English departments have long offered courses on the Romantic poets which featured Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats: the great originals of the time, only one of them a fashionable writer. A cultural approach may now add Hemans, Southey, and a number of others felt to be interesting as they reveal the conditions of contemporary success: one reads them to understand the taste of the age at its best, its worst, and its most typical. For the past several years, I have taught a lecture course on "The Literature of Romanticism" with a more confused design than either of these. I ask students to read the poets from Blake to Keats; but we begin with Burke Reflections and Paine Rights of Man; we end with Scott Heart of Mid-Lothian; in the middle we read, for counterpoint, and for a possible harmony with each other Pride and Prejudice and the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The idea is to place the writers who seem, in a broad sense, conservative--Burke, Austen, Scott--in dialogue with exemplars of the radical spirit of the age and to suggest that certain anxieties and certain interests were shared by all. To complicate the picture, we turn, in the middle of Shelley, to read Mary Shelley Frankenstein as an anti-Promethean tract, a criticism of Alastor that seems to have prompted the extraordinary self-revision that is Prometheus Unbound. The aim is to show that "the personal is political," in a way not intended by the coiners of that slogan. An observation by a well-situated friend, critic, and novelist, regarding the influence of a moral imagination, might dispose a great poet to change his faith from an ethic of solitude and revenge to an ethic of solidarity and reform, accompanied by a more than Christian appeal to forgiveness. The power of Romantic writing and the permanence of the questions it returns to us are such that a change like this can always seem a vivid possibility. Or so the anecdote of Mary Shelley's effects on Percy Bysshe Shelley is meant to suggest.
To characterize the period 1789-1832 as Romantic is merely to accept a convention. It is a useful convention, I think, for scholarship as well as teaching,