- British Children’s Poetry in the Romantic Era: Verse, Riddle, and Rhyme by Donelle Ruwe
In the introduction to her indispensible new study, Donelle Ruwe identifies her approach as “old-fashioned,” “grounded in archival research and formalist in its aims” (3). This is true insofar as Ruwe offers a factual, and even sometimes quantitative, account of secular children’s poetry as it emerged in the long eighteenth century. However, “old-fashioned” does not mean “irrelevant.” British Children’s Poetry from the Romantic Era paints a much-needed picture of a period that has been overshadowed by the so-called Golden Age, filling gaps and correcting misconceptions as it engages with work by figures such as Adelaide O’Keefe, the Taylor sisters, Sara Coleridge, and William Roscoe. Generations of scholars, from Harvey Darton to Morag Styles, have embraced a progressive vision of children’s poetry, assuming that Romantic conventions liberated young readers from the straitjacket of eighteenth-century didactic verse. While Ruwe does not fully overturn such assumptions, she does complicate them by rethinking questions of genre (What was children’s poetry?), gender (Who was labeled didactic, and who was hailed as natural?), and canonicity (Why were certain authors forgotten?). Ruwe’s meticulous research underscores the ways in which Romantic ideologies could be limiting—to poets, and to the critics who write about them.
The book’s first substantial chapter, “Reading Romantic-Era Children’s Verse,” outlines the conventions that organized poems written for child readers between 1780 and 1835. Because most of the children’s poetry produced in this era was didactic and formulaic, critics have often focused instead on poets, such as Blake, who were inspired by childhood as a concept rather than by child readers. However, instead of dismissing didactic poetry as beneath serious study, Ruwe constructs a useful taxonomy of the genre’s structural elements. Basic data are presented in a chart that lists British children’s poetry books in chronological order, including date of publication, the number of poems in the book, the average number of lines per poem, the percentage of poems written in iambic pentameter, and so on. Ruwe then unpacks some elements that these poems have in common, focusing especially on different types of moral closure, including “closure by aphorism,” “closure by reflection,” and “closure by consequences.” Charts and nomenclatures underscore Ruwe’s key point that Romantic-era children’s poetry was not “Romantic” in the Wordsworthian sense. Rather, poets drew on the rationalist legacy of John Locke to address children not as holy innocents but rather as capable and culpable young people.
The book’s second chapter, “Myths of Origin,” considers the curious beginnings [End Page 420] and long afterlife of Original Poems for Infant Minds (1804), an enormously popular work generally attributed to Ann and Jane Taylor. While acknowledging the importance of the text, Ruwe systematically addresses a numbered series of misconceptions that have emerged during the process of its canonization. For instance, the first section is headed: “Myth #1: Original Poems for Infant Minds, like a bolt of lightning from the heavens, was sui generis.” Her overarching aim—as the framing of Myth #1 suggests—is to question the reigning ideologies of Romantic genius and spontaneity. However, probably the most important function that the chapter serves is simply to put the record straight. Original Poems, as it turns out, had multiple authors, went through multiple editions, was commissioned by the publisher, and should not be read (at least not by scholars) as a unified text. Precisely because Original Poems was so influential, setting conventions and shaping the market, it is important not to romanticize its “originality” and to understand its complex origins.
One piece from Original Poems, Ann Taylor’s “My Mother,” gets its own chapter (chapter 3) in Ruwe’s study, because it anticipated the sentimental style of the mid- to late nineteenth century. Tracing the ways in which the poem circulated—often with its “moral closure” cut or amended—Ruwe shows how romanticized domestic images made their slow ascent in the popular imagination...