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A Being More Intense: British Romantic Writers in the Rare Book Collection


’Tis to create, and in creating live
A being more intense, that we endow
With form our fancy, gaining as we give
The life we image, even as I do now.
       (Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage)

This exhibition seeks to provide an overview of one of the most remarkable periods in the cultural history of the British Isles—the Romantic era, which extended from the mid-1780s until about 1837, the year of Queen Victoria’s accession to the English throne. The exhibit’s title, taken from Lord Byron’s long narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (London, 1812–1818), evokes the Romantic preoccupation with powerful emotions, which were seen by many writers of the period as wellsprings of creativity.

Left to right: John Keats, Felicia Hemans, Percy Bysshe Shelley.

In part a reaction to Enlightenment rationalism, Romanticism was a general phenomenon extending to all the arts. The focus of A Being More Intense is on literature, and a particular emphasis has been placed on the handful of major writers commonly known as the “Big Six”: William Blake; William Wordsworth; Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Percy Bysshe Shelley; George Gordon, Lord Byron; and John Keats. However, careful attention has also been paid to a number of less familiar writers, including Mary Shelley, Felicia Hemans, Robert Southey, John Clare, and Robert Burns. The exhibition has been organized around the writers and their works, with some of the common themes of Romanticism—among them, the Gothic, Orientalism, the Byronic hero, nature, individuality, and radical politics—introduced as they come up within this more biographical and historical scheme.

In displaying such a range of writers and their works—generally first editions but also later printings and variants of significance—we hope not only to document something of the scope and diversity of the movement, but also to convey a sense of the range and depth of the impressive holdings of the British Romantics in the Rare Book Collection (RBC) in Wilson Library. The exhibit materials will draw most heavily on the William Wordsworth and Lord Byron Collections, as well as on the general holdings of the RBC.

La prise de la Bastille, an engraving depicting the dramatic events of July 14, 1789.

Although the collections dealing with the Romantic period are strong, they are still in a state of development. To provide a more complete and balanced picture of the period, therefore, we have relied on the generous participation of several lenders, both institutional and private. We are grateful, for example, to the Rare Books Collection of the Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University for the loan of their fine copy of the first edition of John Keats’s Poems (London, 1817). The Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library of Duke University has very kindly allowed us to reproduce a remarkable contemporary engraving (click to view) depicting the storming of the Bastille in Paris on July 14, 1789—an event almost synonymous with the French Revolution as a whole and one of great symbolic importance to the early English Romantics. Finally, we are grateful to Mark L. Reed III, Professor Emeritus of English Literature at the University of North Carolina. Not only has Professor Reed been our constant advisor on the development of our Romantic and other British literary holdings, but he has also donated extensive materials to our Wordsworth and other collections over the years. His copies of Wordsworth’s An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches (the poet’s very rare first published books, appearing simultaneously in London in 1793) are among those gifts. Professor Reed has indicated to us that it is his wish that the remainder of his important Wordsworth collection come to the RBC in Wilson at some point in the future. In the meantime, he has very generously loaned to us for the exhibition two of his copies of Wordsworth’s posthumous The Prelude (London, 1850), one of them inscribed by the poet’s wife, Mary, to Charles Cuthbert Southey, son of William’s close friend and fellow Romantic, Robert Southey.

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