Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How to Be a Romantic Poet, Part One

Gentle Reader, who among us has not looked at a ruin and been sent into spastic fits of glee that could only be contained in blank verse, been tempted to imitate the ancients, attack the government in rhyming couplets about the wind, reflect constantly on one's impermanence, engage in highly complicated love affairs that would puzzle any future scholar of your life, immortalize your friends as Gentle-Hearted So-and-So, spite the lovers who spurned you by dying of a wasting disease while composing your own epitaph, or found a utopian commune on the banks of the Susquehanna?

If your answer to all these questions is no, then, alas! You are not a Romantic Poet.

What a sad state of affairs, Gentle Reader. The Amateur Historian quite feels your pain and thus introduces yet another series to this blog: "How To Be A Romantic Poet." (There is a fantastic article that does a much better and much more concise job of listing this than the Amateur Historian and, in fact, inspired this series. It was published in a museum magazine once and it was also once passed out in the Amateur Historian's English class and she can no longer recall who wrote it or where it was published. However, credit for this idea goes to whoever wrote it first. The Amateur Historian apologizes for her crappy memory.

Tip 1: Look the part! You must have curls in wild disarray, to prove that your mind is on higher things and that you yourself have been touched by the zeitgeist, the spirit of the era. It cannot be too messy, however, or people will just think you are a hobo. The Amateur Historian suggests folowing Byron's model of sleeping with his hair in curlers. Abandon your cravat as a sign of an oppressive society who would seek to muzzle your voice with its restrictive neckwear and defy it by wearing an open-necked shirt in all weather. This not only makes you look cool, it can make you downright chilly and let you catch a wasting disease. Everyone always takes you more seriously if you are likely to die young after producing your own epitaph.

If you cannot catch a wasting disease despite your best efforts to do so, attempt to look the part by keeping a suitably ethereal figure by, as was Byron's wont, playing cricket while wearing seven waistcoats and a greatcoat. If cricket is not to your liking, try to be relentlessly bullied as a small child, so as to stunt your growth by being kept from your food, writing at all hours of the night and never sleeping, or hiking up mountains to feed your soul on the beauties of rural England and not on, say, the hard-boiled egg your slave, er, that is sister, made for you.

Check back every day this week for new tips on how to prove to all those detractors who claim you have no soul or sentiment that you can, as Wordsworth put it, be:

"A man speaking to men... endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than one supposed to be common among mankind; a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe, and habitually compelled to create them where he does not find them."

Monday, March 30, 2009

Color Coded for Your Convenience!

Clothes were as essential a part of the Georgian political system as they are today. Every politician must be well dressed and know their political colors. Though there were no acrimonious debates over flag lapel pins, King Louis XVI managed to save the lives of himself and his family by agreeing to wear a revolutionary Phyrigan cap and a tricolor cockade. Fashion was an integral part of the political process.

The Whigs, a group which supported a more oligarchial form of rule with power mostly in the hands of the aristocracy, but which also included republican radicals like Thomas Paine, wore buff and blue. These were the colors of the American Revolutionary Army's uniforms. Most Whig leaders wore buff knee-breeches or waistcoats and a blue coat in their offical portraits. See the portrait of Sheridan on the left.

The Tories, a more conservative group which supported the power of the monarchy, wore green. This was the color of the uniform of the British dragoons, again, from the war of the American Revolution. See the portrait of Banastre Tarleton to the right.

Where does leave Pitt the Younger, below, in black, you may ask? Pitt considered himself an independant Whig for most of his life, which meant that he was a stickler for the constitution and prefered a balance of power between the aristocracy and the monarchy. He also, according to contemporary reports, did not have much time or inclination to devote himself to following fashion, and wore black because it hid inkstains the best.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Royal Pain

Mention has been made of Frederick the Great, who had an extremely weird and unhappy childhood. This was because his father, Frederick William I was... idiosyncratic to say the least. He was extremely frugal (he refused to leave candles burning in his palace when he wasn't using them, immaterial of whether or not someone else was using them) but spared no expense for his armies. This devotion to the military led to the creation of the "Postdam Giants," i.e. a military corps made up of the tallest soldiers in Europe, a vicious and abusive relationship with Frederick the Great, and the habit of carrying around a walking stick (which Frederick William I is actually carrying in his right hand in the portrait to the right) so he could more conveniently bludgeon anyone who displeased him.

As Frederick William I went walking one day, he saw a peasant obviously trying to hide. Frederick William I then asked what the man was doing, to which the peasant replied that he was afraid of His Majesty.

"Afraid?" roared Frederick William I. "You ought to love me and not be afraid; yes, to love me I tell you!" At this point, Frederick William I beat the peasant with his walking stick, since, as everyone knows, violent beatings with walking sticks are the best method of inducing tender feelings on the part of anyone.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bad Luck O'The Irish

A belated happy St. Patrick's Day to you all, and, in honor of this, here is another historical tidbit about one famous Irish playwright (all the famous British playwrights, save Shakespeare, seem to be Irish, though this Amateur Historian could not tell you why the Blarney Stone proves so inspirational to stage dramas), Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Sheridan, portrayed as a dynamic figure by Reynolds, to the left, was an infamous womanizer. This caused his first wife Elizabeth Linley, portrayed as such a natural beauty she seems part of her surroundings by Gainsborough, to the right, considerable pain. The fact that Elizabeth was considered one of the finest singers and most beautiful women of the late 18th century did not seem to stop Sheridan. Though affairs were common and acceptable as long as they were discreet, Sheridan had a bad habit of being caught in flagrante. The woman Sheridan appears to have loved the most devotedly, Harriet Spenser Bessborough, Lady Duncannon, was caught with Sheridan by her husband, who then attempted to introduce divorce proceedings. Considering that Lord Duncannon did not notice when his wife was pregnant with Lord Granville Leveson-Gower's children later on does not speak to Lord Duncannon's powers of observation or to Sheridan's discretion.

Soon after being caught out, Lady Duncannon, terrified of the social ostracism brought on by divorce, ended the affair. Sheridan returned to his wife, who was staying with friends at Crewe Hall, and begged forgiveness. Sheridan seems to have had luck as bad as his judgment, as Mrs. Sheridan wrote a few days later:

"Can you believe it possible that at the very time when Sheridan was pleading for forgiveness from me on this account, before it was certain that it would be hushed up, at the moment almost in which he was swearing and imprecating all sorts of curses on himself on me and his child, if ever he was led away by any motive to be false to me again, he threw the whole family at Crewe into confusion and distress by playing the fool with Miss FD [the governess] and contriving so awkwardly too, as to be discovered by the whole house, locked up with her in a bed chamber in an unfrequented part of the house."

Monday, March 16, 2009

An Unholy Alliance

In 1783, Pitt the Younger, then only 23, declined the king's offer to become Prime Minister, on the grounds that he could not possibly muster enough support in Parliament. The king expressed himself movingly, if not gramatically, in the one-sentance missive: "I am much hurt to find you determined to decline at an hour when those who have any regard for the Constitution as established by law ought to stand forth against the most daring and most unprincipled faction to stand forth that the annals of this Kingdom ever produced!"

This threat to the constitution was the "marriage" of Charles James Fox and Lord North, two politicians who had next to nothing in common except a desire to be on the Cabinet. The alliance of these two politicians gained the necessary majority in Parliament and thus would force the king, who had the consitutional right to ask any member of Parliament he thought likely to gain a majority to be Prime Minister, or, as it was then called, First Lord of the Treasury, to put them in power.

Pitt had once been one of Fox's disciples, but was disgusted at what we would term "selling out" and from then on considered himself an independant Whig. Quoth Pitt, "If this ill-omened marriage is not already solennized, I know a just and lawful impediment, and, in the name of public safety, I here forbid the bans."

However, Pitt, as the representative of the rotten borough of Appleby, had little clout with Parliament and the Duke of Portland was appointed as a do-nothing Prime Minister, with Fox and North as Secretaries of State. The king reportedly could not be cheered and attempted to abdicate but, struck with horror at the prospect of the Prince of Wales becoming king, contented himself to writing increasingy desperate letters to Pitt.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sentimental Friendships, Take One

In the late 18th century, sentimental friendships were all the rage. These were and are extremely close, very emotional friendships in which the two people do not hesitate to declare their undying love to one another, spill out their innermost secrets, hang around each others' necks whilst weeping, and kiss each other. The Amateur Historian theorizies that this was particularly popular amongst the upper classes in the late 18th century, where most marriages were not based on love, and there was no divorce if love-matches sadly went sour.

Your average bourgoisie or aristocrat would therefore have to find the emotional fulfillment necessary to a happy existance outside of marriage. This resulted either in affairs (which were generally accepted if the couple in question were discreet) or in sentimental friendships.

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a disappointing marriage (in The Eolian Harp, he begins to wax poetic about his wife, who promptly tells him to shut up) and developed a sentimental friendship not only with William Wordsworth, but with Thomas Poole. Unfortunately for the increasingly dependent Wordsworth, during their trip to Germany, Coleridge realized that Poole was more necessary for his emotional well-being.

Coleridge's letters to Poole include: "The Ocean is between us & I feel how much I love you!", "Of many friends, whom I love and esteem, my head & heart have ever chosen you as the Friend--as the one being, in whom is involved the full & whole sacred title....", and "My spirit is more feminine than your's--I cannot write to you without tears/ and I know that when you read my letters, and when you talk of me, you must often 'compound with misty eyes'...."

The Amateur Historian's personal favorite?

"O my God! how I long to be at home--My whole Being so yearns after you, that when I think of the moment of our meeting, I catch the fasion of German joy, rush into your arms, and embrace you.... Now the Spring comes, the vital sap of my affections rises, as in a tree!"

Monday, March 9, 2009

Poetic Eccentricity

Wordsworth is one of the best known and one of the most ridiculed of the Romantic poets. Who among us, Gentle Readers, has not had to read "I wandered as lonely as a cloud" and wondered why on earth the poet was so obsessed with daffodils? (The Amateur Historian wishes to mention that her favorite flowers are daffodils and she has, on occasion, quoted said poem while buying daffodils.) Those familiar with his sister Dorothy and her journals will also wonder why the well-documented entry in which she and her brother take and walk and stumble across a host of golden daffodils turned into a poem in which she was not present?

William Wordsworth's ambivalence towards his sister is one of his least endearing traits (Richard E. Matlak suggests that Wordsworth's Lucy poems, a series of elegaic poems in which the narrator has a presage of his beloved's death and then angsts on about his loss for three more poems, stem from Wordsworth's ambivalence about his sister and his subconscious wish that she was dead). One of his more entertaining traits is one which he mentions in Book IV of his incredibly long and somewhat (in the Amateur Historian's opinion) eye-rollingly narcissistic poem, The Prelude. Wordsworth composed outloud while taking walks. On these walks he brought his dog with him. After a particularly good bit of verse, Wordsworth would pet his dog. Most of the time the dog ran ahead, and would bark and run back if it saw anyone.

Wordsworth writes: "Punctual to such admonishment, I hushed/ My voice, composed my gait, and shaped myself/ To give and take a greeting that might save/ My name from piteous rumours, such as wait/ On men suspected to be crazed in brain."

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Oh, for a pound of flesh!

The actress Elizabeth Farren is one of the Amateur Historian's personal favorite celebrities of the late 18th century, though there is little written about said actress and little justification for the Amateur Historian's interest besides the portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, to the right, and the Amateur Historian's own personal admiration of elegance in all forms, whether in speech or in person. Vapid, mayhap, but it brings yet another funny portrait story.

Sir Thomas Lawrence was 21 when he painted this, one of his most famous portraits. Note the almost reckless elegance of the brushstrokes, the fine portrayal of the different types of fabrics, the fact that Miss Farren is moving towards the center of the canvas, giving an impression of energy and movement, and the fact that the horizon is so low, making Miss Farren dominate the scene. The portrait was hailed as a success by everyone save Miss Farren herself.

As she wrote to Sir Thomas Lawrence: "You will think me the most troublesome of all human beings, but, indeed, it is not my own fault; they tease me to death about this picture, and insist upon my writing to you. One says it is so thin in the figure that you might blow it away; another, that it looks broke in the middle. In short, you must make it a little fatter, at all events diminish the bend you are so attached to, even it if makes the picture look ill, for the owner of it is quite distressed about it at present. I am shocked to tease you, and dare-say you wish me and the portrait in the fire; but as it was impossible to appease the cries of my friends, I must beg you to excuse me."

Sir Thomas did not and, in fact, titled his portrait "Portrait of an Actress" (further upsetting Miss Ferrars, as "actress" held all the associations of disreputability and high-class prostitution) and upped his asking price from sixty guineas to one-hundred. Miss Farren advised her platonic beau and later husband, the Earl of Derby (and inventor of the eponymous horse-race) not to buy it.

Fortunately for us, the Earl bought it anyways.