Sunday, February 05, 2006

"My epitaph shall be, my name alone" - Byron

"My epitaph shall be, my name alone" - Byron

I was always going to get over-excited about a programme about the Romantics. Especially when it had multiple parts, a website and even a free leaflet (which, incidently, I am still waiting for). I missed all but the last sixty seconds of the first part but I've watched parts two and three with a level of excitement that was was possibly slightly indecent.

And as was always fated to happen I loved it and was dissapointed in it in equal measures. Possibly most importantly I loved the argument behind it - that we wouldn't be the people we are today without the Romantics. That so much that we take for granted - notions of the individual (on both a pyschological and political level), the way we view nature and childhood, the freedom with which we chose to live our lives - might not have been possible were it not for a disparate band of writers at the turn of the 19th century. They literally changed the way that we think. And they remain achingly, poignantly relevant to this day.

The programme itself was fast paced, visually interesting and having actors playing the poets was a masterstroke (they were all perfect for my vision with the exception of Wordsworth, who - as I like his early work best - I always imagine as being younger than he was portrayed). The content itself was interesting and a more than competent 'Rough Guide To...' but I couldn't help screeching at the tv at various points. Because there were aspects and subtleties that Ackroyd was never going to be able to fit into three hours of tv.

'The Romantics' is such an easy title for a group of people who were never in the same room together, had widely different views on many things and wrote startingly different poetry and so I mentally cringed every time there was a sentence beginning 'The Romantics thought...'. Often without even the distinction bewteen a first and second generation Romantic. Even when you pair up the ones who were hugely influential on each others work on a purely practical level (Wordsworth and Coleridge, Byron and Shelley) it's not a surprise that they had somewhat stormy relations and didn't agree with each other a lot of the time.

It was where the views diverged, where their ideas really got interesting that I wanted more than the programme could offer. That it quoted from both Wordsworth's 1805 and 1850 versions of The Prelude without docking its hat to what are radically different texts, saying radically different things about what we consider to be the basis of 'Romanticism'*. That it looked at Frankenstein as part of the second generation's view on nature but didn't note that Mary Shelley wasn't just writing after being influenced by ideas expressed by Byron and Shelley - she was, at least in part, writing against ideas expressed by them**. That in all the take on the 'Keats Myth' (which was very nicely done) it was not noted that Shelley's reason for creating the myth of the tragic, ineffectual poet doomed to die without being heard or understood was undoubtedly grounded in the fact that he himself was genuinely unread - and died knowing this***.

But I could forgive all of that for the constraints necessarily placed upon Ackroyd. What I couldn't forgive was the angle at which Byron was viewed. In the final programme on 'Eternity' Byron got a good chunk of screen time with a short guide to some of the facts - or rumours - of his life and he was viewed squarely in the - very interesting - light of being the first recognisable media 'celebrity'. Which is what he stayed in the terms of the programme - a 'celebrity' with a one liner for every poetical occassion (without noting that he was equally scathing about his own work). There were some lovely quotes from his letters but only once was any of his poetry quoted in this programme and it was read squarely in relation to his own life. I agree these are important aspects of Byron but in a programme that was discussing death, afterlife and immortality it missed what it ultimately means to be 'Byronic'. In the terms of Byron's poetry, to be Byronic is to defy. And the ultimate defiance that Byron envisages is to defy death - that Manfred, in his take on the Faust story, can refuse to be taken by the spirits and can die on his own terms. It is to be triumphant and live outside and beyond the body. But I couldn't help but feel - as the camera stayed on Keats and Shelley and their intertwined myth - that the impression created was, as one critic once stated, "if Byron is great it is for reasons which are not primarily poetic".

The series, though, did make me excited - and pleased that BBC had chosen to make it. Maybe in twenty years time I might get to make my own version. It also struck me of how intense a period the era of the Romantics was. At best we can consider it to have been just over a three decade movement - Byron is, neatly, its beginning and end, being born during the French Revolution and his death in 1824 marking the end of the second generation. Thirty six years. To make the mark that they did. I find that pretty incredible. And definitely just a tad Byronic.

As a final point - if only to be pendantic - Ackroyd noted that Shelley drowned after his boat Don Juan sank off the coast of Italy. And anyone who has read/ seen SSoB will know that Harry intends to 'Go to Livorno and sail back to San Terenzo' in a boat named 'Ariel'. The name 'Don Juan' would have made lovely thematic patterns, with Harry thinking that he is Byron and whatnot, but I couldn't use it. Because Shelley's boat wasn't actually called Don Juan. It was going to be, but its name was changed. To Ariel. Which some how seems more fitting.

*Wordsworth got all conservative in his old age and re-wrote the life out of his great poem. From that you can probably guess that I'm an 1805 fan.

**Ok, proper involved footnote here. Frankenstein is also called the 'modern Prometheus' on its title page - and the myth of Prometheus [who defied Zeus to give fire to humans] was one which all three of the Romantics in the house that night were preoccupied with [both Byron and P B Shelley wrote about him]. Byron and P B Shelley liked the myth as it removed the power of a God. If they could dismantle Christianity then they still needed something to put in its place - and the figure of Promethesus, who becomes almost Christ-like, is one which can be fashioned in their own likeness. Mary Shelley's take on the story, however, has much darker consequences - Frankenstein becomes a God with devastating results. It would be fair to say she hadn't quite bought into Byronic philosophy.

***Shelley never made a penny from his poetry in his life time - he self-published all his work and, in contrast to Byron's Harry Potter status in publishing terms, very few people read it. It was one of Mary Shelley's great achievements that she edited and published his work after his death, otherwise it would have remained unpublished at the very least until the 20th century.

1 comment:

Shona said...

Have episodes 1, 2, and 3 on video if you need a fix anytime Corinne.