Samuel Hobkinson, “The Romantics (Episode 3: Eternity)” (2005)
Visually striking installment in the BBC documentary “The Romantics” which traces the work and biographies of significant literary figures in the Romantic movement in Britain during the late 1700s / early 1800s, this episode concentrates on four such writers: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. The main themes of this episode are the power of the imagination to open up new ways of thinking and living, and defining one’s identity without the support of religion in an age electrified by the new philosophies and values of the Enlightenment. The poets and writers under focus all sought their own ways of forging new identities, seeking unusual experiences and gaining self-knowledge and enlightenment: Coleridge was inspired by dreams under the influence of opium but became addicted to it; Keats was affected by family deaths at a young age and was plagued by ill health, dying young from tuberculosis; Shelley was an atheist and espoused free love in his affair with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, author of “Frankenstein”; and Lord Byron sought identity in being a celebrity and pursuing adventures in foreign lands and sensual pleasures as an end in itself. Throughout the film, narrator and writer Peter Ackroyd pops up in scenes of contemporary urban British society and rural landscapes to trace these writers’ lives and relate significant events they experienced to their surroundings where the experiences occurred. Actors playing the writers wander the sites, reciting excerpts of their characters’ important works.
The cinematography is beautiful and respects the featured landscapes where the writers spent their lives. Interiors of houses and other buildings are given a moody ambience. Coleridge is dispensed with quickly and the film shifts focus onto Shelley, Keats and Byron whose destinies are often intertwined. The actors chosen to play the poets have sensitive and expressive faces and the actor who plays Keats portrays the poet’s fragility and melancholy at the knowledge that his life will be shortened severely by disease.
The Enlightenment project challenged the authority of religion and replaced it with the need and desire to find one’s own individuality and relationship to society and nature generally as one form of self-enlightenment among others. Although this had positive results – individual creativity was freed to pursue independent and often daring paths of expression – the negative aspects of individuality and self-discovery could be dangerous, even life-threatening: Shelley was expelled from Oxford University for publicly questioning the existence of God and often faced issues of dark self-doubt; and Lord Byron plunged into a life of excess that included racking up huge debts, tempestuous marriages and various love affairs including a supposed incestuous liaison with his half-sister.
I sense a hesitancy in the program to pursue the effect the Enlightenment had on these men’s lives to its ultimate extent: Ackroyd presents Lord Byron as a mere self-indulgent libertine, no different than, say, the Marquis de Sade who declared himself a child of the Enlightenment no less than Byron was or for that matter, Beau Brummell, and who like them was famous for his life-style. Omitted is the manner of Lord Byron’s demise and the circumstances in which it occurred: he died from septicaemia in an infected wound while participating as a freedom fighter in the Battle of Missolonghi, one of the pivotal battles in the Greek war of independence in 1824. Yes BBC, the search for self-knowledge and using your own brain to question society’s conventions can also lead a person into supporting an oppressed people’s desire for self-determination and independence and that surely is the reason that the Enlightenment was such a revolutionary period.