Poetry: Romantic Rat Pack

In Nuce: Romantic Rat Pack
In Hollywood in the 1950s, Humphrey Bogart and friends hung out together and called themselves the "Rat Pack." In the 1960s, the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis crowd picked up the sobriquet. Since then there have been media-contrived spin-offs: The Brat Pack, the Frat Pack, the Splat Pack. Members of these exclusive cliques sometimes behaved badly, sometimes behaved well, but all were at the top of their game. They were idolized by some and vilified by others, and they undeniably enjoyed, sometimes flaunted, their celebrity status.

In the 1820s, Lord Byron, Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont (Mary's half sister), novelist Edward Trelawny, and poet Leigh Hunt were members of a Romantic Rat Pack whose relationships became a toxic tangle that sometimes misspent and mired the very real genius of Byron and Shelley.

Lady Caroline Lamb, one of Byron's lovers, famously described Byron as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know."

Printed in The London Literary Gazette, the following excerpt from a letter by Robert Southey, written in response to Byron's public accusation that Southey had slandered him, gives some indication of the tenor of sentiment that ran against the Romantic group:

Having seen in the newspapers a note relating to myself, extracted from a recent publication of Lord Byron's, I request permission to reply, through the medium of your Journal...

Lord Byron has not ventured to bring the matter of those animadversions into view. He conceals the fact, that they are directed against the authors of blasphemous and lascivious books; against men who, not content with indulging their own vices, labor to make others the slaves of sensuality, like themselves—against public panders, who, mingling impiety with lewdness, seek at once to destroy the cement of social order, and to carry profanation and pollution into private families, and into the hearts of individuals.

His Lordship has thought it not unbecoming in him to call me a scribbler of all work. Let the word scribbler pass; it is not an appellation which will stick like that of the Satanic school. But, if a scribbler, how am I one of all work? I will tell Lord Byron what I have not scribbled—what kind of work I have not done. I have never published libels upon my friends and acquaintance, expressed my sorrow for those libels, and called them in during a mood of better mind—and then re-issued them, when the evil spirit, which for a time has been cast out, had returned and taken possession, with seven others, more wicked than himself. I have never abused the power, of which every author is in some degree possessed, to wound the character of a man, or the heart of a woman. 1 have never sent into the world a book to which I did not dare to affix my name; or which I feared to claim in a Court of Justice, if it were pirated by a knavish bookseller. I have never manufactured furniture for the brothel. None of these things have I done; none of the foul work by which literature is perverted to the injury of mankind. My hands are clean; there is no "damned spot" upon them—no taint, which "all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten."
Of the work which I have done, it becomes me not here to speak, save only as relates to the Satanic School, and its Coryphæus, the author of Don Juan. I have held up that school to public detestation, as enemies to the religion, the institutions, and the domestic morals of their country. I have given them a designation to which their founder and leader ANSWERS. I have sent a stone from my sling which has smitten their Goliath in the forehead. I have fastened his name upon the gibbet, for reproach and ignominy, as long as it shall endure.—Take it down who can!

One word of advice to Lord Byron before I conclude.—When he attacks me again, let it be in rhyme. For one who has so little command of himself, it will be a great advantage that his temper should be obliged to keep tune. And while he may still indulge in the same rankness and virulence of insult, the meter will, in some degree, seem to lessen its vulgarity.

Keswick, Jan. 5, 1822. ROBERT SOUTHEY

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