Saturday, April 25, 2009

What Beauty is there in a Young Life Snuffed Out

The English Romantic tradition has it’s origins in the Eighteenth Century, but it was the Nineteenth Century when the notion of what we might call the doomed sensibility, the poet or artist at the beck and call of unseen forces, was at it's height, but I believe this peculiarly English notion is still in some ways alive and kicking and the following excerpt from The Times, concerning Heath Ledger's untimely death, illustrates not only a prime concern of the romantics of the past but also the impact of romantic imagination on contemporary culture.

"One image immediately sprang to mind when I heard that the actor Heath Ledger had been found dead on his bed in a New York apartment, surrounded by prescription drugs. The image was not from Brokeback Mountain or his other films, but of a much earlier picture: Henry Wallis's 1856 painting, The Death of Chatterton.

In that extraordinary painting, the poet Thomas Chatterton, just 17, lies sprawled across the bed in his garret. Through the open window, dawn is breaking over St Paul's Cathedral. On the table stands the bottle of arsenic, with which he has just killed himself.

Chatterton, penniless and starving, probably committed suicide in despair, although it is possible he was self-medicating for syphilis, and overdid the dose. Ledger, 28, already wealthy and celebrated, may also have killed himself by accident. There is a direct link between them: two gifted individuals, dead long before their time, destined, like butterflies, to live gorgeously for too brief a season.

The notion of the artist doomed to early death, bequeathed by the Romantics and most memorably depicted by Wallis, remains deeply embedded in modern culture. Ledger now joins the roster of the talented young, untimely dead: Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain.

Our relationship with movie stars is as intense and intimate as it once was with poets. Actors live other lives for us on screen. We live through them in other worlds, and we expect to grow old with them. When they die young, we are immediately reminded of our own impending deaths, and the need to seize the day."

Ben Macintyre, The Times, Friday 25th January 2008