A strangely disconnected evening of poetry at the National this evening in celebration of the romantic spirit of Keats, Shelley and Byron all introduced by novelist Josephine Hart, who's been encouraging famous actors to perform poetry in monthly readings at The British Library.
I find something uneasy about trying to contextualise the romantic voice. The academic surety of the evening seemed to both control and condemn. Do their childhoods matter? Their early deaths? Their relationships and travels? Do we need to spruce them up? Explain or trim their frayed edges? Better to leave the words loose, unfettered and roaming. Life is such and lines as lonely as
Then on the shore
Of the wide world, I stand alone and think
Til love and fame to nothingness do sink.
from When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be seem to defy a reason for their own creation. Of course we can align biography or spot the craftsmanship, but ultimately we can only experience a meaning by holding Keats hand and submitting to the solitary role he describes. Hart was clear that the epitaph on his Roman tomb 'Here lies one whose name was writ in water,' was patently untrue. For all her attempts to bottle him, I'm not so sure.
Neither Shelley nor Byron fared much better - their wild restlessness seemingly out of place in the coiffured environment of the Olivier stalls. The Mask of Anarchy was given a clear historical rationale, but this served to tuck the sentiments up rather than allow them to echo across the centuries.
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number-
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.
The verses were beautifully read by Damian Lewis, Harriet Walter and Dan Stevens, but it was only really as the evening drew to a close that anything really hit home. Perhaps by then I'd tuned out of the commentary and just let Byron in full flowing defiance have the floor, leaving the composed prose of the critics trailing in his wake.
For the sword outwears its sheath
And the soul wears out the breast
And the heart must pause to breathe
And love itself have rest.