- Romanticism, Self-Canonization, and the Business of Poetry by Michael Gamer
In his meticulous and compelling Romanticism, Self-Canonization, and the Business of Poetry, Michael Gamer reminds us that Romantic-era poets became increasingly preoccupied with the decidedly material aspects of publication and readership, from copyright negotiations to physical details of printing, distribution, marketing, sales, and circulation, to the cultivation of both contemporary reputation and posthumous fame. It's a good reminder, given the persistent popular myth of the detached, ethereal poet who writes regardless of her or his material circumstances. Gamer says his purpose is "to present a more dynamic relation between writers and readers than has hitherto been offered by reminding us of the productive nature of literary reception and of the receptivity of writers and publishers to the market" (p. 3). Building on the foundational demographic research especially of William St Clair, James Raven, and Robert Darnton, and of cultural scholars like Andrew Bennett and Leo Braudy concerning Romantic attitudes toward "fame" and posterity, Gamer's detailed case studies examine contemporary documentation to reveal the extraordinary extent to which Romantic-era poets participated in convoluted, intertwined interactions with publishers, readers, and a variety of public media aimed at shaping how their work was received, regarded, and remembered by their readers. This granular authorial involvement encompassed the physical medium of the printed page and book, the reviewing industry, the booksellers, and the circulating libraries, as well as the private and public reading practices of an exponentially expanding audience, because books were circulated, shared, read aloud, and popularized in numbers that far exceeded those represented by the physical copies actually printed in press runs. Moreover, as Gamer makes particularly clear in his careful examination of the third and fifth editions of Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets, this granular attention to detail extended not simply to editing, rearranging, and supplementing poems but also to matters of typography, illustration, and "edition-making." Since poetry was widely understood to possess a higher cachet—a superior refinement and consequent claim to pretensions of "greatness"—than the dubious genre of prose fiction, poets invested comparably more in the editorial and marketing processes through which they sought to have their works appear as a coherent and yet evolving magnum opus.
Gamer's primary concern is with the act—or process—of self-canonization, the efforts by individual authors (or, as in Percy Shelley's case, a posthumous agent) to both "package" and re-package her or his works as "editions," complete with rhetoric appropriate to what we now call "definitive" editions. This meant cleaning up editorial matters (including contents and sequencing), incorporating [End Page 166] revisions, adding (or subtracting, or simply revising) supplementary notes and materials (including illustrations and, like the fifth edition of Smith's Elegiac Sonnets, long lists of subscribers), and providing bracketing front matter either by the author or by an authoritative agent (usually posing as a judicious and fair-minded editor). Such repackagings lent these editions heightened stature as commodity items within the commercial and cultural marketplace. Gamer's case studies include Smith and the subscription reprinting of her Elegiac Sonnets; William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose presence Wordsworth largely elided in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, which he re-theorized as distinctively pastoral, local, and prototypically "English"; Robert Southey, who strove to navigate his competing roles as "private" poet and "public" or institutional Laureate; and Percy Shelley, the beneficiary of Mary Shelley's "editorial construction of Percy's posthumous self" (p. 227) in the Posthumous Poems of 1824; along with the aesthetic and commercial campaign delineated by the London publisher and bookseller John Bell's editions of the Della Cruscan poets and the public critical pushback by contemporary critics like William Gifford.
Why such cases matter, and what they tell us about the business aspects of a professionalized Romantic-era poetry and its multifaceted audiences, is that the poets, their advocates, their critics, and their readers came, over the period of three quarters of a century...