Revisiting the Radical Republican Publishers of the Romantic Era in the Digital Era

The design of this course is to introduce students to the influence that Digital Humanities is having on our organization of the study of Romanticism. To that end, the course shifts from the traditional survey of major authors, to a survey of Romantic-era publishers, whose publications have only recently become widely available through digitization. While there are opportunities for the close reading of major Romantic texts authored by these publishers, emphasis is placed in the assignments on distant reading of periodicals. Moreover, the course prompts student to reflect on the diverse politics of publication, both in the Romantic era, when independent individuals acquired printing presses and began to advocate for freedom of the press, as well as in the present day, with its diverse concerns over freedom of information, copyrights, privacy, and so on.

Revisiting the Radical Republican Publishers of the Romantic Era in the Digital Era

Michael Demson
Sam Houston State University

1.        Digital resources are transforming the study of Romanticism, and Romantic pedagogy must keep pace with these changes. Archived materials that have long been inaccessible to students, such as newspapers, diaries, correspondences, are now readily available online; databases of high resolution images scanned are now free; new analytical tools including word searches and image comparisons (see the “Compare” button on the Blake Archive for an example) are proliferating with each passing year, prompting new approaches. In response to these developments, my graduate-level, four-week, online, research seminar on Romanticism takes full advantage of innovations in Digital Humanities that enable and accelerate archival research. A student today can use "The Times Digital Archive 1785-2008 " to quickly identify the first reference to a skylark in the newspaper during the Romantic period (April 20, 1786, 413, pg. 3), how many times it appeared that year in the paper (twice), and whether or not references to skylarks fell off or proliferated in subsequent years (they nearly doubled every following year). This student can then read the articles in which those references appear to achieve a sense of the contemporary attitudes toward that celebrated avian. This sort of brief research assignment was not possible ten years ago, and it has the potential to revolutionize the way students contextualize Romantic literature. My course challenges students to break the habits of reading that traditional anthologies promote and ultimately to expand their sense of who the culturally significant figures in the Romantic era were. More specifically, the aim of this course is to draw attention to the careers of those people who were producers and directors of culture but who have been long neglected because their creations were beyond reproduction in traditional print anthologies.

2.        I designed my course, Revisiting the Radical Republican Publishers of the Romantic Era in the Digital Era, as an online, summer-intensive workshop for graduate students who have completed introductory graduate coursework as well as courses in English literature. Rather than being an introductory survey of Romantic literature, it can serve as an introduction to the period in a manner that does not include the traditional canon of readings or criticism. My aim is to push students to explore new websites such as:

Virtual libraries to access include: Specialized search engines include Google Books and WorldCat, as well as subscription databases. The course challenges the tendency to decontextualize and thereby depoliticize Romanticism by asking students to use digital resources to explore the tumultuous culture of radical publishers, principally in the 1810s and early 1820s, and to discover how those publishers interacted with the poets and fiction writers.

Course Overview

3.        “Why crush a starving bookseller?” Percy Shelley furiously wrote Leigh Hunt after Peterloo, because in doing so, he explained, “tyrants […] strike in his person at all of their political enemies” and “divert the attention of the people from obtaining a Reform in their oppressive Government” (Letters 73-4). In the wake of the government massacre of reform-seekers in Manchester, [1]  the Home Office, in 1819, intensified its campaign of prosecutions to shut down the domestic reform movement and focused their efforts on those who sought to publicize their radical agenda. Despite this crackdown, republican publishers including John Cahuac, Richard Carlile, William Cobbett, Thomas Dolby, William Hone, and Leigh Hunt, fought back. Veterans of government prosecutions, they rallied together to educate the public about the imperative of reform and published their political agenda in diverse forms: nursery rhymes, satirical essays, news reports, lyrical poetry, open letters, lists of corrupt jurors, and caricatures of nearly everyone in the government, including King George IV. They were convinced that if enough people were educated about the need for reform, actual reform would be inevitable. This radical campaign, however, did not survive for long because publishers were divided, imprisoned, transported, or coerced into silence. Because much of the print culture produced was prolific and too costly to republish in an accessible format, it has remained neglected in archives—until these materials were recently digitized.

4.        The volatility and passion of the republican publishers in the Romantic period exemplify the vibrancy of radical culture of the era, and this political culture exerted a profound influence on contemporary literary productions. I use Percy Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy to demonstrate how various aspects of radical culture in 1819—politics, philosophy, and rhetoric—permeate the Romantic poetry of that and subsequent years. By exploring the print culture of the era, as Michael Scrivener has done in Radical Shelley (1982), the craft of its major poets becomes more apparent. To reach a broader audience for his 1819 lyrical satire, for example, Shelley deployed ideas, phrases, and particular figures drawn from contemporary sources including Hone’s pamphlets and Hunt’s Examiner. Through such examples, I raise theoretical questions about Romantic poetics, concentrating on originality, genius, invention, combination, and craft by asking students to compare caricatures in The Examiner, Black Dwarf, and the Political Register of such figures as Lords Castlereagh and Sidmouth in relation to Shelley’s caricatures in The Mask of Anarchy. This activity tracks how rhetorical strategies move between popular print culture and high literature. With the new digital resources available to students, it now is possible to explore these questions of poetics in very material ways, by textual comparisons made feasible by digital resources rather than theoretical speculation.

5.        It is presently more feasible to explore the practical concerns involved in publication in the late Romantic period. Using The Mask of Anarchy as an example, we discuss Shelley’s request that Leigh Hunt publish in London, although Shelley was in Italy at the time, and Hunt’s decision to suppress the ballad because of threats of government prosecution. Students read the news, follow which publishers were fined, arrested, imprisoned or transported, and thereby gather a sense of the dangers of publication. By studying Romantic publishers, students begin to see past the Romantic disdain for commerce and pragmatism to some of their underlying concerns about their audiences, self-image, government censorship, and financial autonomy, among other considerations.

6.        While the major poets of the period drew from contemporary print culture and negotiated with their publishers, a study of the era’s publishers open up deeper issues still. Blake expresses the significance of the link between authorship and publishing in a letter from 1808, having acquired by this time his own press: “I call myself now Independent. I can be Poet Painter & Musician as the Inspiration comes” (“Letter To George Cumberland, 1 September 1880,” The William Blake Archives). Blake’s press gave him freedom, a Romantic concept that regularly conflated the political with the artistic. This course introduces students to the careers and life projects of four English republican publishers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who, like the major poets of the period, meditated on political and artistic freedom and were forerunners in the struggle for the freedom of the press: William Blake, Leigh Hunt, William Hone, and William Cobbett. Other significant figures are considered, such as Hannah Moore, Charlotte Smith, the Wordsworths, the Shelleys and Byron, and John Clare, but the aim here is to spotlight a representative group of publishers of the era who fought for a free press. Their convictions prompted them to write, and when their productions were deemed too dangerous for established publishers, all four began personally to publish their writings, often at great personal hazard. It is a tragedy, then, that while historians, literary critics, and teachers have acknowledged the influence of radical publishers in the Romantic era, the careers and publications of these figures have been largely neglected or only mentioned in passing.

7.        My summer intensive online course introduces students to Romanticism, print culture studies, and the emergent field of Digital Humanities; a variety of daily tasks are therefore required. Each day, students are check an online for course announcements and instructions, complete required readings (many of which are online), review assignments and conduct database research, write a blog entry, participate in our online seminar discussion threads, and contribute to our shared webliography (identifying and reviewing new digital resources). All of these activities along with my lectures return to three core questions.

1. What is the relationship between journalism and literature?
2. How did self-publishing affect the literary and non-literary productions of those Romantics who worked closely with a publisher or, better still, published their own works?
3. How is the postmodern digital era reconfiguring our understanding of the Romantic era (its canon, its poetics, its enduring relevance)?
These questions serve as prompts for the students’ blog posts (suggested three hundred words per day), in which they respond to readings and make connections (20% of the course grade, 5% per week). They guide our online discussions (30% of the course grade, 5% per week for participation, 10% for impromptu research-question responses), serve as the weekly exam question prompt (30% of course grade, dropping the lowest of four), and are starting points for their final papers (a three thousand-word research paper that makes use of digital archives, databases, and other online resources is 20% of the course grade). In addition to the daily required readings, I suggest that students work online from two to four hours daily; however, once they are engaged with online research and discussion, they tend to spend much more time online than this guideline proposes. It is not unusual for threads of student discussions to carry on for days, even when we have moved on to subsequent units.

8.        There are four units to the course: (a) “William Blake: The Recluse with a Printing Press;” (b) “Leigh Hunt: The Examiner, the Cockney School Romantics, and Peterloo;” (c) “William Hone: The Treason Trials, Peterloo, and Pamphleteering;” and (d) “William Cobbett: The Political Register and Rural Rides after Peterloo.” In each unit, students read a biography, explore the publisher’s career, analyze both literary and non-literary texts, discuss a variety of theoretical questions, and take an essay exam.

Unit One: William Blake: The Recluse with a Printing Press

9.         The first unit of the course introduces students to William Blake, to print culture studies, and to Digital Humanities. Students read G. E. Bentley, Jr.’s The Stanger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake (2003), selections from Northrop Frye, The William Blake Archives, and The Georgian Index of early British newspapers. I introduce students to Blake’s mythology, to radical culture of the Romantic era, to Digital Humanities, and to key aspects of Blake’s thought, including his creed of radicalism and roots in Dissenting Enthusiasm.

10.         Students explore Blake’s self-published works, analyze the relationship of image to text, and compare different manuscripts of the same text. They discuss Blake’s “Enthusiasm” and the influence it has in his productions (specifically, his parents’ rejection of public worship in preference for private prayer and introspection), and the more generic connections between literature and religion (specifically, in questions relating to inspiration, epiphany, and the aura of scripture). My lectures (which I post as text documents, usually between six- to twelve-hundred words in length) focus on The First Book of Urizen and take students beyond the Blake that typically appears in anthologies, and I encourage my students to explore later works as well.

11.         At the end of each unit, students are given a two-hour open-book, take-home exam in which they answer the following question: “Considering that Blake had near complete control over his artistic productions—from their conception, through their composition and publication, to their distribution—how did Blake’s self-publication affect his artistic productions?” Students are required to focus on a specific passage from a text and to work with The William Blake Archive.

Unit Two: Leigh Hunt: The Examiner, the Cockney School Romantics, and Peterloo

12.         The second unit introduces students to Leigh Hunt and the Cockney School. Students read Anthony Holden’s The Wit in the Dungeon: The Remarkable Life of Leigh Hunt: Poet, Revolutionary, and the Last of the Romantics (2005) and browse issues of Hunt’s The Examiner. Rather than reading whole issues, they find an event or story and follow Hunt’s coverage of it over several issues. My example is Hunt’s coverage of Peterloo in the fall issues of 1819. During this week, students also read selections from Jeffrey Cox’s Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and Their Circle (1998), several poems by Keats, including “Dedication to Leigh Hunt, Esq.,” “Written On the Day That Mr. Leigh Hunt Left Prison,” and poems by Percy Shelley, including Adonaïs.

13.         Student discussion topics range widely as they draw comparisons between Blake’s and Hunt’s biographies and their activities as publishers. We discuss literary circles and the central role that publishers often play and survey contemporary literary reviews and the politics that inform them, particularly in relation to Shelley’s response to reviewers of Keats in Adonaïs. I ask students to think in broader terms about the relationship between newspapers and poetry. Hunt was often accused of spur-of-the-moment overproduction at the cost of quality (a typical criticism of newsprint prose), yet spontaneity was lauded by most Romantics as an essential trait of poetic genius. Though not traditionally conserved as a genre of literature, to what extent can we say that The Examiner is literary? As several of the critics we have read point out, Keats owed much to the paper—if Hunt had not published his poetry, it is hard to imagine how Keats would have reached reviewers around the nation. My question, however, is a large one: Is the sum of each issue greater than the whole? Or, in other words, what are some of the effects of reading poetry next to drama reviews next to bankruptcy notices, etc.? I urge students to work with specific examples. These questions tend to produce much speculation, so it is helpful to intervene in the discussion with guiding quotes from Wordsworth’s prefaces to Lyrical Ballads and/or from Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry.

14.         In the second unit I also introduce students to Peterloo as a defining event in the Romantic period. Students read selections from James Chandler’s England in 1819 (1999) and reports in various newspapers, including Hunt’s reporting. I ask students whether Hunt’s reports of Peterloo are reliable or inflammatory, seditious propaganda, or Romantic. The exam question at the end of this unit is: “If Hunt fostered a coterie of radical authors and a culture of political defiance, how did this culture permeate the literary and/or non-literary productions from the Cockney School?”

Unit Three: William Hone and the Popular Reform Movement

15.         The third unit continues reading on Peterloo and also introduces students to William Hone’s political pamphlets and the caricatures of George Cruikshank. Students read the following:

Ben Wilson’s lively biography, The Laughter of Triumph: William Hone and the Fight for the Free Press (2005)
Kyle Grimes’s The William Hone Biotext
Hone’s The Political House that Jack Built (on The William Hone BioText)
Shelley’s “England in 1819” and The Mask of Anarchy
Who Killed Cock Robin? and Letter to Sidmouth, two publications by John Cahuac, a long-forgotten radical publisher transported to Australia soon after Peterloo
Grimes’s 2003 essay, “Verbal Jujitsu: William Hone and the Tactics of Satirical Conflict.”
We cover the Romantic era battle for the freedom of the press, beginning in the 1790s and carried through to the 1830s. In The Political House that Jack Built (1819), a pamphlet that articulates a core conviction of radicals of the era, Hone lays out his faith in the power of an independent press. Unlike Cruikshank, Hone rages with indignation: “This is THE THING, that in spite of new Acts, / And attempts to restrain it, by Soldiers or Tax, / Will poison the Vermin, / That plunder the Wealth, / That lay in the House, / That Jack built” (published on "Romantic Circles" in conjunction with The William Hone BioText).

16.         To prepare students for the third exam, we explore The William Hone Biotext in order to analyze how word and text interact in the era’s political pamphlets and to assess the political rhetoric of Shelley’s 1819 poetry. This week ends with a broad discussion of radical and Romantic attitudes toward money and economic ambition. The third unit exam asks students to explore a comparative analysis of different rhetorical strategies or modes that radicals and Romantics adopted in the battle for the freedom of the press after Peterloo. They focus on specific passages and/or images from Hone’s publications, the writings of the Cockney School, and/or John Cahuac, and their responses should include digital texts from The William Hone Biotext.

Unit Four: William Cobbett: The Political Register and Rural Rides after Peterloo

17.        In the fourth unit of the course, students explore William Cobbett’s writings. Whereas Bentley was dense and slow-going, Richard Ingrams’s The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett (2006) is lively and a quick read. Students browse issues of Political Register, read selections from his Rural Rides online, and evaluate Kevin Gilmartin’s assessment of Cobbett in “Reading Cobbett’s Contradictions” (1996). At this point, I begin to help students define their final paper project and our discussion questions tend to be comparative and reflective in kind. I ask students, for example, to compare Cobbett’s early years to those of other radical publishers whose biographies we have read. This allows us to appreciate how Cobbett, whose career runs across the entirety of the Romantic period, had little interaction with literary figures and is usually not thought of as a Romantic at all. Nevertheless, we can draw interesting connections with his contemporaries: Cobbett’s critiques of the English prison system, of the need for public education, of rapid urbanization and the expansion of global commerce, as well as his celebrations of the independent cottage as the English ideal (John Bull appears throughout his writings), of the freedom of the press, and of greater governmental transparency are not dissimilar to the convictions expressed by his contemporaries.

Course Conclusion

18.        As the course concludes, I ask students for reflections. One of the great advocates for the freedom of the press, Cobbett repeatedly returns in his papers to the struggle not only for a free press but also for a press independent of Government control:

If ever there was in the world a thing completely perverted from its original design and tendency, it is the press of England; which, instead of enlightening, does, as far as it has any power, keep the people in ignorance which, instead of cherishing notions of liberty, tends to the making of the people slaves; and which, instead of being their guardian, is the most efficient instrument in the hands of all those who oppress, or wish to oppress, them. (Qtd. in Jones 1-3)
I take this further with a final thought on the course:
The activity of publishing runs counter to Romanticism’s celebration of solitude, introspection, and the reclusive poet; publication, a very practical activity, assumes an interested public and demands a market, requires broadcast expression rather than private reflection or meditation, and rarely can be accomplished without a circle or network of suppliers and distributors. In other words and perhaps more simply put, its concern for being timely run counter to aspirations for transcendence. Even Blake, whose most dear publications were limited to a very select audience, wrestled with contradictions between his artistic vision and his work as a publisher. For this reason, the study of Romantic publishers allows us to see through the ideology of Romantic poetics and to appreciate better those that made possible, often at great personal hazard, Romantic literature.


19.        New digital resources offer students the ability to research and analyze print culture of the Romantic period in ways that were not previously possible outside of archives. Today students have an unprecedented level of access to self-publication; they may blog, maintain a website, read and post reviews, comment on news stories, and participate in forum discussions online. Throughout my course, I ask students to reflect on possible analogies between the rise of the popular press in England during the Romantic era and the rise of the Internet in our present digital era. What is perennially at stake is our freedom of speech and of the press, that what we learn from the radical publishers of the Romantic era is that there is a political if not ethical (as radicals often conflate the two) mandate to use the Internet to enable and enfranchise others through the open dissemination of information.

20.        Understanding the publication history of the Romantic literature is integral to understanding the literature itself; the title of Percy Shelley’s early sonnet, “On Launching some Bottles filled with Knowledge into the Bristol Channel,” reveals one of many ways the poet found to disseminate his work, and Leigh Hunt and Mary Shelley fought to publish Percy Shelley’s poetry after his death despite pressures to suppress it. This struggle to publish was an essential aspect not only of Percy Shelley’s career but also is apparent throughout Romantic literature. His troubled relationship with publication is already figured in his poetry, much as Blake’s hard-won artistic independence, won through securing his own printing press, is figured in his later works.

Works Cited

Bentley Jr., G. E. The Stanger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003. Print.

Cahuac, John. Who Killed Cock Robin? A Satirical Tragedy, or Hieroglyphic Prophecy on the Manchester Blot! London: John Cahuac, 1819. Print.

---. Letter to Lord Sidmouth, on His Oppressive Arrest for the Sale of an Alledged Libel. London: John Cahuac, 1819. Print.

Chandler, James. England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. Print.

Cox, Jeffery. Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and Their Circle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.

Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990. Print.

Grimes, Kyle. “Verbal Jujitsu: William Hone and the Tactics of Satirical Conflict.” The Satiric Eye: Forms of Satire in the Romantic Period. Ed. Steven E. Jones. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 173-184. Print.

Holden, Anthony. The Wit in the Dungeon: The Remarkable Life of Leigh Hunt: Poet, Revolutionary, and the Last of the Romantics. New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 2004. Print.

Ingrams, Richard. The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print.

Jones, Aled. The Powers of the Press: Newspapers, Power and the Public in Nineteenth Century England. Leeds: Scolar P, 1996. Print.

McCalman, Iain. Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries, and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840. New York: Clarendon P, 1993. Print.

“Newspapers.” The Georgian Index. 2003. Web. 31 May 2014.

Read, Donald. Peterloo: The ‘Massacre’ and its Background. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1973. Print.

Scrivener, Michael. Radical Shelley: The Philosophical Anarchism and Utopian Thought of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982. Print.

Shelley, Percy. Letters from Percy Bysshe Shelley to J. H. Leigh Hunt. Ed. Thomas Wise. London: Privately Printed, 1894. Print.

---. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Donald H Reiman and Neil Fraistat. 2 Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002. Print.

The William Blake Archive. Ed. Morris Eaves, Robert Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. Library of Congress, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, The University of Rochester, and the Scholarly Editions and Translations Division of the National Endowment for the Humanities. 1996. Web. 31 May 2014.

The William Hone BioText: A Biography, Bibliography, and eText Archive. Ed. Kyle Grimes. 2008. Web. 31 May 2014.

Wilson, Ben. The Laughter of Triumph: William Hone and the Fight for the Free Press. New York: Faber & Faber, 2005. Print.

Wood, Marcus. Radical Satire and Print Culture 1790-1822. New York: Clarendon P, 1994. Print.


[1] For overviews, see Donald Read for Peterloo and Iain McCalman for radical print culture. BACK