MLA 2017 Special Session: Reloading the Romantic Canon

A Special Session to be held at the 2017 MLA Annual Convention (Philadelphia, 5-8 January) on Thursday 5 January, 1:45-3:00 p.m., 104B, Pennsylvania Convention Center

Owing to the sad demise on 20 November 2016 of our colleague, the distinguished and much loved scholar Charles E. Robinson, this Special Session will now be made up of the first two papers listed below. It will be chaired by Stuart Curran.

Reloading the Romantic Canon: New Texts and Contexts from Godwin, Shelley, and Hazlitt

Until the last two decades of the twentieth century, the canon of British Romantic authors installed by the Victorians looked fixed, though its boundaries were constantly debated. It gave primacy to the ‘big six’ poets — Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Keats, and Shelley — the most significant modern adjustment being the replacement of Sir Walter Scott by the tradesman-class visionary Blake. Things could not go on like that for much longer. Since the 1980s, there has been recovery, recontextualization, and rehistoricization of both established and previously little-known authors on a grand scale. Many new texts have appeared in the classroom. Study of the literary past continues to yield a constant stream of discoveries, providing evidence and new angles of interpretation which disturb existing certitudes. The subject of this session is work in progress by scholarly editors, based on new finds of archival and rare printed material, which is further reshaping the Romantic canon. It is hoped that the session will catalyse the interest of younger members of the profession, helping to nurture the next generation of textual scholars. The session will comprise three fifteen-minute presentations, leaving ample time for discursive synergies.



Presiding: Pamela Clemit, Queen Mary University of London

‘The Signal of Regard: William Godwin’s Correspondence Networks’ — Pamela Clemit, Queen Mary University of London

Pamela Clemit takes as her subject new letters emerging from the archive and being published in her Oxford University Press edition of The Letters of William Godwin, 6 vols. in progress (2011-). She seeks to recover the culture of reciprocity which was sustained by letter-writers in an era without email or telephone. She argues that the letter is a gift of attention, in which the writer seeks to communicate regard by means of a signal crafted uniquely for the recipient. The concept of ‘regard’ (as developed by the economic historian Avner Offer) overlaps with its dual common meaning, indicating both attention and approbation. David Hume and Adam Smith took it to be the driver of human exchange in emotions as much in commerce. The exchange of regard is a key which captures the logic of a prodigious correspondent like Godwin. The personalisation of the gift-signal confers an obligation to reciprocate. Godwin was self-conscious about this obligation and worked hard to fulfil it — with varying degrees of success. His correspondence encompassed just about every significant literary and political figure on the political left from the era of the French Revolution to the 1832 Reform Act, and was nourished by bonds of reciprocity. His letters embodied a larger conversation, allowing intimacy to be preserved at a distance. This conversation is so rich and intense that, in many cases, Godwin’s letters might be considered as substantive additions to the literary canon.

Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things: A Newly Recovered Poem by Shelley and its Contexts’ — Michael Rossington, University of Newcastle

Michael Rossington, one of the lead editors of The Poems of Shelley in the Longman Annotated English Poets series, 5 vols. in progress (1989-), focuses on a previously unknown, newly published poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things. This poem, composed by Shelley at the age of eighteen and published in 1811, just before he was expelled from University College, Oxford, invites a reconfiguration of the canon of Shelley’s poems. The only copy known to exist came to light in 2006, but it was not made public until it was published on the Bodleian Library’s website in 2015. Rossington examines the text and contexts of Poetical Essay. He explores its overtly political content, including its publication (as declared on the title-page) to raise funds for the Irish war correspondent Peter Finnerty, then imprisoned for libelling Castlereagh, and its alignment with the reformist politics of Sir Francis Burdett. He situates the poem in relation to Shelley’s earliest published works of 1810 and 1811, and to the manuscripts of Shelley’s earliest writing in the Bodleian Library, the Pforzheimer Collection of the New York Public Library, and other archives. This newly published poem invites a far-reaching reassessment both of Shelley’s early thought and of his oeuvre as a whole.

‘William Hazlitt and his Liber Amoris Letters to Peter George Patmore’ — Charles E. Robinson, University of Delaware

Charles E. Robinson turns the spotlight on a text deplored by the Victorians and by early twentieth-century critics, but accepted into the Romantic canon in the early 1980s: William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris; Or, The New Pygmalion (1823). This epistolary narrative tells the story of the author’s sexual obsession with his landlady’s daughter, Sarah Walker. Robinson is preparing a comprehensive new edition of Hazlitt’s letters, which corrects and augments The Letters of William Hazlitt, ed. Herschel M. Sikes et al (New York, 1978). Robinson presents findings arising from his re-editing of the texts of the sixteen letters written in 1822 to Peter George Patmore which formed the basis of Hazlitt’s book. He provides a new sequence and dates for those letters; restores omitted passages, including sexual references to Sarah Walker that were heavily cancelled by both Hazlitt and Patmore; and provides new evidence of the manner in which Hazlitt prepared printer’s copy for John Hunt’s 1823 edition of the anonymously published Liber Amoris. Such evidence raises new critical questions about a text that we thought we knew well, showing (for the first time) how it came into being, and complicating its canonical status.

The texts to be discussed in this session form part of a flow of discoveries from the archives (and from the book dealers). They place canonical creation in an entirely new light. They make possible many new critical questions, explorations, and interpretations. They shift attention away from Romantic texts as singular, individual responses to external stimulation. New archival findings constitute a different medium for the Romantic sensibility: they reveal dense networks of obligation and interaction, for which the mode of transmission is handwritten words on paper. We are not dependent solely on print to capture the content and experience of a cultural movement. A printed text can be lost to its own time — as Shelley’s poem was — and rediscovered in ours. For those engaged full-time with the Romantic canon and its classroom application, whether as teachers or scholars, such findings make passing on the torch of knowledge a pleasure as well as a duty.