How to Be a Romantic Poet

O reader! Does a drowsy numbness pain your sense? Does the sight of
a ruined abbey send you into dizzy raptures? If so, you may be
ready to take your place among the immortal poets of the Romantic
era. Just follow these simple instructions, and become a permanent
fixture on the English 101 syllabus.

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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