Leaving no stone unturned in this illuminating portrait of Byron and Shelley’s formative years, Ian Gilmour’s entertaining dual biography explores the early lives of these two rebellious poets as they pursued freedom from traditional authority—in poetry, in politics, and in love. Born at a time of political and intellectual upheaval, the two well-born heretics were at ideological odds with the establishment even as boys. During their brief stints at university—Shelley was expelled from Oxford after publishing The Necessity of Atheism, and at Cambridge Byron concentrated mostly on gambling and whoring—they developed a fervent mutual hatred of persecution, inequality, and compulsory religion, quite to the shock of their fellow aristocrats. Their embrace of revolutionary ideals manifested itself, too, in their travels abroad, youthful love affairs, and early accomplishments in the literary arena. The twenty-four-year-old Byron became an immediate sensation upon the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (“I awoke one morning and found myself famous”), but the prolific Shelley would not “become [a] star among the stars of mortal night,” as he put it, until after his death. Black-and-white illustrations add to this impressive work, charting the careers of these two revolutionary poets who came to epitomize the Romantic Age.
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While Byron and Shelley's friendship was the high point, not only of their brief lives, but also of late British romanticism, Gilmour's engagingly written tandem biography explores their early years, before they met, and the political atmosphere of the French Revolutionary era in which they grew up. Gilmour, a former editor of the Spectator and a Conservative MP, has previously written mostly on politics and economics, but this work on the two poets has a shrewd eye for both their mythmaking and posthumous reputations. Byron and Shelley shared superficially similar backgrounds: aristocratic families, public school and Oxbridge educations, youthful radical sympathies and early travels that would prefigure exile. As Gilmour smartly shows, however, there is a vast gap between an impecunious half-Scots baron and the grandson of a rich baronet, as well as the nuances of Byron's flamboyant experiences at Harrow and Cambridge, compared with Shelley's miseries at Eton and Oxford. After Shelley was expelled from Oxford for his pamphlet "The Necessity of Atheism," there was no turning back from radical politics (which Gilmour still regards with latent Tory amusement), but with Byron, radicalism was something of a flirtation while cementing his notoriety. Gilmour ends right after Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage has caused a sensation, with Shelley only just about to start on his first important poems. A bit more foreshadowing would have made for a more substantive work. While this volume ends abruptly in 1812, its knowledgeable enthusiasm for the two bad boys of romanticism makes one hope for another volume. B&w illus.
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