The Making of the English Literary Canon: From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century

By Trevor Ross | Go to book overview

Introduction

I begin by comparing two images of English poets. The first is a frontispiece that appeared before two collections of John Skelton's verse from the late 1520s, Agaynste a Comely Coystrowne and Dyvers Balettys and Dyties Solacyous. The woodcut offers no reliable sense of the poet's physical features, nor is it the first pictorial representation of an English poet the likenesses of Chaucer in the Troilus frontispiece, and in Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes (c. 1412), are likely the earliest such portraits. The Skelton frontispiece is nonetheless remarkable, since it is the first to honour an English poet with the classical symbols of the poetic profession: "Skelton" wears a laurel crown, holds before him an open book and what appears to be another book or a pen, and is seated at a large cathedra structure, in the manner of Virgil and other subjects of early literary portraiture. 1 Such symbolism would have pleased the original Skelton, who was widely recognized in his lifetime and after as "poet laureate." As the accompanying Latin caption taken from the poet's earlier Garlande of Laurell (1523) announces, "all species of trees yield to the laurel."

My second image bears many of these same conventional symbols, but the story it tells seems more modern for the image is the now familiar one of a young author working in the humbling presence of his canonical fathers. The ephebe in this case is Christopher Smart, as he is depicted in the frontispiece to his short-lived periodical miscellany The Universal Visiter, and Memorialist (1756). 2 Smart is shown seated at a writing desk, at work on the next issue of his paper. He is gazing up at a row of five busts, raised on a mantel and surrounded

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