At first glance, the rock musicians and the romantic poets of the eighteenth century may seem poles apart, but they have a lot in common including rebellion, substance abuse and dying young
What do Jim Morrison, lead singer of the The Doors and Lord Byron, 18th century romantic poet, have in common? They’re both poets who attained a cult following due to their charisma and talent. Morrison’s trademark leather pants still haunt the hotseat of wannabe rockstars and Byron has become an adjective to describe temperamental artistic genius. At first glance, the musicians of the Seventies and the romantic poets of the eighteenth century may seem poles apart, but they have a lot in common.
Morrison was considered a poet in his own right, having published volumes of poetry including “The Lords” and “American Night”. His poetic style has often been compared to Arthur Rimbaud, a French poet of the 19th century. The Romantic Period brought with it ideas of freedom, liberty and equality. Similarly, the music of the swinging Sixties was all echoed the counter-culture rebellion and the discontent caused by the Vietnam War. Just as philosopher William Goodwin’s “The Adventures of William Caleb” inspired romantics such as Percy Shelley, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Byron, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is your Land” inspired Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to break away from the customary lovelorn songs and infuse political awareness into their music.
The “tortured artist” tag lent itself well to both eras. While drugs is supposed to fuelled the creativity and the excesses of rock and roll, the Romantics were not coy when it came to drug use. Coleridge’s surreal Kubla Khan with Abyssinian maids, pleasure domes and sunless seas owes something to opium. And thanks to the man from Porlock, we don’t know how the poem ended.
The use of drugs came with a heavy price to both eras. Shelley had initially used Laudanam to “dampen his nerves”, but his excessive use of it caused body spasms and haunting dreams. Many rockers have died thanks to substance abuse from Keith Moon to Jimi Hendrix and most recently Amy Winehouse.
Apart from the excesses, and the rebellion, another common feature between rockers and the Romantics is they died young. Keats died at 26 due to tuberculosis, Shelley drowned at 29 and Byron died of a fever at 36. Morrison, Janis Joplin, Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Winehouse among others belong to the 27 Club having died at 27.
Society has been touched by their idiosyncrasies and transformed by it, with their works entering common language. There is Coleridge’s, “Water, water, everywhere/ Not a drop to drink” from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, and Lennon’s “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”
Numerous parallels can be drawn between the Romantics and Rockers. But one thing is for sure, they were both born out of a need to change the world using poetry, as Morrison declared, “If my poetry aims to achieve anything, it’s to deliver people from the limited ways in which they see and feel”, a sentiment echoed by Shelley, “Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted”.