Poet psychology fascinates me. I want to climb right inside their heads. It’s why Byron fascinates me so. He is a conundrum, a mess of creativity, vice, complication, backtracking and modern day problems. He is exciting and odd and unpredictable and yet strangely predictable because of all of this. Recently I read similarly of Percy Shelley and his fleeting acquaintence with meal times. Food is just one detail of the poets lives that I am intrigued by.
As someone who generally eats because I have to, I am interested in whether they forced it upon themselves or if it was a natural part of their all consuming creativity. For Byron it was all about vanity. He binged and starved according to his weight gain and how much he needed to lose. This chronic self abuse of his digestive system, a kind of self flagulation, almost certainly contributed to his death. Ravaged immune systems don’t do well on dry biscuits and vinegar. The occasions when he mentions being ill in letters is concerning. It was self abuse.
Shelley’s disinterest in food however is largely because it stopped him doing other things and he only seems compelled to consume at all because without it he would die. He eats on the run like an overstretched officer worker. He has to be reminded that he has forgotten meals, so immersed does he become in his work. I admire his dedication to the cause and his detachment from the necessity of eating.
His friend Thomas Hogg described how he was unable to supply a spread to casual guests at home. When they appear he simply gave them bread – the thing he seemed to survive on. Is he the original carb addict? Already largely an active vegetarian and teetotaller, Shelley is almost devoid of gaining any pleasure from food at all. He would be boring if it weren’t for his remarkable sideways look on life in general.
This indifference to something we consider today to be a hobby rather than a requirement for survival would be considered an eating disorder. We are glutenous to a fault (the other extreme). We over indulge. We have no self control. Our food has been designed to get us hooked.
Diets were simpler back then. And if you wanted something quick, then like Shelley you would reach for something ready made. Meals took time to prepare, The restaurant as we know it is a very modern day invention. Eating simplisically like Shelley meant eating frugally. You couldn’t reach for a KitKat and a Diet Coke.
Shelley’s ability to rein in any possible enjoyment from eating is almost overwhelming, his control admirable. Byron of course had an issue with alcohol, a way of replacing the food problem. And that, without eating, is a sure road to an early death. There are references to other hallucinagens over the course of his life – laudenum for one. And sex of course was an all consuming release, another addiction and yet one he was less interested in reining in.
That Shelley and Byron should have been friends at all is almost bewildering at times. It is their creativity which unites them and keeps them interested in each other though they are often confounded and frustrated by each other. How their relationship would have played out over the years shall forever be a mystery. And perhaps it is right that it cut short when it did. I suspect over time they would have fallen out over something – maybe the menu for a dinner party that neither of them was sure they wanted to host.
You can read my book ‘A Most Faithful Attendant – The Life of Giovanni Battista Falcieri‘ by purchasing it here.