Series presented by Peter Ackroyd about a group of visionary writers. Byron, Keats and Shelley lived short lives but the radical way they lived them would change the world.
Browse content similar to Eternity. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
I'm going to take you on a journey into the human imagination...
..back to a time when the values and ideas and dreams of the modern world were born.
200 years ago, monarchy was falling to the power of people's revolutions.
Industry and commerce were becoming the driving forces of existence,
and advances in science
were changing the way life itself was understood.
Artists all over the world
were inspired by these times of dramatic change.
In Britain, a group of poets and novelists pioneered
an alternative way of living and of looking at the world.
Among them were John Keats,
and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
The enduring power of their writing haunts us to this day,
and inspires us still with visions of eternity.
In Oxford during the winter of 1811, an anonymous pamphlet was posted to
all the bishops and heads of the colleges at the university.
The pamphlet was entitled The Necessity Of Atheism.
It proclaimed that, without proof of the existence of God,
it was nonsense to believe in him.
Within 20 minutes of a copy of the pamphlet being placed in the window
of a bookshop on the high street,
a clergyman entered and demanded that all copies be burned.
The writer was committing blasphemy, a crime punishable with imprisonment.
He was attacking the very foundations
of European civilisation.
This is the story of a search for meaning in a world without God.
Around the turn of the 18th century,
revolutions had broken open the conventional social order.
Everything seemed possible,
and in the way they lived, the way they loved
and the way they died, the Romantics were to define the way we live now.
In the autumn of 1797, the writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge
was exploring the wild coastline of North Devon.
He came upon this enchanted vale around the tiny Culbone Church.
But he was in ill health,
suffering from dysentery.
He rested here at this farmhouse known as Ash Farm.
And here he took a remedy for his pains.
This drug was to be the source
of some of the most remarkable lines of poetry in the English language.
The drug was opium.
As he sat in the warm sunshine outside this farmhouse, Coleridge lapsed into sleep.
The drug took hold of him and lifted him to a different level of consciousness.
He was beginning a voyage of discovery to the limits of the human imagination.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure dome decree
Where Alph the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground With walls and towers were girdled round
And there were gardens bright With sinuous rills
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree
And here were forests ancient as the hills
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
On waking, Coleridge vividly remembered his strange oriental vision.
He instinctively put pen to paper to recount it in a poem.
Caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round...
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills...
So twice five miles of fertile ground...
But after writing down a few lines, he was interrupted
by a visitor from the local village of Porlock.
Later, when he sat down to write, he had lost the vision.
I still retained some vague recollection of the general purport of the vision.
Yet with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images,
all the rest have passed away,
like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast.
The importance of this poem lies not only in the enchanted words themselves.
The poet was most fascinated by the way the vision presented
itself to him, and tormented by the frustrating nature of its demise.
The mind was a mystery which Coleridge wished to solve.
But in his exploration of the imagination,
Coleridge was to be drawn into deep personal despair.
Opium had unlocked the door to the inner world,
but slowly addiction took hold of him.
He was taking larger and larger quantities of laudanum,
a solution of opium mixed with alcohol.
Beware, beware his flashing eyes, his floating hair
Weave a circle round him thrice And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honeydew hath fed And drunk the milk of Paradise.
By 1807, Coleridge was paranoid, desperate and without employment...
..wrecked on the shore of an increasingly unstable life.
Yet his experiences with opium would transform our understanding of the imagination.
At the time, though, many suspected that he had gone insane.
Such strange visions would not be tolerated.
The world was becoming increasingly reliant
upon the laws of science.
In the late 18th century, pioneering anatomists
looked at the body in order to understand the secrets of life.
They dissected, noted and charted every bone, organ and muscle,
every vein, artery and ligament.
They reduced the human form to the components of a machine.
For the Romantics, anatomy was an empty and purposeless pursuit.
They believed that the body was pervaded by a spirit that defied categorisation.
It was an infinite and eternal power that manifested itself in the form of imagination.
It could not be charted or understood in scientific terms.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued these theories
at a great place of scientific learning,
the Royal Institution of Great Britain.
The imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent
of all human perception...
..and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation.
A poet described in ideal perfection
brings the whole soul of man into activity.
Coleridge saw the imagination as the soul itself,
and he was suggesting that the key to the identity of all human beings
lay within the recesses of the mind.
He was an early exponent of the unconscious before that word even existed.
He believed that the imagination had the ability
to create new worlds, and even to change lives.
New theories of the imagination and of anatomy saw the world in very different ways.
But they both implied that God and religion were not at the centre of existence.
Each person had a body and a mind and was in control of them.
In October 1815, a young Londoner attended
his first anatomy demonstration as a student at Guy's Hospital.
His name was John Keats.
Keats became a trainee surgeon and experienced the full horror
of conducting operations without anaesthetic.
On one occasion, as his knife cut through the flesh of a patient
who was pinned down screaming on the table,
Keats's sympathetic imagination overwhelmed him.
The patient's pain became his own pain.
This experience would change the course of Keats's life.
My last operation was the opening of a man's temporal artery.
I did it with the utmost nicety...
but reflecting on what passed through my mind at the time,
my dexterity seemed a miracle...
and I never took up the lancet again.
Keats had discovered the power of empathy.
He chose art over science,
the imagination over the body, and became a poet.
He wanted to heal through his words and images.
A poet is a sage,
a humanist, physician to all men.
Keats and a new generation of Romantics would study the human soul
as intensely as the anatomists had studied the human body.
Their quest was to answer the greatest questions of all,
to understand the true nature of life, to explain their purpose on the Earth.
For centuries, people had sought meaning in their lives
by believing in God, in heaven and in hell.
But one young Romantic claimed that atheism
was the necessary foundation of a free and enlightened life.
He was the author of this anonymous pamphlet,
a brilliant young Oxford student who claimed that, without
proof of the existence of God, it made no sense to believe in him.
The author's name was Percy Bysshe Shelley.
All religious nations are founded solely on authority.
All the religions of the world forbid examination and do not want one to reason.
Authority wants one to believe in God.
This god is himself founded only on the authority of a few men who
pretend to know him and to come in his name and announce him on Earth.
A god made by man undoubtedly has need of man
to make himself known to man.
On 25th March, Shelley heard a knock on his door.
Within moments, he was hauled up in front of a university committee
and expelled from Oxford.
Free of God and the moral constraints of religion,
Shelley was able to recreate himself.
In pursuit of self-knowledge and self-fulfilment, he became
a pioneer in new ways of living, not least in the way he loved women.
After leaving Oxford, Shelley married a young woman named Harriet Westbrook.
They had a child together.
But Shelley soon tired of his wife.
He would disappear to meet another young woman in Old St Pancras Churchyard.
This new love was called Mary.
Shelley used to meet her here beside the grave of her mother.
It was even suggested that Shelley took Mary's virginity on the gravestone itself.
He wrote a poem about the experience of their union.
To spend years thus
and be rewarded as thou, sweet love, requited me when none were near
Oh, I did wake From torture for a moment's sake
Thy lips did meet mine tremblingly
Thy dark eyes threw their soft persuasion on my brain
Charming away its dream of pain.
Shelley also wrote a surprising but honest letter to Harriet, his wife.
I am united to another.
You are no longer my wife.
Perhaps I have done you injury, but surely most innocently
and unintentionally in having commenced any connection with you.
Shelley's own intensity of feeling was the most important thing to him.
He was relentless in the pursuit of self-gratification
At four o'clock in the morning of 28th July 1814,
Shelley stood impatiently on the corner of Skinner Street in London, beside a horse and carriage.
In time, two young women appeared carrying small bundles.
Shelley's lover Mary and her stepsister Claire Claremont
were running away with him to the Continent.
Love withers under constraint.
Its very essence is liberty.
It is compatible neither with obedience, jealousy nor fear.
Love is free.
To promise forever to love the same woman is not less absurd
than to promise to believe the same creed.
Such a vow in both cases excludes us from all inquiry.
Shelley sought liberty in the way he loved.
To elope with one woman would have caused scandal enough,
but he was violating social conventions
in order to pursue his most intense feelings.
In doing so, he pioneered the notion of free love.
The liberty with which we conduct our modern love affairs owes much to Shelley's actions.
The Romantic movement was reaching its final significant flourish.
These pioneers were defining a new way of living,
driven by individual will and feeling.
And a whole generation of adoring fans was being inspired by a poet
who became the first modern celebrity.
His family home was Newstead Abbey.
This man would pioneer an extreme form of living from within the halls of the aristocracy.
His name was George Gordon, the sixth Lord Byron.
The great object of life
to feel that we exist,
even though in pain.
It is this craving void which drives us to gaining, to battle,
In 1812, Byron prepared a poem for publication.
It was about a noble but disaffected wanderer,
not dissimilar to Byron himself,
who travelled Europe in search of exotic experience.
His house, his home, his heritage, his land
The laughing dames in whom he did delight
With large blue eyes, fair locks and snowy hands
Might shake the saintship of an anchorite
And long and fed his youthful appetite
His goblets brimm'd with every costly wine
And all that mote to luxury invite
Without a sigh he left to cross the brine
And traverse Paynim shores and pass Earth's central line.
Childe Harold was a sensation and became an instant bestseller.
Byron awoke the next morning to find himself famous.
He was about to make a decision that would help to define our modern world.
He chose to embrace celebrity, to live his life in public.
This was his way of giving meaning to his own existence.
In this new world without God, Byron was worshipped by his fans.
There is a fire and motion of the soul which will not dwell
In its own narrow being, but aspire Beyond the fitting medium of desire
And, but once kindled, quenchless evermore
Preys upon high adventure, nor can fire
Of aught but rest, a fever at the core.
Fatal to him who bears, To all whoever born.
Byron's readers were fascinated by the mystery at the heart of the hero.
Why was Childe Harold so melancholy, so difficult to satisfy?
They were more than eager to attribute the unhappiness
to Byron's turbulent personal life, to his own desire for excess and extreme experience.
There was a deluge of enthusiastic letters.
"My dear Lord Byron, I am a poor country girl
"who has not the happiness of knowing you,
"but I admire you so very, very much that you must excuse this madness."
"Should curiosity prompt you and should you not be afraid of gratifying it
"by trusting yourself alone in the Green Park at seven o'clock..."
"Upon perusing Childe Harold, I became, as it were, animated
"by a new soul, alive to wholly novel sensations."
"When you see anybody in ecstasies,
"think of your eternally devoted Sophia Louisa McDonald."
Lord Byron's fans all wanted to be Romantics,
dissatisfied, yearning for new experience and heightened sensation.
And Byron could not help but act upon many amorous proposals.
Scandalous scenes were played out here at his house in Piccadilly.
On 2nd February 1816,
Byron received a message from his wife's legal representatives.
She was asking for an official separation.
Byron would use the scandal to enhance his theatrical public image.
The fashionable world was divided into two parties,
mine, consisting of a very small minority.
The reasonable world was naturally on the stronger side,
which happened to be the ladies, as was most proper and polite.
The press was active and scurrilous.
London was filled with rumours about Lord Byron.
Whether they were true or not no longer mattered.
The myth of the Romantic personality of Byron was much stronger than any reality.
It was alleged that he was having sexual relations with his half-sister Augusta.
The charge of incest would have destroyed him,
but the greatest danger of scandal was that he would be publicly accused of homosexuality.
Even if it were mentioned in court, it would consign him to utter ruin and degradation.
I was accused of every monstrous vice
by public rumour and private rancour.
My name, which had been a knightly or a noble one since my fathers
helped to conquer the kingdom for William the Norman, was tainted.
Faced with the possibility that he might be publicly accused of incest
and sodomy, he agreed to sign an official deed of separation
in the spring of 1816.
Two days later, on the morning of 23rd April,
a huge crowd gathered outside Byron's house.
The crowd was hungry for a glimpse of the celebrated man, and to witness another turn
in the sensational story that was unfolding.
Byron was afraid that he might even be lynched when he left the house.
He fought his way through the crowds to his carriage and fled from England, never to return.
Byron wandered Europe pursued by scandal, and dispossessed.
He finally made a home in Venice.
I felt that if what was whispered
and muttered and murmured was true, I was unfit for England.
England was unfit for me.
but this was not enough.
His writing continued to perpetuate
the Romantic myth that surrounded him.
In other countries, in Switzerland,
in the shadow of the Alps and by the blue depths of the lakes,
I was pursued and breathed upon by the same blight.
I crossed the mountains, but it was the same.
So I went a little farther and settled myself by the waves of the Adriatic...
..like the stag at bay who betakes him to the waters.
For the public at large, Lord Byron had redefined the figure of the poet
as a man of danger and of intrigue.
He was a living poem, a man of insatiable passion and of infinite experience.
But this wasn't everybody's idea of a poet.
A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence,
because he has no identity,
he is continually informing and filling in some other body.
As to the poetical character itself, it is not itself,
it has no self,
it is everything and nothing.
It has no character.
Keats believed the genius of the poet lay in the transcendence
of the ordinary self, in the loss of identity.
This way he could imagine himself
in a thousand different lives and forms.
Byron despised the quieter and more sensitive outlook of John Keats,
calling his work "piss-a-bed poetry"
and "mental masturbation".
For him, sensationalised experience was the key to the creative imagination.
Byron was unpretentious about his own writing.
It may be bawdy
but is it not life?
Could any man have written it who has not lived in the world?
And tooled in a post-chase, in a Hackney coach, in a gondola,
against a wall in a court carriage, in a vis a vis, on a table
or under it?
Without a god to give purpose to his existence, Byron sought meaning
through a frantic public life of sensation, the bawdier the better.
John Keats was a very different kind of romantic.
From his earliest years he experienced the solitude and emptiness of death.
But, through them, he reached towards beauty and meaning.
On 15th April 1804,
the first in a long line of tragedies that would affect his life
occurred here on City Road in London.
Keats was only eight years old.
At one in the morning a watchman spotted a riderless horse astray on the road.
This disturbing image meant tragedy.
The watchman ran up the street and by the doorway of the nearby chapel
he discovered the body of a man prostrate on the pavement.
He was covered in blood from a deep wound to the head.
The man, named Thomas Keats, died the following morning.
John Keats had lost his father.
It was the beginning of a pilgrimage through grief that would also be a journey into the soul.
Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is,
to school an intelligence and make it a soul?
By the time Keats was 23
he had witnessed the deaths of his mother and his brother,
and he suffered from fits of depression.
But there were moments here at his house in Hampstead when his experiences of death
made him more intensely in love with life than ever.
How astonishingly does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties on us.
I muse with the greatest affection on every flower I have known from my infancy,
..their shapes and colours are as new to me as if I had just created them with a superhuman fancy.
Thou was not born for death, immortal bird,
no hungry generations tred thee down.
The voice I hear this passing night was heard in ancient days
by emperor and clown.
Keats imagines the birdsong echoing through time.
In hearing the bird he experiences infinity for a fleeting moment.
His own mortal life felt short, and the sensations of living were all the more intense.
Adieu, thy plaintive anthem fades, whilst the near meadows,
over the still stream, up the hillside
and now tis buried deep in the next valley glades.
Was it a vision or a waking dream?
Fled is that music.
Do I wake or sleep?
Images of dream and reality, of life and death haunt this poem,
as they haunted Keats's being,
and on Thursday 3rd February 1820,
he was visited by an image that would pursue him until his own death.
Keats returned to Hampstead from town on a bitter night.
Even though he was suffering from a cold he had taken a cheap seat
exposed to the elements on the top of the coach.
His friend, Charles Brown, later caught sight of him staggering home.
Quickly, Brown realised that he was severely ill and rushed him to bed in this room.
As Keats lay down on his pillow, he coughed.
I know the colour of that blood.
It is arterial blood.
I cannot be deceived in that colour.
That drop of blood is my death warrant.
I must die.
Keats was dying of tuberculosis.
For centuries, those in his extreme plight would have prepared to meet their god.
But times had changed.
This new generation of romantic poets was pioneering a life
many people choose to live now, guided by individual will and desire,
without belief or allegiance to any god.
But this meant that the prospect of death could become terrifying.
Without the solace of an afterlife Keats needed an alternative assurance of eternity,
and he would find it in art.
He made the long journey to spend his last days in Rome
amid the great ruins of that ancient civilisation.
What little town by a river or seashore,
or mountain built with peaceful citadel,
is emptied of this folk this pious morn.
And, little town, thy streets forever more will silent be.
And not a soul to tell why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
Ancient ruins further intensified Keats's sense of mortality.
He would be alive for only a fraction of the time that these great works had existed,
but with this came a sense of liberation.
Oh, attic shape,
with breed of marble men with maidens overwrought,
with forest branches and the trodden weed...
Thou silent form doth tease us out of thought as doth eternity.
When old age shall this generation waste,
thou shalt remain in midst of other woe than ours,
a friend to man,
to whom now sayest
beauty is truth,
That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.
In this poem, Keats sees the prospect of immortality in the art of antiquity.
Ancient ruins were the only human achievements that could transcend the destructive process of time
and give eternal fame to their creators.
If a poet could achieve such works of genius too, he might live forever,
his emotions enduring within his words.
Keats spent his last days bedridden in an apartment overlooking the Spanish Steps.
Darkling, I listen...
..and for many a time I have been half in love with easeful death,
called him soft names in many amused rhyme, to take into the air my quiet breath.
Now, more than ever, seems it rich to die,
to cease upon the midnight
with no pain.
Keats feared that in death
he would be forgotten.
If I should die,
I have left no immortal work behind me,
nothing to make my friends proud of my memory.
But I have loved the principle of beauty in all things,
and if I had time
I would have made myself remembered.
On 23rd February 1821, he died in this room.
He was in his 26th year.
In his last hours, Keats thought that his quest for immortality had failed.
He was buried in Rome three days after his death.
For his epitaph he chose an inscription that reflected his final sentiments.
Yet Keats's memory did not dissolve, as he had predicted.
As the news of his death spread among the Romantics, his poetry began to be read more intensely.
His words became monuments to his life and his emotions.
Two months later, word of Keats's death reached a friend who was travelling along the Italian coast.
He wrote a poem comparing Keats to Adonis, a character from Greek mythology
whose scattered blood became beautiful roses.
I weep for Adonais,
he is dead.
Oh, weep for Adonais
though our tears thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head.
And thou, sad hour,
selected from all years to mourn our loss,
rouse thy obscure compeers and teach them thine own sorrow.
Say, "With me died Adonais."
Till the future dares forget the past,
his fate and fame shall be an echo and a light
For Shelley, Keats was a new Adonis.
His suffering had inspired sublime poetry.
In these verses, Shelley suggests that Keats was too sensitive,
too rare to survive the troubles of the world.
Death and poetic genius became inseparable.
But death gave the poet a new kind of divinity in a new kind of heaven.
Shelley was creating the first secular icon.
He was pioneering a new kind of worship that continues to this day.
I am born darkly...
Whilst burning through the innermost veil of heaven,
the soul of Adonais, like a star, beacons from the abode where the eternal are.
For Shelley, poetry became a substitute for religion.
I burn with impatience for the moment of Christianity's dissolution.
There is a great and spiritual force to put in its place.
Poetry is something divine.
It is the centre and circumference of all knowledge.
If poetry was the new religion, then the poet could become God.
This idea led Shelley into a dark place,
a place of horror and loneliness, of division and self-estrangement.
A place where he would come face-to-face with his own self.
On 27th April 1822, Shelley and Mary, together with some friends,
had travelled to an isolated villa
in the fishing village of San Torenzo in the Bay of Lerici.
Shelley became deluded, seeing visions and phantoms all around him.
I was walking up on the terrace
when I quite distinctly saw the image of myself.
The same in every particular,
walking towards me.
my double, came up to me and asked me,
"How long do you mean to be content?"
Shelley was questioning the worth of his own earthly existence.
He was telling himself that only in death would he become a true immortal, a true poet.
He was being haunted by his own ideas.
On 8th July, Shelley went out sailing with a friend in the Gulf of Spezia.
They were sailing in the boat Don Juan, that had been named after one of Byron's poems.
That day a storm blew up in the south-west.
The boat never came back.
Shelley's body was washed up on a shore some ten days later.
In his pocket was found the book of Keats's poems.
The corpse was burned on the beach by Lord Byron and a group of friends.
A fire was lit underneath the great furnace,
when Frankincense and salt were scattered upon the flames.
It was a scandalous and atheistic act,
but one that befitted the Romantics.
Byron and the other mourners maintained that the heart was not consumed.
When one of them snatched it out of the flames it remained intact.
It was preserved and wrapped in a manuscript of Adonais,
his great elegy to poetic genius.
The heart and the manuscript are symbols of what had become of the Romantics.
As they had argued, the body was of no consequence -
what mattered was the work itself.
That work represents the spirit of the Romantics,
a spirit that endures within all of us.
In the rebellion of each new generation,
in their desire for fresh experience, in the celebration of originality and of genius,
even in the modern veneration of the rock star and the actor,
we can find traces of that romantic legacy.
It is all around us, as deeply imbued as the belief in liberty
and the need for self-determination.
We have become individuals striving towards an uncertain future.
We are all romantics.
Byron, Keats and Shelley lived short lives, but the radical way they lived them would change the world. At 19, Shelley wrote The Necessity of Atheism - it was banned and burned, but it freed the Romantics from religion. Through their search for meaning in a world without God, they pioneered the notions of free love, celebrity and secular idolatry that are at the centre of modern Western culture.
For them poetry became the new religion, a way of reaching eternity. Their words are brought to life by Nicholas Shaw, Blake Ritson and Joseph Millson.