University of Virginia Library


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Thomas F. Bonnell [*]

William St Clair outlined an appealing approach to the study of print culture
recently in the Times Literary Supplement. Called "the political economy
of reading," it shaped his methodology (and provided the title of his last chap-
ter) in The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge, 2004). The basis
of this approach—economic data relating to book production and prices, and
evidence of readers' access to various texts—is designed to enable historians to
"perceive patterns and develop provisional models" on their way to "a fuller and
more theoretical understanding of texts, books, reading and consequences." The
ultimate objective of a political economy of reading is to understand "why as
societies, we have come to think the way we do."[1]

One attractive feature of this approach is that it embraces the whole spectrum
of "the history of the book" as defined by St Clair. At the micro end, he praises
a lecture by Robert Darnton in which close textual and contextual analysis of
a single pamphlet revealed much about day-to-day experiences in Paris during
the French Revolution. At the macro end, he surveys the larger issues addressed
by book historians: When and why do books come into existence in the various
forms they assume? How are they produced, sold, distributed, and read? What
effect do they have on readers, and "on the mentalities of the wider society in
which the books were read" (TLS 13)?

Putting his theory into practice, St Clair moves comfortably between the
micro and macro levels in his own work. In the TLS he ranges from details of
specific publications (formats, print runs, and prices for books by Lord Byron
and Sir Walter Scott) to wider observations on readers' "mentalities" in Britain
in the early nineteenth century. In The Reading Nation he delivers an enormous
amount of data on the book trade, by means of which he reaches broad gener-
alizations about literary production and reception. Sharp insights into the book
trade abound, as do informative passages about readers and their experiences
with books, especially their testimonials of passionate attachment to this or that
series of imprints. That literary artifacts serve as objects of both physical and
intellectual fascination is fully appreciated by St Clair, whose devotion to this
field of study is underscored by dozens of footnotes in which various items (books,
advertisements, ephemera, etc.) are attributed to "Ac," the Author's collection.


Page 244

Thirteen densely factual appendices supply evidence to buttress his claims in
The Reading Nation. Although he contemplated publishing them separately online,
citing the greater "ease with which additions, corrections, and modifications can
be incorporated" and the opportunity for electronic searches, he put them in the
book so that readers who lacked computer access would not be left out. Still, St
Glair conceived of the appendices as "the core of a growing research resource,"
signaling that he "may decide to put the fuller information online later" (pp.
17–18). In this spirit he envisions a cooperative project for developing a political
economy of reading, its first step being to amass the foundational data: "It would
be a fairly simple task, with modern technology and many hands contributing,
worldwide, to place alongside the plentiful information we already have about
texts such scattered information as survives about production, prices, access and
readerships, over time" (TLS 15). This desideratum parallels one aim of his book,
which was "to provide the indispensable factual basis which enables the archival
and printed record to be interrogated, patterns discerned, and turning points
identified, and emerging conclusions offered and tested" (p. 16).

This laudable goal is not as simple a task as purported, however, to judge
from mistakes that mar St Clair's treatment of "the old canon" in The Reading
his focus in Chapter 7 and Appendix 6. Manifold errors in these sections
reveal a range of problems and demonstrate two corollaries to the principle that
facts are essential for interrogating historical records and testing conclusions:
(1) even seemingly trivial errors shunt one's analysis off course, and turn one
away from discerning true patterns or identifying real turning points; and (2) er-
rors built into the foundation of an argument may lead to structural fissures or
collapse when considerable weight is placed on them.

Alerting potentially unwary researchers to these problems is perhaps the
more urgent because of the enthusiastic acclaim St Clair's work has received,
with more than one commentator marveling at its trove of utterly specific quanti-
tative information. But this corrective function of my essay is complemented by a
broader one, for the mistakes that crept into The Reading Nation offer an illuminat-
ing case study in the importance of bibliographical accuracy. First, by examining
St Clair's handling of the collection of poetry famously associated with Samuel
Johnson, I will show how readily archival and bibliographical errors ramify into
distorted claims about the literary marketplace. Second, I will suggest that a mis-
placed trust in outdated bibliographical sources can perpetuate earlier mistakes
and stymie our understanding of publishers and readers. Last, I will posit that a
fuller knowledge of the bibliographical context casts doubt on several vulnerable
arguments about the "old canon." What emerges from this exercise is a word of
caution: the archives of publishers, no matter how copious, may prove tricky or
even treacherous to the investigator who consults them without solid knowledge
of the actual books to which they relate. That bibliographical bedrock is a pre-
condition for any research into the history of books and reading.

"Johnson's Poets" as Never Known Before

In the last third of the eighteenth century, British publishing gave birth to a kind
of enterprise that thrives to this day: multi-volume collections of classic English


Page 245
literature, uniformly printed and offered at modest prices to general readers.
The earliest, comprising poetry, were produced in Glasgow (1765–76) and Ed-
inburgh (1773–76); in London shortly thereafter John Bell published The Poets
of Great Britain
(1776–82). The opportunity to market such canonical series was
facilitated—though not caused—by a watershed copyright case, Donaldson v.
, decided by the House of Lords in 1774. St Clair argues that in the decades
following this ruling, a group of authors, by virtue of being reprinted over and
over again, was "locked in" (p. 130) to form the core of a British literary canon.
This "old canon" persisted for one hundred years, through the Romantic era
and into Victorian times. There is a germ of truth to this generalization, but it
is too sweeping to be of much service, and the more closely one scrutinizes it,
the weaker it grows.

The most renowned of these publications was The Works of the English Po-
Produced to rival Bell's series, it gained instant prominence on account of
Johnson's commission to write prefaces for it, afterwards published separately as
The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets. The block of entries dedicated to these
titles in Appendix 6 under a dual rubric—"The London book industry's response
to the Edinburgh challenge," and the title of the poetry collection (p. 527)—is
riddled with mistakes. A footnote keyed to each misstep is the most efficient way
to correct them. The figures on the right represent print runs.



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1779–81. Originally seventy-five volumes[2] 12mo,[3] then sold as
individual titles.[5] Renamed The Works of the Most Eminent
English Poets,
[6] or simply Johnson's Poets. [7]  
Some volumes, a second edition.[8]   3,000 
1780. [9] The Lives of the most eminent English poets, four volumes, 8vo.  3,000 
1793. [10] Dublin, eight volumes. Offshore pirated edition.[11] … 
1810. [12] London. Johnson's Poets was officially reprinted
without the prefaces[14] in seventy-five volumes.[15] 168s.
Addison, Akenside, … Dilke,[16] … Young, Whitehead. 
1500 or 1250 each[13]  


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This farrago tells a bewildering tale: three long decades elapsed before the land-
mark collection was reprinted officially; when that time arrived, the proprietors
(despite there being more readers in the nation) cut their print run in half, from
3,000 to either 1500 or 1250; they kept the collection static, reprinting the same
number of volumes; and they jettisoned the very feature that had given their
edition its identity, Johnson's prefaces. None of this is true. A glance at the New
Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature
or the English Short Title Catalogue, both
of which show the seventy-five volume version of The Works of the English Poets to
have been a distinct publication in 1790, would have kept the descriptions of the
1779–81 and 1810 editions from getting quite so muddled.

The entry for an "1810" edition is instructive, however, for what belonged
here was the actual 1810 edition, The Works of the English Poets from Chaucer to Cow-
per, including the series edited … by Dr. Samuel Johnson,
edited by Alexander Chalm-
ers. Yet because this collection turns up four pages later (p. 531) under another
rubric ("Attempts by the pretender copyright holders to offset the shortcomings
of Johnson"), most readers will fail to grasp that Chalmers' edition—many of
its proprietors being sons, surviving partners, or successors to the publishers of
the 1779–81 and 1790 editions—was an enormously confident expansion of the
same project.

Equally disorienting as this bibliographical jumble are several claims made
about The Works of the English Poets. St Clair points out that the London partners
had greater financial power than Bell, but that their decision to sell their collec-
tion "as a traditional, immobile, multi-volume, 'library' edition … showed how
little they had as yet understood the forces set free by 1774" (p. 126), set free, that
is, by the copyright ruling in Donaldson v. Becket.[17] On the contrary, the proprietors
knew their business well. To sell the collection in complete sets, which probably
was their original plan, became their only feasible option as events transpired: it
was the only way to exploit the market value of the prefaces, which were printed
to be bound with the works of each poet, after they had decided (because of John-
son's tardy progress) to gather them into separate volumes.[18] They would have
undermined their entire scheme had they, as St Clair wrongly asserts, "Soon …
agreed to sell individual volumes as well as the whole set and lowered the planned
price. Having lost the legal war of 1774, they could still win the commercial war
of 1779" (p. 126). Although readers clamored to be permitted to buy individual
volumes, especially Johnson's Prefaces, the publishers stood their ground. But even
supposing they had relented, and sold volumes individually by 1788, that would
not be "soon" after publication, nor could a tactical change in 1799 be regarded
as part of the commercial war of 1779.[19] Intervals of ten or twenty years brought


Page 248
great changes to this market; with the passage of each decade, the canon in its
published forms became ever more intricately shaped by its prior evolution.

The same imprecision undercuts the claim that "the Bell and the Johnson
editions quickly sold out, and both were reprinted" (p. 127). It hardly qualifies as
"quickly" for Bell's edition to have been reprinted in 1807 (p. 526), or the London
trade edition in 1810, these being the years specified by St Glair. But the editions
actually were reprinted fairly quickly—individual volumes of Bell more or less
continuously over a period of twenty-five years after first publication, and the
collection of the London conger in 1790, which is doubly impressive given that
the proprietors not only increased the number of volumes to seventy-five, but still
required the purchase of complete sets.[20]

Unlike the Scottish publishers, who were "boxed in by the terms of the 1710
Act," the copyright owners in London, St Clair asserts, had "the whole of recent
as well as older English literature from which to make their choice." Faced with
the Scottish onslaught (St Clair believes Bell to have published from Scotland,
more on which below), they felt "the need for unity keenly," and "only in the case
of Goldsmith, a poet still much in demand, did any of the owners … refuse to
cooperate" (p. 125). In due course, however, Chaucer and other early poets were
omitted from the collection because "In the competition for space the modern
in-copyright poets and a few weak early eighteenth-century poets for whom there
was said to be a continuing demand, were given priority" (p. 126). By this ac-
count, sundry London publishers allowed their in-copyright poets (except Gold-
smith) to be incorporated into the collection, having overcome their self-interest
in otherwise protecting their investments, driven by the extraordinary need to
distinguish their collection from that of their Scottish challengers.

If only it were true. Who these modem poets might have been is not revealed.
In St Clair's verdict—"As events turned out, the initial commissioning of 'John-
son's Poets' was the only occasion ever when a comprehensive canon of old and
new poets could have been selected and made available in a uniform series, and
the opportunity was missed" (p. 127)—what prevented the collection from being
comprehensive was the omission of Chaucer, Spenser, and others. The weak
early eighteenth-century poets who crowded them out can be identified (Dorset,
Stepney, Walsh, Duke, and others[21] ), but which "new poets" added to this pres-


Page 249
sure? Not one in-copyright poet is cited as evidence, which lessens the impression
of selfless solidarity on the part of the London publishers. This will surprise no
one familiar with the collection, however, for in fact the London trade included
not a single recent poet who was not also reprinted by Bell.

John Bell is no obscure figure. He has been called "indisputably the most
versatile member of the London printing trade at any period," and Stanley Mor-
ison's book-length tribute sheds light on every aspect of his remarkable career.[22]
Yet St Clair refers to him as the "successor" of Alexander Kincaid, the Edinburgh
printer and publisher; identifies him as an "Edinburgh publisher" in the index;
posits that, in order to market his Poets of Great Britain, he "open[ed] his own
shop in London to sell direct to English customers"; and stirringly concludes, "An
outsider had established himself in the heart of their empire" (pp. 124–125).[23]
Bell had his series printed in Edinburgh, but that does not make him an Edin-
burgh publisher, nor does it qualify his edition to be classified in Appendix 6 as
an instance of "The Edinburgh poetry canon made available in a cheap uniform
series in England."[24] To the exasperation of his rivals, Bell was all too vitally a
true London publisher.

No one who had looked at both collections could claim that "Bell's edition…,
like Kincaid's, was … illustrated with engravings, and each volume carried a
short biographical and critical introduction" (p. 124).[25] To suggest that these
features are found in the Edinburgh series (they are not) obfuscates a crucial
development in the evolution of the printed canon. It was Bell who decided
that every volume in a project like this should contain an illustration, Bell who
recognized that the works of every poet should have a preface.[26] As essential
components of his design, these features were innovations which (among others
instituted by Bell) came to define what British readers expected from this kind
of canonical collection.

St Clair muddies the water also by scrambling the chronology of Bell's career.
With "the law, and many English book buyers, now on his side"—the buyers,
that is, of Bell's Poets, who had never before "been offered such a literary and
artistic feast for their sixpence"[27] —St Clair states that "Bell's business prospered.
Soon he was producing attractive, illustrated editions of plays, Bell's British The-


Page 250
atre and Bell's Shakespeare, and he started to move into publishing new titles and
newspapers. In the later 1770s, Bell arranged to print his books in London, and
this seems to have been the last straw for the English publishers. … It was only
then, when bullying and smear tactics failed, that they decided that they would
have to meet Bell's challenge face on and produce their own directly competing
uniform series" (p. 125). Hesitating to compete head on against Bell's Poets while
he introduced project after project to the market would have been oddly lax on
the part of the London trade. That did not happen. Bell's career unfolded in
precisely the opposite order: his newspaper activity, begun in 1772, established
a platform for vigorous advertising; Shakespeare's works appeared in 1774[28] ;
and Bell's British Theatre ignited a battle in 1776 (waged against the New English
), foreshadowing the war to come over the poets.[29] Publication of The Poets
of Great Britain
started in 1777, but before the first volume actually went on sale,
the London trade—fully apprised of Bell's intentions—had already organized
itself to produce a rival collection.

St Clair's methodology is rendered moot by all these stumbles, for they make
it impossible to discern true patterns or to identify the turning points that estab-
lished facts are supposed to clarify. As distortions mount up, the picture grows
ever more confused, until virtually nothing is accurately presented (or distinctly
known) of the central trade rivalry that shaped every aspect of the poetry canon
as it evolved after 1776. Many of these problems would not have arisen had
the proper bibliographies been checked; nearly all would have been averted by
recourse to the physical books under discussion. As for the archival findings, pre-
sented in tables and appendices with every assurance of authority, most readers
will be at a loss to sense what information is suspect and what is reliable. Unwit-
tingly, St Clair offers a negative object lesson with respect to books and publish-
ers' archives, one that proves more convincingly than he knew how indispensable
facts are. An archive is liable to be misinterpreted if one comes to it lacking a
thorough familiarity with the relevant books.


It was sixty-eight volumes. St Clair has mistaken the second edition (1790) for the


The format was octavo, not duodecimo.


They were not sold individually. How St Clair derived this idea from "London Catalogue
(1799)," the source he cites, is unclear. (See note 19.) A misinterpretation of Strahan's ledgers
conceivably contributed to the mistake. (See note 8.)


The collection was not "renamed," which would imply that it was reissued under a new
title. The alleged renaming fuses the first part of the title of the collection with the last part of
the title of Johnson's Lives.


Because the proprietors lettered the spines of their bound sets with "Johnson's Poets,"
the collection has casually been referred to as such. Johnson, indignant over this arrogation of
his name, chastised the proprietors for their false advertising.


The print run of the 1779–81 edition, as William Strahan's ledgers indicate (BL Add.
MS 48815, f. 38), was 1500, not 3,000. It was Johnson's Lives that had a print run of 3,000.
(See note 8.)


No such volumes exist. A misreading of Strahan's ledgers causes the confusion. Al-
though St Clair cites the archive itself (e.g., pp. 653–655), he also (here and elsewhere, e.g.,
p. 472) draws on the Ph.D. thesis of Robert Dale Harlan, "William Strahan: Eighteenth Cen-
tury London Printer and Publisher" (University of Michigan, i960). Harlan lists what Strahan
earned "[f]or printing 3000 copies each of the first and second editions of the third volume
of Johnson's Lives and Works of the English Poets" (p. 171). These numbers are accurate (see BL
Add. MS 48815, f. 59), but not the title. Harlan tacks the title of the collection onto the first
words of the title of Johnson's Lives (in reversal of the fusion mentioned in note 6). St Clair,
seeing nothing amiss in this conflation, takes it for the poetry collection, not the biographies.
Yet Harlan speaks of the "third volume" alone; St Clair refers to "Some volumes" in the plural.
Did he come upon the entries in Strahan's ledgers concerning the complete second edition of
The Works of the English Poets, published in 1790, which, like the first edition, was produced by
several printers? Andrew Strahan, William's son, printed 1500 copies of "Vols. 25. 26. 27. 28.
29. 30." in September 1788 and "Vol. 47" in December 1789 (f. 112). To an observer unaware
of the 1790 edition, such entries might suggest a piecemeal reprinting of the first edition.

The distinction between Johnson's biographies and the poetry collection in which they first
appeared is blurred once more when St Clair records "1797. Johnson's Poets abridge" (p. 547),
implying that the collection (i.e., Johnson's Poets) was truncated into some sort of miscellany.
For this entry he cites A Bookseller of the Last Century (London, 1885), but Charles Welsh listed
"Johnson's Lives of Poets. Abridged. 1797" (p. 346).


For this item St Clair cites the Murray archive, courtesy of William Zachs, The First John
Murray and the Late Eighteenth-Century Book Trade
(Oxford, 1998), p. 296. Yet he transcribes the
datum incorrectly, substituting "1780" for the actual "1781" given by Zachs. Although a Dublin
reprint of Johnson's prefaces appeared in 1780 (the first of three eventual volumes in that set),
St Clair refers to the four-volume reprint, which could not have been published before 1781 (as
the years cited in the previous entry suggest), when Johnson completed his work.


James Moore began reprinting The Works of the English Poets in 1793, but his labor
lasted a decade, with publication spanning 1795–1802. In a reissue of the set under a false
imprint—"London: Printed for Andrew Miller, Strand"—all eight volumes bear the year 1800.


This work was no straightforward reprint of the 1779–81 collection, as seemingly indi-
cated here. It contained the same number of poets (fifty-two), but dropped Blackmore, Ambrose
Philips, Pitt, Watts, and Gilbert West from that edition, while incorporating an equal number
from among the fourteen poets added to the 1790 edition: Cawthorne, Churchill, Falconer,
Lloyd, and Moore. The publisher dramatically reduced the number of volumes involved by
printing the poetry in double columns on a larger page.


In 1810 an edition of The Works of the English Poets was indeed published, but not by this
description. Again, the edition made up of seventy-five volumes was published in 1790.


It would have been most curious for "Johnson's Poets" to be reprinted without Johnson's
prefaces, when every title-page in the collection advertises the "Prefaces, Biographical and
Critical, by Samuel Johnson." (See note 30.)


Again, it was the 1790 edition that had seventy-five volumes. The 1810 edition had


In the roster of poets from the 1790 edition the name "Dilke" turns up. Who is this
mysterious poet?


1500 or 1250? St Clair explains, "The print runs, more for the lives than for the
works, are apparently those noted for 1806 in John Nichols' ledger of purchase and disposal of
copyrights 1769–1815, CUL add. 8226." What the distinction between "lives" and "works" can
mean is unclear, given St Clair's impression that the lives were not reprinted with this collec-
tion. (See note 14.)The ledger entry at issue (p. 108) is genuinely puzzling: "Johnson's Lives and
Poets— 5/100ths produces 75 in 1500; + 18 of the Works in 1250." An annotation ("Allowed
in 1801.") in reference to the first part of this entry may point to an 1801 edition of Johnson's
Lives, two volumes of which were printed by Nichols in a run of 1500. One purpose of the entry,
then, might have been Nichols' need to update his accounts in light of having just sold a fifth
of his interest to Cadell + Davies on 4 March 1806, which left him (as he duly records) with
4/100ths. This explanation assumes the formulation "Lives and Poets" to have been loose and
inaccurate. Yet 1806 was also the year in which Nichols and other publishers brought out an
edition of Johnson's Works, volumes IX—XI of which (i.e., the Lives) Nichols printed in quantities
sufficient for the complete works and also a separate issue for sale as a stand-alone set (with new
title-pages, vols. I–III). See J. D. Fleeman, A Bibliography of the Works of Samuel Johnson, 2 vols.
(Oxford, 2000), 2: 1398–1400, 1405–7, 1661–7.


By calling such an edition "traditional," St Clair clouds the fact that such multi-
volume collections were currently taking shape for the first time. Only later could they be said
to have become traditional.


See Thomas F. Bonnell, "Patchwork and Piracy: John Bell's 'Connected System of
Biography' and the Use of johnson's Prefaces" Studies in Bibliography 48 (1995)) 193–194.


For the mistaken inference that some volumes had been sold separately by 1788, see
note 8. The "London Catalogue (1799)," cited for the datum that volumes were "sold as individual
titles" (p. 527), contains no such information. In The London Catalogue of Books, with their Sizes
and Prices
(London, 1799), the "English Poets, with Prefaces, 75 vol. 12mo" is listed at £13.2.6
(p. 52), slightly more than the £12.17.6 it commanded in 1791, according to The London Cata-
logue of Books
(London, 1791), p. 59. As for the first edition in sixty-eight volumes, it was listed for
£10.4.0 in A General Catalogue of Books (London, 1785), p. 59, a small reduction from its original
price of ten guineas (bound) in 1781. Nowhere do the catalogues hint that the collection was
available in any form less than its entirety.


What St Clair means by saying that the "first edition" of Bell's series was "out of print
by 1805" is unclear (p. 525), given his realization that many volumes (which were sold individu-
ally) required reprinting earlier on, several more than once. He draws on data from my article
"John Bell's Poets of Great Britain: The 'Little Trifling Edition' Revisited," Modern Philology 85
(1987), 128–152, and mentions my name in a footnote (p. 525), but neither cites that article here
nor includes it in his bibliography. A trace of it appears in the front matter, however, where a
shortened citation is supplied among the "Abbreviations" (p. xv).


See Bonnell, The Most Disreputable Trade: Publishing the Classics of English Poetry 1765–1810
(Oxford, 2008), p. 172.


P. M. Handover, Printing in London from 1476 to Modern Times (Cambridge, MA, 1960),
p. 148; Stanley Morison, John Bell, 1745–1831: Bookseller, Printer, Publisher, Typefounder, Journal-
ist, &c.
(London and Cambridge, 1930).


The germ of this mistake was perhaps the letter books of Kincaid and Bell, 1764–72,
in the Bodleian, listed in the bibliography (p. 725), which St Clair evidently consulted with the
wrong John Bell in mind. Kincaid's business partner in Edinburgh was a different John Bell
(1735–1806). Their partnership was dissolved (he was not "Kincaid's successor"), and he later
formed the Edinburgh firm of Bell and Bradfute. See Richard B. Sher's entry in the Oxford
Dictionary of National Biography.


Even more anomalous under the rubric of "The Edinburgh poetry canon" is the next
listing, a reprint of Bell's edition produced in London. See pp. 525–526.


In specifying the year 1778 here for Bell's series, St Clair ignores his own data in Ap-
pendix 6, where he records 1776–1782. Several such inconsistencies crop up between text and


See Bonnell, The Most Disreputable Trade, pp. 98–99, 134.


Here St Clair confuses the price of Bell's volumes, which sold for 1s.6d. (correctly
noted in Appendix 6), with that of Charles Cooke's Select British Poets.


Conflicting publication years are given for this edition in the chapter on Shakespeare,
1774 in the narrative (p. 142) and 1773/75 in Table 8.1, where the number of volumes recorded
is also incorrect.


Bonnell, "John Bell's Poets of Great Britain," 140–141.

William Thomas Lowndes Redivivus

Two (perhaps three) of the mistakes noted above—the incorrect format for the
1779–81 edition of The Works of the English Poets, and the publication year of
the Irish reprint—are traceable to The Bibliographer's Manual of English Literature,
compiled by William Thomas Lowndes in 1834, republished from 1857 through
1864 with many articles "enlarged, entirely re-written, or added by Mr. Bohn,"
and reprinted in 1869.[30] Henry G. Bohn revised the article on "Poets," quadru-


Page 251
pling the original entry of Lowndes from one to four columns, and adding a fifth
to cover collections published after 1830.[31] St Clair mined this material for Ap-
pendix 6, unaware that it was often faulty.

One big slip concerns the publisher Charles Cooke, a key player in the evolu-
tion of the canon. Figure 3 in The Reading Nation, an advertisement for Cooke's
publications, pictures a list of forty-six poets under "Select Poets" (p. 129). This
illustration, though a fine piece of evidence in itself, betrays a worrisome level
of inattention, for the list does not match the roster of Cooke's collection in
Appendix 6 (p. 528). That roster is not Cooke's, but rather Bell's, erroneously
attributed to Cooke by Bohn when expanding Lowndes.[32] St Clair's failure to
spot the mismatch is surprising not only because Bohn's list starts with "Chaucer,
14 vols. Spenser, 8 vols. Donne, 3 vols."—poets conspicuously absent from
Cooke's series—but also because he shows interest in the number of times Donne
was reprinted in the eighteenth century (p. 128) and knows full well, from having
described how Chaucer was "squeezed out" of the London trade edition (p. 126),
what level of economic investment was inherent in reprinting such a voluminous

New life is also breathed into other inaccuracies about Cooke's poetry series
copied from Lowndes: that it began in 1798, and was published in eighty parts.
It began in 1794, and continued (by my calculation) through 136 parts—data
not easily unearthed, for Cooke did not include the year of publication in his
imprints, and I have never been able to locate a complete set. St Clair cannot
be criticized for declining to enter this bibliographical labyrinth, but the same
cannot be said for his lack of curiosity about a publisher whom he calls "in many
ways the most innovative and entrepreneurial of the publishers who entered the
new competitive reprint business after 1774" (p. 131). He offers no first name
("Cooke, publisher" is the index entry), and conflates the careers of father and
son (as the old DNB did under "John Cooke"), ignoring the separate identities
assigned to John and Charles in a source he consulted, Rees and Britton.[34] Al-


Page 252
though Rees and Britton are vague about when Charles assumed control of the
business, they credit him with having "commenced a new course" with Hume's
History of England and a series of popular novels in weekly numbers. Bohn's refer-
ence to "G. A. Cooke" is a red herring, to be sure, but if St Clair was distracted
by it, he could have turned to the books themselves, all of which bear "C. Cooke"
in their imprints, or checked Ian Maxted (listed in his bibliography), who identi-
fies Charles as the publisher who "Began to publ. series of 12mo classics neatly
embellished by engravings c. 1793."[35]

Over the course of a dozen years after 1793, several strands of the overall
canonical enterprise were brought together by Cooke. St Clair is indefinite on
the dates of each venture. Figure 3 is labeled "c. 1810," but in Appendix 6 "1798
onwards" is given for the poetry (p. 528);[36] "begun late 1790s" for the novels
(p. 535); "c. 1803" for the essays (p. 538);[37] and no date for the plays (p. 538).[38]
(A fifth series mentioned in Chapter 7, the Sacred Classics, is absent from Appen-
dix 6.) The year to mark for the poetry series should have been 1794, after the
novels had been launched successfully in 1793. The correct sequence indicates
another significant "turning point": whereas Bell advanced from Shakespeare
to a drama series and then to the poets of the nation, Cooke tested the market
with novels, then moved on to the poets and the other genres. This contrast be-
tween the 1770s and 1790s—in publishers so innovative and keenly attuned to
the wants of the reading public—suggests that tastes began shifting long before
the 1830s, the decade identified by St Clair when "Poetry seemed suddenly to
have lost its long primacy as the most highly regarded literary genre and as the
form most favoured by readers" (pp. 413–414).[39]

In choosing novels for his maiden series before attempting poetry, Cooke
perhaps heeded the lesson of Joseph Wenman, a bookseller who published The
Poetical Magazine; or Parnassian Library
in the early 1780s in tandem with The
Entertaining Museum, or Complete Circulating Library.
[40] Wenman could not sustain


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The Poetical Magazine, a down-market imitation of Bell's edition at one-third the
price, or sixpence per volume, for the level of readership he had targeted; he
could not market a poetry series to them without bringing prose works into the
mix. Undoubtedly the novel gained a new respectability in the minds of aspiring
authors in the nineteenth century, as St Clair argues, but poetry did not therefore
"suddenly" lose its elite status in the 1830s. Cooke perceived that many readers in
the 1790s preferred prose to poetry; for such readers poetry had not lost its pri-
macy, but had never enjoyed it. Wenman's turnabout and the success of Cooke's
experiments, even as Bell's series and the London trade edition continued to
prosper, suggest how difficult it is to broadly characterize what the generality of
readers favor in any era.

Blind reliance on Lowndes leads to another error, slight in itself, but one that
masks how resourceful publishers could be in marketing products to a range of
buyers. St Clair declares "The Poets of Great Britain, 18mo., 124 volumes bound
as sixty two" to be merely a "reprint of Bell's Poets" (p. 526). Even the greater
clarity of NCBEL ("A reprint, with additional volumes, of Bell's Edition") pro-
vides no clue that Samuel Bagster and his co-proprietors dropped eleven of Bell's
109 volumes before adding twenty-six, but something more interesting is detected
if one examines several sets of the edition: it was sold in two forms under different
titles to accommodate readers of different means. Purchasers of double-bound
sets opened to a half-title page in each of sixty-one volumes (not sixty-two; two
were triple-bound) that read The Poets of Great Britain, in Sixty-One Double Volumes.
Customers able to afford twice as many bindings, by contrast, bought sets with
half-title pages that read The Poets of Great Britain, in One Hundred and Twenty-Four
with different volume numbers and different poets assigned to them.
St Clair notes that this collection was described in the Longman impression
books as "Johnson's British Poets"—a curious designation, given its lineal descent
from Bell's edition. The irony passes without explanation.[41]

Another inaccuracy dating back to The Bibliographer's Manual taints the entry
for "The Works of the British Poets, with Prefaces Biographical and Critical, by Rob-
ert Anderson. Edinburgh, 1793–1807" (p. 526): fourteen volumes, not thirteen,
made a full set in 1807.[42] Two additional mistakes are contributed by St Clair:
that it was produced by "a consortium of Edinburgh and Glasgow publishers/
printers," and was sold out by 1805. The assertion that Glasgow entered the
picture is baffling, when the title-pages suggest the other proprietary interest
to have been a London firm, John and Arthur Arch, who joined the Edinburgh
venture after Bell and Bradfute had taken over the project from the printers who


Page 254
originated it, Mundell and Son. And how could it be sold out by 1805 when its
publication extended to 1807? St Clair misreads a letter from Sir Walter Scott
to James Ballantyne in 1805, in which Johnson's edition is reported to be "out of
print; so is Bell's." Scott finds Anderson's edition "contemptible in execution,"
but does not say it is out of print. It was not. The full collection was available in
1805, in 1807 (augmented by the fourteenth volume), and even in 1814.[43]

By appropriating data about several poetry collections from Lowndes without
inspecting the books themselves and correcting errors, St Clair inadvertently
has provided a rule for using Appendix 6: to approach it as one would The Bib-
liographer's Manual.
Dipping into Lowndes always yields something worthwhile;
it is a marvelous source, pleasurably more scattershot than systematic, but any
datum of interest must be vetted thoroughly before it can be applied to further
scholarly pursuits.

Other slips too counsel vigilance. One name is missing from the list of poets
in The Cabinet of Poetry, for instance, and St Clair's speculation that this anthol-
ogy was "Perhaps extracted from Anderson's edition" overlooks the poets not in
Anderson (pp. 526–527).[44] Under an entry for British Classics he gratuitously
explains that the term "British" in the title "enabled Falconer and Thomson,
who were Scottish, not English, to be included" (p. 533), yet Falconer was also
included in series that were designated as "English," and Thomson figured in
them all, irrespective of their titles.

In the pages examined thus far, the goal of establishing a factual basis for
further scholarly work has eluded St Clair. My corrections surely are not the sort
of exercise he had in mind when saying that his appendices "can be added to by
anyone who chooses to do the spade-work" (p. 16). Through errors of omission
and commission he has left his readers to perform routine bibliographical checks
in sources he bypassed, like NCBEL or ESTC; to rectify conflicting titles and
publication years of works mentioned more than once; to sort out discrepancies
between various pieces of evidence; to puzzle over contradictions between his
data and claims; and to double-check his printed sources to make sure he has
not jumbled or skipped over important information. Alert readers might catch
a few such lapses, but only someone intimately conversant with the field is apt
to sense when printed sources are quoted or paraphrased inaccurately, and thus
know when to track down and clear up suspicious claims.


William Thomas Lowndes, The Bibliographer's Manual of English Literature, 4 vols. (Lon-
don: William Pickering, 1834), and William Thomas Lowndes, The Bibliographer's Manual of
English Literature,
a new edition, revised, corrected and enlarged … by Henry G. Bohn, 6 vols.
(London: Bell & Daldy; New York: Scribner, Welford, & Co., 1869). The third error possibly
related to Lowndes is the idea that a seventy-five volume edition of The Works of the English
was published "without the prefaces" (see note 14). In Lowndes' original entry for the
poetry collection, the 1779–81 and the 1790 editions were listed in tandem, each followed by
catalogue listings of specific sets with prices affixed. The pertinent portion of the entry stood
thus: "Heath, 1870, 58 vols. in 57, 10l. 10s. Hollis, 387, 77 vols. 8l 8s.—Lond. 1790 12mo.
75 vols." (1834, 3: 1472–73). Bohn eliminated several catalogue listings, but also clarified the
Heath citation to indicate that this particular set of the 1779–81 edition lacked volumes 59–68.
With Bohn's adjustments, the same portion of the entry now looked like this: "Heath, 1870,
58 vols. in 57 (i.e., without Johnson's Prefaces) 10l. 10s.—Lond. 1790 12mo. 75 vols." (1869, 4:
1897). A misreading of this close conjunction of words and figures (situated eye-catchingly at
the bottom of the column in Bohn's revision) might have led to the idea that the 1790 edition
lacked Johnson's work.


The "principal articles" contributed by Bohn are enumerated in the front matter to
The Bibliographer's Manual (1869), 1: xiv.


The Bibliographer's Manual (1869), 4: 1898.


St Clair's point would have been even stronger had he realized that the volumes in
question were small octavo, not duodecimo. In Bell's 109-volume octodecimo project, the
works of Chaucer and Spenser accounted for fourteen and eight volumes respectively, or 20%
of his capital investment.


Thomas Rees, Reminiscences of Literary London from 1779 to 1853 … with extensive ad-
ditions by John Britton, F.S.A.
(New York, 1896), pp. 26–28. St Clair quotes from this book on
pp. 131, 134, and 528. See Bonnell, "Cooke, John, and Charles Cooke," Oxford Dictionary of
National Biography,
61 vols. [Oxford, 2004], 13: 155–156.


The London Book Trades 1775–1800: A Preliminary Checklist of Members (Folkestone,
1977), p. 50.


The advertisement in Figure 3 shows the poetry series as it stood early in 1805, before
it was complete.


The advertisement leading St Clair to infer "c. 1803" for this series, unaccountably, is
found in a book that includes "inscriptions [which] show it is before 1803."


The titles of various collections of plays are listed without dates or numbers of vol-
umes. Cooke's British Theatre cannot be called "one of the first" when Bell's British Theatre (not
to mention the New English Theatre or Joseph Wenman's series, neither noted by St Clair) ante-
dated it perhaps by forty years. Indeed, Cooke's collection was possibly a reissue of Bell's series
with newly commissioned copperplates. The scenes depicted in Cooke's Illustrations to the British
(n.d.; engravings dated 1816–21) are all from plays included in the 1790s expansion of
Bell's original late-1770s production. Given that Charles Cooke died in 1816, the fact that these
plates were "Printed for C. Cooke" complicates the puzzle.


Critical regard and popular favor, of course, are not the same thing. The word "sud-
denly" in this context—like "soon" and "quickly" in the passags discussed above—is mislead-
ing and overly dramatic.


St Clair lists these publications on pp. 527 and 535, respectively, without naming
Wenman in relation to either, and perhaps without recognizing the connection between them.
For information on The Poetical Magazine he gives a mongrel citation ("Bonnell, 'Bookselling'
151"), which joins the correct page number from one of my articles (the one absent from his
bibliography; see note 20) to the title of a different article. Wenman is discussed by name in
the article.


Bagster's collection actually contained Johnson's prefaces, a fact that heightens rather
than lessens the irony, and makes it even more inappropriate for this entry to fall under the
rubric of "The Edinburgh poetry canon." (See note 24.) This edition of the Lives has hitherto
escaped detection, and is not recorded in A Bibliography of the Works of Samuel Johnson.


Thirteen volumes constituted a complete set in 1795, but a fourteenth volume was
added in 1807—information available in the NCBEL.


Thomas Constable, Archibald Constable and his Literary Correspondents: A Memorial, 3 vols.
(Edinburgh, 1873), 1:176 The New London Catalogue of Books, Sizes and Prices (1805), p. 4; The
New London Catalogue of Books, with Their Sizes and Prices
(1807), p. 4; and The London Catalogue of
Books, with Their Sizes and Prices
(1814), p. 21.


In so far as it goes his speculation is accurate, for the editor drew on the prefaces from
Anderson's collection. But the fact that poets besides those in Anderson were also included
points to a wider context for The Cabinet of Poetry.

The "Old Canon"—How Sudden and How Rigid?

While the case of Donaldson v. Becket was undeniably historic, its consequences
should not be overstated. This copyright ruling in the House of Lords in 1774
did not open the way to publishing a canon of English literature. Material expres-


Page 255
sions of a literary canon were brought about by social and economic forces, in
combination with intellectual ferment in various quarters. What the legal deci-
sion did was to facilitate the process; it set the stage for accelerated growth in the
production and distribution of canonical series of every description.

Narrowly focusing on London, St Clair states that deference to the notion of
perpetual copyright "prevented formal canonizing, the publication of the works
of authors in a uniform series of 'English Poets.' Before 1774, a proposal to pub-
lish such a series, from, say Chaucer to Thomson, would have involved research
among the records of the Stationers' Company, publishers' wills, and the book
trade's closed sales catalogues." But then we are told that, because the Scots
operated under the 1710 copyright act "long before 1774, it is not surprising that
the first formal canons of the classics of the English language should have been
produced not in England but in Scotland" (p. 123). So formal canonizing did
occur before 1774, just not in London. Often, though, St Clair disregards this
crucial qualification and resorts to absolute language, as in characterizing the old
canon as "a direct result of the legal judgement of 1774, and only made possible
by 1774" (p. 132). Since such categorical statements are frequent, my point too
bears repetition: the decision in Donaldson v. Becket, while furthering the formation
of literary canons through multi-volume series by ushering such commerce into
the heart of British publishing, did not bring about this type of publication in the
first place. Other causes must be sought to account for it.[45]

Other effects attributed to the legal decision are similarly overstated: "One
of the most far-reaching consequences of 1774 was to allow a revival of the types
of printed text which had been discouraged after 1600 … above all, antholo-
gies" (p. 135); and "The decision of 1774 also made possible a new generation of
textbooks and school books … which drew on, anthologized, and abridged the
out-of-copyright authors" (p. 137). A few counter-examples will suffice to suggest
that these claims are shaky.

As for the revival of the anthology as a kind of printed text after 1774, the
NCBEL tells a different story. Thousands of anthologies and miscellanies, printed
all through the eighteenth century, demonstrate that the "huge spate of antholo-
gies … which draw on the old-canon texts" after 1774 (p. 495) was preceded by
a huge spate before 1774. Their character did not instantly change: many printed
before 1774 drew on old-canon texts; many after 1774 continued to be topical
or occasional (as opposed to canonical). James Elphinston's A Collection of Poems,
from the Best Authors
(1764), for instance, contained works by Dryden, Pope, Swift,
Addison, Prior, Gray, and others; The Beauties of English Poesy. Selected by Oliver
(1767) included Milton, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Shenstone, and
others. Differences of degree more than differences of kind characterize the an-
thologies printed before and after 1774. The findings of Michael Suarez and


Page 256
Barbara Benedict on eighteenth-century anthologies would have brought nuance
to the argument at this juncture.[46] The border dividing the literate nation from
the reading nation was dissolving, but it happened over a longer stretch of time
than St Clair suggests. A "long frozen culture … within which the reading poor
had been constricted since the early seventeenth century" did not thaw in an
instant after 1774, nor were most readers all that while "restricted to an ancient
chapbook with a few pages and a crude woodcut," or "a copy of some anciently
written, but recently reprinted, book of advice on religious practice and moral
conduct, and an anthology or two of old-canon verse" (pp. 138–139). This be-
fore-and-after scenario is too starkly drawn.

Likewise, the argument that a fresh breed of educational text was newly
"made possible" is overly emphatic: "Quite suddenly, in the course of a few years
from about 1780, English literature became the principal source of texts for Eng-
lish education …. Children were now offered substantial passages from famous
English authors" (p. 137). The force of this generalization, stressing suddenness,
is blunted by evidence like Elphinston's text, specifically "Adopted to every age,
but peculiarly designed to form the Taste of Youth," or John Entick's New Spelling
(1765), a "Complete Pocket Companion / For those / That read Mil-
ton, Pope, Addison, Shakespear, Tillotson and Locke, or other English Authors
of Repute in Prose or Verse." Movement toward a curriculum based on readings
of classic English authors (embodied in the first of these texts, complemented in
the second) had thus begun before Donaldson v. Becket was decided, and therefore,
like formal canonizing, cannot be ascribed to that cause categorically. Did the
trend accelerate? Perhaps, but it was already under way.

Of pivotal concern to St Clair is the "astonishing conservatism" (p. 130)
of the poetry canon from the late eighteenth century into the early Victorian
era. The old canon, he states, was "the first … to be made widely and cheaply
available, the most stable, the most frequently reprinted, and the longest lived"
(p. 128). While a new canon began to arise in the 1850s, published by Gall and In-
glis (1853–1890s), then Roudedge (beginning in the late 1850s), and later Warne
(1865 onward) (pp. 715–717), the "old canon of the British poets finally came to an
end" only with the "The Classic Poets, a series launched in 1870 by Robert Bell …
at the time when the poets of the romantic period were at last all coming out
of copyright."[47] Having established this criterion for the emergence of a new
canon—the lapse of copyright for all the romantic poets—St Clair asserts that
the old canon "had lasted more than a hundred years" (p. 128).

The old canon, as defined by St Clair, "began with Chaucer and ended with
Cowper. In some old-canon lists there are more than fifty authors, in others a


Page 257
dozen or less, but the core was nearly always the same. It consisted, alphabeti-
cally, of Samuel Butler, some works of Chaucer, Collins, Cowper, Dryden, Fal-
coner, Gay, Goldsmith, Gray, Milton, Pope, Shakespeare, Spenser, Thomson,
and Young" (p. 128). Was this true in 1798? 1837? It is hard to see how St Clair's
roster can be of much use to historians without knowing how it was derived. To
frame hypotheses worth testing, a sounder factual basis is needed: first, more
precise reference points within the hundred-year span; second, a more definite
focus on the types of publication in question; and third, more accurate lists of
the poets.

For instance, supposing St Clair's list to describe anthologies circa 1810, one
might ask how they differed from their formal counterparts, the multi-volume
collections. As a measure of such collections, his roster is woefully inaccurate,
omitting nearly half of the core canon then current, for eleven additional poets—
Addison, Akenside, Denham, Garth, Hammond, Lyttelton, Parnell, Prior, Shen-
stone, Swift, and Waller—had appeared (or were advertised to appear) in at
least twelve of the thirteen full-dress poetry collections published through 1810.
Alternatively, supposing his roster to reflect the situation circa 1830, then it un-
derscores a major erosion of the canon after Chalmers' edition in 1810, flatly
disproving the claim that it was "locked in." Seemingly arbitrary, St Clair's defi-
nition of the "core" of the old canon is inadequate to characterize one hundred
years of poetry publication in Britain, or to support specific conclusions about
reading at any point within that expanse of time. The macro level of book history
falters if not grounded in micro-level specifics.

Judging by his evidence, however, the canon was not static. True, the arti-
ficial constraint of his fifteen-poet list enables St Clair to claim that the canon
"contained no Gower, no Marlowe, nor any of the other contemporaries of
Shakespeare, no Drayton, no Herrick, no Lovelace, no Marvell, no Herbert, and
no women writers"; later, however, he names Gower and Drayton explicitly as
being included in Chalmers' edition. He sets up another contradiction in stating
that "the poets of the 1790s such as William Hayley and Charlotte Smith did not
join the canon even when their works fell out of copyright," only to record their
entry into the canon in 1825, along with Hannah More, Henry Kirke White, and
Byron's Select Works, as sanctioned by Jones's Cabinet University Edition of the British
(pp. 128, 533–534). The presence of Smith and More here also belies the
total exclusion of women. Evidence at variance with St Clair's argument can be
found in other collections too. William Suttaby and Charles Corrall advertised
The Poetical Works of Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe in a series alongside Shenstone, Milton,
Young, Thomson, Pope, Gray, Somerville, Falconer, Goldsmith, and others.[48]
Dove's English Classics featured poems by Byron and the works of Lady Mary
Wortley Montagu.[49] William Mavor and Samuel Jackson Pratt proudly intro-


Page 258
duced pieces "from the works of several modern poets of deserved eminence"
in the 1820 edition of their Classical English Poetry for the Use of Schools, and Young
Persons in General,
among them Coleridge, Southey, Bowles, Thomas Campbell,
Sir Walter Scott, Hannah More, and Mrs. Barbauld. Similarly eager to showcase
up-to-date extracts, the editor of The Beauties of the Poets of Great Britain, Carefully
Selected from the Works of the Best Authors
(3 vols., London, 1826) reprinted verses
by Wordsworth, Southey, Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Kirke White, and Thomas
Moore, along with Mrs. Thrale, Mrs. Robinson, Mrs. Opie and others.[50]

More elastic and less ossified than St Clair would have it, the canon thus
kept evolving in the first half of the nineteenth century. By the second half of the
century a bifurcation was evident. The Edinburgh publisher William P. Nimmo,
cited by St Clair, offers a fascinating case in point. Working on two fronts around
1869, he issued Editions of the Poets, a "Mid and late Victorian" collection con-
taining the romantic poets (p. 715), meanwhile selling a 48-volume Large Print
Unabridged Library Edition of the British Poets from Chaucer to Cowper
(p. 548).[51] In
the first of these, characterized also as "Nimmo's Popular Edition of the Works of
the Poets," Longfellow, Scott, Byron, Moore, and Wordsworth joined the ranks
of Cowper, Milton, Thomson, Beattie, Goldsmith, Pope, and Burns. In the other
enterprise, supposedly restricted to the old canon, Nimmo filled six of forty-eight
volumes with the poetry of William Lisle Bowles, Sir Walter Scott, Henry Kirke
White, and James Grahame, violating the advertised limits of the series.[52] By con-
trast, there was no tampering with the poetic boundaries defined by "Chaucer to
Cowper" when Minor English Poets 1660–1780 A Selection from Alexander Chalmers'
"The English Poets" [1810]
was reprinted a century later.[53] Generations have gone
back to Alexander Chalmers, and Robert Anderson remained "well known to
the public as the editor and biographer of the British Poets" for over fifty years,
because what those editors did was never done again.[54]


Page 259

The point is not that the poets from Chaucer to Cowper were never again
reprinted so comprehensively, which is obvious, but that publishers never again
reprinted the poets of a preceding era so thoroughly. Victorian publishers canon-
ized the Romantic poets in staggering print runs (in the tens of thousands), but
without the same breadth of coverage. "Of the 2,000 or 3,000 or so poets who had
tried their art and their luck during the age of Scott and Byron," St Clair observes,
"only about twenty or thirty were ever later reprinted in Great Britain" (p. 305).
Thus, even after the works of the Romantic poets were in the public domain, the
"new" canons of Nimmo, or Routledge, or Gall and Inglis, were altogether differ-
ent from the enormously capacious collections that Anderson and Chalmers were
spurred to form. Nimmo freely reprinted Byron, Wordsworth, and Moore in one
collection, but not the other. In the end, any resilience enjoyed by the old canon
hinged less on the closing of "brief copyright windows" in 1808 and 1842 (pp. 127,
414) than on a loss of faith in the need for—and profitability of—a canon of that
tremendous scope. In this respect the new canon was indeed wholly new.

How readily the ideological bias of the old canon can be characterized is
also open to debate. Anthologies of old-canon English literature, St Clair holds,
"steep[ed] British children of the post-Enlightenment urban and industrialized
nineteenth century in the pre-Enlightenment rural religious culture as it had
been imagined and celebrated by writers of the previous century" (p. 137). While
not "a fully coherent body of texts," old-canon poetry, novels, essays, and con-
duct literature "shared many common features." The poets specifically wrote
on "love of God, moral lessons, family love and affection, elegies for the dead";
they celebrated the values of a pre-industrial society; and "the poetry of the three
favorites, Young, Thomson, and Cowper" both "implied and proclaimed" that
God's benevolence "is proved by the design of the natural world." Poetry that
praised Nature, God, and the rhythms of rural life in this manner was felt to
inspire "awe, wonder, a sense of the sublime, and—therefore according to the
theory of natural religion—a sense of piety" (p. 133). Publishers of "old-canon
lists," by this account, "not only ignored the discoveries of the Enlightenment,
but offered Counter-Enlightenment to readers who knew nothing of the Enlight-
enment" (p. 134).

The tenuousness of such blanket reasoning is suggested by the example of
William Hone, the radical bookseller quoted by St Clair:

when Cooke's Poets commenced, I bought the poems of Thompson and Goldsmith ….
They were the first poems I read and I derived from them lasting benefit. The simplicity
and tenderness of "The Deserted Village" and "The Traveller," and the just descriptions
and noble sentiments of the "Seasons" refined and elevated my mind. I saw nature with
a new-born sight; in its quiet scenery I felt emotions of peaceful delight unknown to me
before—my affections went forth to every living thing; my heart expanded with raptur-
ous joy. (p. 529)
The lasting benefit of Hone's empathic expansion of heart expressed itself not in
piety but in political satires, even "a parody of the biblical ten commandments"
(p. 676). Neither religious awe nor reverence for nature is tied irrevocably to a
single ideology. Love of God can lead to civil rights as well as to witch-hunts; the
Bible has been used to defend slavery and to abolish it.


Page 260

Why, on the question of ideological selectivity, does the old canon core of
fifteen poets shrink from fifteen to "the three favorites"? This is convenient, for
Milton (ally to the regicides), Dryden, Pope, Swift, Prior, and Gay can hardly be
seen as furthering a sense of rural religious quietism. If the ultimate purpose of a
political economy of reading is to assess mentalities and learn "why as societies,
we have come to think the way we do," the indeterminacy of the consequences
of reading Thomson should give us pause.[55]

Even supposing publishers and editors to have been enamored of a backward-
leaning ideology, "old-canon lists" per se would not have been very useful to them.
A case in point is provided by the Reverend John Adams, whose anthology, The
English Parnassus
(1789), has a lengthy subtitle: "Being a new selection of didactic,
descriptive, pathetic, plaintive, and pastoral poetry, extracted from the works
of the latest and most celebrated poets." Seeming to exemplify the rearguard
tendencies described by St Clair, Adams emphasizes the morally instructive, the
descriptive, and the rural; he includes Young, Thomson, and Cowper; and his
avowed intention with each "extract" is "either to improve the taste of the young
Reader, or to inspire sentiments of wisdom, virtue, and benevolence." Yet the
anthology contains a host of other poets—more new than old, with five women.[56]
Thus, depending on how one interprets Adams's design, his anthology unsettles
St Clair's argument in one of two ways: an editor who wanted to advance piety
needed either to ignore the traditional canon, since so much of it was ill suited
to that end, or to let in other voices that better served the desired ideology (in
the name of "the latest and most celebrated poets"), thereby altering the canon
beyond recognition.

Working toward a political economy of reading is a worthy endeavor, one
that indeed requires many contributing hands. But such work is apt to wander
astray when the actual, physical reading materials have not been inspected. The
history of reading is indissolubly connected with book history, and neither can
proceed without a solid grounding in bibliographical specifics.

To get at those specifics, one must scrutinize not only multiple copies of the
books themselves, but also newspapers, handbills, and any records left behind
by the publishers: ledgers, receipts, correspondence, journals, and so forth. Hav-
ing labored for a while in this vineyard, I can attest to the sometimes cryptic
nature of isolated evidence—archival, bibliographical, or other—and the need
to consult various sources. A closing mea culpa shows why. Writing about The
British Poets
(Edinburgh, 1773–76), I was deceived by the imprint in thirty (of
forty-four) volumes: "Printed for A. Kincaid and W. Creech, and J. Balfour." I
knew from reading the letters of William Creech that he and John Balfour were


Page 261
the moving spirits behind the project, and that Strahan had urged Kincaid not
to involve himself; but, based on the imprint (which advertised the partnership
between Kincaid and Creech), I concluded that Kincaid had joined in publishing
the series. I was wrong. Kincaid had no financial stake in it, as I learned later by
delving into a different archive; he merely allowed Creech, a newcomer to the
trade, to continue using his well-established name in the imprint.[57]

No one is more keenly aware of the importance of such archival sources than
St Clair. His reminder that "the history of books is the history of an industry"
(p. 445) underscores the relevance of economic analysis to the field, and places
a premium on a "cumulative, accurate database of actual recorded costs, prices,
print runs, method of manufacture, and sales of books, including imports, re-
prints, adaptations, and abridgements" (p. 444). Rather than to refer his "read-
ers back unassisted, to the scattered sources," St Clair loaded up his appendices
with "quantified factual information on all the main genres of printed texts …
of a comprehensiveness never previously attempted" (p. 16). Given the span of
time he covers in The Reading Nation, and the range of genres addressed, his reach
was bound to exceed his grasp. On the topic of the old canon, his readers must
revisit the scattered sources after all, armed with better knowledge of the books
in question.

The current field of book history, St Clair believes, "tends to centre round
the material artefact, rather than treating the recovery of the history of books
as a first step towards recovering reading, itself a step in trying to improve our
understanding of communication, cultural formation, and the construction of
mentalities" (p. 444). Both the linear metaphor and the stated telos of book his-
tory, as characterized here, can be debated. Yet the material artifact is so deeply
implicated in any "further" conclusions that might be drawn from it—as a vivid,
concrete expression of a mentality, for instance, designed by a publisher to gratify
the needs or appetites of particular readers—that at some point in the process,
a close look at it is essential.


Page 262

St Glair uses the refrain "After 1774 the book became cheap and plentiful" (or similar phrasing) often in Appendix 1, at times indiscriminately. Its application to Johnson's Rasselas (p. 472) is suspect because that title was eligible for copyright protection through 1786. Or again, the explanation 'Benefited from the brief copyright window and became cheap and plentiful' is misleading in connection with a 1791 edition of Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling (p. 473), which, first published in 1771, was protected through 1798, whether the copyright was held by Mackenzie, who died in 1831, or his assigns.


Michael F. Suarez, S.J., "The Production and Consumption of the Eighteenth-Century
Poetic Miscellany," in Books and their Readers in Eighteenth-Century England: New Essays, ed. Isabel
Rivers (London and New York, 2001); and Barbara Benedict, Making the Modern Reader: Cultural
Mediation in Early Modem Literary Anthologies
(Princeton, 1996).


After calling it The Classic Poets here, he refers to die collection in Appendix 6 as Bell's
English Poets
/ Begun 1870 … / Discontinued" (p. 549). Might this be Robert Bell's Annotated
Edition of the English Poets
(29 vols., 1854–57), as cited by Bohn (also noting that it was "Discon-
tinued") in The Bibliographer's Manual (1869; p. 1900) and by Robert Crawford in The Modern
Poet: Poetry, Academia, and Knowledge Since the 1750s
(Oxford, 2001; p. 85)?


The poets are listed in this order in an advertisement at the back of The Poetical Works
of William Shenstone
(London, 1804), with Rowe herself following Pope. Suttaby's offerings later
grew into his "Miniature Library," by which time Mrs. Rowe's poetical works had been joined
by Hester Chapone's letters (The History of Sir Charles Grandison in a Series of Letters, 7 vols.
[London, 1812], 7: sig. EE6).


A mixed-genre series, it also included works by Frances Burney, Elizabeth Inchbald,
Clara Reeves, Hester Chapone, Mrs. Newel, and Mrs. Piozzi ("Dove's English Classics,"
advertisement on the back cover of Gay's Fables and Other Poems. Cotton's Visions in Verse. Moore's
Fables for the Female Sex
[London, 1826] in boards). St Clair provides ample evidence of women
authors in the canon, but usually in other genres; his claim that there were no women pertains
to the poetical canon.


An earlier edition of this anthology was published in 1821.


St Clair's information about the Large Print edition comes from a dated advertisement
(1869) in The Poetical Works of Byron (n.d.); the data on Editions of the Poets comes from the same
edition of Byron, plus Thomson (n.d.) and Books and Authors (n.d.).


"Nimmo's Library Edition of Standard Works," a twenty-page advertisement bound
in with The Autobiography of Flora M'Donald, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1870). According to Richard D.
Altick, Nimmo made a practice of buying up odds and ends and publishing this stock in so
many combinations that it would be "an almost hopeless task to disentangle and properly label
the various series of reprints" sold under his name. The "Library Edition of the British Poets,"
he asserts, was a repackaging of George Gilfillan's series ("From Aldine to Everyman: Cheap
Reprint Series of the English Classics 1830–1906," Studies in Bibliography 11 [1958], 14).


Selected from Chalmers' twenty-one volumes by David P. French, this collection itself
ran to ten volumes, published by Benjamin Blom in New York in 1967.


Chalmers' edition could still be purchased at mid-century; see The London Catalogue of
Books Published in Great Britain
(London, 1846), p. 61. The remark about Anderson comes from
John Bowyer Nichols, Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century, 8 vols. (London,
1817–58), 7: 69.


"Attempts to equate literary texts with ideology have also proved unfruitful," St Clair
later observes with more circumspection, quoting Raymond Williams' characterization of such
attempts as "banging one inadequate category against another" (p. 439).


"Advertisement," The English Parnassus (London, 1789), sig. A3. On the title page are
listed "Dr. Beattie, Dr. Johnson, Dr. Hawksworth, Dr. Ogilvie, Dr. Young, Mrs. Barbauld, Miss
Falconar [actually two sisters: Maria and Harriet], Miss Moore, Miss Carter, Hon. C. Fox,
Churchill, Cowper, Hayley, Warton, Fitzgerald, Burns, Pratt, Jerningham, Pope, Thomson,
Philips, Blair, &c. &c." Among the other poets is Ann Yearsley.


Although wrong about Kincaid's involvement, I established that Creech and Balfour
were in charge of the series (Bonnell, "Bookselling and Canon-Making: The Trade Rivalry over
the English Poets, 1776–1783," Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 19 [1989], 55–56). St Clair
credits Kincaid with having planned the project (p. 124).

Another deceptive element of the imprints is the year of publication in every volume (1773)
except the final one (1776). By combing through notices in the Edinburgh newspapers, one
learns that publication of the books lagged into 1774 and 1775.


I am grateful to Michael F. Suarez, S.J., and Terry Belanger for reading earlier drafts of
this essay.


"But what did we actually read?" Times Literary Supplement, 12 May 2006, p. 15.