Claire’s echo: a more shadowy figure, for sure, but perhaps just as sorely used.

The epigraph to Young Romantics is taken from something Keats wrote of his circle in 1817: “The web of our Life is of mingled yarn.” It is the author’s great achievement to have so deftly unpicked the glorious knot formed by these jumbled and many hued fibres, and by doing so, to have revealed their true colours, blazing and afresh.

Pre-Departure Reflections: Rousseau

Foundational to Liberal Studies 819: Landscape, Politics and Poetry are the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Here are some preliminary thoughts discussed in our pre-departure seminars lead by Dr. Stephen Duguid at SFU, Harbour Center.

 Why Rousseau?

Rousseau did live in Venice for two years and Rousseau’s “pre-Romantic” writings influenced Goethe, Byron and the Shelleys.  On p. 4 of  The Sentiments of Existence, David Gauthier offers a dissection of Romanticism as growing from a triple ‘malaise of modernity’ (to borrow from Charles Taylor) starting with an increasing sense of isolation followed quickly by alienation, which leads to either nostalgia (Wordsworth, et al) or a struggle for redemption via politics, education or love. In the 18th century Rousseau wrote immensely popular books on all three and by doing so more or less set the terms of the debates in the 19th century.

And how else can we even begin to understand Percy Shelley’s life unless we see him inspired by Rousseau’s definition of ‘freedom’, namely to “want what he can do and do what he wants”. And how to cope with Byron’s strange affectations and adventures without appreciating his adoption of Rousseau’s insistence that ‘convention equals slavery’. And Mary’s novel with it’s noble savage crushed by the prejudices and deceits of society and the lesson she drives home via the Creature that there is a fatal gulf between what one IS and how one Appears, with modernity caring only for the latter. And Rousseau’s warning that freedom is unlikely to be sustained by simply transferring our anxiety ridden state of dependence to a religion, movement or state. Shelley lived his life struggling with this dilemma.

From Byron’s Childe Harold as he approaches Rousseau’s ‘home place’ of Clarens:
“Here the self-torturing sophist, wild Rousseau,
The apostle of Affliction, he who threw
Enchantment over Passion, and from Woe
Wrung overwhelming eloquence, first drew
The breath which made him wretched; yet he knew
How to make Madness beautiful, and cast
O’er erring deeds and thoughts, a heavenly hue
Of words, like sunbeams, dazzling as they past
The eyes, which o’er them shed tears feelingly and fast.

His love was Passion’s essence – as a tree
On fire by lightning; with ethereal flame
Kindled he was, and blasted; for to be
Thus and enamoured, were in him the same.
But his was not the love of living dame,
Nor of the dead who rise upon our dreams,
But of ideal beauty, which became
In him existence, and o’erflowing teems
Along his burning page, distempered though it seems.

Byron was never overly generous in praise!


Sent: February-19-12 7:36 PM

Subject: Gauthier Text

Here are my notes from Chapter 1 & 2 of Gauthier’s book on Rousseau – We can go over these and especially his last two chapters in our class on Friday. Keep in mind that we are looking for Shelley and Byron ‘in’ Rousseau – an perhaps Goethe as well.

David Gauthier, Rousseau: The Sentiment of Existence

Chapter 1

p. 2 The epiphany by the tree – for the Romantics a classic example of:

– the intuitive

– the flash of insight

– the mystery of suddenly knowing

– most important, the revealing of what is already “known”

p. 3 Rousseau makes explicit the soon to be pervasive suspicion of progress, complexity, sophistication

The evocation of “Nature”, with a capital N – what is he referring to? Not so much the nature of Wordsworth’s hills, but Nature in a more Darwinian sense.

p. 4 The idea of the ‘Fall’ – from Nature to the Modern? Link with Christianity in the idea of “redemption”

Why might Rousseau feel a sense of isolation from others and alienation from society? How does he transform his idiosyncratic story into an ‘everyman’?

p. 5 Human Nature components

1. self-preservation

2. sympathy with sentient beings

3. free will and perfectibility

p. 6 How does the quality of perfectibility lead (inevitably?) to slavery, or at least to the loss of freedom?

“The truly free man wants only what he can do and does what he pleases” – how might we see Shelley & Byron in this light?

p. 7 How is the “sentiment of existence” linked to perfectibility?

p. 8 Here we arrive a particular aspect of Rousseau’s critique of the modern: the exponential increase in desires, always just beyond our means or strengths. As the process of perfectibility establishes itself first in our cognitive abilities (our “big brain”) it quickly alters our ‘appetites’, which now require the help of others. This new “social” world invites “comparisons” of self to others, relationships which now leads to altered moral sensibilities.

p. 9 The shift in humans from self esteem to pride. We come to see ourselves only in relation to others – our very personal and originary ‘sentiment of existence’, the basis of our “freedom”, comes now to be dependent on what others (whom we can never control) think of us. This will be seen by later Romantics as a central issue and make then look, for us, like narcissists.

p. 11 The Golden Age of family and clan – the eras of “love me” – a “Second Eden” – eventually destroyed when the cry “Help me” took over.

p. 15 As the Golden Age ebbed, perfectibility took over and in comparing oneself to other the desire to be “foremost” emerged – but this desire could only be manifested in the eyes of the ‘others’ – it was not sufficient to be foremost ‘inside’ – From this need comes the culture of “appearances” . (p. 16) “Whereas previously a person would appear as he is, now he is as he appears”. A world of illusion and competition.

Chapter 2 – Emile

p. 28 Three forms of dependence:

1., things

2. desires

3. persons

p. 29  Problem with desire/appetite: desires deprive us of liberty by setting demands that fall outside the powers that we have or are able to attain.

p. 32 The Lawgiver (Shelley on poets?)

p. 46 Love as reciprocal (not in Emile!) – note – Gauthier sees Rousseau and having two notions of love.


Sent: February-12-12 9:50 PM

Subject: The Sentiment of Existence

Having now re-read David Gauthier’s book Rousseau: The Sentiment of Existence, what kind of thoughts can I pass on to you that might facilitate our pending discussion and, as well, illustrate how this book may help us in assessing the poetic and political ideas of Goethe, Byron and the Shelleys?The latter three in particular were immersed in Rousseau’s work, though a bit put off by some of what they saw as his rather indelicate personal revelations in his Confessions.Their favourite texts were Julie, Or the New Heloise and The Reveries of A Solitary Walker, discussed by Gauthier in chapters 4 and 7 respectively.

But it would be a mistake, I think, to devise a short cut and visit only these two chapters. Gauthier devotes a chapter to each of Rousseau’s major texts and he pursues a singular theme throughout the book, the issue of a self identifying a self, in this case Rousseau searching for Rousseau. He (somewhat controversially) delivers a trenchant critique of the solutions to the modern crises of isolation, alienation and nostalgia offered in both Emile and the Social Contract, Rousseau’s most well-known works, and concludes with an argument for a fusion with an other via love as the only viable solution.But his case will only stand if you follow his argument through.

We are not, of course, beginning a course on Rousseau, though he will pop up all over the place in our subsequent readings (in the Cenci, the Triumph of Life, Childe Harold, etc.).Rather we need to open at least one door into the cultural baggage carried by our writers, and this idea that a solution to alienation and anomie might be found in a kind of ecstatic and passionate fusion with an other – a case of two-becoming-one – rather than in politics, philosophy or education may help us understand Mary’s relation with Percy, his relation with her and Byron’s relation with Shelley and all the other intensely personal pairings in their lives.Or it may not, but it’s worth a try.

by Stephen Duguid

Additions by Janet Webster

Shelley and Byron’s quests in Italy-they both found authenticity in classicism- a purity of Rousseauian origins

Both Shelley and Byron were alienated from England

Rousseau and Byron sought familial intimacy for creating bonds of love: Rousseau with his Maman, Madame de Warrens and Byron with his step-sister, Augusta (finding the self in the other-the search for self is in relationship)

Pre-Departure Reflections: Lord Byron

“To Be Perfectly Original”
by Janet Webster – Thursday, 27 October 2011, 11:07 PM
“To be perfectly original” said Byron, “one should think much and read little, and this is impossible, as one must have read much more before one learns to think; for I have no faith in innate ideas whatever I may have of innate predispositions. But after one has laid a tolerable stock of materials for thinking, I should think the best plan would be to give the mind time to digest it, and then turn it all well over by thought and reflection by which we make the knowledge acquired our own….” .'(Lady Blessington’s Conversations of Lord Byron ed. E.J. Lovell, p.207)

This was Byron’s evasive reply to the charge of plagiarism by Lady Blessington in her conversations with the poet.

Child of Passion, Fool of Fame
by Janet Webster – Thursday, 16 February 2012, 09:38 AM
‘Child of Passion, Fool of Fame’
For three weeks I have been engrossed in reading about Byron’s personal passions, perversions and poetry. This book is an excellent read; as best as one can, you feel at the end of it that you have gotten to know, if not fully understand, the poet’s intimate and complicated life. ‘To the manor born’ is an expression which ironically befits this ‘monarch of words’ who was the last Byron to own Newstead Abbey. It is a shame that his personal memoirs were burned after his death by his close friends; what other salacious details were in those memoirs?? As I will be in England for two weeks after our Italian sojourn, I definitely want to visit Newstead Abbey in Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire.

Pre- Departure Reflections: Venice and Florence


Friday, 19 August 2011, 12:33 PM

An Urban Study: Florence

by Janet Webster

I began reading Mary McCarthy’s “Stones of Florence” last night and as I have never been to Italy, I am finding Goethe’s travel accounts in his “Italian Journey” more refreshing than McCarthy’s acerbic pen. Where Goethe writes enticingly about fresh figs, olives, vine ripened tomatoes, tangerine light, McCarthy dishes up “Florentine specialties-tripe, paunch,rabbit and a mixture of cockscombs, livers, hearts and testicles of roosters”. As she says, these do not appeal to the foreign palate. Some of the text in the book first appeared in The New Yorker; the writing is clever, funny, enjoyable. She gives the reader a rich sense of the urban in Florence where waiters “treat the clients like interlopers, feigning not to notice their presence”-reminds me of some Vancouver restaurants.

Re: An urban study: Florence by Janet Webster – Friday, 19 August 2011, 12:33 PM
 “The Stones of Florence” by Mary McCarthy: As I continue my reading journey, I am struck by some of McCarthy’s summative observations. She calls Florence the ‘daughter’ as Rome is the ‘mother’-this being a medieval notion. She writes that the sobriety of Florentine architecture and decoration is the ‘gravitas’ of Rome; Florence is frontier Rome, a pioneer in a setting of wild mountains and a rushing river. Her descriptions of palaces and civic buildings emphasize the fortress-like appearances which “repel hospitality” yet even in their somberness remind the viewer of the raw elements out of which “the first civilizations were hammered”. The book is chock full of historical references, and the photographs in varying shades of blacks, grays and whites leave me breathless of my ignorance of this region. Chapter 2 ends with a photo of a public notice advertising the return of the head of the Santa Trinita statue “Primavera”. I too feel headless as I attempt to fathom the complexity beneath the layers of this urban setting: Florence.

Re: An urban study: Florenceby Janet Webster – Thursday, 15 September 2011, 09:37 PM
I am using the Moodle discussion forum as a public space to record my impressions of my readings; hopefully, others will jump in. I began McCarthy’s book, so I am going to finish it now and revisit it later in the new year when we get together.
Still on Florence: a city of innovations, the inventor of perspective, inventor of the Renaissance according to McCarthy, and so the inventor of the modern world. The architecture competes with the ancient world; although, the Duomo does not surpass the Parthenon. In reading Chapter 5, I am struck by her idea that Florentine architecture stresses the essentials, focusing on the framework of the building as the skeleton is to human anatomy. McCarthy writes that bigness is a form that beauty can take and the Renaissance was conscious of this. I am expecting to be overwhelmed by form, “the continual play of basic forms and their variations-of square against round, deep against flat” in architecture by Brunelleschi as evidenced by the photograph of the interior of Santo Spirito in McCarthy’s book. Bringing shape out of chaos, the stones of Florence reveal what she calls “the strong drama of Florentine life”.
One or 2 more postings on this book and then on to Shelley’s biography.

Re: An urban study: Florenceby Janet Webster – Monday, 19 September 2011, 08:38 AM
McCarthy begins her last chapter with a reference to Goethe’s observations of Florence, “In the city we see proof of the prosperity of the generations that built it; the conviction is at once forced upon us that they must have enjoyed a long succession of wise rulers.” Stony Florence is “decidedly autumnal”, says McCarthy. Why Shelley even wrote his “Ode to the West Wind” in Florence. “Oh wild West Wind, thou breadth of Autumn’s being…yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red….”. The city colors and thick stone walls of Florence, according to McCarthy, offer up a fall harvest of rusts, grays, russets, desert browns and tawny oranges. She blends the palettes of Florentine daily life with descriptions of religious art; the images of market goods and crafts are juxtaposed with detailed descriptions of angels, the Virgin, Christ’s descent from the Cross and the presentation of the Baptist’s head. There is a sense of being accosted and captivated by the photographs in the book from the undeniable architectural mastery of the gigantic Duomo to the fortress like Villa Medici and detailed observations of the deranged figures in the painting of the ‘Deposition’ by Pontormo. Reading about the urban abundance within Florence overwhelms, but McCarthy’s final descriptions of the surrounding agricultural hills of Tuscany refresh the eyes as do the two lone cypresses set against the rolling Tuscan hills in the final photograph of the book.
This book should be digitized so that the reader can follow links to her many historical references. I need this book on a Kindle with Google access.

Venice: The Republic

Re: ‘Venice Observed’ by Mary McCarthy

by Janet Webster

Just finishing off McCarthy’s “Venice Observed”, a title she plucked from Thomas Otway’s Restoration period play “Venice Preserv’d”. A few notable tidbits of writing which will stay with me once I return this book to the library are the descriptions of the Ghetto in Chapter 3 “Pound of Flesh” and her judgments of the Venetian Republic. I quote: “The ricordi or souvenirs of today are yesterday’s reminders or warnings. And this, again, is suggestive of a politics of old men, a counting -house politics that constantly reminds its citizens, as if in a series of mottoes, that honesty is the best policy. Those bodies hanging from the Molo* (or on the Piazzetta), that column of infamy, that vacant space on the wall where a doge has been erased-these are not barbaric shows of vengeance but daily reminders, such as might be hung over the desks of clerks in a big old-fashioned office….A doge is deposed, after many years of service to the state, in the same dry style that an employee is given his dismissal…The individual is expected to set the firm’s interest first, and the individual scarcely figures in the firm’s records, unless a black mark has been set against his name…The Republic took every safeguard against popular intrusions, on the one hand, and against manifestations of individuality in the aristocracy, on the other..Its leaders are all subordinates…”.

* “Fatal Pillars” on the Molo and at and Doge’s Palace where executed bodies were strung for public display