How to Be a Romantic Poet

Adam Goodheart Utne Reader
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1. Mien and Demeanor
First, look the part. One thing the Romantics had in common was hair, and lots of it -- masses of glossy curls, preferably raven-hued. Wear an open-necked shirt in all weather; this will both expose your shapely throat and help you to catch a wasting ailment (see Step 4). If you have a tendency toward fat, emulate Lord Byron: When he found himself exceeding the limits of poetic girth, he played cricket wearing seven waistcoats and a greatcoat until he was once again suitably ethereal.

Get an early start. As a teenager, Shelley was already sleeping with pistol and poison under his pillow, and writing poems about nuns with 'half-eaten eyeballs.' Suicide must always be an option. ' I should, many a good day, have blown my brains out,' reflected Byron, 'but for the recollection that it would have given pleasure to my mother-in-law.'

2. Dissipation and Love
Youthful exploits can fall into two categories: athletics or expulsions. Either swim or walk a notable distance (Byron, Keats) or get kicked out of school for a scurrilous publication (Shelley for The Necessity of Atheism; Southey for The Flagellant, a protest against flogging). Later, ingest large quantities of controlled substances. Coleridge chose opium; Byron preferred to quaff claret from the skull of a medieval monk.

In matters of the heart, you must be either a conspicuous failure or a conspicuous success. Keats was too short (barely five feet) to find love, which induced professionally useful melancholy. Byron's amours, on the other hand, ran the gamut from his Calvinist Bible teacher to an Italian countess to a Cambridge choirboy to his own half-sister. He left broken hearts and illegitimate children in his wake, which scandalized England and boosted sales.

3. You and Your Muse
Before sitting down to write, get in the proper mood. When Byron composed Childe Harold, he was ' half mad . between metaphysics, mountains, lakes, love unextinguishable, thoughts unutterable, and the nightmare of my own delinquencies.' Imitate the masters: The best line in all Romantic poetry is Shelley's 'Swiftly walk o'er the western wave, Spirit of Night!' He socks you right in the gut with an Unexpected Initial Adverb, then wins points for Use of the Word O'er, Reference to the West, Maritime Synecdoche, Direct Address of a Spirit, and Gratuitous Capitalization. In just nine words, Percy earns a perfect score.

4. Expiration
A Romantic poet doesn't die, he Expires. This involves ceasing to breathe amid suitable theatrics. One popular escape route is a wasting illness like Keats' consumption, which will give you plenty of time to travel to Italy, compose your epitaph, savor the guilt of the women who've spurned you, watch your cheek grow wan, and so on. For a quicker departure, drown in the Gulf of Spezia, as Shelley did, or perish for the cause of Greek liberty, as Byron did. Thomas Love Peacock distinguished himself by dying after a house fire, when he stood among his beloved books shouting, ' By the immortal gods, I will not move!' That was a grand exit.

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