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.

Thoughts Provoked by a Fellow Blogger: Creativity and Emotion


I had imagined that having a blog would lead to a back and forth with others of similar interests, and it seems that is finally happening to some degree.  Two instances of inter blogging have provoked some thoughts leading to the following reactions. This is the first one.

A fellow Keatsian blogger discussed in a post and in a response to my comment that a state of depression fueled Keats’s creativity and that adhering to the golden mean would vitiate the creative expression of writers, who, like Keats, experience intense feelings and pour them into their art. The question of whether moderation (and its goal of tranquility) is at odds with creativity has puzzled me for a while.  I am almost led to propose a conundrum: if everything is to be taken in moderation does that include moderation?  Leaving such tail-chasing aside, I would agree that an emotional maelstrom might appear an artistic catalyst. Seneca allowed a passionate and immoderate mindset for writing: he referred to the statements of Plato and Aristotle and their views on the mixture of madness and genius typical to great poetic creativity, then articulated his own belief: “ . . . in any case only a mind that is excited is capable of great and transcendent utterance. . . . It must tear itself from the trodden path, palpitate with frenzy. . . ” Similarly, Keats,  in a poem included in a letter to his brother George, described the poet as being in a “trance,” capable of perceptions like no other person.  Keats also stated in his letters that, when immersed in writing, he was in a sort of fever and that the presence of any person, “burst on him like a thunderbolt.”  It might seem, then, that there is an exception to the golden rule of moderation when it comes to writers or other creators—that for them, being in the thrall of non-moderate emotion is important.  I, however, don’t think that is exactly the case.

First, the truly agitated person, spinning in giddy delight or sunk into despair, does not do great work, generally. Personally, I could think of nothing less conducive to productive writing than just having found out some news that would send me into the transports of joy (whatever such news might be I have trouble imagining) or just having received one of those inevitable and dreadful phone calls.  I might try to escape those high or low feelings by writing, but they would not be driving or aiding the process. I think writers get into the zone, such as the state of mind that Keats described for himself and that such a state is a form of tranquility because the mind is engaged and life is purposeful.  Simply stated, for those who like to write, there is nothing that feels better than getting lost in the act of writing, which is a focused but not immoderate emotional state–it is not one of exaltation or despair.   That is not to say that Keats did not know suffering, feel depressed, and wish for death. Without his loses, he would not have written what he wrote, would not have been who he was. As he described it, one can only know what is tested on the pulses. He knew those experiences, but he did not feel them while writing, and he struggled, by recourse to his philosophy, to keep his head above them—to fight his “horrid morbidity of temperament.” That is the most anyone can do, unless a sage (Seneca admitted that such persons were scarcely to be found).

Therefore, aiming at moderation and the resulting tranquility will not ward off misery at all times. We will still suffer and have enough experience to supply our work, should we turn poetic. With the tool of our reason and our goal of tranquility, there is some way out at least and we need not succumb to ragged emotions, irrationally charging around like King Lear, seething with anger, gnawed by remorse, or simply whining and complaining.