The living pantheon of poets in 1820 pantheon or canon

As recently as the early 1980s, the definition of Romantic poetry would have been fairly clear and mostly non-controversial. Students explored Romanticism through the work of six major poets - Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats - with primary attention being given to their lyric poetry or to the lyric qualities of their attempts at, say, epic. Yet a Romanticism defined by the "Big Six" male writers is very much a mid-twentieth-century creation contrasted with, for example, Thomas Humphry Ward's English Poets of 1880, which included the favored six (Blake, largely invisible during the Romantic period, had been recovered by his Victorian admirers) alongside "secondary" Romantic poets such as Thomas Love Peacock, "Barry Cornwall," and Leigh Hunt, popular writers of the period such as Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Moore, and Samuel Rogers, and women poets such as Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Joanna Baillie, and Felicia Hemans; George Benjamin Woods's 1916 English Poetry and Prose of the Romantic Period (still being reprinted in 1950) has a similar gathering of poets. Ernest Bernbaum's 1949 edition of his Guide Through the Romantic Movement continued to recognize sixteen major Romantic writers, though they are all male; but the path being taken by scholarship on Romanticism was signaled in the 1950 MLA publication The English Romantic Poets: A Review of Research, which included only five male poets, with Blake's absence corrected in later versions of this work. The most important anthology of the 1970s and 1980s, David Perkins's English Romantic Writers (1967), gives almost all of its pages to the core group, though it does sample other male poets.

Almost as soon as this consensus was achieved, it was challenged by developments within literary theory and by an expanded sense of the literary itself that has arisen through the reintroduction of the writing of women, people of color, the "lower" orders, and others who had seemed to vanish from literary history. As such writers have entered the classroom, as perhaps best seen in Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak's British Literature

1780-1830 (1996), we have in turn lost sight of the "minor," popular male British writers of the day.1

Our focus on a group of writers whom we have united under the banner of "Romanticism" - whether it involves only a few male poets or a broader gathering including women - can seem odd to those interested in other eras. While most periods are named for relatively neutral language features (Anglo-Saxon), rulers (Elizabeth or Victoria), or temporal aspects (modern or postmodern), the Romantic period is named for a particular trend in poetry, retrospectively applied. It is as if we would call the period of early modern English literature "metaphysical," using Dr. Johnson's later term for a particular group of poets to define all the work of that era. While we now conceive of the poetry between roughly 1789 and 1832 as part of a unified "Romanticism," at the time the poets we identify with Romanticism were grouped in a series of often opposing schools: for example, the Bluestocking circle of artistic and intellectual women who gathered in the second half of the eighteenth century; the Della Cruscans, who followed their leader Robert Merry in offering highly wrought and politically controversial poetry; the Lake School of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey; the Cockney School of London intellectuals and artists, including Keats, Shelley, and Hazlitt, that centered on Leigh Hunt; or the Satanic School, Southey's derogatory name for the partnership of Byron and Shelley. Of course, Blake, so central to our sense of Romanticism now, stood apart not only from these schools but from the literary scene as a whole, though his engagement with the literature of the day is seen, for example, in his responses to Wordsworth and Byron. Not that "Romanticism" should be discarded as a period term: it describes a body of experimental work in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that points to larger trends in poetry beyond its confines. "Romanticism" enables us to gather together a group of poets who responded to a common moment of massive cultural, social, and political change with varying attempts to remake poetry and re-vision their world. As poetic innovators seeking to remake the world through their art, they both opened up the forms of poetry - think of Wordsworth's exploration of "lyrical ballads," Blake's turn to fourteeners or his dissent from the very means of literary production, the work on the sonnet of Charlotte Smith, Wordsworth, and Keats, or Hunt's assault upon the heroic couplet that would influence Shelley and Keats - and opened poetry upon the world, as they sought an art that could, like Keats's god of poetry, Apollo, in "Hyperion," "die into life," that is, leave behind the confines of art to build or remake the human community. While Wordsworth and Blake, Scott and Shelley, Byron and Hemans engaged in different kinds of aesthetic experiments for differing purposes, they all sought to make poetry new in ways that both impressed and puzzled their contemporaries and that continue to intrigue us. Of course, the presence of distinctly experimental verse points to the fact that much poetry in the period followed more conventional models or perhaps turned to roads not taken in the development of British literature. What we must remember is that the poetic field at the time was much larger than any canon we have yet assembled, and that Romanticism, while grounded in the work of the period and descriptive of its most challenging verse, is our creation, so that period labels such as "Laker" or "Cockney" serve to define fault lines within Romanticism even as we seek to separate the "Romantic" from other kinds of writing of the day.

Stuart Curran has called 1820 "the highwater mark for verse in the Romantic period,"2 and indeed, with the publication of distinctive volumes by Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, and Hemans, it is perhaps as key to our sense of Romanticism in its closing years as is 1798, with its publication of Lyrical Ballads, to our conception of the initial phase of Romantic poetry. The year 1820 also provides a point of entry into the story of the construction of Romanticism, as we can see how a quite broad field of varying kinds of poetry came to be defined by the work of a few favored writers, not necessarily recognized as central at the time or as members of a coherent movement, with this narrowing being corrected only in part when recently, the canon of the "Big Six" has been expanded to include other writers active in 1820, particularly women. As we turn to 1820's "pantheon of living poets," we should be alive to those poets who mattered to those living in 1820, to those poets who continue to live for readers and writers today, and simply to those poets who lived and wrote at the time. The term "pantheon," taken from a temple to all the gods in Rome, was most often used in the period to refer to encyclopedic accounts of the Greek and Roman (or Hindu, Chinese, or Egyptian) gods or to buildings modeled on the Pantheon, such as a place of entertainment with that name in London, or the Pantheon in Paris, which, with its memorials to the recently dead heroes of the Revolution, provides a model of a gathering of illustrious contemporaries. This attempt to reconstruct a poetic pantheon frames writing in a way different than efforts to define either a limited or an expanded canon, for a "heathen" pantheon, unlike a "sacred" canon, seeks to include all the "gods" of poetry, no matter how minor, how disparate, how heterodox.

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