Samuel Johnson defined an "anecdote" as "something yet unpublished", emphasising its oral quality. Anecdotes are stories circulated in conversation or letters, often reporting the talk of the great and the good: the unguarded but resonant remark, the sally, the quick-witted parry and riposte, the confiding aside. On November 30 1820, Keats wrote from Rome to his friend and confidant Charles Brown: "I have an habitual feeling of my real life having passed, and that I am leading a posthumous existence." Brown circulated the news to Keats's friends in London, and the phrase spread in a thousand anecdotes.
Over the next three months Keats indeed died - slowly, painfully, savagely. His hazel eyes took on an unearthly lustre as he would perpetually inquire: "how long is this posthumous life of mine to last?" He was no longer able to write, could barely read, but was still fretting about his fame, grimly punning on his "posthumous life", and ensuring that at least his gallows humour would be remembered.
The attempts of contemporaries to recollect conversations and bons mots are often as diverting as the anecdotes themselves. James Hogg miserably remembered only that he had forgotten Scott's fondest compliment to him; Coleridge often seems to have pulverised his interlocutors with neo-Platonic garrulity. Lives of the Great Romantics endeavours to chart this Victorian canonisation of "the Great Romantics" through anthologies of published memoirs and anecdotes. The first set, published in 1996, covered Shelley, Byron, and Wordsworth, and now we have Keats, Coleridge and Scott (can Scott, the Great Unknown, really be considered a Great Romantic?). So, it's the Famous Five plus Scott. No Blake, no Wollstonecraft, no Southey, no Mary Shelley, no Clare. And no explanation of what constitutes a Great or a Romantic.
The anthologies consist of extracts from 19th-century editions reproduced in facsimile reprints, with added introductions, brief explanatory notes and an index. Victorian hagiography does not usually inspire the best writing, and the most engaging extracts reproduced here are precisely the forgetful Hogg's. But there are many by people who simply could not write very well. Any connection with a revered poet was sufficient excuse to take up the pen. Overhearing the young Keats mumbling a line of poetry turns an anecdote into a literary event. The better writers show, for example, a Keats who attended bear-baiting and prize fighting, an intemperate Keats:
"One day he was full of an epic poem; the next day epic poems were splendid impositions on the world" (Benjamin Haydon). Keats's close friends show that any intimacy with him and his precocious contemporaries literally went to the head. "The head (of Keats) was a puzzle for the phrenologists, being remarkably small in the skull, a singularity which he had in common with Lord Byron and Mr. Shelley, none of whose hats I could get on" (Leigh Hunt).
But the majority of the extracts are by vultures, obsessed by Keats's long and lingering end. The combination of sickly sentimental writing and grievous mortality makes a harrowing read. In his recent biography, Andrew Motion weaves these same sources together with delicacy and restraint. His poised account means so much more to the reader and critic of Keats.
If Keats's terrible death made his posthumous life for Victorian biographers, Coleridge provided equally morbid entertainment. Accounts of Coleridge read like the diary of a drug fiend. He would send his obliging chaperone on elaborate and spurious errands while he flitted into druggists to have his flask filled with laudanum. Of Coleridge's opium-eating intoxicated contemporary commentators, only the maverick memoir of William Jerdan dared to say the unsayable: "There is no doubt that the prodigal use of this narcotic stimulant had great influence upon the writings of both these celebrated men (Coleridge & De Quincey); and it would be a curious psychological problem to solve, were it possible, how much of the wandering and incoherency of both, and, in truth, how much of the wild and obscure, so likely in our day to be mistaken for the breathings of genius, is to be ascribed to this cause."
Only the volume here on Scott makes a concerted attempt to consider the life and celebrity of the writer rather than dwelling on his personal tragedy. It is the more scholarly of the set, the least harrowing, the most elegantly argued - and along the way we meet Scott's dogs, drink his wretched wine, and shudder when we hear that, as an infant, he was wrapped in a raw sheepskin to cure his polio.
There are some other intriguing extracts here - Walter C. Dendy on Keats, Thomas Brown on Coleridge - but many of the pieces are problematic. The Keats volume reprints Shelley's Adonais in its entirety. This is not a rare text, so why was it not presented in a version such as the 1821 Literary Chronicle review, which gives an immediate comment on the relationship of Shelley and Keats and then quotes the entire poem? Neither is any mention made of the printer's errors in the version here. Likewise, the Coleridge volume includes extracts from Biographia Literaria and the 1805 Prelude. The whole of Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" appears in the Leigh Hunt extract, and many letters are given in full. To use facsimile printing for churning out texts that are commonly available in reliable editions seems gratuitous. It is mere affectation - a fustian project without context.
Indeed, the use of facsimiles seems like a weak claim for authenticity and truth. But extracts have been magnified or reduced to fit the current volumes, with no indication of original size. The variety of typefaces is exhausting and irritating to read, and several facsimile pages have been distorted during photography. One wonders how reliable some of the texts are (remarks on textual accuracy are confined to the Scott volume), and original page numbers are given in a prefatory table which requires cross-referencing with the contents page. There are errors in notes, bibliographies and index. Keats's letter on Coleridge's conversation is printed in both the Keats and Coleridge volumes, but the versions have not been synchronised and offer variant (inaccurate?) texts. What little annotation appears is distinctly odd: a reference in the Coleridge volume to Ariel (yes, from The Tempest) is glossed, but the maverick company on the following page (John Huss, Jerome of Prague, John Zisca, to name but three), receive neither explanations nor index entries.
Lives of the Great Romantics is not only ill conceived, it is a squandered opportunity. All three volumes suggest the medicalisation of biography in the 19th century, and the associated interest in the body, in phrenology and physiognomy, in the colour of eyes, in lameness. Furthermore, the single volumes of Coleridge and Scott are good enough to show that brisk monographs on specific examples of canonisation (explaining cultural frequency in anthologies and editions, citations, influence and allusion) could be significant.
But the most alarming quality of this set is that the volumes are poorly copy edited. Introductions and headnotes (particularly in the Keats volume) are peppered with deplorable errors. There are inaccuracies in transcription and even spelling mistakes ("cemetary", "Dilletanti club" - presumably the Society of Dilettanti). Things become preposterous when the title of the series appears as Lifes (sic) of the Great Romantics. Suddenly the decision to use facsimiles seems uncomfortably wise. With editing like this, at least it guarantees some accuracy.
Nick Groom is a lecturer in English, University of Exeter.
Lives of the Great Romantics II: Keats Coleridge and Scott by their Contemporaries
Editor - Jennifer Wallace, Ralph Pite and Fiona Robertson
ISBN - 1 85196 373 1
Publisher - Pickering and Chatto
Price - £225.00
Pages - 1,139