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

General Holdings of the
Rare Book Collection

The mutilated colophon page from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Queen Mab (1813). Checklist no. 34

Although difficult to estimate precisely, the overall holdings of British Romantics in the RBC number in the thousands, with the bulk of the volumes scattered throughout the general holdings of the collection, shelved according to Library of Congress call numbers. Among the works associated with the Romantics, editions of the writings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Sir Walter Scott are especially abundant. The general holdings also include strong representations of others, such as Robert Southey, Mary Shelley, John Clare, and Robert Burns. Original editions of William Blake are more modest in number, but they are complemented by a strong presence of facsimiles of his famous illuminated works, notably those produced by the Trianon Press and the William Blake Trust.

William Blake’s illustrated title for the first part of Edward Young’s The Complaint, and the Consolation; or, Night Thoughts (1797). Checklist no. 6

Among the highlights from these general holdings are first editions of Shelley’s Queen Mab (London, 1813), Alastor (London, 1816), and Laon and Cythna (London, 1818); Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (London, 1818); Coleridge and Southey’s The Fall of Robespierre (London, 1794); Coleridge’s Poems on Various Subjects (London, 1796); Keats’s Endymion (London, 1818) and Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (London, 1820); Edward Young’s The Complaint, and the Consolation; or, Night Thoughts (London, 1797), splendidly illustrated by William Blake; and Robert Blair’s The Grave (London, 1808), also illustrated by Blake. There are also very significant periodicals, such as a complete run of The Friend, edited by Coleridge in 1809 and early 1810.

The study of the British Romantics at UNC is greatly enhanced by the presence in the RBC of a wealth of contemporary historical works—books and pamphlets—which help provide an understanding of the general English and European backgrounds of the literary developments. England in the 1790s had its own liberal dissent movement, which reacted at first with optimism to the Revolution that erupted in France in 1789. The first generation of Romantic writers produced much of their early work within that atmosphere of hope for change. As the Revolution became increasingly radical and violent after 1792, and especially after war broke out between England and France (lasting almost without interruption from 1793 until 1815), general attitudes shifted towards a conservative defense of both the English nation and the political and social status quo. Many of the first-generation Romantics, most notably Wordsworth and Southey, followed (and eventually helped shape) this trend. The conservatism of their attitudes would later provoke a repudiation by a second generation of writers, such as Byron and Shelley, who were too young to share in the disillusionment of English liberals with the French experiment of the early 1790s.

Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte (1798).

The collection documents these developments well, especially as they reflect the impact of events in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. The general holdings of the RBC, for instance, have copies of three of the most important examples of English radical dissent in the 1790s: William Godwin’s An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (London, 1793), Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (London, 1792), and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (London, 1791; third edition). This last book was probably the most widely read and influential response to Edmund Burke’s criticism of recent events in Versailles and Paris in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (London, 1790). The RBC has five 1790 printings of Burke’s famous essay, which was very influential in shaping a hostile public view of the Revolution in England and has since has become a classic of conservative political thought. There are numerous other examples of the very extensive pamphlet war between liberals and conservatives—Whigs and Tories—over the Revolution and the Napoleonic period that followed. In addition to the writings of Burke and his supporters, the conservative, Tory reaction may be seen in influential illustrated periodicals such as The Anti-Jacobin; or, Weekly Examiner (London, 1797–1798) and its successor, The Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine (London, 1798–1808). The former is complete in the RBC collections and the latter nearly so through 1806.

Both the general holdings of the RBC and especially the William Henry Hoyt Collection of Napoleon contain an abundance of French-language materials on the events in France from 1789 to 1815, as well as on the emergence of the Napoleonic legend in the decades after Waterloo. They constitute, therefore, a further important documentary resource in understanding the European context of developments in Great Britain.

Lower Fall, Rydal
(ca. 1859).

Access to these materials is provided through the University Library’s online catalog. The RBC is committed to the growth of its holdings of the British Romantics. In our efforts to fill in gaps in our coverage, we continue to purchase both commonly available books and significant rarities. Recent examples of the latter are the RBC’s acquisition of the first editions of Shelley’s Queen Mab (London, 1813) and Alastor (London, 1816). Just this summer, we also acquired a beautiful copy of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published in 1910 in a limited edition of only 25 copies. Elegantly bound in vellum and lavishly designed and illustrated by Willy Pogány, the volume is not only a fine edition of Coleridge’s poem but a masterpiece of early twentieth-century book-making.

Of course, we also look forward to, and deeply appreciate, such generous gifts as Mark Reed’s beautiful copies of Wordsworth’s An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches (both London, 1793), which have added so substantially to this rapidly emerging area of strength in the special collections of Wilson Library.

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