Romantic Canons:

A Bibliography (and an Argument)

This page contains an annotated list of critical and theoretical works about the activity of canonizing as it arose during the Romantic Era, and about the concept of "literary period" that arose with it. As you will see from the bibliography below, I argue in annotations to the bibliography that canonicity as a concept is definitively "Romantic." But I also provide here a list of works presenting a counterview, works which argue that canonizing as an activity precedes the Romantic Era.

If you would like to see how the romantic poets canonized themselves, you might enjoy looking at tables of contents of anthologies edited by William Hazlitt, Robert Southey [coming soon], and Thomas Campbell.

On Romantic-Era Canonizing:

Curran, Stuart. "Romantic Poetry: Why and Wherefore?" The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism. Ed. Stuart Curran. New York: Cambridge UP, 1993. 216-35.

Curran explains the veritable "explosion" of publications of original poetry during the Romantic era as inspired by a new knowledge of poetic history and a desire "[t]o be 'among the English Poets'" (221): "For the first time there was an actual history not of literature per se, but of poetry in English. The generation [of poets] beginning in the 1780s and truly emerging into artistic leadership in the 1790s was the first ever to know that history. The effect of that knolwedge, . . . was . . . profoundly nationalistic. . . . [Romantic-era poetry] as a cultural phenomenon, if studied through a cross-section, would reveal not just a record of isolated ambitions and fantasies of prestige, but the result of the sudden opening-up of centuries of the past, a result at once embedded in tradition and expressed through experimentation . . ." (225-6). Curran's essay shows that Romantic poets, having for the first time access to previous periods of poetry, were the first group of poets to conceive of themselves as constituting a literary period

Guillory, John. "Mute Inglorious Miltons: Gray, Wordsworth, and the Vernacular Canon." Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1993.

Guillory argues convincingly that the emergence of an English vernacular canon coincides with the constitution of literature as an object (x-xi, 87) which occurs at "the moment of the canon's institutionalization" (87), "the moment at which the vernacular English canon enters the school system as a literary curriculum in competition with the classical curriculum" (86). This moment coincides with the writing and publication of Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard ," a poem that itself thematizes canonicity as it operates to help fix canonizing principles.

Kucich, Greg. "Gendering the Canons of Romanticism: Past and Present." The Wordsworth Circle 27.2 (Spring 1997): 95-102.

Kucich sees canon formation as beginning before the romantic era (a view with which I disagree). He argues that "women . . . figure rather prominently in the earliest phases of British canon formation" (97) but are then excluded by romantic canonizers.

Mandell, Laura. "Misogyny and the Canon: The Character of Women in Anthologies of Poetry," in Misogynous Economies: The Business of Literature in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1999).

In this chapter, I argue that distinctive differences between miscellaneous collections of poetry and anthologies, published in their modern form for the first time during the early 19th century, reveal that canonizing began during the romantic era, and that it is an activity structurally dependent upon the exclusion of women poets.

On the Concept of "Period."

Vogler, Thomas A. "Romanticism and Literary Periods: The Future of the Past." New German Critique 38 (Summer 1986): 131-60.

This excellent article brings together and discusses many important statements about the romantic period in major essays, such as:

Vogler's article analyzes the possibility of confronting history rather than idealizing it, and concludes: "The reality of literary history and its periods (if it has them) will always be possessed by us as the object of our desire for a certain kind of form. To endow it with form is both to make thereby desirable and to consummate the desire at the same time. This does not mean that there are not underlying laws of the literary system that may be both objectively true and congruent with a mode of desire. But as long as our desires remain equivocal, such laws will not reveal themsevles in a univocal truth" (159).

Liu, Alan. "Local Transcendence: Cutlural Criticism, Postmodernism, and the Romance of Detail." Representations 32 (Fall 1990): 75-113.

Although not directly about periodicity, this article provides a way of thinking about the danger of rewriting "romantic currents" as a romantic period that ends with the advent of modernism. As themselves definitively "postmodern," cultural criticism and the new pragmatism deny that they have any "romantic" desire for transcendence. What's wrong with the period concept is the sense of its being over rather than residual. The period concept thus facilitates a certain "amnesia" in postmodernism about the history of its intellectual claims by allowing postmodern cultural critics to focus on "the claustrophobic, historically foreshoretened question, 'Is postmodernism continuous or discontinuous with modernism?'" (note 26, 104).

Ross, Marlon. "Breaking the Period: Romanticism, Historical Representation, and the Prospect of Genre." ANQ 6.2-3 New Series (April, July, 1993): 121-31.

"Clearly, rethinking romanticism entails a process of rethinking how the concept of the literary period often functions to obscure the relation between literary traditions and socio-historical change. It entails reconsidering the kind of assumptions imbedded both in the notion of 'romanticism' as a literary historical phenomenon and in the notion of 'periodicity' as the basis for literary history, by attending to the kinds of quesitons--aesthetic, historical, structural--that are precluded by these assumptions" (128).

On Canonizing as an Activity that Preceded the Romantic Era

As I read these articles, I have asked myself, what is the difference between listing and canonizing? That is, these articles argue that canonizing takes place earlier in the eighteenth century than the Romantic era, and I remain unconvinced. As I read them, I asked myself, "what is the difference between a canon and other kinds of lists?"

For instance, one can compare an early eighteenth-century way of listing important authors --a poem on poets by Joseph Addison -- to Hazlitt's Table of Contents. At a minimum, there is a difference between the lister's status and mode: in Addison's poem, the lister is a stylistically present poet, whereas in Hazlitt's Table of Contents, the literary critic claims not to be stylistically present at the moment of proclaiming the canon.

Kramnick, Jonathan Brody. "The Cultural Logic of Late Feudalism: Placing Spenser in the Eighteenth Century." ELH 63.4 (Winter 1996): 871-92.

This article brilliantly demonstrates that the establishment of "the high-cultural Trinity" (890) of Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton by midcentury literary historians and critics generated the distinction between, on the one hand, what Bourdieu calls the "field of restricted cultural production," or "high" culture, and on the other hand, "low" (popular) culture. Kramnick demonstrates that midcentury critics such as Warton pay attention to Spenser as a way of constructing the sphere of high culture around nostalgia for lost feudal social structures.

(While what Kramnick describes certainly seems necessary for the development of literature as a profession, and the canon as its disciplinary object, still a Trinity (holy or unholy) is not a canon.)

Benedict, Barbara M. Making the Modern Reader: Cultural Mediation in Early Modern Literary Anthologies. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996.

Although she recognizes differences between early and late eighteenth-century collections of poetry, Benedict sees anthologies and miscellanies as both "the same genre because they share means of material production, processes of compilation, audiences, and forms that define their cultural function" (4). She sees early eighteenth-century miscellanies as involved in canon formation just as much as early nineteenth-century anthologies.

Zionkowski, Linda. "Territorial Disputes in the Republic of Letters: Canon Formation and the Literary Profession." The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 31.1 (Spring 1990): 3-22.

As opposed to Raymond Williams who argued in Culture and Society that the author's professional status "followed inevitably from the institution of commercial publishing" (35), Zionkowski argues that, "instead of developing as a natural result of writers' financial independence, the idea of a literary profession was devised amid a context of debate . . . centered on the formation of a literary canon" (4). Canonicity, she argues, arises early in the century as a bulwark against "the leveling nature of exchange value: Augustan writers use canonical distinctions to deny that writings are commodities.

(I question whether the "exclusionary," "value concepts" [Zionkowski 5] operating during the early eighteenth century are actually the same as the exclusionary, value concepts marshalled in the establishment of a vernacular canon. That is, isn't the sense that Pope and Swift had of wishing to build a difference between Dunces/Grub Street and themselves, the mob or "the rabble" and high Augustan poets, slightly different than wanting to build a canon?)

For a description of early eighteenth-century writers' sense of themselves as members of a social group, their writings as worthy of attention because of that membership, and how publishing practices threatened their sense of gentlemanly production among a coterie of friends, see:

Sacammano, Neil. "Authority and Publication: The Works of 'Swift.'" The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 25.3 (1984): 241-62.

A Note about the argument made by the preceding bibliography and comments:

The argument that the notions of canonicity and literary period begin during the Romantic Era really requires a notion of periodicity: it requires claiming, by a strange logic, that the notion of periods as originary originated in a period. What militates against the notion of literary period as origin is a specifically Nietzchean understanding of history:

"There is no set of maxims more important for an historian than this: that the actual causes of a thing's origins and its eventual uses, the manner of its incorporation into a system of purposes, are worlds apart; that everything that exists, no matter what is origin, is periodically reinterpreted by those in power in terms of fresh intentions; that all processes in the organic world are processes of outstripping and overcoming, and that, in turn, all outstripping and overcoming means reinterpretation, rearrangement, in the course of which the earlier meaning and purpose are necessarily either obscured or lost." The Genealogy of Morals, tr. Francis Golffing (New York: Doubleday, 1956), 201; qtd. in Vogler 154.

I want to know what is at stake in our blindness to the moment that canonicity became a value (the Romantic period, I argue) and in our insistence on that moment as being "worlds apart" from our present moment.

The Necessary Ingredients for Establishing a Canon:

A. Author as Owner of Property (Bibliography)

B. The Original Author: A History of the Concept (Web Site)

C. Cultural Literacy: Culture as a Field of Conflict (Bibliography with excerpts)


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Laura Mandell, Dept. of English, Miami University, Oxford, OH 45056; Laura Mandell's Home Page.