Monarch of Gods and Dæmons, and all Spirits
But One, who throng those bright and rolling worlds
Which Thou and I alone of living things
Behold with sleepless eyes! regard this Earth
Made multitudinous with thy slaves, whom thou
Requitest for knee-worship, prayer, and praise,
And toil, and hecatombs of broken hearts,
With fear and self-contempt and barren hope.
Whilst me, who am thy foe, eyeless in hate,
Hast thou made reign and triumph, to thy scorn,
O’er mine own misery and thy vain revenge. ( Shelley, Prometheus Unbound )
Today we call the romantic era a time in history a “period,” as if it were behind us. In fact, the romantic era never ended. Our own celebration and denigration of stardom descends directly from the movement that began before 1800. And with it the discovery of death, romance, light, passion, roast game birds, love, peril, beauty, pleasure, art, the natives, happiness, and everything else: by the nineteenth century Romantics. Sometimes the form may be more enduringly real than the living…
For the funeral pyre of a romantic poet, there could hardly have been a more propitious setting. In the foreground, a vast expanse of blue and windless Mediterranean wit the islands of Elba and Gorgona visible on the horizon. The coast, descending from a range of white marble mountains, was a stretch of sandy wilderness tufted with underbrush. Here, at the edge of the bay of Lerici, at four in the afternoon of August, 27,1822, a fire was built to consume the earthly remains of the greatest lyric poet of the age.
…Celebrity, the industrialization of fame, now fills so much conversation and so much journalism that sometimes it almost seems our generation invented the whole business. In fact, it’s already older by two centuries than the oldest humans alive; but even so, in the catalogue of civilizations it remains relatively new.
Celebrity was invented near the end of the eighteenth century, when the romantic movement focussed public attention on a freshly invented creature: the artist-genius.They were replacemenst for the relatively anonymous culture-workers who had made the world’s art for thousands of years. Lord Byron, Richard Wagner, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and perhaps a dozen other stars emerged over the next century as larger-than-life personalities, people of unique talent who could not be ignored. Why did this phenomenon appear and take root in human life? Does it fill a need? Why do we require, in steadily larger quantities, something the Romans or the Elizabethans did without? …
“You can have no idea.” wrote Byron, the principal mourner,”what an extraordinary effect such a funeral pile has, on a desolate shore, with mountains in the background and the sea before, and the singular appearance of the salt and frankincense gave to the flame. …” At Byron’s side was the “pirate” E.J. Trelawney, and Shelley’s cousin, Thomas Medwin; and, slumped in a nearby carriage, unable to face the scene , was that unhappy man of letters, Leigh Hunt, who had arrived in Italy only a few weeks before and was now in a state of nervous prostration. Byron’s nerves, too, were overwrought: taking off his clothes, he plunged into the sea- the same treacherous blue waters that had claimed his friend,s life- and swam to his yacht anchored offshore.