Richard Herne Shepherd (1840–95)

Shepherd compiled the first professional bibliography of Ruskin, Bibliography of Ruskin (1878–81). He was among the early “far‐sighted professionals” who, in John Carterʼs estimation, helped steer the trend in Collecting of Modern Authors in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, since he compiled many of the first important bibliographies of these writers for collectors (Carter, Taste and Technique in Book‐Collecting, 23; see also Sadleir, “Development of Bibliographical Study”, 149). In addition to the Ruskin bibliography, Shepherd compiled bibliographies of several other modern authors: Dickens (1880), Thackeray (1881), Carlyle (1881), Swinburne (1887), Tennyson (1896), and Coleridge (1900), the last two published posthumously. Although little more than handlists, rather than descriptive or analytical bibliographies in a present‐day sense, Shepherdʼs publications aspired to exhaustiveness, and his thoroughness led him to uncover early writing by Ruskin and others that was then little known.
In addition to ferreting out modern authorsʼ early work for bibliographical description, Shepherd edited a wide range of juvenilia and youthful writing for publication. In 1866 and 1879 (2d ed.), he published Tennysoniana, which combines biographical narrative with extensive quotation in support of studying “‘the growth of a Poetʼs mind’” (Shepherd, Tennysoniana, v). Justifying the volume as preserving “materials for such a study,” materials that might otherwise be allowed to “perish,” Shepherd threads together commentary with liberal quotation from Tennysonʼs published early poetry, starting with Poems by Two Brothers (1827) and the Cambridge prize poem (1829), and continuing with poetry associated with the death of Arthur Hallam and with later poetry. In 1870 and again in 1875, Shepherd printed Tennysonʼsʼs early The Loverʼs Tale, which the poet had suppressed. In 1872 (new ed., 1878), he reconstructed Charles and Mary Lambʼs Poetry for Children, and, in 1878, The Earlier Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In the latter, Shepherd typographically reproduced Barrettʼs girlhood volume, An Essay on Mind with Other Poems (1826), and he filled out the reprint with the miscellaneous poems found in Barrettʼs Prometheus Bound volume of 1833.(Shepherd believed that An Essay on Mind was Barrettʼs earliest published volume, whereas it was in fact preceded in 1820 by The Battle of Marathon. Shepherd was correct, however, that the next volume to appear after An Essay on Mind was Prometheus Bound . . . and Miscellaneous Poems.) Also in 1878, Shepherd collected The Early Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and he included Mooreʼs juvenilia, along with a number of later fugitive pieces in Prose and Verse . . . by Thomas Moore. In 1887 came Thackerayʼs turn, with recovery of Sultan Stork and other early sketches, which Shepherdʼs included in a republication of his bibliography of the novelist.
In Shepherdʼs facsimile editions of modern authorsʼ works, the contents are dominated by juvenilia and youthful writing, doubtless owing in part to the appeal that the rarity of such items posed to collectors, and the opportunity that these scarce items afforded to a publishing market eager to serve collectors (see Collecting of Modern Authors in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries). The publisher of Shepherdʼs Lamb, Longfellow, and Blake editions, Basil Montagu, was among the first to cater to this collecting interest, listing first editions of Tennyson for sale as early as 1870 (Carter, Taste and Technique in Book‐Collecting, 22). Living authors were often indignant to find their earlier work resusitated, and both Tennyson and Robert Browning contested Shepherdʼs publications as piracies. Tennyson, who in 1862 had already sued a bookseller, J. C. Hotten, for sale of a piracy, Poems, 1830–1833, compiled by James Dykes Campbell (1838–95) (Sinclair, “First Pirated Edition of Tennysonʼs Poems”), was irritated by Shepherdʼs Tennysoniana and in 1866 complained to the publisher, Basil Montagu that its publication was “against my desire,” having an “infinite dislike to the sort of book about anyone”; and he accused the bookʼs scholarship of inaccuracy (letter of 14 May 1866, in Tennyson, Letters, 2: 436). Later, Tennyson drew the line when he learned that Shepherd had printed a transcript of the Laureateʼs early poem, The Loverʼs Tale (composed 1827–28), in 1870 and again in 1875. In 1875–76, the poet adopted legal proceedings and won an injunction against Shepherdʼs pirating activities connected with the Tale and some other poems, although, on learning that Shepherd was poor, Tennyson himself paid the court costs with which the defendant was charged (Paden, “Tennysonʼs The Loverʼs Tale , Shepherd, and Wise,”, 119–24; as a legitimate publication, the text existed only as a scarce 1833 pamphlet, originally printed by the poet at his own expense and for private circulation only, Tennyson having decided to remove the poem from the manuscript of his 1832 Poems published by Edward Moxon [ibid., pp. 112–13]).
While Shepherd admitted his guilt and full responsibility for the Tennyson piracy, the episode points to a larger issue respecting the extent of writersʼ authority to control access to texts and their varying states versus collectorsʼ desires to possess and study scarce publications, authorized or otherwise. In Tennysonʼs case, his objections appear to have extended beyond a legitimate concern to protect an unpublished (if printed) poem to a belief that authorial control was absolute, that an authorʼs revision or suppression of a work obviated the publicʼs right to curiosity about previous states of that work. Even scholarly examination of his influences provoked the poetʼs scorn and anxiety, as when he famously demeaned John Churton Collins (1848–1908) as a “Louse upon the Locks of Literature” for having published such scholarship (Thwaite, Edmund Gosse, 295–97; Collinsʼs also compiled an edition of Tennysonʼs revised and suppressed early poems, Collins, Early Poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson). Despite this intimidating reaction, Shepherd remained undaunted in supplying “materials for . . . study” of “‘the growth of a Poetʼs mind’”, a purpose that, he declared, trumps both popular opinion of the value of such materials and authors’ authority over their dissemination (when there is no legal obstacle in copyright): “A poet himself, or the relations of a poet, may not . . . always be the best or the final judges of what should continue to hold a place in the collection of his writings”. Even if the literary value of a given early work seems doubtful, “the study of [a poetʼs] mind and work should be left to the scholar to decide, not to the poet” (“Mrs. Browningʼs Earlier Poems”, 722).
With these latter, defiant remarks, Shepherd renewed his cause in the face of opposition by Robert Browning. In 1876, only months after Tennyson won his suit against Shepherd for pirating The Loverʼs Tale, Browning appealed to the editors of the Athenaeum to take his part by opposing the announced publication of another of Shepherdʼs reprints, The Earlier Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1826–1833. (Browningʼs grudge, besides being driven by the hostility, which he shared with Tennyson, to what poets deemed to be piracies of their work, may have been intensified by Browningʼs chagrin that it was his copy of the original 1833 pamphlet of The Loverʼs Tale that was sold in 1870 to Shepherdʼs publisher, B. M. Pickering, thereby supplying the copytext for the piracy [Paden, “Tennysonʼs The Loverʼs Tale, Shepherd, and Wise,”, 113]. Paden does not mention whether Browning was aware of this connection. Another score that Browning wished to settle with Shepherd arose from the latter having stolen a march on Browningʼs publisher by releasing a portion of “Hervé Riel” obtained from an early draft of the poem [Honan, “Browningʼs Testimony”, 29].) Browning later acknowledged in court that he incited the journalʼs attack on Shepherd, although he testified that he did not himself author the journalʼs squib and disclaimed knowledge of the writerʼs identity (Honan, “Browningʼs Testimony, 28–29). It must have been Browning, however, who provided the journal with its key argument opposing the reprint—namely, that Shepherd violated the wishes of the late poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who had specifically suppressed the feature text of the proposed republication. Barrettʼs 1833 translation of Aeschylusʼs Prometheus Bound was effectively placed out of bounds, the Athenaeum maintained, when Barrett Browning published a new translation of the play in 1850. While the journal ventured an opinion that Robert Browning had no legal remedy against Shepherdʼs reprinting of his late wifeʼs publication, the journal strongly asserted an ethical opprobrium in Shepherdʼs taking the “liberty to defy the wishes of the dead, and to outrage the feelings of the living” (“Literary Gossip”, 25 November 1876, 690).
In Shepherdʼs reply to this charge, relayed by the Athenaeum in its December 1876 issue, the editor conceded republication of the earlier Aeschylus translation. “It was never my intention”, Shepherd declared—surely disingenuously, as the journal remarked—”to reproduce the earlier draught of the version of the ‘Prometheus’ (1833) for which a better and more mature translation was afterwards substituted”. Shepherd refused, however, to abandon his right to reprint the original poems that, in the original 1833 volume, follow the Prometheus Bound translation. As already quoted, Shepherd claimed the authority of the scholar over that of the poet and the poetʼs relations; and he persisted: “The poems have been fully given to the world, and are now among the worldʼs possessions. Poetical students will not allow them to die, however indifferent the general public may be to them” (“Mrs. Browningʼs Earlier Poems, 722). While the Athenaeum contested Shepherdʼs right to the shorter poems as well, and in the coming months repeatedly impugned his honesty, the journal was probably unjustified in attributing the editorʼs motives solely to greed. In other instances, Shepherd was not timid about upholding the claims of scholarship against the mere assertion of power by literary men with intimidating reputations. For example, in the later nineteenth-century revival of William Blake, Shepherd was unique among editors in his insistence on a “historical” (i.e., diplomatic) approach to the texts. In contrast, the Rossetti brothers, William Michael and Dante Gabriel, “practiced emendation” of Blakeʼs texts that amounted to wholesale rewriting. They made free with the texts in the belief that such an approach was justified by the view of Blake as vatic, heroic, and individualistic, a Carlylean representation of the poet advocated by the Blake biographer, Alexander Gilchrist (1828–61). In lonely opposition to this powerful current of opinion forming Blakeʼs reputation, Shepherd stood up for the integrity of the text over an assertion of control by any author, living or dead: “Mr. [D. G.] Rossetti (though sanctioned by Mr. [Algernon] Swinburne) has no more right,” Shepherd pronounced, “to alter William Blakeʼs poems than Mr. [John Everett] Millais would have to paint out some obnoxious detail of medievalism in a work of Giotto or Cimabue”—Shepherd strategically turning the Pre-Raphaelitesʼ own historicist stance against them (Poems of William Blake, xiv; and see Dorfman, Blake in the Nineteenth Century, 65–110).
When The Earlier Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1826–1833 appeared in late 1877 or early 1878, the reprint did omit the 1833 translation of Prometheus Bound. In the introduction to the edition, Shepherd justifies the omission in terms compliant with Robert Browningʼs objections—namely, that the translation had been “replaced by the authoress in later years by an entirely new version”. To this admission, Shepherd adds the value judgment that “to re‐produce the earlier crude attempt [at translation] or the girlish preface that accompanied it” would not be “wise or desirable”. Shepherd thus entangles himself in contradiction, by referring to criteria of “crudeness” and “girlishness”, which justify suppression of some juvenilia, while declaring that the other selections from Prometheus Bound . . . and Miscellaneous Poems, which he does reprint, are “in no sense immature, or unworthy of the genius of the writer”. At the same time, the introduction contains a passage nearly identical to one that, in his December 1876 reply to the Athenaeum a year earlier, Shepherd had pleaded in defense of the study of poetsʼ youthful writing: “The ‘exquisite touch’ that ‘bides in the birth of things’ is peculiarly apparent in the bursting of bud and leaf of a new poetic genius. The summer of its manifestation may have greater fervour, and richer pomp and majesty of foliage, but about its early spring there must always be a nameless and peculiar charm” (The Earlier Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1826–1833, vii–viii; and see “Mrs. Browningʼs Earlier Poems”, 722). This florid metaphor, in which Shepherd manifestly retained his faith, is consistent with his declarations elsewhere of a mission to make available the juvenile materials for studying the “growth of a poetʼs mind.” According to the metaphor, these materials do not consist in Wordsworthian spots of time remembered from the youthʼs experience of nature; rather, the metaphor figures the precocious child genius as nature, and her or his early publications (or, presumably, manuscripts) as the material witness of this bursting into bud and leaf.
In December 1877, the Athenaeum carried a review of the Barrett Browning reprint. The writer has been identified as Theodore Watts‐Dunton (1832–1914; W. M. Rossetti, Selected Letters, 374–75), a solicitor turned man of letters, who became poetry critic for the journal, and who would later appoint himself caretaker of Swinburne, in order to rescue that poetʼs mind from his infantile body, wrecked by alcoholism and self‐abuse. In the review, Watts‐Dunton tasks Shepherd as a “booksellerʼs hack” who, “devoid” of “literary taste,” “must be called a bibliographer, . . . by dint of that enormous patience which often accompanies a dearth of intelligence”, and which makes him “really learned in editions and in variations of texts” (Unsigned review of The Earlier Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 765–66). This contempt for the editor of reprinted early works and compiler of “variations of texts”,—a sneer detectable in the tone even of Shepherdʼs newspaper obituary, which pronounced him “a great authority upon the various editions, with their additions and emendations, of the works” of modern authors (Unsigned obituary of Richard Herne Shepherd)—must have sprung from a culturally significant animus, one that prompted Watts‐Dunton to feel warranted in using such intemperate language. As a solicitor, Watts‐Dunton would have been interested in questions of copyright raised by the reprint. (One wonders if he authored the journalʼs initial 1876 volley against the planned reprint, a paragraph informed by a legal opinion: “were it a question of tables or chairs, Mr. Browning could defend the wishes of his wife; but in the case of poems, our wise laws give him no remedy” [“Literary Gossip” [25 November 1876], 690]. Watts‐Dunton would have been in a position to advise the journal, having joined the Athenaeum staff only months earlier, in July 1876 [Hake and Compton-Rickett, Life and Letters of Theodore Watts-Dunton, 1: 237].) Questions of copyright aside, Watts‐Dunton uses a figure comparing Shepherd to an “insect”, which echoes a characterization by William Michael Rossetti, and which suggests that the animus of these men arose less from outrage over legal violation than from their indignation over what they perceived as Shepherdʼs loss of professional caste. Rossetti characterizes Shepherd as a “vampire,” the figure suggesting a parasitical feeding on the corpus of the author. The contempt appears to center in a perception of the reprint editor as violating the authorʼs integrity and possession of self. Whatʼs worse, the reprint editor poses a particularly degrading, subordinate form of parasitical exploitation, since the editor works for a publisher. Rossetti struggles to elaborate this figure for the editor of “early poems” and “forgotten works” in a way that pushes the editor sufficiently low in the food chain: “To be oneʼs own vampire is an unenviable lot; to be somebody elseʼs vampire is a post to which only a torturous ambition could aspire”. In another of Rossettiʼs stretched analogies, the reprint editor combines the role of the “chiffonier” (i.e., ragpicker) with that of the “resurrection-man” (i.e., body snatcher) (“Literary Revivals”, 331; Rossettiʼs identity as author of this review noted in W. M. Rossetti, Selected Letters, 374–75).
In the hands of Watts‐Dunton, this characterization of Shepherdʼs offense both descends into scurrilous abuse and is elevated to a challenge to Britainʼs national interests. If Shepherdʼs professed mission, according to his 1876 reply to the Athenaeum, was to serve the interests of “poetical students” regardless of the “indifferen[ce of] the general public,” or even of the opposition of the author and the authorʼs relations, in order to publish comprehensive materials for studying the growth of the poetʼs mind (“Mrs. Browningʼs Earlier Poems”, 722), then the nationʼs interests demand that the editor of modern authorsʼ juvenilia and other “literary revivals” be put down. Exposed as a “vampire” and blood‐sucking “insect,” he must be denied autonomy, lest he exercise critical and creative authority over the writer, the writerʼs family, and the nation. Thus, Watts‐Dunton, apparently perceived his mission in the review as ostracizing Shepherd, separating him from the “noble calling” of legitimate commerce with men of genius. The reprint editor is relegated to the fringe of professional letters as a mere scavenger; such a person “scans the book-stalls” for “some forgotten production, or some inchoate form of a known production of a famous writer,” and then attaches himself to a publisher or bookseller willing to abandon “the dignity of a noble calling” (“we wish to express our astonishment and regret that publishers can be found for such undertakings as this [reprint of Barrett juvenilia] and ‘Tennysoniana’“). Such a pair as this fallen publisher and his hack, advancing the “precocious smartness” of juvenilia in place of poetic genius, deserves the contempt of the “man of genius” (and even the “typical woman of poetic genius”). Any respectable author who is “about to print” and embody his genius in a printed book will do well to “pause and consider before he imperils his privileges as an English gentleman” by succumbing to “caterers of this kind” (Unsigned review of The Earlier Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 765–66).
In 1879, Shepherd successfully brought suit for libel against the Athenaeum citing the attacks on his character in reviews not only of the Barrett Browning reprint but also of his edition of Charles and Mary Lambʼs Poetry for Children, a reprint that the journal characterized as a “catchpenny” affair, in which the editor allegedly made false claims for its origin of copytext (Unsigned review of Poetry for Children by Charles and Mary Lamb, 47). (See Collins, “Richard Herne Shepherd”, which attributes Shepherdʼs suit to the journalʼs “injurious review” of his reprint of the Lambʼs poetry, whereas Honan, “Browningʼs Testimony” says the case turned on the journalʼs notices of the Barrett Browning reprint [p. 27n.]. Doubtless Shepherd prevailed in his charge of libel given the cumulative effect of the Athenaeumʼs reviews, the 12 January 1878 notice of the Lamb reprint, in which the reviewer openly questions Shepherdʼs honesty respecting the authenticity of his sources, and the 14 September 1878 review of more “literary revivals” by Shepherd, in which W. M. Rossetti belittles the editor as a “vampire,” having followed so soon on the heels of Watts‐Duntonʼs 15 December 1877 review of the Barrett Browning reprint. In his reply to the Athenaeumʼs charges against the Lamb reprint, Shepherd blames the publisher, B. M. Pickering, for misleading statements [“Lambʼs ‘Poetry for Children’”, 89].)
In the course of the libel trial, Robert Browning appeared as a witness for the defendant, John Francis (1838–1918), the editor of the Athenaeum. In his testimony, Browning reverted to the Athenaeumʼs initial (25 November 1876) objections to republication of Barrett Browningʼs juvenilia, quoting remarks that perhaps he had himself originally dictated to the journal—namely, that Shepherdʼs reprint defied the personal wishes of “writers of eminence”, living and dead (“Literary Gossip”, 25 November 1876, 690). Browning informed the court: “‘Mrs. Browning would herself, had she been alive, have objected to the republication of her earlier poems’”—not only the translation of Prometheus Bound but also of “‘all her earlier poems’”; “‘she was only fourteen years old when she wrote some of them’”. Browning was casting a net beyond even the contested shorter poems in the 1833 Prometheus volume, to guard the entirety of Barrettʼs juvenilia, his reference to the fourteen‐year‐old poet extending the ban backward to Barrettʼs first published volume, which Shepherd had overlooked—the Battle of Marathon (1820). Therefore, Browning urged, the defendant was not “too strong”” in pronouncing Shepherd a man who arrogated the “‘liberty to defy the wishes of the dead and to outrage the feelings of the living’” (quotations in Honan, “Browningʼs Testimony”, 28–29).
Awkwardly for Browning, as Shepherdʼs lawyer pointed out, Browning had acted seemingly analogously to Shepherd in an 1852 edition of letters by Percy Bysshe Shelley, published by Moxon, for which Browning penned an introduction. Interestingly, Browning anticipated the comparison, and even offered to read aloud the entire essay, which he had brought with him to court—an offer that was deflected with laughter. (Browningʼs proposal seems less absurd when one realizes that, in 1879, only a few privileged collectors had access to the introduction, the publisher, Moxon, having destroyed most copies of the 1852 Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley when the documents were revealed to be a forgery. Browningʼs introduction became widely available only in 1881 when F. J. Furnivall [1825–1910] published it in the Browning Societyʼs Papers, and it became known by its now familiar title, the Essay on Shelley. See the editorial notes by Donald Smalley on Browning, Essay on Shelley, in King et al., ed., Complete Works of Robert Browning, 5: 350.) In the end Browning seems only to have helped the plaintiffʼs case by admitting not only that he failed to seek the permission of Shelleyʼs living descendant before publishing the introduction, but that he had even recognized the Shelley letters as forgeries when he undertook the project (quotations in Honan, “Browningʼs Testimony”, 28–29, 30).
For Browning scholars, the more significant issue presented by this episode is Browningʼs confounding admission that he was aware that Moxonʼs edition consisted of forgeries of Shelleyʼs letters, a testimony that scholars have attempted to explain in a more flattering light consistent with the poetʼs character. What is more to our purpose is the remark with which the rattled poet sought to redirect the cross‐examination to his principle point in having carried the Essay on Shelley into court. As Browning explained: “‘My essay was on the character of Shelley, and I referred to these poems [e.g., “Queen Mab”] as those of an immature boyhood”’ (Honan, “Browningʼs Testimony”, 30). For Browning, the immaturity of the poet settles the debate a priori respecting the value of the poems, just as Watts‐Dunton in his review of The Earlier Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning appeals to the “common‐sense” of the “judicious . . . British public” in settling judgments of literary value of works that are likely to benefit the nation (Unsigned review of The Earlier Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 765). By these “common-sense” standards, the poet maintains perpetual right over whatʼs in and whatʼs out, and Shepherdʼs claims for the independent judgment of the critic are nowhere. The Athenaeum incessantly reminded readers of a phrase tossed off by Shepherd in his 1876 reply to journal, his remark that he undertook his reprints for use by “poetical students” whose purposes would “doubtless be caviare” to “‘the general’” (“Mrs. Browningʼs Earlier Poems”, 722). Seizing on the apparent elitism of the remark, Watts‐Dunton scoffed at a conception of the study of poetry that indulges “‘caviare’ at the expense of all the common amenities of life” (Unsigned review of The Earlier Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 765).
In taking this common‐sense stance, Browning avoided the implications of Shepherdʼs cheeky quotation of the poet himself, when arguing for the value of early writing. As testimonial to the “nameless and peculiar charm” to be discovered the “bursting of bud and leaf of a new poetic genius,” Shepherd quotes Browning on the “‘exquisite touch’ that ‘bides in the birth of things’”, a line from Fifine at the Fair (1872) (The Earlier Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1826–1833, viii). I have argued elsewhere that Browning did eventually answer Shepherd more thoughtfully about his opponentʼs appropriation from this poem, which meditates on how the poetic spirit engages with the material world. Here it is necessary to drive at the main point concerning the reception of Shepherdʼs poetics, which defended the value of a poetʼs juvenile writing in understanding the growth of the modern poetʼs mind—albeit a poetics ever so slightly developed in Shepherdʼs writing. Although the Wordsworthian tropes making up this hypothesis would have been more than familiar to every cultivated British reader by mid‐century, Shepherdʼs proposition of taking juvenilia seriously in the study of modern poetry provoked a furious reaction from the Athenaeum that demands understanding.
Part of the disturbance appears owing to the recognition that, as already pointed out, Shepherdʼs formulation is not quite Wordsworthian, in that the childʼs genius is not remembered and translated through the poetʼs mature inscription of spots of time, but rather directly communicated to the observer by the child writer. In the Athenaeumʼs review of Shepherdʼs edition of the Lambʼs Poetry for Children, the writer dwells on Wordsworthʼs paradigm of loss, which forms the “inexplicable” but “impassable gulf” between “the adult mind and the mind of childhood”: “If it was by a sudden leap that we left behind us the ‘heaven’ that ‘lies about us in our infancy’—if we lost at one stoke all that sense of the wonderfulness of the wonderful, the beauty of the beautiful—all that intense belief in the personality of natural forces, all that close and tender intimacy with the lower animals, which go to make up that ‘heaven’—the existence of the world of dull dead darkness which has supplanted it would not be so inscrutable.” But despite the writerʼs mournfulness over the defectiveness of the adult mind that “it is [only] from without, and not from within, that . . . those landscapes of childhood” are perceptible, and despite his Dickensian tirade against the modern “stupid system of so‐called education” that deadens us by trampling on “the limitless potentialities of happiness in children,” it is clear that the writer is unwilling to relinquish the paradigm of loss of childhood, since it sponsors Wordsworthʼs paradigm of recompense. The reviewer is consoled that the imaginative experience of literature in childhood forms an inalienable part of the psychological and spiritual self, because this formation is overseen by a Wordsworthian “literature of power” that insists on the childʼs subordination: “[I]t is impossible to calculate how enormous in moulding the mind is the power of infant literature. It is not merely that what we read in childhood we never forget, but that it becomes part of our very being.” “Infant literature” means writing for children by adults, not writing by children. The formation of the self, “our very being,” depends on a “literature of power” that guides but silences the child (Unsigned review of Poetry for Children by Charles and Mary Lamb, 48).
To Watts‐Dunton, the “inscrutable” imagination of the child, that “nameless and peculiar charm,” is likely to produce only “precocious smartness,” if confronted directly in a childʼs writing, and so he anathematizes the monstrosity of the precocious child writer in his review of Barrett Browningʼs juvenilia. He does, however, maintain a circumscribed place of sentiment for the dead child writer of promise, drawing partly on the Chatterton myth, but also on the real examples of Oliver Madox Brown (1855–74) and Charles Jeremiah Wells (1800–1879). In a bizarre reimagining of Wordsworthʼs “Intimations Ode”, Watts‐Dunton admits how “facilities of early printing” may “be necessary to the full development of a countryʼs literary potentialities,” by encouraging talent that would otherwise wither; “for . . . the violence of the [authorial] impulse subsides with the subsidence of the hot enthusiasms of youth”, and if the impulse “is long kept in check by adverse circumstances, the interests of the world come thicker and thicker, till, at last, that energy which—had the printing difficulty been early overcome—would have expressed itself in literature, is exhausted in other channels” (Unsigned review of The Earlier Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 765). Watts‐Duntonʼs example of the child writer extinguished by circumstance is the erstwhile poet, Charles Jeremiah Wells, around whom the Pre‐Raphaelite circle had been constructing a myth of the neglected poet. In 1875, Swinburne published an appreciation of Wells, in which he presents the writerʼs first publication, the Stories after Nature (1822) as neglected juvenilia, “written it is said in his earliest youth”, although in fact Wells published the stories in his early twenties. Swinburne characterizes the child author of the stories in terms similar to Shepherdʼs figuration of the child writer as an enigma of nature: “The first publication of Mr. Wells . . . has much of the charm and something of the weakness natural to the first flight and the first note of a song‐bird, whose wings have yet to grow, and whose notes have yet to deepen; yet in its first flutterings and twitterings there is a nameless grace, a beauty indefinable, which belongs only to the infancy of genius as it belongs only to the infancy of life” (Swinburne, “An Unknown Poet”, 218).
Unlike the Athenaeumʼs reviewer of the Lambsʼ Poetry for Children, Swinburne is willing to imagine the effect of imaginative writing by a child writer on the “a reader of the age at which this book was written”, and he seems to quote himself as just such a youthful reader moved by the impressive effect of these stories. (Although this review was published in 1876, Swinburne first submitted a version, unsuccessfully, to Fraserʼs Magazine in 1861; and his initial introduction to Wellsʼs writing probably dated from as early as 1857, when he turned twenty and met D. G. Rossetti. Since 1849, during the initial formation of the Pre‐Raphaelite Brotherhood, Rossetti had urged the members to regard Wellsʼs obscure closet drama, Joseph and His Brethren [1824], as a talismanic text, and Rossetti persisted in championing Wells through the 1860s, but dropped the cause in the 1870s, when Swinburne, with whom Rossetti had quarreled, at last succeeded along with Watts‐Dunton and others in getting the play published [Butler, “Pre‐Raphaelite Shibboleth”, 78, 82–84].) Swinburneʼs alleged youthful response is scarcely suggestive, however, of an infant connection with a “nameless” and “indefinable” beauty that can belong “only to the infancy of genius”. While Swinburne says his youthful self found the Stories from Nature “‘perfect in grace and power, tender and exquisite in choice of language’”, his early response also emphasized the storiesʼ “‘noble and masculine delicacy in feeling and purpose’”. The adult Swinburne demurs over his early enthusiasm for this boyish but masculine writing, now demanding that a child reader of Wellsʼs stories, “if there be in him any critical judgment or any promise of such faculty to come,” discover that the stories “relish of a bastard graft”. Modeled on ʼs Decameron, the stories betray excesses of overwrought poetic prose and the influence of Leigh Hunt (Swinburne, “An Unknown Poet”, 218).
Just so, Watts‐Dunton is alarmed by the possibilities opened up by imagining a Wordsworthian child of joy gaining access to a printer before the shades of the prison‐house can close in upon him. The only benefit of early publication, Watts‐Dunton decides, is to act as “a sort of safety‐valve or ‘air‐hole,’ from which escapes, to the great good of the producer, the balderdash engendered, like a bad gas, by the active forces of youth.” The child writer, instead of trailing clouds of glory, emits fatuous imagination—the advantage of such flights being that, in an age of steam, early printing at least allows for regulation of the excess energy, as in an engine. For according to the “economy of Nature” in an industrial age, when poets can begin publishing at age fourteen, “the more genius there is in any youthful brain the more nonsense” there is to be “got rid of”; and as an additional benefit to the nation, early printing purges the child writerʼs impressionable imitations of others. Just as Swinburneʼs infant critic recognizes, “on taking up the little book [by Wells] again in after years,” the undue “perceptible influence of Leigh Hunt,” so Watts‐Dunton, finds belabored in child writing “the quintessential amalgam of the literary vices of many predecessors.” The proper “education of the poet consists not in learning, but in unlearning,” he pronounces; and early printing at least enables the nationʼs youthful writers to unlearn all the sooner, just as the previous generation needed to rid itself of “the concentrated essence of the sentimentality and fustian which infested the literary atmosphere of this country during the reign of Samuel Jackson Pratt” (Unsigned review of The Earlier Poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 765; Swinburne, “An Unknown Poet”, 219). (Pratt was a minor writer in the age of sentiment, whom Watts‐Dunton cites elsewhere as a standard for the “worn‐out tawdry texture of eighteenth century platitudes” by which to measure the superior but nonetheless “gorgeous word‐spinning so current in our time” [Unsigned review of English Men of Letters—Wordsworth by F. W. H. Myers, 329].)
In this angry review, then, Watts‐Dunton, belittles the child writer in similar, contradictory terms that the Athenaeum used to ostracize Shepherd. If Shepherd is insufferably disrespectful of authority in his effete aestheticism, and yet parasitical in his subhuman feeding on the corpus of the author, the precocious child both threatens to disrupt control by the adult Wordsworthian “literature of power” that is designed to quell yet enoble his spirit, and yet is prone slavishly to imitate the most objectionable literary models.
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