Ian Gilmour's deft and learned book is concerned with the lives of Byron and Shelley up to the morning on which Byron woke up and found himself famous. The poets weren't to meet for another four years, so Gilmour isn't telling the history of their acquaintance but its prehistory; and not the least of his book's many virtues is the way it makes you realise what an odd combination they made. The obvious comparison is with Coleridge and Wordsworth, who quickly recognised in one another a kindred spirit, even though differences later emerged; but Shelley and Byron were always opposites. One was a devout evangelist for atheism; a passionate metaphysician, who, Polidori records, once talked about idealism 'till the ladies' brains whizzed with giddiness'; perhaps the most intuitively abstract poet in the language ('You might as well go to a ginshop for a leg of mutton, as expect anything human or earthly from me'); and a fervent eulogist of imagination and the 'unacknowledged legislature' of poets. The other, plagued by a childhood Calvinism into irrationalist fantasies of doom, was also a natural debunker who, in Gilmour's words, 'prided himself on his cynical realism', who spoke with cheerful contempt of 'the mazes of Metaphysics', and with equally cheerful contempt of poetry: 'Who would write, who had anything better to do?' Byron exemplifies Barbara Everett's compelling thesis that English poets thrive on a stubbornly philistine mistrust of the pretensions of art: Shelley reminds us that the thesis does not hold good for all great English poets. Even in their politics, while they are obviously both on the side of progress, the differences are important. Shelley was a Godwin-intoxicated optimist: Byron, a disheartened Foxite Whig.
LRB 6 February 2003 | PDF Download