Stoics and Romantics: A Review of Two Books

Anyone who likes to write must spend time reading because there is no writing without reading. Of the many books that I have taken up recently on the search for ideas or entertainment, two rise above the rest as thought-provoking and engrossing. (Footnote to self regarding the rejects: do not bother reading anything else by Harold Bloom.  One book by him is enough; he reworks the same stuff in the same manner, and his identity looms large: from childhood he has been unbearably brilliant, he is unable to write without the word “daemon,” and thinks Shakespeare is the greatest.)  My two favorites center the frame of my interests in Stoicism and Romantic literature: Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm and Romantic Lives by Daisy Hay.

To the Stoics among us, Seneca must be of interest, and the outlandish and horrible antics of the Roman emperors wonderfully described by Romm, through whose reigns Seneca managed to survive for many years, should captivate a historically-minded reader of any philosophical persuasion. The author writes in an engaging and fast-paced style, anticipating and addressing the questions that come to mind about the motivations and inner most thoughts of Seneca, a Stoic who had to reconcile his philosophy with the actions he took to survive and possibly to maintain some check on the cruelty of his one-time pupil, Nero. For anyone who remembers the PBS series of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius or who read the book, the joys of learning fact (or most likely fact) from fiction abound in this book.

Romantic Lives hits the most interesting biographical points of the lives of a number of Romantics — Hunt, Shelly, Mary Shelly, a little bit of Keats, Byron — and the parts of their lives that intersect. In some cases, Hay gives an equally or even more vivid picture of the personalities of her various subjects than biographers manage in hundreds of more pages on a single individual. Keats plays a small role in this book, so he needs his own biography, but Hunt, Byron, Shelley, and Mary Shelly are fully developed. Hay zeros right in on the details that reveal the most and interest the most. What I found as the special treat is her attention to the “ordinary” people (ordinary only to distinguish them from the literary greats) who existed within the orbit of Shelley and Byron. I had developed a particular curiosity about the post-Shelley existence of Claire Claremont, which the final pages of this book fully satisfied.

With a focus on the intersecting lives during a certain period of time, the author is not obliged to treat at much length or at all the childhood or forbears of any individual, but only those parts relevant to a rather limited period of especial interest.  Having read the several biographies of the personalities involved, there was some repetition, but more often Hay used common material to clarify the events, motivations, and relationships of the parties and to depict the iintense drama, of which there is no short supply, as well as a canonical 19th century novelist. Again, beyond basic biographical endeavor, Hay digests the difficulties of a situation of complexity and long duration into a perfectly insightful and (seemingly) accurate pithy assessment. For example, she sums up the Shelleys’ marital problems: “The tragedy of Shelley and Mary’s marriage lay in her inability to convey to him the depths of her emotional attachment, and in his failure to understand how much pain his actions caused her.”  Likewise, her voice is an added value when she steps back to assess the impact for better and for worse these individuals had on each other.

It is always a wonderful side effect if a book does more for the reader than the author meant to achieve or the reader had reason to expect. That statement assumes that Hay did not mean for us to evaluate the importance of sociability in our own lives. Such was my experience in the following way. A major premise of the book is the importance of a “co-operative sociability” to creative influence.  She definitely makes that point stick in the case of Percy Bysshe Shelley, although at times she concedes that it is in solitude and only through thinking about or corresponding with friends that he derives his inspiration.  The notion of the importance of friends to creativity struck me as worthy of consideration because I had been a proponent of the opposite, believing that genius leads to solitude and in that state the great writer sounds his or her imagination.  I had embraced that paradigm from the example of Emily Bronte, who, in her amazing self- resourcefulness, seemed to find within herself the inspiration for her novel and poetry.  However, even in her case, one could point out that she did have the creative camaraderie of her sister Anne, who was her partner in Gondal. Closer to home, the idea that connecting with others is an essential source of inspiration reminded me of my own isolation. I have no like-minded coterie to share literary or philosophical ideas. My mother was a literary compatriot, but by the time I got around to developing my interests, I had scant years before she could not even recollect who Walter Pater was. The two professors from literature classes to whom I made overtures ran for the hills — or would have, but saved themselves the trouble by just ignoring my emails.

My isolation brings me back to the first book on a beleaguered Stoic, as Stoicism again proves useful. I have no “co-operative sociability,” but the dispassionate mind can accept that reality because sociability has its drawbacks as well as its benefits, there is no changing the situation so liking it is better than lamenting it, and I share that situation with many others, past and present. Last, there are books such as these to offer the eternal, virtual cooperative sociability of reading.

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