by Tom Mole
My new book What the Victorians Made of Romanticism offers a new way of understanding the reception history of Romantic writers and their works in Victorian Britain. Other scholars have told this story before, of course. But they have mostly focussed on the ways in which Romantic writers influenced their Victorian successors. They tell us about how Alfred Tennyson responded to Byron, or how Matthew Arnold responded to Wordsworth. I’m interested in a different kind of story. The story I tell is about the material artefacts and cultural practices that remediated Romantic writers and their works amid shifting understandings of history, memory, and media. I pay attention to the things Victorians made – including illustrated books, anthologies, statues, postcards and memorial plaques – as well as to what they did with Romantic writers – citing and reciting them, including them in sermons, placing busts of them on their mantelpieces, and a host of other practices. These artefacts and practices made sure that the Romantics were renovated for new generations of readers – and non-readers – while recruiting them to address new cultural concerns in the process.
For a while, it seemed that the Romantics would not be remembered at all. Many early-Victorian commentators worried that the writing of the recent past no longer compelled readers’ interest, and that it would soon be forgotten. The predictions began polemically. Blackwood’s Magazine claimed in 1820 that John Keats had ruined his talent by imitating Leigh Hunt, and that ‘he must be content to share his fate, and be like him forgotten’, and Coleridge wrote in 1825 that he ‘dare[d] predict, that in less than a century’ Byron’s and Scott’s poems would ‘lie on the same Shelf of Oblivion’. But predictions soon became warnings. The Quarterly Review asserted that Scott was ‘in danger of passing – we cannot conceive why – out of the knowledge of the rising generation’, and Thomas Carlyle cautioned in 1829 that ‘Byron … with all his wild siren charming, already begins to be disregarded and forgotten’.
Before long, the warnings became simple statements of fact. Orestes Brownson asserted in 1841 that Shelley was ‘seldom spoken of and much more seldom read’. The Graphic cattily remarked in 1873 that Hemans was ‘almost as much neglected now, as she was overrated formerly’. Stopford Brooke declared simply in 1893 that Byron was ‘not much read now’. If anyone read the Romantics, some claimed, it was only those people who scarcely counted, like adolescents or the uneducated. Selections of Wordsworth’s poetry ‘chiefly for the use of schools and young persons’ appeared from as early as 1831, while in 1848 Readings for the Young from the Works of Sir Walter Scott inaugurated a tradition of excerpting or retelling Scott’s works for children. Walter Bagehot wrote that ‘a stray schoolboy may still be detected in a wild admiration for The Giaour or The Corsair …, but the real posterity – the quiet students of past literature – never read them or think of them’. The fact that the Romantics were remembered – at least some of them – is not down to the enduring excellence of their poetry, or to its ability to transcend the historical moment in which it was written. Rather, I argue, Romantic writers and their works continued to attract attention because they were mediated to Victorian audiences in new ways. This was necessary because the Romantics were increasingly in danger of seeming outdated. Victorian commentators worried that the literature of even the recent past was no longer suited to address the present’s most pressing concerns.
When Matthew Arnold hailed his generation as ‘we, brought forth and reared in hours / Of change, alarm, surprise’, he signalled a self-conscious modernity. In this accelerated and uncertain time, the literature of even the recent past began to seem alien or obsolescent. ‘Too fast we live, too much are tried, / Too harrass’d, to attain / Wordsworth’s sweet calm’, Arnold wrote. Poetry of the recent past no longer seemed like it could speak to the anxieties of the present. Echoing Byron’s Manfred, who found that ‘the wisdom of the world… avail’d not’, Arnold turned Manfred’s conclusion into a question and made it a matter of generational difference: ‘what availed it, all the noise / And outcry of the former men?’
Introducing an edition of Byron’s poems in 1866, Algernon Charles Swinburne reiterated Arnold’s sense of a generational shift, and framed it ironically in the religious language that Arnold would use earnestly in ‘Dover Beach’ the following year. ‘Men born when this century was getting into its forties were baptised into another church than [Byron’s] with the rites of another creed. … No man under twenty’, he asserted, ‘can now be expected to appreciate’ Byron or Wordsworth. This fear that the Romantics were being forgotten, and that they could not find new readers unaided, produced a whole set of efforts to bring them to new audiences, and make them newly relevant. In the book, I look at how these efforts took shape in four different media: illustrations, sermons, statues and anthologies.
Retro-fitted illustrations – that is, newly-produced illustrations for works that didn’t appear with illustrations when they were first published – were produced for many Romantic works in Victorian Britain. They helped to make new editions of Romantic poetry look modern and up-to-date, because an increasing number of new books in the Victorian period appeared with illustrations from their first edition. Think of the close association between Dickens and Phiz or Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel. New illustrations helped to renovate Romantic poetry, allowing it to circulate once again in the market for new books. Illustrations therefore offered a way to come to terms with the sense that a generation gap was opening up between the Victorians and their Romantic precursors. I look at several examples of illustrated books that thematise this sense of the passage of time. In some cases, they update Romantic poetry by including recognisably Victorian people and scenes in illustrations. In others, they combine canonizing images that proclaimed the lasting value of Romantic poetry with images that invited Victorian readers to put aside their preconceptions and experience it afresh.
When Victorian people went to church, they heard Romantic poetry quoted in sermons surprisingly often. Some authors – such as Wordsworth – could be recruited in support of a generalised and often rather vague sense of spiritual uplift. Others – such as Byron – were more likely to serve as an awful warning, an example of misspent time and misapplied talent. But the way Victorian preachers and religious writers handled Romantic writers and their works could sometimes be surprising. Shelley, for example, was turned into an honorary Christian by a number of progressive figures in several Christian denominations. And Byron was quoted not only as an example of a sinner, but also approvingly, for example for his paraphrases of certain psalms and his descriptions of nature. I look at one preacher in particular – Charles Haddon Spurgeon – who quoted Byron regularly. Spurgeon’s library has survived almost intact, and so we can trace the ways in which he encountered Byron through anthologies, primers and books of quotations.
Several Romantic writers were commemorated in statues and other kinds of memorials. These monuments were part of a wider effort to create a new British pantheon. The new pantheon was secular, and liberal enough to include people with drastically different political views. It helped to create a new kind of cultural consensus during a period of radical introspection about who constituted the nation and what they shared. And crucially, it was not housed in a particular structure or institution, but spread out across the cities of London and Edinburgh, and eventually across the country as a whole. I examine the statue of Byron in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, the Scott Monument in Edinburgh, and the statue of Byron in Hyde Park, London, as key monuments in the development of this new pantheon. I also show how these monuments were remediated in figurines, postcards, and cigarette cards.
Finally, I examine the ways in which anthologies mediated Romantic poetry to Victorian audiences. I’ve looked at over 200 Victorian anthologies, and for the first time I can explain in detail which poems by Byron, Hemans and Shelley they included, which sections of long poems appeared, and how they framed these poems with editorial material such as headnotes, footnotes and glosses. The results are fascinating. The anthologies produced their own version of Byron, Hemans and Shelley, which is different in several key ways from the version you get in a collected or selected edition, as well as the versions of those poets that English students today discover in modern classroom anthologies.
Overall, the book aims to show how literature of the past can be appropriated and made newly relevant in ways that could not have been imagined by its authors. I think recent critics have often tended to connect literature so closely to the context in which it’s written that we tend to overlook its ability to function in other contexts. I hope What the Victorians Made of Romanticism will help people to see some of the ways in which literary works get redeployed in unexpected ways.
Dr Tom Mole received his PhD from the University of Bristol in 2003 and has worked at the University of Glasgow, the University of Bristol and McGill University. He is currently Reader in English Literature and Director of the Centre for the History of the Book at the University of Edinburgh. With Michelle Levy, he wrote The Broadview Introduction to Book History (2017) and edited The Broadview Reader in Book History (2014). His other books include Byron’s Romantic Celebrity (Palgrave, 2007), Romanticism and Celebrity Culture (ed, Cambridge, 2009) and What the Victorians Made of Romanticism (Princeton, 2017). From 2008-2013 he was Principal Investigator of the Interacting with Print research group, whose collaboratively written ‘multigraph’ will be published by Chicago UP in 2017. He is a member of the PMLA Advisory Committee.
by Tom Mole