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Shelley, Byron and Keats - Poetes mauditis

Contributions of Shelley, Byron and Keats for the 19 century European literature and history.




As far as Shelley?s (for Shelley?s work ckeck papers by the same author ? P.B. Shelley ? A Madman or a Poetic Genius and P.B.Shelley ? Poet of Love, of Nature and of Rebellion at www.literatureclassic.com) poets contemporaries are concerned, Byron and Keast shared his opinion about political changes in the world and the function of poetry in general. Confronted with the harsh social reality in England, and the whole Europe, Shelley and Byron and to a certain degree Keats reacted with revolt and revolutionary endeavor of crusaders against existing institutions, thus, declaring a clear political program, as well as, their vision of the future position of man in the new democratic social system.

All three of them lived in an epoch which was marked by events of great importance for the whole world?s history. The French revolution broke out in 1789 destroying the feudal order and marking  the coming of the civil class to power and a rapid development of capitalism in economy. In the whole of Europe the foundations of absolute monarchies were jolted while the Napoleonic wars instigated a rebellious ardour in almost all countries of the old continent.

The British empire was at a time the most powerful colonial power (check the paper by the same author titled British Romantic Writers and Slave Trade at www.literatureclassics.com) in the world. The country was governed by a powerful parliament which represented the politics of collaboration of the two classes ? aristocracy and bouergeoisie. The British rulers were endangered by the spread of revolutionary ideas from France so they waged several wars which had for their aim to suppress every revolutionary resistance on the European soil. These wars eventually ended with the defeat of Napoleon. The rulers of  the victorious countries Prussia, Austria and Russia formed, with England?s support, the Holy Alliance, whose aim was to suppress every revolutionary and freedom-fighting movement in Europe consequently disabling every attempt of the oppressed classes and enslaved nations to win their freeedom.

The major part of Shelley?s and the whole of Keats?s and Byron?s poetry was written exactly in the following years. In the poetry of all three of them ? although only in Shelley?s and Byron?s explicitly and directly ? a rebellious attitude of freedom loving young people who clashed, not only with the conservative customs of the ruling parties in their own countries was openly declared, but also with the whole system of inhuman exploitation, police repression, moral hipocricy and political intrigues which the English were exposed at the time. That is how each of them in his own way came in the position of the embittered opponent of state terror and obsolence.

                George Gordon, Lord Byron was born 1788 in London. At the age of 10, after the demise of one of his distant relatives, he inherited the title of a lord. After he had finished his studies at Cambridge in 1809, he embarked on a journey which was of great importance for the future development of his personality. While traveling through Europe, Byron realised that the rotten social order had to be destroyed after which every man would obtain unlimited and unconditional freedom. According to him, social order in England and Europe was completely derailed; only changes in every social aspect could bring headway. He spoke about it openly in Child Harold?s Pilgrimage (1812) where he thrilled his readers with dramatic beauty in verse with which he wrote about the actual but very exciting and little known themes. The poem glorifies the fight against tyranny (Shelley?s Prometheus Unbound (1818-1820)), that is, the Spanish for freedom. In The Pilgrimage, Byron expresses his compassion with the enslaved Greeks by the Turks (Shelley?s Hellas (1821)) who are about to throw the shackles of violence and terror once and for all.

After he had returned to England, Byron became a member of the high society, mostly ladies, who were bewithched by his attractive appearance and behaviour. After a number of scandals he was involved in, due to his lack of moral discipline and feeling of responsibility towards anyone, Byron was exposed to hate and scorn in the English public which was the primary reason for his leaving England and settling permanetly in Venice in 1816, two years before Shelley. He continued working on Child Harold on the road, but this time instead of describing customs and battles, Byron openly wrote about rage and bitterness  towards the society which he despised and hated utterly. Nature offered him refuge and a possibility of oblivion. In Italy, with great sorrow, he observed the ruins of the old Roman civilization and the symbol of transcience and hollowness of human glory (Shelley?s Ozymandias).

Byron?s poetry was an immediate success with the young people because it was full of hate towards, the society and obsolete patriarchal customs, and events such as Napoleon?s betrayal of  the revolutionary ideals, formation of the Holy Aliance which overshadowed all hopes that the time of ultimate freedom for all would ever come.

Pro-Nitzschean drama Manfred (1817-1818) is a  typical example of a piece of writing where the hero equally feels guilt, which he himself committed, as well as, the one committed by others; who is tormented and, at the same time, attracted by memories of the past, consequently, ascribing his prick of conscience to the indifference towards the society that he is a renegade of. In the drama, Cain (1812), Byron writes boldly about scepticism and fiercly attacks Calvinist fatalism. Cain, as the embodiment of ratonal doubt, stands up against evil incarnated in the Bible. In the drama, Lucifer was depicted as the courageous hero who defied every aspect of tyranny. That is how Byron (with his character of Cain) and Shelley (with his character of Prometheus), together created a myth about a dejected and rebellious renegade, a Satanic sinner who fights against the stale norms in the society carrying within himself all the necessary potentials to reform the society.

In Venice, wanting primarily to stand up against the conventional moral and ways of thinking, which he hated and despized, Byron gave way to debauchery. His way of life was much talked about in the high society European circles. However, that was an additional motivation for him to achieve his best in literature, as a poet and a freedom fighter, when he joined several European upheavals. At the time, he wrote the poem Don Huan (1818) where he openly laughs at stupidities and ignorance of contemporary noble society, their narrow-mindedness, hypocricy and lack of morality. Byron also writes about love experiences of the hero who is guided by faith and coincidence on a long journey from Spain to England via Greece, Turkey and Russia. This work, which is according to many critics, considered one of the most valuable in the European Romanticism, is actually an excellent grotesque parody of both poetry and romance. As a promoter of active social critique, Byron, at the time of writing Don Huan, when compared to Shelley, actively participated in freedom fights. Politically, he helped the resistance movement in Italy, at the same time subconsciously wanting to be engaged in every battle for freedom of the oppressed. That is exactly how in 1821, immediately after the Greeks fomented the uprising against the Turks, Byron collaborated with the rebels and in the end of 1824 went to Greece himself. The final goal of his, at a first glance chaotic, tumultuous and aimless life was fulfilled on the Greek soil - in a young, rebellious country, the cradle of democracy at the peak of its freedom fight from Islamic empire ... I hate all existing governments, he wrote at the time, I want a republic. The time of kings is coming to an end; blood will flow like water and tears but the people shall win in the end. He died on Aril 19th, 1824 in Missolonghi, from fever contracted while serving Greek and European freedom ? young, energetic and rebellious just after his poetical genius reached its pinnacle and his personality achieved a realization on an honest and an uncompromising path of self-knowledge. However, one should not forget that Byron was a contradictory and complex personality, who was long considered a decadent individual; in the end of his life he found enough strength to redirect this negative and destructive energy in the name of democracy and freedom. That is probably why Carl Marx determined the difference between Byron and Shelley, both great poets, contemporaries, aristocrats in origin, supporters of freedom fighting  and revolutionary movements: Those who understand and admire them consider lucky a fact that Byron died when he was 36, for he would have become revolutionary bourgeois if he has lived longer; on the contrary they regret that Shelley died when he was thirty for he was a revolutionary in his whole being and he would have always belonged to the avantguard of socialism.

If compared to the two revolutionary rebels, Shelley and Byron, John Keats, the son of a stable and horse owner, born in 1795, did not as openly call for disobedience and revolution. Despite the fact that he supported reforms and democrtic civil freedoms, Keats was in the first place an artist and an aesthetician. He fought to reconcile poetry and feelings and bitterly fought against poetic expression without emotions and artificial poetry. This conviction classifies him as one of the most modern theorists of poetry because according to him, non-destructible and fearless beauty of poetry gives sanctuary to the bleeding heart amidst vast valley of tears, which is the exact reason why the 19th century critics considered him the admirer of the cult of absolute beauty.

In Keats?s poetry sometimes a wish to dedicate himself to sorrows and worries of the people is more than obvious, and his the final poetical aim being to completely release and feel beauty, thus treasuring it to humanity. He did not accomplish humanism like Shelley and Byron, in social and political activity, but mostly by creating beauty which was for him a complete and real embodiment of the truth. He felt that beauty was everywhere; in the country, its fruits, human race and its legacy.

Shelley?s world is the universe while Keats?s concrete subject; in Shelley the sight is transient, instantaneous, composed of light, shadow and spirit, while for Keats it has the form that the senses determine: bodily, aromatic, made of flashy colors and solid shape. Shelley?s rhythm is dynamic, Keats?s slow and pompous. Shelley expresses general ideas with poetical pictures while Keats converts the experiences of his senses into a poem.

The poet whose mind was a monastery and he was its monk, committed suicide on February 23rd, 1821 (in his 26th year) after he found out that he had contracted tuberculosis, disappointed with bad criticism, as well as,  oppssessive and futile love for Fanny Brawne whom he dedicated passionate letters to, almost equally significant for literature as his poetry. In the memory of Keats, Shelley wrote  a pastoral elegy Adonais  in which he fearcely attacks merciless English critics who were, in his opinion, to blame for Keats?s death, while Byron expressed similar convictions in the XI canto of Don Huan.

Generally speaking, Shelley, Byron and Keats were free thinkers when theology and morals were concerned. Shelley?s thinking about these questions was not only rooted in the ancient Greek tradition and in the tradition of the French free thinkers Voltaire, Condorcet but also in the work of English free thinkers Shaftsbury, Hume and Godwin. He was a philosophical thinker and well-formed poet who attracted critics?s attention much more than the other two, due to his attitude and moral beliefs. Byron?s rejection of Christian doctrines, however, forced a fierce criticism of the Christian believers. Criticism of Keats based on theological bases was rare, partly because his work did not provoke anti-Christian beliefs. Also Shelley?s and Byron?s marital hisroty, as well as, sexual freedom provoked scandals which to great extent influenced the criticism of their work. Little was known about Keats?s private life so he was not exposed to such kind of slander.

Importance and contrbutions of all three Romantic poets is not neglible for the events in 19 century England and Europe in general. Rejected by the English society, all three of them, as poetes mauditis, helped and encouraged each other despite different attitudes when poetry was concerned. Byron seemed like a poet of subjective feelings, personal hate and scorn towards the society albeit his huge contributions after he had joined the Greek rebels. Shelley, on the other hand, was more generous and conscientiouss fighter than Byron, who in comparison to him, truly denounced comfort of the high society while Keats was more conscientious and purer artist who cosidered his poetical vocation a personal obligation to people.


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