Poetry: A Reflection

21 March 2022 was World Poetry Day. The Books and Borrowing team were either observing the strike action called by the University and College Union (UCU), or respecting the digital picket line, so we did not post a blog that day (for those interested in this dispute, please see here). However, I didn’t want to let World Poetry Day go by without reflecting a bit about the place of poetry in the Books and Borrowing project. The Romantic Period (c.1780-1830) has historically been thought of as the great age of poetry, and we may often still instinctively think of the great poets of that age as being William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Gordon, Lord Byron, and William Blake – the so-called ‘Big Six’ of canonical English literature courses. In recent years, of course, much has been done by literary scholars and others to open up the canon, and to include more women poets (such as Charlotte Smith, Letita Elizabeth Landon, Felicia Hemans and others), more labouring-class poets (Ann Yearsley, John Clare, Robert Burns, for example), and more writers of colour (such as Mary Prince, Phyllis Wheatley, Juan Francisco Manzano), and indeed to think about the period as being dominated not entirely by poetry but by the popularity of the novel (including those by female, labouring-class, and writers of colour). Critics such as Nicholas Roe have rightly observed that rather than thinking of Romanticism as a monolithic movement, we might more properly begin to think and speak of ‘Romanticism as singular and plural in reference’.[1] Perhaps ‘Romanticisms’, therefore, is a more useful critical term. Nonetheless, the iconic figure of the Romantic age in the cultural imagination remains the solitary male poetic genius represented in the famous painting by Caspar David Friedrich and exemplified by Wordsworth’s famous lines ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’.

Caspar David Friedrich painting depicting a gentleman at the summuit of a hill overlooking a misty valley.
Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog (1818)
Manscript of Wordsworth's poem 'Daffodils'.
William Wordsworth, ‘Daffodils’ (1802). British Library Add. MS 47864. WikiSource

There are good reasons why literary scholars (and many other readers, of course!) like the writing of the ‘Big Six’. I do myself. They are all, in their separate ways, astonishingly good writers. Their poetry speaks to me. And in a time when the Arts and Humanities are increasingly under threat, it is salutary to return to such documents as Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, still one of the most eloquent manifestos for the value of poetry (and indeed, artworks far more broadly) that I know.

But… and it’s quite a big but: as a historian of reading, I can’t ignore the evidence of what was actually being read in the period, and it’s notable to me that in our records (which go up to 1830, the putative end of what we now call the Romantic period) we really aren’t (yet) seeing much evidence at all of people borrowing Blake, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge or Wordsworth (I’ll come back to Byron).

As a literary scholar trained to believe that Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Preface to their Lyrical Ballads (first published in 1798; the Preface followed in the 1800 edition and was revised and expanded in 1802) was a foundational document of the Romantic movement, this seems scarcely credible. But so it is. In the records currently in our system (nearly 120,000 of them), there is not one single borrowing of the Lyrical Ballads. Now, there may be many reasons for this that don’t negate the importance of the publication of Lyrical Ballads to literary history. The first, and probably the most important, is to remember that popularity in a work’s own time does not in any way guarantee literary merit or literary importance. Works may be discovered by readers much later than their publication date; they may speak more to eras other than their own (and it’s certainly true that both the Victorians, and later the High Modernists, found important literary inspiration in the poetry of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Blake and Coleridge). Indeed, there is much to be said for the argument that actually any work of true literary importance is probably ahead of its time. Secondly, Matt Sangster has pointed out that it may be that the borrowers represented in our Scottish borrowing records were getting access to modern poetry elsewhere. Perhaps they bought poetry for their own private collections, and borrowed other things from the libraries (this seems a little less likely, since we do see them borrowing modern poetry – it’s just not Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Shelley or Keats). But it is a possibility to be borne in mind. Or perhaps they were reading their poetry in the periodicals that they did borrow from our libraries, or read elsewhere – it is vital to remember the importance of periodicals in our period, and the extent to which poetry often appeared in them. Equally, their works might have appeared in some of the unidentifiable volumes named only as ‘Poems’ or ‘Miscellaneous Poems’ without authorial attribution or date of publication in our records. Or, in libraries with reading rooms, maybe they read poetry there, rather than borrowing it. Such interactions with modern poetry would not feature in our borrowing records. Perhaps, therefore, our borrowers were finding some of their modern poets in any one of these ways.

Or perhaps not, and actually the poets who were actually read in the Romantic period, and deemed important in their own time, were those whom we do find in our borrowers’ registers. It’s important to note that thus far, and as far as my very rudimentary analysis by genre allows, poetry is not a very dominant genre in our sets of records. But poets do appear. These include Classical poets of course, such as Virgil, Homer, Ovid, Hesiod, Juvenal, and so on, and in English, many of those who remain canonical, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, John Milton and William Shakespeare. We see poets of the Augustan age, such as Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and John Dryden. We find some largely forgotten poets of the mid to late eighteenth century (Matthew Prior, Mark Akenside, James Thomson, William Cowper, and Charles Churchill, for example), and are reminded of the Ossian controversy by the popularity of Ossian in the records. Crucially, though, we do also find modern poets, such as Robert Burns, Thomas Moore, Robert Southey, Thomas Campbell, Samuel Rogers, and others. And of course we find the two most popular poets of the age.

In Persuasion (1818), Jane Austen comments on ‘the richness of the present age’ with regards to poetry. Her two characters, Anne Elliot and Captain Benwick, then go on to go through ‘a brief comparison of opinion as to the first-rate poets, trying to ascertain whether Marmion or The Lady of the Lake were to be preferred, and how ranked the Giaour and The Bride of Abydos; and moreover how the Giaour was pronounced…‘[2] The two former poems are, of course, by Sir Walter Scott; the two latter by Lord Byron. Scott and Byron were undoubtedly the most popular poets of the period. As William St Clair tells us in The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, ‘four years after Scott’s death [in 1832], at least 180,000 copies of his long romantic poems had been printed, more than 200,0000 counting the less famous works, and they were still being reprinted in ever larger print runs. After Scott, the poet whose works were produced in the largest numbers was Byron’.[3] Elsewhere in these pages, we have discussed Scott’s extraordinary popularity among the borrowers represented in our records, but we have thus far said considerably less about George Gordon, Lord Byron.

Portrait of Lord Byron in Albanian dress.
Thomas Phillips, Lord Byron (1813). Government Art Collection. This portrait depicts Byron in traditional Albanian dress. Creative Commons.

‘Mad, bad and dangerous to know’, as Lady Caroline Lamb was reported to have called him, Byron was a controversial figure almost from the moment he published his first book of poetry, Hours of Idleness in 1807. A spat with the Edinburgh Magazine, which reviewed it poorly, resulted in the couplet satire English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), an attack on the contemporary literary scene, which brought him into public notice in the literary world. But it was the publication of the first two cantos of Childe Harold in 1812 that made him truly famous, and inaugurated new trends in poetry, bringing into being the figure we now think of as the Byronic hero – dark, brooding, melancholy and disillusioned. Byron swiftly became both a literary celebrity and a scandalous society figure, publishing both of the works mentioned by Jane Austen, The Giaour and The Bride of Abydos, in 1813, followed swiftly by The Corsair (1814), which sold 10,000 copies on the day of publication; and Lara in the same year. Following the failure of his disastrous marriage to Annabella Milbanke, and dogged by scandalous rumours, Byron left for the Continent in April of 1816, and never returned to the British Isles. He continued to publish prolifically, writing cantos 3 and 4 of Childe Harold in 1816 and 1818 respectively, along with Manfred (1817), and the mock-heroic Beppo (1818). Between 1818 and 1819, Byron wrote and published the first two cantos of what is often considered his greatest work, Don Juan, followed by The Prophecy of Dante; the third, fourth and fifth cantos of Don Juan; the poetic dramas Marino FalieroSardanapalusThe Two Foscari, and Cain (all 1821). He also wrote The Vision of Judgement, a parody of Robert Southey’s work. Having fallen out with his publisher, John Murray, Byron then sent the remaining cantos of Don Juan to John Hunt for publication, and then went off to fight in the Greek War of Independence, dying at Missolonghi in April of 1824. It was a life played out in the public gaze. Byron, as Tom Mole rightly says, ‘fostered the impression that his poems could only be understood fully by referring to their author’s personality and that reading them was entering a kind of intimate relationship with him’.[4] As one of the world’s first celebrities, Byron understood the marketability of his image, and the enormous success of his poems came in part from his participation in the celebrity culture of his age.

Mr James Anderson, advocate (admitted to the Faculty on 10 June 1828) – Byron, Scott, Lockhart, and Wilson are his first borrowings from the Advocates Library, 7-16 July 1828. Adv.FR 263, f. 6

We know from journals, letters and reviews, as well as from sales and production figures, that Byron was a favourite with the book-buying public. He is also a familiar figure in our borrowing records, appearing as a favourite with the schoolboys at the Royal High School of Edinburgh, borrowed by lawyers from the Advocates Library, moving swiftly in and out of the records of Chambers’ Circulating Library, and popping up fairly frequently elsewhere too, although he has nowhere near the stratospheric popularity of Scott across the borrowers’ registers transcribed in our project. This may be either a reflection of national prejudices towards Scott in Scotland, or a function of the fact observed above, that poetry seems relatively little borrowed in comparison to other genres of literature in our records. (Scott’s enormous popularity from 1814 onwards rests largely on the borrowing of his novels, rather than his poetry, though the latter did nonetheless remain popular with borrowers throughout our period.)

Portrait of Sir Walter Scott by Henry Raeburn
Sir Henry Raeburn’s portrait of Sir Walter Scott (1822-3). Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Creative Commons.
Portrait of Shelley in a romantic landscape
Joseph Severn, Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound (1845), oil on canvas. Keats-Shelley Memorial House, Rome, Italy. From Wikimedia Commons.

It’s interesting to think how different things would look if our project’s end date were 1930, rather than 1830. To take just two examples: by the end of the Victorian era (1901), both Shelley and Wordsworth were cult figures, though for different reasons and for different readerships. Shelley, as St Clair reminds us, was a hero of the nineteenth-century radical movement. ‘We hear of Shelley’s works being read at rallies and quoted on banners. Some were turned into songs, reprinted in editions with sales totalling hundreds of thousands of copies’. [5] This is the Shelley of Paul Foote’s biography Red Shelley (1981). But Shelley was also, thanks in large part to the rebranding exercise undertaken by Mary Shelley, thought of, in Matthew Arnold’s words, as a ‘beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain’.[6] This is the Shelley of public opinion in P.G. Wodehouse’s novels. For his fictional Madeline Basset, for example (one of literature’s funniest sentimental heroines) it is Shelley’s intellectual beauty (to use the title of one of his own poems), not his radical politics, which gives him his allure. Both as anarchist and angel, Shelley had significant followings by the end of the nineteenth century, and his poetic reputation continued to grow throughout the twentieth century.

Portrait of William Wordsworth in later life.
Benjamin Haydon, Wordsworth on Helvellyn (1842). National Portrait Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

And Wordsworth, who throughout his earlier years was largely either ignored or misunderstood by critics and readers, was, by the time of his death in 1850, the grand old man of poetry. He had outlived pretty much all of his contemporaries, and the sage of Rydal Mount was regularly visited by literary pilgrims. By the end of Victoria’s reign, Wordsworth’s poetry, and Wordsworthian formulations about childhood, poetry, nature and language, had come to define the thinking of two generations or more. In Richmal Crompton’s delightful and long-running William series, which deals with the adventures of an 11-year old schoolboy and his band of friends, for example, a recurring figure is the sentimental elderly lady who believes that children ‘trail clouds of glory’, and is thus horrified and disappointed by the naughtiness, dirt and noisy reality of William and his friends.[7]

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

William Wordsworth,
from ‘Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’

The ‘Big Six’ took on increasing literary importance throughout the Victorian period. This isn’t the place to talk about the increasing professionalisation of literary studies throughout the nineteenth century, or indeed the establishment of English Literature as a discipline in the late nineteenth century. But these things played a part in the canonisation of particular writers, and the exclusion of others, as did the imperial expansion which exported English literature, and particular versions of ‘Englishness’ across the globe. If our records extended to 1930, I think we’d be seeing a rather different picture, one which does reflect the importance of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Blake, and Coleridge to the Victorians, and the twentieth century. Because of this, it is easy to imagine that the Romantic moment itself was similarly dominated by these writers. But our records provide, in contrast, the opportunity to return to a time when the post-hoc formulation of Romanticism did not yet exist, and thus to see clearly which writers were actually dominating their cultural moment.


[1] Nicholas Roe, Romanticism: An Oxford Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.11.

[2] Jane Austen, Persuasion, ed. Janet Todd and Antje Blank (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p.108.

[3] William St Clair, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p.216.

[4] Tom Mole, Byron’s Romantic Celebrity: Industrial Culture and the Hermeneutic of Intimacy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), quoted from https://tommole.org/byrons-romantic-celebrity-industrial-culture-and-the-hermeneutic-of-intimacy/

[5] St Clair, p.322.

[6] Matthew Arnold, ‘Shelley’, Essays in Criticism Second Series (1888), p.168.

[7] The first of the William stories was published in 1919; the last in 1970. William remains eleven years old throughout, but the books update the circumstances in which he lives to take account of the Second World War, the space race, and the swinging sixties. Crompton was an acute observer of social and cultural trends and patterns.