These days it's not only charities that bombard us with 'free gifts' in order to persuade us – or should that be blackmail us – into supporting them. Very frequently now newspapers too try to boost their sales by accompanying each copy with a free something or other. Normally I find these freebies have little appeal but recently the Guardian had on offer something I found irresistible.
On seven successive days the paper was sold along with a contribution to a pamphlet-style series called 'The Romantic poets.' Each little publication consisted of a short introduction to that day's poet by a well-known contemporary writer – Andrew Motion, Margaret Drabble, Germaine Grier, for example – followed by a selection of poems and extracts from poems, rounded off by some form of autobiographical comment by the poet in question.
What interested me most about the series was not its contents – the selection of poetic material included—but just who the 'Romantic poets' were deemed to be. Here they are in the order in which they appeared: Keats, Byron, Burns, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Blake.
Most readers of the Guardian – and of the Scottish Review – will find nothing surprising in that list. Nor do I. Nonetheless it did set me thinking. What if the Guardian's sister paper the Observer had published a similar series not in 2010 but in 1810 – when the Romantic movement was sweeping all before it in Western culture. Would the names have been the same? I think not.
By 1810 Blake had produced most of his best work but he remained virtually unknown: it would be late in the 19th century before his importance as a Romantic poet would begin to be recognised. By 1810 Wordsworth and Coleridge too had produced the best of their poetry, but their status and popularity were distinctly limited. They would not have made an appearance. Keats and Shelley were too young in 1810 to be included – but even if their later work had been available I don't think they'd have made the list. As compared with 2010's series, in 1810 only Burns and Byron – just launching his hugely successful poetic career – would have been sure to appear.
Who else? 2010 is in fact the bicentenary of 'The Lady of the Lake' – a poem that proved even more successful than Scott's earlier narrative poems. Scott would undoubtedly have been there. A fourth Scot would probably have appeared: Thomas Campbell, author of 'The Pleasures of Hope,' 'Gertrude of Wyoming,' and immensely popular war-songs and ballads. Only one Englishman would have been sure of appearing; the hugely successful Samuel Rogers, author of 'The Pleasures of Memory,' a work which went into four editions in its first year. So Byron, Burns, Scott, Campbell, and Rogers would have been the newspaper's choice in 1810 – with the Irishmen Tom Moore and James Montgomery possibly also appearing.
What if we move on a hundred years to 1910? The answer then is clear. The 'Romantic poets' had become the famous five: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats and Shelley. No one else really mattered. Blake was still a somewhat eccentric poetic figure, and Burns had disappeared into the Scottish ghetto where he would remain stranded for several generations. (A year or two back, Professor Murray Pittock delivered a British Academy lecture in which he demonstrated just how far Burns had disappeared from conventional accounts of British Romanticism.)
So one's first reaction to today's Guardian series of ‘the Romantic poets' is to applaud the inclusion of the former outsiders: Blake and Burns. Whatever the shortcomings of the year of Homecoming and the Gathering, the bicentenary celebrations of Burns's birth – including nine international conferences on his work – should be seen as an unqualified success. Burns is back.
One's second response to the Guardian list is more equivocal. For many of us today what is the most striking thing about the Romantic roll call of Keats, Byron, Burns, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Blake? Surely the fact that the Romantic poets remain exclusively male. For well over a generation now a host of literary critics and scholars have argued the case for a revision of the traditional literary canon of major English writers. Why? Because the canon is the creation of a dead, white, middle-class, male, world. Minorities have never stood a chance of admission, and the biggest minority of all is that composed of women. So in the case of the Romantic period, enormous efforts have been made to rediscover and re-evaluate a range of women Romantic poets. Anthologies of their work have been published; databases and websites have been established; catalogues and electronic text collections and editions compiled; critical studies produced.
No literary historian today, writing about British Romanticism, would fail to acknowledge the importance of Mary Robinson, Charlotte Smith, Joanna Baillie, Mrs Barbauld, Hannah More etc. Growing up in Wick, I remember my grandfather reciting 'The boy stood on the burning deck' by Felicia Hemans: today Mrs Hemans is the subject of serious scholarly study. But has all this academic investment and endeavour in redefining the Romantic poets delivered the longed-for change? The Guardian's choice of an all-male cast of the famous five plus two has to suggest that the answer is no. The boys still rule okay?
This article was first published in SR in 2010