Thursday, January 22, 2009

All the Poets Are Ded

I like Keats. Heck, I've written two relatively decent and (if I do say so myself) insightful papers about Keats, which is more than I can say for Byron and much more than I can say for Shelley (in fact, I feel I wouldn't even know where to begin with this last).

The trouble with Keats is Keats as a person, which. . . well, I've read multiple writers talking about how, of the younger Romantics, Keats is the only one you'd actually want to know, because Keats was genuinely nice, sweet, and good. Which on a certain level is presumably true. And reading Keats' biography, or his letters, is not boring - and not just because he had interesting things to say about literature and wrote some amazing poems - since he was both a legitimately nice person and a brilliant genius in his field (and, for that matter, relatively disadvantaged), his death is quite depressing and tragic. But poets, like pop stars and politicans, don't really count as real people. And my tastes in real people probably don't run to the norm, anyway.

Shelley (as a person, as described in Richard Holmes's book) actually reminds me more of many of my friends than Keats. Probably this is a class thing, at least to some degree, but it remains true. Shelley writing that atheist pamphlet but getting kicked out of school for refusing to answer questions rather than making the "strong case" that his intellectual inquiry was, in fact, not criminal, Shelley deciding that it would be a great idea for his best friend/boyfriend to sleep with his wife, going away in order to facilitate this, and then completely abandoning the friend when he suggests it to her and she gets offended. . . these may not be paradigms of positive behavior, but they seem awfully reminiscent to me of the kind of things that happened to my friends, at least when they were young. And Shelley was, if not the same kind of intellectual as my friends, certainly a very intellectual person. . . part of the reason why I have such a hard time thinking about how to write about his poetry is because of the philosophical complexity of it. Shelley certainly had his flaws, and he obviously wasn't a nice person like Keats (hell, he apparently was, completely obliviously, not very nice to Keats himself), but I would have liked to have been friends with him, had that been possible. He would certainly have been a very interesting friend (although some evidence suggests that a friendship between us would have been difficult. Then again, this goes for Keats, in a perhaps even more off-putting way, as well.).

As for Byron as a person. . . ummm. . . he sort of wasn't. I realize that the blame for this lies somewhat on his own head, but obviously not entirely. The problem with Byron is that every aspect of his personality, including his own resistance to his celebrity, his desires to divorce himself from the characters in his poems, and even the admitted great differences between, Don Juan and, say, Manfred, has informed later writers and creators so much that it really is fundamentally impossible for me to think of him as anything other than a fictional character. Are there lots of real people like Byron? Clearly, no. Are there lots of fictional people like him. Oh my God yes. Thus, the concept of considering Byron as a potential friend seems ludicrous - it would really be like considering Cain or Manfred as a potential friend.

Everybody knows the story behind the creation of Frankenstein, but I found the story behind Polidori's Vampyre to be really. . . entertaining. So Byron begins a story and then never finishes it. Polidori, who apparently served as Byron's personal doctor largely out of a desire to give a kickstart to his career (and who was uncle to the Rosettis? Man, you think of Goblin Market as setting up a completely different tradition of speculative fiction), uses the story as inspiration for his own novel. This ends up being a story about a guy who pals around with a British nobleman who spends vast quantities of time seducing women on trips throughout Europe and eventually seduces the guy's sister. The nobleman, who is of course a really evil vampire, is named after a character in an earlier novel who is a transparent portrait of Byron. When the novel was published, somehow the magazine decided to claim that it was by Byron, thus infuriating both Byron and Polidori, who by this time really disliked each other. And apparently, all Internet sources agree that Polidori was the first to really write about the vampire as an aristocrat, thus more or less setting the tone for the entire genre as it developed throughout the next couple of centuries. I find this story genuinely hilarious. But it really does demonstrate why Byron basically only counts as a fictional character. The fact of his existence seems more or less irrelevant ;-).

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