University of Virginia Library

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-


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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


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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


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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-


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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]


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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.


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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


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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.


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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.