Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 September 2009
SCOTLAND IN ROMANTICISM
“What a hobbling pace the Scottish Pegasus seems to have adopted in these days,” grumbled William Wordsworth in a letter to R. P. Gillies (February 14, 1815). Wordsworth condemns the “insupportable slovenliness and neglect of syntax and grammar, by which James Hogg's writings are disfigured”; such solecisms may be “excusable in [Hogg] from his education, but Walter Scott knows, and ought to do, better.” Both poets can be summarily dismissed: “They neither of them write a language which has any pretension to be called English.” Wordsworth's complaint cuts across distinct if overlapping conceptions of the institutional framework of British Romantic literature: as a market, in which Scottish writing enjoys a notable success, and as a canon, from which it must be purged – on the grounds of a national deficiency, a linguistic unfitness “to be called English.”
Wordsworth's verdict has proven remarkably durable. Modern literary criticism in Great Britain and North America adopted the view of Romanticism as a unitary phenomenon, the agon of a mighty handful of lyric poets with a Kantian (later Heideggerian) problematic of the transcendental imagination. Some Romanticisms are more Romantic than others: some are the real thing, while others are premature or belated, or simply false – anachronistic or fraudulent simulacra. British Romanticism is English, from Blake and Lyrical Ballads in the 1790s to Keats, Shelley, and Byron (cut off from his own Scottish roots), prematurely dead in the early 1820s.