"The Order of Time": Nationalism and Literary Anthologies, 1774-1831

By Wright, Julia M. | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

"The Order of Time": Nationalism and Literary Anthologies, 1774-1831


Wright, Julia M., Papers on Language & Literature


In Jerusalem, William Blake declares, "Nations are Destroy'd, or Flourish, in proportion as Their Poetry Painting and Music, are Destroy'd or Flourish!" (plate 3). Blake, in his own inimitable way, is articulating one of the fundamental precepts of the nationalism that emerged in Europe in the late eighteenth century, namely that culture is the tie that binds a nation together into a coherent, populist entity. But, in the early decades of its formulation, such a nationalism could not be widely activated unless the presumed national culture was circulated among the groups which it was supposed to embrace in order for them to recognize their involvement. Therefore, in a period when the literacy rate was rapidly rising, and the agitation for a wider franchise rose with it, there was a high-stakes competition for a newly significant political market--the middle and lower classes. Radical organizations throughout the British Isles thus, as part of their political programs, worked to further increase literacy rates and produce politicized literature that was discursively and economically accessible to the laboring classes.(1) From the other side of the political spectrum, Richard Lovell Edgeworth writes, in the Preface to Maria Edgeworth's Popular Tales,

Burke supposes that there are eighty thousand readers in Great Britain, nearly one hundredth part of its inhabitants! Out of these we may calculate that ten thousand are nobility, clergy, or gentlemen of the learned professions. Of seventy thousand readers which remain, there are many who might be amused and instructed by books which were not professedly adapted to the classes that have been enumerated. With this view the following volumes have been composed. (v-vi)

Whether a newspaper with satirical ballads set to popular tunes, or an affordable volume filled with morally edifying tales on the value of obedience and self-discipline, publications directed towards these "seventy thousand readers" were implicated in the nationalist project of "social regeneration through education" where, as Anthony D. Smith argues, "Such education is closely linked to the elevation of culture as the source of politics" (83). Cultural education, particularly literary education, was to interpellate, in the Althusserian sense, these newly literate and increasingly politicized classes into one of these competing visions of the nation.(2) In the midst of this educational project, a new kind of anthology began to appear in England--an anthology that claimed to comprehensively represent the national poetry. While many of these anthologies were prohibitively expensive and extensive, some set aside the need for the appearance of completeness by using selections as exempla in a national narrative that presumed coherence and steady progress. In affordable formats, with well-known editors to increase their authority and attractiveness,(3) the new anthologies circulated particular views of the nation to Edgeworth's "seventy thousand readers."

The national models implicit in these anthologies are revealed not only in the literary canons they developed or assumed, but in their arrangement, and it is their ordering and presentation of this literary material that is my focus here.(4) Instead of offering selections of verse based on genre, school, or subject, as their predecessors had, poets and scholars produced anthologies in which verse from a number of centuries was arranged in rigorously historical sequence.(5) Emphasizing the nation's unique cultural evolution, they represented Chaucer as the father of English poetry rather than a medieval poet with connections to a larger European tradition, and Surrey as the progenitor of the English sonnet rather than a follower of Petrarch and a fellow of Wyatt. This linear, progressive narrative model informs whig history as expressed, for instance, by Edmund Burke:

By a constitutional policy, working after the pattern of nature, we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and our privileges, in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives. …

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